Secularisation: challenge and opportunity

Dec 13, 2014 | 6 comments

A pub that was once a church - in Nottingham, England

A pub that was once a church – in Nottingham, England

Is this what ‘secularisation’ means for you – the eclipse of religion by hedonism?

There is another perspective on this process – one that sees secular society and idealism in the West still influenced by – and even dependent upon – our Christian heritage.

 “It has been more and more widely recognized that liberty, equality, and fraternity are, in fact, among the fruits borne by the biblical and Christian tradition.”  These are the words of  Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris from 1981 to February of 2005 – in an article published in the American journal First Things in October 1997.

If we Irish Christians are to prevent our churches all turning into pubs we will need to be able to put the case – in the pub – for Christianity as the most likely source of inspiration for a national recovery.  To do that we need to bone up on the history of the church’s relationship with the secular state, from the time of the Emperor Constantine in the 300s CE up to the present.

Canadian emeritus professor of history Richard Lebrun presents a masterly summary of this story in his paper ‘Secularization‘.   Click on that link to download it.

Liberty, equality and fraternity are still elusive – and no digital App or bottled enlivener can deliver them.  Once mastered, this paper will allow you go into the pub to explain why our churches must remain as the true source of all real progress!  


  1. Martin Murray

    An excellent potted history of the European church-state relationship and how that history influences life today. Religion’s and in particular, Christianity’s relationship with secularisation is not the black and white battle between good and evil that it is often made out to be. Healthy checks and balances come into play that are mutually beneficial. Ultimately the Church must not seek to be the Kingdom of God, but rather to help society find it within itself at its own core.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Even when our societies do not accept that people are to be treated as equals, we can surely rely on our religion to get us out of the ties that bind us to a repressive regime. The Pope isn’t happy with society right now but what can he do about it? According to the article, the sky is the limit. His influence on reality must come into question if we are to respect history for what it is worth. Inactivity has always favored the side of the oppressor. That being said, those of us who are to remain inactive play a very dangerous role; that of the ultimate apathetic hypocrite. Where better a place in history for the church than in an era where balance and ethics are craved by the common man, as I always say.

    • soconaill

      Amen to that Lloyd Allan. The glass is more than half full. It is the inability of the Pope’s opponents within the church to see this that constitutes the most depressing aspect of the current situation. Here in Ireland the confusion of Christianity with Christendom is almost universal, as the ‘Irish Catholic’ proved recently. Our task in ACI must be to challenge that perception, and to be upbeat about the death of Christendom in Ireland.

  3. Prodigal Son

    Mr Lebrun’s overall conclusion is well grounded, but is slightly old hat. It suffers as sweeping historical essays do in its sketchiness. There is no mention of salvation, of St Benedict or of the negative influence of Protestantism on philosophy. He ignores The United States where Catholics have “always been strangers in a strange land.”

    As the first three hundred years of Christianity shows, secularism is not its main problem. True, unbelief – whether deliberate and ideological, or lazy and pragmatic creates an orthodoxy which compresses and destructs the human spirit, and may produce a society without higher purpose. Lebrun supplies no remedy.

    Fr. John Courtney Murray claimed that “there is no real ‘humanism’ without the cross of Jesus Christ. And dismantling the inhuman parody we call ‘modern culture’ begins not with violence but with the conversion of our own hearts.”

    Lebrun’s account bears out the adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same. He corroborates the contention of Archbishop Chaput that “the central problem in constructing a Christian culture is our lack of faith and the cowardice it produces.” “We need to admit this. And then we need to submit ourselves to a path of repentance and change, and unselfish witness to others.”

    It was ever thus. As Lebrun implies complaining about problems achieves little – it isn’t a Christian response. He also infers that civic life depends on “permanent virtues” rooted in God and not self-developed “values.”

    The issue today is no longer lay investiture but courage more in relation to those outlined in the Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto by leading Protestant and Catholic thinkers centering on pro-life issues, marriage and religious freedom.

    • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

      Christianity will not only be responsible for a national recovery in Ireland; it will represent the salvation of the earth.

      The number of elitists has grown by 50% since 2008…signaling the true financial meltdown of the world’s economy. Disaster in itself can efficiently raise capital for a select few who can control the disaster. This has been proven time and time again. I know that the conversion of our hearts is important and turning cowardice into courage is a grand task but these things are better catalyzed by an act and not a wish. Violence is unacceptable but is always an option when both parties are grounded in some form of terrorism. We have to start seeing the elitists for what they truly represent : a terrorism against the true basis of our religion worldwide – equality.

      I know this sounds extreme, however, with all the financial unrest in the world among the most advanced of the civilizations, you would think that their numbers would show a true reflection of the world’s status but what it shows us is that they have mobilized the resources and tactics to create success from any failure. This means that these problems are fabricated against the middle class.

      So hedonism is certainly trying to eclipse religion but it will fail because people are intelligent enough to see it for what it truly is. This empire was born in 1st century – creating disaster for political gains – and this empire is still alive and well today…for the time being that is.

      • Aidan Hart

        Thank you Richard Lebrun for a well informed, carefully crafted and interesting sweep of secularisation over a period stretching from the early years of the Christian Church until our own time. I learned a lot from it.

        Your article clearly shows the Church-State aspect of secularisation in a much better light than many churchmen often portray it and better than I have often thought of it. It also implies that if Christians, and those of other faiths, wish to influence the social, moral and cultural aspects of their wider society they must seek to do so by attracting others to their cause by the quality of their lives, in terms of seeking for all citizens justice, equality, tolerance, democracy, openness and accountability of all power structures, compassion, the common good, respect, dignity, practical care for those on the margins of society etc. – many of which are contained in that great ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. against American racism.

        Religions, and especially Christianity, must demonstrate to the wider society in which they are embedded that they actively promote these values, particularly within their own structures and processes. Their members must show the active living out of these values in their everyday lives.

        Secularism isn’t of necessity anti-religion, merely against religions claiming power and privileges over others and the right to impose their morality and values on people who might disagree with them and have voted by a democratic majority to reject them or aspects of them.

        Christianity, others religions and those of no religion, have the right to influence society through appropriately influencing individual people by the quality of their lives and the rationality and coherence of their arguments but not the right to manipulate democracy or the political process by whatever means.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This