The destiny of the west and secularization.

(Text presented at the conference of the ‘Magna Charta Foundation’ in Norcia on the theme “Between the caliphate and post-humanism: the future of the west”)

Stefano Fontana


The destiny of the western world is linked to secularization, a phenomenon and a subject whose most profound dimensions continue to escape us. I have no fear of flagging this lack of comprehension: we have yet to understand everything we need to understand about the process of secularization.

Catholics in particular – laicists were perhaps more farsighted, beginning with Karl Löwith – manifested surprising naivety with respect to the process of secularization. They confused it with the legitimate autonomy of earthly realities, laicity, the ambit of human rights, or else with the natural level as compared with the supernatural one.

These are all correct interpretations, but insufficient to a great degree. Secularization has revealed itself to be much more and much worse.  

A lengthy phase of history in the life of Catholics was characterized by the naive illusion that secularization was something good in itself and could cease at a level of compatibility with the Catholic faith. We could perhaps indicate Jacques Maritain as the champion of this long phase, which also had many other protagonists. Nowadays it is surprising to read “Man and The State” with that trustfulness based on lay and democratic common faith and morality, which already during his time was waning away. Then again, when in his eighties, Maritain himself critically revisited all that in “The Peasant of the Garrone”.  

For a long time Catholics made an effort to converge with others on the human person, and in the meantime secularization had secularized the human person. Catholics sought to dialogue with others on the level of nature, while secularization was secularizing nature. For some time Catholics were also under the illusion of being able to base encounter on liberty, while at the same time secularization was sapping man’s desire to be free. Benedict XVI identified reason and truth as the privileged interlocutors of the faith, and in the meantime secularization was secularizing reason itself, and this to the degree of making it unrecognizable for the faith.

Basically speaking, the “anthropological crisis” now emptying the western world of itself is none other than a fruit of the process of secularization, which never ends. Secularization is a voracious and insatiable process, and long have we pulled the wool over our own eyes about this. At the outset it seemed to concern religion alone; then it secularized morality as well, and is now secularizing human nature as such. The gender ideology is the complete secularization of human nature and nature at large.

Catholics split up into two different fields. The theology of Karl Rahner accepted and baptized secularization, replacing the Church with the world seen as an event of self-communication by God, and unifying sacred history and profane history. With Vatican Council II the Church “opened itself to the world”, and hence to secularization as well. During the post-Council period, following the spread of Rhaner’s theology, the Church accepted being replaced by the world. The Church which shares this approach not only accepts secularization today, but actually fosters it. The other field is the side of traditionalism, which adopts an antagonist position with respect to secularization. This position is forced to remain attached to nature, and thereby succeeds in safeguarding tradition, but is not able to make it become history.  

Which points about secularization have to be cleared up in order to be able to understand the phenomenon and give the western world some chance with respect to the nihilism now exhausting it?

The first point is that today’s ruthless secularization has a dimension of absoluteness; it is a new absolute at odds with the Catholic religion as one absolute against another absolute. Secularization does not stop on a level of neutrality; for example, the negation of nature is expressed by fashioning a new nature.

Second point: secularization operates in practical terms, not in theory; in other words by having people do things, by providing people with new techniques, new possibilities and chances in life, and new ways of relating with one another, working, making use of free time, dressing and enjoying themselves.

Without deepening and expanding our knowledge of these two aspects we will not succeed in stopping this process and turning it around.