I think it will be some years before we understand how great a legacy Pope Benedict XVI will be leaving us.
Part of that legacy to be especially treasured will be the Pope’s reflections on the dangers of the increasingly aggressive secular state.
His warning: In the West, and now especially in the United States, the state is increasingly pushing a secular agenda. Pushing that agenda through means driving the Church, not just out of the public square, but out of the culture. The threat to religious liberty is very, very real.
In January 2012, Pope Benedict addressed U.S. bishops from Baltimore, Washington and the Archdiocese for the Military Services during their ad limina pilgrimage to Rome, telling them, "It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States comes to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms: the freedom of religion."
At about the same time that the Pope was warning the U.S. bishops (and, indirectly, all Americans) about the threat to religious liberty by radical secularists, the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services was busily illustrating it.
That very January, the secretary of the HHS, Kathleen Sebelius, delivered a mandate informing all religious institutions — especially Catholic universities and hospitals — that they would have to provide contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization in their insurance plans.
The HHS mandate is not an isolated incident, but part of a larger, longer campaign by the secular-minded in Europe and America to shrink the presence and influence of Christianity in the world until it finally disappears from history, thereby reversing the effects of the Church’s 2,000-year evangelization.
The Pope’s call for a New Evangelization — a redoubling of Pope John Paul II’s efforts — is made in the face of this very real threat. The fate of the Church in the third millennium depends in large part on our response to the active secularization that has done so much to erase Christianity during the final two centuries of the second millennium.
In order to respond prayerfully, we need to comprehend the real scope of the secular threat.
Benedict is a man deeply read in history, and so he understands very clearly that aggressive secularization has been gaining political ground since the horrors of brutal de-Christianization during the French Revolution. It happened in France; it happened in Russia and the Soviet satellites; it happened in other ways, with the imposition of the pseudo-religion of Nazism that took over his homeland, Bavaria; it continues today in all of Europe’s liberal democracies.
And, as the Pope warned, secularization has come to the United States of America.
Take down the Ten Commandments. No Bible reading in schools. No public prayer. Clear away the crèche. No "Merry Christmas." Affirm "gay marriage." And, as we’ve seen with the HHS mandate, "Thou shalt participate in the sexual revolution."
The message of all such radical secularism is clear: "You will bend the knee before the state."
The secular state often puts the message in more inviting terms, terms which should sound like a very familiar temptation: "If you will bend the knee before me, then I will give you all the splendor and pleasures of the world."
Secularism is, by definition, the affirmation of this world and the rejection of the next. It is historically rooted in a materialism that denies the existence of God, the angels, the soul and the afterlife. Its fundamental "this-worldliness" is the source of secularism’s antagonism to the Church.
As Pope Benedict has warned, this antagonism is often disguised as a beneficent affirmation of plurality. But when contemporary secularists preach tolerance, they practice what the Pope has called a "negative tolerance," a "new intolerance," complete with "standards of thinking that are supposed to be imposed on everyone" — what we in America call "political correctness."
The result, the Pope has noted, is actually the "abolition of tolerance, for it means, after all, that religion, that the Christian faith, is no longer allowed to express itself visibly."
That result is, of course, the real aim of secularism: the removal of Christianity from culture.
The seemingly beneficent affirmation of plurality has, as Pope Benedict noted, a deeper manifestation — the promotion of relativism. Relativism says with a kindly smile, "Let us affirm all views as equally good; all ways of living as equally admirable; all thoughts as equally true."
But again, hidden beneath the extended velvet glove of affirmation is often an iron hand ready to impose what the Pope has rightly called "a dictatorship of relativism."
As he warned the conclave that would end up electing him to the papacy, "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires."
That "egoism" is inherent in the secular denial of God and the materialist reduction of good and evil to personal physical pleasure and pain.
With no God to define good and evil, people become their own little gods, creating their own moral rules that maximize this-worldly satisfactions.
In response, Pope Benedict has issued a call "for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity, endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society."
That call was given directly to the visiting U.S. bishops in January 2012 as an essential task of the New Evangelization, one that also includes "a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society" as the true alternative to radical secularism.
Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., is a speaker and author of 10 books, his latest being
His website is BenjaminWiker.com.