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Catholicism and Secularism in Europe's Public Square - May 2018

posted May 8, 2018, 1:38 PM by RSO The Fenwick Review

By Jack Rosenwinkel '21

In early April, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech to his country’s bishops, urging them to use their Catholic faith to engage France’s political system. Macron’s speech comes amid debate over several controversial issues, like in vitro fertilization for lesbian couples and the future of euthanasia. It’s especially remarkable since Macron is no supporter of the Church’s teachings on either issue.  Nonetheless, he finds the Catholic voice valuable in the public square. In that regard, his statement has implications for political life beyond the Fifth Republic.

Macron’s viewpoint would be controversial in America.  In France, it’s about as revolutionary as the guillotine.  France prides itself on its secularism, and has for many year.s In 2004, the French government made it illegal to wear “conspicuous” religious symbols in government operated schools, which meant young Muslim girls couldn’t wear head coverings in public schools.  More recently, the 2016 “Burkini Ban” saw armed police force a Muslim woman to remove her clothing on the beach, for “not respecting secularism.”

The United States is not so tyrannically secular, but many Americans are quick to downplay the importance of faith in making political decisions. People give two key reasons for this decision. First, they argue that the First Amendment calls for a separation of church and state. Trouble is, it doesn’t. Instead, it asserts that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The purpose of the amendment was not to ban religious people from politics, but to prevent the government from establishing its own church or persecuting specific religious groups.

Second, people justify strict ideological secularism by arguing against imposition. In other words, they claim that while they personally believe in a particular religious doctrine, they don’t want to impose this view on others. Yet society has no hesitation about condemning other evils, like murder, theft, or child abuse. We have no qualms about telling people that something is wrong if we truly believe it is wrong. Personal opposition is just indecision, fear, or a lack of moral conviction dressed up as politeness. People are afraid they may be wrong, or they are afraid of being stigmatized or condemned for holding a belief that modern, liberal society deems unacceptable. And so they stay silent, depriving the public square of clear voices, informed by conscience and a sense of the common good.  In that regard, Macron’s speech serves as a call to action for religious people across the West.

In a diagnosis that is also applicable to America, Macron said, “What strikes our country is… not only the economic crisis, it is relativism, it is even nihilism.” In a world full of violence, confusion, pain, and nothingness, people are desperate “to hear from another perspective on man than the material perspective.” The Church can provide this perspective since it has a “voice which still dares to speak of man as a living spirit.”  If this is true in France, is it not truer in America?

The world suffers, obviously.  Our politics becomes ever more divisive, people on both sides of the aisle are concerned with “fake news,” and the #MeToo movement has revealed the prevalence of sexual assault in this country. Marriages are falling apart, there’s a raging opioid crisis, and it’s very possible that Kanye West will run for president. People can’t even talk about disagreements anymore, because everyone is furious and we don’t even agree about what truth is.  What we’re doing isn’t working.

This political moment needs the Catholic voice. We need a voice that is going to stand up and speak out. We need people to emerge from behind the façade of correctness in order to stand for truth.

This may be interpreted by some as a pointed attack on a particular political group. It isn’t. Because if Macron got one thing right, it’s that everyone needs to hear the Catholic perspective. This isn’t about Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal. The Church’s perspective transcends those divisions. It offers an entirely countercultural message. That’s why this is so difficult for some people. News reporters would love to claim that Pope Francis is basically a Democrat. He isn’t a Democrat. He’s a Catholic. And to confine the ideological richness of Catholicism to one political movement robs it of its universality. That said, not every vote is justifiable.

The teachings of the Church aren’t easy. No one said they would be. That isn’t an excuse to disregard them. On top of that, too many people write off difficult teachings because they don’t understand them. So do your homework. Figure out why the Church teaches what it teaches. The result will often be more logical, applicable, rational and convincing than you ever imagined.

But bear this in mind, too: you can justify anything. You can even warp the Bible or Church teaching to do it. Just because some rogue theologian supports gendercide abortions doesn’t make them Christian doctrine. Find credible theologians, papal documents, and legitimate reasons that explain the truth, goodness, and beauty of Catholic teaching. And then go out into the world and be the hands and feet of Christ.

At the end of the day, we simply have to step back and realize we don’t have all the answers. Maybe, just maybe, the Church can help us out.