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Self-Secularization and the Whole Truth

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 09, 2009

Pope Benedict’s concern about “self-secularization” in the Church can be approached from several different perspectives, but a basic grasp of the problem requires one principle above all. When we approach things in a natural or rational way, advancing ideas and explanations that we hope will play well in the larger secular culture, we fall into self-secularization only when we speak, write or behave as if a falsehood is true or as if a partial truth encompasses the whole.

Some comments on the three examples provided in the previous entry (Self-Secularization: Hard to Prove?) may clarify this point. The first example involves laymen using natural arguments to persuade secularized politicians that they should oppose abortion. Here we have a calculated strategy aimed at an objective which is actually desired primarily for an unstated reason—namely, that it is a grave moral evil to take the life of an unborn child. Everyone involved comprehends the existence of this motive. But the strategy in question temporarily sets aside, as it were, the absolute moral value, in order to emphasize instead measurable social and economic consequences of abortion which may be grasped even by those who are insensitive to the sacredness of unborn human life. There is nothing wrong in a Catholic pursuing this strategy as long as he does not give the impression that it represents his full view of the subject.

The case is similar for the apologetics professor in the second example. It would be a strangely deficient apologetics program which maintained that the best way to remove obstacles to faith is to explain the faith only in terms of what can be understood naturally. The result of such a program would be not to remove obstacles but to render them meaningless by removing the need for faith. But a professor of apologetics would be seriously remiss in his duties if he failed to acquaint his students with the ways in which natural reason and human philosophy can support some aspects of Christian faith. These form one portion of the demonstration that faith and reason are compatible.

Now what about the third example, the case of our friendly neighborhood theologian? He explained the Eucharist as a powerful symbol speaking to man’s spiritual nature, a symbol which therefore takes on great significance in the lives of believers. Unfortunately, as uplifting as this may sound, it is not true. While the Eucharist certainly has great symbolic importance (it is, after all, an outward “sign” as are all the sacraments), it is only symbolic in a secondary way and it is not its symbolism that gives it transcendent significance to believers. The Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, Who is Himself the agent of gace and unity within the Church, as well as a pledge of eternal life for all who receive Him.

What the theologian has proposed is a secularized theory of the Eucharist by which its objective reality is actually replaced by categories of thought acceptable to those disposed to reject Catholic claims concerning a supernatural truth. Presumably the theologian in question is among their number. In any case, he prefers the common ground of a general religious sensibility to a socially uncomfortable commitment to the Word made flesh, whose Body is broken and given up for us. This theory actually has a name (transsignification or transfinalization). It is part of the Modernist effort to replace the authentic doctrine of the Church with something palatable to secular culture; in a word, it is a shining example of self-secularization.

But self-secularization does not always involve direct falsehood, nor is it found only in formal presentations, such as speaking, writing, preaching or teaching. In fact, there are several different ways to engage in this process of self-secularization, as I will try to demonstrate in the next installment.

Next: The Self-Secularization Process

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