VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI has made the dangers of secularism a major theme of his pontificate.
And it’s a battle both sides take seriously.
On the one hand, the pope warns that societies without the moorings of Christian values will be lost at sea, unaware of or indifferent to the truth that anchors humanity to justice, peace, respect and solidarity.
On the other side are groups and individuals that hold so tightly to the democratic tenet of church-state separation, they don’t want any voice tied to religion to be let loose onto the public square.
In many Western, especially European, nations, when a church leader speaks out on the ethical dimension of any issue, “immediately he is attacked as if he is interfering,” said an official at the Pontifical Council for Culture.
“Your democracy becomes very selective” and intolerant when a whole sector of the community – people of faith – are denied the freedom of speech in the public realm, said Father Theodore Mascarenhas, a member of the Society of the Missionaries of St. Francis Xavier.
The separation of church and state, which is a hallmark of a democracy, “has also gone onto the separation of God and life unfortunately,” in which religious beliefs and values are expected to be left not only out of the process of public decision-making, but out of people’s own personal lives, too, he said.
Father Mascarenhas, a professor and biblicist, told Catholic News Service that Europe, seen in its frequent debates on whether to allow women to wear veils or crucifixes on school walls, must be careful not to fall into a kind of “Talibanization.”
“The Taliban went and took off all the religious symbols of minorities in an effort to clean up,” while it imposed its own belief system on everyone, he said. Cleansing Europe of its cultural, religious symbols is “an expression of fundamentalism in a very subtle form,” too.
Meanwhile, in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, there is a genuine fear of religious groups or parties having political control and enacting repressive policies against minority groups.
One key topic, in fact, under discussion at the 2010 special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East was how to promote “positive secularism,” a form of separation of government and religion that still allows people’s faith to have a role in society without consecrating one religion as the religion of the state.
The church supports a form of church-state separation that ensures religions have a voice in society and that laws reflect moral values – including laws dealing with life and marriage.
However, when religion becomes the primary source of a country’s laws and religious authorities have civil power, members of minority communities end up being seen and treated as second class citizens, the current Maronite patriarch, Archbishop Bechara Rai of Beirut, told reporters during the synod.
These concerns show there are two very different understandings of secularism, Father Mascarenhas said.
In the West, secularism is understood as the problem of God being foisted out of the public sphere; but for the East, it’s a positive state of affairs in which governments show respect and protect all religions, letting them have a voice and not treating anyone better than the others, he said.
The Indian priest said an example of how this mutual respect between religion and government plays out was when the Indian government asked the Indian bishops to watch “The Da Vinci Code” and tell them whether they thought the film should be banned, since it is against the law to offend any religion. The bishops did not find the movie offensive and allowed it to be released in theaters, he said.
“A real church-state separation would be that the church can freely express and ask its followers to adhere to the principles it holds dear,” Father Mascarenhas said.
Even though there may be movements trying to oppose such freedom, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and East Timor are examples of countries whose constitutions protect the right of every religion to express its beliefs in the public sphere, he said.
“Asia is rather varied, but it is a God culture,” he said, “There is a mindset that can’t exclude God.”
Even while communist movements in Myanmar, Vietnam and China have all tried to eradicate religion, they were never completely successful, he said.
“That is why in China they had to come up with a Patriotic Catholic Church,” he said – since the communists couldn’t do away with God, they sought to control it.
The West, instead, saw a brutal severing of spirituality from the material world.
“When the Industrial Revolution took place we slipped, perhaps because we didn’t have the strategy to fight extreme rationalization,” he said.
“The Illumination actually brought darkness because it forgot that a heart can’t rest unless it rests in God,” he said.
People are hungry for God, he said, and “I find it funny that Europeans turn to Indian religions when Christianity can provide almost everything,” he said.
“Show me one human situation that is not reflected in the Gospel,” he said. Not only are the human challenges of death, fear, doubt and persecution detailed in the Bible, it also spells out the solutions, too.
“The answer to death is the resurrection, and the answer to doubt and anguish like Jesus felt in the garden of Gethsemane is give yourself over to the will of God,” he said.
“Even the financial crisis has its answer in the Bible: It’s a question of gratuity. Had those who have sufficient means remembered Matthew 25 and the Last Judgment where they’ll be asked ‘What did or didn’t you do for those in need?’ the world would be a different place and the crisis wouldn’t exist,” he said.