Secularism is often considered the result of atheism, but history disproves that myth. American Secularism is a form of public neutrality about belief or unbelief. It is more about agnosticism and religious tolerance than about atheism and anti-clericalism. Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican officials are now promoting “Catholic Secularism,” and that might have profound effects on Catholic America and the separation of Church and State.
If proof from the dictionary definition were not enough to prove that atheism and secularism are different, the example of Cuba should suffice. In 1992, that country changed its constitution, replacing the declaration that “Cuba is an atheistic state,” to “Cuba is a secular state.” The result was an immediate resurgence of religion on the island and the successful papal visit five years later to “open Cuba to the world and the world to Cuba.”
In the United States, Catholics and Jews in places like 19th Century New York and Boston fought hard for secularism in the public schools. The idea was to prevent Protestantism from imposing its forms of Christian prayer and bible reading on everyone. Thus did “American exceptionalism” produce a Catholic Secularism that differs from the European “laicité,” with its virulent anti-clericalism and stale rants about medievalisms.
Recently, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a respected conservative prelate close to the Vatican, embraced the United States’ model of secularism, linking it to Pope Benedict XVI’s praise of “positive secularism.” For the Cardinal, secularism is a necessary platform for the public forum. Catholics should not fear to be secular, said the prelate, because in its essence secularism requires only that Catholics use reason and logic to promote public policy. You don’t have to be an atheist to be rational.
“The decision of whether a way of arguing is rational, or perhaps more precisely plausible and convincing, is in a democratic system entrusted, in the last analysis, solely to the assessment made of it by the citizens as a whole in the appropriate forums, above all the electoral forums.”
I interpret this statement as encouragement for Catholics to vote as faithful citizens, basing their voting in a democratic society on rational arguments, not theistic ones. If I am correct in saying this is what atheists do, they now have strange bedfellows.
This promotion of American-style Catholic Secularism may be only a trial balloon; then again, it may be part of the current pope’s acceptance of President Obama and the Democratic Party’s agenda for Catholicism. This is important because Catholic Secularism would have much more electoral clout in the United States than atheism. While atheists abound in the blogosphere or the talk-show-buy-my-new-book circuit, few politicians curry the “atheist vote:” it is too small and insignificant numbers-wise. In the 2008 ARIS report, atheists account for less than 1% of people — 0.7% in the country, and are outnumbered 25 to 1 by Catholics. Catholic voters are another story, because we are widely considered the key swing vote in most elections.
While atheists should be delighted at their new rationalist allies among Catholics, the right-wing in Catholic America should be scared. The Cardinal, like this pope, have fully embraced the “liberal state” in ways that differ from the articulated positions of John Paul II, whose Polish experience probably colored his perspectives on this topic. The healthy secularism promoted by Pope Benedict and the reliance on rational thought in the public sphere run counter to the theocratic impulses of Protestant Evangelicals who use bible quotes to justify political decisions. It will be interesting to see if Catholics (e.g. Rick Santorum) who have hitched their wagons to Evangelical rejection of “secular humanism” side with the Vatican’s embrace of liberalism and secularism.
Liberals, however, should not consider Catholic Secularism as a slide away from the demands of faith or the rigors of belief. While admitting that “….religion is not only, and not even primarily, a source of ethical impulses,” Cardinal Ruini places the role of faith within one’s conscience. He says: “… the task is to find reasons to live… the mission most proper to Christianity … tells us first of all not ‘how’ to live, but ‘why’ to live, why to choose life, why to rejoice in it and why to transmit it.” Amen!