Why today’s secular culture is anti-Catholic

What ever became of that visitation of American women religious?

I often find it interesting to look back at old articles written when the Internet was still quite young. This is mainly to see if the intelligent folk back then got it right or if we are any the wiser now. How good were they at diagnosis and prognosis?

This edited version of an address by James Hitchcock, now emeritus professor of history at Saint Louis University, was published in 2001.

If readers can think of any more “why’s” to add, please do so in the comment box. Even Toad or Mr Fisher.

I must say I particularly liked this:

In our post-modern secular culture certain people now control the media, academia and other avenues of influence and use their positions in these to impose their “truth” on us.

Dr Hitchcock’s 2001 address in Brisbane on AD2000.

Please find many more articles by the prolific Dr Hitchcock here.

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To a large extent, it is self-evident that today’s Western culture has become anti-religious in general and anti-Catholic in particular.

In this regard, there is a great deal of discussion among historians and others about “modernity”. Modernity itself is a modern idea. We talk about the ancient world but, of course, if one had asked Julius Caesar “what period of history is this?”, he would not have said “ancient times.” Nor would St Thomas Aquinas have called the period in which he lived “the Middle Ages”.

It is modern times as we understand it today that for the first time in history has a sense of itself as being “modern” and defines itself in contrast to what went before. The tendency in earlier cultures was to stress continuity with the past and to venerate tradition.

The tendency of modernity has been to emphasise the degree of split or break so that in our culture to say that something is new or original is to give it high praise for the most part. To say that something is old or outmoded is precisely the opposite.

This, in and of itself, creates difficulties for religion because the Catholic Faith rests upon Scripture and Tradition. The Tradition of the Church is authority-centred and we look back always to an event which happened 2000 years ago in history which will never happen again; and we look back to that particular episode in history as it is encapsulated for us in the Scriptures and Tradition as providing us with sure guidance for everything which has come later.

That does not mean that in certain ways things will not change. It does not mean that we do not have – in every age – to wrestle again with the question of how the perennial truth of the Gospel applies in our age. But we will never reach the point as believing Christians where we conclude that because certain events happened a long time ago they no longer have anything to say to us.

But many of our contemporaries believe otherwise . . .

There is much debate about when modernity, as modern people talk about it, exactly began.

One can point to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century as splitting the religious unity of the Western world and perhaps – not intentionally – giving rise to a belief on the part of many people that religion is a purely personal and private thing between oneself and God, and oneself and the Bible – that there is no single authority or Church which can pronounce the truths of Christianity. That it is, in fact, an individual thing.

In many respects, more important was the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Initially, to a great extent, it was a French movement in which, for the first time since the days of ancient Rome, people became openly sceptical of Christianity itself and of the idea of divine revelation.

Human reason

The Enlightenment view, put succinctly, claimed that human reason is the only sure guide to truth, and any claim of divine revelation – that some truth comes down to us from on high, which we ourselves are not capable of discovering on our own – has to be rejected as demeaning of human beings.

Ever since that time a struggle has been going on for the soul of Western civilisation.

The influence of Christianity – which was the single most important formative influence in making Western civilisation what it is – is still very strong. But, at the same time, the Enlightenment tradition of scepticism and doubt has become more militant and aggressive, attacking religious faith not only as invalid, but also pernicious.

This battle has been going on for the past 300 years.

For a good part of that time it looked as if religion was winning – or at least holding its own. The number of sceptics and out-and-out atheists was probably fairly small while most people remained Christian, at least in a relatively mild sense.

Over the past 35 or 40 years, however, the balance has been tipping more in the direction of the sceptics. Modernity is coming to be defined more and more as inherently anti-religious.

The crucial episode in bringing about this situation was the phenomenon of what we call the ’60s.

It still remains a mystery – and I do not think anyone has fully explained it – why there was such a sudden explosion in the mid-1960s of doubt, scepticism, attacks on certainty and repudiation of all traditionally held beliefs; and why it was expressed in such militant, passionate and even violent ways.

Someone formulated the phrase which sums up what was going on at that time quite brilliantly: “The systematic hunting-down of all settled convictions.”

At the heart of the modern idea, as it finally developed in the Western world, is the view that the ultimate absolute is personal freedom.

The Christian definition of freedom always turns upon “responsible” freedom under proper order – freedom to obey the will of God. The classical Christian view of freedom is that we are slaves to sin and we become free as we overcome this slavery. When we submit to the will of God we are not entering into bondage but are liberating ourselves from all that is evil in the world.

But freedom in the modern world has become defined as the right to do whatever one pleases, with self-expression regarded as the highest good. That being the case, the very existence of institutions of any kind that claim some kind of higher authority can only be seen as a threat to freedom.

The rhetoric of abortion, for example, centres on the word “choice.” People do not like to say they are pro-abortion; they prefer to say “I’m pro-choice”.

There is here a kind of reluctance to concede that anything not freely chosen could possibly be good. The modern culture wants to tolerate a lot of things which are obviously bad rather than be seen as restricting personal freedom.

The formula which is usually given is that we are free to do things as long as they do not harm others.

There are two problems here. In Christianity, we are also not free to do things which harm ourselves. We are not free to eat ourselves into an early grave, to mutilate ourselves, to commit suicide.

And if we take as the formula that we are free to do whatever we want as long as it does not harm others, then we make the ultimate judgment about what does harm others – and, of course, we always tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

There are all sorts of ways in society in which people do harm to others but rationalise and tell themselves it is not harmful. But the ultimate judgment lies in the individual who is doing it.

In discussions of such issues a very ‘slippery’ expression – “humanism” – is likely to be invoked.

While humanism has to do with being a human being, it is slippery because it has multiple meanings and can easily be misunderstood.

The expression was actually coined in the 15th century and originally referred to an interest in the Greek and Roman classics. The earliest people who called themselves humanists – including Thomas More – called themselves “Christian” humanists. For they believed that the dignity of humanity derived from its being created in the image and likeness of God.

At the time of the Enlightenment and thereafter the term humanism was often picked up by people who were anti-religious and anti-Christian. They put God and man in opposition to one another.

In the 19th century, we begin to see out-and-out atheists such as Karl Marx, who not only argued against God’s existence but claimed belief in God to be a bad thing, invoking the term humanism. In their view, the more we exalted God the more we diminished mankind. To be a humanist entailed denial of the existence of God – hence secular humanism. The good of humanity required disbelief in God.

Yet the greatest humanist in the world today in terms of someone who uses the term and has written extensively and profoundly on the subject is clearly Pope John Paul II. The term humanism appears frequently in his writings and he is fully aware of the long tradition of Christian humanism. He argues very powerfully that we are truly human only in connection with our creaturehood – our connection with God. Everything in us which is valuable and good is derived from God. If we cut ourselves off from God, rather than our humanity gaining more dignity, it becomes sub-human.

In contrast, the most influential Australian thinker in the world today is Peter Singer. He now teaches at Princeton University in the United States – which happens to be my alma mater. He is famous for his claim that human life in and of itself has no special moral standing – a young koala has a better claim to life than an unborn human.

We at least owe him a debt of gratitude for his bluntness – he says openly what we suspected other modernists have thought.

Yet Peter Singer has not been read out of polite company. Instead, he has been treated as a cutting-edge thinker who must be taken very seriously. People like Singer have coined the expression “speciesism” – meaning valuing your own species above that of all other species. To think there is anything special about human beings is to be “speciesist.” Only when you admit that animals have equal rights to humans are you on the right track.

So the humanists have now had to abandon the term. The non-believers, the secularists, who once went under the banner of humanity have to admit their position has been eroded: only on the basis of religious belief can one be a genuine humanist like John Paul II.

Meanwhile, over the past 30 years, the expression “post-modernism” has emerged, indicating a recognition that the modern era itself has come to an end.

Post-modernism carries the logic of scepticism a step further: there are no certain truths. Marxism no longer provides certitude of a kind; nor even does science. Everything is uncertain; a free-for-all now exists, resulting in the cynical view that “truth” involves having control over the means of imposing one’s opinions (“truth”) on others.

In our post-modern secular culture certain people now control the media, academia and other avenues of influence and use their positions in these to impose their “truth” on us.

What are the implications of this for a practising Catholic?

It is firstly essential to be conscious of the situation – that the culture is in many ways hostile to our Faith. It exists in the media, both in terms of how the news is treated and in terms of entertainment. It exists in many ways in the education system at all levels; and it has tended to get more and more embodied in our laws and public institutions.

Respectability

Thus, in terms of how “respectability” is defined, a person like Peter Singer, even among those who may not fully agree with him, is treated with considerable respect and taken seriously; whereas somebody who is outspokenly pro-life is regarded as a “fanatic.” One gets the message that certain positions are no longer respectable – especially those held by practising Christians and Catholics.

The second stage of this scenario is that it takes considerable courage to be a believing Catholic in today’s culture. One is likely to encounter misunderstanding, antagonism, ridicule, broken friendships and doors closed.

My experience has been that nobody bothers much if you say you are nominally a Catholic; but a lot of people will be bothered if you take your Faith seriously.

In the United States, the Churches still have the numbers and the militant secularists remain a fairly small minority. But the Christians are awfully passive and so much of the ground has been staked out by the secularists that Christians tend to keep quiet and hope the problem will go away.

There is a long tradition of speaking of the Church militant and I think we have to have a very strong sense of that. It means speaking out, writing articles, sending letters to newspapers, asking questions of visiting speakers and even considering how our careers might contribute in some way to a more Christian and moral society.

Of course, prayer is critically important, since ultimately things are in the hands of God. But while we should “pray as if everything depended on God” we should “work as if everything depended on us.” And, most importantly, we need to be authentic witnesses to the Faith we profess.

About GC

Poor sinner.
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17 Responses to Why today’s secular culture is anti-Catholic

  1. toadspittle says:

    “In our post-modern secular culture certain people now control the media, academia and other avenues of influence and use their positions in these to impose their “truth” on us.”
    …Whereas no Catholic would ever entertain the idea of “imposing their truth” on anyone else, would they?
    By way of Catholic schools, for example?
    However, assuming for a moment, that Catholics actually were in a position to “impose their truth” on the remainder of society – would they go ahead and do so?
    Wouldn’t they be morally obliged to?

    “The rhetoric of abortion, for example, centres on the word “choice.” People do not like to say they are pro-abortion; they prefer to say “I’m pro-choice”.”
    True enough. And the anti-abortion people do not like to say, “I’m anti-abortion.” They prefer to say, “I’m pro-life.”

  2. toadspittle says:

    “To a large extent, it is self-evident that today’s Western culture has become anti-religious in general and anti-Catholic in particular.”
    I honestly see little or no evidence of this, myself. What I do see is rapidly-growing indifference to religion – as something increasing numbers of people regard as old-fashioned, outmoded, and unnecessary.
    People aren’t “anti-religion” – any more than they are “anti” typewriters, whalebone stays, or carbon paper. They just see them as irrelevant and meaningless in this modern age.
    They may be quite wrong, of course…

  3. kathleen says:

    This is a really brilliant article GC, and just goes to show that the puffed-up pride of men who think they have discovered freedom or liberation from God have discovered nothing ‘modern’ at all. Instead they are simply dishing up old heresies and giving them new names… whilst becoming unwitting slaves of the Devil rather than God’s ‘children’, safe in His loving arms. It is any wonder Our Blessed Lady begged us so repeatedly in her apparitions of the last two centuries to pray “for the conversion of sinners”, for she foresaw how so many would be led astray by the evil hurricane of Modernism and Secularism sweeping through the Church from 1960 onwards. Look at this:

    [Update: Dear faithful priest, Fr. Gruner (6th May 1942 – 29th April 2015) may you rest in peace. Amen]

  4. toadspittle says:

    Couldn’t let May Day slip past without CP&S’s Traditional tribute, could we?

  5. GC says:

    That looks very religious, Toad. What is it?

    It seems quite like this, in fact.

    [That writing says “long live (something called) Mǎkèsī-Lièníng-zhǔyì Máo Zédōng sīxiǎng” – Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought? That sounds vaguely familiar to me; might have been a long time ago when I heard it. The song says a chap called “Chairman Mao” is apparently the “people’s great saving star”. A sort of “heavenly redeemer” figure?]

    There’s a sing-along version too.

  6. Tom Fisher says:

    The tone of this article is eerily similar to that of the remaining fragments of Symmachus. And genuinely moving in much the same way. The great wheel turns, and there’s little need to say much more. Christianity continues, but is no longer at the centre of political-cultural life. And neither was it in the beginning. The time of Christian cultural hegemony was only a passing thing, but Christianity itself is more than able to survive the transition. There’s no point in resenting Western Civilization for parting ways with the Church, both existed before the alliance began, and the identification between the two was never complete.

  7. Tom Fisher says:

    For context: *Symmachus was one of the last pagan senators in the fourth century as the power balance between paganism and Christianity began to shift fundamentally. He wrote (amongst other things) a verse about the decline of piety as the ancient customs were abandoned, the old ways were forgotten, hallowed religious rites were ignored, and the temples were allowed to fall into ruin. — All because of what he saw as a modish new spirituality from the east.

  8. toadspittle says:

    My song’s snappier than yours, GC – I think. All entirely a matter of taste, of course.
    …Bit like religion, as Tom obliquely points out.

  9. kathleen says:

    But Tom, pagan rites ring hollow and false, whereas Christianity is based on facts, faith and reason. Once people discover the truth of Christ and His Church, they are liberated from their former false gods and restless search for meaning in their lives. Sounds like Symmachus never even knew what Christianity was all about.

  10. GC says:

    Toad, the Chinese one sounds like it was based on a folk melody, as many great hymns were also!

    I think the Chinese one sounds better as it sounds more like a church anthem and thus more religious, uplifting and stirring.

    It reminds me of Vaughan Williams’ “Old 100th”, as a matter of fact:

  11. toadspittle says:

    “..pagan rites ring hollow and false, “
    …Not to pagans. Everyone else’s rites ring hollow and false to each of us.
    Except ours, of course.

    Mormon rites ring hollow and false to Calvinists.
    Quivering Brethren rites ring hollow and false to Muslims.
    ….And so on.
    Infinitum.

  12. GC says:

    Mr Fisher, is this the Symmachus who got cross when his 29 Saxon slaves strangled one another rather than fight as gladiators as a public spectacle in the games organised at the circus by said Symmachus?

    If so it is hard to resist the conclusion of this historian, Jillian Mitchell at the University of Wales, that she would suggest that though we can only be astonished by and deplore the cavalier attitudes to death at the circus that the Romans had, which is demonstrated by “the Case of the Strangled Saxons”, nevertheless this letter provides us with a wonderful insight into the late Roman world of festival and sport. It is probably one of the last such glimpses: in 404 due to the death of a monk, Telemachus, who intervened in a fight between two gladiators, Honorius banned the games at Rome. However Valentinian III allowed them back in 423. But their popularity was waning, and with the influence of the Christian religion some time after 440 they stopped altogether.

  13. GC says:

    All entirely a matter of taste, of course.
    …Bit like religion, as Tom obliquely points out..

    Yes, Toad, Mr Fisher does indeed give the impression that it doesn’t matter and let’s just be coldly academic about it all as if it doesn’t make any difference. I think clearly it will and it has already.

  14. Tom Fisher says:

    Mr Fisher, is this the Symmachus…

    GC: I do not believe, and I have never claimed, that Symmachus was a paragon of virtue. As an individual, he is of no importance.

    I know that you understood what I was getting at in my comment at 07:43. And thank-you for acknowledging that by ‘liking’ it on WordPress.

    If anyone thought my two comments on this thread were anti-Christian they are mistaken, and I apologise for not putting my point better.

  15. Tom Fisher says:

    But Tom, pagan rites ring hollow and false, whereas Christianity is based on facts, faith and reason. Once people discover the truth of Christ and His Church, they are liberated from their former false gods and restless search for meaning in their lives. Sounds like Symmachus never even knew what Christianity was all about.

    Hi Kathleen, I think that Senator Symmachus was, in his own way, sincere. But his religion was purely based on nostalgia, and tradition for its own sake. — So when Roman society turned away from paganism, paganism collapsed. I think that he, and others like him, felt genuine pain at the disintegration of their ancestral religion, and its privileged place in society.

    There are points of similarity, and difference, when we look at Christianity today. — One difference is that Christianity does not need a privileged place in order to thrive. Christianity makes claims to timeless truths and is more than able to survive a loss of social prestige .
    One point of similarity is that there is a great deal of pain in the process by which Christianity ceases to have hegemony over western society, and Symmachus registered exactly the same pain, at the other end of the process.

    The following from GC is not what I meant, it’s my fault for not putting it better:

    Mr Fisher does indeed give the impression that it doesn’t matter and let’s just be coldly academic about it all as if it doesn’t make any difference.

  16. JabbaPapa says:

    I think that Senator Symmachus was, in his own way, sincere. But his religion was purely based on nostalgia, and tradition for its own sake. — So when Roman society turned away from paganism, paganism collapsed. I think that he, and others like him, felt genuine pain at the disintegration of their ancestral religion, and its privileged place in society.

    I think you’re right that the dispute between Symmachus and St. Ambrose was similar to some disputes that are occurring in our own times, but you seem to be incorrect in your view that Symmachus’ paganism was merely sentimental and nostalgic — indeed, his Memorial includes various theological claims, some of them implicit admittedly, that illustrate clearly that he sincerely believed that God were surrounded by a host of lesser gods that one should worship.

    Also notable however is Symmachus’ outright Relativism, and he clearly professes the pagan view that all religions are equally valid and everyone should have the right to believe whatever they want. Sound familiar ? It should — it’s the siren song of the Modernists, the Liberals, and the Relativists to this very day.

    (as an ad parte, how absurd then, in the face of such clear 4th century evidence to the contrary, to claim these things to have been the product of Vatican II …)

    St. Ambrose’s counter-argument is less well written, and he declined to address that theological view directly ; instead, attacking the examples used by Symmachus to justify his position as being of little real value, and as being misrepresentations of reality, whereby whatever positive was cherry-picked as being from the action of these “gods” and the worship they received, whilst all that is negative is ascribed to a failure to keep these cults — but he rightly suggests the final absurdity of the Relativist Roman Paganism, in its view that all gods are worthy of receiving worship — for if Rome and all her enemies are all worthily worshipping their various pagan cults, then none of these cults Roman or otherwise can be said to be provided of any special value whereby it could be set up above the others.

    Symmachus himself recognised that there is one supreme God ; St. Ambrose’s position that only this God is truly worthy of receiving worship is therefore unassailable by Symmachus’ Relativist paganism.

    The two texts can be found here : http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/ambrose-sym.asp

    (as another ad parte, here are St. Ambrose’s views on the origin of the world ; “The world itself, which at first was compacted of the germs of the elements throughout the void, in a yielding sphere, or was dark with the shapeless confusion of the work as yet without order, did it not afterwards receive (the distinction between sky, sea, and earth being established), the forms of things whereby it appears beautiful?” — a good 4th century example of why those frantic atheists who claim that Christianity is “opposed” to Science should be told to shut up)

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