An Axis of Secularism

New Ally Joins Europe and the UN

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By Carl Anderson

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, MAY 4, 2009 ( Several events in the past few months — and in particular the response of the media and governmental organizations to statements and actions by Pope Benedict — have made clear that the Pope and the Church face an increasingly hostile secularism.

The international attacks on the Pope, by governments and the media alike, most recently on the solution to the AIDS crisis in Africa, show an increasingly secular orthodoxy. This outlook places no value on Christian morality and is willing to ignore facts in its quest for a secular, valueless solution to any social problem.

Pope Benedict’s discussion of this phenomenon in the European context goes back many years. As Europe abandons its Christian roots, it increasingly creates a future where religion has no place in the public square. Some commentators have gone so far as to refer to European “Christianophobia.” After all, polling shows that a third or less of people living in Britain, Germany, Italy and France say that religion plays an important role in their lives.

Speaking to a group of European politicians in 2006, Benedict encouraged them to support the Christian heritage of the continent, and warned of the dangers to democracy of excluding Europe’s Christian tradition from a public role.

He said that “support for the Christian heritage” could help to “defeat a culture that is now fairly widespread in Europe, which relegates to the private and subjective sphere the manifestation of one’s own religious convictions.” Citing “Evangelium Vitae,” he also warned that such a secularism “exclude[d] engagement with Europe’s religious tradition … thereby threatening democracy itself, whose strength depends on the values that it promotes.”

In contrast to Europe’s increasing hostility to the Church, Pope Benedict — even before his election — saw a more hopeful, less hostile secularism in America. Speaking in the United States just over a year ago, Benedict noted: “It strikes me as significant that here in America, unlike many places in Europe, the secular mentality has not been intrinsically opposed to religion. Within the context of the separation of Church and state, American society has always been marked by a fundamental respect for religion and its public role, and, if polls are to be believed, the American people are deeply religious.”

However, he didn’t see the American model as free from secular attack either, and he added a sobering sentence: “It is not enough to count on this traditional religiosity and go about business as usual, even as its foundations are being slowly undermined.”

In the past year, that last sentence has proven increasingly prescient.

While still not quite as strident as secularists in Europe, secular forces within the United States have become increasingly emboldened, seeking to marginalize the Church, and label its teaching on marriage and life as outdated at best and bigoted at worst. In at least one case, a state government actually considered (unsuccessfully) legally reorganizing the Catholic Church by stripping its bishops and priests of their control over dioceses and parishes.

In the media too, hostility has increased. Just before Easter, the American media was confronted with two polls from prominent polling institutes. One poll — commissioned by the Knights of Columbus — showed overwhelming appreciation of Easter by Americans. The other poll showed a modest decrease in the number of Americans who identified themselves as Christian. The secular media chose to give widespread coverage to the “decline of Christianity,” and far less to the high regard for Easter and remarkable number of Americans who planned to attend Church services.

We have also an apparently similar bias in attacks on the Pope’s — correct and empirically proven — statements on AIDS and condoms. Key officials at the United Nations, from several European countries, as well as the international media led by outlets in the United States and Britain were quick to assume that Benedict was wrong.

With an increasing political hostility in the United States to its Christian heritage, it now seems clear that Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church face an axis of secularism, made up of significant elements in the European Union, the United Nations, and, now, the United States as well. This latter addition is notable both because it is a recent addition and because the United States exerts a great deal of influence generally and in terms of its media.

We have also seen the effects. Cut off from its moral compass, which the Pope has referred to as “the pre-political moral foundation of a free state,” this axis has shown itself unwilling or unable to accept anything but its own values. In the name of a radical commitment to reason alone, we have witnessed a rush to judgment against the Pope, despite scientific evidence. A so-called commitment to reason — cut off from faith — has proven unreasonable in its hostility toward morality and religious faith.

Such a trend, as Benedict has pointed out, is disturbing for the future of democracy. And for a world that has already experimented with radical secularism in the form of Marxism and National Socialism, this trend is too familiar. Cut off from its moral compass, the world risks embracing a familiar dictatorship — in Benedict’s words — a “dictatorship of relativism.”

This “hubris of reason,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger once warned, “poses an even greater threat — it suffices here to think of the atom bomb, or man as a ‘product.'”

Our response will require close cooperation between bishops, priests and the laity — which Pope Benedict has proposed as the key to the success of the new evangelization. Nothing less will bring the Gospel effectively to these increasingly secular landscapes.

Following Pope Benedict’s lead, each of us must work to bring the message of Christ to our neighbors and our nations through our witness to the truth in public as well as private spheres. As has been the case every time that the Church has faced the challenges of a hostile environment, our Christian witness, our love of neighbor, is the most powerful witness we can provide to our ever more secular society.

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Carl Anderson is the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author.

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