The secularization of Christ: A case study

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 11, 2018

Yesterday, in my seismographic essay on the Youth Synod, I argued that the crisis of the Church today was rooted in the secularization of Catholicism, that is, the secularization of the message of Christ in ways that please our dominant culture. “This is why,” I wrote, “so many Churchmen today find their moral high ground in the purification of the environment rather than in the purification of our bodies. Or in blaming sinful institutions rather than correcting sinful persons.”

Today, we have a case in point. The Canadian Bishops, through their Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, have issued a statement demanding clean water as a human right, complete with citations from Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sí.

Of course, it is not a bad thing to insist on our moral duty as a highly-developed and materially capable society to ensure that the disadvantaged have access to safe drinking water. It is not wrong to point out that, in some areas, wealthy corporations which can make profits on water have purchased the rights to water supplies to the detriment of local residents. It is not wrong to mention that government, business and private citizens in some places continue to pollute water supplies, making them dangerous to those who must drink from them.

Fair enough, but this statement still fails to pass the secularization test because it answers “no” to two questions that ought to be answered “yes”:

  1. Is this statement necessary to counteract the prevailing moral attitudes of the culture to which it is addressed?
  2. Does this statement bring a needed Catholic perspective to solving a human problem?

In the specific context, the questions are these: First, is the culture of reference as a whole ignorant of the need for clean water or opposed to its provision? (If not, instead of appearing to curry favor, find a more pressing issue to address.) And second, is advocacy of clean water a means of shining the light of Christ within the darkness of the audience being addressed? (If not, instead of appearing to curry favor, think like a Christian.)

A Christian perspective?

Of course, the Canadian bishops do try to demonstrate that they are taking up a Christian battle by citing Pope Francis. But although the Pope’s encyclical did outline a true Christian perspective on Creation and, therefore, on the human role in the Divine ecology, it is always possible that advocacy of clean water is neither a particularly neuralgic point nor a foundational or even a significant component of what it means to be a Christian. This would be even more likely if the need for clean water is accessible to the meanest natural intelligence; or if the world is chock full of media, private organizations, wealthy foundations, and governments which work untiringly on the issue; or if not even a single voice is ever raised in opposition to clean drinking water.

But it would appear that even the bishops know they should have a stronger warrant for their plea. This leads them logically enough, to dig into Scripture—the Word of God Himself. Thus they close their statement by citing the words of Isaiah the prophet:

In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah announced: “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters!” [Is 55:1] We now echo this call….

Do they? Do we? Really?

Actually, Isaiah was not talking about physical drinking water, any more than Christ was talking about drinking water when He told the Samaritan woman that the water He would give “will become…a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). With this in mind, let us see Isaiah’s statement, cited by the Canadian bishops, in its full context (Isaiah 55:1-9, emphasis added):

Ho, every one who thirsts,
come to the waters;
And he who has no money,
 come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
 without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
 and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
 and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
Hear, that your soul may live;
And I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
 my steadfast, merciful love for David….

Seek the LORD while he may be found,
 call upon him while he is near;
Let the wicked forsake his way,
 and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him,
.  and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
 neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
 and my thoughts than your thoughts
.

I am glad this little example came so readily to hand today. If anyone did not understand what I mean by the secularization of Catholicism as the key problem for authentic renewal, I trust it will become easy to recognize that problem now. This attempt to secularize Christ—to present Him as not only in the world but of the world—is what so dilutes our Faith. It is just this that renders the Church, even at the highest levels, so inadequate for her Divinely-commissioned task in our time.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 19, 2018 11:26 PM ET USA

    Yeah, your point is a good one. But, you know there will be a but from me, when water is sold for a profit of 70,000 percent...something is morally fishy (no pun intended). Oh, I hate saying this, but maybe, just maybe, the Canadian Bishops have a point on this one. Asking honestly here, aren't food and water basic human rights?

  • Posted by: DanS - Oct. 12, 2018 10:10 PM ET USA

    Thanks Jeff, but perhaps you ask too much of the Canadian Bishops Conference to be biblically literate in addition to all of their other obvious virtues?