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Laicity, Christianity, the West: an Historical Profile

by Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi

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  • Description:
    This address was given on September 13, 2013, by Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and archbishop of Trieste, Italy.
  • Publisher & Date:
    International Observatory Cardinal Van Thuân for the Social Doctrine of the Church, September 13, 2013

The paradox of the West

The relationship of the Christian faith with the West, but more specifically the Catholic faith, is essential in nature. By that I do not intend to argue that there is a sort of identity between the West and Christianity, or that Christianity is a category of the western mentality, or that Christianity can be such only within the West in a geographical, historical or cultural sense. Such a banal pretence could be all too easily rebutted in an equally banal way by remarking that Christianity saw the light of day in the eastern Mediterranean and has spread throughout the world. In other words, the ‘western’ relationship was not a contingency in the history of Christianity. Emerging in the relationship with the West have been characteristics Christianity cannot separate itself from without ceasing to exist, but from which it has historically taken its distance precisely in the West. Thus issuing forth is the problematic and paradoxical character of the West. On one hand, Christianity’s encounter with the West was “providential”[1], helped mould and shape western civilization, and in certain periods of history – especially in the XII and XIII centuries – projected a Christian civilization[2] with particularly creative expressions. On the other hand, however, developing in the West has been a process of secularisation that progressively tends to exhaust Christianity in its ability to ‘produce’ civilization. Developing for the first time only in the western world has been “a culture that constitutes the absolutely most radical contradiction not only of Christianity, but of the religious and moral traditions of society” [3]. Hence the profound ambiguity of the category of “west” as regards Christianity itself. The “resilience” and the resistance” of Christianity are faced with a decisive ‘test bench’ in the West.

Catholic dogma and the West

Often given is a rather reductive interpretation of Catholicism’s impact on western civilization in the sense of being looked upon as influence and nothing more. That is tantamount to saying that Catholicism influenced western civilization with its works charity, art, literature, religion driven social networks, the coronation of kings and the like. All this is true, but Catholicism’s profound relationship with the west concerns dogmas and is the expression of the historicity of dogmas. This expression – historicity of dogmas – does not mean dogmas evolve historically in a manner parallel with self-awareness believers have of them. This would be the modernist vision of the issue. What the expression actually means is that a dogma has an historical and real content, and may not be relegated to the realm of myth. Dogmas nourish the Church and the Church is the Body of Christ in history, a Body remaining for eternity[4]. Between dogma and Body there is an indivisible unity, such that a dogma is present not only in a believer’s conscience, but by its very nature becomes history, and therefore civilization. This is the realism of the Catholic faith.

The Church has moulded western Christian civilization with its dogmas defined in its dogmatic Councils. Nowadays there is a widespread underrating of doctrine in the life of the Church and an emphasis on pastoral praxis, which runs the risk of thrusting this important aspect into the background. I’d like to offer two examples in this regard. The first of them has to do with Gnosis. The condemnation of Arianism and the definition of the human and divine nature of Jesus contradicted Gnosis, which was an expression of Hellenic rationalism. This entailed a lengthy process, which involved both Councils and the work of the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church. This ‘match’ has yet to be won since alongside the Gnosis of the early centuries of Christianity there is an “eternal Gnosis”, but the battle of Christian dogma against Gnosis preserved human civilization from the catastrophes of Catharism, the simultaneous refusal and exaltation of matter, the destruction of matrimony and the family, and the refusal of political authority. It produced fruits of civilization in the form of the just consideration of evil and suffering, and defended against nihilism. The defence of the Old Testament against the Gnostic onslaught made it possible to preserve the positive vision of creation and the historical social dimension of the Christian faith. The baptism of children, prayers for the dead, priestly celibacy and the worship of images: what benefits brought by these elements to western civilization, and all of them would have been lost forever by a possible prevalence of Gnosis. What damage would have been caused by pauperism, pacifism, Gnostic-type radical purism if they had been able to spread without restraint! When commenting on the battle of Muret on 13 September 1213, when Simone de Montfort, after having attended Mass celebrated by St. Dominic, led 1,000 men in a rout of the Aragonese army supporting the Albigensians with 40,000 men, Jean Guitton said: “Muret is one of those decisive battles where the destiny of a civilization was decided. Strangely enough, most historians overlook this fact”[5].

The second example concerns Pious IX and the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Jesus. The definition of this dogma issued forth from a theological reading of the events of the liberal revolution. According to Pious IX all the contemporary errors stemmed from the negation of original sin, and hence the irreconcilability between God and sin. The aim of life had to be the progress of man and the world; modern man had to become autonomous and self-sufficient, liberating himself from the tutelage of the Church; religion was only useful for purposes of civil progress and had to be subordinate to it. Once original sin was denied, however, there was no place for Christ, the Church and for grace.

In the face of such a vision of things Pious IX wanted to reiterate the irreconcilability between God and the sin of the world, as well as the fact that the ultimate aim of the world and history is not the celebration of human progress, but the glory of God. And he did this by proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, “glorious victor over heresies”.

The violent events Pious IX had to witness were part of a plan to emancipate the natural order from the supernatural order. He was of the opinion that it was not possible to come to terms with this plan, that it could not be “Catholicised”. Hence the genesis of the Encyclical Letter Quanta cura and the Sillabo, which are not to be separated from the profound theological significance of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but, together with Vatican Council I, seen as Pious IX’s response to modern sin. Not by chance was 8 December an important date for all of them: the proclamation of the dogma on that date in 1854, the Quanta cura and the Sillabo in 1864, and the opening of Vatican Council I in 1869[6].

The construction of western civilization took place with dogmas. Dogma was the principle wellspring for countering the apostasy of the West from Christianity. And this because that apostasy had also become dogmatic.

The secularisation of the West

I intentionally took an example from the early centuries of Christianity and a second one from modernity. Between them there is the construction of a Christian civilization and then a progressive parting from it through ever more accentuated secularisation. Nonetheless, since many are those who attribute this secularisation to Christianity itself, things become a bit complicated. But let’s take it by steps.

Perhaps less than well known may be the fact that the most enthusiastic exaltation of the importance of the Catholic Church for western civilization is contained in the work, which, more so than any other, theorized a rigorous and complete secularisation of that selfsame civilization, I am referring to Auguste Comte’s The Course in Positive Philosophy. Karl Löwith, in his rightly famous book “Meaning in History. The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History, cites Comte’s laudatory words regarding Catholicism[7] and argues that Comte held the Catholic system in high esteem especially as regards the separation of spiritual power from temporal power. That’s what we could call laicity. Regarding Protestantism, on the other hand, Comte thought it had favoured “the emancipation of temporal power and the subordination of spiritual power to national interests”[8]. Catholicism had founded an order, while Protestantism “had laid the foundations for the modern philosophical revolution, proclaiming the right of each individual to free enquiry in all fields”[9]. Comte was of the opinion that “the degeneration of the European system has but one cause, that being the political degradation of spiritual power”, and Karl Löwith comments: “If we think each immature spirit was left to its own decisions in the most important matters, there is reason for being surprised that morality did not decline completely”[10]. Back during his times it had yet to decline completely.

The work by Karl Löwith I have cited here explains in a convincing manner how the modernist philosophy of history from Voltaire all the way to Nietzsche consists in a progressive secularisation of Catholic dogmas. A turning point of great interest in this secularisation process is to be found in Comte. In Catholic dogma he saw the condition for the existence of the social order according to a principle of distinction between temporal and spiritual power based on the political role of spiritual power. Nonetheless, he also saw that this equilibrium was by then in disarray because in the wake of the “Protestant revolutions”, the spiritual realm had abdicated its duties over the temporal order, and the latter had emancipated itself from the spiritual realm. At one and the same time, therefore, in Comte we have utmost praise for the historical structure of Catholicism and its most radical negation through the proposal of a equally absolute but radically lay position: the positive spirit. According to Henri de Lubac, Comte’s positivism is the most radical among the forms of contemporary atheistic humanism insofar as it projects a life without God, with no more regrets or illusions, and precisely for this reason has the same motivating force of a religion able to construct an order. An order without God. In de Lubac’s mind this project was and remains doomed to failure.[11] This, however, is not the point of interest for us at the moment. What interests us here is its “dogmatic” character, dogmatic in the sense of being radically and absolutely anti-Catholic. Then again, if the construction of the West had been due to Catholic dogmas, and if the ‘dismantling’ had taken place through the secularisation of Catholic dogmas as so will demonstrated by Karl Löwith, the decisive turning point had to take place when secularisation also assumed the character of dogmatic absoluteness. This transpired with Comte, and we can therefore say positivism is the dogma of modernity.

Regarding the presumed irreversibility of secularisation

I’d like to return to Karl Löwith’s comment about the modern autonomy of the temporal sphere from the spiritual one cited above: “If we think each immature spirit was left to its own decisions in the most important matters, there is reason for being surprised that morality did not decline completely”. Coming to the surface here is a decisive point in the issue at hand: does the emancipation of the temporal from the spiritual, the replacement of Christian salvation with progress and religion with science produce true autonomy capable of self-conservation at its own level, or does it produce “decadence”? Löwith seems to align with the latter position, and in the commentary under consideration considers it miraculous that it proved possible to maintain an albeit weak form of morality after this detachment.

Laicity understood as the mutual distinction of the temporal sphere and the spiritual sphere is an historical contribution of Christianity. Said distinction, however, did not mean the separation and absolute autonomy of the temporal sphere from the spiritual sphere, but took place within Christian civilization, against a religious horizon. The Christian sovereign acted autonomously, deploying political prudence, which means exercising liberty within a system of truths whose ultimate guarantor was the Church, which in Catholic dogmas conserved and protected the patrimony of natural law as well.

As Karl Löwith remarks, however, beginning with modernity is an ever more demanding secularisation that renders the temporal sphere “capax sui”, autonomous in an absolute sense, sufficient unto itself, and able to endow itself with sense. Initially this ‘sense’ was borrowed from Christian dogmas through a secularised interpretation of them, but then claimed more and more as proper to secularisation itself, and this seems to have occurred especially with Comte and positivism.

Published in 1968 was the book “On the Theology of the World” written by Johann Baprist Metz, a German theologian and disciple of Karl Rahner. Prior to this he had written “Christian Anthropocentricity” in which he had argued that secularisation had been caused by Christianity and was hence a Christian fact to be accepted and lived as a fruit of Christianity, not to be fought against as contrary to Christian faith. In this manner the process of secularisation was interpreted as irreversible. In this later book Metz sustained that in the wake of secularisation the world had by now become completely worldly: “This the world where God is not encountered” [12]. In is opinion, “for a long time – almost up to the beginning of the last Council – the Church had followed this process only with resentment, considered it almost exclusively as a downfall and a false emancipation, and only quite slowly built up the courage to let the world become ‘worldly’ in this sense, and hence consider this process not just a fact contrary to the historical intentions of Christianity, but rather a fact determined also by the most profound historical impulses of this Christianity and its message” [13].

In my opinion it is not correct to retain that positivist secularisation stems from Christianity itself, nor can we accept the view that it is the destiny of history. The irreversibility of secularisation is a positivist dogma issuing forth from an ideological reading of history, the Comtean reading of the law of the three stages, whereby humanity would have evolved from the religious stage to the metaphysical stage to the positive stage in an irreversible manner.

What are the ultimate reasons why positivist secularisation cannot be seen as a consequence of Christianity, or considered irreversible?

The first reason is that positivism cannot help but project itself as a new religion. We saw this above: secularisation becomes such when it does not limit itself to being the immanent reformulation of Catholic dogmas, detaches itself completely from Christian tradition, and proposes itself as an absolute principle. For as long as Hegel, Marx, Pr0udhon, and Voltaire, Condorcet, and Turgot before them had limited themselves to replicating Christianity by proposing an immanent and secularised version of it, the phases of secularisation could not lay a claim to true self-autonomy or embody secularisation in the true sense. The process remained linked to Christianity and continued to be reversible. What other way to sever this umbilical cord with Christianity than to propose secularisation as an absolute principle? Hence its religious character; religious no longer in the sense of still being in debt to the ‘old’ religion, but religious in the sense of religiously expressing an absolute anti-religiosity.

This secularisation is not the fruit of Christianity.

The eclipse of nature and human nature in particular

As already remarked above, the second reason has to do with the possibility for the temporal level emancipated from the spiritual level to maintain itself without succumbing to self-degeneration.

Having acquired the feature of religious absoluteness, as we have just seen, secularisation is destined to be opposed to the concept of nature, as well as the concept of human nature. This is because otherwise maintained would be a moral order that would constantly and implicitly demand completion of some sort of religious form. If nature remains, so does natural law, that being the order of nature that expresses a moral norm. In its turn, the norm contained in natural law would keep ever open the issue of its absolute and transcendent foundation, because in itself the moral order needs an absolute foundation. Proposed anew, therefore, would be the ‘old’ religion. For as long as Hugo Grotius denies the transcendent foundation of natural law, but maintains natural law, there is no irreversibility: the need for a transcendent foundation can be argued and recovered. But if nature is denied, as does positivism, this becomes definitively impossible and we have irreversibility.

Naïve, therefore, is the perplexed astonishment voiced by Karl Löwith. It is not possible for the natural level to endure on its own once detached from the supernatural level. The stark version of positivism projects itself as a “new beginning”, absolute and religiously anti-religious. In order to do this it cannot help but deny nature and natural law. Their decomposition and their abandonment may well be progressive in time, but the principle of this process is stipulated in its absoluteness from the very outset. What we witness nowadays is a rampant and alarming negation of nature and natural law. Without the support of the Christian religion the natural dimension of procreation, matrimony and the family is not able to hold its ground. The so-called “gender ideology”[14] is the most recent outpost of this negation of nature and human identity.

West means Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. Benedict XVI repeated his in his famous speech to the Bundestag in Berlin[15]. However, when Christianity encountered Greek thought and Roman civilization, in addition, quite naturally, to the Jewish religion, it discovered in them both openness to transcendence and consideration of the force of natural law. It found a pre-Christian but human world. Today, however, it is faced with a post-human and hence radically post-Christian world.

The religious proposal of laicity

I have depicted an historical profile more in terms of the history of ideas than the history of facts, and this itinerary has shown that laicity is a Christian concept. This concept implies the separation of the political sphere from the ecclesial one, temporal power from spiritual power. It does not, however, call for the separation of politics from ethics, because the political sovereign, who is distinct from he who exercises spiritual authority, acts according to rational prudence and not in an arbitrary manner, since “there are limits to what the State may command, also when it is a matter of what belongs to Caesar” [16]. Neither in terms of personal will or discretion, nor in terms of a “will expressed by the majority”: as far as this point is concerned democracy has not contributed – in theory – to any radical change of perspective. Insofar as inseparable from ethics, to which it is directly bound, politics is also inseparable from religion as such and from the Catholic religion in particular. In fact, the ethical level is ultimately unable to serve as its own foundation by remaining at the simply natural level: “If we do not first understand our relationship with God we’ll never be able to keep these ambits in correct order” [17].

In modernity, however, another concept of laicity saw the light of day. Initially this was divined as the secularisation of Christian dogmas, but then became radically detached from Christianity and from any order, erecting itself as a new absolute and religious principle. This happened with positivism understood as a perennial category. In this manner the political level became completely autonomous from the religious level, but it also became incompatible with Christianity by assuming a religious form in itself. This is how relativism became a dictatorship.

In the face of such a scenario, rather naïve is the attempt on the part of Christianity to “laicise itself”, abandoning the cloak of dogmas and doctrine in order to dialogue with the lay world. If there were anything akin to a non absolute lay level open to human nature and religion, dialogue on laicity involving believers would prove possible. Unfortunately, this is not the main trend, and the reason is quite simple and grave at one and the same time: in order to be ‘lay’ in the sense we have just seen, laicity needs the Christian religion. Therefore, a laicity that has projected itself with positivism as an absolute and religious principle cannot be ‘lay’. This is the paradox of the west: the farther away people go from Christianity in order to be ‘lay’, all the less are they so.

Following this paradox is yet another one. If Christians wish to contribute to positive laicity they must propose the religious dimension of their faith in its completeness, without any forms of horizontal reductionism. Here as well is the reason so tragically simple: in a religiously post-human world it is necessary to begin from the proposal of Christ and then, within the religious vision, recover the human dimension and hence the ‘lay’ dimension. This is where the Social Doctrine of the Church encounters “new evangelisation”.


[1] This expression is used often by Joseph Ratzinger lo indicate the encounter of the Christian faith with Greek philosophy, and we can also use it in the broader sense of encounter with the West. Cf for example: J. Ratzinger, Fede Verità Tolleranza. Il cristianesimo e le religioni del mondo, Cantagalli, Siena 2003, p. 98.

[2] Fundamental references are the works of Christopher Dawson: La formazione della civiltà occidentale, D’Ettoris editori, Crotone 2011; Id., La divisione della Cristianità occidentale, D’Ettoris editori, Crotone 2009.

[3] J. Ratzinger, L’Europa di Benedetto nella crisi delle culture, Cantagalli, Siena 2005, p. 37.

[4] J. Ratzinger,Fede Verità Tolleranza. Il cristianesimo e le religioni del mondo cit., p. 74.

[5] J. Guitton, Il Cristo dilacerato. Crisi e concili nella storia, Cantagalli, Siena 2002, p. 166.

[6] Cf R. de Mattei, Pio IX e la rivoluzione italiana, Cantagalli, Siena 2012.

[7] K. Löwith, Significato e fine della storia. I presupposti teologici della filosofia della storia, Il Saggiatore, Milano 2010, pp. 98-104 (prima edizione 1977).

[8] Ibid, p. 100.

[9] Ibid, p. 101.

[10] Ibid, p. 103.

[11] De Lubac H., Il dramma dell’umanesimo ateo, Morcelliana, Brescia 1988.

[12] J. B. Metz, Sulla teologia del mondo, Queriniana, Brescia 1969, p. 144.

[13] Ibid, pg. 141.

[14] Osservatorio Internazionale Cardinale Van Thuân sulla Dottrina sociale della Chiesa, Fourth Report on the Social Doctrine of the Church in the World (edited by G. Crepaldi and S. Fontana), Cantagalli, Siena 2012.

[15] Benedetto XVI, Seech at the Reichstag in Berlin, 22 September 2011.

[16] J. V. Schall,Filosofia politica della Chiesa cattolica, Cantagalli, Siena 2011, p. 123.

[17] Ibid, pg. 122.

© International Observatory Cardinal Van Thuân for the Social Doctrine of the Church

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