Catholics, secularists, and civil society
by Angelo Scola
"The West must decide to understand what influence faith has in the public life of its citizens, it cannot dismiss the problem."
These scorching words, spoken by a Middle Eastern bishop in Amman during the international scholarly conference of the magazine "Oasis," are coming back to my mind in these days, during which a lively debate has been ignited in the media about the activity of Christians in civil society, the dialogue between secularists and Catholics – which, according to some, has reached the end of the line – the presumed defeat of Christianity, and the interference by churchmen in public affairs. In a word, about the manner in which Catholics should or should not address delicate issues of public life, like those of bioethics.
It seems to me that people often lose sight of the heart of the matter: every faith must always be subjected to a public cultural interpretation. It is an inevitable fact. On the one hand, this is because, as John Paul II wrote, "a faith that did not become cultural would not be fully welcomed, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived." On the other, since the faith – Jewish and Christian – is the result of God's compromise with history, it inevitably has to do with the concreteness of life and death, of love and pain, of work and rest, and of civic action. For this reason, it is inevitably the object of different cultural interpretations, which can be in conflict with each other.
In this phase of "post-secularism," there are two cultural interpretations of Christianity in particular that are at odds with each other. Both seem reductive to me.
The first is the one that treats Christianity as a civil religion, as mere ethical cement, capable of acting as a social adhesive for our democracy and for the European democracies in grave distress. If such a position is plausible in those who do not believe, its structural insufficiency should be evident to those who do believe.
The other, more subtle interpretation is the one that tends to reduce Christianity to the proclamation of the pure, unadorned Cross, for the salvation of "everyone else."
For example, getting involved with bioethics or biopolitics is seen as detracting from Christ's authentic message of mercy, as if this message were in itself ahistorical, without any anthropological, social, and cosmological implications. Such an attitude produces a dispersion, a diaspora of Christians in society, and ends up concealing the human relevance of the faith as such. To such an extent that in the face of life's crises, including public ones, a silence is demanded that risks making adherence to Christ and to the Church meaningless in the eyes of others.
In my view, neither of these two cultural interpretations succeeds in expressing adequately the true nature of Christianity and its activity in social society: the first because it reduces this to its secular dimension, separating it from its specifically Christian dynamism, the gift of an encounter with the personal coming of Christ in the Church; the second because it deprives the faith of its concrete embodiment.
There is another cultural interpretation that to me seems more respectful of the nature of man and his being in relationship. This runs along the ridge that separates civil religion from diaspora and concealment. It presents the coming of Jesus Christ in its entirety – incapable of being reduced to any human federation – and displays the heart of this, which lives in the Church's faith on behalf of all people.
In what way? Through the Church's proclamation of all the mysteries of faith in their entirety, as skillfully compiled in the catechism.
But this leads to the need to explain all of the aspects and implications that always arise from these mysteries. These are interwoven with human affairs in every age, demonstrating the beauty and fecundity of the faith for everyday life.
Just one example: if I believe that man is created in the image and likeness of God, I will have a certain understanding of birth and death, of the relationship between man and woman, of marriage and the family. This understanding inevitably encounters and seeks an exchange with the experience of all men, including nonbelievers. Regardless of their manner of understanding these basic elements of existence.
While respecting the specific responsibility of the lay faithful in the political domain, it is nonetheless evident that if every member of the faithful, from the pope to the last of the baptized, were not to share openly what he believes are the valid answers to the questions that trouble the human heart every day, and bear witness to the practical implications of his own faith, he would take something away from others. He would withhold a positive contribution, he would not participate in the common effort to build up the good life.
And today, in a society that is pluralistic and therefore has a tendency to be highly conflictual, this exchange must extend 360 degrees, to everyone, no one excluded.
In such an encounter, in which Christians, including the pope and bishops, dialogue humbly but firmly with everyone, it can be seen that the action of the Church is not aimed at hegemony, in using the ideal of faith for the sake of power. Its real aim, in imitation of its Founder, is that of offering everyone the consolation of hope in eternal life. This hope can already be enjoyed in the "hundredfold here below,"and helps us to face the crucial problems that make everyone's daily life fascinating and dramatic.
It is only through this untiring testimony, aimed at mutual recognition and respectful of the procedures ratified under the rule of law, that the great practical value unleashed by the fact of living together can be made to bear fruit.
Secularism and the common good
by Camillo Ruini
Reflecting on secularism in relation to the common good seems to me to be a fundamental and somewhat stimulating approach to understanding and appreciating secularism, and in particular for discerning and evaluating the various and very different meanings that the concept of secularism has taken on.
But in order to do this, we must first of all get as clear and specific an idea as possible of the meaning of the expression "common good," in the light of which we will seek to discover the foundations and functions of secularism.
As is well known, "common good" is a typical – if not exclusive – concept of Catholic social thought. It therefore seems proper to refer to the meaning that the term is given in this context. The "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church," published in 2004 by the pontifical council for justice and peace, considers the common good as the first of the principles of this doctrine, deriving it "from the dignity, unity and equality of all people."
It first of all indicates "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily." In concrete terms, the common good is "the good of all people and of the whole person," since "the human person cannot find fulfilment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists 'with' others and 'for' others."
The common good, therefore, "does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains 'common', because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future." Although it is thus founded in the nature and dignity of our being, the common good also has a clear historical dimension: in fact, "the demands of the common good are dependent on the social conditions of each historical period and are strictly connected to respect for and the integral promotion of the person and his fundamental rights" ("Compendium, nn. 164-166).
It is not possible, and perhaps it would not even be useful for our purposes, to dispose of such a clear and organic determination of the concept of secularism. But an initial clarification, unnecessary in English, is indispensable for the Italian term "laicità," which can refer either to political secularism or to the non-clerical dimension of the Church. In this context, we are not speaking of "laicità" in the theological and ecclesial sense, concerning which Vatican Council II says in "Lumen Gentium" (no. 31): "The term laity is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life... these faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God... and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world. What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature... the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God."
This secular nature and the relationship with temporal realities constitute, in a certain way, the bridge that permits a connection and passage to the other major meaning of the terms "laici" and "laicità" [political secularism], which is the one to which we will refer from now on. Here, secular and secularism are, in fact, concepts that indicate and imply an autonomy and distinction from that which is ecclesiastical, from that which refers to the Church, and more broadly to Christianity and religion in general. Still fundamental for understanding the origin of this concept is the comprehensive study by G. de Lagarde "La naissance de l'esprit laïque, au déclin du moyen âge".
Indicative of the plurality and also of the contrast of interpretations given to this concept today is the way in which Giovanni Fornero, in the third edition of Nicola Abbagnano's "Dizionario di filosofia" (which Fornero himself edited), treats the entry "Laicismo," which in ordinary expression indicates a rigid, polemical, and "exclusive" version of secularism. For Fornero, "laicismo" means "the principle of the autonomy of human activities, meaning the demand that these activities be undertaken according to their own rules, that they not be imposed from the outside, for purposes or interests different from those that inspire them."
But this autonomy is affirmed, in terms that are formally rather similar, by Vatican Council II ("Gaudium et Spes, no. 36), which states: "If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts."
It is also rather interesting that Fornero traces back the origin of the concept of secularism to Pope Gelasius I, who, at the end of the fifth century, clearly formulated the principle of the distinction between the two powers of the pope and the emperor, and on this basis asserted the autonomy of the religious sphere from that of politics. And then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed himself in similar terms in the book "Without Roots" (pp. 56-57), identifying here as well the origin of a profound difference between Christianity in the West and the East, between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, in which the emperor was also the head of the Church, which appeared to be almost equated with the empire.
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But this convergence, or agreement, on the principle of secularism cannot conceal the divergences that have formed throughout history, and continue to reemerge today. The decisive shift was the "new schism" – to use the words of Cardinal Ratzinger in the book already cited (p. 63) – that was seen above all in France between the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, and is still typical especially of the Latin countries of Catholic tradition.
It was here that the defense of reason and freedom asserted with the Enlightenment took on a face that was decisively hostile toward the Church, and, not infrequently, closed to any form of transcendence, while for its part the Church struggled and stalled for a long time in distinguishing between the anti-Christian claims that it clearly could not refrain from opposing, and the defense of social and political freedom which, instead, it could and must accept positively. The "new schism" was therefore between Catholics and "secularists," where the word "secular" took on a meaning of opposition to religion that it did not have before.
It is interesting to note that a similar schism was not seen in the Protestant world, because Protestantism, which from the beginning had understood itself as a movement of liberation and purification from the bonds of ecclesiastical authority, easily developed a kinship with Enlightenment thinking, but with the risk – and sometimes not only the risk – of undermining Christian truth from within and reducing it to an element of culture, rather than of faith in the authentic sense.
The terrain that was immediately the most sensitive – although, in my view, not the most profound – to tensions between Christianity and Enlightenment philosophy was that of relations between Church and state. And here a second and extremely important convergence developed, above all within the Protestant world.
While in Europe the Churches that emerged from the Reformation were constituted as state Churches in a manner that was much more significant than in the case of Catholicism, where the state Churches always had to come to terms with the unity and transnational universality of the Catholic Church, it was entirely different in the United States of America. The country's very origin, in fact, was due to a large extent to those groups of Protestant Christians who had fled from the system of state Churches in Europe, and formed free communities of believers.
The foundation of American society was therefore laid by the free Churches, for which it was essential not to be state Churches, but be founded on the free association of believers. In this sense, it can be said that at the basis of American society is a separation between Church and state that is determined, even demanded by religion and aimed above all at protecting religion itself and its living space, which the state must leave free. We are therefore not far from the intentions and objectives of the distinction asserted by Pope Gelasius I. We are, however, extremely far from that fundamental separation, "hostile" to religion and tending to subordinate the Churches to the state, imposed by the French Revolution and by the state systems that followed it.
As a result, the entire system of relations between the state and non-state spheres in America developed differently than it did in Europe, attributing to the non-state sphere as well a concrete public character, favored by the legal and fiscal system. In this America, with its specific identity, Catholics assimilated well, despite the resistance from the ideology that wanted to reserve full "North American" identity only for Protestants. In concrete terms, the Catholics soon realized the positive character of separation between state and Church linked to religious motivations and the importance of religious freedom thus guaranteed.
* * *
Until Vatican Council II, however, a difficulty remained, or a reservation on principle, which did not the regard American Catholics as such, but the Catholic Church as a whole. This difficulty concerned the recognition of religious freedom, not simply as the acceptance of a given fact, but as the affirmation of a right, founded on the dignity that belongs to the human person by nature. It is not a coincidence that the conciliar decree on religious freedom "Dignitatis Humanae," which clearly affirmed this right – while steering clear basing it on a relativistic approach that would bring the truth of Christianity into question – was drafted with a significant contribution from North American bishops and theologians.
Vatican II did not limit itself to removing the obstacle concerning religious freedom, but represented the overcoming, at least in principle, of the historical stalling of Catholicism to which I referred previously. In fact, it laid the foundations for a true reconciliation between the Church and modernity, and for the rediscovery of the profound correspondence between Christianity and Enlightenment thought.
In concrete terms, the Council made its own the "anthropological revolution" that since the beginning of the modern age had put man at the center: it demonstrated, in fact, the Christian roots of this revolution, and the lack of foundation for the contrast between the centrality of man and the centrality of God. Similarly, it affirmed, as has already been seen, the legitimate autonomy of earthly realities, the rights and freedoms of men and peoples, recognizing at the same time the validity of the great effort that humanity is making to transform the world.
With Vatican II, therefore, a new season in relations between the Church and secularism was inaugurated, and also between the Catholic Church and freedom: a season in which at first there was hope that all of the disputes about secularism were now behind us.
This hope was not without its concrete reasons, in part and especially concerning the "sensitive" terrain of relations between Church and state. With the full recognition of religious freedom on the part of Vatican Council II, in fact, there was a loss of justification in principle for a "state religion," which had constituted the substantial obstacle to the secularism of the state itself, and of its institutions. Even the difference between "concorditarian" regimes and regimes of separation between state and Church came less relevant at this point, since even the Concordats – as exemplified by the agreement on revision of the Concordat stipulated between the Italian state and the Holy See in 1984 – are now expressly situated outside of the context of a state religion. The protocol added to this agreement states, in fact, in relation to article 1: "The principle originally referred to in the Lateran Pacts, of the Catholic religion as the only religion of the Italian state, should be considered as no longer in effect."
* * *
The events of the past two decades seem, however, to shatter such a hope: we find ourselves, in fact, in a new and acute phase of the dispute about secularism.
Considering the issue carefully, however, the object of contention has profoundly changed: it is no longer a matter, at least in principle, of relations between Church and state as institutions. In this regard, in fact, their mutual distinction and autonomy were substantially accepted and shared by both Catholics and secularists, and together with them the pluralistic openness of the democratic and liberal state to the most diverse positions, all of which in themselves have equal rights and equal dignity before the state. The controversies that arose around these issues therefore seem rather fabricated, and are probably the reflection of the other and more substantial dispute to which we must now turn.
This dispute is mainly focused on the major ethical and anthropological problems that have emerged in recent decades, following both the profound changes in customs and behaviors, and the new applications of biotechnology to the human subject, which have opened horizons unimaginable until the recent past.
These problems, in fact, clearly have a dimension that is not only personal and private, but also public, and cannot be answered except on the basis of the understanding of man that is used as the reference: in particular, the fundamental question of whether man is only natural being, the result of cosmic and biological evolution, or instead has a transcendent dimension as well, which cannot be reduced to the physical universe.
It would be strange, then, for the great religions not to say anything about this, and not make their voice heard on the public stage. As is natural, the leading role in this is taken by the religions that predominate in the various geographical and cultural areas: Christianity in the West, and in Italy in particular, the Catholic Church.
In concrete terms, their voice resonates with a force that few would have expected when an increasingly radical secularization was believed to be the inevitable destiny of the contemporary world, or at least of the West: when, that is, it seemed out of the question that there could be that reawakening, on a worldwide scale, of religions and their public role which has been one of the great new developments of the last few decades. I would like to recall, in this regard, the surprise and distress that were provoked, even in Catholic circles, by the statements that John Paul II made at the conference of the Italian Church in Loreto in that long-ago April of 1985, when he called for a rediscovery of "the role, also public, that Christianity can play for the promotion of man and for the good of Italy, with complete respect and even wholehearted promotion of the religious and civil freedom of all and of each one, without in any way confusing the Church with the political community." John Paul II therefore asked the Italian Church to "work, with humble courage and complete trust in the Lord, so that the Christian faith may have or recover – even and especially in a pluralistic and partially de-Christianized society – a role as a guide and effective engine in the journey toward the future."
* * *
The dispute about secularism centered on the major ethical and anthropological questions now has another proponent, which precisely in relation to these problems takes an antithetical stance toward the Church and Christianity. Its conceptual nucleus is the conviction that man is entirely reducible to the physical universe, while on the ethical and legal level his fundamental task is that of individual freedom, in relation to which any form of discrimination is to be avoided.
This freedom, according to which in the final analysis everything is relative to the individual, is set up as the supreme ethical and legal criterion: every other position is admissible only as long as it does not challenge, but remains subordinate to this relativistic criterion. In this way, the moral norms of Christianity are systematically censored, at least in their public influence. In this way, there has developed in the West that which Benedict XVI has repeatedly called "the dictatorship of relativism," meaning a form of culture that deliberately severs its own historical roots and constitutes a radical contradiction not only of Christianity, but more broadly of the religious and moral traditions of humanity.
But this same severing of the roots is far from being shared by everyone in what is typically called "the secular world." On the contrary, many "secularists" maintain that they must reject such a decision, in order to remain faithful to the authentic roots and motivations of liberalism, which they judge as being incompatible with the dictatorship of relativism.
Then-cardinal Ratzinger, in the book previously mentioned, provided an historical and also a theological motivation for this new harmony between secularists and Catholics, to the point of maintaining that the distinction between these "is relative" ("Without Roots," p. 123). In a letter written to Marcello Pera on the occasion of the recent publication of his book "Perché dobbiamo dirci cristiani. Il liberalismo, l'Europa, l'etica [Why we must call ourselves Christian. Liberalism, Europe, ethics]," Benedict XVI again took a strong position in favor of the intrinsic connection between liberalism and Christianity. Moreover, in the address he delivered in Subiaco on April 1, 2005, the day before John Paul II died, he advanced a "proposal to the secularists": to discard the formula of Hugo Grotius "etsi Deus non daretur" – even if God did not exist – now historically outworn because over the course of the twentieth century there has been a steady decline in the extensive communality of content between civil public ethics and Christian morality that constituted the concrete meaning of this formula, and replace it with its inverse, "veluti si Deus daretur" – as if God did exist. That is, even those who are unable to accept God should seek to live and conduct their lives as if God exists: "This does not impose limitations on anyone's freedom; it gives support to all our human affairs and supplies a criterion of which human life stands sorely in need" (J. Ratzinger, "Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures ", pp. 50-52).
It is necessary to add that not all Catholics share this cordial openness toward these kinds of secularists. In fact, there are some who look at them with suspicion – unwarranted, in my view – fearing that they are exploiting the Christian faith for ideological and political purposes. The main reason for this distrust is that not a few of them, although they are Catholics, do not appear to be truly convinced of the necessity of a concerted effort in the field of public ethics. In concrete terms, these Catholics remain rather attached, regarding secularism, to the classical framework of the division of competencies between civil institutions and ecclesiastical institutions, and seem not to grasp fully the significance of the new development constituted by the emergence of the current ethical and anthropological problems.
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The analysis of the concept of secularism in its concrete historical articulation permits us to attempt a specific answer to the question of the relationship between secularism and the common good.
When it is understood as the autonomy of human activities, which must stand according to their own norms, and in particular as the independence of the state from ecclesiastical authority, secularism is certainly required by the common good, as has been amply demonstrated by the history of modern Europe beginning with the wars of religion. Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, in his classic essay on "The formation of the state as a process of secularization," is among those who best highlighted how only the independence of the state from the various religious confessions could ensure the peace of nations, and the very freedom of believers.
It is a different matter, however, when the concept of secularism is extended to include any reference of human activities, and in particular of the laws of the state and of the entire public sphere, to those ethical principles that find their foundation in human existence itself, in addition to that "religious sense" that expresses our intrinsic openness to transcendence.
In fact, as Böckenförde himself demonstrated at the end of the essay that I mentioned, the secularist liberal state lives on presuppositions that it cannot guarantee itself, and among these, as Hegel maintained, a particular role seems to belong to the moral impulses and restrictions arising from religion.
Very recently, Rémi Brague, in a contribution about "Fede e democrazia" published in the magazine "Aspenia" in 2008 (pp. 206-208), proposed a rather interesting update to Böckenförde's thesis: first of all, by extending it from the state to the man of today, who to a great extent has stopped believing in his own value, because of his reduction to nature and the total relativism that are at the origin of the aforementioned interpretations of secularism. It is man, therefore, and not only the state, who today needs a form of support that he is unable to guarantee for himself. In the second place, religion is not only, or even primarily, a source of ethical impulses and restrictions, as Böckenförde seems to think. Today, before verifying limits and boundaries, it is a matter of finding reasons for living, and this is, from the beginning, the function, or better the mission most proper to Christianity: this, in fact, says first of all not "how" to live, but "why" to live, why to choose life, why to rejoice in it and why to transmit it.
These are the reasons why Benedict XVI has repeatedly proposed a secularism that he himself defines as "healthy" and "positive," which would join to the autonomy of human activities and the independence of the state not preclusion, but openness in regard to fundamental ethical principles and the "religious sense" that we bear within ourselves.
Only a relativism so understood really seems to correspond to the current requirements of the common good, because it overturns those strange tendencies that seem to take pleasure in sapping the vital and moral energies by which each of us, our people, and the entire West lives, without considering how to replace them, or better without realizing that in practice they cannot be replaced.
It is precisely the perception of the decisive value of these reserves of energy that today instead unites many Catholics and secularists and that, in my view, indicates a great common effort awaiting us: giving something of ourselves in order to reinvigorate, instead of drawing down, these reserves.