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It's A Trap

On secularism.


Justice is harmony. Or maybe it would be better to say that justice and harmony go hand in hand, rising or falling together. Justice ensures social harmony, and at the same time, a certain level of harmony, or order, is necessary for the administration of justice.

This is true not just horizontally, among persons in a society, but vertically, between persons and God. Our souls are made to harmonize with the divine order, complementing it in a way that makes our souls hum with praise and love and joy.

Imagine an orchestra playing a simple, lovely, eternal tune. The music is orderly and beautiful—all the more beautiful because of its order. We can join that harmony with the music of our own lives, but we must join it harmoniously. Failure to do so does nothing to alter or to damage that simple, eternal tune; likewise, we can never upset the divine order, but we can contribute a dissonance that clashes with that order, making it sound unlovely and unattractive.

Let’s take this a step further: We harmonize with the divine melody not just as individuals but as groups—families, neighborhoods, nations—just like sections of the orchestra. A complete harmony, then, consists of individuals and sections all doing their part. But now imagine that individual players are not permitted to coordinate with others—trumpets, drums, clarinets, and cellos are all scattered around, trying to keep tuneful harmony as best they can, but they are playing only on the basis of their own listening, which is constantly obscured by the incompatible noises all around. The result is cacophony. And that is the musical image of our civilization: We’re all permitted to try to follow God’s plan as individuals, but doing so as a society is impermissible.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “the early Christians were convinced that everything depends on being in the right relationship with God.” Note that word: everything. He’s not just talking about our individual psyches or families or even parishes, but the fate of entire nations and peoples and, ultimately, all of mankind.

But the way of thinking about politics that has defined Western civilization for centuries —liberalism—cannot abide this. And for that reason, it suffers from a terminal flaw.

The classic genealogy of liberalism, certainly as it developed in England, presents it as a response to the trauma of generations of sectarian violence. Catholics and newly minted Protestants with incompatible visions of theology and society bloodied each other in the streets and fields, leading early theorists of liberalism such Thomas Hobbes and John Locke to grasp for a peaceful and secular solution. To this day, even if this history is known only dimly, the idea that universal claims of religious truth might find a place in the public square provokes a shudder in those formed by liberal societies.

This story has been challenged, however, most notably by William T. Cavanaugh in his book The Myth of Religious Violence. He shows how the neat distinction between the (rational, tolerant, peaceful) secular and the (irrational, unyielding, violent) religious spheres is a uniquely modern and liberal understanding that we carelessly apply to the pre- and early-modern eras. The so-called “wars of religion” from which liberalism emerged were wars of (secular) politics and economics and culture just as surely as they were of theology. Reducing them to purely “religious” squabbles has become, on Cavanaugh’s convincing account, a self-serving justification not just for liberalism’s legitimacy but specifically for secular violence to blot out what we have come to conceive of as dangerous religious extremism.

As Andrew Willard Jones has shown in his masterful exploration of France under the rule of Saint Louis IX, Before Church and State, the modern opposition between the religious and secular spheres would have been incomprehensible to premodern Christians. Rather, the distinctions made by the premodern mind were ordered toward unity, not division. (We are reminded of this reality even today: in the new order of Mass, the laity present the gifts while the clergy consecrate them.) Together, what we now think of as secular authority and religion formed an organic whole oriented toward the temporal common good of peace and the eternal common good of salvation. To tell a medieval peasant or merchant or noble to keep his religion private would be like telling a modern man to keep his thoughts on the weather to himself: it wouldn’t make sense.

But this anti-Christian, and specifically anti-Catholic, rationalization for liberalism’s necessity has burrowed its way into the psyche of our civilization. And it accounts for what is possibly the most distinctive and enduring quality of liberal cultures: the privatization of religion.

This conception of “religion” is unsatisfactory. The liberal view conflates all beliefs about the supernatural and the meaning of life regardless of their truth; but, of course, religion as a genuine virtue and expression of justice must be tied to truth. Religion is about our duties to the one true God, not warm spiritual feelings.

This reduction of religion to an undifferentiated sociological phenomenon, like video games or athletics, both emerges from and contributes to the idea that religion is and must be a private matter. The idea of organizing society around “religious” truths—and even the idea of religious truth itself—is therefore seen as senseless and dangerous. At best (and even this is now seriously contested), we can bring our religiously informed consciences to debates of public policy; to order society toward any particular and comprehensive view of what is good, true, and worthy of the justice of worship, however, is unthinkable.

And yet, as we’ve seen, it’s inescapable. Aristotle lays it out plainly in the first sentence of the Politics:

Every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all . . . aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.

Every person and every society aims at the good—and the larger and more comprehensive the community, the higher the good. And so, by insisting that religion is a private matter, ostensibly out of fear of the havoc wrought by competing religious truth claims in the public square, liberalism doesn’t so much deny the inescapability of religion as it tries to obscure it. Like any society, the liberal one does aim for certain transcendent goods: it just pretends that it doesn’t.

It’s true, of course, that liberalism is not monolithic. The privatization of religion in earlier liberal regimes, such as the early American republic, was less extreme, though still essential to the project. As moss grows on a damp rock, early liberalism grew up on a Christian culture and thus took its initial character from it. The idea that claims about religious truth would be absent from public life was nearly as senseless then as it was in the preceding centuries: just look at the deeply scriptural arguments of the abolitionists. (The defenders of slavery, for their part, generally argued for a neutral and secular public square.)

So the idea of the integrated person—the person whose faith imbues all aspects of her life, not just the ostensibly private—hung on for some time. And it is still defended today by smart and savvy believers who would like to carve out a space for the integrated Christian in our public life. That foundation of Christian culture, however, is now gone—dried up, corroded away, stolen, whatever image you prefer—and so now not just the social duties of religion but the personal ones that go beyond the individual psyche or the walls of the church are suspect.

But even limited conceptions of liberalism rule out a society explicitly and comprehensively organized around truths seen to be “religious.” Now, the American founding documents do cite certain vague, God-given truths from which the new regime would emerge and toward which it would be ordered. But this is hardly the orientation toward the common good, including the social virtue of religion, that is demanded by justice and the divine order. As John Adams implied in his remarks on the unsuitability of the American government to a corrupt populace, the moral and religious orientation of the republic would be set by the impulses of private individuals. The meaning of the republic’s commitments to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” would be set by the people, not by reference to any higher authority, earthly or celestial.

And so a form of the privatization of religion was there even at the beginning of arguably the most generous liberal regime in history. Even the magnanimous George Washington ended his famous “Letter to the Roman Catholics” with a barb:

And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.

The Church is acknowledged here only as one sect or voluntary association among many, and the president’s goodwill is offered only conditionally: Catholics must subscribe only to “the pure spirit of Christianity” and subject themselves first to the tenets of the republic; that is, they may be Catholics—privately.

We might look at American liberalism through rose-colored glasses and argue that there was a possibility for a rightly ordered society—one permeated with the spirit of true religion that would bring it into order with God’s cosmic order—to emerge and to endure under its terms. But even if that were true, and the history of hostility toward the Catholic Church suggests that it was not, that time is long past. And this is simply because even a limited and magnanimous liberalism cannot abide the truth of the perfect society of the Church.

Every soul and every society orders itself toward some notion of the good and thus some object of religious devotion and worship. The question is not whether we will organize our souls and societies around a religious principle but whether the principle will be true and complete or false and corrupted. The liberal conceit, on the other hand, is that it is neutral among competing conceptions of the good, but of course this isn’t so: goods that contradict essential liberal principles, like the enforcement of moral norms on the basis of truth rather than popularity, are ruled out from the start.

This is fundamental to the critique of liberalism, especially to modern notions of liberalism; you could find it in secular university classrooms all over the country and the world. But now let us take the critique a step further: chief among these goods that are incompatible with liberalism is the genuine virtue of religion.

Religion is an intrinsically public virtue, both in the sense that it requires public actions of individual persons, such as worship and witnessing to the Faith in everyday life, and in the sense that it requires a communal commitment, supported by authority, to give justice to God. A conception of politics that maintains the pretense of religious neutrality not only makes this impossible but also clears the way for perverse manifestations of the religious impulse to order and to dominate public life.

We are not saying that the civil order must compel attendance at Mass or other participation in the sacramental life of the Church; that was impermissible long before the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. What the civil order or other organizing principle of common life must do, however, is recognize the sacramental nature of reality itself. To pretend that the sacraments are not what they really are—essential wellsprings of grace for the sustenance and renewal of individuals and the community—is to deny the very foundation of the common good of peace to which the civil order is committed.

What this means in practice is variable and prudential. It may mean privileges that come with the sacraments of initiation, recognizing and affirming the real changes effected in the soul by baptism, Holy Communion, and confirmation. It may mean a public calendar organized around the liturgical life of the Church, which is itself a participation in the life of heaven, with commerce and civil affairs always taking a back seat to the Lord’s Day, feasts, and fasts. It may mean the public authority establishing, supporting, and preferring community celebrations that accord with true religion over those that do not.

We need not sketch out an entire regime (or even a regime at all, in the sense of the modern nation-state) to say this: even on the most limited conception of liberalism’s neutrality and privatization of religion—even the conceptions promoted by conscientious Catholics who favor liberalism—these rather basic public manifestations of the virtue of religion would be impermissible. The closest one could come is a clever reading of the First Amendment according to which “establishments of religion” would be permissible at the state level; but even then, all “establishments” would have to be considered equally valid. To pick and choose would be, well, illiberal.

The idea of the Church as the perfect society, participating in the glory of heaven through the grace of the sacraments and the perpetual intercession of the angels and saints who make up the Church Triumphant—this is simply incompatible with liberalism. To relegate it to a private truth that can be celebrated only by individual Catholics in their individual enclaves is to deny the truth itself; to bring this truth into public life by ordering society around it is to deny the fundamental principles of liberal regimes. And so liberalism has always regarded the Church with suspicion, if not outright hostility.

The Catholic Church has always been liberalism’s foil—its essential counterpart against which it wages a kind of perpetual revolution. This is ironic because liberalism emerged, at least in part, from the Church’s understanding of individual dignity, but like an unruly adolescent or a restless servant, it is always anxious to score a point against the authority it regards as oppressive.

The early theorists of liberalism up through modern thinkers and pundits and everyday secularized Westerners have all recognized, even if in a vague and attenuated way, that the Church offers the only complete account of reality that can compete with liberalism. More threatening still, the account it offers is more ancient, more solid, and more deeply and simply human than anything liberalism can muster.

Liberalism is a shell game, promising a neutrality it can never deliver, always shifting its self-understanding and even language itself to obscure its own substantive, moral, and, yes, religious commitments. We are so used to these shifts and they happen so comprehensively that, at any given moment, the world that has been created by liberalism seems perfectly normal and natural.

Consider the language used to describe same-sex marriage, and issues of sexuality in general, over the past several years. Before the redefinition of marriage by the Supreme Court, homosexuality was considered the paradigmatic “moral” or “religious issue”—that is, a matter of private and subjective reflection that, by definition, should not be regulated by law. To define marriage as between one man and one woman (or, worse, to criminalize homosexual conduct) was to “impose” a particular moral vision on the people.

Now that the victory of the same-sex marriage movement is complete, you’ll notice that the language has changed. Marriage and sexuality are no longer “moral issues” but matters of state: one can grumble about the outcome privately, but to bring that conviction into the public square is intolerant, antisocial, bad for business, or some other “objective,” “neutral” descriptor that is meant to obscure what is clearly a moral claim. Marriage and sexuality have shifted categories, from the private to the public, from the “moral” to the political.

The Church will always be a threat because she flips the table on which this shell game is played. She shows how the moral, the political, and the legal are all intrinsically tied together, how they are all rooted in reason, and how all of these things are anchored in heaven, in the divine order imposed on the cosmos by God, our Creator. This is strictly antithetical to liberalism’s attempt to sequester “religion” and “morality” to private and subjective spheres, which is nothing less than the disintegration—the breaking apart of that which should be whole—of society and the psyche.

It is by this disintegration that liberalism divides and conquers. The integration offered by the Church—morality and law unified by reason and ordered toward God, who integrates the earthly with the divine through the Incarnation, by the virtue of religion—is a perpetual threat to its hegemony.

The hegemony of the liberal view of man—individualized, unrooted, with all his deepest convictions and duties relativized and privatized—is often described simply as secularism. Broadly speaking, we understand this to mean the absence of religion from the public square, indeed from the basic organizing principles of society. We can speak of freedom and prosperity as fundamental principles of the common good but not of our duties to God in justice. In other words, we can’t consider what freedom and prosperity and the common good are for.

But if religion is inescapable, can we really speak of a “secular” society? Rather than seeing the category of “the secular” in opposition to the category of “the religious,” it may be better to think of secularism as the conceptual means by which liberalism relegates true religion to irrelevancy—the realm of the private, the subjective, the relative. Secularism, then, doesn’t describe our social reality but only the means by which the field is cleared of the opposition.

And what fills the void? The liberal conceit is that nothing does: we are all said to be free to form our own realities, our “own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” in the immortal words of Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision that affirmed Roe v. Wade. But we know that can’t be. Rather, an incredible diversity of perversions of true religion flows into the vacuum. Liberalism isn’t necessarily secular: it’s necessarily idolatrous.

This essay is excerpted from Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley’s book It Is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion, published last year by Emmaus House.

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