America has seen an incredible cultural shift in the past decade. In 2007, Catholics (23.9%), Evangelical Protestants (26.3%), and Mainline Protestants (18.1%) all made up a larger percentage of the population than “the nones,” or those with no religious affiliation (16.1%). But according to a Pew Research study, by 2014, the nones became the second largest religious group in America, with 22.8% of the population. The percentage of nones has skyrocketed while every branch of Christianity has declined.
This attrition of the Christian people to secularism is most common among the youth, and consequently, the effects are easily seen on college campuses. Some Christian college students find this more problematic than others. For example, Mainline Protestants have more unorthodox views on Christian theology and social teaching, as secularism has compromised the integrity of these Christian religions. For Mainline Protestant students, the secular storm clouding our college campuses may be seen as harmless, or perhaps even beneficial, as many Mainline Protestant religions support secular ideas such as abortion and gay marriage. But this is not the case for devout Catholics. Catholicism’s (beautiful and correct) teachings on abortion, chastity, and LGBT topics are often unwelcome on college campuses. To publicly voice the Catholic perspective on these topics will almost certainly result in scorn and harassment from peers and professors. As Christianity has declined, secularism has become a religion of its own – and a rather intolerant one at that.
The Strict Doctrine of Secularism
This month, the President and Founder of Students for Life of America, Kristan Hawkins, will be speaking at Cal State University Los Angeles. Unfortunately, an organization called “Refuse Fascism” Los Angeles will be gathering a number of college students and community members together to protest the speech, and potentially shut the event down. “Refuse Fascism,” has said Hawkins is leading a “fascist movement,” and that she will be “spew[ing] her misogynistic, anti-women poison” at the speech.
As an active Students for Life leader and as someone who has met Kristan Hawkins in person, I can say that all of this is complete nonsense. Hawkins is not a hateful person, she isn’t a fascist, and she certainly isn’t part of any oppressive patriarchy (she’s a woman for crying out loud)! Kristan Hawkins is a brave, intelligent, and inspiring Catholic who is fighting to protect the most vulnerable among us. But the radical secularism present on college campuses has portrayed her as the epitome of all things evil.
A Catholic Response to Secularism
Perhaps my favorite leader in the Catholic Church in America is Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In his most recent book, Strangers in a Strange Land, Archbishop Chaput discusses this secular intolerance, particularly in regards to sexual morality. The Archbishop says, “Thus two thousands years of moral truth and religious principle become, by sleight of hand, a species of bias. Opposing same-sex marriage amounts to religiously blessed homophobia…or so the reasoning goes. Insufficiently ‘progressive’ moral teaching and religious belief end up reclassified as hate speech.”
Many college campuses pride themselves on trying to create a learning environment that is inclusive, diverse, and safe for everyone. In and of itself, this goal could be a good thing. The scriptures tell us countless times the importance of loving both acquaintances and strangers, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies. Nobody is to be excluded from God’s love, and all people should be treated with respect.
However, when colleges pair the protection of one ideological group with the persecution of any dissenting groups, the result is a toxic environment that destroys the very principles of acceptance and diversity that it was supposed to espouse. To hide this problematic contradiction, the universities dress up their secular agenda in simplistic euphemisms like “safe space” while labeling even the most respectfully voiced opposition as “hate speech” so that all dissenters can be slandered into silence.
Contrary to radical strains of secular belief, I want to live an environment that is safe for everyone – including people whom I have strong disagreements with. I don’t want people who identify as pro-choice, LGBT, or atheist to feel hated. I want them to know that I hold no contempt for them whatsoever. And if any of them have been sincerely mistreated by Catholics or Christians, I would cherish the opportunity to look them in the eye, apologize for what happened to them, and to tell them that our Father in Heaven loves them just as much as He loves everyone else. But in order to do that, we need to allow for respectful dialogue, and we need to stop shaming orthodox believers of Judeo-Christian faith.
Despite the troubling circumstances present on college campuses, I would encourage Catholic college students to be brave and remain faithful to what they know to be true. Archbishop Chaput tells us, “Catholics who seek to live their faith seriously don’t fit in the categories secular society provides because the Gospel itself doesn’t,” and this inability for faithful Catholics to fit in is nothing new. Jesus didn’t fit in. The saints didn’t fit in. And neither should we. Rather, in a saintly and Christ-like way, we must strive stand out, not so that we may be seen, but so that Christ may be heard by a broken secular world that so badly needs to hear his voice.
Here are some tips to help Catholics combat secularism the right way.
1. Pray for guidance (for yourself)
Humility is another Christian virtue that is sadly out of style. We must acknowledge that we are not perfect, and if we do not acknowledge our dependence on God, all our efforts will fall short. Pro-life work detached from God falls short. Care for the poor detached from God falls short. All charitable work detached from God falls short. We need to invite God into everything we do, so that he can guide us not only to think in a Christlike way, but to act in a Christlike way, and this cannot happen without prayer.
2. Pray for guidance (for your enemies)
Much of the hatred and polarization in religion and politics today is a product of our inability to see those who disagree with us as fellow human beings worthy of love and respect. Praying for our enemies keeps us from dehumanizing them, and it helps us to see them as God sees them. We must see these people not as enemies to be conquered, but as people to be loved, and as people who are seeking God’s love (whether they know it or not).
3. Follow the Ignatian Presupposition.
St. Ignatius is the founder of the Jesuit order and one of the greatest spiritual guides in the history of Catholicism. Ignatian spirituality is rich with many valuable tools, but my favorite is the Ignatian Presupposition. Simply put, the Ignatian Presupposition declares that we should give people the benefit of the doubt. When people disagree with you, assume that their intentions are good unless you have significant evidence to indicate otherwise. This approach will open the door for understanding and the conversion of hearts and minds.
4. Speak with love.
St. John Chrysostom once said, “No matter how just your words may be, you ruin everything when you speak with anger.” Those words could not be any truer. The purpose of interacting with the secular culture is not for us to assign blame to others. Nor is the purpose to win debates, massage our egos, and make ourselves feel superior to others. We must interact with the secular culture for the same reason that Jesus did: to love. If you try to shove the truth down someone’s throat, they will throw it back up in your face. But if you present the truth with love, the other person might actually accept it and swallow it. If you speak the truth with anger and condescension, your interactions will turn into heated and unproductive arguments. But if you speak the truth with love, your interactions will allow the people around you to have an encounter with Christ.
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