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Keeping God Central in Our Lives
by Avery Dulles, S.J.

"Meeting the challenge of secularism," Pope John Paul II urges, should be a special commitment in preparing for the Third Millennium. Our modern western society, he notes, tends "to forget God or keep him at a distance" (On the Coming Third Millennium, #52). The pope summons us to serious reflection. How does secularism touch our lives as Catholics, especially in regard to what we believe? What do we need to do to meet the challenge?

Two types

Before attempting answers to these questions, it may be helpful to make a distinction between two types of secularization—political and cultural. In the political sense it means recognition of the state as a purely secular entity. The separation of Church and state in the American system involves obvious problems, but on the whole it has worked out well both for religion and for secular society. To have a lively religious community it is important that the members belong by free choice and for religious motives, not because of any kind of social constraint or legal penalties. Churches thrive better in the United States than in countries where some form of Christianity is the official religion of the state.

Provided that its free exercise is safeguarded, religion can survive and prosper in a secularized state. But the kind of religion that will prosper depends to a large degree on the impact of cultural secularization.

Cultural secularization goes hand in hand with what sociologists describe as modernization. This becomes clearer by contrasting traditional cultures and those that are characteristically modern.

In traditional societies the religion, occupation and customs of individuals are determined not by personal choice but by the family and neighborhood in which they were born and raised. Modern society, by contrast, is highly mobile. People change their residence and occupation very freely. This individual choice often carries over into the sphere of religion. The Church becomes for all practical purposes a voluntary association. Religion is considered a private matter in which people can make their own choices. Many opt out of the church and the religion in which they were raised. Sometimes they come back to it, sometimes they join another religious body. This situation is not wholly bad because, in the words of Vatican II, it demands from individual persons "a more personal and explicit adherence to faith" (Gaudium et Spes, #7).

Modern societies also tend to divide life into separate spheres. Religion is seen as having a certain limited competence. It governs people’s relationship to God, their prayer life and their weekly worship. But most believers do not want religion to interfere with the autonomy of their other activities.

In this situation religion tends to get marginalized, some would say trivialized. It has a very hard time maintaining itself in the public square or the marketplace. Any effort by a Church to say what is morally permitted, required or prohibited by the law of God in the spheres of politics, medicine, business or family life is resented as an intrusion. "Don’t impose your religious standards on my conduct," is a widespread attitude. Thus religion is progressively excluded from areas in which it formerly played a decisive role. Even in family life religion plays a diminished part.

Also, in modern society, people are reluctant to commit themselves to a whole "package" of doctrines and moral standards handed to them by tradition or by the official teachers. The role of authority is greatly diminished. Even Christians who belong to a particular Church want to scrutinize the rules coming from its office-bearers. Top-down management arouses anger and irritation. Church members feel that they have a right to be consulted and that they may choose for themselves which doctrines they will accept.

The challenge of orthodoxy

Orthodoxy, in Christian terms, means adherence to a definite body of truth certified by the Church as being in accord with revelation. Christian orthodoxy is based on the supposition that God has made a definite revelation that can, at least in part, be expressed in words and concepts. Our creeds and dogmas can communicate particular aspects or implications of divine revelation. Religious language, of course, is historically and culturally conditioned, and may have to be adapted for different times and places, but the truths expressed by it, inasmuch as they are warranted by God, transcend those changing circumstances.

The revelation of God in Christ, according to our Christian faith, is permanently and universally true. This revelation is addressed to all men and women and to all future generations. The Church has an obligation to preserve and transmit the deposit of faith. The magisterium—the pope and the bishops who are in communion with him—has the responsibility of overseeing the whole process and enjoys the divine assistance needed to perform this indispensable function. The magisterium functions most authoritatively in the teachings of ecumenical councils in which the pope and the world’s bishops act in unison.

It should be evident from the preceding paragraphs that to be orthodox in our society it is necessary to be somewhat countercultural, at least in the sphere of religion. In the cultural situation that has developed in the United States and in great parts of the Western world, any kind of orthodoxy, and perhaps especially Catholic orthodoxy, is under enormous pressure. To show how secularism touches our lives as Catholics, we discuss briefly five aspects of the contemporary mentality:

Relativism maintains that truth is relative to the person who holds it: What is true for me may not be true for you. According to Christian belief, on the contrary, the contents of revelation, as given to the Church, are truths to be proclaimed and taught to all the world.

Historicism simply means relativism in time. It holds that what is regarded as true and certain in one period of time may be seen as false or doubtful by a later age in light of further discoveries. Historicism undermines the view of orthodox Christianity that the revelation given in Christ, and the articles of Christian faith, are permanently valid.

Subjectivism holds that there is no objective standard or rule for determining religious truth. Many in our culture would advise us to accept only those aspects of religion in which we find emotional satisfaction and growth experiences. By failing to acknowledge the objective truth-value of the creed and dogmatic statements, subjectivism opposes itself to orthodoxy.

Individualism denies that we can make any institution or Church responsible for what we believe. Faith becomes the choice of each particular believer. Individualism minimizes the duty to adhere to some divinely established way of salvation and to conform one’s beliefs, as orthodoxy requires, to the teaching of a "true Church."

Egalitarianism, as applied to Christianity, seeks to refashion the Church in the image of democratic society. Those who govern in the Church, it maintains, should be accountable only to the membership at large and operate according to the rule of consensus, adjusting their teaching and precepts in light of public opinion polls or the results of a democratic vote. Democratization thus tends to be at odds with the teaching authority of the hierarchy.

Two Christian mentalities

The whole trend of modernization erodes the foundations of orthodoxy. Many people, in fact, accept religion only on the terms set by the secular culture, and keep God at a distance. For merely cultural Christians the Church is a voluntary society, comparable to the Masons or the Elks. It provides a way of marking certain occasions in secular life, such as births, weddings and death. Even though some secularized Christians attend church on Sundays and holidays such as Christmas, they do not regard the Church as an unquestioned authority governing their ideas or conduct.

Because of the deep hungers of the human spirit and the high claims of Catholic Christianity, there will continue to be countercultural Catholics. For them religion is not simply one department of life. It has an impact on everything they think, say and do. They are not against culture as such, but they refuse to let their religion be defined by the culture in which they find themselves. They firmly believe that faith rests on the truths God has revealed and has a definite content that does not change to suit the culture or the times. Faith provides a basis for criticizing and even reforming the culture.

With respect to orthodoxy, therefore, we have, and will continue to have, two major camps. Cultural Christians tend to take anti-dogmatic stances. Only the countercultural Catholic can wholeheartedly embrace orthodoxy.

Meeting the challenge of secularism

In a secularized society such as our own, consistently orthodox Catholics will constitute a minority, not only in the society at large but even, I would say, within their religious community. The majority are carried along by the tide of public opinion, which they receive daily in large doses through the media.

At the present time, four strategies occur to me as holding promise for the future of orthodoxy:

1. Respect for hierarchy. The hierarchical structures of the Church must be maintained and even strengthened so as to protect the teaching body from being unduly pressured by public opinion. Only this form of government gives the official leadership the apostolic freedom that it needs to make decisions in light of the gospel and tradition.

2. Doctrinal firmness. Jesus confronted his hearers with a stark choice between serving God and mammon, between accepting his "hard sayings" and withdrawing from his company. Without unnecessarily alienating people of good will, the Church must clearly reject unorthodox teaching. The magisterium was never intended to seek popularity. It would forfeit all credibility if it taught only what people wanted to hear.

3. Formation. In the secularized society of our day it is imperative for the Church to mount vigorous programs to nourish its members in their faith. Such an educational effort will require an active and forceful clergy assisted by a large body of well-trained and committed lay associates. In addition to academic endeavors, groups of laity should be encouraged to make days of recollection and retreats so that they can capture the full vision of the gospel.

4. Evangelization. Although it must stand for definite principles, the Church is not intended to become a pious remnant of faithful souls. It is called to be Catholic and inclusive. The gospel is intended for all, whatever their race, language, nationality or social status. Every parish must become a vibrant center of communication, and every believer should feel the impulse to spread the amazing good news of God’s redemptive plan.

To meet the challenge of secularism, it is not really important to know what the future holds. It is enough to know what we are called to do and what the Church is called to become. There will of course be struggles and setbacks as there have been in every generation. But the assistance of the Holy Spirit will be given until the day when the Lord returns in glory.*

Father Avery Dulles is Fordham University’s McGinley Professor of Religion and Society. This article is condensed with the permission of Father Dulles and America Press, Inc., 106 West 56th Street, New York, NY 10019. It was originally published in America (June 20-27, 1998).




Helen Alvaré


Between her Cuban-born father and her Irish-American mother, Helen Alvaré got as solid a grounding in Catholicism as any of her friends in the suburban Philadelphia neighborhood in which she grew up. But it wasn’t until she reached early adulthood that she came to know a personal, loving God.

Today, at age 39, Ms. Alvaré turns again and again throughout her busy days to that personal, loving God. Now a wife, mother, attorney and spokesperson for the U.S. bishops on pro-life issues, she is aware of the many areas of her life where, she notes with characteristic candor, "I absolutely require God’s direction and intervention." But it was the diagnosis of manic depression in her early 20's that really brought home the message. "I realized I was grappling with a chronic disease. I told myself, ‘It’s in your genes and it’s out of your hands.’ I needed God...to help me live."

Letting God "run the show" isn’t the issue it once was for Ms. Alvaré, soon to give birth to her third child. What’s hard is finding the time to carve out enough time in her long day for quiet prayer, "time to listen, not just talk at God." Fortunately, a prayer group she and her husband Brian have formed keeps her on track. So does her job with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, where she and co-workers easily talk about God, attend daily Mass and exchange spiritual reading as readily as others might share recipes. Even in her many public appearances around the country where she delivers the pro-life message, her faith is on stage.

She supports the whole range of pro-life issues. But she is most often called upon to explain and articulate the Church’s stance on the taking of innocent life through abortion. It is in this arena that her faith comes under attack, at times, from pro-choice proponents who resent what they see as Church intrusion into a private matter. In fact, Ms. Alvaré believes, it is they who have helped turn the taking of human life into the distorted status of a freedom. Although abortion supporters tend to be educated, wealthy and articulate, she sees the pro-life movement gaining strength. "The truth about the value of human life can’t be hidden. We stand for the proposition: Don’t kill, but care for persons in distress, the marginalized."

Her message is one that many people in the culture dismiss. But her ever-deepening relationship with God gives her the strength to continue and to embrace the "hard sayings" of Jesus, including "Be not afraid" and "Love your enemies."*

— by Judy Ball




Called to Prison


Pope John Paul II is asking every bishop in the world to go to prison on July 9, 2000. The occasion is a special Jubilee Day for prisoners during the Holy Year, which calls for repentance, forgiveness and conversion. The Holy Father is planning to celebrate Mass either in Rome’s Regina Coeli prison or in Rebibbia prison located on the outskirts of the city.

An estimated 8 million men and women are housed in prisons throughout the world, many without benefit of trial. Msgr. Giorgio Caniato, chief of chaplains in the Italian justice system as well as coordinator for the one-day event, sees it as an occasion that should touch not only those who are incarcerated, but also judges, prison guards and ordinary citizens. "All Christians must make acts of conversion during the Holy Year," he says, and Catholics in particular must examine their consciences about their attitudes toward prison conditions, prisoners and the causes of crime.

Msgr. Caniato hopes that Catholic laypersons will join their local bishops in visiting prisons as a sign "that we recognize Christian prisoners are...part of the Church." He also expressed the hope that Pope John Paul will extend even beyond 2000 the appeal he has already made for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.*


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