BY FATHER ALFONSO AGUILAR, LC
National Catholic Register, November
30-December 6, 2008 Issue | Originally posted 11/24/08 at 11:41
In the last few years, the birth of Our Lord
Jesus Christ has been celebrated as “winter holidays” with “holiday
trees” and “season’s greetings.” December has become the month of
the “Christmas wars”: In some schools and public squares, Nativity
scenes and Christmas carols are forbidden or replaced by non-religious
displays and songs.
By now, we are used to seeing
movies, TV shows, novels, papers, magazines, websites, works of modern
art and stage plays mock religion, especially Christian symbols and
practices. The Catholic Church authorities are often portrayed as criminals
involved in various kinds of malicious activities. Anti-Christian legislation isn’t
rare. At some Catholic schools, what students learn is not
inspired by the Gospel.
We live in a secularized world —
and we are worried that, post-election, it will only get
worse. The practice and public expression of our faith will
be increasingly hindered. Our children will find it difficult to
be authentically Christian.
“The secularizing process is the heartbeat of modernity,”
said Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, archbishop of Toledo, Spain, at a
2007 conference on “Christianity and Secularization” held at the Legionaries
of Christ-run European University of Rome.
“Silencing or abandoning God
or confining him to the private sphere is undoubtedly the
defining theme of our bleak times in the West. There
is no other movement to be compared with it, not
even the loss of the moral sense.”
Pope Benedict seems
to agree. Secularization is a constant theme in his speeches
and writings. “Secularization, which presents itself in cultures by imposing
a world and humanity without reference to transcendence, is invading
every aspect of daily life and developing a mentality in
which God is effectively absent, wholly or partially, from human
life and awareness,” the Holy Father said to the members
of the Pontifical Council for Culture on March 8, 2008.
“This secularization is not only an external threat to believers,
but has been manifest for some time in the heart
of the Church herself. It profoundly distorts the Christian faith
from within, and consequently, the lifestyle and daily behavior of
So, what is secularization and secularism? How is it
possible that the Christian West has become the anti-God civilization?
Secularization, Secularity and Secularism
Let us begin by clarifying concepts
— and by defining a few pairs of opposite terms.
is whatever is dedicated or set apart for the service
or worship of a deity, or is worthy of religious
veneration. Churches and chalices, for instance, are sacred places and
“Secular” (from the Latin saeculum) refers to everything which
is not sacred or concerned with religion and relates to
what is worldly or temporal.
To “sanctify” is to consecrate
— to set apart to a sacred purpose or to
a religious use. By contrast, to “secularize” is to make
a sacred reality become profane, not religious. The process to
attain this end is called “secularization.”
From the moral and religious
points of view, the words secular, secularize and secularization are
neutral. Money, technology and family are secular realities. To secularize
political power — to separate it from ecclesiastical authority —
is most beneficial and in accordance to the Gospel, as
we learned in the European Middle Ages.
Secularization is, therefore, a
concept that has no negative connotations. In the West, secularization
usually refers to the historical process, initiated around the 13th
century, by which society has increasingly become autonomous from religious
and ecclesiastical influence. It also refers to the results of
Secularization had two outcomes in the West. The
first one is called “secularity,” which consists of the right
autonomy of earthly and human things — such as the
state, culture, economy, politics, social customs, art and sciences —
from the Church and her rules. A secular state, for
instance, is religiously non-confessional. Dress codes and scientific endeavors are
not regulated by religious authority.
The second outcome is called
“secularism,” a term coined by British writer George Jacob Holyoake
(1817-1906). It consists in the rejection or exclusion of religion
and religious considerations in all areas of the public square.
The “Christmas war” is waged in the name of secularism.
From the moral point of view, secularity is intrinsically good,
because it is in harmony with the will of the
Creator. “All things are endowed with their own stability, truth,
goodness, proper laws and order,” the Second Vatican Council says
(Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World, No.
36). “Man must respect these as he isolates them by
the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or art.”
of earthly affairs is right inasmuch as it is relative,
depending on God and conformed to his will expressed in
the natural moral law.
Secularism, instead, is intrinsically wrong —
it intends to achieve an absolute independence of temporal affairs
from God and his moral law. It pretends to replace
God’s role with man’s.
Secularity affirms the autonomy of
the earthly spheres from religion but not in opposition to
it. Secularism intolerantly seeks the annihilation of religion.
is not about secularization in the abstract, but about secularism.
Secularism suffuses all areas of society — namely politics,
culture, social life, religious practice and the Catholic Church.
political arena, we face anti-Christian and anti-religious legislation that forbids,
for instance, religious symbols and group prayer in public, or
crushes the objection of conscience in Catholic hospitals.
with secularist trends is indifferent or even hostile to confessional
schools and charities that objectively help society flourish. Secularism is
implemented by anti-life and anti-family policies as well as by
policies that promote “alternative” types of family, such as same-sex
The cultural milieu is constantly bombed by a secularist
agenda. Take, for instance, the false opposition to faith and
science promoted by scientists like Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger and
Carl Sagan, or by organizations like AAI (Atheist Alliance International).
Anti-religious bioethics is fostered by thinkers like Peter Singer and
by the inhuman practices of in vitro fertilization and experimentation
with embryos. Psychology is often taught in college and practiced
clinically with no reference to God and religion. Academic philosophy
neglects or rationalizes man’s natural search for God, as in
the case of Daniel Dennett, author of the 2006 book
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
An easy way
to provide a negative view of religion in general and
of Christianity in particular is the manipulation of history. To
prove it, see the books by Christopher Hitchens and Sam
Harris, or watch movies like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven
and Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code.
Philip Pullman’s His
Dark Materials trilogy, whose first installment was brought to the
big screen by the 2006 The Golden Compass movie, was
explicitly written “to kill God.” For a long time now,
religion has been ignored or attacked in pop music, literature
and the entertainment industry.
Social life and customs have
been increasingly secularized, too. Sunday and the liturgical feasts like
Christmas and Easter have lost much of their sacred meaning.
Life, sex and death have been profaned by practices such
as abortion, embryo selection, “free sex,” homosexuality, assisted suicide, the
abandonment of the sick and the elderly, and secular funerals.
The most appalling expression of secularism might be found
in the silent distancing of entire populations from religious practice
and even from any reference to the faith. The Church
today is confronted more by indifference and practical unbelief than
The Second Vatican Council considered this spiritual drama
as one of the most serious problems of our times
(see Gaudium et Spes, No. 19). It is, in fact,
less visible than militant atheism but more perilous, because it
is subtly spread by the dominant culture in the subconscious
Secularism is also manifest “in the heart of
the Church herself,” as Pope Benedict noted. “It profoundly distorts
the Christian faith from within, and consequently, the lifestyle and
daily behavior of believers.”
To be aware of the Pope’s
point, think of the way the Church’s magisterium is opposed
by theologians and believers, and of the loss of the
supernatural sense in the liturgy, sacraments, priesthood, charity work and
Although secularism is ubiquitous, it doesn’t dominate over
all society. Many forces oppose it. Yet, we need to
understand its nature and realize how it suffuses various areas
of our world.
Knowing the enemy is the first step
to overcome it. Next week: Step two.
Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar
teaches philosophy at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum College.