Michael Terheyden on 'Why I am Catholic: Confronting Secularist Culture'
Modern Western secularism has mutated into an ideology
When I realized that secularism was irrational and intolerant, I rejected it, but I was still not sure what to trust. If I had trusted in Jesus, I would have known that our nature reaches beyond the material universe in search of God. But not just any god, the Christian God.
Tolerance or indifferentism?
In my last article, I mentioned some philosophical ideas (materialism, idealism, subjectivism, relativism, skepticism, and nihilism) which have had a large impact on our society and, consequently, on all of us. These ideas undermined much of what my parents and my Church had taught me, especially before I learned about them. But the more I learned about these philosophical ideas, the more their grip on me slowly loosened.
Part of this learning process occurred in the classroom. Books familiarized me with these ideas and helped me recognize them as they spread throughout our culture and mutated. But the heart of this process occurred in the context of my daily life and a rapidly changing culture. I read about these ideas in the news. I saw them reflected in the popular social and political issues consuming our society. I watched my friends interact with them. I too interacted with them.
Going through this learning process, forced me to evaluate my beliefs more carefully. As a result, these ideas and the issues of our time slowly came into sharper focus. The more clearly I saw them, the more chaotic, ugly, unappealing, and harmful they appeared to me; and the more disenchanted I became with the popular secular culture. In time, my disenchantment grew so strong that I began searching for truth and meaning in other places: Eastern thought, Protestantism and finally Catholicism.
Therefore, the culture I grew up in played a huge role in my faith journey. So in order to explain some of the main reasons why I am Catholic, I need to reflect on our culture. Two words best describe Western culture or society for me, secularism and Postmodernism. In the remainder of this article, I will reflect on secularism: how I understand it and what it means to me. In my next article, I will do the same with Postmodernism.
As I have said before, I am aware of two senses of secularism. The first sense refers to secularism as being worldly or not pertaining to religion. I was referring to this first sense when I wrote an article about experiencing secular studies. My original understanding of a secular society was based on this first sense. A secular society was neutral toward religion. It put people's shared humanity above their differences, and the result was a more pluralistic and tolerant society.
In my mind, American democracy originally represented secularism in this sense of the word. From the beginning, Americans of different faiths and nationalities were, in general, able to participate together in public life. Of course, this was only possible because these different people had a similar sense of decency and the common good. Even though America was imperfect, it was the most pluralistic, open, tolerant, and fair society I have ever known.
But this is not the sense of secularism that prevails in many Western societies today. Modern Western secularism has mutated into an ideology, which reflects a second sense of secularism. To help me put these two senses of secularism into perspective, I would like to draw upon comments made by the Deputy Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt, Yohanna Qulta. He made these comments at the beginning of this year, around the time that Egypt was taking its first tentative steps toward a democracy.
He said, "The role of religion is to educate the human conscience. It shapes the conscience of humans, so that merchants have a conscience, engineers have a conscience, laborers have a conscience. Religion is not supposed to regulate traffic or taxes, or to determine whether one should wear the hijab or niqab. Religion is supposed to advise and guide, but to leave one with freedom of choice."
In the second part of his first encyclical, God Is Love, Pope Benedict XVI voices similar thoughts. He reminds us that the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belong to God is fundamental to Christianity (Mt 22:21). At the same time, he says that the just ordering of society and the state is the responsibility of politics but that politics needs to be based on objective reason informed by faith. He reminds us that Saint Augustine once said, "A state which ...
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