Surveying the spectrum of hierarchical rhetoric, on both sides of the Atlantic, we hear and read that “secularization” and “secularism” are now the source of all that is evil, have led to a collapse of Christian values, and are the driving force behind a new wave of anti-Catholicism in the West.

Pope Benedict XVI and his Facilitator for the Synod on the New Evangelization, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, strongly hope the New Evangelization will halt the spread of secularism and relativism in the church, re-fill nearly-empty churches with loyal and obedient laypeople, and disarm a number of other malignant “isms” (like feminism) that threaten contemporary Catholic life.

A few days away from the 2012 presidential election, the crusade against secularism and secularization, is particularly strong in our United States.

At the moment, I am in Philadelphia where his friends and supporters are energetically promoting Archbishop Charles Chaput’s book A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America. In his e-book, Archbishop Chaput outlines the dangers of secularism in the United States and deplores what he sees as a growing American hostility toward religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular.

A couple days ago, over in Chicago, Cardinal George remarked that strong anti-religious sentiments have emerged during this year’s presidential campaign. He warns of an aggressive anti-religious and strongly anti-Catholic secularism in our American society.

Speaking with a flash of archiepiscopal drama, George acknowledged he had been quoted accurately when predicting: “I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

Cardinal George said he had made such a dramatic reference to the prospect of martyrdom to underline the urgency of the problems created by aggressive anti-religious secularism. “Communism imposed a total way of life based upon the belief that God does not exist,” Cardinal George said and added: “Secularism is communism’s better-scrubbed bedfellow.”

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairperson for the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, reiterated in his National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception homily on October 14th: “For some time now, both life and liberty have been under assault by an overarching, Godless secularism, replete with power and money, but sadly lacking in wisdom, both human and divine: a secularism that relentlessly seeks to marginalize the place of faith in our society.”

Over in Peoria, the outspokenly ultra-orthodox Bishop Daniel Jenky is still complaining about President Obama’s “extreme secularist” policies and compares them to those of Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, to Adolf Hitler and to Josef Stalin.

The conservative Catholic crusade is gathering some local parish steam as well in election battleground states like Ohio. Faithful America reports that last week, the “Nuns on the Bus” went to Ohio, visiting local social service agencies and speaking out about how major federal budget cuts could endanger the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. When the sisters arrived in Marietta, Ohio, they were met by a crowd of angry right-wing protesters who called them “fake nuns” and waved signs labeling their “Nuns on the Bus” tour the “highway to hell” and “bums on the bus.”

Many of these Ohio protesters were recruited from a local Catholic parish, where the pastor invited right-wing activists to distribute their propaganda accusing the sisters of “espousing radical ideology.”

So what is this crusade against secularization and secularism all about?

My first and immediate reaction is to quickly respond that far too many ultra-orthodox bishops and their sympathizers are scapegoating and calling attention to the speck of sawdust in their neighbors’ eyes and paying no attention to the planks in their own. But it is of course more complex.

These days “secularism” is more a principle and “secularization” more a process; but they often overlap of course in contemporary conversation.

Secularism is an outlook, and sometimes an ideology, that maintains that there should be a sphere of knowledge, values, and action that is independent of religious authority. In other words that religious leaders should not run the entire human show.

In American history we see secularism in our principle of the separation of church and state. Secularism can but does not necessarily exclude religion from having any role in political and social affairs. It simply asserts that religious leaders should not control and run political affairs. They can and should, as members of society, enter into constructive dialogue. Separation of church and state actually safeguards the church, as it also safeguards the state.

Secularism is often associated with the Age of Enlightenment and has played a major role in the history of Western society. Church leaders have, from time to time, had difficulties with the Enlightenment. Too much thinking, beyond church control……..We know of course, from our overall Catholic tradition, there really should be no conflict between faith and reason.

These days……most major religions accept the legal structures of secular, democratic societies; and a great many Christians support the secular state, seeing it affirmed, for example, in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel According to Luke: “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Some fundamentalists, however,fiercely oppose secularism, often asserting that there is a “radical secularist” ideology being adopted or imposed on people these days. They see secularism as a threat to “freedom” and to “traditional values.”

The most significant representatives of this kind of religious fundamentalism in our contemporary world are Fundamentalist Christianity and Fundamentalist Islam.


The discussion about secularization is, I think much more complex. I often say in my adult education and adult faith sharing sessions that Jesus of Nazareth was THE great secularizer: He understood, taught and witnessed to the truth that God is met and experienced in secular life. Incarnational theology once again…… Jesus regularly poked fun at or simply denounced those overly religious people who were good at religious practices but in fact far from God. But this is just a part of the secularization discussion.

Secularization is a process of taking-seriously our day-today secular life. I would contend that the theologians and bishops at Vatican II REALLY understood secularization. They understood it as an invitation to dialogue, to discern, and to reflect on the “signs of the times.”

Many of our contemporary Catholic bishops blame secularization for their lost credibility, the decline of their religious authority, and their inability to influence society. Frankly, I think their Vatican II episopal brothers would say: “stop shaking your fingers at the outside world and get your own house in order.” Blessed Pope John would say: Open the windows! We need fresh air! We need new and fresh thinking! And we have made some colossal mistakes!

I can understand that some people are uncomfortable about secularization when it involves state control over spheres formerly controlled by religious institutions. This can affect education, social welfare, law, the media, etc. Loss of power and control can be very discomfiting….. Secularization, however, becomes absolutely essential in our contemporary world with its increasingly ethnic-cultural-religious pluralistic societies.

Good values will be learned and taught and passed on in a society in which all share in values clarification and formation.

And faith will be experienced, will thrive, and be passed on in communities where the teacher-leaders (the magisterium in Catholic talk) realize that they are also and always learners as well……..

Scapegoats are convenient, but they keep people from looking deeply into their own hearts and souls……

4 thoughts on “Secularization and Secularism: Convenient Scapegoats?

  1. I would suggest that religion thrives best in a secular society. The extreme opposite is theocracy. We Catholics tried that with the Papal States – a disasater and the most backward state in Europe at the time. (Gregiory XVI and Pio Nono for example.) The separaion of church and state is healthy for the church, and certainly for the state.

    The Second Vatican Council opened up the church to the world in an embrace of openness and dialog. The world is not evil and we are not at war with it. We are citizens of it. We are here because God wants us here, not somewhere else way up in the sky. If there is any war on religion I would suggest it is because of the outrageous behavior of some relgious leaders and followers. These guys need an enemy to attack in order to distract their flock from their own failings and disrepute.

    I would suggest with the ancients: “Physician, heal thyself.”

  2. Folks in our societies/cultures seem to turn from or ignore religious institutions and their teachings partly because many  have no Transcendent Referant in the life story/experience – at least not One that is credible given the scientific and technological mindset which governs their story.  Therefore they live secular lives with reference only to this world and its materialistic values.  What you see is all you can get!

    Somehow we need to discover the Reign of God unfolding in The New Universe Story so that the contemplative consciousness of The Great Mystery is expressed and experienced in this very world – not only in churchy spaces and activities which can seem irrelevant and even untrue given all we know about “the secular” these days.

    >________________________________ > From: Another Voice >To: >Sent: Friday, October 26, 2012 8:45 PM >Subject: [New post] Secularization and Secularism: Convenient Scapegoats? > > > >John W. Greenleaf posted: “Surveying the spectrum of hierarchical rhetoric, on both sides of the Atlantic, we hear and read that “secularization” and “secularism” are now the source of all that is evil, have led to a collapse of Christian values, and are the driving force behind a” >

  3. An excellent essay. The bishops follow in the footsteps of the former Cardinal Ratzinger who made his way to the papacy by railing against secularism and relativism. Doing so he gave the bishops a reason for the empty churches in Europe and the exodus from the Catholic church in the U.S. Without defining what he means, by secularism, the Pope makes it sound like something terribly evil. Actually it is the American way of life. Most U.S. Cathlics are happy that we do not have a church tax like Germany and that bishops cannot excommunicate us for not paying it. We are happy that bishops do not have the authority to determine civil laws
    affecting contraception, marriage, and divorce. Most Catholics are happy that we have divorce in this country as a relief from an abusive spouse or a loveless marriage. The Pope and bishops do not point out that the opposite of secularism is the theocratic way of life such as is found in Muslim societies dominated by Islamic sharia law.

    In their criticism of relativism, the bishops do not point out that they are asking for an exceptional authority over culture and society, one that is not shared by other religious leaders. They refuse to address the fact that here in the U.S. and Western Europe, we live in pluralistic societies. No one group of religious leaders has the final say over any issue. Bishops have a right to a voice in the public square,like any other individual or group, but no more. And most U.S. Catholics are glad of it.

    The Pope and his bishops need to look at themselves and ask if they have any responsibility for the massive exodus from the Roman Catholic church. I would suggest that rather than relativism or secularism, a better case can be made for indicting their own authoritarianism.

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