At the Pontifical Council for Culture Meeting

At the Pontifical Council for Culture Meeting with African Episcopal Conferences

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi
President of the Pontifical Council for Culture

Secularism — cultural challenge of globalization

The following are excerpts of the opening address of Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which was delivered by Fr. Bernard Ardura, Secretary of the Pontifical Council, at the meeting of the Dicastery's Members and Consultors together with Bishops representing African Episcopal Conferences, at Bagamoyo, Tanzania, 23 July 2008. Archbishop Ravasi expressed his regret about being unable to deliver the address personally.

In the wake of the long and rich presidency of His Eminence Cardinal Paul Poupard, who is at the centre of our thoughts with feelings of gratitude, we desire to let our Dicastery follow the trajectories laid out in the past, while opening up new perspectives.

One of these new openings concerns the field of emerging cultures at the international level....

First of all we are leading a complex and delicate dialogue between the fields of science and faith which has its articulation in a project called STOQ (science, theology and the ontological quest) and which is ready to spread into other domains.

We foresee an important series of events that will finish with a great convention in March 2009, during which scientists, philosophers and theologians will be able to exchange their points of view on the theme of evolution, a subject of current affairs hotly debated today. As the year that has just passed was dedicated by the UN to astronomy, this year there will be a new presentation on the person of Galileo and the methodological dialectics on the relation between science and theology, and between science and faith.

Another area that claims our attention is that of language. In the age of information technology, of mobile phones, of the dominance of the television, the transformation of language is particularly well-known.

Religious communication needs to know how to equip itself for new ways of expression, without losing its identity in changing the content or the style, and without closing in on personal references that would be incomprehensible for those outside. So the next Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, foreseen for 2010, will address this theme.

Cultural Challenges of Secularism

Today men are more and more convinced that it is useless seeking to combat God, as militant atheists did, for it is enough to know that he is reduced to impotence, excluded from our world. In this way an atmosphere of indifference has been created, where the secularised city no longer lives with or against God, but simply without God.

This is the socio-cultural horizon in which we now find ourselves, and here we discover the end of metaphysics and the end of the great narratives that interpreted, shaped and told the history of men. The global visions that delimited the perimeter in which we live, move and work, and the utopia which seek to break its limits, have given way to navigation on sight, to a sort of drifting along or to a fluctuating norm of the will in contingent situations.

The violent somersaults of 1968 and the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall have not managed to bring about a stronger humanity; they have only managed to push men and women into an anti-institutional subjectivism, tied to the humour of the moment and an a-moral life attached only to the here-and-now, immerged in the vanity of the words and actions with no interpretative or operational efficacy.

As pilgrims seeking a meaning that is able to reunite the fragmented states of the itinerary of life, we have been transformed into homeless people, drifting along the road with no goal, guided only by a freneticism which produces — as one French author has put it — an on the spot exodus, a static exodus without a promised land.

If globalization is not bad in itself, it produces contrasting effects. Blessings for the richest, totally inaccessible for others, scientific development and the immense technological progress in telecommunications and cyber-media have introduced a deep turmoil at the very foundations of society. The domain of information and the exchange of ideas seems to be limitless. It passes all boundaries of time and place, the frontiers of States, and even those limits placed here and there by censure.

Moreover, globalization is the vehicle by which the market economy has conquered the near totality of the planet. The "financialization" of the economy seems to have as its goal gaining maximum profit from global financial products for the benefit of an ever decreasing circle of an evermore richer and powerful few.

The way we live at the beginning of this third millennium has been radically transformed and confirms the intuition of the Second Vatican Council which spoke of a "new age in human history" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 24)...

The effects of globalization are not just in the economic field. They show up in... films and television shows made in just a few countries according to criteria of profit, where success is guaranteed by low-cost diffusion on the screens of entire world. These programmes have a deep effect on our young people offering them models of life that are often opposed to Gospel values.

We can list some challenges of globalization: the forgotten common good; "new culture" whose behavioural values show the logic of the market; the destruction of life models — the family, education, quest for truth, search for holiness, sense of beauty, generosity and disinterestedness, etc. — which were patiently introduced into cultures over long centuries of Christianity enriched grace; the rupture in the transmission of the common patrimony by parents, school and the parish; the loss of moral consensus in traditional societies; the strengthening of the autonomy of people by the exaltation of liberty and especially individualism....

Culture, in the noble sense of the term, seems to be losing out, menaced as it is by an exacerbated consumerism and a diffuse hedonism. The culture of entertainment — vanitas — sweeps away authenticity, the veritas. The weakness of political power, obsessed with consensus at any price, brings the anarchy of "all is permitted" to the detriment of the common good. The unbridled quest for consumer goods at the cost of respect for the other raises identity problems and engenders extremism, the source of mortal violence.

Pope John Paul II spoke of the "structures of sin", their force of attraction means that the facts of today seem to be normal in the consciences of individuals. People are no longer able to discern evil.


The phenomenon of secularization and its derivatives in secularism are felt everywhere, including in Africa and in its culture, or more properly its cultures, despite a past deeply shaped by traditional African religions, and a more recent history marked by Christianity and Islam....

It seems to me important to recall here that the process of secularization, with its positive aspects was inaugurated in Africa by the first missionaries of the Gospel. Theirs was an effort to transform the "magic" mentality of the peoples into theological and rational thought. This process did not take place only in Africa: from its beginnings, the Christian faith, to enroot itself and then expand, had to carry out a certain form of secularization....

The Christian faith is faith in a God who is fully divine, alone truly divine, and it is recognition of a world that is truly mundane, created by God, on which man is called to exercise his dominium, even if God is neither a stranger nor indifferent to him. So secularization is a process, not only mundane, which manifests itself in the self-affirmation of a critical reason in all areas, but it is also a process tied to the Biblical-Christian vision of the world.

Age, secular, secularism

Some terminological precisions would not be amiss. In different languages, several adjectives derive from the same semantic root from which comes the substantive "secularization": secular, secularize, secularized. One aspect in the Latin is that of saeculum, which in French is translated as sculaire, in Italian as secolare. In English we use the word "age".

To speak of something as "secular" in this sense is to refer above all to an event which occurs once per age. An "age" is here a chronological measure that lets us underline the importance of a precise event, or to show how long lasting was a given historical phenomenon.

"Secular" is used to designate a reality of the world, something mundane, that is present completely in the world, and so a priori foreign to the order of religion and removed from religious influence. But this adjective also is used in the ecclesial domain, as in religious and so, not secular.

Belonging to the "secular" is a way of being not only accepted, but positively embraced, and has been so since the Church's early days. The Letter to Diognetus is without a doubt the most beautiful elegy of the secularity of Christians, a theme that became a beacon during the years that followed the Second Vatican Council.

Not only the Church has given a place in its heart even to a certain secularity, but she has equally recognized the existence and importance of the realities recognized as secular.

The evolution of the use of the adjective "secular" followed in such a way that having been applied to internal or external realities of the Church, but always in relation to her, it was introduced into the very heart of ecclesial life in the field of the religious life, or in broader terms, consecrated life: in recognizing the existence of ecclesial institutes qualified as "secular", Pope Pius XII managed to introduce a sort of secularity into the heart of the religious, with The notable effect of breaking down the frontier between the "secular" world and the "religious' world that had seemed untouchable up until that time.

The fact is that God has created us in such a way that we are unable to avoid being inserted in a concrete temporality, and so in a precise century. So we are "by nature" fully "secular", such that the Church whose members we are, deploys itself over the course of time, in such a way that we should see a properly secular reality.

As I have already had occasion to say. the phenomenon of secularization (it would be better to say of secularity) cannot be considered as essentially negative.

Bearing in mind the concept of secular I just described, we are brought to envisage a certain number of other distinctions which are no longer indices of exclusivity or separation, notably "world/Church", "reason/faith" and "nature/grace" or "natural/supernatural" and "temporal/spiritual".

For Christianity these distinctions have their archetypal foundation in the famous declaration of Christ: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Mk 12:17). In comparison with these distinct but not opposing realities, the risk of a total separation can appear, or of hostility and conflict that can result in one trying to dominate the other.

Such clear-cut attitudes effectively deny the proper autonomy of different forms of the temporal and terrestrial realities. These are the fundamentalist, extremist, and radical currents that launch an anathema against all the instances of this age, and declare that secularization is fundamentally the weapon of absolute evil.

Péguy denounces it in these terms: "As they are not of nature, they think they are of grace: as they are not of their own time, they claim they are from eternity". It can be said that "the spiritual is carnal".

Nevertheless there exists another face of this form of opposition, and this is what we would call secularism. It assumes most often a dominant negative criticism, and easily takes on the form of contestation, rejection of the presence of religion from society, and of the Magisterium of the Church which is in service to the truth. It is not uncommon to find the soldiers of secularization claiming an absolute character for their actions, even taking on religious attributes that they themselves would condemn in the religious: hard dogmas, unquestionable truths, infallible authority, etc....

Secularity appears today in its strict link with temporality. It supposes, as well, the introduction and functioning of distinctions that can always degrade into opposition, or exclusion, and take the form of a process not just of emancipation but also of radical contestation.


Secularism, consequently, is nothing other than secularization conceiving itself as a religion, as was notably the case with Marxism. It is clear to see this in the way it brought within itself its own condemnation.

Yet, we can also point out another contemporary aspect that we could define as post-secularization: the more societies are secularized, the more they develop sects and new á la carte religions, or forms of vague mysticism and spiritualism of a New Age type.

Given where we are, it is useful to address again another positive aspect of secularization that has to be defined, as I said, by the term "secularity".

The doctrine of Creation, and also that of the redemptive Incarnation offers to Christianity and the Church many reasons to see, and maintain and promote the just autonomy of the saeculum. This is the true and authentic notion of "holiness" which expresses itself in the "profane" and in the "secular" without sacralizing it, but in making it flourish in its deepest identity.

Some lines of action

— Let us not fall into the excesses of generalizations deploring the evils of the times and unavoidable degradation of the contemporary world, nor of repeatedly denouncing the faults or errors of the Church, notably the early missionaries, with the almost obsessive insistence that some sects and media make of the omissions and weaknesses of the sons and daughters of the Church.

— Let us not take up a purely defensive strategy in the face of the promoters of aggressive secularism. We are quite capable of measuring them up, and pointing out their excessive claims and internal contradictions. inevitable limits and notable weaknesses.

— Let us resolutely say that we wish to be closer to the secular world in which we are already immersed in many ways, and which we do not fear to say we love and embrace, albeit with a certain amount of discernment.

— Let us transform the aggression that secularization often risks producing in us into the vigour and sweetness of a serene proclamation of the simple pure substance of the Christian message in its ultimate spiritual truths, in its high moral and social values, and in its grandiose cultural tradition.

— Let us affirm by witnessing with actions and words, without fear or anxiety, the heart of the Christian faith in the midst of the cultures which surround us and intersect us. provoking us and swaying us.... For this, the call of St. Peter is emblematic: "Be ready to give an account to all those who ask it of you, of the hope that is in you; and do it with sweetness, respect and upright conscience" (1 Pt 3:15-16.)

The severe warning given by Paul to the Romans is valid for the contemporary Church: "Do not take as your model the present world" (Rm 12:2) which would veil your own spiritual and cultural identity behind a model that extinguishes the light of the faith, weakening the ardour of charity. obscuring the quest for the truth. For there is a permanent temptation which can insinuate itself into the living Christian communities and. in certain aspects, still young as in the case of the Churches of Africa. These themselves see multiplying in their hearts the number of Christians who like Demas, as St. Paul observed "have abandoned me for love of the world" (2 Tm 4:10), unable to be in the world without being of it.

And so, we use the phrase of Pascal that man surpasses man infinitely. Even in the secularized city, the Church has the possibility of discovering, and not only in its own breast, those places open to letting Christian humanism germinate and let the light of authentic faith shine, bright and pure. There we can let resonate, in a new and incisive way, the Word of God. This is capable of enriching the deserts of indifference and superficiality.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 July 2008, page 9

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