Why today's secular culture is anti-Catholic

Why today's secular culture is anti-Catholic

James Hitchcock

Dr James Hitchcock is Professor of History at the University of St Louis and author of numerous books on the Catholic Church. The following article is edited from his address at the Thomas More Centre Winter School in Brisbane in July 2001.

To a large extent, it is self-evident that today's Western culture has become anti-religious in general and anti-Catholic in particular.

In this regard, there is a great deal of discussion among historians and others about "modernity". Modernity itself is a modern idea. We talk about the ancient world but, of course, if one had asked Julius Caesar "what period of history is this?", he would not have said "ancient times." Nor would St Thomas Aquinas have called the period in which he lived "the Middle Ages".

It is modern times as we understand it today that for the first time in history has a sense of itself as being "modern" and defines itself in contrast to what went before. The tendency in earlier cultures was to stress continuity with the past and to venerate tradition.

The tendency of modernity has been to emphasise the degree of split or break so that in our culture to say that something is new or original is to give it high praise for the most part. To say that something is old or outmoded is precisely the opposite.

This, in and of itself, creates difficulties for religion because the Catholic Faith rests upon Scripture and Tradition. The Tradition of the Church is authority-centred and we look back always to an event which happened 2000 years ago in history which will never happen again; and we look back to that particular episode in history as it is encapsulated for us in the Scriptures and Tradition as providing us with sure guidance for everything which has come later.

That does not mean that in certain ways things will not change. It does not mean that we do not have - in every age - to wrestle again with the question of how the perennial truth of the Gospel applies in our age. But we will never reach the point as believing Christians where we conclude that because certain events happened a long time ago they no longer have anything to say to us.

But many of our contemporaries believe otherwise.

There is much debate about when modernity, as modern people talk about it, exactly began.

One can point to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century as splitting the religious unity of the Western world and perhaps - not intentionally - giving rise to a belief on the part of many people that religion is a purely personal and private thing between oneself and God, and oneself and the Bible - that there is no single authority or Church which can pronounce the truths of Christianity. That it is, in fact, an individual thing.

In many respects, more important was the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Initially, to a great extent, it was a French movement in which, for the first time since the days of ancient Rome, people became openly sceptical of Christianity itself and of the idea of divine revelation.

Human reason

The Enlightenment view, put succinctly, claimed that human reason is the only sure guide to truth, and any claim of divine revelation - that some truth comes down to us from on high, which we ourselves are not capable of discovering on our own - has to be rejected as demeaning of human beings.

Ever since that time a struggle has been going on for the soul of Western civilisation.

The influence of Christianity - which was the single most important formative influence in making Western civilisation what it is - is still very strong. But, at the same time, the Enlightenment tradition of scepticism and doubt has become more militant and aggressive, attacking religious faith not only as invalid, but also pernicious.

This battle has been going on for the past 300 years.

For a good part of that time it looked as if religion was winning - or at least holding its own. The number of sceptics and out-and-out atheists was probably fairly small while most people remained Christian, at least in a relatively mild sense.

Over the past 35 or 40 years, however, the balance has been tipping more in the direction of the sceptics. Modernity is coming to be defined more and more as inherently anti-religious.

The crucial episode in bringing about this situation was the phenomenon of what we call the '60s.

It still remains a mystery - and I do not think anyone has fully explained it - why there was such a sudden explosion in the mid-1960s of doubt, scepticism, attacks on certainty and repudiation of all traditionally held beliefs; and why it was expressed in such militant, passionate and even violent ways.

Someone formulated the phrase which sums up what was going on at that time quite brilliantly: "The systematic hunting-down of all settled convictions."

At the heart of the modern idea, as it finally developed in the Western world, is the view that the ultimate absolute is personal freedom.

The Christian definition of freedom always turns upon "responsible" freedom under proper order - freedom to obey the will of God. The classical Christian view of freedom is that we are slaves to sin and we become free as we overcome this slavery. When we submit to the will of God we are not entering into bondage but are liberating ourselves from all that is evil in the world.

But freedom in the modern world has become defined as the right to do whatever one pleases, with self-expression regarded as the highest good. That being the case, the very existence of institutions of any kind that claim some kind of higher authority can only be seen as a threat to freedom.

The rhetoric of abortion, for example, centres on the word "choice." People do not like to say they are pro-abortion; they prefer to say "I'm pro-choice".

There is here a kind of reluctance to concede that anything not freely chosen could possibly be good. The modern culture wants to tolerate a lot of things which are obviously bad rather than be seen as restricting personal freedom.

The formula which is usually given is that we are free to do things as long as they do not harm others.

There are two problems here. In Christianity, we are also not free to do things which harm ourselves. We are not free to eat ourselves into an early grave, to mutilate ourselves, to commit suicide.

And if we take as the formula that we are free to do whatever we want as long as it does not harm others, then we make the ultimate judgment about what does harm others - and, of course, we always tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

There are all sorts of ways in society in which people do harm to others but rationalise and tell themselves it is not harmful. But the ultimate judgment lies in the individual who is doing it.

In discussions of such issues a very 'slippery' expression - "humanism" - is likely to be invoked.

While humanism has to do with being a human being, it is slippery because it has multiple meanings and can easily be misunderstood.

The expression was actually coined in the 15th century and originally referred to an interest in the Greek and Roman classics. The earliest people who called themselves humanists - including Thomas More - called themselves "Christian" humanists. For they believed that the dignity of humanity derived from its being created in the image and likeness of God.

At the time of the Enlightenment and thereafter the term humanism was often picked up by people who were anti-religious and anti-Christian. They put God and man in opposition to one another.

In the 19th century, we begin to see out-and-out atheists such as Karl Marx, who not only argued against God's existence but claimed belief in God to be a bad thing, invoking the term humanism. In their view, the more we exalted God the more we diminished mankind. To be a humanist entailed denial of the existence of God - hence secular humanism. The good of humanity required disbelief in God.

Yet the greatest humanist in the world today in terms of someone who uses the term and has written extensively and profoundly on the subject is clearly Pope John Paul II. The term humanism appears frequently in his writings and he is fully aware of the long tradition of Christian humanism. He argues very powerfully that we are truly human only in connection with our creaturehood - our connection with God. Everything in us which is valuable and good is derived from God. If we cut ourselves off from God, rather than our humanity gaining more dignity, it becomes sub-human.

In contrast, the most influential Australian thinker in the world today is Peter Singer. He now teaches at Princeton University in the United States - which happens to be my alma mater. He is famous for his claim that human life in and of itself has no special moral standing - a young koala has a better claim to life than an unborn human.

We at least owe him a debt of gratitude for his bluntness - he says openly what we suspected other modernists have thought.

Yet Peter Singer has not been read out of polite company. Instead, he has been treated as a cutting-edge thinker who must be taken very seriously. People like Singer have coined the expression "speciesism" - meaning valuing your own species above that of all other species. To think there is anything special about human beings is to be "speciesist." Only when you admit that animals have equal rights to humans are you on the right track.

So the humanists have now had to abandon the term. The non-believers, the secularists, who once went under the banner of humanity have to admit their position has been eroded: only on the basis of religious belief can one be a genuine humanist like John Paul II.

Meanwhile, over the past 30 years, the expression "post-modernism" has emerged, indicating a recognition that the modern era itself has come to an end.

Post-modernism carries the logic of scepticism a step further: there are no certain truths. Marxism no longer provides certitude of a kind; nor even does science. Everything is uncertain; a free-for-all now exists, resulting in the cynical view that "truth" involves having control over the means of imposing one's opinions ("truth") on others.

In our post-modern secular culture certain people now control the media, academia and other avenues of influence and use their positions in these to impose their "truth" on us.

What are the implications of this for a practising Catholic?

It is firstly essential to be conscious of the situation - that the culture is in many ways hostile to our Faith. It exists in the media, both in terms of how the news is treated and in terms of entertainment. It exists in many ways in the education system at all levels; and it has tended to get more and more embodied in our laws and public institutions.


Thus, in terms of how "respectability" is defined, a person like Peter Singer, even among those who may not fully agree with him, is treated with considerable respect and taken seriously; whereas somebody who is outspokenly pro-life is regarded as a "fanatic." One gets the message that certain positions are no longer respectable - especially those held by practising Christians and Catholics.

The second stage of this scenario is that it takes considerable courage to be a believing Catholic in today's culture. One is likely to encounter misunderstanding, antagonism, ridicule, broken friendships and doors closed.

My experience has been that nobody bothers much if you say you are nominally a Catholic; but a lot of people will be bothered if you take your Faith seriously.

In the United States, the Churches still have the numbers and the militant secularists remain a fairly small minority. But the Christians are awfully passive and so much of the ground has been staked out by the secularists that Christians tend to keep quiet and hope the problem will go away.

There is a long tradition of speaking of the Church militant and I think we have to have a very strong sense of that. It means speaking out, writing articles, sending letters to newspapers, asking questions of visiting speakers and even considering how our careers might contribute in some way to a more Christian and moral society.

Of course, prayer is critically important, since ultimately things are in the hands of God. But while we should "pray as if everything depended on God" we should "work as if everything depended on us." And, most importantly, we need to be authentic witnesses to the Faith we profess.

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