Our Catholic Future Lies Within the Secular

Growing up in Seattle and doing undergraduate studies in Portland, I spent the majority of my life in two of the top three most secular cities in the entire country, Portland coming in first with 42% unaffiliated and Seattle in third with 33%. At the same time, though, Oregon is at times referred to as the Welfare Utopia, having the most benefits for homeless and other people in need. Why is that?

This was a question that I was constantly asking myself. It wasn’t until I had a discussion with a friend of mine who is native to Nigeria about the differences between the United States and Nigeria that I understood why. He told me that even though the United States is very secular comparatively, he said he could feel God moving in the people here. I first thought, what in God’s name is he talking about? But after more discussion with him and some reflection of my own experiences, I finally got it: God’s love is incredibly active in the people who don’t go to church, sometimes even more so than those of us that go.

From my time in Portland and Seattle, the people who fought most against systemic sexism, racism, and other social problems were my secular friends (I’m not saying that my religious friends weren’t fighting too, they very much were). These people had the fire for social justice that the liturgy should be giving us. The secular world doesn’t have to be told about the love of God, it is already present and freely flowing. Instead, we, as the Church of Christ, need to show through our actions and through our liturgies that we share this fire for social justice because of our love for God and God’s creation.

The future of the Catholic Church doesn’t only lie within the walls of the church, we must also learn from our secular society how to love God outside the chapel. And with that, we must show secular society that the passion and fire they feel for justice is the love of God moving within us.

Evangelization should no longer be solely focused on learning doctrine and just talking about the grace of God. It is time to show this love that we share comes from our inherent relationship with God. Secular society is already experiencing that love, we just have to show that we do too and put God’s name to it.


  1. “These people had the fire for [N need] that the liturgy should be giving us. ”

    I wonder if that formula betrays more of a secular functional expectation than a historically Christian one. Like liturgy is a form of exercise that is supposed to improve our muscle tone, agility and weight.

    I think it’s important to name such an expectation, because I think a lot of people (especially those immersed in an American consumerist culture, which places a high value on functional equations of this sort) carry it around their heads in assessing what’s wrong/right with liturgy and How Can We Fix It (or Them).

  2. I think my main concern is that the justice the world seeks is frequently disassociated from a grounding in the inherent dignity of the person from conception to natural death. I think there are a myriad of moral frameworks that people choose from, but in my experience my friends frequently conceive of morality as stemming from utilitarian-style arguments that aim to minimize suffering. In this regard, there is a difference between the ‘love’ the world has for those suffering, compared to the sacrificial, Christ-like love Christians are called to. I agree that looking to overlaps in concern is a critical component of modern evangelization, but I would be hesitant to “put God’s name to it” when it comes to some of the affronts to human dignity that accompany modern, secular justice.

    1. I would disagree with you here, Will. Some of the best people I know doing work for undocumented persons, refugees, and the environment aren’t religious at all but are respecting the natural dignity of God’s creation who are far too often shoved on the margins.

      The justice I experience from people who don’t belong to a specific faith tradition is purely out of love. Yes we may disagree with how certain people portray that love, but we have to realize that it is love and where there is love, there is God. That is where we start the conversation and not dismiss the love they feel as displaced justice, tainted by the modern world.

      Not to get too far off topic, but that is one thing that needs to change in our interactions with the secular world. No, we should not blindly accept all modern trends that are happening but we also cannot and should not just dismiss it because the idea didn’t originate in the Church. We need to affirm that God is at work outside the chapel walls and from there find God in the works of the nonreligious children of God. We can’t be so quick to dismiss other people’s understanding of love. Challenge it, yes. Help them see God in it, yes. But just flat out dismiss it? Of course not. How can we do theology with our secular brothers and sisters without understanding where they are coming from? I know that’s not necessarily what you were getting at Will, but it is an important point I should have added to the post.

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think I prefer the way you’ve phrased the way things in this comment over the article, although they may be two sides of the same coin. It is certainly the case that where there is truly love, God is truly there. I’m reminded of Emeth from “The Last Battle” by C. S. Lewis who, despite attributing his good works to Tash, has unknowingly been serving Aslan. I hope I didn’t come off as denying the efficacy of God in the good works of the secular world.

        I think your final paragraph has some great additions. One of the concerns I have is the ‘watering down’ of the term ‘love’ in the secular world. I completely agree that we have a need to “challenge” and “help them seem God in it”. For me a crucial component of evangelizing the secular world is discerning the differences between the things of the world and the things of God, and frequently (as in the case of “justice” and “love”) the same words can be used to describe very different things. I agree that these understandings should not be dismissed whole-cloth, but it’s important to be on guard for the many misunderstandings of love/justice/mercy/etc.

      2. I think that is a great point. There is a fine line that we must walk and at times it is very difficult. But that is where, as you said, the discernment comes in. Very well put.

        And I love the C.S. Lewis reference!

    2. The key may be that the Christian imitates Christ. His mission was to minimize the suffering of others, taking it on himself. The Christian stance is to relieve suffering in others. If non-Christians make sacrifices to help others, that seems to be in keeping with the standards of the Last Judge.

  3. Anonymous Christians (Karl Rahner). Rahner argued that the Spirit acts in some seculars but isn’t yet recognized or named by them for what it is–living Charity.

    1. I think Rahner influenced many people in a great way with the Anonymous Christian term, helping others to see the Christ-like acts in people who aren’t Christian. If I’m not mistaken, many people are starting to move away from that term, though, and instead, are emphasizing the universality of Christ’s love in the actions of all, in whatever tradition they practice that love.

      1. Though that can no less be considered condescending/patronizing by non-Christians in the ” Christ works for you, even if you don’t believe it.” sense.

      2. it is only really admissible when trying to remove the blinkers from other Christians. Even then ………

  4. “I know atheists who find that phrase highly offensive.”

    If I ever come upon Richard Dawkins performing an act of true charity, I’ll be delighted to offend him with a blessing.

  5. I don’t think we should think of the secular/religious binary as “just the way things are”, as though the demographics always have been that way. The folks in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere who live a secular lifestyle almost certainly are just 1-2 generations removed from members of their families who practiced Christianity, Judaism or some other faith. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that many of those who come from a Christian familial heritage are baptized. I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the influence of religion in their passion and outlook, even if that influence is residual or indirect.

    The movement to address the great historical social justice issue of the United States, racial inequality, would not have achieved the successes it has achieved without the leadership of Christian pastors and church members. To suppose that Christian churches, especially black churches, play no role in continuing efforts to bring about racial equality is, frankly, to wear blinders.

    The great human rights issue of our lifetime wasn’t mentioned in the original post: the sanctity of life, especially prior to birth. I’d be delighted to hear that secular young people in the Pacific Northwest are providing the energy, leadership and funding to bring about the end of the regime of abortion in the United States – but I doubt that is the case. It seems that churches still have a distinctive role to play in bringing about social change.

    Most of us don’t become activists in a vacuum – it happens because we become immersed in a set of social relationships in which awareness is raised and individuals are organized. Historically, churches have played that role, and continue to do so. The same is true of the college experience – and I assume that college is an important driver of the activism in the Pacific Northwest described in the post. There is no doubt that social media provides new ways of bringing about organization and activity. And now we are seeing corporations lending their influence and resources.

  6. I heard on the radio an interview recently in which the interviewee (I do not remember his name but he authored a new book on religions which examined fundamentalism in many guises) observed that the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, are more aptly categorized as a fundamentalist option, and should be distinguished from other atheists, who represent an older strain, which does not regard religion per se as evil or as the source of evils in society.

    This observation complexified my view of the possible reactions of various atheists to statements or views expressed by believers in an attempt to understand and harmonize their experience of non-believers with their own faith. I think that many atheists (certainly some that I know personally) are not greatly interested in what believers think of them, or how believers account for virtue among those who do not believe in God, any more than they expect me as a religious believer to get bent out of shape if they deny God’s existence. On the other hand, if an atheist (one of the “new atheists”) is committed to the view that religion is evil per se, all the thoughts and words of believers are capable of generating offense, because they are tokens of an unbearable social malady.

    Catholicism cannot be classed, broadly, with fundamentalism (though there are fundamentalist strains that crop up within it), and so has nuanced views of those who do not share their beliefs–some for internal dialogue and some for more public discussion. We shouldn’t worry about this being offensive or patronizing. A secular atheist too has ways of accounting for a diversity of belief in this world, ideas which make sense within their system of thought. The sort of analysis that requires the violent stamping out of the “other” is what should concern us, not the ways that people describe their more tolerant attitudes.

    1. While that’s fairly true, it should be noted that adamantine atheists are hardly a new thing (except they were scarcer on the ground in the USA than elsewhere in the West), and I certainly know western Buddhists who would be offended by “anonymous Christian” talk and its penumbra, as it were.

      1. Hahaha! No, I came across it at Yale. No doubt a neologism of the academy (that tool of the devil) rather than a word pressed into virtuous service of developing a sacral language!

  7. Is it possible for there to be Godless acts of true charity? I’m not sure, but I tend to think not. As is well known, Rahner was asking what to call people like those mentioned in the original post in whom “God’s love is incredibly active” but who don’t identify with any, or perhaps other faiths. Rahner says that for them it’s a matter of the one Spirit being acknowledged and acted with but mis-recognized. I certainly agree that this could come off as patronizing and offensive to non-believers. But to dismiss the whole matter on this basis still leaves open the question. The advantage of the term, or anyway the ideas it encompasses, is that it throws open the doors to acknowledging the validity of God’s presence in non-Christian peoples. Which is better than waging a crusade. So it’s intention was get past the ‘othering’ of non-Christians.

    I’m not going to go to the mat on this; I only mentioned it because it seemed tangentially pertinent to the subject.

    1. Yes, but we should understand that can also interpreted (not unreasonably) as instrumentalizing non-Christians for intramural purposes (for prodding other Christians into agreeing with our ecclesiology and soteriology).

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