Pope Benedict’s legacy: Beware the secular state
The announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will be “retiring” as of the end of February does not signal the end of his influence. Pope’s aren’t presidents. Their influence does not end with their pontificate, as a president’s does with the end of his term. Their pontificates ensure their legacies to the Church.
One legacy to be especially treasured will be the Pope’s reflections on the dangers of the increasingly aggressive secular state. While most of the media chatter over the next two months will be about a successor—with those on the Left, once again, fanaticizing about a papal coup—the real news is not that Benedict is leaving, but what he is leaving us.
He is leaving us a warning. In the West, and now especially in the U.S., the state is increasingly pushing a secular agenda, and pushing that agenda through means pushing the Church out. The threat to religious liberty is very, very real.
In January 2012 Pope Benedict addressed the American bishops in their ad limina pilgrimage to Rome.
“It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.”
But we must be—and the Pope was—clear. The threat isn’t just to the Catholic Church. It is a threat against all Christians. In fact, radical secularism is a threat to all believers.
At about the same time that the Pope was warning the American Bishops (and, indirectly, all Americans) about the threat to religious liberty by radical secularists, the Obama Administration’s Health and Human Services was busily fulfilling the Pope’s prophecy. That very January, the head of the HHS, ersatz Catholic Kathleen Sebelius, handed down a mandate informing all religious institutions—especially Catholic universities and hospitals—that they will provide contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilizations in their insurance plans.
In short, the Obama administration was, and is, saying to the Church—indeed to all Christians, all believers—you can worship anything you want in private, but you will bend the knee before the secular state.
Sebelius as the deliverer of the HHS ultimatum illustrated perfectly how not to reconcile moral doctrine with public duty. Going beyond the Cuomo shuffle (“I hold the Church’s moral principles privately, but I can’t impose them on others”), Sebelius chose to be a willing servant of the secular state’s sexual revolution against the Church. A real Catholic understands moral laws are not subject to manipulation by the state or its minions.
Pope Benedict was no doubt chagrined, but not surprised by Obama’s mandate. He’s seen the way secularizing states act in Europe. He is a man deeply read in history. Such aggressive secularization has been gaining political ground since the horrors of brutal de-Christianization in the French Revolution. Tear down the crosses, eliminate all public presence of Christianity, secularize and redefine marriage, take over the education system, and force Christians to accept the secular moral agenda. It happened in France, it happened in Russia and the Soviet satellites, it happened in other ways with the imposition of the pseudo-religion of Nazism that took over his homeland, Bavaria, and it continues in all of Europe’s liberal democracies.
And it’s come to America. Take down the Ten Commandments. No Bible reading in schools. No public prayer. Clear away the crèche. No “Merry Christmas.” Affirm gay marriage. And, as we’ve seen in the HHS mandate, Thou shalt participate in the sexual revolution.
The message of all such radical secularism is clear: you will bend the knee before the state.
In looking back over the last two hundred years—popes always think in “church years”—Pope Benedict understands that the current rash of radical secularism is not merely current. It’s something that’s been threatening Christianity for a long time. The threat we are now experiencing in America is, alas, nothing new, but part of a protracted struggle between two rival, incompatible ways of understanding the world, human nature, the human good, and political life. One with God, and one without God.
Pope Benedict response has been clear: bend the knee before God, not the state.
Another prophet, G. K. Chesterton issued a warning a little less than a century before Pope Benedict’s pontificate, a warning that captures what is at stake in a world where God has been forcibly excluded from public life.
“It is only by believing in God that we can ever criticize the Government. Once abolish…God, and the Government becomes the God. That fact is written all across human history;…The truth is that irreligion is the opium of the people. Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But above all they will worship the strongest thing in the world.”
In a world without God, the strongest thing is the state.—especially, and most obviously, the state that banishes God.
That, I think, will prove to be one of Pope Benedict’s greatest legacies—the warning that if we let the government drive God out of the public square, the secular state will become the God we are forced to worship.
Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D. is a speaker and author of ten books, his latest being “Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion.” His website is www.benjaminwiker.com. The book is published by Regnery Publishing, owned by Eagle Publishing, which also owns Human Events.