There have been many threats to the Church over the course of its history, both from within (e.g.; the various heresies that have beset it and also provided an opportunity to refine its doctrinal definitions) and without (e.g.; the rampaging armies of Islam that conquered much of eastern Christendom in successive centuries). However, heresy and military conquest, unwelcome as they are, have the singular benefit of being highly noticeable – it is hard not to recognise when someone is flagrantly misrepresenting an article of the faith, or when a foreign culture is trying to impose its values on your civilisation with the strong arm and the sword.
In our age though, the major threat to the Catholic faith, I would argue, is secularism, or more precisely its spirit, which is that much more dangerous because of its unassuming nature. Its corrosive power acts by way of a gradual seeping of its principles into the cultural consciousness, so that all of us have at least some of its assumptions as part of our intellectual make-up. It is this insidiousness of the secular project that has allowed the Church, to a rather worrying degree in some areas, to uncritically allow in various movements and ways of thinking that question, if not directly undermine many tenets of the Faith. Amongst many elements of secularism, I have isolated seven assumptions that undergird it and act as its basic architectural principles. The first three I believe to be the most fundamental, as they are most evidently seared into the minds of all who live in this age. The first of these I believe to be the most deeply ingrained.
The fountainhead of secular thinking, materialism, or naturalism, the idea that only the material exists and there can a priori be no such thing as a spiritual realm, is endemic in our modern, Western, post-Enlightenment culture. One meets it in discussions about the existence of God, wherein after long debate it is revealed that your counterpart almost literally cannot imagine God to be something other than one more thing in the material world, or in attitudes expressed regarding whether or not to go ahead with a morally dubious, but enjoyable act (e.g.; ‘You only live once’ or ‘Eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow we die’). It is an utterly basic assumption experienced to some degree by everyone, even believers, who have to reassure themselves that the spiritual realm, already believed to be real for good reasons, is definitely there, and have to fight against the nagging materialist pressures exerted by the spirit of the age. Materialism is simply part of the air we breathe, and all the other ‘isms’ flow from it in some way.
Although this is verging on being a made-up word, I did a bit of research and found it to have some precedent! By anti-dolorism I mean the avoidance of pain or suffering. This, you may well argue, is surely a good and sensible thing to do, and up to a point I would agree with you. However, seen in the light of a materialist worldview, where there is no transcendent horizon, and all that happens in this world is all that matters, prevention of suffering becomes a paramount, and can be used as an emotional leverage to justify unethical actions. Euthanasia is of course the prime example of this, as are embryonic stem-cell research and abortion. Objective (and therefore extra-mundane) moral injunctions are routinely bypassed in our secular culture, and the justification is more often than not that it will in some way end or decrease suffering, so (according to the secularist) that makes it okay. This attitude has much resonance with Utilitarianism, which I shall mention later.
This is the idea that it is justifiable to make far-reaching changes to society, sometimes at the deepest level, in the name of ‘progress’ towards some indefinable goal. This goal, though never clearly stated, is unconsciously assumed to be a state where human beings are freed from all pain and suffering, and will exist in some kind of godless paradise where everyone enjoys unlimited personal liberty and happiness. How this is to be achieved, what ‘happiness’ actually means for one and all of humankind, and how various different (sometimes antithetical) progressivisms are to be reconciled, is also never made clear, but this assumption is also fundamental to all modern secular thought, and is used to justify changes that seem to be irreparably changing our culture at all levels. The lack of any real secular teleology is a moot point, as this, like all the seven ‘isms’ outlined here, are unquestioned and unexamined assumptions.
The three doctrines above, I have argued, are most fundamental to the secular project, and indeed to some extent inform one another as well. They are basic in the sense that they form part of the rivets and grooves of our minds, and often form unexamined steps in our thought processes – we have to constantly check ourselves against their effects on our thinking. The following four can be seen to be implicated by the above, and are almost consequences of them, rather than defined doctrines in themselves. The first of them however, Relativism, follows most clearly, and, I would argue, is the ‘form’ of the others.
This, the idea that there is no objective truth in morals or reason, or anything else for that matter, is so apparent in our age, that you may wonder why it hasn’t been placed with the former three above. It is, I would say, similar to lust in the Seven Deadly Sins, insofar as it is the most easily recognisable of the bunch, but also, in some respects, the most easily exposed and so most easy to address. This is not to say that it is not harmful, on the contrary, I see it in operation every day at every level of society, undermining the attempt to communicate truth to people and acting as implicit justification for all sorts of damaging behaviour. However, it does not, to me, seem to go quite as unquestioned, and is, at least in theory, something people can recognise as self-contradictory, at least in theory (though I have encountered many who claim there is ‘no such thing’ as objective truth one minute, and then go on to shout ‘but that’s just plain wrong’ the next!)
If it is agreed that what’s true, or right, for me, may not be true or right for you, then it is a short step to the assertion of naked autonomy as a prime human right. Indeed, in secular discussions these days, one is hard pushed to find anything asserted as capital-T true, except the right of the individual to do whatsoever they may please. The (one would think) obvious fact that this is a recipe for chaos does not seem to pose much of a problem for the secular project, for, it seems to me, two reasons – firstly, like all the other ‘isms’ it is mostly unquestioned, and secondly, to admit the existence of something (or Someone) that might limit this individual freedom, would ruin each individual’s party. Everyone has something he or she doesn’t want to give up.
As mentioned above, this is a consequence of their being no guiding principle for ethics other than the avoidance of pain, and what is considered conducive to ‘progress’. Each moral decision one makes is decided not according to an objective moral reality, but what is for the ‘greater good’ or in other words, what makes most people happy. Of course, what makes the greater number of people in a society may well make a small number miserable (c.f.; slavery, the Final Solution), but without adherence to an objective morality, and riding on the coattails of a dwindling selection of precepts remaining from Christian culture, this is really the best that secularism has to offer. Like the other doctrines considered here, Utilitarianism is not a coherent philosophy, but it forms the warp and woof of most moral decision making in our culture. One could also include Consequentialism and Situation Ethics in this category, in the sense that they are guided by no real objective directive or ultimate goal.
Tolerance – so often invoked as the shining cornerstone of the secular project, it is in reality a by-word for indifference, fed by a relativist, individualist, utilitarian mindset. Secularists pride themselves on the tolerance of secular society, and it is indeed a good sell, as (if one tactfully overlooks the blood soaked horrors of the twentieth century, all conducted as part of enforced secular projects) much ideological evil has been done in the past. However, tolerance implies having an actual point of view, which disagrees with someone else’s point of view, so that one may tolerate that opposing opinion. Secular society though, is as I have mentioned, unconsciously but deeply relativist, and in principle believes in nothing, except itself. So the real up-shot of this is that everything is tolerated (or rather nothing matters, as noone is really right or wrong) except the person who happens to have a real opinion, and who believes in objective truth. This leads then to a kind of soft despotism wherein those who continue to hold to an objective moral code or belief-system are gradually marginalised and their voices quietly removed from public debate. In fact, not very tolerant (given the real meaning of the word) at all, one might say.
I have briefly summarised above what I consider to be the defining and guiding principles of secularism, notable for their insidiousness and their prevalence in the thought-habits of…well, all of us, to some extent. I believe that secularism is a great threat to the Church today, and has already infected it at most of its levels (incidentally if you want to see what a religious society fully corroded by secularism looks like, take a glance at the Church of England, or even worse the Scottish and American Episcopal churches). But, the good news is that there is a truth, whether our culture recognises it or not, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The Catholic Church has received, and preserves, the teaching that man is not just an accidental conglomeration of atoms, but a composite of body and soul made in the image of God, and infinitely valuable in His sight; also that man lives with a transcendent horizon before him, an ultimate goal to judge all things by and work towards, so that he can truly know things to be ‘progressive’ when they are in line with the will of God, and that pain and suffering, whilst hard to bear, are no excuse for breaking the moral law – indeed that ‘this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison’ (2 Corinthians 4:17).
The Church also knows human beings are bound to one another; that no man is an island, and that we all must judge with prudence what is best for all, not just for us – this is supremely the case within the Church itself, where the relation of one baptised person to another, mediated by the Holy Spirit, is closer than to our own blood relatives. Finally, tolerance, and kindness, are indeed good things, but the Church knows that love is greater still, and that if we really love our neighbour, we will want to care for them and love them in the light of Truth, and not act as if we were indifferent to it – we must do all we can to bring them to it, for the one who is the Truth is also the Way, and the Life.