Secularization is an Opportunity for Christianity, Says Ratzinger Prize Laureate

On the occasion of receiving this year’s Ratzinger Prize, the famous Catholic philosopher from Canada discusses secularization, multiculturalism and other issues of modernity.

Prof. Charles Taylor speaks to the media during The Berggruen Institute's 2016 Berggruen Prize Award Ceremony held at the New York Public Library, Dec. 1, 2016, in New York City.
Prof. Charles Taylor speaks to the media during The Berggruen Institute's 2016 Berggruen Prize Award Ceremony held at the New York Public Library, Dec. 1, 2016, in New York City. (photo: Photo by Brent N. Clarke/WireImage)

VATICAN CITY — Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s academic career has been crowned with numerous distinctions, to which was recently added the prestigious Ratzinger Prize, a sort of equivalent to the “Nobel Prize” in the field of Catholic theology.

Instituted by the Ratzinger Foundation in 2011, this award is meant to encourage the research in theology and any other academic research inspired by the Gospel, in the tradition of Pope Benedict’s teachings. This year, alongside the honor bestowed on Taylor, Jesuit theologian Father Paul Béré was the first African to receive the prize. The award ceremony took place Nov. 9 at the Vatican.

Born in 1931, Taylor is a prolific author who has been dedicating a substantial part of his research to the relationship between religion and modernity, as well as a concern for the secularization of the West. He has taught at Oxford, at McGill University in Montreal, and at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

The Register interviewed him after he received the prize last month from Pope Francis.


You’ve just been the recipient of the Ratzinger Prize, which is considered the highest distinction in the theological field. To what extent do you consider yourself close to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s thought?

Among the things we have in common, above all, there is great interest in bringing together faith and reason. I think Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is somebody who has really thought very deeply about how each, to some extent, nullifies the other or how each illuminates the other, and so on. He does not have this very rigid idea that we can prove totally, with mathematical force, the truth of the faith, or just ignore reason, so there is a kind of living this out in his whole life, and his whole way of proceeding between faith and reason, and you could see this above all in his famous discussion with Jürgen Habermas.

So I find myself very close to him on that whole idea, which is another reason I was very pleased to receive this prize.


You were awarded for your work on the relationship between faith and modernity, in particular. What would be Benedict’s greatest intellectual contribution to help think about such a relationship?

I think in Benedict’s case, he was really one of those people who fully took on board the importance of Vatican II, and the freedom and the importance of our recognizing that we’re responsible for our faith and history, and that’s the standpoint from which we have to live the faith.


What about Pope Francis’ specific contribution?

As for Pope Francis, he has gone a step further in his including that in his whole manner of acting, his whole stance to the gospel, which is reaching out, and not concerned above all about the prestige and not concerned above all about what people think of the Catholic Church, but acting out the Gospel by reaching out to people in need, and to causes in need like global warming and so on.

And so in a sense he is much more acting from the heart than Pope Benedict was capable of doing in his very short pontificate.


In your writings about secularization, you seem to indicate that secularization provides an opportunity for the Church. What would that be?

The opportunity is in how I see the secularization: I am talking about the West now. These things are different for the different parts of the world. In the West, what we have is an immense growth in the number of people who are searching, who feel a real sense of spiritual need, though they wouldn’t define it by that term.

So some countries have the situation where everybody belongs to the national church and are happy to do that and this is all tied up with their relation to society and to the state and so on, which has been succeeded by an age in which a lot of people all over are loose and uncertain what their relation to the faith is, but they are searching. And the opportunity is immense because there is a tremendous wealth of different spiritualities. We have in the Christian tradition and in particular in the Catholic tradition an immense wealth, if you look back at St. Teresa of Ávila, St. John of the Cross or St. Mary of the Incarnation in Quebec and so on.

We have to put together this immense richness for these young people who are searching for this spiritual path, and that is a tremendous opportunity which is really being acted on in places like Taizé, but was not always being acted on by the Church at the parochial level for instance.


The question of communitarianism is part of your greatest fields of expertise. To what extent is this question one of the main challenges for our Western societies and what would be your answer to the crisis of communitarianism, especially among the Muslims, which is the greatest source of concern in the West?

The word communitarianism is a word that does not really carry significance because it is used too much and in too many different ways, but I would say that the really big need we see in many Western societies today is for a sense of solidarity. We have drifted into an epoch in which there has been a floating towards individualism, in which people think they are on their own, that they have earned whatever they have managed to achieve and they don’t owe anything to anyone else, and that the very efficient economy will somehow take care of things if they just somehow leave it to the market.

These are all very dangerous illusions and somehow we need to reactivate a sense of our solidarity, solidarity with our fellow citizens, and solidarity with the whole of humanity, and a solidarity that goes beyond that, with the planet, which I think has been brilliantly presented by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical on the care of creation, Laudato Si.


Can Christianity be a key to these issues, at a time when mere secularism doesn’t seem to offer any satisfying solution?

Christianity in order to be a solution has to return to the original impulse of the Gospel. All of that nitpicking about this or that rule and about your sexual behavior, which is a way of making people miss the point of the Gospel, and it’s getting back to that which I think is so wonderful in the pontificate of Francis.


You also are an advocate of multiculturalism as a way to guarantee a peaceful coexistence between people in Western societies. It is, to quote your own words, a solution to the “malaise of modernity.” But how is multiculturalism conceivable without sinking into relativism?

Multiculturalism is the idea that in order to be a citizen of a modern state you do not have to be from one particular historical culture and that is absolutely essential because migration has produced a situation in which every one of these Western states, some less, some more, but everyone to some degree, is made up of people from all over the world. And migration is going to continue even further, so the problem is the challenge of multiculturalism; this is just one of the ways of putting it, but it is to create a sense of common citizenship across these boundaries. 

Now it will also be the case that people will come from different ethical and spiritual traditions, but they surely can come to some agreement on the basic principles of a modern democratic free egalitarian republic that respects everyone’s spiritual path. That’s not relativism any more than a sane ecumenism, which would have John Paul II praying in Assisi with Muslims and so on. It’s just that we are all human together and there are certain ways in which we can coexist positively with mutual respective love even though these disagreements continue.


How do we combine multiculturalism and “universalism” within a given society, when universalism comes up against the particularism of some cultures?

I see no opposition between universalism and multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a form of saying that if you are different from us, you are not excluded from being a citizen. That is true universalism. 


At a time when Christianity is losing ground everywhere in the Western countries, wouldn’t multiculturalism further weaken Christianity, especially in the face of the advance of other, more aggressive, proselytizing religions?

Well, I do not see how Christianity can be weakened if people really behave like Christians are supposed to behave — if there were more people like Francis. In our Church we would not be losing ground at all, on the contrary. And you can see the response to the Pope by people who weren’t Christians at all; it is tremendously positive. He is making the faith appear in a very strong and positive light. So that’s what makes the difference between the faith being strong and the faith being weak. 


How should Christians be involved in the cultural and political life?

In every conceivable way depending on your talents and skills. We should all be active citizens. We should be out there seeing that people’s needs are met, we should be thinking seriously about rearranging our cities in order to help people that are lost, desperate or having a crisis, all sorts of interventions we should have for them. And a lot of Christians are acting this way.


Do you think Christian political parties are necessary?

In a strong sense, Christian values appeal to people well beyond the faith. We see that for example in Germany, which is Christian supposedly, although not necessarily Catholic. And they are not saying to voters you have to be a member of some church and so on. They are just putting forth a program, and in a certain sense Christian democracy is a product of a revolutionary feeling within the Catholic Church in which we moved from being very suspicious of democracy, following Pius IX to the move for seeking an active part in democracy.

Christians can take an active part in democracy outside of these particular parties. For example, I am a social democrat. If I were in Germany I would not be voting for the CDU [Christian Democratic Union}, I would be voting for the SPD [Social Democratic Party]. So, I think Christian parties, depending on the history of the government, could be relevant but they are not the only instrument. 


You often say that your conception of freedom was inspired by Christianity. What is the Christian root of liberty?

That is very profound. We have to read Dostoyevsky to understand that! It is that kind of response to the faith that can only be real and genuine if it comes from you very deeply, from where you place your whole being, and that has to be an act of freedom. That cannot be an act that is coerced or corralled or organized from outside.