Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

On Secularism

by Hierarchy of the United States


Annual Statement of the Bishops of the United States released on November 14, 1947.

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Publisher & Date

The Bruce Publishing Company, 1952

No man can disregard God — and play a man's part in God's world. Unfortunately, however, there are many men—and their number is daily increasing—who in practice live their lives without recognizing that this is God's world. For the most part they do not deny God. On formal occasions they may even mention His name. Not all of them would subscribe to the statement that all moral values derive from merely human conventions. But they fail to bring an awareness of their responsibility to God into their thought and action as individuals and members of society.

This, in essence, is what we mean by secularism. It is a view of life that limits itself not to the material in exclusion of the spiritual, but to the human here and now in exclusion of man's relation to God here and hereafter. Secularism, or the practical exclusion of God from human thinking and living, is at the root of the world's travail today. It was the fertile soil in which such social monstrosities as Fascism, Nazism, and Communism could germinate and grow. It is doing more than anything else to blight our heritage of Christian culture, which integrates the various aspects of human life and renders to God the things that are God's. Through the centuries, Christian culture has struggled with man's inborn inclination to evil. The ideals of Christianity have never been fully realized—just as the ideals of our Declaration of Independence and of our Constitution have never been fully realized in American political life. But for that reason these ideals can neither be ignored nor discarded. Without doubt, Christians have often failed to meet their responsibilities and by their transgressions have permitted ugly growths to mar the institutions of their culture. But wherever, despite their lapses, they have held steadfastly to their Christian ideals, the way to effective reform and progress has been kept open. The remedy for the shortcomings and sins of Christian peoples is surely not to substitute secularism for godliness, human vagaries for divine truth, man-made expedients for a God-given standard of right and wrong. This is God's world and if we are to play a man's part in it, we must first get down on our knees and with humble hearts acknowledge God's place in His world. This, secularism does not do.

The Individual

Secularism, in its impact on the individual, blinds him to his responsibility to God. All the rights, all the freedoms of man derive originally from the fact that he is a human person, created by God after His own image and likeness. In this sense he is "endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable Rights." Neither reason nor history offers any other solid ground for man's inalienable rights. It is as God's creature that man generally and most effectively recognizes a personal responsibility to seek his own moral perfection. Only a keen awareness of personal responsibility to God develops in a man's soul the saving sense of sin. Without a deep-felt conviction of what sin is, human law and human conventions can never lead man to virtue. If in the privacy of his personal life the individual does not acknowledge accountability to God for his thought and his action, he lacks the only foundation for stable moral values. Secularism does away with accountability to God as a practical consideration in the life of man and thus takes from him the sense of personal guilt of sin before God. It takes account of no law above man-made law. Expediency, decency, and propriety are, in its code, the norms of human behavior. It blurs, if it does not blot out, the ennobling and inspiring picture of man which the Christian Gospel paints. In divine revelation, man is the son of God as well as God's creature. Holiness is his vocation, and life's highest values have to do with things of the soul. "For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" Secularism may quote these words of Christ, but never in their full Christian sense. For that very reason secularism blights the noblest aspirations in man which Christianity has implanted and fostered. Unfortunately, many who still profess to be Christians are touched by this blight. The greatest moral catastrophe of our age is the growing number of Christians who lack a sense of sin because a personal responsibility to God is not a moving force in their lives. They live in God's world, quite unmindful of Him as their Creator and Redeemer. The vague consciousness of God which they may retain is impotent as a motive in daily conduct. The moral regeneration which is recognized as absolutely necessary for the building of a better world must begin by bringing the individual back to God and to an awareness of his responsibility to God. This, secularism, of its very nature, cannot do.

The Family

Secularism has wrought havoc in the family. Even the pagans saw something sacred in marriage and the family. In Christian doctrine its holiness is so sublime that it is likened to the Mystical Union of Christ and His Church. Secularism has debased the marriage contract by robbing it of its relation to God and, therefore, of its sacred character. It has set the will and convenience of husband and wife in the place that Christian thought gives to the will of God and the good of society.

A secularized pseudo science has popularized practices which violate nature itself and rob human procreation of its dignity and nobility. Thus, selfish pursuit of pleasure is substituted for salutary self-discipline in family life.

Secularism has completely undermined the stability of the family as a divine institution and has given our country the greatest divorce problem in the Western world. In taking God out of family life, it has deprived society's basic educational institution of its most powerful means in molding the soul of the child. Public authority and the press are constantly emphasizing our grave problem of juvenile delinquency. On all sides is heard the cry that something be done about the problem. Our profound conviction is that nothing much will ever be done about it unless we go to the root of the evil and learn the havoc that secularism has wrought in the family. In vain shall we spend public moneys in vast amounts for educational and recreational activities if we do not give more thought to the divinely ordained stability of the family and the sanctity of the home.

God planned the human family and gave it its basic constitution. When secularism discards that plan and constitution it lacerates the whole social fabric. Artificial family planning on the basis of contraceptive immorality, cynical disregard of the noble purposes of sex, a sixty-fold increase in our divorce rate during the past century, and widespread failure of the family to discharge its educational functions are terrible evils which secularism has brought to our country. What hope is there of any effective remedy unless men bring God back into family life and respect the laws He has made for this fundamental unit of human society?


In no field of social activity has secularism done more harm than in education. In our own country secularists have been quick to exploit for their own purposes the public policy adopted a century ago of banning the formal teaching of religion from the curriculum of our common schools. With a growing number of thoughtful Americans, we see in this policy a hasty and shortsighted solution of the very difficult educational problem that confronts public authority in a nation of divided religious allegiance. But it should ever be kept in mind that the original proponents of the policy did not intend to minimize the importance of religion in the training of youth. Erroneously, however, secularists take this policy, adopted as a practical expedient in difficult circumstances, and make it the starting point in their philosophy of education. They positively exclude God from the school. Among them are some who smile indulgently at the mention of the name of God and express wonder that inherited illusions last so long. Others are content with keeping God closeted in the inner chambers of private life.

In the rearing of children and the forming of youth, omission is as effective as positive statement. A philosophy of education which omits God, necessarily draws a plan of life in which God either has no place or is a strictly private concern of men. There is a great difference between a practical arrangement which leaves the formal teaching of religion to the family and to the Church, and the educational theory of the secularist, who advisedly and avowedly excludes religion from his program of education. The first, reluctantly tolerated under certain conditions as a practical measure of public policy, may actually serve to emphasize the need of religious instruction and training, and to encourage public school administrators to co-operate with home and Church in making it possible. The other strikes at the very core of our Christian culture and in practice envisions men who have no sense of their personal and social responsibility to God. Secularism breaks with our historical American tradition. When parents build and maintain schools in which their children are trained in the religion of their fathers, they are acting in the full spirit of that tradition. Secularists would invade the rights of parents, and invest the State with supreme powers in the field of education; they refuse to recognize the God-given place that parents have in the education of their children. God is an inescapable fact, and one cannot make a safe plan for life in disregard of inescapable facts. Our youth problems would not be so grave if the place of God in life were emphasized in the rearing of children. There would be less danger for the future of our democratic institutions if secularism were not so deeply intrenched in much of our thinking on education.

The World of Work

Economic problems loom large in the social unrest and confusion of our times. Research students of varying shades of opinion are seeking the formula for a sound program of economic reform. Their common objective is a beneficent social order that will establish reasonable prosperity, provide families with an adequate income, and safeguard the public welfare. The Christian view of social order rejects the postulate of inexorable economic laws which fix recurring cycles of prosperity and depression. It lays the blame for instability in our social structure on human failure rather than on blind and incontrollable economic forces. It faces the plain fact that there is something gravely wrong in our economic life and sees in secularism, with its disregard of God and God's law, a potent factor in creating the moral atmosphere which has favored the growth of this evil. Pointedly, indeed, has an eminent modern economist called attention to the fact that "in one hundred and fifty years economic laws were developed and postulated as iron necessities in a world apart from Christian obligation and sentiment." He adds: "The early nineteenth century was full of economic doctrine and practice which, grounded in its own necessity and immutability, crossed the dictates of Christian feeling and teaching with only a limited sense of incongruity and still less of indignation."

God created man and made him brother to his fellow man. He gave man the earth and all its resources to be used and developed for the good of all. Thus, work of whatever sort is a social function, and personal profit is not the sole purpose of economic activity. In the Christian tradition, the individual has the right to reasonable compensation for his work, the right to acquire private property, and the right to a reasonable income from productive invested capital. Secularism takes God out of economic thinking and thereby minimizes the dignity of the human person endowed by God with inalienable rights and made responsible to Him for corresponding individual and social duties. Thus, to the detriment of man and society, the divinely established balance in economic relations is lost.

In Christian thought the work of man is not a commodity to be bought and sold, and economic enterprise is an important social function in which owner, manager, and workman co-operate for the common good. When disregard of his responsibility to God makes the owner forget his stewardship and the social function of private property, there comes that irrational economic individualism which brings misery to millions. Helpless workers are exploited; cutthroat competition and antisocial marketing practices follow. When men in labor organizations lose the right social perspective, which a sense of responsibility to God gives, they are prone to seek merely the victory of their own group, in disregard of personal and property rights. The Christian view of economic life supports the demand for organization of management, labor, agriculture, and professions under government encouragement but not control, in joint effort to avoid social conflict and to promote co-operation for the common good. In default of this free co-operation, public authority is finally invoked to maintain a measure of economic order, but it frequently exceeds the just limits of its power to direct economic activity to the common good. In the extreme case, where Marxian Communism takes over government, it abolishes private ownership and sets up a totalitarian State capitalism, which is even more intolerable than the grave evils it pretends to cure. Surely it ought to be plain today that there is no remedy for our economic evils in a return either to nineteenth-century individualism or to experiments in Marxianism. If we abandon secularism and do our economic thinking in the light of Christian truth, we can hopefully work for economic collaboration in the spirit of genuine democracy. Let us be on our guard against all who, in exiling God from the factory and the market place, destroy the solid foundation of brotherhood in ownership, in management, and in work.

The International Community

In the international community there can be only one real bond of sane common action — the natural law which calls to God, its Author, and derives from Him its sanctions. There is objective right and objective wrong in international life. It is true that positive human law which comes from treaties and international conventions is necessary, but even these covenants must be in accord with God-given natural law. What may seem to be expedient for a nation cannot be tolerated if it contravenes God's law of right and wrong. In the international community that law has been flouted more openly, more widely, and more disastrously in our day than ever' before in the Christian centuries. Shocking crimes against weak nations are being perpetrated in the name of national security. Millions of men in many nations are in the thralldom of political slavery. Religion is persecuted because it stands for freedom under God. The most fundamental human rights are violated with utter ruthlessness in a calculated, systematic degradation of man by blind and despotic leaders. Details of the sad and sickening story seep through the wall of censorship which encloses police States. Men long for peace and order, but the world stands on the brink of chaos. It is significant that godless forces have brought it there. Nazism and Fascism and Japanese militarism lie buried in the debris of some of the fairest cities of the world they vowed to rule or to ruin. Atheistic Communism, for a time thrown into alliance with democratic nations through Nazi aggression against Russia, stands out plainly today as the force which, through violence and chicanery, is obstructing the establishment of a right juridical order in the international community. That is plain for all to see. But thoughtful men perceive as well that secularism, which over the years has sapped the divinely laid foundations of the moral law, bears a heavy burden of responsibility for the plight of the world today.

Secularism which exiles God from human life clears the way for the acceptance of godless subversive ideologies — just as religion, which keeps God in human life, has been the one outstanding opponent of totalitarian tyranny. Religion has been its first victim; for tyrants persecute what they fear. Thus secularism, as the solvent of practical religious influence in the everyday life of men and nations, is not indeed the most patent, but in a very true sense the most insidious hindrance to world reconstruction within the strong framework of God's natural law. There would be more hope for a just and lasting peace if the leaders of the nations were really convinced that secularism which disregards God, as well as militant atheism which utterly denies Him, offer no sound basis for stable international agreements for enduring respect for human rights or for freedom under law.

In the dark days ahead we dare not follow the secularist philosophy. We must be true to our historic Christian culture. If all who believe in God would make that belief practical in their workaday lives, if they would see to it that their children are definitely imbued with that belief and trained in the observance of God's way of life, if they would look across the real differences which unfortunately divide them, to the, common danger that threatens, if they would steadfastly refuse to let a common enemy capitalize on those differences to the detriment of social unity, we might begin to see a way out of the chaos that impends. Secularism holds out no valid promise of better things for our country or for the world. During our own lives it has been the bridge between a decaying devotion to Christian culture and the revolutionary forces which have brought on what is perhaps the gravest crisis in all history. The tragic evil is not that our Christian culture is no longer capable of producing peace and reasonable prosperity, but that we are allowing secularism to divorce Christian truth from life. The fact of God and the fact of the responsibility of men and nations to God for their actions are supreme realities, calling insistently for recognition in a truly realistic ordering of life in the individual, in the family, in the school, in economic activity, and in the international community.

Signed by the members of the Administrative Board, N.C.W.C., in the names of the bishops of the United States:

+Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago

+Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York

+Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia

+Edward Cardinal Mooney, Archbishop of Detroit

+John T. McNicholas, O.P., Archbishop of Cincinnati

+Robert E. Lucey, Archbishop of San Antonio

+Richard J. Cushing, Archbishop of Boston

+Joseph E. Ritter, Archbishop of St. Louis

+James H. Ryan, Archbishop of Omaha

+John Mark Gannon, Bishop of Erie

+John F. Noll, Bishop of Fort Wayne

+Emmet M. Walsh, Bishop of Charleston

+Karl J. Alter, Bishop of Toledo

+Michael J. Ready, Bishop of Columbus

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