“If there was ever any doubt about one of the Obama Administration’s key philosophical commitments,” writes Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg in a new article in the American Spectator, “it was dispelled on Jan. 20 when the Department of Health and Human Services informed the Catholic Church that most of its agencies will be required to provide employees with insurance-coverage for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs: i.e., products, procedures, and chemicals used to facilitate acts which the Church and plenty of others consider intrinsically evil.”
Gregg writes that “modern liberalism has a long history of trying to exclude consideration of the proper ends of human action from public discourse in the name of tolerance. But neither liberalism nor secularism are as neutral about such matters as they pretend.” In fact, that neutrality looks more and more like coercion. Gregg:
And here we come face-to-face with the essence of what a certain Joseph Ratzinger famously described in an April 2005 homily as “the dictatorship of relativism.” Most people think of tyrannies as involving the imposition of a defined set of ideas upon free citizens. Benedict XVI’s point was that the coercion at the heart of the dictatorship of relativism derives precisely from the fact that it “does not recognize anything as definitive.”
In this world, tolerance no longer creates the safety for us to express our views about the nature of good and evil and its implications for law and public morality. Instead, it serves to banish the truth as the reference point against which all of us must test our ideas and beliefs. The objective is to reduce everyone to modern Pontius Pilates who, whatever their private beliefs, wash their hands in the face of obvious injustices, such as what the Obama administration has just inflicted upon not only Catholics, but anyone whose convictions about the truth requires them to abstain from cooperating in acts they regard as evil per se.
Of course, modern liberals do have their preferred ends, which (despite all their endless chatter about reason) reflect their profoundly cramped vision of man’s intellect. Here they follow the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. He argued that “reason ought to be the slave of the passions.” Reason’s role, in other words, is not to identify what is rational for people to choose. Instead, reason is reduced to merely devising the means for realizing whatever goals that people, following the profound moral reasoning of a five year-old, “just feel like” choosing.
Read Samuel Gregg’s “Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism” on the website of the American Spectator.
In part 1 of “Secular Theocracy: The Foundations and Folly of Modern Tyranny,” David Theroux of the Independent Institute outlines a history of secularism, tracing the complex relationship between religion and the spheres of society, particularly church and government. “Modern America has become a secular theocracy with a civic religion of national politics (nationalism) occupying the public realm in which government has replaced God,” he argues.
One of the key features necessary to unraveling the knotty problems surrounding the idea of secularism is distinguishing between the separation of church and state on the one hand, and religion and public life on the other. Hunter Baker does an excellent job describing this distinction and its consequences in his book, The End of Secularism. Secularism, as Baker and Theroux use the term, is a far more vigorous concept than the institutional separation of church and civil government. As Baker writes,
Secularism is much more than a formal financial and legal separation of church institutions and state institutions. It is a way of living together in community that emphasizes clean conceptual boundaries over organic beliefs and traditions. Here we come to a critical point. Secularism is not and should not be synonymous with the separation of church and state.
George Weigel recently observed the thirty year anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland. He noted the “weakness” of the tyrannical government, which had to resort to such tactics. “Politics and economics are important,” he writes. But “what drives history over the long haul, however, is culture: what men and women cherish, honor, and worship; what men and women are willing to stake their lives, and their children’s lives, on.”
So what we need to be most concerned about, it seems, is a kind of cultural and conceptual secularism, a secularist worldview, that provides the basis for a more far-reaching and insidious form of secular political tyranny.
Look for part 2 on “Secular Theocracy” from Theroux in January. And in the meantime you can check out a controversy feature in the Journal of Markets & Morality between Hunter Baker and Jonathan Malesic on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” Issue 13.2 of the journal will be publicly available shortly, but you can also get instant access by becoming an electronic subscriber.
The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs at Georgetown University and the Governance Studies Program at The Brookings Institution have invited Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, to join a December 6 roundtable discussion in Washington on economics and Catholic Social Teaching. The event is free and open to the public. Friends of Acton in the Washington area are encouraged to attend the talk. Questions will be invited from the floor at the conclusion of the roundtable discussion.
The event will mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ letter “Economic Justice for All.” Joining Rev. Sirico on the roundtable will be E.J. Dionne (Brookings Institution and Georgetown), Ross Douthat (New York Times), and Christine Firer Hinze (Fordham). The discussion will be moderated by Thomas Banchoff, director of the Berkley Center.
The event will be on Tuesday afternoon, December 6, from 4 – 5:30 PM in the Copley Formal Lounge on Georgetown’s main campus (directions). Event organizers ask that attendees register (link) in advance.
With Europe’s traditional moral framework – Christianity – under increasing attack, the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches are drawing closer in order to combat the forces of secularism and “Christophobia.” Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse looks at efforts to set aside long held theological disputes and forge a unity of action on social questions. Subscribe to the free weekly ANC and other Acton publications here.
With the Rise of Militant Secularism, Rome and Moscow Make Common Cause
By Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse
The European religious press is abuzz over recent developments in Orthodox – Catholic relations that indicate both Churches are moving closer together. The diplomatic centerpiece of the activity would be a meeting of Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kyrill of the Russian Orthodox Church that was first proposed by Pope John Paul II but never realized. Some look to a meeting in 2013 which would mark the 1,700th anniversary of the signing of the Edict of Milan when Constantine lifted the persecution of Christians. It would be the first visit between the Pope of Rome and Patriarch of Moscow in history.
A few short years ago a visit between Pope and Patriarch seemed impossible because of lingering problems between the two Churches as they reasserted territorial claims and began the revival of the faith in post-Soviet Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. The relationship grew tense at times and while far from resolved, a spirit of deepening cooperation has nevertheless emerged. Both Benedict and Kyrill share the conviction that European culture must rediscover its Christian roots to turn back the secularism that threatens moral collapse.
Both men draw from a common moral history: Benedict witnessed the barbarism of Nazi Germany and Kyrill the decades long communist campaign to destroy all religious faith. It informs the central precept in their public ministry that all social policy be predicated on the recognition that every person has inherent dignity and rights bestowed by God, and that the philosophical materialism that grounds modern secularism will subsume the individual into either ideology or the state just as Nazism and Communism did. If Europe continues its secular drift, it is in danger of repeating the barbarism of the last century or of yielding to Islam.
The deepening relationship does not portend a union between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Roman Catholics are more optimistic about unity because they are less aware of the historical animus that exists between Catholics and Orthodox. Nevertheless, while the increasing cooperation shows the gravity of the threat posed by secularism, it also indicates that the sensitive historical exigencies can be addressed in appropriate ways and times and will not derail the more pressing mission.
The cooperation has also caused the Churches to examine assumptions of their own that may prove beneficial in the long run. The meaning of papal supremacy tops the list.
On the Orthodox side the claims to a universal jurisdictional supremacy of the Patriarch of Rome have been rejected since (indeed, was a cause of) the Great Schism of 1054 (see here and here . That said, the Orthodox see the Pope of Rome as the rightful Patriarch of the Church of Rome and could afford him a primacy of honor in a joint council but not jurisdiction.
On the other side, the Orthodox do not have a Magisterium, a centralized Church structure that speaks for all the Orthodox in the world. This has led to some fractious internal wrangling throughout the centuries although doctrine and teaching has remained remarkably consistent.
It will come as no surprise for anyone to know that the Orthodox have difficulties with some of the claims made by the Catholic Church concerning the precise responsibilities and the nature of the authority associated with the Bishop of Rome. The Catholic Church has long recognized this as a basic difference between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds. The rise of militant secularism, however, and the cultural challenges this creates for Orthodox and Catholic Christians alike, have focused everyone’s minds on how they can cooperate to address these issues of ethics and culture.
Protestants have a stake in the outcome as well particularly as attitudes have softened towards Rome due in large part to Pope John Paul II’s exemplary leadership during the collapse of communism in the last century. Protestant ecclesiology has no real place for priest or pope which makes the nature of discussions between them and the Catholics or Orthodox entirely different. Nevertheless, as the soul denying ramifications of secularism become more evident, an increasing number look to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches for leadership.
The most visible ambassador for the Orthodox Church is Oxford-educated Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokomansk who runs the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church. Observers report that a deep respect and even genuine fondness exists between Hilarion and Benedict which has contributed to the recent thaw.
Both of them note with alarm the increasing attacks on the Christian faith in Europe and on Christians themselves in other parts of the world, a development they term “Christophobia.” Hilarion brought these points forward several years back when he first challenged the European Union for omitting any mention of the Christian roots of European civilization in the EU Constitution. That earned him considerable worldwide notice and he has become increasingly outspoken towards any attempts to silence the Christian testimony or dim the historical memory of Christendom.
From the Orthodox side it is clear that the leadership that deals with the concrete issues that affect the decline of the Christian West is emerging from Moscow. One reason is the sheer size of the renewed Russian Orthodox Church. The deeper reason however, is that the Russians have direct experience with the suffering and death that ensues when the light of the Christian faith is vanquished from culture.
Decades before the fall of Communism was even a conceptual possibility for most people, Pope John Paul II prophesied that the regeneration of Europe would come from Russia. At the time many people thought it was the misguided ramblings of a misguided man. It is looking like he knew more than his critics. We are fortunate to have these two leaders, Benedict and Kyrill, to help guide us through the coming difficulties.
Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is an Orthodox priest in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North and South America. He is president of the American Orthodox Institute and serves on the board of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. He writes frequently on social and cultural issues on his blog
Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg tackles the question of religious liberty in Islamic states this morning, over at The American Spectator. In a piece titled “The Arab Spring’s Forgotten Freedom,” Gregg describes the tensions between Christians seeking religious freedom in the Middle East and the Islamic states they inhabit, and then looks hopefully to the source of a resolution.
For at least one group of Middle-Easterners, the Arab Spring is turning out to be a decidedly wintery affair. And if confirmation was ever needed, just consider the escalation of naked violence against Christians throughout the region. The recent instance of Egyptian army vehicles crushing and killing Coptic Christians protesting against a church burning was merely one of numerous incidents that must make Middle-Eastern Christians wonder about their future under the emerging new regimes.
These trends appear to confirm that despite all the current freedom-and-democracy talk, much of the Islamic world continues to suffer from one particularly severe blind spot when it comes to human liberty. And that concerns the acceptance and protection of authentic religious freedom.
Gregg points out that the Christian population of the Middle East has plummeted since 1900 (when it was about 20 percent) for ethnic and for political reasons.
Islam confronts two specific dilemmas that raise questions about its ability to accept a robust conception of religious liberty.
First, from its very beginning, Islam was intimately associated with political power. That’s one reason why there is no church-state distinction in Islam that limits (at least theoretically) the state’s capacity to coerce religious belief or unreasonably inhibit religious-shaped choices.
Second, since approximately the 13th century, the dominant theological understanding of God’s nature within Islam has been one of Voluntas (Divine Will) rather than Logos (Divine Reason). And this matters because if you believe in a God that can, on a mere whim, act unreasonably, then it isn’t so problematic for such a Divinity’s adherents to engage in plainly unreasonable practices such as killing apostates.
If, however, God is Logos, the case for religious liberty is much easier to make insofar as a reasonable God would never demand compulsion in religion. Why? Because as St. Augustine wrote long ago, “If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe.”
Gregg sees hope, however, in thinkers like Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol, whose recent book Islam Without Extremes makes the Islamic case for religious freedom. Though most Western religious thinkers do little to plead the cause of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, Gregg thinks the central cause of the persecution, and thus the ultimate solution, is to be found in Islamic thought.
In the end, non-Muslims can’t resolve Islam’s religious liberty challenge. Only theologically educated, historically informed and believing Muslims can do that. In the meantime, those reading the Arab Spring as a uniformly-positive event might like to consider that it appears to be doing little to secure the freedom, if not the very existence, of ancient Christian churches, many of which were founded by people who in all likelihood knew Christ or his first disciples. The loss of such a civilizational and religious heritage would be immeasurable — and not just for Christianity, but for the future of liberty within the Islamic world itself.
Mustafa Akyol happens to be speaking today at a luncheon hosted by the Cato Institute. Acton’s executive director Kris Mauren will be providing commentary. If you are in Washington, D.C., you won’t want to miss it!
We’ve posted the text of Metropolitan Jonah’s AU talk on “Asceticism and the Consumer Society” on the Acton site. His remarks, delivered on Thursday, June 16, at the plenary session looked at the “opposing movements in the human heart” between consumerism and worship. In the course of his talk, Jonah cited Orthodox Christian theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s definition of secularism as “in theological terms … a heresy … about man.”
Man was created with an intuitive awareness of God and thankfulness to Him for the creation. In return, the creation itself was made to be a means of communion and revelation of God to man. Man was thus created as a Eucharistic being, the priest of creation, to offer it in thanksgiving to God, and to use it as a means of living in communion, the knowledge and love of God. Man was created to worship. In our fallenness, turning from God to created things as ends in themselves, we lost the intuitive knowledge of God and our essential attitude of thankfulness to Him. Secularism is rooted in this loss of divine awareness, the darkening of our intuitive perception of the creation as the sacrament of God’s Presence. It is a denial of our essential reality as human beings, and our reduction to purely material animals. Thus the refusal to worship and give thanks, to offer the creation in thanksgiving back to God, is a denial of our very nature as humans.
What Schmemann is testifying to is that “worship is truly an essential act, and man an essentially worshipping being.” It is “only in worship” that I can find “knowledge of God and therefore knowledge of the world.” As the etymology of the word orthodoxy suggests, the true worship of God and the true knowledge of God converge and are together become the foundation of obedience to Him.
Jonah, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, said the “fruit” of secularism is despair. The cure for this despair is the Cross of Jesus Christ:
The Christian ascetical life, that is the life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the works of mercy and obedience, is the application and the appropriation of the Cross to my life. It is the means by which I both enter into a life of communion with God and become myself a sacrament of that communion for others. This is possible because at its most basic level, asceticism “is the struggle of the person against rebellious nature, against the nature which seeks to achieve on its own what it could bring about only in personal unity and communion with God.” Our “restoration” to a life of personal communion with God and so our personal “resistance” to the powers of sin and death, “presuppose a struggle” within each human heart that is often lacking in contemporary society and even our churches.
Read Metropolitan Jonah’s “Asceticism and the Consumer Society” on the Acton site.
There’s a free screening of a documentary critiquing the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child this Friday evening at 7 p.m. at Grandville Church of Christ–3725 44th St. SW. The film makes the case that parental rights have already been dangerously eroded in the United States and would be further eroded if Congress ratified the U.N. treaty. The screening is sponsored by the area chapter of Generation Joshua and is open to the public.
The miraculous post-Soviet revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, all but destroyed by the end of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s, is one of the great stories of 21st Century Christianity. This revival is now focused on the restoration of church life that saw its great institutions and spiritual treasures — churches, monasteries, seminaries, libraries — more or less obliterated by an aggressively atheist regime. Many of the Church’s best and brightest monks, clergy and theologians were martyred, imprisoned or forced into exile. Yet, plans are now underway to build 200 churches in the Moscow area alone.
The Church’s renewal is set against Russia’s steep population decline and grave social ills including alcoholism, the disintegration of the family, what amounts to an open season on journalists, and an immense and growing corruption problem at all levels of government and society. Building new churches is one thing; getting believers to fill them and then effect a social transformation by following the Great Commandment will be a more difficult climb. “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved” — St. Seraphim of Sarov.
It is perhaps impossible to comprehend, without having lived through it, the depths of destruction and despair that Russia had sunk to under the Soviets. Read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay “Live Not By Lies” and you begin to comprehend, albeit at a great distance, something about a system that destroyed tens of millions of people:
The public face of the Russian church is lately, for much of the global media, an Oxford-educated bishop who is also a composer of music, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk. His web site is here. As the director of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, he is a much traveled spokesman for the largest and most influential Orthodox Church in the world with more than 150 million members. Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg included Hilarion in what he referred to as Pope Benedict’s “creative minority.”
Things have almost reached rock bottom. A universal spiritual death has already touched us all, and physical death will soon flare up and consume us both and our children — but as before we still smile in a cowardly way and mumble without tongues tied. But what can we do to stop it? We haven’t the strength.
Christianity Today deputy managing editor Timothy C. Morgan interviewed Hilarion on the bishop’s recent trip to Washington. Here’s an excerpt and, following that, some recent links to interviews where Hilarion talks about a unified Christian witness on social problems. Finally, a link to his condemnation of Stalin as a “monster.”
CT: What role can the Russian Orthodox Church play in world evangelization?
Hilarion: Christ created his church not just for private use but also for missionary purposes, and the church has a missionary imperative that must be embodied in the concrete forms of preaching and evangelizing.
Some say you can be a practicing Christian in your home and your family, but you should in no way exhibit your Christian commitments in your public life, especially if you are a politician. I believe that a Christian should be a Christian everywhere. And if he is a Christian and a politician at the same time, then his political agenda should be motivated by Christian values.
In our country, some people say the church exists in order to provide certain services to people when they need them: to baptize children, to marry couples, to organize funerals, and to do services in the church.
I believe that the role of the church is much more inclusive. For example, very often nowadays our church will publicly express positions on what’s happening in the country.
Some people ask, “Why does the church interfere? It’s not their business.” We believe that the church can express its opinion on all aspects of human life. We do not impose our opinions on the people, but we should be free to express them. And people will have to choose whether to follow or not to follow, whether to listen to what we say or to ignore it.
CT: Church leaders worldwide are challenged by secularism and Islam. Which do you see as a greater threat to global Christianity?
If we speak about Islam (and of course if we mean moderate Islam), then I believe there is the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity. This is what we have had in Russia for centuries, because Russian Islam has a very long tradition. But we never had religious wars. Nowadays we have a good system of collaboration between Christian denominations and Islam.
The picture is different in many other countries, and recently, even the European Parliament publicly recognized that Christians are persecuted and discriminated against in many countries, including in Islamic countries. This is a problem we have to address. Yet I believe that on many essential points, especially in many aspects of moral teaching, Christianity and Islam are allies, and we can cooperate in those fields.
Secularism is dangerous because it destroys human life. It destroys essential notions related to human life, such as the family. One can argue about the role of the church. One can even argue about the existence of God; we cannot prove that God exists to those who don’t want to believe that God exists. But when the difference in the world outlook touches very basic notions such as family, it no longer has to do with theological truths; it has to do with anthropological issues. And our debate with secularism is not about theology; it’s about anthropology. It’s about the present and the future of the human race. And here we disagree with atheist secularism in some areas very strongly, and we believe that it destroys something very essential about human life.
An alliance of faith
Moscow Patriarchate calls for strategic alliance with Catholic Church
Interview with Russia Today
Archbishop Hilarion on Christian Unity
‘We should not pretend we are close to solving this problem’
Interview with National Catholic Register
Address by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations to the Annual Nicean Club Dinner (Lambeth Palace, 9 September 2010)
Web site of the Dept. of External Relations, Russian Orthodox Church
Russian archbishop’s censure of Stalin as “a monster” makes waves
By Sophia Kishkovsky, ENI
The first article of any social program that will bring salvation, therefore, must remain: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” This article is today being erased. Men refuse any longer to recognize God in statecraft. This is not because they do not find the poetry of religion charming, but because whoever says I believe in God thereby acknowledges God’s ordering of nature and an ordinance of God above human conscience–a higher will to which we as creatures must submit ourselves.
Kuyper said this at the close of the nineteenth century, and in the intervening decades the question of the place of the Christian faith in public life has become even more pressing.
This year’s Novak Award winner Hunter Baker has written an important volume on the place of religion in civil discourse, The End of Secularism. He also participated with Jonathan Malesic on a controversy appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” (PowerBlog readers can get complimentary access to the controversy in PDF form here.) Baker and Malesic were also kind enough to follow up on their exchange in the journal with a Radio Free Acton podcast, “Concealing Christian Identity.”
This year also marks the 120th anniversary of the First Social Congress, held in Amsterdam from November 9-12, 1891. In that same issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, we have the pleasure of publishing a translation of a paper composed by Herman Bavinck at that congress, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today.” This translation also includes an extensive introduction from John Bolt, who writes of the “overlooked” tradition of European social congresses as “organized movements for social reform, often including a variety of groups and interests, and acting in varying degrees of concert over an extended period of time.”