“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.