What is government’s relationship with organized religion? Is religious faith viewed as a pillar of civic engagement and sound government, or is it viewed as an adversary to the state? This in part was the dichotomy Archbishop Charles Chaput spoke of in a speech in Slovakia August 24. Addressing the first session of the 15th Symposium for the Canon Law Association of Slovakia, Archbishop Chaput spoke at length on the issue of secularism – not only in Eastern Europe, but in the United States as well, and the animosity towards religion that lies behind it.
The theme of religion’s place in public life is one the archbishop has written and spoken extensively about, and his recent speech reminds us that the issue remains one of the central challenges for Christianity in the modern world. He argues that if we do not do something about the spread of the philosophy of secularization and the move towards a “post Christian” world, it will destroy our culture and society:
We can no longer afford to treat the debate over secularization – which really means cauterizing Christianity out of our cultural memory – as if it’s a problem for Church professionals. The emergence of a “new Europe” and a “next America” rooted in something other than the real facts of our Christian-shaped history will have damaging consequences for every serious believer.
The crowding out and intimidation of religion does not have to manifest itself in something as obvious as, for instance, the government raids against Church officials in Brussels in which bishops were detained and interrogated for nine hours without due process; their private computers, cell phones, and files seized.
Often the shift away from religion is more subtle. Archbishop Chaput pointed out how some U.S. government officials have begun replacing the term “religious freedom” to the more circumscribed notion of “freedom of worship.”
“Religious freedom includes the right to preach, teach, assemble, organize, and to engage society and its issues publicly, both as individuals and joined together as communities of faith,” the archbishop said. “In contrast, freedom of worship is a much smaller and more restrictive idea.”
And so the space for religion grows smaller.
In Slovakia, Archbishop Chaput knew he was speaking to a people and culture that had lived, suffered and persevered under the grip of atheist totalitarianism, from the Nazis to the Communists. He lamented that Americans lacked such a historical memory of what statist atheism truly means. In other words, the specter of secularism is not the same dark memory as it is for many in Eastern Europe.
And secularism itself has adapted. Modern secularism is different, more benign, compared with that of the past, but the result is ultimately the same, warned Archbishop Chaput:
Today’s secularizers have learned from the past. They are more adroit in their bigotry; more elegant in their public relations; more intelligent in their work to exclude the Church and individual believers from influencing the moral life of society. Over the next several decades, Christianity will become a faith that can speak in the public square less and less freely. A society where faith is prevented from vigorous public expression is a society that has fashioned the state into an idol. And when the state becomes an idol, men and women become the sacrificial offering.
So what will it take, according to Archbishop Chaput, to prevent relativism – the new religion and public philosophy of the West – from uprooting the Christian heritage that has guided our culture until this point?
In the face of government’s pushing of secularism, in one way or another, the archbishop argues, we must not go along with “Caesar,” but instead become a:
… believing community of resistance. We need to call things by their true names. We need to fight the evils we see. And most importantly, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that by going along with the voices of secularism and de-Christianization we can somehow mitigate or change things. Only the Truth can set men free.
Archbishop Chaput’s call for a “reawakening” of the Church, both in our personal and public lives, is needed now more than ever. The West depends upon our Christian witness to the truth. There may be political solutions and safeguards for our religious freedoms, but for religion to remain truly vital in public life, it requires our own active example and vigilance.
-- Paul Ciarcia