What’s Right and What’s Wrong With Secularization?
BY FATHER ALFONSO
National Catholic Register, December 14-20, 2008
Issue | Originally posted 12/8/08 at 11:58 AM
Consider Pope Benedict’s
reply to an Italian journalist’s question during his flight to
the United States about the plausibility of the American political
“What I find fascinating in the United States is that
they began with a positive concept of secularity,” the Holy
Father said on April 15. “Thus, an intentionally secular new
state was born; they were opposed to a state church.
But the state itself had to be secular precisely out
of love for religion in its authenticity, which can only
be lived freely. … Today, there is also in the
United States the attack of a new secularism, quite a
Note that the Pope speaks of a positive
secularity and a negative secularism. The concept of secularization wasn’t
used but was implied. Secularization is the process by which
sacred things become profane once again. If the things to
be secularized were originally worldly, the outcome of the process
is positive: secularity. If those things were essentially religious, then
the outcome is negative: secularism.
A healthy secularity demands certain
obligations from the state and the church: respect for each
other’s relative autonomy and mutual cooperation.
The first duty is
respect. Following the example of her divine founder, the Church
does not join a political party or economical system, nor
establish the traffic rules or the methods of art and
scientific research. Her concern lies in the spiritual good and
eternal salvation of souls.
“The Church cannot point out the preferred
political and social order; it is the people who must
freely decide on the best and most suitable ways to
organize political life. Any direct intervention from the Church in
this area would be undue interference,” said Pope Benedict to
the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists on Dec. 9, 2006.
By the same token, the state must not consider religion
merely as an individual sentiment that may be confined to
the private sphere alone.
“On the contrary,” the Holy Father pointed
out in the same speech, “since religion is also organized
in visible structures, as is the case with the Church,
it should be recognized as a form of public community
presence. This also implies that every religious denomination (provided it
is neither in opposition to the moral order nor a
threat to public order) be guaranteed the free exercise of
the activities of worship — spiritual, cultural, educational and charitable
— of the believing community.”
The second duty is mutual
cooperation. Both the temporal and the spiritual realms are intrinsically
linked to each other, and none of them is capable
of enhancing the whole man, who is simultaneously body and
soul, temporal and immortal.
“The Church and the political community
in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each
other,” the Second Vatican Council states. “Yet both, under different
titles, are devoted to the personal and social vocation of
the same men” (Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the
Modern World, No. 76).
Secularity, therefore, runs contrary to the opposition
of church and state. “Secularity is not secularism!” John Paul
II said to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy
See on Jan. 12, 2004. “It is nothing other than
respect for all beliefs on the part of the state
that assures the free exercise of ritual, spiritual, cultural and
charitable activities by communities of believers.”
We may say that a
civilization will flourish in the degree it enhances the respect
and cooperation between the spiritual and temporal realms.
Secularity lies between
two vicious extremes: confessionalism and secularism. The first one ends
up in theocratic societies or confessional states that discriminate against
other confessions of faith.
In the past, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant
and Anglican churches have all fallen into confessionalism to a
greater or lesser degree. Islam has always produced confessional states.
second extreme was well-described by Pope Benedict at the 2008
World Youth Day. “There are many today,” he said on
July 17, “who claim that God should be left on
the sidelines and that religion and faith, while fine for
individuals, should either be excluded from the public forum altogether
or included only in the pursuit of limited pragmatic goals.
This secularist vision seeks to explain human life and shape
society with little or no reference to the Creator.”
counterpart, secularism is intrinsically intolerant.
“It presents itself as neutral,
impartial and inclusive of everyone,” Benedict XVI noted in the
same address. “But in reality, like every ideology, secularism imposes
a worldview. If God is irrelevant to public life, then
society will be shaped in a godless image. When God
is eclipsed, our ability to recognize the natural order, purpose,
and the ‘good’ begins to wane. What was ostensibly promoted
as human ingenuity soon manifests itself as folly, greed and
As the Pope put it in his 2006 speech
to Catholic jurists, secularism is characterized by its “hostility to
every important political and cultural form of religion, and especially
to the presence of any religious symbol in public institutions.”
it refuses “the Christian community and its legitimate representatives the
right to speak on the moral problems that challenge all
human consciences today, and especially those of legislators and jurists.”
Secularism is a social-engineering process to create a civilization where
man and the state, taking God’s place, will be the
only source of rights and arbiter of what is right
and what is wrong. We may compare it to Mary
Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, who was so caught up in his
own research that he arrogantly tried to create new life
and a new man.
What is secularism’s enemy No. 1? You
guessed it: Christianity.
The story of the Roman Empire is
again relived in the 21st century under different circumstances. The
Roman Empire was tolerant toward all religions and allowed peoples
to worship their own gods and goddesses … as long
as those deities would not clash with the absolute primacy
of the state. Christians refused to worship the Roman gods
and emperor. They thought the state to be relative and
the Trinitarian God to be the Absolute. Even the emperor
was morally obliged to follow God’s moral law.
The Catholic Church
is constantly attacked by secularist laws, judicial resolutions, media reports
and the entertainment industry. The persecution will stop the day
the Church starts worshipping man and the state in submission
to the secularist project.
But history will repeat itself. Thanks
to her heroes and martyrs, the Church will rise victorious
from the ashes of secularism for the glory of God
and the temporal and eternal good of mankind.
Legionary Father Alfonso
Aguilar teaches philosophy at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum College.