The Coming Secularist Storm

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 and songs.

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 civilization?

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 or art.”

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 Today

Secularism suffuses all areas of society — namely politics, culture, social life, religious practice and the Catholic Church.

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 industry.

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.

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum College.