The word secularism is taken from the Latin word "saecularis" meaning worldly or earthly, as opposed to such terms as religious or supernatural. In general, it is a system of thought that limits itself to human existence here and now in exclusion of manís relation to God here and hereafter. In short, it is the practical exclusion of God from human thinking and living.
We can speak of the secularism of those who deny the existence of God, as do the adherents of secular humanism, who look upon religion and any divine influence on the world and man as pure superstition; and there are not a few of these in positions of influence in our national life.
We can also speak of practical secularism as the way of life of those who, while not denying the existence of God or His influence on the world, in practice live their lives without recognizing that this is Godís world. Such people may speak of God, may even go to church, but they fail to bring an awareness of their responsibility to God into daily living. They believe in a hereafter, but live with little thought of it in their daily decisions. This practical exclusion of God from daily living has done more than anything else to undermine our Christian heritage, which integrates the various aspects of human life, and renders to God the things that are Godís.
Secularism blinds the individual as to his responsibility to God. All the rights and freedoms of man derive originally from the fact that he is a human person, created by God after His own likeness and image, and "endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights." Only from an awareness of himself as Godís creature made to His image, and of his responsibility to God, does there grow in man a sense of sin. As one grows insensitive to Godís image in every man, there is eroded in him the basic ground for mutual respect; and without a sense of accountability to God for his thoughts and actions, he lacks the foundation for stable moral virtues.
Since secularism does away with accountability to God, it leaves man with no sense of personal guilt before God. His only concern is man-made laws, and with the inclination to evil and selfishness of fallen human nature, self-interest will be his main incentive in observing them. Social justice becomes merely a political matter, as a consequence of which we have become a nation with much injustice in religious and racial matters, in education, in housing, in labor, etc. In public life expediency and propriety become norms of human behavior.
Commenting on the need of a sense of responsibility to God in his Apostolic Exhortation "Reconciliation and Penance" in 1984, Pope John Paul II declared:
In contrast with all this, the true Christian sees himself not only as a creature of God, but a child of God, with holiness as his vocation and with concern about the welfare of his soul. "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?" (Mk. 8:36)
While it is true that there has been a growth in Church affiliation, this has been offset by a weakening of the faith of many because of the growing influence of secularism, with a consequent lessening of the impact of Christian values in our national life. The moral regeneration which is necessary for the building of a better world, must begin by bringing the individual back to a vivid recognition of his responsibility to his Creator.
Secularism has robbed the family of its binding force with tragic consequences. Even pagan nations and peoples saw something sacred in marriage and the family. The Scriptures speak of it so sublimely that it is likened to the union between Christ and His Church. Yet secularism has robbed it of its sacred character by removing from it any responsibility to God. Marriage is considered more and more a purely civil contract, not a spiritual bond between two persons under God. In place of the will of God and the good of society, secularism lets the nature and permanence of marriage rest on the will of husband and wife and man-made laws.
Our secularized society has legalized practices which violate the laws of nature and the laws of God, robbing human procreation of its sublime dignity. Self-sacrifice gives way to self-indulgence. The pursuit of pleasure replaces the pursuit of holiness.
In taking God out of family life, marriage is as a house built on sand with no solid foundation. When the storms of strife come, given the in-born weakness of our fallen nature which needs to be fortified by divine grace, the house collapses, as we see in the ever-growing number of divorces.
Our daily news media are constantly bringing our attention to the growing problem of juvenile delinquency. Yet our secularized society seems unaware that it is reaping the fruits of its own decisions. In taking God out of family life it has weakened and undermined the most basic and fundamental educational institution for the molding of character, focusing attention only on worldly goals. There is the constant cry that more money is needed for expanded educational and recreational facilities, for more law enforcement personnel to cope with the growing crime rate, etc.; but no thought is given to healing the malady caused by removing God and His teaching from daily life. As the American bishops in the pastoral letter we are reviewing declared: "In vain shall we spend public moneys in vast amounts for educational and recreational purposes, if we do not give more thought to the divinely ordained stability of the family and the sanctity of the home."
It was the Creator who established the human family and gave it its basic constitution and when that basic structure is tampered with the fabric of society is gravely affected. With responsibility to God removed from the concern of parents, artificial family planning as a means of contraception has blurred the nature and purpose of sex, and the permanence of marriage intended by God is rejected.
It is especially in the field of education that secularism has had the greatest effect in dechristianizing our society. A century and a half ago our government - in view of the different religious beliefs of students attending public schools - adopted a policy of banning formal teaching of religion from the curriculum of those schools. Yet the original intent of that policy did not intend to minimize the importance of religion in the training of youth. As time went on, however, secularists have managed to exclude God almost completely from public education.
Experience has proved that omission is as effective as a formal statement. When something is omitted from public education, the implication is that it is not essential to the end or purpose of education. What is implied is: either God has no place in education, or it is strictly a matter of private concern. In either case, the omission of any reference to God gives rise to a tendency to give religion a low priority in private life, or worse, to engender young people with no sense of their responsibility to God.
In this it breaks with the historic tradition of our founding fathers. Parents who are willing to sacrifice to maintain schools where children are trained in their religious beliefs along with their basic education, are acting in keeping with the spirit of the founders of our country. As the first president of our country declared in his farewell address:
When an educational institution strives to teach moral values divorced from religion, they are forced to base them solely on social convention. The result is that morality becomes simply a matter of public opinion or majority vote, which is precisely the situation we have today - deciding by the legislature, or by the courts, or by public ballot such matters as contraception, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, etc. With the legalizing of the deliberate killing of the unborn, our nation which prides itself on it scientific and technological progress has - in its separation of morality from religion - attained a barbarous level undreamed of a half century ago.
Those who wish to make secularized public education obligatory for all criticize non-public education as divisive. But all differences are not divisive, just as our different political parties are not divisive in a detrimental way, but are rather an expression of our fundamental freedom guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. The differences that are harmful are those which divide people in such matters as good citizenship, patriotism, concern for the common good, etc. But private schools in which religion is rightly taught stress the importance of patriotism and loyalty to civic duties based on love of God, of neighbor and country. Such education is unifying, not divisive.
In recent years the evidence of the failure of purely secular education in many respects has not only cause many to prefer private schools in which religion is taught, but has given rise to home-schooling where the over-all curriculum is blended with the teaching of religion in such a way that, not only are children taught the basics of education, but are taught "to render to Caesar the things that are Caesarís, and to God the things that are Godís."Ē (Mt. 22:21)
Pope John Paul II, speaking on the vocation of the laity in the Church in 1989, spoke of the ever-growing religious indifference among many of the baptized as evidence of the inroads of secularism. This "phenomenon of dechristianization," he said, strikes long-standing Christian people, and continually calls for evangelization."
The Holy Father is speaking here, not of the evangelization of non-Christians, but of the re-evangelization of Christians, whose faith has been weakened, and whose love has been cooled. He was more explicit of this need in his encyclical "Veritatis Splendor:"
This "authentic reality of the Christian faith" is the fire that Christ came to enkindle in the hearts of men. "I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish that it were already enkindled." (Lk. 12:49) That fire was ignited and burned brightly in the minds and hearts of the apostles, and that is why they were so instrumental in the spread of the faith. A fire gives forth both light and heat, and both are needed for evangelization. Both are needed for a "living faith," one that enlightens the mind with the TRUTH handed down by the Church, and proclaimed by the successor of Peter; and inflames the heart with the LOVE that urges one to make the sacrifices required to love God above all things, and to love oneís neighbor as oneself.
While our Blessed Lord became incarnate "to cast fire upon the earth," notice that He did not deeply touch the hearts of his followers until He had given his life for them. That fire was ignited on Calvary. Only after that did the Holy Spirit come with those enlightening and strengthening graces, those purifying and healing graces, that transformed the apostles into the instruments of grace they became.
For us too, we will not deeply influence the lives of others until we have borne the cross and undergone trials with patience in union with our divine Savior. Pope John Paul II reminded the Catholic laity of this in San Francisco in 1987:
Yet the de-christianization of our society is so widespread and deeply rooted, that only special help from heaven can turn this trend around. However, divine providence requires that we do what we can. Although it is grace that turns hearts back to God, the Lord wants us to use the human means at our disposal. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that it would be tempting God if we omit to do what we can and expect everything to be done by Him. (II II,53,1, ad 1)
As to the disregard for God in our society, if every follower of Christ truly lived his or her faith, a veritable deluge of graces from heaven would flood this world. Only when the fire that Christ came to enkindle has been ignited in the minds and hearts of enough Christians, will the tide of secularism begin to be reversed.
Our Blessed Lord so yearns for the return of those who have gone astray, that He will mercifully pardon them, if only there is a sincere desire to return and a humble acknowledgment of guilt, and if sufficient prayers and sacrifices are offered to make up for what is wanting on the part of other members of the Mystical Body. So widespread is the crisis of faith that there is needed as never before on a world-wide scale sincere apostles (among the laity, religious and clergy) who will become the leaven, the salt, and the light of the world. Pray that God will raise up leaders in whose hearts that enlightening and strengthening fire burns brightly, to lead and inspire others to follow.
In those petitions do not fail to call on Mary, the Mother of God and of us all, who, in her own hidden way, far excelled all other humans in the one goal that counts - that of perfect love of God and neighbor. In her the fire of love and light burned immeasurably more brightly than in all others. In her was her Sonís wish most perfectly fulfilled. "I have come to cast fire upon the heart, and how I wish that it were already enkindled."
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