In defence of secularism

The visit of Benedict XVI has not only highlighted the role of religion in British society, but also displayed how a secular society is far healthier in terms of debating controversial issues, argues Michele Monni.
Michele Monni
1 October 2010

The Pope’s recent visit to Britain has unveiled what the Catholic Church sees as its main threat nowadays and in the foreseeable future. It is neither the exponential growth of Islamic worshippers in Western societies due to immigration, nor the church’s continuous loss of (active) members, nor the lack of ‘Christian values’ in European and American society that threatens its status. Rather something more terrifying and frightening lies at the core of Benedict’s concerns: the rise of secularism.

Secularism in this case does not refer to the delimitation of church and state, which is supposed to be intrinsic to Christian culture as well as political society since the Reformation (although in countries like Italy the interference of the Church in public debate far exceeds a moral guideline), but the eradication of one of the principal roots (in the Pope’s view) of Western civilisation through the deliberate banishment of religion to the private sphere.

In asserting his position the Pope did not hesitate, in his first speech on British soil, to compare atheism produced by secular societies to Nazi ideology, referring to the latest threat as “the more aggressive forms of secularism" which "no longer value or even tolerate … the traditional values and cultural expressions of Christianity". This remark obviously provoked anger and disbelief amongst humanists and supporters of secularism. It is a terrible slander against those who do not believe in God. This is particularly surreal if, as some commentators have argued, it is coming from a man whose organisation promotes its narrow and exclusive form of morality internationally, thereby undermining the human rights of women, children, gay people and many others.

Speaking of Nazi-fascist issues, it would be useful to remind the Pope and his acolytes of the position that the Church as such and in particular his predecessor Pope Pius XII (at that time filling the post of Cardinal Secretary of the Vatican State) took towards the Manifesto of Race introduced by Benito Mussolini in 1938 which intended to eradicate Jewish communities from the Italian soil - a position still criticised today not only by senior historians and ‘evil atheists’ but also the more progressive members of his own Vatican. Moreover, it is worth remembering the Reichskonkordat, the concordat established between the Holy See and Germany in 1933 that guaranteed the rights of the Catholic Church in Germany, at that time already ruled by Hitler. The treaty not only allowed the Church to collect church taxes, but also to teach Catholic religion in schools. Furthermore, teachers of Catholicism could only be employed with the approval of the bishop. One might also recall some of Pius XII’ controversial statements when referring to Jews as people "whose lips curse Christ and whose hearts reject him even today” or when accounting for the gap between Christians and Jews at the theological level by stating: "Jerusalem has responded to His call and to His grace with the same rigid blindness and stubborn ingratitude that has led it along the path of guilt to the murder of God".

These are just a few examples to suggest that the Church itself may be biased by its own moral misconduct in recent history. It shows how the Church (not in its totality) managed to ‘get along’ with those same Nazi-fascists that the Pope claims where the inspiration for today’s atheism and aggressive secularism.

Secularism, by definition, is the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and the right to freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people within any state. The state must remain impartial on matters of faith, without actively dismissing or criticising religious belief. The principles and ethics that secular societies encapsulate have made it possible to unveil not only the infamous child abuse scandals, but many attempts by religious authorities (not only Christian) to take advantage of their position, masquerading through dogmas and divine-given moral supremacy the real and predictable end goal of any self-referential institution - to maintain and possibly enhance its power. Different from religious ethics, secular ethics are based exclusively on human faculties such as logic, reason or moral intuition, and not derived from supposed supernatural revelation or privileged guidance. Secular ethics can easily be understood by any human being because they are focused on human beings and therefore can be freely embraced by anyone, believer or not. The appeal of religious ethics just to those who believe in a particular god cannot be assumed as a guiding rationale for an entire society. It is thanks to secular societies that humanity has advanced in terms of democracy, human rights, social fairness, and not due to religion which has always promoted a hierarchy-based society where it is unquestioned authority that ‘shows the way and sets the rules’.

The Catholic Church is experiencing the worst crisis in its history and feels threatened for one simple reason: it refuses to renew itself in tune with democratic practise and values in the twenty-first century. Throughout the centuries the Church has gone through numerous periods of adjustment and change which have allowed it not only to survive but also to maintain its incredible influence on sovereign states and their political agendas, especially with regards to moral or ‘lifestyle’ issues.

Since the Council of Nicaea, instructed by emperor Constantine in 325 AD – commonly regarded as the first Ecumenical council of the Christian Church – there have been many significant turning points in this history: the Middle Ages’ incorporation of various monastic orders such as the Franciscan, Carmelite, Dominican and Benedictine; the Europe-wide Renaissance and Reformation; the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent (1545–1563); the Enlightenment and the French Revolution; the first social encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII in 1891; the Second Vatican Council in 1962 - to name but a few. But the Church has always been able, even through the fiercest periods of radical and traumatic change, to maintain its ‘grip’ on western societies and keep its claim to the high ground of ‘moral exclusivity’ intact.

After the recent history of scandals and affairs, however, believers and non-believers alike have had to recalibrate their opinions regarding the role, the authority and the credibility of the Vatican. As icing on the cake last week, a money-laundering investigation was launched after the financial intelligence office at the Bank of Italy noticed two IOR (Institute of Religious Works) operations which might have violated laws introduced by the Italian central bank and put in place in 2007. These were aimed at monitoring terrorism-related money-laundering. The authorities looked into €23 million worth of unregistered transactions, leading to an official investigation of the Institute’s president, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi and chief executive, Paolo Cipriani. It is worth noting that the IOR is not a bank in the normal definition of the term. It is an institute that administers the assets of Catholic institutions which, since it is located within the territory of Vatican City State is beyond the jurisdiction and surveillance enjoyed by other national banks.

Against this background it seems unanswerable to me that when Pope Benedict refers to the threat of secularism in western society, he is not pointing the finger at a large part of civil society that thinks that religion (any) and its moral guidance should be kept to a personal level. He is rather unwittingly referring to the infiltration of the Catholic Church by what in his clerical mind secularism represents: lack of moral values, contempt for human life and pursuit of personal pleasure. How would it otherwise be possible to explain the exponential escalation of child sex abuse claims across Europe and the entire globe, and the shadowy attempts by the highest ranking clergymen, including the Pope himself to cover this up?

There is no doubt that most of Britain’s five million Catholics do not share all of Benedict’s beliefs and there is absolutely no doubt that most of them are appalled by the church’s record on child abuse. Religious institutions like the Catholic Church are by definition exclusive and divisive forces within a modern society. They try to promote a range of moral values and precepts no society could adopt in its entirety, especially societies that are moving towards an acceptance of their multicultural and multifaith communities. Their own rules and forms of authority are not up for democratic debate within these religious institutions. Dogmatic tenets remain unquestioned in order to protect the very existence of the institution itself. The question is why millions of people in Britain and in the world still defend and justify such an institution?

By contrast, in a secular, heterogenic society exactly the opposite happens. Whoever questions or addresses the authority must be included, maybe labelled and even purposefully marginalised as a borderline element, but nonetheless integrated within a larger society. It is for this reason that those who wish to engage in public debates on morality or ethics will find a far healthier environment in secular societies than in religious ones. Secularism is the basis for a rich public discourse that is more comprehensively shared in and understood.

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