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Self-Secularization, the State, and Prudence

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 11, 2009

In my previous entry (The Self-Secularization Process), I mentioned two important concepts which assist Catholics in acting properly in complex situations without being guilty of self-secularization. These two concepts are the distinction between the state and society and the interplay between prudence and freedom.

Perhaps it is best to introduce these issues in terms of two fears or caricatures which secularists have used to convince Christians to keep their Faith to themselves. The first fear or caricature is that if they do not, the state could become a means of imposing religious dogma. So prevalent is this misguided nervousness that its near-constant presence in the American tradition has led the separation of Church and state to be expanded into a more deeply cultural separation of religion and public life.

The distinction between the state and society is very helpful here. The state, for this purpose, may be loosely defined as the coercive power of law and government in pursuit of justice, however it is structured. I have already explained that the state, in pursuit of its proper end, must base its coercive action on the natural law, and not on any particular set of doctrines known only through Revelation (see A Simple Guide to Faith, Culture and Public life). My point here is that a Catholic is not guilty of self-secularization if, when electing public officials, supporting policies, framing laws, or acting as an agent of the state, he speaks and acts primarily out of respect for the natural law, rather than with specific reference to his religious beliefs.

In behaving in this way, he is actually correctly honoring what his Church teaches about the naturally appropriate coercive power of the state. But unless we fall into totalitarianism, we do not equate the state with society as a whole, which is far richer, and incorporates a far broader range of ends than justice alone. The Christian ought to continually shape all of his activities, both personal and social, according to the insights and powers his Faith gives him, contributing always to the formation of a culture which fosters the development of the whole man and of all men. And, since Christ is Lord of the entire cosmos, Christian faith and sensibilities ought to voluntarily work their way even into the life of the state itself, so long as this does not become coercive, which would be a violation of the proper end of the Church, which always demands a free response to God’s love.

The second fear or caricature is that if Christian forms of expression are allowed in social life, an unpleasant or abrasive atmosphere (or even, again, a certain coerciveness) will corrupt our relations with one another. This fear or caricature is particularly applicable to Christian participation in any social activity which benefits from public (state) funds or fulfills (though perhaps only partially) official public aims. The case of Catholic charities involved in administering services enabled by government grants comes to mind. This fear or caricature is also fueled by the unfortunate militancy of some religious sects, which have at least appeared to impose sermons, religious services, or even ostensible conversion on the needy as a kind of price for accepting material aid.

Here we must insist on an understanding of the interplay between prudence and freedom. No Christian, and certainly no Catholic, should be preaching to those he meets at all times and under all conditions, except of course through the example of his life. Nor should a profession of Faith ever be a condition for the reception of charity. Catholics, who have been most recently taught these things by the current pope, should be acutely conscious of the voluntary character of love, as of faith and hope, in response to God’s gifts and God’s call. Hence the good Christian proceeds with due sensitivity, prudently discerning when it is best to keep silent about his faith, and when an appropriate word or inquiry might discover in a friend, colleague or client a genuine desire for something more, a thirst for spiritual riches, a voluntary movement toward God.

Different Christians will use different but equally legitimate ways to make Christ explicitly present when, though our prayers and Christ’s implicit presence in our lives, an appropriate opportunity arises. It goes without saying that some of us will be clumsy and imprudent. Any of us may err through heavy-handedness or through reluctance to offer any spiritual gift at all. But this interplay between prudence and freedom is far preferable to the workings of any false culture which places the spiritual off limits in our interactions with others.

A great deal could be said about both of these concepts. Here my main point is that the distinction between state and society enables a Christian to mute his specific religious beliefs in pursuing affairs of state without necessarily falling into self-secularization. Similarly, a proper interplay between prudence and freedom enables a Christian to refrain from overt attempts at conversion in many situations without being guilty of self-secularization. I am simply rounding out the theoretical problem of self-secularization.

Needless to say, however, the essential problem that makes self-secularization so devastating in our own day is not that we are tempted to allow the light of our Faith to be too visible, but that—sometimes deliberately and sometimes instinctively—we keep pulling it off the lamp stand and shoving it under a basket.

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 See full bio.

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