Van Thuân Observatory on Laity

Summarized in 10 Points

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VERONA, Italy, JULY 19, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a reflection on the laity published this week by the Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory for the Social Doctrine of the Church.



It has been presented in preparation for an upcoming issue of the "Social Doctrine of the Church Bulletin," which will be devoted entirely to the theme of the laity.

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10 Points on Laity

Our Observatory has started a comprehensive reflection on laity, which today stands at the crossroads of manifold ethical, social and political issues. One of the first results of our work is the study by Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, published in issue 1 (2006) of the "Social Doctrine of the Church Bulletin," entitled "Brief Notes on Laity According to J. Ratzinger -- Benedict XVI." Further in-depth studies and reports will follow.

One of the next issues of the "Social Doctrine of the Church Bulletin" will be entirely devoted to this theme and will feature contributions from different countries where laity and secularism take on different forms.

In the meantime, we have decided to summarize the reflections of the Observatory on laity in 10 points.

1. Laity Is Conceived Today as the Public Domain of Reason That Is Free From Absolutes

Nowadays there is a tendency to conceive laity as the exclusive domain of reason, that is of reason that considers religious faith as being irrational and therefore not worthy of entering the realm of public debate. The consequence is that religion is assimilated to a sect and the development of an attitude of tolerance that assumes that all gods are equal. Lay neutrality, therefore, accepts religion only according to three modalities: as private business, as a sect in the market of religious sentiments, as vague and generic mysticism. All three modalities deny the public dimension of religion.

2. Such Laity Free From Absolutes Is in Turn an Absolute Itself

This rigorously rational conception of reality embodies an absoluteness, the absoluteness of rational knowledge, the hypothesis of the exclusive validity of scientific knowledge and, consequently, the questioning of religious absoluteness. Laity that pretends to be free from absolutes is in turn an absolute choice, a dogma.

3. But an Absolute Reason Is Impossible

A reason that wishes to remain faithful to itself, that is true reason, cannot renounce its relationship with faith. If reason does not open up to faith, hence making itself absolute, it does not do so out of rational reasons, but either out of a form of fideism of reason or a form of rationalism of faith, that is to say, based upon a reason that becomes lay religion and on a religion that becomes solely social ethics.

4. The Political Refusal of Christianity Is Also a Refusal of Reason

By refusing Christianity the Western state refuses also the reason that Christianity embodied and thus delivers itself into the hands of the divinities.

Christianity does not look up to the divinities of myth but to God as the only being and truth of the Greek logos. The Christian God however is not only truth, he is also love. But the fact that he is love does not cancel his being Truth. "There is a primordial identity between truth and love." In this way Christianity unifies truth and life. It cannot do without truth, and in this it assumes rational needs, but does not accept the separation between truth and life that reason on its own would propose.

5. The "Self Limitation" of Absolute Reason

Laity, as public reason that seeks to eliminate its relationship with faith, is bound to undergo an inevitable process. It tends to absoluteness but, in striving to be absolute, it must restrict the scope of its truth to be able to claim an absolute knowledge. The conclusion is the extreme reduction of truth to what can be proven through experiments.

6. From Absolute Reason to the "Dictatorship of Relativism"

Here is the transition from absolute reason, taken in this meaning, to the "dictatorship of relativism." On any truth that is not the outcome of reckoning or experiment, positivist laity expresses a dogmatic doubt. Its sole certainty is doubt; it doubts everything except its own doubting. In this way it proclaims relativism, but it proclaims it dogmatically, as the last dogma that is left after the deconstruction of truth, hence it is the ultimate truth.

"Man no longer accepts any moral entity that lies outside his reckoning,'' thus desires are transformed into rights.

7. "Self-Authorization" of Human Action, Namely the Nihilism of Technology

If man is measured by his capacity, this is the nihilism of technology and man can "self-authorize" himself to do anything he knows how to do. The observation that the dictatorship of relativism leads to the nihilism of technology decrees the non-sustainability of the idea of laity as being detached from transcendence. It tells us that true laity is that which not only admits or tolerates transcendence, but also needs it and promotes it.

At the level of concrete political practice, true laity takes on two fundamental attitudes: a) it does not ask believers to shed their faith when they participate in public discourse and to clad themselves only with the garments of reason; b) it does not grant the freedom of speech only to individual believers but also to religious communities as such. This, from the standpoint of politics, means recognizing that the religious community has the right to be a player in the field of social and political culture.

8. Laity Needs Transcendence

If only a laity that does not exclude transcendence can truly be lay, then, and at least, laity must reason "as if God does exist."

9. Not All Religions Guarantee the Same Openness to Transcendence

Not all religions are the same in guaranteeing the necessary transcendence to politics. A religion such as Buddhism, for example, that envisages the dissolution of the individual in the "everything is one" is less capable of guaranteeing the rights of the individual in a transcendent sense than a religion such as Christianity where the relationship with God will be a personal relationship. It is in laity's best interest not to fall into an attitude of indifference and contempt toward religion.

10. Laity, Christianity and the West

The concept of laity exists only in the West. But it is precisely in the West that laity has taken on the characteristics of the dictatorship of relativism. Only in the West, therefore, can it happen that laity goes beyond the features of the dictatorship of relativism and opens up to transcendence. But since not all religions are capable of allowing the West to do this but only Christianity, it is evident that the West cannot afford to cut its ties with Christianity. Laity is not possible without Christianity. Undoubtedly Christianity does not coincide with the West, but if the West cuts its ties with Christianity, it will lose sight also of itself. Opening up in an indiscriminate manner to anything external, without confidence in itself anymore and without relying on its ties with Christianity, the West will no longer succeed in integrating anything, not even itself.

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