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A Healthy Secularity Is Possible: A Response to Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley

Catholic citizens can hope for a society where the faith is more broadly shared, but we cannot escape the responsibility of political deliberation about our society as it is—riddled with its pluralism and confusion—not as we would have it be. A healthily secular society can acknowledge the freedom of the Church and a positive role for the Church in society, understanding that the state is rightly focused on natural norms and goods, not supernatural ones.

My thanks to Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley for their response to my review of It Is Right and Just. I am glad to note with them that we agree on many things, from the need for living out our faith publicly to the importance of religious liberty—robustly understood—for all members of society.

My intent in my review was not to paint a picture of confessionally Catholic cultures and states as “dark, anti-social, and intellectually oppressive” per se, but to acknowledge the fact that they have been all of these things at times; I also acknowledged that confessionally Catholic societies can be beautiful as well. My main point was that explicitly acknowledging Christ’s kingship in law or passing civil laws to support the tenets of the Catholic faith may have good effects, but ultimately, they do not guard a society against injustice or political or spiritual corruption.

That said, let me focus more on what I perceive to be our most salient disagreements: the nature of secularism and liberal institutions of government and society. In my review, I noted that Hahn and McGinley give examples of how “contemporary secular liberalism is not a neutral ground for people of good will, but a religion that competes with Christianity.” While we agree that this is the case at present for contemporary secular, progressive liberalism, we disagree about whether secular states are inherently idolatrous and unjust.

Can the State Be Neutral toward Supernatural Claims?

Hahn, McGinley, and I agree that all states—even ostensibly neutral or secular ones—will orient their citizens toward particular moral norms and common goods, and we are not alone in this assessment. In Natural Law Liberalism, the Catholic political philosopher Christopher Wolfe characterizes the liberalism of Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls ascendant in our society as anti-perfectionist, noting that “it denies that political life should aim to perfect its citizens, according to some standard of human excellence.” Wolfe notes that this anti-perfectionism is a new development in liberalism, one that marks Rawls and Dworkin’s theories as a departure from their predecessors’. But, he adds, even many anti-perfectionist liberals recognize “that ultimately liberalism must be understood, and defended, as contributing to moral improvement in important ways.”

If this is the case, the question then becomes whether states must orient their citizens toward supernatural or transcendent norms and goods as well as natural ones. To use Scott Hahn’s example, can a state have a view of natural marriage that remains genuinely neutral on the sacramentality of marriage?

Hahn and McGinley say no. The idea that the state concern itself with natural norms, goods, and ends while remaining neutral about supernatural ones is simply “the bounds of what liberalism conceives to be the proper domain of politics.” They conclude that secular states are not only wrong, but engaged in “a kind of deceit, a sleight of hand.” “The very idea of a secular sphere, of a public space free from concern about the final good of mankind,” Hahn concludes, “is incoherent and impossible.”

 

A Catholic Vision of Secularity

Many Catholic bishops and lay thinkers disagree with this conclusion, including Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In an address to the bishops of Besançon, France in 2004, John Paul II distinguished between a properly understood secularity and a secularism that would erase the public proclamation of the Church and Catholics’ efforts to live their faith in the public square.

In a letter to the bishops of France in 2005, the pope gave France’s law of the separation of Church and State in 1905 as an example of unhealthy secularism. But, he continued,

Correctly understood, the principle of laïcité (secularity), to which your country is deeply attached, is also part of the social teaching of the Church. It recalls the need for a clear division of powers . . . that echoes Christ’s invitation to his disciples: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20: 25). For its part, just as the non-denominational status of the State implies the civil Authority’s abstention from interference in the life of the Church and of the various religions, in the spiritual realm it enables all society’s members to work together at the service of all and of the national community.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI, too, spoke of a “healthy secularity (laicità)” in an address to Italian Catholic jurists. Like John Paul II, Benedict notes that secularity is frequently understood as the total separation of Church and state, such that religion is not allowed to step outside private consciences and into public life. He continues:

It is therefore the task of all believers, particularly believers in Christ, to help formulate a concept of secularity which, on the one hand, acknowledges the place that is due to God and his moral law, to Christ and to his Church in human life, both individual and social; and on the other, affirms and respects the “rightful autonomy of earthly affairs,” if by this phrase, as the Second Vatican Council reaffirms, is meant man’s “gradual discovery, exploitation and ordering of the laws and values of matter and society.” . . .

This conciliar assertion [from Gaudium et Spes] constitutes the doctrinal basis for that “healthy secularity” which involves the effective autonomy of earthly realities, not indeed from the moral order but from the ecclesiastical sphere. Thus, the Church cannot point out the preferred political and social order; it is the people who must freely decide on the best and most suitable ways to organize political life. Any direct intervention from the Church in this area would be undue interference. Moreover, “healthy secularism” implies that the State does not consider religion merely as an individual sentiment that may be confined to the private sphere alone.

In Benedict’s understanding, a healthily secular society is one that can acknowledge the freedom of the Church and a positive role for the Church in society, and at the same time understand that the state is focused on natural norms and goods instead of supernatural ones. Such a society would acknowledge that we should be concerned about the final end of mankind, but that the state need not give an explicit definition of that end. To return to Hahn’s example, such a society would have a right understanding of natural marriage and would allow the Church to live out her teachings on marriage, but it need not recognize sacramental marriage in law.

The Polish theologian Wiesław Łuzynski explains that in Benedict’s mind, a political community is founded on social consensus about fundamental values. These values precede the state, which must therefore turn to other sources for the moral foundations of its order. The source par excellence is the Church, whose faith has deeply shaped our understanding of democracy, law, and human rights. The Church’s role in society is therefore to guard and promote those values that form the social consensus undergirding the state—to complement and support the properly temporal governance of the state without supplanting it or directing it to supernatural goods and ends.

I agree with Popes John Paul II and Benedict that a healthy secularity is possible. A healthy secular regime would focus on principles of the earthly common good, which is its proper concern, especially in a pluralistic society in which there is disagreement among citizens about the nature of the supernatural common good and the final human end. Thus, to return to Hahn and McGinley’s examples, a healthy secular regime recognizes supply and demand because it is concerned with how to order markets toward the common good of citizens. It welcomes the counsel of Catholics who seek to bring the market more into accord with a Catholic understanding of justice. But it does not concern itself with the sacraments because it recognizes that, while they are deeper realities than the market, they lie outside its competence.

That said, a healthily secular state should seek to promote religion within its competence. This includes granting churches non-profit status and ministerial exemptions, adding religious holidays to the national calendar, and calling for national days of thanksgiving and prayer. As Gerard Bradley has noted, “The constitutional settlement that endured for almost two centuries until it was abandoned by elites (including the Supreme Court) and uprooted in the 1960s was basically this: public authority could and should promote religion and partner with religious institutions for projects that are conducive to the common good, without coercion and without partiality toward any particular faith or sect.”

 

Politics Must Contend with Society As It Is

In conclusion, let me return to my initial assessment of It Is Right and Just, in which I said the book succeeded as an exhortation to live out the faith, but failed as a guide to Catholic politics. In their response, Hahn and McGinley clarify that their book is “not really one of strategy, at least in the short term,” but seeks to draw out the implications of the ecclesial reality of human nature for our society. They clarify that drawing up political blueprints is not the point of their project, which is still in the “the pre-conceptual stage.”

There is, of course, a place for thinking about human nature and society outside the limits of what is practicable right now. But such thinking can never absolve us of the responsibility of thinking about politics as we find it in our own time and place. In his lecture “Political Visions and Political Praxis,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that because human nature is constant, it is not possible for a perfect, definitive society to exist as the object of our political hope:

A definitively ideal society presupposes the end of freedom. But since man always remains free and begins anew in every generation, we have to struggle in each new situation to establish the right societal form. This is why the realm of politics is concerned with the present, not with the future.

Catholic citizens can of course hope for a society where the faith is more broadly shared, and where that could be prudently reflected in political institutions. But Catholic citizens cannot escape the responsibility of political deliberation about our society as it is—riddled with its pluralism and confusion—not as we would have it be. If I read them correctly, Hahn and McGinley are claiming that It Is Right and Just is not intended to be a guide for Catholic politics in our current moment. This, along with the disagreements I have outlined, confirms my prior conclusion that they offer us a bracing call to arms without a sound plan for battle.

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