On the presumed irreversibility of secularisation.

secularismOsservatorio Internazionale Cardinale Van Thuan
Newsletter n.454 del 2013-02-04

S.E. Mons. Giampaolo Crepaldi
Archbishop of Trieste

In concluding his observations about secularisation in the western world the philosopher Karl Löwith wrote: “But if people think each immature spirit was left to its own decisions in the most important things, it is astounding that morality did not degenerate completely”. What comes to the forefront here is that the emancipation of the temporal from the spiritual, the replacement of Christian salvation with progress and religion with science do not end up producing a true autonomy capable of preserving its own level, but bring about a phenomenon of “decadence”. In fact, Löwith considers it miraculous that it proved possible to retain an albeit weak form of morality after this separation.

Understood as the mutual distinction of the temporal sphere and the spiritual one, laicity is an historical result of Christianity. This distinction, however, did not mean the separation and absolute autonomy of the temporal sphere with respect to the spiritual one, but transpired within the Christian civilization, within a religious horizon. Christian rulers acted independently, availing themselves of political prudence, that is to say exercising their freedom of decision within a system of truths whose ultimate guarantor was the Church, which preserved and protected in Catholic dogmas the heritage of natural law as well.

As Karl Löwith argues, however, beginning with modernity was an increasingly demanding secularisation that made the temporal level “capax sui”, autonomous in the absolute sense, self-sufficient and able to bestow sense and meaning on itself. Before that time this sense and meaning had been ‘borrowed’ from Christian dogmas through a secularising interpretation of them, but then this sense-creation was increasingly claimed as proper to the temporal realm, and this would seem to have happened especially with Comte and positivism. Positivism is the definitive recognition of the fact that all we can know are relations, and hence it is the foundation of relativism.

Published in 1968 was “On the Theology of the World”, a book by Johann Baptist Metz, a German theologian and a disciple of Karl Rahner. He had written an earlier book entitled “Christian Anthropocentricity” in which he argued that secularisation had been caused by Christianity and was therefore a Christian construct to be accepted and lived as the outcome of Christianity and not contrasted as something contrary to the Christian faith. In this manner the process of secularisation was interpreted as irreversible. In the book published in 1968 Metz sustained that by now, in the wake of secularisation, the world had become completely worldly: “This is the world where God is not encountered” [1]

As he sees it: “For a long time – almost from the beginning of the latest Council – the Church has followed this process with nothing but resentment, has considered it almost exclusively as a sort of ruination and a false form of emancipation, and only so very slowly has built up the courage to let the world become worldly in this sense, and therefore to consider this process not only as a datum contrary to Christianity’s historical intentions, but rather as a datum determined also by the most profound historical thrusts of this Christianity and its message” [2].

In my opinion the Christian faith cannot consider positivism as consequent to Christianity, and it is incorrect to interpret secularisation only in its positivist version. The irreversibility of secularisation is a positivist dogma stemming from an ideological reading of history, from the Comtian reading of the law of the three stages, whereby humanity would have evolved from the religious stage to the metaphysical stage to the positivist stage in an irreversible manner.

What are the ultimate reasons why positivist secularisation cannot be looked upon as a consequence of Christianity or considered irreversible?

The first reason is that positivism cannot help but project itself as a new religion: secularisation becomes such when it does not limit itself to being the immanent reformulation of Catholic dogmas, but detaches itself completely from Christian tradition and projects itself as an absolute principle. For as long as Hegel, Marx, Proudhon, and before them Voltaire, Condorcet, and Turgot had limited themselves to ‘affecting the guise’ of Christianity by proposing a immanent and secularised version of it, the phases of secularisation could not claim proper autonomy in the true sense of the word, and therefore there was no true secularisation in the complete sense.

The process remained linked to Christianity and continued to be reversible. How could this umbilical cord with Christianity be severed except by proposing secularisation as an absolute principle? Hence its religious character. Religious not in the sense of still being in debt to the old religion, but religious in the sense of religiously expressing absolute anti-religiosity.

This secularisation is irreversible and is not the fruit of Christianity

[1] J. B. Metz, Sulla teologia del mondo, Queriniana, Brescia 1969, p. 144.

[2] Ivi, p. 141