Laicity, Christianity, the West: an Historical Profile (Part 2)

An Address by Archbishop Crepaldi

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Here is the second of three parts of an address given last week by Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and archbishop of Trieste, Italy.

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The secularisation of the West

I intentionally took an example from the early centuries of Christianity and a second one from modernity. Between them there is the construction of a Christian civilization and then a progressive parting from it through ever more accentuated secularisation. Nonetheless, since many are those who attribute this secularisation to Christianity itself, things become a bit complicated. But let’s take it by steps.

Perhaps less than well known may be the fact that the most enthusiastic exaltation of the importance of the Catholic Church for western civilization is contained in the work, which, more so than any other, theorized a rigorous and complete secularisation of that selfsame civilization, I am referring to Auguste Comte’s The Course in Positive Philosophy. Karl Löwith, in his rightly famous book “Meaning in HistoryThe Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History, cites Comte’s laudatory words regarding Catholicism[7] and argues that Comte held the Catholic system in high esteem especially as regards the separation of spiritual power from temporal power. That’s what we could call laicity. Regarding Protestantism, on the other hand, Comte thought it had favoured “the emancipation of temporal power and the subordination of spiritual power to national interests”[8]. Catholicism had founded an order, while Protestantism “had laid the foundations for the modern philosophical revolution, proclaiming the right of each individual to free enquiry in all fields”[9]. Comte was of the opinion that “the degeneration of the European system has but one cause, that being the political degradation of spiritual power”, and  Karl Löwith comments: “If we think each immature spirit was left to its own decisions in the most important matters, there is reason for being surprised that morality did not decline completely”[10]. Back during his times it had yet to decline completely.

The work by Karl Löwith I have cited here explains in a convincing manner how the modernist philosophy of history from Voltaire all the way to Nietzsche consists in a progressive secularisation of Catholic dogmas. A turning point of great interest in this secularisation process is to be found in Comte. In Catholic dogma he saw the condition for the existence of the social order according to a principle of distinction between temporal and spiritual power based on the political role of spiritual power. Nonetheless, he also saw that this equilibrium was by then in disarray because in the wake of the “Protestant revolutions”, the spiritual realm had abdicated its duties over the temporal order, and the latter had emancipated itself from the spiritual realm. At one and the same time, therefore, in Comte we have utmost praise for the historical structure of Catholicism and its most radical negation through the proposal of a equally absolute but radically lay position: the positive spirit. According to Henri de Lubac, Comte’s positivism is the most radical among the forms of contemporary atheistic humanism  insofar as it projects a life without God, with no more regrets or illusions, and precisely for this reason has the same motivating force of a religion able to construct an order. An order without God. In de Lubac’s mind this project was and remains doomed to failure.[11] This, however, is not the point of interest for us at the moment. What interests us here is its “dogmatic” character, dogmatic in the sense of being radically and absolutely anti-Catholic. Then again, if the construction of the West had been due to Catholic dogmas, and if the ‘dismantling’ had taken place through the secularisation of Catholic dogmas as so will demonstrated by Karl Löwith, the decisive turning point had to take place when secularisation also assumed the character of dogmatic absoluteness. This transpired with Comte, and we can therefore say positivism is the dogma of modernity. 

Regarding the presumed irreversibility of secularisation

I’d like to return to Karl Löwith’s comment about the modern autonomy of the temporal sphere from the spiritual one cited above: “If we think each immature spirit was left to its own decisions in the most important matters, there is reason for being surprised that morality did not decline completely”.   Coming to the surface here is a decisive point in the issue at hand: does the emancipation of the temporal from the spiritual, the replacement of Christian salvation with progress and religion with science produce true autonomy capable of self-conservation at its own level, or does it produce “decadence”? Löwith seems to align with the latter position, and in the commentary under consideration considers it miraculous that it proved possible to maintain an albeit weak form of morality after this detachment.

Laicity understood as the mutual distinction of the temporal sphere and the spiritual sphere is an historical contribution of Christianity. Said distinction, however, did not mean the separation and absolute autonomy of the temporal sphere from the spiritual sphere, but took place within Christian civilization, against a religious horizon. The Christian sovereign acted autonomously, deploying political prudence, which means exercising liberty within a system of truths whose ultimate guarantor was the Church, which in Catholic dogmas conserved and protected the patrimony of natural law as well.

As Karl Löwith remarks, however, beginning with modernity is an ever more demanding secularisation that renders the temporal sphere  “capax sui”, autonomous in an absolute sense, sufficient unto itself, and able to endow itself with sense. Initially this ‘sense’ was borrowed from Christian dogmas through a secularised interpretation of them, but then claimed more and more as proper to secularisation itself, and this seems to have occurred especially with Comte and positivism.

Published in 1968 was the book “On the Theology of the World” written by Johann Baprist Metz, a German theologian and disciple of Karl Rahner. Prior to this he had written “Christian Anthropocentricity” in which he had argued that secularisation had been caused by Christianity and was hence a Christian fact to be accepted and lived as a fruit of Christianity, not to be fought against as contrary to Christian faith. In this manner the process of secularisation was interpreted as irreversible. In this later book Metz sustained that in the wake of secularisation the world had by now become completely worldly: “This the world where God is not encountered”  [12]. In is opinion, “for a long time – almost up to the beginning of the last Council – the Church had followed this process only with resentment, considered it almost exclusively as a downfall and a false emancipation, and only quite slowly built up the courage to let the world become ‘worldly’ in this sense, and hence consider this process not just a fact contrary to the historical intentions of Christianity, but rather a fact determined also by the most profound historical impulses of this Christianity and its message” [13].

In my opinion it is not correct to retain that positivist secularisation stems from Christianity itself, nor can we accept the view that it is the destiny of history. The irreversibility of secularisation is a positivist dogma issuing forth from an ideological reading of history, the Comtean reading of the law of the three stages, whereby humanity would have evolved from the religious stage to the metaphysical stage to the positive stage in an irreversible manner.

What are the ultimate reasons why positivist secularisation cannot be seen as a consequence of Christianity, or considered irreversible?

The first reason is that positivism cannot help but project itself as a new religion. We saw this above: secularisation becomes such when it does not limit itself to being the immanent reformulation of Catholic dogmas, detaches itself completely from Christian tradition, and proposes itself as an absolute principle. For as long as Hegel, Marx, Pr0udhon, and Voltaire, Condorcet, and Turgot before them had limited themselves to replicating Christianity by proposing an immanent and secularised version of it, the phases of secularisation could not lay a claim to true self-autonomy or embody secularisation in the true sense. The process remained linked to Christianity and continued to be reversible.  What other way to sever this umbilical cord with Christianity than to propose secularisation as an absolute principle?   Hence its religious character; religious no longer in the sense of still being in debt to the ‘old’ religion, but religious in the sense of religiously expressing an absolute anti-religiosity.

This secularisation is not the fruit of Christianity.


[7] K. Löwith, Significato e fine della storia. I presupposti teologici della filosofia della storia, Il Saggiatore, Milano 2010, pp. 98-104 (prima edizione 1977).

[8]Ibid, p. 100.

[9]Ibid, p. 101.

[10]Ibid, p. 103.

[11]De Lubac H., Il dramma dell’umanesimo ateo, Morcelliana, Brescia 1988.

[12]J. B. Metz, Sulla teologia del mondo, Queriniana, Brescia 1969, p. 144.

[13]Ibid, pg. 141.