Christopher Dawson, who served as the first Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University more than 50 years ago, observed, “Human nature always retains its spiritual character…. If it were to lose this, it must lose itself and become the servant of lower powers, so that a secular civilization…inevitably leads to nihilism and to self-destruction.” He continued, “If we look at the world today in isolation from the past and the future, the forces of secularism may seem triumphant. This, however, is but a moment in the life of humanity, and it does not possess the promise of stability and permanence” (Dawson, The Formation of Christendom, 37).
These words were written at the height of the Cold War, when the forces of militant atheism appeared in many ways to be gaining the upper hand. They are worth recalling today, as we seem to be entering a new period of secularism.
In an April 13 cover story titled “The End of Christian America,” Newsweek magazine made much of a recent survey that found the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 points in the past two decades. Also notable, according to Newsweek, is that “fewer people now think of the United States as a ‘Christian nation’ than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008).”
The Newsweek article focused mainly on the concerns of evangelical Christians, which it said “have long believed that the United States should be a nation whose political life is based upon and governed by their interpretation of biblical and theological principles.” The magazine also quoted several evangelical leaders who now refer to a post-Christian America.
To say that Catholics historically have never felt entirely comfortable with the evangelical idea of a Christian America would be an understatement. But if Dawson is correct that secularism cannot provide a stable foundation for society, and American society appears to be rejecting Protestantism as a foundation, what now is to be done? Is secularism or evangelical Christianity the only alternatives for the future? Can Catholics make a unique contribution to the common good?
For me, the words of Pope John Paul II from his great encyclical on life, Evangelium Vitae, remain as relevant today as when they were written in 1995: “To all the members of the Church, the people of life and for life, I make this most urgent appeal, that together we may offer this world of ours new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love” (6, emphasis in original).
Catholics are called to work continually to build up society, to provide new hope and to establish a new culture of life. The key to this, John Paul knew, was for Catholics to form a strong identity and to accept “the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life” (28, emphasis in original).
The present situation provides Catholics with an unprecedented opportunity to help shape the future of our country. John Adams once said that the U.S. constitution “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” If this remains true, then we must ask ourselves how Catholics can contribute to the building up of “a moral and religious people.”
That answer, John Paul II reminded us, begins with a question that still echoes to us from the very beginning of human society: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9).
The future of society depends on how we answer this primordial question. I believe there are no men better prepared to do this than those who live the principles of charity, unity and fraternity; who by their works witness to this truth expressed in Evangelium Vitae: “Yes, every man is his ‘brother’s keeper,’ because God entrusts us to one another” (19).