Secularism: A Hidden Danger

By Carlos Palad, Defensores Fidei Foundation

"To secularize" originally referred to the state's arbitrary appropriation of Church property. For this reason, we speak of the "secularization" of the vast Church-ruled lands in Germany in 1803, the "secularization" of Catholic schools and universities in Spain several times, etc.

These historic roots of the word "secularization" already gives us an ominous idea of what secularism means. Secularism is an attitude that takes away the public sphere from the rightful influence of religious belief. Secularism is an outlook, sometimes rising (as in contemporary France) to the level of a state-sponsored ideology, that insists on considering all public matters from a vantage point characterized by a reliance on human reason, and free of any reference to the sacred. This is because the individual conscience must be defended and freedom of discourse allowed, and (so secularists believe) this can be done only by allowing for common ground characterized by a "reasonableness" uninfluenced by "sectarian" considerations. For this reason, the secularist mentality insists on excluding religious views from the public square, often under the plea that Church and State must be considered separate.

Secularism does not necessarily judge religious beliefs to be "wrong" or even "irrational"; it simply considers them to be purely a matter of private judgment or opinion, that should be left at the doorsteps of any public institution. Secularists often profess respect for religious belief, as long as it is kept precisely that: a mere belief without bearing on public affairs. Behind this attitude towards religion is the presupposition that religion is a dangerous element once brought into the public sphere; religion is seen as productive (better word is product) of intolerance and bigotry, and as precluding all "common ground" between the various combatants in the sphere of public discourse. Classic examples of this indifference towards the importance of religious belief in public life are at present supplied by the so-called "Catholics" of the Democratic Party (John Kerry, Edward Kennedy) who say that they are "personally opposed" to abortion but that they are in favor of its continued legalization because "they don't want to impose their private beliefs" on other people.

Just as indifference towards religion often masks a latent hostility towards it, so the secularist mentality often ends up in outright persecution of religius belief. There is no way this slide can be averted, for if religious belief is something that is too dangerous to be displayed in public, then perhaps it is something that should eventually be extirpated for the public good. In our time, this creeping hostility often combines with a tendency to consider abortion, homosexuality and various forms of immorality to be "rights" against which no one should even speak out. This is the reason why Cardinal Ratzinger has spoken of an "intolerant" secularism that begins by excluding religion from the public sphere and ends up so extending that public sphere that the individual conscience is left with no room for religious belief.

A good example of this slide towards hostility is visible in the U.S. Democratic Party, which from refusing to impose "private beliefs" on public affairs, now actively supports campaigns against the public display of the Ten Commandments, against the revival of school prayer,etc.

A worse example is France, where Catholics are traditionally excluded from the Ministry of Education lest they unduly influence the education system with their religious beliefs. There is, of course, the European Union, which last year voted against Rocco Buttiglione's appointment to the EU cabinet precisely because of his fervent Catholicism.

Perhaps the worst case is Sweden, which last year declared that publicly citing Bible verses against homosexuality is a "hate crime' punishable with imprisonment. Similar judgements have been pronounced in Canada.

The case against secularization can be summed up as follows: secularism is itself a dogma, a form of sectarianism that by definition should not be allowed to rule the public sphere to the detriment of other viewpoints. Secularism, far from guaranteeing freedom of conscience, endangers conscience because it progressively disallows religious consciences from speaking out, while non-religious or anti-religious people do not labor underany similar disability. Secularism implicitly denies any real importance to religious matters, turning it entirely into a private matter or a matter of mere opinion. The Church supports a genuine freedom of conscience that gives ample space in the public sphere for the expression of different beliefs; however, religious beliefs must also have this right to free expression, and in predominantly Christian countries this Christian character must be respected by the state as the basis of the spiritual life of the nation, and as the default viewpoint from which legislative matters are considered.