Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

“It is our task to make people understand that the moral law given to us by Him and manifested to us by the voice of our conscience does not aim to oppress us but rather to set us free from evil and make us happy.” — Benedict XVI, to Italian Jurists.


On December 9, the Holy Father gave a Lecture to 59th Study Conference of the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists in the Vatican’s Hall of Blessings (L’Osservatore Romano, English, December 20/27, 2006). Its subject briefly is that we should promote “secularity” not “secularism.”

What, you might ask, is this all about?

Some of the older readers will recall the oft-heard Latin ending to prayers and invocations that went per omnia saecula saeculorum. This phrase was usually translated into English as “world without end, Amen.” Literally, it means through “ages of ages.” A saeculum is generally the period of a man’s life. So it comes to mean the generations of man down the ages, the length of our time on this earth.

Thus saeculum means the world. In Scripture, “world” has a twofold meaning. It means what is good but not God. God created precisely “the world,” which was not God. God would be God even if He did not create a “world.” This created world was good, not evil.

But we also recall that Christ told the disciples that the “world” would hate Him–that we are not to be overly concerned about the things of this “world.” Ultimately, however much it is our home, we are not made solely for “this world,” even when we are made to dwell within it. Thus, the world can also mean what is formally opposed to God. Christianity is not embarrassed when it asks us to think clearly about what words mean in context. And the ultimate temptation of man is to understand “the world” precisely as apart from God–as being man’s sole business, not God’s.

In medieval law, moreover, the secular was conceived to be opposed, not to the world, but to the orders of clerics. The “lay state” was the secular state of life, with its own goodness. By extension the “secular state” took on legitimate political overtones. It meant that which belonged to this world and especially to its politics, which were, as Aristotle said, “natural” to us.

In this sense, then, the notion of the saeculum came to mean the natural world, what was due by nature, what was intended to be irrespective of any consideration of revelation and its subsequent orders. Politics, in this sense, were conceived to be “secular.” They were only considered by the Church when they touched on something that pertained to revelation. The whole medieval period sought to separate out intellectually and practically what belonged to the Church and what to the world, to the civil order, to Caesar.


The Pope recalls to the Italian Jurists the various ways in which “secularity” is understood in the “contemporary” world. Some ways of understanding “secularity” and living it can be opposed to each other, that is, what is said to be good in one order is said to be evil in another. Thus an exercise in fundamental distinction is called for. “In the Middle Ages, ‘secularity’ was a term coined to describe the condition of the ordinary lay Christian who belonged neither to the clerical nor to the religious state.” Some opposition was implied here in the sense that one was not the other and both could misconstrue the limits of their competence. But both were good and had their proper place within the order of the whole.

However, in modern thought, the term “secularity” came to mean “the exclusion of religion and its symbols from public life by confining them to the private sphere and to the individual conscience.” In the classic Roman tradition, both the private and the public (res privata, res publica) were considered perfectly normal and compatible, even necessary to each other. The triumph of the one over the other meant harm to both. The family in particular was res private whose inner health it was part of the res publica to defend and promote. The interpretation of the saeculum as excluding both the private and the transcendent implied a claim to authority that overreached the competence of what secularity was about.

The ideological understanding of “secularity” that excludes any carefully understood presence of the transcendent or the private from the public order is the “opposite of its original meaning.” “Secularity is commonly perceived today as the exclusion of religion from social contexts and as the boundary of the individual conscience.” That is to say, nothing can be addressed either to the public order or individual conscience from outside of itself. They make their own laws and their own “world.”


Benedict explicitly brings up, from an extra-constitutional letter of Jefferson the phrase “the separation of Church and State.” In this understanding of “secularity,” the Church is not “entitled” to intervene in areas that concern “the life and conduct of citizens.” Religious symbols themselves–Crosses, Nativity scenes, displays of the Ten Commandments–are thus excluded from “schools, courts, hospitals, prisons” and other governmental centers.

However, because of this notion of separation, Benedict points out, the issue becomes more clouded. If “secularity” by definition excludes any philosophical or religious contribution to the public order, what follows is that the world, the polity, must develop its own thought, morals, politics, and ethic. No other source but itself is allowed. We subsequently have a “morality” that is totally independent of any nature, revelation, or reason that would claim a more universal grounding than what the state establishes for itself, whatever it is. We now have an “a-religious” morality. No room can be left open for God. No mystery can transcend this inner completely self-enclosed morality. Nothing can claim to be true or right “in every time and every situation.” Multiculturalism and tolerance–the acceptance of everything and the exclusion of nothing–are the only remaining virtues.

Only if we understand this intellectual background of the various meanings of “secularity” can we begin to understand “post-modernity and especially … modern democracy,” the Pope observes. That is, modern democracy is often a promoter of precisely this inner and exclusive understanding of “the world” that excludes all outside input or influence. It is itself totally autonomous.


Is there an alternative? Can we formulate an understanding of “secularity” that would include a place for moral law, for Christ, for the Church, for honoring God? And can this view allow for an understanding of “the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs”–a phrase from Vatican II? “Secularity,” in its proper sense, meant the gradual and historical development of our understanding of “the laws and values of matter and society.” We are supposed to use our minds and hands, as Aristotle said. We are supposed to learn what things are and how to use them. God is praised both by thought and action. That is, the very meaning of creation was that many things were left to man to find out by himself. God might have revealed everything to us by some illumination, including how to make an airplane, but this would have the drawback of never allowing mankind to find the things he could find by himself.

Thus, a perfectly valid understanding of human “autonomy” can be formulated, one that does not imply exclusion from all things higher or lower than the state or the world. Things have their own “stability” and “excellence.” Secondary causes are real causes. It is the purpose of revelation to enhance, not substitute for this understanding of the world. Nature may need to be healed, but it is not to be replaced.

When “autonomy” means, however, that nothing depends on God or that no limits can be found to what we do or endeavor, then believers in God will see the vast scope of this counter claim to exclude God from all the public order. “Secularity,” in the proper sense, does not mean excluding God but rather means limiting both the Church and state to their proper spheres, to learning by mind and experience what belongs to what and why. The state cannot view religion as simply an “individual sentiment that can be confined to the private spheres alone.”


The Church is a visible organization. It is a form of “public community” and so to be officially recognized. It is not simply a private association of individual consciences whose activities have nothing to do with the world. Such a view implicitly denies the very meaning of what a “rational animal” is. By his very nature, in all he does, the human being reaches out from inside of himself to the world. And, in its own way, the world comes back to him as something already what it is beyond his own making. Indeed, expanding on this principle, the Pope says that “every religious denomination (provided it is neither in opposition to the moral order nor a threat to public order) [should] be guaranteed the free exercise of the activities of worship–spiritual, cultural, educational and charitable–of the believing community.” This is a most penetrating passage and leaves us much to wonder about.

For instance, in the light of the Regensburg Lecture, just whom does the Pope think might in fact be opposing “the moral order” or posing a “threat to the public order?” What states and ideologies do not permit public expression of spiritual, cultural, educational, and charitable activities to religious peoples? The list is astonishingly wide, I suspect. Those polities that forbid these latter activities are certainly not always “secular” in any proper sense. Religion can be used to deny revelation. Many have embraced the ideology of “secularism” that displays “hostility to every important political and cultural form of religion and especially the presence of any religious symbol in public institutions.”

There is something else that bothers the Pope about this exclusive secular autonomy. “To refuse the Christian community and its legitimate representatives the right to speak on the moral problems that challenge all human consciences today, and especially those of legislators and jurists, is not a sign of healthy secularity.” Obviously, Benedict here refers to the right of Church officials to present their views about public issues that concern truth and morality without fear of being accused of interfering with the “internal autonomy” of the secular or religious order. It is delicately put, that the Church does intend and has an obligation to speak to its own members and to the world about truth and morality in public issues that are of transcendent importance.

Isn’t this view just another view of typical Church “interference?” The Pope does not back down. It is not “meddling” in affairs of State but “the affirmation and defense of important values that give meaning to the person’s life and safeguard his or her dignity.” It is noteworthy that the Pope states, “these values are human before being Christian, such that they cannot leave the Church silent and indifferent.” This statement goes back to the notion of a legitimate intellectual and human autonomy that believers also are witness to and have an obligation to address themselves to. This is a defense of philosophy and politics as such. The Church sees it as a duty “to firmly proclaim the truth about man and his destiny.” Who else, we wonder, is proclaiming this when the very questions of the truth of man and his destiny are excluded from serious public consideration?


The Pope recognizes the many accomplishments of our times. “We are living in an exalted historical period because of the breakthroughs that humanity has achieved in many areas of law, culture, communication, science and technology.” Acknowledging this “exalted period” is nothing other than a recognition, in a proper way, of the “natural autonomy of human affairs.”

Yet, Pope Ratzinger is not na夫e. “There are attempts by some people to exclude God from every sphere of life and present Him as man’s enemy.” He does not “list” who such people are, but expects us to recognize them when they appear in our midst. We need to have full, objective understandings of these attempts and a strategy, both intellectual and political, to prevent their total success.

If universities need an intellectual agenda about reality, the Holy Father has one. “It is our task to make people understand that the moral law given to us by Him and manifested to us by the voice of our conscience does not aim to oppress us but rather to set us free from evil and make us happy.” (This spring Ignatius Press will publish a book of Josef Ratzinger, written while he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, entitled On Conscience.) The “making people understand” does not mean “coercion” but genuine understanding of what is at stake, of what is our precise destiny.

We have to show (that is, give reasons), “that without God man is lost, and that the exclusion of religion from social life–and the marginalization of Christianity in particular–undermines the very foundation of human coexistence. Indeed, before being social and political, these foundations are of a moral order.” Of course, this legal “marginalization,” as the Pope knows, is what is taking place over the foundations of the European Union and indeed in every modern democracy. But politics and society do not form man to be man. He is already formed in his being what he is by his very existence, which he does not give himself.

This short address of Benedict XVI is a jewel in clarifying what we mean by intelligence and its use to define what and who we are in “this world”. The state does not “make man to be man,” as Aristotle said. Benedict speaks within a long history of philosophy and theology in which the two sources are both open to him and to all of us. It is, as he says, his “duty [to] firmly proclaim the truth about man and his destiny.” As I often say, who else is proclaiming precisely these two things together about our whole being? Such is what we need to know per omnia saecula saculorum, “through generation upon generation, world without end.”