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BY Father Alfonso Aguilar, LC
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
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 believers.”
So, what is secularization and
secularism? How is it possible that the Christian West has become the anti-God
Secularization, Secularity and Secularism
Let us begin by clarifying concepts
— and by defining a few pairs of opposite terms.
“Sacred” 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 vessels.
“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 that process.
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
The autonomy 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.
Our concern 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
In the 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.
A state 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 “marriages.”
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
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 by atheism.
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 of believers.
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 ascetic life.
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.
Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum