A Field Guide for Millennial Catholics: How to Live as a Catholic in a Secular Age (a five part series)

Byron S. Hagan

#1 Understanding the Secular Age

It seems that our society is becoming increasingly forgetful of its “Judeo-Christian” heritage, and ever more hostile to the very idea of faith. Even many of those who do believe in God think that “organized religion” is the problem. More and more Catholics are leaving the practice of the faith as they enter into adulthood. The number of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 who refuse to identify themselves with any religion (“nones”) has almost doubled over the last ten years—from 23% in 2006 to 39% in 2016. The total number of Americans that identify “none” amounts to about 80 million—25% of the US population.[1]  Over the last 40 years the “nones” in each age group have increased by a factor of four. This fact alone is creating a massive social pressure to abandon traditional faith, especially in our major urban centers. Young Catholics who desire to continue the practice of their faith are increasingly asking themselves (and the Church), “how will I continue to live well as a Catholic, and raise a Catholic family, in this hostile social environment?”

We’re going to begin by “reading the signs of the times,” by assessing the nature of our time a little more precisely, and to do this we’re going to look at the thought of four major contemporary Roman Catholic philosophers who each have something striking to contribute to contemporary social theory, and who, each in their own sphere, have for decades been holding a remarkable influence in alternative circles of thought and life.

Charles Taylor (A Secular Age)

Taylor’s thought is addressed primarily to Christians (but also it applies mutatis mutandis to believing Jews and to devout Muslims as well, insofar as they live in western societies). Taylor’s thought is especially relevant to those who possess some kind of cultural memory and nostalgia for a “Christian society,” and fear it is being lost, or almost already lost altogether, and seek to understand this reality and figure out what (if anything) should be done about it.

1.  Definition of “secular” according to Taylor. Two notions of “secular” which Taylor isn’t interested in: 1) a society where the political structure has nothing to do with God or religion, and where you can live without encountering God; 2) the society where the “public square” is “naked,” that is, unadorned with the trappings of religious belief, and where social and political discourse is stripped bare of expressly traditional religious rhetoric and aims.

Taylor’s definition of “secular”: A society in which belief and faith (and attendant religious practices, the “organized religion” of the churches) are just one option among many. Unlike, say, in the England of the 17th-19th centuries, in which you pretty much had to be an Anglican Protestant in order to be a respected member of mainstream society, in our present society one can hold to almost any religion/belief system at all, or no religion whatsoever, and this in doesn’t really affect your social standing or prospects for social mobility.

2. Ideological pluralism. Because Christians have this ever-present awareness of “ideological pluralism”, that is, the awareness that there are alternatives to Christian belief that many reasonable, intelligent, educated and sophisticated people apparently find satisfying and hold with firm conviction, it follows that among Christians there is a….

3. …Fragility of belief: We Christians tend to hold our own religious commitments with a significant degree of doubt—maybe my view of the world is not the only valid one, or even the best one, the truest one. This abiding doubt can be intellectually and practically paralyzing—we Christians and people of traditional faith—especially those born after 1960—can often find it hard to expand and deepen our religious commitments and especially hard to translate these into action, whether private or public. This goes especially for young Christians who are college-educated and who live in the major urban areas. Such Christians become “secularized” almost by necessity, and are thus vulnerable (as our above statistics bear out with frightening clarity) to a practical “loss of faith” and subsequently to assimilation by the secular society. As a young, urban Christian, the story of my coming of age is, increasingly, the story of “losing my religion.” This goes for Christians of all stripes, Protestant and Catholic, and also for young observant Jews and Muslims in our society.

Pierre Manent, Flight from External Determination (The City of Man)

1. No such thing as “natural (moral) law.” The classical/Christian notion that there is a realm of moral reality which exists independently of human beings and reflects the mind and life of God and flows from God, and which is knowable in some basic degree by means of the “light of reason,” is rejected primarily on the grounds that were there to be such a law it would mean the impossibility of human freedom rather than the condition of it (that which makes human freedom possible at all). The claim that there is any such thing as the “natural law” is rejected, not because there are irrefutable or even convincing arguments against it, but rather because secularists do not want there to be such a thing.

2. Increasingly, even for the great many who are still partial to belief in the existence of God, there is no such thing as “Divine (moral) Law”, especially if the existence of that law implies mediation by anything like “organized religion.” In other words, whatever the “law of God” might in fact be, the official churches aren’t going to be the authorities that tell me what that law is. The theological enterprise (or any kind of thinking, whether ordered or extemporaneous, about God), is not the effort to understand man in the light of divine revelation—man in the light of God—but rather the inverse: the idea of God must be remade in the image of man, the human being understood as….

3. ….the radically autonomous, self-created Self—conscience=Consciousness+Will.

The idea that the only “purpose” of human life is to realize by means of socio-political order a radical human freedom understood as freedom-from-external-determination, is nourished in the appetite-and-will oriented materialistic hedonism of industrial-techno capitalism, with its high-powered and ubiquitous marketing/advertisement-driven consumer economy.

In the “technological society”, all problems are technological problems and admit of technological or administrative-bureaucratic solutions (a “technique”).[2] Whether the problem is physical health, or spiritual-psychological well-being, or material poverty/inequality, the techno-capitalist industrial complex is capable, when married to the administrative-bureaucratic State (which must be increasingly though benevolently all-powerful—the loving tyranny of a friendly, motherly government),[3] of guaranteeing the social-political framework necessary for the realization of this radical conception of human freedom (by a combination of laws, administrative regulations, and police power, assisted by a cooperative mass media that saturates the popular discourse with secularist language and assumptions). The secular notion of freedom is one that is undetermined by any criterion other than human consciousness (what I feel myself to be or desire to be—emotivism) and will (what I shall make myself to be).

Alisdair McIntyre, Virtue Theory/Communitarianism (After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, Dependent Rational Animals)

1. Radical disorder and thus futility in modern/contemporary moral/ethical reasoning.  

The field of public discourse regarding ethical/moral matters is radically broken. The universe of moral/ethical (and thus, social-political) thought is marked by fragmentation, incoherence, and fundamental conflict with reference to universal standards of judgement. Therefore, adjudicating disputes between rival conceptions of morality is hopeless, as there is no underlying universal conceptual language, no common store of accepted philosophical ideas, no set of “truths” that belong to the whole nation, the “body politic,” which would make for common ground between rivals in argument.[4] Such common ground is logically necessary for making any progress in the world of ideas, but when two rival positions argue from mutually exclusive first principles, not only is progress toward agreement impossible, but so is even a coherent conversation. In short, there is no common, shared idea in our public square about what is the good for human beings.

Because of this fact, reasoned argument cannot take place, and the debate in the public square devolves to the struggle for political power, locally and nationally. Bring on the reign of slogans, and protests, and public demonstrations and even riots. Socio-political solutions are increasingly sought with recourse to coercion, to force and violence.


This all leads to radical increase in indignation—in mutual bad feelings and hatred that results in a Cold Civil War, in which opposing sides in the debate view one another as enemies who are threatening their rights and freedoms, and against whom they must defend themselves. Thus politics devolves into a vicious circle of mutual and escalating recriminations in which the other side must be defeated by any means necessary. When social-political life within a society is carried on in these terms, there can be no such thing as victory for either side, for “winning” means to make a significant portion of one’s countrymen feel vanquished, disenfranchised, subjugated. Society is hopelessly divided in this way. We are no longer able, as a society, to understand ourselves as working together across party lines to achieve a common goal, the “Common Good” acknowledged by all as the end-goal of human beings.[5]

2. Today’s Secular Culture a Juggernaut (for the time being, an unstoppable force).

For reasons we’ve stated, any attempt at transformation (or in some conceptions, restoration) of a basically Christian public culture by direct action in the public square (politics, media) for the return to Christian philosophy will fail. This is not to say that such direct action should not be carried on. It is not to say that on a limited level—in some areas of society and with any given individual—there is no success to be had. Certainly individuals and families, even prominent and influential public persons, can and do “convert.” The main goal of direct public action by Christians ought to be, however, not political success if that success is to be understood in final terms, but witness to an alternate vision of reality and the alternative society that vision makes possible.

The trajectory of our modern secular society has been set for well over five hundred years, and the technological and thought systems that support the secularizing trajectory, that define it and propel it, are seated so deeply in society and in the popular imagination that even rebellion against the system is conceived in terms of the system.[6] The overarching commitment to materialist political capitalism and the distorted idea of what human beings are which form the foundation of the secular system and further cements it is at present a non-negotiable background reality for society-at-large. The attempt to overthrow the secular society by sheer political will and power—even if that power is conceived of as “Christian power”’—is itself an action determined by belief that is a product of the system of the secular society, for which sheer political will and power is the only solution to any problem in society.

Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI

Forgetfulness of God (living etsi Deus non daretur: as if God did not exist) is the mark of our present society—forgetfulness, not just of any god whatsoever, some idea of God “as we understand him,” not merely the God of Deism, which has God “watching us from a distance.” Rather, it is the “God of Jesus Christ” that has been forgotten. Benedict XVI has put it, “only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”[7] 

The cultural disease of the Secular Age is not theoretical-philosophical atheism but rather practical atheism—we may or may not believe that there is a God. In fact, by far most people do believe that God exists. The disease, for Ratzinger/Benedict, is rather this: whatever our intellectual “belief”, we live as if God did not exist. We make no decision in our lives with serious reference to God. We conduct ourselves as if we are totally on our own, as if God is not involved with us or interested in us, as if our lives bear no relation to him. Thus we are thrown back upon our own meager resources, our own attempt (always corrupted, no matter how lofty in theory) at ascendency to godhead; our attempt, by politics and economics and technology, to create the Kingdom of God on earth, to transform human society, even the human being itself, by merely human effort and ingenuity. For many, of course, “social concern” is just a pretense, and attitude that we adopt. Either way, we cannot by our own efforts bring heaven on earth but we can bring hell on earth. This hell comes in many forms, but at its root is the practical refusal to open to the transcendent reality of the God of Jesus Christ, the God who became man so that man might attain to the life of God. Only a society animated by Christianity in its catholic (universal) form can attain to a true humanism in philosophy and in political society. “Only in the mystery of the Word-Made-Flesh does the mystery of man take on light.”[8]

In our next talk we will outline a Christian solution to the problem of the secular age that is partly to be understood as a partner to direct public action, and partly to be understood as an alternative to such action. We will review what we have said here, especially with respect to the thought of Alisdair McIntyre and Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, and supplement this with the thought of yet another great Roman Catholic philosopher of the 20th century—a British one.

[1] General Social Survey, 2016. Cf. Robert Barron, “Bishop Barron on the Rise of the ‘Nones’”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pG2mtELrxkg

[2] Cf. also Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society.

[3] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America,  II, iv, vi.

[4] The Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray has an entire book on this need for a common store of truths which are not themselves up for debate but which form the basis for debate, which is what society in some sense must be. This book is called We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition.

[5] For a more in-depth yet relatively brief summary discussion see Ted Clayton, “Political Philosophy of Alisdair McIntyre,” http://www.iep.utm.edu/p-macint/.

[6] cf. The Matrix films as relevant parable, where the “One” (anagram Neo) the Messiah figure in the films, turns out to be a feature, not a bug, of the Matrix. The Messiah is designed by the Matrix to facilitate control by introducing an element of chaos (revolution) into a complex system. The revolutionary, non-conformist element of the Matrix serves as a release-valve for excess energy built up over time by the remainder that comes about when attempting to simulate and control an organically conscious social community by means of purely digital rationality.

[7] Benedict XVI, Homily at the Mass for the imposition of the pallium and the conferral of the Fisherman’s ring, Sunday 24 April 2005.

[8] Vatican II Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), 22.