How Many Divisions Has He Got?

That was Stalin's famous rhetorical question aimed at dismissing the power of the Pope. Given the important role that the Catholic Church played in ending the Communist system that Stalin imposed on eastern Europe (especially in Poland), Stalin's dismissal of the Papacy's soft power was obviously misguided then, and it would remain so now. Even as church attendance has plummeted in Europe over the last two generations, membership in the developing world has remained strong. Thus, what the Pope says is important. And the thing he said yesterday that garnered the most attention was widely reported as a jab at secularism in the United States. In fact, the Pope's statements---with which I'll go on to disagree somewhat below---was a bit more nuanced.

Here's a question the Pope was asked on his plane, and his answer:

Vatican newspaper writer Andrea Tornielli: Holy Father, in receiving the new ambassador of the United States of America, you cast in a positive light the public value of religion in the United States. I’d like to ask if you consider this a possible model also for secularized Europe? Also, is there also a risk that religion and the name of God can be abused for supporting a certain political stance, including war?

Benedict XVI:
Certainly we can’t simply copy the United States. We have our own history, and we must learn from each other. What I find fascinating about the United States is that they began with a positive concept of secularism. This new people was composed of communities and people who had separated from state churches, and they wanted to have a secular state which would open possibilities for all the confessions and all the forms of religious expression. It was an expressly secular state, and it was directly opposed to a state-church. It was secular precisely out of love of religion, for the authenticity of religion, which could be lived only in freedom. Thus we find a state that’s expressly secular, but favorable to religion in order to give it authenticity.
We know that the public institutions in America, albeit secular, draw on a de facto moral consensus that exists among the citizens. This seems to me fundamental and positive to consider, also in Europe.

But in the meantime, more than 200 years of history have passed with so many developments. Also in the United States, they’ve had a new form of secularization, a new secularism, which is entirely different. They also have new problems, such as immigration, the “Wasp” ideology, and all these problems. The situation has become complicated and differentiated in the course of history, but the fundamental idea seems to me even today worthy of being observed.

Let's begin by noting that Pope Benedict simply ignored the portion of the question that invited him to oppose war. That's disappointing. This Pope, like his immediate predecessor, has not been shy about speaking out on moral issues, and certainly war is one such issue. He didn't even need to say that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq were morally problematic. All he had to do was to condemn the use of religion as a cover for war. And he could have done so in a way that made clear he was talking about all religions. So this was a missed opportunity.

Next, I'll praise the first paragraph of the Pope's answer. Too often in public debate it is forgotten that a secular state can be a means of fostering religious freedom. There are many people who argue that the very secularism of the United States accounts for how hospitable a country it has been over the years to people of faith.

Now, the critique. In the second paragraph, the Pope distinguishes "a new form of secularization, a new secularism." He doesn't quite explain what this might be, but his answer to a question from the American Bishops elaborates a bit. (The full Q&A from the papal website is here.)
Perhaps America’s brand of secularism poses a particular problem: it allows for professing belief in God, and respects the public role of religion and the Churches, but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. Faith becomes a passive acceptance that certain things “out there” are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life. The result is a growing separation of faith from life: living “as if God did not exist”. This is aggravated by an individualistic and eclectic approach to faith and religion: far from a Catholic approach to “thinking with the Church”, each person believes he or she has a right to pick and choose, maintaining external social bonds but without an integral, interior conversion to the law of Christ. Consequently, rather than being transformed and renewed in mind, Christians are easily tempted to conform themselves to the spirit of this age (cf. Rom 12:3). We have seen this emerge in an acute way in the scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion.
Here I think the Pope is conflating two different phenomena. The reduction of religious life to "a lowest common denominator" is not a result of secularism but of efforts to modify the American commitment to secularism in order to have, for example, public religious displays and events that draw on, to paraphrase the Pope himself, a de facto religious consensus that is monotheist without espousing any particular faith. The alternative of something more sectarian would be rightly regarded as intolerable in a religiously pluralist society such as ours.

The second phenomenon to which the Pope refers is indeed a product of secularism, or at least of a commitment to religious freedom---that people can "pick and choose" their religious affiliation and the degree of that affiliation. But this is not some new secularism. This is precisely the old secularism that enabled various religious sects to thrive in what became the United States from colonial times. And the Pope rightly praised that tradition in his remarks on the airplane.

Finally, we come to the fact that the Pope is scandalized by the fact that some Catholics support legal abortion. There are, of course, legitimate secular grounds for believing abortion should be illegal, but note that the Pope does not invoke them. On the contrary, he is outraged that Catholics do not oppose abortion as Christians, as part of a commitment to live their daily lives as Christians, rather than to separate their religion from other aspects of life. It is possible to think that citizens can rely on their religious values in making judgments about public policy as citizens or elected officials. It's even possible to think that a religious view about abortion in particular is appropriate for such judgments (although I happen not to think this). What's disturbing about the Pope's use of this example and no others, however, is the suggestion that all religious views about all subjects are appropriate predicates for the judgment of citizens and elected officials about public policy. There appears in this view to be no room to render unto Caesar.

Posted by Mike Dorf