Is Secularism An Enemy of Religion?


In his book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, the former Archbishop of Philadelphia, the city of “brotherly love”, offers a hard-hitting critique of America today. According to Chaput, the rise of secularism has not only led to a decline in the practice of Christian faith in the United States—but an open hostility to those that maintain traditional Christian beliefs and values. 

I believe that the Archbishop is guilty of scapegoating when he blames secularism for “the decline in the practice of the Christian faith in the United States. For one, the Christian faith is declining in many of the Western and Eastern nations of Europe as well.  Secondly, he fails to own up to the fact the Catholic Church has lost many of its members due to the abuse of thousands of children by clergy here and around the world. The abuse scandal was exacerbated by the failure of those in charge, diocesan officials, members of the hierarchy, as well as the popes to report the abuser priests to the Civil authorities. To make matters worse, his own efforts as the Archbishop of Philadelphia to lobby the Pennsylvania State Legislature to vote against a Pa Bill to extend the Statutes of Limitations so that the victims of abuse could seek therapy and other necessary treatment drove many to leave the Church.

John Allen writes that “Pope Benedict XVI, formerly, (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a prominent theologian of the Church,) has talked about a “healthy secularism,” which involves the separation of church and state and recognition of the essentially lay character of politics. Evangelical Catholics such as the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris actually see this kind of secularism as a precondition for authentic faith, because it forces Christianity to be a personal choice, rather than something imbibed from religiously homogenous cultures where faith and practice are buttressed by the state.” 

He goes on to write that “At senior levels of the church, there’s a growing conviction that a tipping point has been reached — that Western secularization is crossing the line from neutrality to outright hostility, toward religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Cardinal Renato Martino, the former President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, put things this way: “It looks like a new Inquisition. It is a lay Inquisition, but it is so nasty. You can freely insult and attack Catholics, and nobody will say anything.” 1

1.John Allen  for NCR Benedict’s ongoing battle against secularism Nov 6, 2009

On the one hand, we have Church leaders actually defending the existence of secularism as a “healthy secularism,” which involves the separation of church and state and recognition of the essentially lay character of politics.   Then you have a former Cardinal Archbishop of the same Church claim secularism as a precondition for authentic faith because it forces Christianity to be a personal choice, rather than something imbibed from religiously homogenous cultures where faith and practice are buttressed by the state.

So we have some in the Catholic Church who view secularism as the enemy of religion while others see it as the context within which religion exists and can actually grow. I would say that the world as created by God did not come with any particular religion or set of beliefs unless you limit your understanding of creation to that of the bible.

Indeed because there are so many ethnicities, cultures, societies, one must assume that religion would be as varied as those cultures or societies that exist. If that’s the case then the secular world is simply the pot or soil in which religion grows.

In the ancient world before the common era, religion was found in every culture. Amy Trumpeter writes that Carl Jung held that “there is a religious instinct in all human beings – an inherent striving towards a relationship with someone or something that transcends human power (a higher force or being).

Therefore, one can assume that the world is the proverbial “melting pot” of religions. Each tribe had its own religious rituals and beliefs, its own spirits, demons, and gods. Tribalism meant that you were expected to adhere to that tribe’s religion or else incur the consequences which varied from expulsion to torture and then to death. Certainly Catholic Christianity, as well, participated in some brutal responses to those considered heretics, non-beleivers or infidels. The Inquisition and the Crusades certainly are the primary pieces of evidence for this conclusion.

Fast forward to America when Europeans came here to escape persecution.The Colony of Maryland was founded by a charter granted in 1632 to George Calvert, secretary of state to Charles I, and his son Cecil, both recent converts to Catholicism. Under their leadership allowing the practice of this denomination, many English Catholic gentry families settled in Maryland. The colonial government was officially neutral in religious affairs, granting toleration to all Christian groups and enjoining them to avoid actions that antagonized the others. On several occasions, “low-church” dissenters among Protestants led insurrections that temporarily overthrew the Calvert rule. In 1689, when William and Mary came to the English throne, they acceded to Protestant demands to revoke the original royal charter. In 1701 the Church of England was “established” as the state church in Maryland. Through the course of the eighteenth century, Protestants barred Catholics from public office in the colony, and then prohibited them from voting, disenfranchising them. Not all of the laws passed against Catholics (notably laws restricting property rights and imposing penalties for sending children to be educated in foreign Catholic institutions) were enforced, and some Catholics continued to hold public office.

New France was transferred to Great Britain in 1763 after it defeated France in the Seven Years War, it practiced a policy of tolerating the Catholic Church in the colony. No Catholic people in Quebec or other parts of New France were forced to convert to the Anglican Church. The British did open the colony to Protestant Huguenots, who had been banned from settlement by previous French colonial authorities – a continuation of discrimination that existed in France. 

Spanish Florida was also ceded to Great Britain in 1763, in exchange for it giving up other claims. The British divided Florida into two colonies. Both East and West Florida colonies had a policy of toleration for Catholic residents, as Catholicism had been the established religion of the Spanish colonies. Other colonies in the north and eastern sections of America were settled by several Protestant denominations.

Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Western New Jersey, and Delaware were among other colonies that did grant religious freedom or did not have an established Church.

All of this disparity among colonies and the experience of the turmoil in European nations caused by religious groups and Churches were some of the factors that may have led to one of the first laws of the land as America was taking shape:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  Separation of Church and State became the process by which society could exist without religion impacting it the way it did in Europe. The experiment of secularism and religion living side by side was about to begin. Chaput overlooks these facts.

Considering these disparities among the colonies, one must remember the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson as America was about to become one nation consisting of several colonies then eventually states. Jefferson wrote the following which then led to the beginning of the First Amendment. “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation on behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

Many of the founding fathers of America came to this continent to establish a country free of religious persecution.  Respecting the right of each person and religion to exist without fear of persecution was the new order of the day. We must recall that various denominations of Christianity had resulted from the Reformation. Wars, torture, and even genocide occurred in the long history of those Western European countries and religion played a big part. Without going into the specifics of the history of Europe since the Enlightenment, suffice it to say that Secularism became the prominent cultural movement of the Western modern world of Europe and the United States. Secularism or the State was seen as the neutral friend of religion, not its enemy.

While some Evangelicals and Catholics today see secularism or society as a weapon used to attack religion, I think differently. I would like to rebut what the author of the book mentioned in the first paragraph has concluded. For instance, Archbishop  Chaput seems to forget about the separation of Church and State and that secularism, the society, is to be free from any adherence to particular religious beliefs. Secularism relies on the core values and virtues of humanism based on Natural Law and the moral convictions and virtues of its citizens. These are not necessarily tied to religious beliefs of any religion let alone Christianity since atheists and agnostics are capable of morality and virtue. Even the Catholic Erasmus, who lived in the middle of the 15th century, embraced the humanistic belief in an individual’s capacity for self-improvement and the fundamental role of education in raising human beings above the level of brute animals. 

In 2013, before he wrote the book, Chaput decried the growing exclusion of religion from the public square and called for a shift in perspective regarding the place of religious believers in a democratic society.

At an Orange County Catholic Prayer Breakfast, he said that “in recent years people in both major American political parties have wrongly tried to blame the conflicts in American public life on the active participation of religious believers. They claim that religion is so powerful and so personal that whenever it enters public life in an organized way, it divides people.  It repels.  It polarizes.  It oversimplifies complex issues.  It creates bitterness.  It invites extremism.  And finally it violates the spirit of the Constitution by muddling up the separation of Church and state that keeps Americans from sliding into intolerance.”

I find what most people today claim about religion to be true!

As an aside, one must note that Chaput is a member of the Napa Institute which was founded in 2011, by Tim Busch a Philanthropist millionaire. He founded the Napa Institute with Father Robert Spitzer, SJ  in an effort to train Catholic leaders to defend the faith in an increasingly secular society. And since then, the Napa Institute was very involved in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

In my opinion, the Catholic Church has turned to Philanthropists and other conservative millionaires to subsidize its efforts to compensate for the loss of membership as it enters into the political arena as never before.

Chaput continues, “The same argument,” he said, “goes on to claim that, once they’re free from the burden of religious interference, mature citizens and leaders can engage in reasoned discourse, putting aside superstition and private obsessions to choose the best course for the widest public.  Because the state is above moral and religious tribalism, it can best guarantee the rights of everyone.  Therefore a fully secularized public square would be the adulthood of the American Experiment.” 

I applaud the argument but object to his conclusion that the state considers itself above moral tribalism since the Constitution is actually a moral as well as a legal document. It’s not attached to any one religion or denomination of religion.

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” 

If this isn’t a moral code, I don’t know what is!

He also points out, that there are key differences between non-sectarian public institutions and a secularist ideology.  “No Christian”, Chaput said, “should want to live under the tyranny of a secularist ideology.”  “Whenever you hear loud fretting sparked by an irrational fear of an Established Church, somebody’s trying to force religious believers and communities out of the public discussion of issues.”

This is not the case. He exaggerates as he is prone to do. I don’t want the evangelicals, let alone Catholics, or any other religious group dominating the public forum to impose its morality on me or anyone else. If the shoe were on the other foot and Muslims or Hindus or any other religious folks were to insist on their beliefs becoming the law of the land, Chaput would be singing a different tune!

He continues, “Secularism isn’t really morally neutral.  It’s actively destructive…It ignores the most basic questions of social purpose and personal meaning by writing them off as private idiosyncrasies,”  Americans are, “losing the Founders’ perspective on the meaning of our shared public life.  Certain beliefs have always held Americans together as a people.” 

I would object by saying that the Constitution provides the social purpose and personal meaning in its opening declaration, “We the people…” I’ll also add, that religion caused much division over the years as well!  Secularism is morally neutral and not intentionally destructive. The NRA declares that “Guns don’t kill, people do” and so I will say, “society doesn’t kill, rather people do”! Remember the Catholic Church heaped its own destructive force, the abuse of children, upon the good Catholic people of America and around the world.

It’s my opinion that the Archbishop has it all backward considering the fact that many Evangelical Churches and the Catholic Church have forced themselves upon the politics of our society in a manner that does violate the separation of Church and state and even the U.S. Tax Code. The 2016 election was the first election that I can recall, when clergy, from the pulpit, denounced one candidate and endorsed another. Instead of urging citizens to follow their conscience and do their patriotic duty and vote, they demanded under pain of sin that their members vote for the candidate they endorsed because the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life debate was the primary issue in the election according to Church leaders rather than the environment, poverty, minimum wages, gun control, rising racism and bigotry, and immigration.

Chaput’s book is a ploy to distract us from the guilt of the Catholic Church and put the blame on society, a society that is maturing and deciding to follow its own conscience instead of listening to preachers and teachers who do not practice what they preach and in some cases get caught actually acting against what they preach.

The word secular means “world” from “saecula”, a world that was created by God, and Catholics affirm that every time they conclude their prayers with the great doxology: Glory be to the Father….as it was, in the beginning, is now and ever shall be world without end, or in Latin: Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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