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 model:
“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 different kind.”
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.
The 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.”
Like its 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 selfish exploitation.”
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.”
Logically, 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.