"The Secular Conscience" – Austin Dacey

I came across this bloke and his work through a review in Zenit by Fr John Flynn of Dacey’s book “Secular Conscience: Why Belief belongs in Public Life”, who freely admitted that “Dacey is no apologist for religion”, but goes on to say:

In fact, what he advocates is a return to secular liberalism, but not in the form it has adopted in recent times. Secular liberalism went off the tracks, he maintains, in insisting so much on the idea that religion, ethics and values are only private matters.

This has come about because secularism equated the private conscience with the concepts of personal and subjective, thus placing them out of bounds of a serious evaluation. If conscience is thus beyond criticism it cannot be subject to public scrutiny.

So Fr Flynn recommends the book. And so does Fr Richard John Neuhaus (I hope you are all praying for him at the moment as he deals with his cancer diagnosis), despite the fact that

it is published by Prometheus Press, the source of a seemingly endless flood of secular humanist and anti-religious propaganda… [and] endorsed by the notorious Peter Singer, Princeton’s contribution to helping us make our peace with infanticide and other enormities, and also by Sam Harris, the slash and burn author of The End of Faith.

He writes of “The Secular Conscience:

On almost all the hot-button issues—abortion, embryo-destructive research, same-sex marriage, Darwinism as a comprehensive philosophy, etc.—Dacey is, in my judgment, on the wrong side. But he is right about one very big thing. These contests are not between people who, on the one side, are trying to impose their morality on others, and people who, on the other side, subscribe to a purely procedural and amoral rationality. Over the years, some of us have been trying to elicit from our opponents the recognition that they, too, are making moral arguments and hoping that their moral vision will prevail. But in the world of secular liberalism, morality is the motive that dare not speak its name. Austin Dacey strongly agrees.

And if you want to see what the other side has to say of the book, well, it seems they like it too (see the review in the New Humanist here).

Given the story about the Humanist Society getting approval for “religious” education in our schools, the reaction to Dacey’s proposal for a more public discussion of morality, ethics and conscience seems to say that there is something here we can all agree upon. Our society works best when it allows all its members to freely and openly discuss issues of faith, conscience and belief. It is simply out of order to cry “foul” when someone speaks from a position of religious conviction. Everyone speaks from some perspective, and the perspective of the secular humanist is no less a moral or a faith perspective than that of the Christian or the Muslim or the Maptocostal Angloholic.

But (some readers of this blog will say) what of the duty of society to acknowledge the true religion?

Well, that is our mission. “Our mission” as in “The Church’s mission”. It is not the duty of the state to teach or impose religion upon society, it is the duty of the Church to transform society by the proclamation of the Gospel. We do not aim to Christianise the State – we aim to Christianise our society and culture by evangelisation. The former is illegitimate. To attempt the latter is our right and our duty.

Of course, every one else who holds another point of view has an equal right to promote their point of view as their conscience requires. It is in such a situation that the Church can truly flourish – IF she is prepared to fight the battle!

CCC 854 By her very mission, “the Church … travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God” [GS 40#2].

At the end of his review article, Fr Flynn gave some useful and recent Papa BXVI quotations in this regard:

“Every milieu, circumstance and activity in which we engage that can become resplendent with the unity of faith and life is entrusted to the responsibility of lay faithful, moved by the desire to communicate the gift of encounter with Christ and the certainty of the human person’s dignity.” (Nov. 15 speech to participants in the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity)

“The Holy See seeks to engage the world in dialogue so as to promote the universal values that flow from human dignity and advance mankind on the road to communion with God and one another… Indeed, we may say that the distinction between religion and politics is a specific achievement of Christianity and one of its fundamental historical and cultural contributions.” (Oct. 27 address to the new ambassador of the Philippines to the Holy See)

“[We must] become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to — among other things — the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society.” (Sept. 12 at the Elysée Palace on meeting with authorities of France)

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “"The Secular Conscience" – Austin Dacey

  1. matthias

    The Gentleman from the Humanist society responsibile for the “RE’ in shcool is a lovely bloke,and I really mean a lovely bloke,called Harry Gardiner ,who also worships with the Quakers,in the same Meeting for Worship that i use to attend until i could not take anymore of the relegation of Jesus to being a shadow

  2. Schütz

    Yes, Matthias, it is always important to remember that even though we may disagree with someone doesn’t mean that they are not worthy of our respect!

    And BTW thank you for your thoughtful gift which arrived today. Aid to the Church in need is a very worthy cause.

  3. Rathna

    Yea, i too agree with your comments.And we should always remember that Nobady can be though/treated worthless though we over do them at times.
    And i must thank you for sharing this wounderful article.

  4. Paul

    I do some catechetics classes in public schools, and I can’t see anything fundamentally wrong with having optional humanist classes (provided Catholic classes are also available).
    I am trying to get a copy of the proposed humanist syllabus, but the website
    http://www.ethicaleducation.net/index.php?pr=Home_Page
    only has a list of headings, and the contents is blocked. I can’t believe it is not publicly available if it is about to be approved, so does anyone know where I can find the syllabus?

  5. Cardinal Pole

    Mr. Schütz,

    you say that

    “We do not aim to Christianise the State …”

    Incredible. Simply incredible. And the absurdity becomes even clearer when you add immediately afterwards:

    “we aim to Christianise our society and culture by evangelisation.”

    The State is society taken at its highest (natural) level. (Hence the State is a creature of God). Hence the Social Reign of Christ is incomplete as long as the State refuses to acknowledge Christ as the source of its blessings, its authority and its very existence.

    “The former is illegitimate.”

    So the Catholic Church, officially and corporately, co-operated formally, proximately and without grievous proportionate cause in sin and error for fifteen hundred years? And then, when the old order reached the critical point in its process of decomposition, the Popes from at least Gregory XVI to John XXIII taught illegitimate social doctrine?

    As for the ‘secular[ist] conscience’, that is an oxymoron. I have had it quite baldly stated to me at a secularist blog that

    “Humanity creates morality, twit.”
    (http://crystalgaze2.blogspot.com/2008/11/churches-states-and-politics.html)

    So for secularists, conscience is not a passive function (recognising morality) but an active function (creating morality).

  6. Schütz

    Your Eminence, I don’t weary easily (consider my long dialogue with Past Elder) but I am beginning to weary of your approach. As with PE, so with you. It would help me to understand where you are coming from. Let me put it baldly: Do you have a problem with Pope Benedict’s doctrine of the relationship between Church and State?

    That having been said, I did not say that the Church “officially and corporately, co-operated formally, proximately and without grievous proportionate cause in sin and error for fifteen hundred years”.

    The Church always been constantly adapting to the circumstances in which she lived. Since Christ gave us precious little guidance for how we should conduct ourselves in relationship to the State, we have been experimenting with the given circumstances – not for 1500 years, but rather for the last 2000 years.

    (BTW I do not accept the idea that “the State is society taken at its highest (natural) level” – perhaps that is a point on which we differ which needs more discussion).

    The experiment – however long it lasted – will never draw to a close, since politics appears to be capable of an continual “development” not unlike that of theology! As long as new forms and modes of government are thought up by man, so the Church will always need to adapt herself to the context in which she lives.

    For the present time, I think BXVI has a grasp of the matter which is as about as good as we can expect for now.

    But perhaps you think otherwise?

  7. Joshua

    David,

    I too think you ought not project as Gospel what is your own opinion on this matter: contrary to what you say, I think the social reign of Christ the King is precisely about Christianizing the State – Lord help us, if we don’t try and do that, or at least try and maintain what scraps of Judæo-Christian influence in the State remain, we’ll soon have a persecuting State upon us like ancient Rome!

    Don’t mix matters up with ideas of some spooky confessional State; watch that you don’t fail to sentire cum Ecclesia here!

  8. Joshua

    I’m serious, David: you seem to be deviating from the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church on this issue.

    Please don’t fall into the neo-conservative trap of only quoting recent Papal statements, as if everything ever taught before X (insert year here) is either irrelevant or superseded.

  9. Cardinal Pole

    Mr. Schütz,

    Let me begin by saying that I am not trying to weary you down or play games with you; I have been conducting this debate charitably, politely and openly. You appeared happy to continue with the debate, since you have made a good number of new posts on this topic over the last couple of weeks. (Notably, though, you have quoted mainly non-Magisterial sources, and a handful of some of the thoughts of the Holy Father on the matter.) Sometimes my tone might seem curt, but that’s only because I am trying to make my argument as transparent as possible. When I asked whether you think that “the Catholic Church, officially and corporately …” that was a serious question, since you had said, without qualification, that trying to Christianise the State is illegitimate. Some Catholics do indeed think that the Church sinned in doing so. I reject that.

    You asked whether I

    “have a problem with Pope Benedict’s doctrine of the relationship between Church and State?”

    The answer is no, for the reason that I have repeated several times now: His Holiness has never specified that false religions can be the object of a right to free religious activity.

    You say that

    “The Church always been constantly adapting to the circumstances in which she lived.”

    But we can aspire to more than this–we are not determinists, we can mould the circumstances to our advantage.

    “we have been experimenting with the given circumstances – not for 1500 years …”

    But you cannot deny that the consensus over those fifteen hundred years was that the ideal was that the State should confess Christ and unite itself to His Church; it’s not as though there was a constant state of flux with regard to the foundations of the Kingdoms of Christendom.

    “(BTW I do not accept the idea that “the State is society taken at its highest (natural) level” – perhaps that is a point on which we differ which needs more discussion)”

    But it is a fact that the State is society taken at its highest natural level, at least until such time as (God forbid) we have a World Government imposed on us. The State is a perfect society, it has an end (the common good) and the means within itself to achieve this end. No other natural human society, not even the family (see Casti Connubii) has this characteristic. And I made sure to say ‘natural’ society, because there is another perfect society–the Church, a supernatural one. These are facts of political science and sacred science, not my own speculations. By all means, let’s discuss this further.

    “As long as new forms and modes of government are thought up by man …”

    Man can think up whatever new forms and modes of government he likes, but he may never tinker with government’s principle and purpose. It was attempts to tinker with these non-negotiables that Bl. Pius IX condemned in Quanta Cura, and that is why he felt it necessary to speak with the fullness of his Apostolic authority.

    Finally: you say

    “It would help me to understand where you are coming from.”

    But I am an open book on this; as I said earlier, browse through the tags ‘Social Reign of Christ’ and ‘Confessional State’ at my blog. Or, to see it condensed in the one place (actually, two places), I have made two posts at my blog refuting your assertion that the teachings of Leo XIII constitute some kind of watershed or turning point, the first one is very long since it includes all the citations:

    http://cardinalpole.blogspot.com/2008/12/on-socio-political-magisterium-of-leo.html

    and the second one is a summary. Read the latter if you want to know what I (and, I argue, Leo XIII) stand for:

    http://cardinalpole.blogspot.com/2008/12/on-socio-political-magisterium-of-leo_16.html

  10. Schütz

    I must admit, your Eminence, that I find your entries on your own blog very long and tedious. I am a working man, and do not have the time to read long tomes.

    [Reader: Wow! THAT’s an admission!]

    [Schütz: I mean I “do not have time to read long tomes on EVERY subject that interests me”.]

    It is not so much that I need newspaper sound bites, as I need the presentation of an argument to be made concisely.

    So I appreciate your summary article on your analysis of Leo XIII’s teaching on Church and State.

    I find intensely interesting the idea that the State may chose to be tolerant of error and lenient in its repression of error if it judges that the public good would be served by such tolerance and lenience.

    So, even if I were to concede the idea that the State has the right and duty to “repress false religions”, you would concede that it may, for the higher good public welfare, choose not to exercise that right or carry out that duty.

    That to me is very interesting. It would seem to suggest that if we could make a case that the greatest well being of society depended upon the complete freedom to excercise one’s conscience in regard to matters of religion, then the State, yea verily, even the “Catholic Confessional State”, would be completely within its rights to exercise such tolerance and to allow such freedom.

    The only difference then between you and I on this matter is that you would see this as a concession, and I would still defend it as a right.

    But to come to the heart of the matter, I think that in today’s day and age we cannot simply take what popes of an earlier age called “the State” and run with it. You mention the spectre of a “one world state” – and while we are not quite there yet, we are certainly in a situation where we have a “one world society”. In fact it is this very fact that shows up the problem with thinking of the State (by which I take it we mean a “nation State”?) as “society taken at its highest natural level”, because we are at a time in human history where society actually transcends the State in a number of ways. One need only think of the Global Economy, or the Media, or the Internet, or the very many other international organisations, networks, corporations and communities that are bound by no one overarching State.

    In fact, your assertion that the State is “society taken at its highest natural level” would seem to require, in this day and age, a “one world State”. It is, in fact, the sociology of empire, where all civilisation is presumed to exist within the empire and everything outside it is barbarism.

    It is also, may I say, the sort of idea that lends false hybris to the State. It is the sort of idea that carries itself through to the totalitarian claims of the State over Society.

    And that brings us back to where we started. It is precisely this kind of totalitarianism that I would fear in a thing called a “Confessional Catholic State” the likes of which you describe in your conclusion that “the State can and must confess Christ, it must unite itself to and co-operate with His Church, and it can repress false religions”.

  11. Schütz

    And Josh, you say that I “seem to be deviating from the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church on this issue.”

    Well, all I can say is that the way in which you boys are presenting “THE Catholic faith” of the Tradition and Magisterium seems at some variance with the way THE Catholic Church presents her tradition and magisterium herself today. [PE will be giggling at this point]

    Please don’t fall into the neo-conservative trap of only quoting recent Papal statements, as if everything ever taught before X (insert year here) is either irrelevant or superseded.

    Not at all, but what I wish to do, and what you chaps seem to be reluctant to do, is to ask: How do I square this with what has been taught by the Popes from Pius XII to the present?

    His Eminence does this by asserting that “His Holiness [Papa Benny] has never specified that false religions can be the object of a right to free religious activity.” This to me is playing with words. He has so often and explicitly defended the right to free exercise of conscience in matters of religion that to assert that he means “only in respect to Catholicism and not in respect to other false religions” seems to me to be absurd and false to his meaning.

  12. Joshua

    David,

    To be honest I really don’t know too much about this topic – I just was shocked, shocked to read that “we mustn’t Christianize the State”, which I think you could agree upon reflection was not the happiest expression – since of course we would wish Christian (rather than pagan or secular) views to inform wise decision making here and now.

  13. matthias

    Talking about Christians and the State ,and the fact that our Prime minister K Rudd has gone on about Bonhoffer,I emailed him regarding the persecution of Christians in India,and perhaps he could speak up to the Indian High Commissioner. i know the financial crisis is in his face,but i heard never a word from him. So I sent him the Aid to the Church in Need report that isent you Schutz. Perhaps he thinks religion is private just like some secular liberals!!!

  14. matthias

    Paul if you want to get the Humanist curriculum,perhaps you could go to http://www.quaker,org.au click on the contact for Eastern Suburbs meeting and then give your details for harry gardiner to contact

  15. Cardinal Pole

    Mr. Schütz,

    you say that you

    “find [my] entries on [my] own blog very long and tedious”

    But if I didn’t include lengthy citations then I would be open to accusations of ‘proof-texting’.

    You say that you are “a working man”. So am I!

    You say that you

    “find intensely interesting the idea that the State may chose to be tolerant of error and lenient in its repression of error if it judges that the public good would be served by such tolerance and lenience.”

    So you had not heard of this before now? That is a basic principle of Catholic teaching on Church-State relations. Leo XIII said it explicitly, and St. Thomas and Pius XII explained the theoretical basis for it in the Summa, II, II, q. 51., a. 4. and the allocution Ci Riesce, respectively.

    You say that

    “The only difference then between you and I on this matter is that you would see this as a concession, and I would still defend it as a right.”

    But it cannot be a right, whether by definition, whether before God or whether before the State. Leo XII made quite clear that it is erroneous to try to argue that, because in one or another set of circumstances tolerance might be prudent, we should therefore make tolerance a right (which would be a contradiction in terms anyway). See Libertas §34 and Longinqua Oceani §6.

    “But to come to the heart of the matter, I think that in today’s day and age we cannot simply take what popes of an earlier age called “the State” and run with it.”

    You are on dangerous ground here. As I keep saying, the manner of exercising authority may change, but never its principle and purpose. You fail to understand that a society is not a mere group of people; there has to be an authority structure.

    “… PE will be giggling at this point”

    As well he should. You have provided no other support for your principles than a handful of quotations from a single Pope and some experts whose qualifications I am unaware of.

    “How do I square this with what has been taught by the Popes from Pius XII to the present?”

    Pius XII did NOT teach what you want to think he taught; see Ci Riesce for starters. Neither did John XXIII.