Laicity, Christianity, the West: an Historical Profile (Part 3)

An Address by Archbishop Crepaldi

Rome, ( | 1688 hits

Here is the final part 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 eclipse of nature and human nature in particular

As already remarked above, the second reason has to do with the possibility for the temporal level emancipated from the spiritual level to maintain itself without succumbing to self-degeneration.

Having acquired the feature of religious absoluteness, as we have just seen, secularisation is destined to be opposed to the concept of nature, as well as the concept of human nature. This is because otherwise maintained would be a moral order that would constantly and implicitly demand completion of some sort of religious form. If nature remains, so does natural law, that being the order of nature that expresses a moral norm. In its turn, the norm contained in natural law would keep ever open the issue of its absolute and transcendent foundation, because in itself the moral order needs an absolute foundation. Proposed anew, therefore, would be the ‘old’ religion. For as long as Hugo Grotius denies the transcendent foundation of natural law, but maintains natural law, there is no irreversibility: the need for a transcendent foundation can be argued and recovered. But if nature is denied, as does positivism, this becomes definitively impossible and we have irreversibility.

Naïve, therefore, is the perplexed astonishment voiced by Karl Löwith. It is not possible for the natural level to endure on its own once detached from the supernatural level. The stark version of positivism projects itself as a “new beginning”, absolute and religiously anti-religious. In order to do this it cannot help but deny nature and natural law. Their decomposition and their abandonment may well be progressive in time, but the principle of this process is stipulated in its absoluteness from the very outset. What we witness nowadays is a rampant and alarming negation of nature and natural law. Without the support of the Christian religion the natural dimension of procreation, matrimony and the family is not able to hold its ground. The so-called “gender ideology”[14] is the most recent outpost of this negation of nature and human identity.

West means Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. Benedict XVI repeated his in his famous speech to the Bundestag in Berlin[15]. However, when Christianity encountered Greek thought and Roman civilization,  in addition, quite naturally, to the Jewish religion, it discovered in them both openness to transcendence and consideration of the force of natural law. It found a pre-Christian but human world. Today, however, it is faced with a post-human and hence radically post-Christian world.

The religious proposal of laicity

I have depicted an historical profile more in terms of the history of ideas than the history of facts, and this itinerary has shown that laicity is a Christian concept. This concept implies the separation of the political sphere from the ecclesial one, temporal power from spiritual power. It does not, however, call for the separation of politics from ethics, because the political sovereign, who is distinct from he who exercises spiritual authority, acts according to rational prudence and not in an arbitrary manner, since “there are limits to what the State may command, also when it is a matter of what belongs to Caesar” [16]. Neither in terms of personal will or discretion, nor in terms of a “will expressed by the majority”: as far as this point is concerned democracy has not contributed – in theory – to any radical change of perspective. Insofar as inseparable from ethics, to which it is directly bound, politics is also inseparable from religion as such and from the Catholic religion in particular. In fact, the ethical level is ultimately unable to serve as its own foundation by remaining at the simply natural level: “If we do not first understand our relationship with God we’ll never be able to keep these ambits in correct order” [17].

In modernity, however, another concept of laicity saw the light of day. Initially this was divined as the secularisation of Christian dogmas, but then became radically detached from Christianity and from any order, erecting itself as a new absolute and religious principle. This happened with positivism understood as a perennial category. In this manner the political level became completely autonomous from the religious level, but it also became incompatible with Christianity by assuming a religious form in itself. This is how relativism became a dictatorship.

In the face of such a scenario, rather naïve is the attempt on the part of Christianity to “laicise itself”, abandoning the cloak of dogmas and doctrine in order to dialogue with the lay world. If there were anything akin to a non absolute lay level open to human nature and religion, dialogue on laicity involving believers would prove possible. Unfortunately, this is not the main trend, and the reason is quite simple and grave at one and the same time: in order to be ‘lay’ in the sense we have just seen, laicity needs the Christian religion. Therefore, a laicity that has projected itself with positivism as an absolute and religious principle cannot be ‘lay’.  This is the paradox of the west: the farther away people go from Christianity in order to be ‘lay’, all the less are they so.

Following this paradox is yet another one. If Christians wish to contribute to positive laicity they must propose the religious dimension of their faith in its completeness, without any forms of horizontal reductionism. Here as well is the reason so tragically simple: in a religiously post-human world it is necessary to begin from the proposal of Christ and then, within the religious vision, recover the human dimension and hence the ‘lay’ dimension. This is where the Social Doctrine of the Church encounters “new evangelisation”.


[14]Osservatorio Internazionale Cardinale Van Thuân sulla Dottrina sociale della Chiesa, Fourth Report on the Social Doctrine of the Church in the World (edited by G. Crepaldi and S. Fontana), Cantagalli, Siena 2012.

[15]Benedetto XVI, Seech at the Reichstag in Berlin, 22 September 2011.

[16]J. V. Schall,Filosofia politica della Chiesa cattolica, Cantagalli, Siena 2011, p. 123.

[17]Ibid, pg. 122.