Secularism too fragile a basis for society, English bishop says

Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth. Credit: Mazur/

During an address at his alma mater last week, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth discussed the rise of secularism in Britain and how Christianity in contrast enables greater human flourishing.

“Secularism is too fragile a basis for a free society…the Gospel alone can offer an authentic humanism able to transform human living,” Bishop Egan said March 6 at King's College London, where he studied in the 1970s.

He was invited to give his lecture by Fr. Joe Evans, the university's Catholic chaplain; it was attended by students and staff of the school, as well as members of the Catholic Society and the Anglican chaplain and his assistants.

Bishop Egan's three topics were secularism and the demise of Christianity in Britain; a discussion of three of Benedict XVI's writings on secularism; and the Church's role in strengthening the Christian patrimony of the country.

He began by noting the increasing clashes between Christianity and present-day secularism, saying that “perhaps surprisingly, secularism…is a deconstructed version of Christian morality” and “a form of post-Christian ethics that thrives because its values continue to derive their vitality from the Christian patrimony still embedded in British culture.”

Secularism indeed “has its own theological terms such as equality, diversity, freedom, respect, tolerance, non-discrimination, multiculturalism, social cohesion, ethnic communities, inclusivity, quality of life, sustainable development and environmentalism,” he stated.

“All these values are derived from fundamental Christian values. Thus, the secular concern for tolerance comes from the biblical 'love of neighbor' but, disconnected from Christian practice and belief, it has become a soft value, free-wheeling, expanded with new meaning, now permitting what formerly was unlawful.”

Secular ethics, based in relativism rather than truth, gives rise to “the spectre of dictatorship” when values are divorced from truth and goodness, and thus “what has happened in the modern European context is that a loss of faith has dissolved the foundations of ethics.”

Contrasting how Britain's constitution and legal system were molded over a long period of time by Christianity and the natural law with the present situation, dominated by “pressure-groups and media, business and commercial interests.”

“Shorn from its moorings, the law is thus increasingly adrift,” Bishop Egan lamented. “It expresses the will of the legislator, the will of the loudest and most powerful, the will of a policy unit or the will of the majority, and this relativism is State-enforced.”

Turning to the thought of Benedict XVI, the bishop cited the emeritus Pope's discussion of the appropriate relationship between faith and reason, which ensures Christianity a place in the public square, even in a pluralistic society.

He quoted Benedict's 2010 address at Westminster Hall, where the said the “world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.”

Bishop Egan also referred to Benedict's 2006 Regensburg address, and a 2011 talk on the “foundations of law” to the German legislature, in which he reiterated the importance of natural law as a point of contact between reason and faith.

In the final section of his address, Bishop Egan noted the Church's missionary mandate, which is engaged immediately with the individual person, but the ultimate goal of which “is to evangelize culture and its sectors, so that the Gospel of Christ might leaven the totality of human endeavor.”

“The Church must engaged in a salvific, critical conversation with contemporary culture,” the bishop stressed. “Secularism is too flimsy a basis for British culture. It cannot guarantee human flourishing nor sustain long term the advances the British people have achieved, the great value placed on freedom of speech…respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties and of the equality of all citizens before the law.”

Secularism, he said, “is producing a society without foundations, one that develops randomly on the hoof through pressure-groups, legal precedent and political expediency.”

Given that secularism is given to a relativism that victimizes the weak, “its proven inability to support stable marriages and family life,” and “its innate tendency towards greater surveillance and state-control,” Bishop Egan stated “the Church has a crucial and therapeutic 'anthropological mission' within 21C British society.”

The Church is called to “demonstrate how Christianity, not secularism, can offer…a transformation of meaning and value that leads to human flourishing. In a word, Christianity proposes an authentic humanism, able to ground a free, democratic and pluralist society.”

Outlining the task of the new evangelization, Bishop Egan said the first task is “to demonstrate that spirituality and religion will never go away; the question of God lies naturally within man's horizon and is raised spontaneously by human consciousness.”

Secondly, he said, Christians must “help people encounter God” and through “intellectual, moral and spiritual conversion…enable them to become intentional disciples of Jesus Christ.” Key to this, he added, is the personal holiness of Christians.

Another task identified by Bishop Egan is to develop “effective Catholic apologetics” which can “rebut popular myths about science, so that schoolchildren especially can appreciate the interaction of faith and reason” and “the complementarity of religion and science.”

The most important aspect of the new evangelization, according to Bishop Egan, “will be to identify, retrieve and promote Britain's Christian patrimony, its history, art and architecture, its music and literature, its liturgy, theology and ethics.”

“This includes taking the theological buzz-words of secularism and driving them back to their foundational values in the Bible and the Christian Tradition…tracing the soft-values of secularism back to their Christian roots and exposing the ideologies that subvert those values.”

Concluding, Bishop Egan said that “of course, given the enormous challenge of the Church’s mission in Britain, it might be tempting to yield to despondency.”

“Yet Christ it he Way, the Truth and the Life and even at this moment, the Holy Spirit is at work in people’s hearts wooing them towards His Church. It is my own conviction that it is not the 'product' that is defective but rather, the ability of people in a busy, secular consumer-culture to hear its call.”

“That is why today…if we are to communicate imaginatively the Person of Jesus Christ to the peoples of our lands and thus enable them to reach that true, genuine, lasting human happiness and fulfillment for which they long, we need to pray for great creativity.”


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December 20, 2014

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