Monday, 23 November 2009

Fearing secularisation

It has become very frequent that some people, particularly committed Catholics, to express an earnest fear of secularisation. The word seems to conjure up in their mind a myriad of hideous evils: impiety, licentiousness, decadence, shamelessness, and many more iniquities. The very terms ‘secular society’ seem to be simply and univocally identified with ungodliness. Of course, considering this frame of mind, it is perfectly understandable that such people feel threatened by secularisation or even terrified out of their wits by the prospect that Malta and Gozo are slowly and surely succumbing to such a prospect. It is possible, however, that such dread may well be injudicious.

In political philosophy, the term ‘secularisation’ (or, more specifically, ‘secularisation of the State’) generally refers to the separation of State and Church. Though the term itself was not explicitly used in this sense before the mid-19th century (by George Holyoake, for instance), the concept has a long history, perhaps starting (not from any modern European Christian matrix but) from medieval Muslim polymaths like Ibn Rushd in the 12th century. Of course, perhaps more significant to our times, the concept gained effective currency by Enlightenment thinkers (like Diderot, Locke, Madison and others), freethinkers, agnostics and atheists (like Russell and Ingersoll, for instance).

In a more popular, concrete (and perhaps less technical) usage of the term, the secularisation of the State is probably understood to mean the concerted removal by the State of any reference to religion or to God. A case in point is the well-known debate in 2003 on the exclusion of the word ‘God’ from the EU Constitution. (Obviously, a secularised State does not mean a secularised society, because privately citizens can continue to believe whatever pleases them.)

This usage of the term, however, reflects a negative perspective on the issue. The positive side is that the secularised State vigorously promotes values such as tolerance, equality, pluralism, mutual respect, accessibility, diversity, solidarity, and the like. Surely, such values do not necessarily imply the hideous evils that some people associate with the term ‘secularisation’. On the contrary, a thorough Christian spirituality cannot not recognize in them very much of its own morals and ideals.

This means that, while insisting on removing any reference to religion or to God, a secularised State endorses and advocates profound Christian values. The former, to wit, is not an end in itself, but a means to the latter. And this should please, not terrify or intimidate, Catholics. Is it not this that we Catholics intensely desire, namely, to see the values that we rightly hold as dear to thrive, grow and flourish? Is it not through such a diffusion that, as has been aptly said, “a world that strongly resembles the one we are waiting for” is built? If this is not the case, than it stands to reason that, deep down, our intentions are merely political, not spiritual.

I submit that, if we truly value our spiritual values, and not merely our void cultural or political status, we Catholics should stop considering our country’s progression towards its being a secularised State as a menace or as a calamity. Ultimately, we stand to gain, not to lose, from this. I trust that, for the sake of the future in our country of the Church that we love so dearly, rather than combat secularism or demonize it, it appears to be wiser to support its upright values, and thus avoid provoking non-religiousness from lapsing into irreligiousness. For this is exactly what we are doing by defending our mere traditional, cultural or political status.

Is it so difficult to read the writing on the wall?

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