Self-Secularization: Hard to Prove?
In his ad limina address on Monday to a group of bishops from Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI coined a new term, self-secularization, in describing an unfortunate post-Vatican II tendency among Catholic thinkers and Church leaders to explain the Faith and justify Christian action in largely secular terms. “Many Christian communities sank into self-secularization,” said the Holy Father. He continued:
At the present time there is a new generation born into this secularized ecclesial environment which, instead of demonstrating openness and consent, sees in society an ever-deepening gulf of differences and contrasts to the Magisterium of the Church, especially in the field of ethics. In this godless desert, the new generation thirsts for transcendence.
This concept of “self-secularization” raises profound questions. After all, Benedict has also called for a renewed role for reason and the natural law in properly defining the public sphere and in fostering good will and mutual understanding among peoples with diverse religions and cultures. And in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the Pope expends considerable energy in explaining the Church’s contribution to the economic order in terms that the secular world can understand. So the question naturally arises: When is a secular explanation, or a secular approach to things, bad?
Consider the following three cases:
- In trying to gain support for laws to restrict abortion, Catholic laymen attempt to demonstrate the evil psychological, social and economic impact of abortion. They could have instead proclaimed the certain teaching of the Church that abortion is a grave evil.
- In an apologetics course, a Catholic professor argues philosophically for the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the contingency of everything we encounter in our ordinary experience. He could have quoted Scripture to make the same points.
- In explaining the Eucharist, a theologian writes persuasively of its significance in the life of the believer, its power as a symbol of deep spiritual yearning which inspires Christians to transcend a materialist worldview. He could have cited the Catechism or explained previous Magisterial decrees.
All three of these cases involve an emphasis on natural or secular arguments. Are the Catholics in question acting wrongly in every case? In some of them? How are we to tell?
The Catholic tradition has always shown tremendous respect for human reason, and also for the principle that nature is both fundamentally good and perfected by grace. So the Catholic typically moves very comfortably between faith and reason, never seeing any necessary conflict between the two. Yet Benedict has referred to a process of “self-secularization”. In several subsequent blog entries, I will try to explain what self-secularization really looks like, how to spot it, how to avoid it—and why, as usual, the Holy Father is right.
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