This year the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops once again celebrated the Fortnight for Freedom, hoping to focus our attention on a sad fact: people of faith are finding it harder and harder to participate freely in the public square. Whether baking wedding cakes, caring for the sick or placing children for adoption, too often the price of admission is to abandon our Christian beliefs about the dignity of life and the right-ordering of sexual expression. The secularist worldview predominates, and the space for disagreement and dissent is getting narrower every day.
To understand what is happening, it may be useful to turn to the predictions of the historian Hilaire Belloc, who foresaw this state of affairs as far back as the turn of the last century. In his book “The Great Heresies,” he contends that human history is a relentless clash of cultures. In the case of the West, the complicated tapestry of our civilization happens to have been shaped by the Christian religion, or more specifically, the Catholic Church — its most continuous proponent.
Furthermore, he maintains that the whole history of Europe, its outposts and the Americas, has mainly turned upon the various doctrinal assaults (or heresies) made on the Church, and her defense thereof. He goes through Arianism, Albigensianism, Mohammedanism and Manichaeism, describing the Church as a citadel with several faces and each face attacked in turn. The Church defended herself and her doctrines vigorously. The results were in some cases success, in others accommodation — in every case creating vast historical movements and tectonic cultural shifts.
Today, the Church is undergoing what Belloc called the “modern attack” of secularism. It is founded on the belief that the transcendent, God, and all that follows are figments of the imagination. To the secularist, religious affirmations are nothing but illusions, and moral decisions can only properly be made from a purely evidence-based and materialist perspective. While the earlier heresies were attempts to modify men’s religious beliefs, the “modern attack” attempts to get rid of them altogether as obstacles to human progress. From Belloc: “The last assault, the modern one, is more like an attempt to dissolve the garrison, the annihilation of its powers of resistance by suggestion, than an armed conflict.”
Our modern fight for religious liberty, then, is our turn to defend the citadel from heresy, this time against “a wholesale attack upon the very existence of the faith.” We fight, and are encouraged by the bishops in this battle, to defend our right to live with integrity in a rapidly shifting culture that rejects our ideals. It helps to remember that we fight not just for ourselves but for the entire society, believer and nonbeliever alike. Because if the “modern attack” succeeds, and the Christian faith is indeed destroyed, a new and dismal culture will supplant it. Indeed, the denial of God is already acting as a social force — creating disorder and dysfunction all about us. Belloc explains that the effect of secularism “extends over the whole moral nature of man. And throughout this field its business so far has been to undermine every form of restraint imposed by human experience acting through tradition.”
The fact is that the Christian tradition proposes a strong curb on men and women: a belief in the inviolable dignity of all human beings. This does not only demand our respect for the life of the yet-unborn, but also orders the way we ought to behave toward each other in sundry ways. Failing to internalize the revolutionary Christian view that we are all brothers and sisters and that we are required to seek the good of the other results in the dysfunction we see all around us — the violence, abandonment, fatherlessness and even the institutionalization of suicide.
All these ill effects are accepted by a secular society as inevitably attached to the human condition. Confronted by the human cost, the secularist shrugs with indifference. Belloc explains why there “is no universal cry of indignation, there is no sufficient protest, because there is no longer in force the conception that man as man is something sacred. That same force which ignores human dignity also ignores human suffering.”
With the Fortnight for Freedom, the bishops remind us that we must fight to hold the citadel. Not against Manicheism or Arianism as we did in the past, but this time against a narrow and intolerant secularism. This may be the most important battle of all. We are in a struggle to keep human dignity at the center of our culture — and the flourishing of all people depends on it.