Pope Francis’ recent statements urging restraint by the Catholic Church on hot-button issues is a hopeful sign that he may be looking to modify the Church’s behavior in the political sphere. His words are likely a reaction to the hierarchy’s tendency of late to identify with the political right and to use doctrinal litmus tests for determining the loyalty of Catholics. If one wants a true indicator of Francis’ real intentions, however, it might be best to go beyond the general tone of his remarks and explore how much he seems to agree or disagree in specific instances with the worldview of his hard-line predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. In particular, where does he stand, as far as can be determined, on the broad issue of secularism in modern society, a favorite preoccupation of Benedict’s.
Benedict and his allies on the Christian Right have made a point of exposing the so-called evils of secularism and, on that basis, justifying their hard-line positions on morality and the prerogatives of the Catholic Church. They reject the commonly held view that secularism in Western democracies enhances religious freedom by ensuring the religious neutrality of government, allowing for a level playing field for all beliefs. Instead, Benedict and his supporters see secularism, by virtue of its non-religious orientation, as a mortal enemy of Christianity. They commonly declare that it acts as a substitute for religion and that it aggressively, even conspiratorially, imposes its “anti-religious” values.
By holding to such claims, Benedict in effect endorses the culture-war framework of the Religious Right, which sees the world as divided into irreconcilable camps fighting to impose different versions of the truth. It thus becomes easy for him to view neutrality as impossible and tolerance as a false ethic used by secularists to obscure their “authoritarianism.” He chooses to call their open-mindedness a “dictatorship of relativism” because, in his view, it forces religion to accept passively things it views as evil, such as same-sex marriage and birth control coverage in health insurance plans. Coexistence under such circumstances he views as out of the question.
To what extent does Pope Francis share these stark assumptions about secularism and culture war? The evidence so far is somewhat inconclusive. On the one hand, the new pope has not publicly rejected Benedict’s stance. Shortly after becoming pope, he actually seemed to reaffirm some of Benedict’s framework. In a speech in March 2013, he briefly mentioned the “spiritual poverty of our time” and used the words “dictatorship of relativism,” used by his “much beloved predecessor,” to describe it. And he has since referred to the need to “work together to challenge the contemporary problems of secularism and disrespect for the human person.”
It is very possible, however, that Francis was employing such words more as a signal of respect for his predecessor than as a full endorsement of their ideological import. There have been instances where he has, in fact, appeared to take a flexible stance toward secularism and secular culture. For example, in a June meeting with politicians from France, a country that lives firmly by secular principles, he showed an appreciation of the openness of French society and its willingness to accommodate religious influences. He made clear that the principle of secularism in itself “shouldn’t mean hostility to religious reality or the exclusion of religion from the social sphere and the debates that animate it.” Clearly secularism here has a less “authoritarian” face than in Pope Benedict’s typical pronouncements.
Pope Francis’ recent August interview with Antonio Spadaro is significant because it gives further evidence of his willingness to come to terms with secularism in many forms. He reveals in the interview a wide knowledge of secular culture and shows no inclination to reject it in categorical terms. He expresses an impatience with those who would simply condemn the evils of the prevailing order, stating that a knee-jerk hostility to the world leads to a sterile conservatism. In his words:
Complaining never helps us find God. The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is–these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the Church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No, God is to be encountered in the world of today.
Francis opens his eyes to the world of today–the secular world–and shows his willingness to learn from it. “Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding,” he declares. He takes a positive view toward the modernizing changes made under the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), usually minimized by today’s conservatives, stating that the Council was a “re-reading of the Gospel in light of contemporary culture.” And he suggests that those who persistently long for “doctrinal security” in a changing world turn faith into a mere ideology. Such statements seem a far cry from talk about the evils of a devouring secularism.
To be sure, Francis’ openness to present-day experience is not meant in his eyes to lead to relativism or put in question the truths of Christianity, and he seeks to protect himself from that criticism. By reason of his leadership position, he clearly feels obliged to hedge whatever might appear to be a major departure from orthodoxy. It would thus be premature to celebrate any abrupt changes in his approach to secularism and the secular world. But it is surely a good sign that he is beginning to demonstrate his independence from the more dogmatic ideological constructions of his predecessor.