This article first appeared at: stpaulcentre.com
By Dr Scott Hahn with Brandon McGinley
Everything that is true of so-called secular societies is true of so-called secular individuals. To refuse to submit oneself to the living God—to refuse to acknowledge, adore, and serve Him as justice demands—is not a neutral choice. It does not preserve one’s objectivity or intellectual freedom; it does not liberate the soul.
One of the most destructive pieces of catechesis taught by modern secular liberalism is that believers must not be “too religious”—especially in public. To believe in religious duties within the confines of one’s own head, home, or church is acceptable and more or less respectable. But to let these convictions influence one’s participation in the “secular” sphere—that is, everything outside those spaces reserved for private devotion—is considered too far.
Consider the apoplexy with which the decision of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2019 to ban Catholic youth sports events on Sundays has been met. Barely concealed beneath the surface of the largely logistical complaints was the unspoken assumption that “religious” notions, like the Third Commandment, had no place in a secular endeavor, like athletics. To allow concerns about God to invade an officially godless sphere, either as a community or even in one’s own moral– social calculations, is considered to be an act of aggression, even a kind of reverse defilement—the sacralization of what is supposed to be profane.
Moments like these pull back the curtain on secularism to reveal just how subjective and sectarian it really is: It requires strict enforcement of a public-private divide that makes no sense in the logic of Christ. This is strictly anti-religious— not just in the sense that it discriminates against religious belief and practice but in the sense that it rules out the authentic virtue of religion. While our religious duties in justice to the King of kings are certainly in some sense relative to our circumstances, to be “neutral” with respect to Christ in certain times and places is necessarily to elevate other goods above Him. Social idolatry, therefore, both emerges from and, in turn, enforces personal idolatry.
The soul, like the society, that strives to be secular finds itself not liberated but subjected to new gods. If Jesus Christ is not at the top of the soul’s hierarchy of goods, something or someone else will be. What that is will depend on the person: The devil knows our weaknesses and will present us with the idols that are most compelling to our preferences and that feel the most like liberation—and therefore that feel the least like what they actually are. Christ conquers our soul through reason and love; His competitors always use coercion and deceit. Christ is a benevolent King; His competitors are venal dictators.
This is what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism,” and its forerunner is secular liberalism. We are taught by this regime that we can and must be at least intermittently secular, but that only means that we must be intermittently idolaters. And idols are by definition jealous gods, soon demanding more than we were originally willing to give: more sacrifice of the virtue of religion to achieve more wealth, more autonomy, more pleasure, more success, more prestige. They eventually accept nothing less than the worship, sacrifice, and adoration reserved only for Jesus. There is no non-religious alternative to true religion. The choice isn’t between Christ and a genteel secular neutrality but between Christ and His antagonists.
We live in strange times in many ways. One of the most pervasive, but also most abstracted and least obvious, is the tension between our material circumstances and our perceived stability.
From the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the fields of Nebraska, from boardrooms in London to cottages in Poland, there is an inchoate sense that the social order as we know it is on the knife-edge. And yet Western civilization is in the midst of a generations-long run of prosperity and political stability. Since the end of the Second World War, there have been blips—the transatlantic chaos of 1968, the difficult reintegration of the Soviet Bloc, the lingering effects of the recession of 2008—but in the scope of world history, the past seventy years have been marked by unprecedented security and material flourishing. (The long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic will not be known for many years; while it may be that future historians will regard this as the beginning of the end of our era of prosperity and stability, at the moment this seems unlikely.)
We see this also in personal psychology: individuals and families whose sensation of precariousness is wholly out of keeping with their actual material circumstances. So many people feel like everything they have doesn’t matter, like everything’s about to fall apart, unless they can have something else: a bigger house, another relationship, a lucrative promotion.
This is only a paradox if we take on the materialist view of reality, which assumes that only what we can see, touch, and taste matters. But it makes all the sense in the world if reality is much more complicated—if we have souls, and if those souls are made to conform to a divine and unchanging order, and if genuine harmony of mind, body, and community can only come from that order. Then we can see all these inferior goods, such as prosperity and pleasure and autonomy, not as balms that bring contentment but as idols that bring disorder.
It is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion
– Scott Hahn & Brandon McGinley (Paperback)
Is religion a right given to us by the state? Is it an opium for the masses? Is it private opinion with no role in the public sphere?
In It Is Right and Just, bestselling author Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley challenge our idea of religion and its role in society. Hahn and McGinley argue that to answer questions over religious liberty, justice, and peace, we must first reject the insidious lie perpetuated by secular-liberal culture: that religion is a private matter.
Contrary to what political commentators and activists say, religion is not only relevant to justice and law, but is necessary for civilization to thrive. Recover the public nature of true religion, It Is Right and Just argues, and watch as a revolution unfolds.
The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order
– Scott Hahn (Paperback)
Everyone seems to agree that Western Civilization is in trouble. The problem is that no one agrees on what has gone wrong or what to do about it. Some think we have too much government, some not enough; some think we have too much capitalism, some not enough; some think we have too much sexual freedom, some not enough. But what if the problem is much more fundamental? What if the problem goes to the very foundations of who we are as human beings in relationship with God? In The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order, Scott Hahn makes the startling claim that our society’s ills and its cures are rooted in whether we reject or accept the divine graces made available through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Man, he argues, is social in his very nature. We were created for community. As it was in the beginning, so it remains today. The family, formed through the Sacrament of Matrimony, is the most basic building block of every society—whether we like it or not. We’ve corrupted marriage, and so we have a corrupt society. If we get marriage right, our society, through God’s grace, will flourish. This is so because Matrimony, like all the sacraments, heals and elevates human nature. Without marriage, our ambitions toward a just social order will remain forever foolhardy. With it, the seemingly impossible, a truly peaceful and humane civilization, becomes possible.
Catholics in Exile: Biblical Wisdom for the Journey Home
– Scott Hahn & Brandon McGinley (Paperback)
From the day the Gospel dawned in the World, Christians have occupied a remarkable place—citizens of heaven, but heirs to the world; loving the world, yet persecuted by the world. A second-century author remarked that Christians are to the world what the soul is to the body. It was people of faith who transformed Greco-Roman civilization and empowered it to thrive.
This is the way of believers in every age, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested” (2 Cor 4:10).
In this book, Catholics in Exile: Biblical Wisdom for the Journey Home, authors Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley demonstrate that the same power that converted the world in the first century is still converting the world today. Providence is not like a sporting event, or the stock market, or the battlefield, where progress can be measured. But it is more reliable than any measurement we have.
The message of this book is at once bracingly realistic and hopeful. Christians today are living in exile. But Christians have always lived as strangers in a strange land—and have nevertheless prevailed. It is a timeless message, but calibrated here precisely for our time.