The Church and Secularity: Two Stories of Liberal Society

The Church and Secularity: Two Stories of Liberal Society

The Church and Secularity: Two Stories of Liberal Society

The Church and Secularity: Two Stories of Liberal Society

Synopsis

Western liberal societies are characterized by two stories: a positive story of freedom of conscience and the recognition of community and human rights, and a negative story of unrestrained freedom that leads to self-centeredness, vacuity, and the destructive compromise of human values. Can the Catholic Church play a more meaningful role in assisting liberal societies in telling their better story?

Australian ethicist Robert Gascoigne thinks it can. In The Church and Secularity he considers the meaning of secularity as a shared space for all citizens and asks how the Church can contribute to a sensitivity to -- and respect for -- human dignity and human rights. Drawing on Augustine's City of God and Vatican II's Gaudium et spes, Gascoigne interprets the meaning of freedom in liberal societies through the lens of Augustine's "two loves," the love of God and neighbor and the love of self, and reveals how the two are connected to our contemporary experience.

The Church and Secularity argues that the Church can serve liberal societies in a positive way and that its own social identity, rooted in Eucharistic communities, must be bound up with the struggle for human rights and resistance to the commodification of the human in all its forms.

Excerpt

This book is concerned with the relationship of the Catholic Church to contemporary liberal societies. It seeks to explore the meaning of secularity as a shared space for all citizens and to ask how the Church can contribute to sensitivity to and respect for human dignity within liberal societies. In particular, it considers the ambivalence of human freedom in those societies and explores how the Church can assist in the expression of freedom as the wellspring of the common good rather than as a self-assertion that degrades communal and social relationships.

In a liberal society, all individuals are accorded certain rights, but the laws and institutions of society are agnostic about the transcendental foundations of those rights. They are simply an ethical given—the ethical premise of laws and political procedures, without any shared transcendental foundation of their own. There are good reasons for this, since liberal societies are secular and pluralist societies. To give such shared transcendental foundations a politically established status might privilege a particular religious tradition and threaten the religious freedom that is essential to a liberal society. It would also be harmful to the Church itself, since such privileges undermine the free appeal that evangelization makes to conscience.

Yet it is also true that this “givenness” is limited and fragile. The claim that every human being has worth and dignity is controversial in a host of ways: in its scope, in its limits, and in its application. In particular, the freedom that is at the core of human dignity is interpreted in crucially different ways, especially in terms of the tension between conceptions of individual autonomy and a willingness to support the common good. Its sheer “givenness”—its lack of transcendental . . .

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