Finding a balance between sacred and secular

By  Fr. Damian Macpherson
  • March 16, 2011
Those who follow the public voice of Pope Benedict XVI will know that secularism and its negative influence on religion has moved front and centre in his vocabulary. The fact is that when the Pope speaks the Catholic world does listen, but of course not all obey.

As a result of Benedict’s attention to secularism, many Catholics and other Christians, not to mention the inter-religious world, have become more keenly aware of the negative presence and influence of secularism within our communities and our family life. We do not have a full and complete treatise of secularism by the present pontiff. We can expect, however, that Benedict will use every opportunity to be a voice of opposition to secularists.

Perhaps one of his most scathing criticisms is his view that secularism is a modern-day heresy. Secularism contends that government, society and other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs. Clearly, such was not always the case in the past. For several generations in Quebec, for example, religion clearly sought to override secular society. As a result of the backlash to that imbalance, Quebec today is struggling to maintain its religious identity and the imbalance now favours the secularists.

Quebec is an extreme case but, generally, Western society has experienced an overarching  secular shift at the expense of the sacred. That is what Benedict seeks to expose and preach about. Recently he addressed this concern to British civil society. Speaking to academics, business leaders, the diplomatic corps and religious leaders, he said, “Religion ... is not a problem for legislators to solve but a vital contribution to the national conversation. In light of this, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue — paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination — that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience.

These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”

Benedict’s remarks were reinforced by recent comments from Cardinal George Pell of Australia. Speaking to the British publication The Tablet, the cardinal warned that Australian society will become increasingly uncaring, “indeed cruel on occasion,” if Christian principles are excluded from public discussion.

“Knowledge and power,” said the cardinal, “if not shaped by the two primary commandments of love of God and neighbour, are usually corrupting, and often destructive.”

Pastorally speaking, priests and deacons must harvest the truths of the Gospel so as to form a singular response against forces that seek to weaken and undermine the foundations of our Christian beliefs. Bishops must be the first spokespersons in addressing this cause.

In his most recent Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domino, Benedict said the importance of preaching the word of God dictates that the quality of homilies be improved. The homily is  meant to foster a deeper understanding of Scripture so the word of God can bear fruit in the life of the faithful. Additionally, he notes, homilies bring the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful realize that God’s word is present and at work in their everyday lives.

Religious and the laity must be heralds of the same message and become instruments to turn back the tide of secularism, especially as it affects the sacred sphere of our lives.

The fruits of creation are a blessing bestowed upon all, and therefore the secular world has a right to its views. But when the secular assumes all the room within God’s creation, then it must be confronted. In a balanced way, the sacred and the secular should co-exist in a manner that one can draw strength and confidence from the other.

As we go forward, led by the clarion call of Pope Benedict XVI, let’s pray that when confronted with the powerful and persuasive influence of secularism we proclaim in a most convincing manner, “Get behind me Satan!”

(Fr. Damian MacPherson, SA, is Director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the archdiocese of Toronto.)

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