Msgr. Michael Heintz
The Human Condition
May 9, 2017 // Columns

Thoughts on individualism and secularism

Msgr. Michael Heintz
The Human Condition

Two intellectual offspring of the Enlightenment include radical individualism and secularism. Their origins and causes are complex, but their reality is something that we live with day in and day out, as we are all affected deeply, but unreflectively, by their influence. And both are inimical to the Gospel of Christ.

By radical individualism, I mean the notion that our identity is something constructed and maintained from within, by our own freedom and simply by our own definition. It’s the notion that I am responsible to no one and for no one but myself, and that all other relationships are a matter of my personal choice. I create and decide who I am. However, as Catholics we recognize rather that our existence and our identity are first a gift, something received, and that we are called into being by the goodness and love of God. We exist first and foremost in a relationship with God, and as a gift to others as well.

One of the effects of sin is division. (The term devil, “diabolos” in Greek, means divider.) Setting ourselves up over and against others is itself an effect of original sin – viewing all others, including God, as competitors and as impeding my own freedom and self-expression. And self-assertion and self-promotion are the primal orientation of sin.

Christ’s coming reveals that the proper mode of being — in creation before the fall, and restored in the order of grace — is self-donation or self-gift. To be “for” others, rather than in competition with them or over them (think of how much envy, insecurity and grudge-holding are rooted in such a disposition) is the mark of the new creation begun by Christ and into which all the baptized are incorporated.

Further, recall how, in the Scriptures, people are named and known: “the sons of Zebedee;” “the wife of Clopas;” “the brother of Simon Peter.” In the biblical imagination, persons are understood primarily in terms of their relationships: These are what are definitive. In an era when identity is more and more understood (quite dangerously) as something merely concocted by the individual, worked up simply from within, the Scriptures reveal that who we are is determined by our nexus of relationships, rather than merely our own self-assertion. To be is to be in relation (the persons of the Trinity, St. Thomas teaches, are defined as “subsistent relations”), and to flourish is to make a gift of ourselves and to view and receive others as gift as well.

Another piece of the fallout from the Enlightenment is secularism. By secularism I do not mean not merely the rejection of God or religion, though in some of its more virulent forms that is its explicit agenda. Rather, the more common form of secularism is much more insidious than an explicit rejection of the sacred or of religious faith. Secularism is the compartmentalization of faith and religion. One of the most dangerous misconceptions held by many believers is that their faith is the most important part of their life. This is both deeply mistaken and quite perilous. As Catholics, our faith is not and should not be the most important part of our life; it should not be a “part” of our life at all. Rather, it should be the reality that formats, shapes and directs our entire existence. Far from being a part of our life, the faith — our living relationship with the Lord Jesus, dead and risen — should in fact be the operating system of our entire life, not an icon on the screen of our life; not even the best, most used, or biggest icon on the screen of our life. Our faith should affect every thought, feeling, word, action, in fact every fiber of our being, body and soul; this is what St. Paul means when he suggests that there is nothing the believer does that is not spiritual, that is, which is not driven by a participation in the very spirit of Christ.

Secularism is the idea that my religious faith is very important, but that it is ultimately a private affair, reserved for religious moments and matters but generally far removed from my everyday life — certainly from my interactions with others. Catholics in the public sphere are susceptible to this kind of thinking, in relegating their religious convictions to “personal belief” with no possible contribution to the common good.

Catholic faith has little effect if it is compartmentalized, cordoned off to the realm of the “private;” in such a scheme it is not coherent, nor can it offer truly effective witness. Secularism is an attempt to domesticate the Great Lion of the tribe of Judah as a meek and mild house cat. Catholic faith is deeply personal, but personal does not mean private; for precisely as personal it informs an entire life, not merely its religious dimensions. (These are often defined and limited by the broader culture, keeping faith at a safe distance.) Catholic faith does not seek to impose itself on others, certainly not against their will, for doing so would only be to embrace the very self-assertion that informs every fallen impulse.

The most fruitful kind of evangelization is the witness of an entire life: not mere words and not simply behaviors, but the coherence of a life that is lived not for itself, but for God and neighbor. Efforts to “win” others to the faith are noble, but we must always be on guard that in doing so we are not actually engaging in a form of self-promotion, which is at the very heart of sin. What we have received we offer to others, not to prove ourselves right and others wrong, but because we have fallen in love and desire to share that Divine Lover with others.

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