National Catholic Reporter’s
John Allen
Makes Case for Secularism

by Edwin Faust
November 12, 2009

A wise man once remarked that logic and liberalism cannot co-exist in the same head. Illustrating this truth yet again is National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen, who chose to write Nov. 6 of Pope Benedict XVI’s supposed “lenience” for what Allen calls “cafeteria Catholicism” on the right.

The phrase has usually been applied to those who accept certain Catholic teachings and reject others, especially in the domain of marriage and sexual morality. The usual and more accurate term for such people is “heretics” or “Protestants”. Catholics come in only one flavor: traditional. There is no defined doctrine or immemorial custom that is optional for a Catholic.

Yet, Allen includes in his new category of cafeteria Catholics two disparate groups: The Society of St. Pius X and Anglicans wishing to return to the Church. His implication is that the SSPX remains outside the Church, despite magisterial pronouncements to the contrary. He equates the talks in Rome between representatives of the Pope and the SSPX with those between Rome and members of the Church of England: “’s not clear how many Lefebvrites or Anglicans will walk through the doors Rome has tried to open ...”

Precisely what defined doctrines the SSPX is supposed to have rejected are not specified. And, of course, such specification is impossible because the SSPX fully accepts every defined doctrine of the Catholic Faith. It is their unwavering orthodoxy that has caused their difficulties. The doctrinal talks in Rome are not about the SSPX’s dissent from articles of the faith, but about the post-Vatican II novelties of ecumenism, religious liberty and the New Mass, as the official communiqué from Rome following the initial talk has acknowledged.

But Allen is not concerned with being precise. He is a commentator who presents himself as a journalist. When he wishes to mask his bias, he uses the passive voice, which is a common device of bureaucrats. He begins by saying, “Much has been made lately of Pope Benedict XVI’s apparent lenience for ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ on the right.”

Who has made much of it? Who has applied the term, “‘cafeteria Catholicism’ on the right”? We are not told. Could it be Allen himself? Or is that only “apparent”? A favorite qualifier of those who wish to have their say yet evade responsibility.

Allen does own to having coined the term “evangelical Catholicism”. He seems rather proud of it. It obviously has not occurred to him that the term is a tautology. Can there be Catholicism that is not evangelical?

Allen says that evangelical Catholicism can be traced to Pope Leo XIII’s attempt to bring Catholic teaching to bear on the social questions of the late 19th Century. That is an astoundingly myopic point of view. Evangelical Catholicism began with the preaching of the Gospel.

Still, Allen wishes to distinguish Pope Leo’s evangelism, which he approves, from that of Pope Benedict, which he regards warily. The Leonine evangelism he describes as “creative”; the Benedictine evangelism as “defensive”. Defensive is, in Allen’s lexicon, a synonym for bad.

This defensive posture, which has led to Benedict’s “apparent lenience” to adherents of the Traditional Latin Mass and traditional morality, he has adopted as a reaction against secularism, according to Allen.

Secularism is never defined in Allen’s piece, though an illustration of it is provided in his reference to the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights to fine Italy for displaying crucifixes in public schools. Italy is appealing the decision to the court’s Grand Chamber, whose rulings are binding. Allen declares definitively that Italy is not likely to remove its crucifixes. Will it instead face continual fines? Will it fracture the European Union by defying its courts? These questions he does not address.

He does, however, think that secularism may not be a bad thing for the Church. He adduces support from the late Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, who maintained the curious position that a society which denies any obligation to incorporate Catholic teaching in its civil and criminal statutes, i.e., a secular society, is a positive boon to the Church.

The late Cardinal’s reasoning must be followed closely. He says that one choosing Christianity (not Catholicism) in the context of a secular society is making a genuine personal choice, as opposed to one who merely imbibes Christianity in a confessional state or homogeneous culture. Allen says that, according to Lustiger, secularism is a “necessary precondition” for such a real choice. It would seem that one cannot be genuinely or consciously or meritoriously Christian except in such a context. Therefore, secularism is something to be celebrated.

“We’re really at the dawn of Christianity,” Lustiger declared, enthused about Europe’s growing secularism.

But Allen reports that such enthusiasm is not shared by the current Vatican. He explains that Benedict’s overtures to the SSPX and to the disaffected Anglicans must be understood not as the personal predilections of the Pope, but rather as a reaction to the threat of secularism as evidenced in events such as the recent court ruling on Italy’s crucifixes.

Benedict is trying to buttress the Catholic Church against the assaults of secularism by welcoming groups “ferociously committed to important markers of (Catholic) identity such as traditional forms of liturgy and devotion and traditional morality,” according to Allen. He says that the Pope wants to include in the Church those who, in the words of Maritain, will not “kneel to the world.”

But is this wise? Allen thinks not. Again, hiding behind anonymity and the passive voice, he remarks: “At this stage, some critics may be tempted to ask if the cure is perhaps worse than the disease — in other words is secularism really so bad?”

Allen then refers to a speech he delivered recently to a gathering of Capuchins in Spain. In that talk, Allen asserts that secularism is largely a European phenomenon; that America is a deeply religious nation, as are the rest of the nations of the world. He argues that a preoccupation with secularism may lead to a distorted picture of reality.

Allen then goes on to paint a picture of a world hungry for religion. He talks about the “competitive dynamics of a bustling religious marketplace.” This, and not secularism, he identifies as the “primary pastoral challenge” facing the Catholic Church. Too much concern about secularism may cause the Church to fail to meet that challenge, he warns.

So what should the Church do? It should present the faith in the religious marketplace as “the balanced, moderate and sophisticated option,” according to Allen. He asserts that such is precisely the way “most people on the planet” now see the Catholic Church. This realization should give direction to the Church’s “missionary and pastoral strategies.”

One can imagine an advertising campaign: “Catholicism — the balanced and moderate option.” The implication is that for such a campaign to succeed, the unbalanced and immoderate elements of the Church, such as those who are “ferociously committed” to traditional worship and morality, will have to remain inconspicuous, if they are to be retained at all.

It’s difficult to know where to begin when faced with so many non sequiturs and unsupported assertions. To say that a secular society favors the mission of the Catholic Church, as does Lustiger and, one may reasonably conclude, Allen (apparently), is to say the absurd. Secularization has given us easy divorce, millions of abortions, epidemic pornography, the legalization of homosexual “marriage” and laws against “hate speech”, i.e. the teachings of the Church.

If this is the “dawn of Christianity”, how might one recognize its demise?

But the world, with the exception of Europe and pockets of secularists in America, now recognizes Catholicism as the most attractive item for sale in the marketplace of religions, according to Allen, so we need not concern ourselves about the demise of the faith. We merely have to capitalize on our present advantage.

Pity poor Pope Benedict, fighting the bogeyman of secularism. Instead of pitching his religion to the receptive consumer, the Holy Father is erecting a wall around the Church, sealing himself inside with the cafeteria Catholics of the right.

That Allen should have achieved prominence as a Catholic commentator — America’s premier Vatican observer — on the strength of such poor reasoning and writing skills is a measure of how far we have fallen as a Church. Allen, and so many others, speak about the Church as though it were a political party devising strategies. Tactics, rather than truth, assume central importance in their evaluations. Such is the way with liberals.

When we rely on human prudence, we argue about tactics. When we stand by eternal truths, we proclaim the Faith.

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