The Banishment Of Religion From Public View: Dark Victory of the Enlightenment

(This article originally appeared in the Wanderer Forum Foundation’s Forum Focus magazine, Spring/Summer 1997. And how do we fare, dear readers, some 20+ years later?) 

This is part III of Cindy Paslawski’s series.
Part I is here: On Benedict, Francis, and Sin.
Part II is here: Humanism and the Sacred.

The burning Notre Dame cathedral captures the trend of the Enlightenment – God has been shoved aside in society.

As some four centuries of war by the Enlightenment against religion draw to a close, religion as a public reality, much less a public practice, has lost. Only a few vestiges of it, officially declared public or cultural memories, remain.1  Our courts open with an appeal to God and our money proclaims our trust in Him. But those are empty gestures to a banished memory, the way a former addict might reach for an imagined cigarette.

The message of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – that if we wait for God to come us we’ll wait forever – is now accepted.2  More and more, we must seek Christmas cards with religious significance in specialty stores. Fainter and fainter are any references on radio and television to the religious meaning of either Christmas or Easter. Everyone would stop in their tracks in dead silence if they heard “God be with you,” instead of “Have a good day.” And should someone attempt to explain to our sons and daughters in public schools that it is impossible to have a good day unless God is with them, there would be positive steps to prevent such treason against the banishment of religion from public awareness. As the practice of the old religion was once a capital crime in England, so the practice of religion in the public domain is actionable in the 20th century’s greatest nation.3

In an overly hyped TV mini-series about devastation of the earth by asteroid strikes, religious sentiments or their expression are virtually absent. In the long drama, with disaster pending, and then ruin visited upon great cities, the only expression of religion was a man blessing himself with the sign of the cross. Victims are left to their own resources, except for the presence of government disaster “experts” and medical and social relief agents.

When real tragedies strike, “grief counselors” are called quickly to the scene, which becomes a certain element in journalistic accounts. Little or no reporting has been done in recent years of “Last Rites” (the term is anachronistic even in religious circles) or religious comfort of  any sort. Those surviving such disasters as tornadoes, floods, hurricanes will often thank God or praise the Lord for deliverance, and almost perforce these religious sentiments get broadcast, but journalists rarely feature them.

Psychologists are often sought out to explain the effects of disasters on humans; theologians are never sought out to explain the relationship between physical evils (would many theologians even know?) and faith in a good God.

Theology and religion were also virtually absent from the worldwide discussion of the successful cloning of animals in the winter of 1997. The problems this might present regarding “ethics” surfaced immediately, but  by “ethics” was inevitably meant the study of the socially or culturally acceptable. “Ethicians” resorted to for advice were almost to a man (or woman) “bioethicians,” which can often mean experts on what should be acceptable to the science of biology and perhaps its relationship to the social good. To go beyond that into theology would be, of course, to enter the forbidden world of possible moral absolutes. And moral absolutes, along with every other kind, are supposedly banished along with banishment of the Supreme Absolute Himself.


Two thinkers have recently had some important and interesting things to say about this. One, of course, is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Commenting on the ascendancy of relativism as “the central problem for the faith at the present time,” the Cardinal said:

“The Absolute cannot come into history, but only models and ideal forms that remind us about what can never be grasped as such in history. Therefore concepts such as Church, dogma, and sacraments must lose their unconditional character.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in an address to Presidents of Latin American Bishops’ Doctrinal Commissions, May 1996, carried in L’Osservatore Romano, English-language edition, Nov. 6, 1996.

William D. Watkins, citing statistics showing increasing rejection of absolute truth in America, predicts thus:

“If Americans stay true to form, we can predict that as the 1990s come to a close, belief in absolute truth will exist among an even smaller minority. Perhaps as few as two out of every ten Americans will confess to a belief that truth is absolute. Among religiously conservative Christians the belief in relativism will also likely to continue to grow but at a slower rate. Maybe by the year 2000 seven out of every ten Christians will reject the reality of absolute truth.”

Watkins, The New Absolutes, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, 1996, p. 27-28.

Cardinal Ratzinger points to the deadly danger such relativist erosion of belief in absolute truth threatens for the very heart of Christianity:

“The relativist dissolution of Christology and even more of ecclesiology thus becomes a central commandment of religion.”

Ratzinger, address cited above.

His deduction of certain inferences that follow such attacks on truth itself is even more alarming:

“If there is no common truth in force precisely because it is truth, then Christianity is only something imported from outside, a spiritual imperialism which must be thrown off with no less force than political imperialism.”

Ratzinger, address cited above.


Watkins documents some of the determined efforts to, if not overthrow Christianity, at least drive it from public vision in this country:

  • A federal court orders removal of a picture of Jesus Christ that had hung in a public school for thirty years;
  • Arrest of 24 pro-life Christians who were praying on the public sidewalk in Atlanta, Georgia;
  • Arrest in Texas of a 57-year-old grandmother who was passing out religious literature across a public roadway from a high school;
  • Rejection of the drawing of a cross which a Kentucky school child submitted in a project;
  • Disciplining of a second-grader in Arizona for entering the name “Jesus” on a school computer;
  • Accusation of fraudulent transfer of funds against a bankrupt couple who regularly tithed to their church (overturned by a higher court);
  • Disallowing by Oregon and Virginia state motor vehicle departments of words “Pray” and “4-God-So” on specialized license plates. Virginia also rejected the word “Atheist,” not for the disbelief it expressed but because it was a reference to the Deity;
  • In Wisconsin, a threat to censor a student’s salutatory address if it contained a prayer or any expression of religious sentiment;
  • Suspension of a Florida high school student for distributing religious literature on campus;
  • Arrest of Illinois students found praying at the school’s flagpole as part of a national “See You At The Pole” event;
  • Refusal of an injunction against pro-abortion demonstrators’ blocking a church entrance, though injunctions against pro-life demonstrators near abortion clinics are routinely issued.8

A court, in forcing a landlady to rent to an unmarried man and woman against the landlady’s religious belief of the sinfulness of fornication, summed up the whole forced secularization by law of today’s culture: “We’re not precluding the defendant from exercising her religion. We’re just saying she can’t bring it with her into the business world.” Obviously, these extremists are prepared to tolerate religion only if it is hidden —  and ineffective.9


As the opening sentences of this monograph suggested, the writer’s aim is to link all this to the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of some three centuries ago. We have patent for this from many sources, but none more important than Pope John Paul II himself. The Pope tells us10 that the French Revolution came at the time of the Enlightenment in France, when pure rationalism ruled. As a result, the spiritual, and especially the moral patrimonies of Christianity “were thus torn from their evangelical foundation.” He sums up: “The rationalism of the Enlightenment put to one side the true God – in particular, God the Redeemer.”11 The Pontiff offers a remedy for this catastrophe, but we shall wait for that till later in this writing.

An apt analogy for the Enlightenment is a vast storm – the hurricane. We now, in the aftermath, see wreckage strewn on every side. Structures of restraint, decency, civilization are either blown entirely away, or have been smashed into bits, with little left to remind of the great value and beauty they had been. Women slay their children, even as they are in the process of birth. Doctors, ignoring the essence of their vocation as healers and preservers of life, deal death in the name of “mercy” or “compassion.” Many people brag of sexual abuses and perversions that once made even the depraved blush. Matrimony is shunned as unnecessary, replaced by co-habitation in mockery of the stable families that matrimony once sealed with virtue. The marriage act is seized for the couple’s own purposes, ignoring the lesson about it from both Nature and Christ through His Church. Human life is measured by its quality and social contribution, with no regard for any value because of its origin, essence, and purpose. Law has become opinion, seeking justification either in majority acceptance or scientific ratification. Thus sociology replaces theology, particularly the theology based on God’s will for His human creatures.

Events forecast even worse horrors than this cultural debris reveals. Laboratory manipulators now play with the fundamental elements of our biological (that is, our bodily) existence. Thus they hope to manage both natural and unnatural “procreation.” The excuse is always in the name of human betterment, but that, after all, was the excuse for the Enlightenment itself, including the resulting terrors of the Revolution in France, cited by Pope John Paul II. It is therefore time to turn from the undeniable damage done by the Enlightenment to that vast storm itself.


A hurricane results when certain atmospheric conditions exist that allow the storm’s genesis. In our analogy, so, too, the Enlightenment became possible when certain intellectual conditions came into existence which would allow it. The first of those conditions was the Renaissance, that is, the rebirth of classical Greek and Roman culture as a replacement for Medieval culture:

“The Renaissance looked down upon the Middle Ages because to the man of the Renaissance, medieval man possessed no real appreciation of ancient classical literature and art. In their newfound intoxication with the beauties of ancient Greece and Roman culture, Renaissance men could see nothing of value in the achievements of the Christian centuries of the Middle Ages, and it was they who applied the term ‘Gothic’ to medieval architecture, as an indication it was a kind of architecture suitable only for untutored barbarians, who were unacquainted with classical standards of beauty and form.” 

John J. Mulloy, Christianity and the Challenge of History, Christendom Press, Front Royal,   VA, 1995,   p.143-4.

The use of the term “intoxication” by the author quoted above is very felicitous, for it suggests a state of soberness before the Renaissance that is true and apt. Medieval men, whatever they lacked superficially, had a wealth of appreciation about the truths concerning themselves. There was a clarity of vision about human nature and meaning in which they lived and acted honestly and confidently. It  seemed to be more than a vision of faith; it was more a state of existence. Medieval man did not explain himself by faith. Rather, because of faith, he did not need an explanation. He did not consciously manifest himself in his art and culture, the way Renaissance man did. Medieval man and his faith were one; faith was not a function, it was a manifestation of personhood.

If later Descartes would say, “I think, therefore I am,” the most simple Medieval peasant might have said (had there been the necessity, which there wasn’t), “I am because I believe.” The modern schizophrenia about who and what we are had not yet afflicted our race. The beginning steps toward that disorder were taken, weavingly, by the Renaissance drunkenness that was concerned with human greatness rather than with simply humanness.


The second condition for the genesis of the Enlightenment was Protestantism. Contrary to the Renaissance, Protestantism gave little appreciation to the works of man, but most particularly to the external evidence and insignia of the Catholic Faith, seeing them as the evil fruits of the Papal anti-Christ. The kingdom of the heaven was not only within, it was entirely and subjectively so; thus any authority that claimed to speak for and with the patent of that kingdom was a usurpation to be struck down. In order to justify a revolt against Papal authority, Protestantism, whether intentionally or not, weakened the claims of any and all authority, thus weakening authority itself. True, it resorted to reliance on the authority of the Scripture, but that had to be a self-validating authority. When it said sola Scriptura, it left Scriptura to justify itself. This removed religion from the realm of reason almost entirely, leaving it to individual and subjective judgment. Under such conditions, religion then becomes what men want it or feel it to be. It was inevitable such a system of belief would appeal with less and less conviction to workings of the intellect, thus losing for religious belief/faith any credibility for directing human affairs.

In his essay on Luther in Three Reformers, Jacques Maritain has dissected the environment provided for the Enlightenment by Protestantism. He found a basic illusion at the heart of the Lutheran Reformation. These Reformed tell us that the essence of the Reformation is to “exalt the Spirit against Authority.” They found an “interior energy” within man which they set against the “dead ideas and lying conventions imposed from without.” Maritain cited the essayist Carlyle, who saw in Luther “a man self-subsistent, true, original, sincere.” This man is opposed to “spurious Popes, and Believers having no private judgment.” As a result, Carlyle saw a whole world of Heroes. “If hero means sincere man, why not every one of us be a Hero?”

Maritain draws the inevitable from this effusion of enlightened and liberated heroism: “Why indeed, why are not all sincere readers of Carlyle, Heroes? Why does not the sincerity of a scoundrel make him a martyr?”

The French theologian calls this commentary by Carlyle “a good abridgement of anglo-modern stupidity.” He sees such Lutheran error turned into illusions – “the ideas of liberty, inwardness, spirit.” These he calls the heart of the Immanentist error:

“It consists in believing that liberty, inwardness, spirit lie essentially in opposition to what is not self, in a breach between what is within and what is without.” 

VideThree Reformers – Luther, Descartes, Rousseau,  by Jacques Maritain, published in 1970 by Thomas Crowell in its Apollo Editions. Crowell literary properties were subsequently acquired by Harper/Collins, N. Y., p. 45-48. 

Maritain explains that although Luther was no liberal, his doctrine of setting faith against works inevitably came down for many Protestants of our time to “a transport of distress and trust towards the unknown from the depths of the self.”


     The third environment hospitable to the hurricane of the Enlightenment is empiricism – the claim for inductive laboratory science being the only means to, and measurement of, truth. Used thus, it is not genuine science, which is never hostile to truth, but the philosophic error of scientism. For adherents of scientism, agnosticism is the closest to religious truth that the honest mind can come; atheism is more indicative of the courageous, unfettered human being.

Nature magazine (April, 1997) carried results of a survey showing that about 45 per cent of scientists responding to the poll by Edward Larson of the University of Georgia, did not believe in a God as specified in the questionnaire. Fifteen per cent professed agnosticism. These statistics are markedly higher than disbelief shown in polls taken of Americans as a whole. It is perhaps comforting for believers that some 40 per cent of scientists share a belief in God. Nevertheless, empiricism has obviously taken its toll sufficiently to name it as a milieu – along with the results of the Renaissance and Protestant theological tenets – for the destructive winds of the Enlightenment which have wreaked such havoc on the force of faith in public application and practice. Scientism presents an at-hand rationalization for the idea that religion and faith be subjective, interior, and out-of-sight as something not verifiable, and therefore not worthy of  the inquiring mind.

Now, the moist atmosphere and warm temperatures of the oceans provide the right environment for the conception of a hurricane, but it will not come into existence until the motion of the earth, or of the waves, or some small effect of air pressure gives it actual fecundation. Then the storm is born, and soon is producing its own energy to keep it growing stronger and stronger, and larger and larger in dimension. So, too, with the Enlightenment. It was not conceived until certain agitations did so. So we must seek out such storm-producing influences.

AUTONOMY OF THOUGHT: Descartes Destruction

Anyone seriously pursuing this will time upon time come upon the name René Descartes. It was undoubtedly his oar in the atmosphere of intellectual revolution in the 17th century that set off the storm of so-called Enlightenment. If human thought and reason are the ultimate glory and solitary boast of mankind, which is the central thesis of Enlightenment, then Descartes’ idea-centered thesis is the excuse and validation for such claim.

For Descartes, man’s mind, whether doubting or believing, proves the existence of self. In fact, Descartes starts with a “methodical doubt,” and then seeks to dispel it by the very capability of the mind to doubt. Clear ideas become the very evidence of personhood, quite separate and in fact antithetical to the bodily and biological presence in which they occur. Man knows he exists because he thinks. His ideas affirm his existence. They measure his nature and being.

Of course, for Descartes, a believer, this proof of one’s own existence proves the existence of God who gives the capability of thought. But unfortunately for faith, exaltation of man’s ability to think set others free from the necessity of God. The autonomy of thought validated thoughts dismissing God as well as those accepting Him:

“Other men, less Christian than the founder (of Cartesianism), would retain nothing of Cartesianism but the universal sufficiency of reason. Here we have one of the sources of the modern world’s great heresy, the revolt of  human reason against all revealed truth and even God Himself.”

H. Daniel-Rops, The Church in the Eighteenth Century, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, and     J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1964, p. 13.


By 1700 (one year short of six decades after Descartes’ Discourse on Method with its famous “I think, therefore I am”), Claude Gilbert, “a fanatical Cartesian” would say:

“In following reason we depend upon ourselves alone, and we become in some sense gods.”

Ibid., p. 22.

That could well be the motto or emblazonment of the Enlightenment, though some few of the Enlightened might stop short of full self-apotheosis. Thus historian Henri Daniel-Rops tells us that the “Great Century” ended with an indictment of religion and the assertion (by Giovanni Batista Vico) that “mankind had long since emerged from the ‘divine age.’”16 Maritain sums up the dismal outcome of Descartes’ conjecture:

“The Cartesian angel has aged a good deal, he has moulted many times, he is weary. But his understanding has prospered prodigiously; it has prospered world-wide and it holds us under a law which is not gentle. He is an obstinate divider and he has not only separated modern and ancient, but he has set all things against each other – faith and reason, metaphysics and sciences, knowledge and love. The intelligence turned by him to the practical utilization of matter overflows in  action which is external, transitive, and also material. And by that poor thing, the intelligence replaces the normal complement of its true life, which is the immanent and spiritual activity of love; for knowledge is only truly perfect when it flows out in love. The world sighs for deliverance; it sighs for wisdom, for the wisdom, I say, from which the spirit of Descartes has led us astray, for the wisdom which reconciles man with himself and, crowned with a divine life, perfects knowledge in charity.”

Maritain, op cit., p. 89

In this passage, Maritain in literary language has attested to the wreckage on all sides of today’s age with which this monograph opened. It explains the vast cyclone of the Enlightenment on the winds of which Descartes’ “angel” was carried, doing the damage that all angels of error wreak upon culture and history.


Pope John Paul II tells us the history of modern philosophy, dominated as it is by pure rationalism, begins with Descartes, “who split thought from existence and identified existence with reason itself.”18  As the “father of modern rationalism,” the Pope says, Descartes “created the climate in which, in the modern era, an estrangement (from Christianity) became possible.”19   It is at this point the Pope spoke (supra) of the French Revolution, coming 150 years after Descartes, with its result of pushing aside of Christianity.

The modern philosopher, Eric Voegelin, confirms  “the plight of the liberal intellectual in our time,” who finds philosophy and Christianity beyond his range of experience.”20 To exemplify, Voegelin quotes the leftist Harold Laski, who saw “the deposit of scientific inquiry since Descartes” as fatal to the authority of any supernatural religion. Thus Laski claimed only the idea of the Russian (Marxist) Revolution was capable of rebuilding “civilized tradition.”

Laski, of course, was a poor visionary. The Marxist idea was tried and found inadequate. That revolution has collapsed. And still we wander in the ruins of the civilized tradition, caused by the Enlightenment’s substitution of rationalism for metaphysics and its self-worship for the revealed Religion brought to man by Christ.


So, can indeed the civilized tradition ever be rebuilt? If it is going to be, it will have to be by what built it in the first place. More than 50 years ago, Voegelin recognized that the Soviet government enthralled to Communism had gotten “nowhere at all.” Voegelin offers only “a glimmer of hope” in that the American and English democracies most solidly in their institutions represent the truth of the soul. He sees our duty to kindle this glimmer into a flame with all our efforts. 

Solzhenitsyn’s vision is somewhat similar. He views civilization’s threat as the inability to fuse spiritually. He saw this reflected in the lack of will of the prosperous – those given over to material prosperity as the goal of life. “Courage and overcoming are given up only when we are willing to accept sacrifices.”21  He dismisses the United Nations as an agent of civilization because of a failure of morality, that is, a sharing of the absence of morality that marks the world that brought it into existence.

     Though Christopher Dawson may have seen more benevolent possibilities for the Enlightenment planted in the soil of an America open to religious faith, nevertheless, the weeds of destruction were present also in that field. And those seeds have now germinated, and the weeds bid to choke off the good growth so promising in early republican America where anti-clericalism and hostility toward religion did not dominate the Age of Enlightenment, as in Europe. As with plants, those of undisciplined growth are weeds. And the seed of the idea of liberty, has, in the America that welcomed it, produced a growth so undisciplined as to threaten the true value of the cultural and political concept of equality, justice, decency – all of the virtues of civilization:

“The freedom of much of contemporary liberalism expressed by the development of the idea of the autonomous individual in a number of recent Supreme Court decisions has broken free from nature, jettisoned natural law, and tends to be that of an individual free to construct a life and make up a morality without necessary regard to laws other than those made up by the state.”

Glen W. Olsen, Communio quarterly, winter, 1995, p. 709. Referring to ideas in The Crisis of Western Education by Christopher Dawson, Franciscan University Press.

     The author of the statement above, Glen W. Olsen, does some historical investigation of this new child-without-restraint of the Enlightenment:

“Initially, Dawson observed, the churches were ‘the chief…organs of education and culture,’ but ‘in the new America the socialization and secularization of education has created an immense professionalized organ for the creation of moral and intellectual uniformity’.”

Ibid., p. 711.

     Digging deeper, the same writer informs us:

“The ‘separateness’ (Dawson speaks of this rather than of ‘separation’) of church and state had been intended in a country of several forms of Christianity, to insure religious freedom. But, once education had been seized by the state for its purposes, it became a main cause of separation. Dawson hardly went too far in saying that ‘the churches have lost all control over the religious formation of the people.’ He presumably means by this that not only had the churches had to stand aside while the principles of the Enlightenment were taught each day in the schools…but from the side of revealed religion no effective large scale countermeasure or supplement to the results of such educational formation short of an alternative school system was available to those who saw it as inadequate.”

Ibid., p. 713.

And finally, this inference:

“…Given a Protestant premise that all (true) religion comes from revelation and by definition, granted the presence of non-believers in society or disagreement between forms of belief, (religion) must be separated from the public order so that all may meet on a common ground which only reason can provide; and given an Enlightenment definition of the content of reason – America’s secularization, in Dawson’s sense, was inevitable.

“Dawson was right about the large picture. Americans may describe themselves as religious people, but their religion has become that of secularized people, people who move only on the margins of such categories as ‘holiness,’ ‘transcendence,’ ‘mystery,’ ‘doctrine,’ and ‘liturgy.’ Already the Deism of the period of the Revolution had reduced religion to largely moral categories, and in spite of various awakenings it has remained there for most, ‘America’s practical atheism.’ God remains a clockmaker conveniently kept at distance from the world. It has become almost a psychological impossibility to most Americans to resist Enlightenment categories.”

Ibid., p. 714.

     Isolated from their religious past, modern Americans are finding that the very achievements of freedom in the realms of religion, politics, and economics are in danger of becoming the subjects of a technological tyranny, and one enhanced and facilitated particularly by technological marvels in the fields of communication and expression.

     The new humans (note, for example, their depiction in futuristic science fiction) are fully secularized beings to whom the religion of their distant ancestors of, say the 20th century, is just memory and myth. The new order is one fully dominated and motivated by social, sociological, and geo-political concerns. Problems that were once thought to be of the spirit – good and evil, right and wrong, courage and cowardice, action and inaction – are now seen as simply psychological or sociological. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock has found his redemption in genetics and is undergoing psychiatric and psychological rehabilitation.

     The future, then, looms ahead as a bleak Wasteland, the very term Eliot used of the intellectual, philosophic, and cultural vista of the 20th century. But if the Ash Wednesday that relieved that landscape in Eliot’s defining work is ever going to come it will require something akin to the fervor of the evangelization that converted and civilized our barbarian ancestors, and the sacrifices that rescued Jerusalem from Islam.

     The late Vincent Miceli, S.J., sounded the tenor and zeal of the necessary effort in the last words of his study of modern disbelief:

“The counter-attack the children of light will have to mount must be double-pronged. They must articulately dispel the darkness created by the propagandists for atheism, using doctrine and history – fact and results – to unveil the utter insubstantiality and hypocrisy of the atheistic cause. Moreover, and above all, believers must witness by bold deeds of moral rectitude to the majesty and holiness of the transcendent God and Christ. Their good works must shine before men, lifting them from the seduction of humanism to the glorification of man in the Father.”

Vincent Miceli, S.J., The Gods of Atheism, Arlington House, New Rochelle, N.Y., 1971, p. 476.


      A similar note of ardor, zeal, unquenchable dedication to victory is sounded in Pope John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization that should mark the coming of the third millennium of the era of Christ. Somewhat as Eliot in the trilogy mentioned above, the Pope in one work – Crossing the Threshold of Hope – does not spare us the frightening visage of the storm stirred up by Descartes, but then invites the world to cross through the entrance to the dwelling place of hope. He sums up all he has said in that work – including a call to a “new evangelization” that involves the entire “wide-ranging commitment to reflect on revealed truth.”27 – in the necessity to cultivate the fear of God that is a gift of the Holy Spirit:

 “After all I have said, I could summarize my response in the following paradox: In order to set contemporary man free from fear of himself, of the world, of others, of earthly powers, of oppressive systems, in order to set him free from every manifestation of a servile fear before that ‘prevailing force’ which believers call God, it is necessary to pray fervently that he will bear and cultivate in his heart that true fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.” 

Pope John Paul II, op. cit. p. 228.

The Enlightenment clearly drove that fear of God from man’s heart, replacing it with arrogance that betrays man into an inescapable darkness. The Pope, in contrast, finds that fear of God “is the saving power of the Gospel.”29

We must, therefore, ask if much in the “renewed” Church has not distanced us from that saving power, and if it is not necessary in this time of a new evangelization to re-find that power in a re-found fear of the Lord. After all, it is a fundamental question for Christians, one very much present in the original evangelization:

“The Corinthians are a curious illustration of the unstable equilibrium that always exists between the gifts of God and the fear of His chastisements. The Apostle (Paul) ironically points out  the illusions of  these Christians (I Cor. 4:8-13). They attached so much importance to their mystical gifts that they imagined they already reigned with Christ: what remained for them to fear, and what could the coming of the future Kingdom add to what they already possessed? This precarious balance between a mystical union with Christ already possessed and the hope of a definitive gift, coupled with a sovereign fear of God’s judgment: all this is in a sense the paradox of the Christian condition.” 

A. Descamps, in The God of Israel – The God of Christians, edit. J. Gilbert, trans. Kathryn Sullivan R.S.C.J., Desclee, N.Y.


Do we not find at least gleamings of the Corinthian illusion in most so-called “updated” parishes today? There celebration is unbounded – joyful, loudly proclaimed, and we must add, even careless. It is a victory celebration somewhat similar to one that might be held after some great victory on the playing field, without any hint that the victory is yet to be won. Any note of sacrifice, of appeasement of God’s justice, of supplication and unworthiness is virtually absent. Charisms are openly (and perhaps a bit proudly) displayed and practiced as if such gifts were badges of Christian belonging, of the authenticity of the community in which they are found so significant and honored. Little prostrate begging for God’s mercy here. Has not the prayer, “O Lord, I am not worthy…” been reduced from thrice to once, and in fact retranslated to remove all reference to the Centurion’s abject humility before the face of the Savior?

And our services of departure from this world and committal to burial: gone are disturbing recollections of God’s day of wrath and judgment. Replacing such is a near presumption of every deceased person’s salvation being already attained. Therefore it follows that there is no need of Purgatory where some will undergo purification, and therefore no need for the living to pray for the dead who have gone ahead of them. Little left in that presumptuous vision of need of the Holy Spirit’s gift of fear of the Lord.

In fact, much in today’s liturgy in modernized theology, in the new psychology and attitude of worship finds comfortable affirmation in the claims of the Enlightenment. Certainly they would have been no embarrassment to what in German was called Aufklaerung, the movement that enlightens:

“Enlightens what? The human intellect. Was ist Aufklaerung? asked Kant, and he found it to be a process whereby the mind and conscience are liberated, an effort on the part of man to dare at last to make use of his reason…The self-appointed task of Aufklaerung was to place religion beneath the powerful ray of reason and dispel the shadows. The end was Eine Vernuenftige Erkentiniss Gottes, a rational knowledge of God.” 

H. Daniel-Rops, The Church in the Eighteenth Century, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, and     J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1964 p. 56-57.

In that knowledge there is no need for admitting the importance of mystery, submissiveness, humility – no need for fear of the Lord. The miraculous is outside its recognition, and therefore inconsequential.

Perhaps we should be uneasy (at the very least; frightened perhaps better) at Daniel-Rops’ portrayal of the age of the Enlightenment before it culminated in the terror of France’s Revolution, the appearance of atheistic despotism, riding the firestorm of two World Wars. There was Cagliostro, declaring himself immortal and preaching the religion of the goddess Isis; Lavater claiming to be a reincarnation of Christ, and Weishaupt that of Noah; Swendenborg claiming to know the spiritual meaning of Scripture; the consecration into the hierarchy of the freemason Dahlberg; an increase of crime, with 4,000 murders committed in one twelve-year period in Rome; gangs terrorizing whole districts; a moral decline with lewdness and erotic art and literature plentiful; a break-up of family life under the shame of fashionable adultery, and legal arguments in favor of breaking the marriage contract; and the seeming inability of religious authority, including that of Popes, to counteract that fearsome decay.32

Those phenomena are not absent from our own times, though certainly the Supreme Pontiff at the end of the Twentieth Century has been neither silent nor idle in warning against them and rallying resistance to them.


The following observations by a Stratford Caldecott can, I hope, well sum up and focus the significance this monograph intends:

“He ( Pope John Paul II) affirms with the Council that both past and future belong to Christ. In Him ‘can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of all human history’ (Gaudium et spes, n. 10). And finally, as in all his letters, he turns to Mary, ‘the unassuming young woman of Nazareth,’ entrusting to her intercession this new ‘Advent’ of preparation for the year 2000. ‘She, the mother of the Fairest Love, will be for Christians on the way to the Great Jubilee of the Third Millennium, the Star which safely  guides their steps to the Lord’(Pope John Paul, Tertio millennio adventiente n.59,).

“If this hope for the Great Jubilee is to be even partially realized, the implications for world civilization will be immense. The entire modern world is founded on the division of Christendom. Our hope for a culture of life must be entwined with our hope for repentance and reunion.” 

Stratford Caldecott, “Towards The New Millennium,” in Communio quarterly, Winter, 1995


Ongoing evidence continues to appear showing the poisoning of the American soul by the same virus bred by the Enlightenment that made the French Revolution so hostile to religion.

In 1996, a Catholic was suspended from Salem State College in Massachusetts and from his student teaching job at Horace Mann School, Melrose. His error was that he had refused to be present for a showing of a “modern pictorial” that put Marilyn Monroe in the place of Jesus and other celebrities as the Apostles if a parody of the famous Last Supper by DaVinci. Further, he had expressed “Catholic views” on abortion.

In May of 1997, Scripps Howard columnist Bonnie Erbe wrote that “the current fight over abortion is purely the product of religious proselytizers using their positions of power to impose their beliefs on others.”

The former incident shows the determined effort of academics and educational supervisors to exclude all views related to religious belief, and thus to leave education the sole domain of those insensitive or even hostile to religion. The latter display of distorted and subjective thought about the battle over abortion falsely ascribes that issue totally to religious belief, thus attempting to make the pro-life side somehow un-American. 

How can such bigotry exist in an America which has a Constitution that  defends religious belief as a right, and a history that recognizes such as a civic good? The answer is that the hostility to religion that was part and parcel of the Enlightenment, as the main body of this monograph attempts to show, has now prevailed here, as it earlier prevailed in many cultural circles in Europe. 

It would take a complete examination to reveal just how that phenomenon – the subversion of the American Revolution and its accompanying culture that was open and friendly to religion – came about. But such an examination would certainly reveal that a conscious invasion of education at several levels, influencing in the long run the judicial system, the arts and entertainment (particularly popular fiction), and more recently the profession of journalism has proven disastrous for religious values and ethical principles.

“The world once awoke and found itself Arian,” was once said of a heresy about Christ that shook all of Christendom almost at its birth. It can be said now, “the world has awoken and found itself fully secular.” The difference is that when the poison of Arianism was rendered ineffective by the antidote of truth, Christ and Christendom remained. Today the poison of Enlightened secularism has apparently successfully put the antidote of truth so distant from the modern intellect and will as to be virtually unobtainable. Only an intervention by God’s Providence seems capable of making it otherwise.

This is part III of Cindy Paslawski’s series.
Part I is here: On Benedict, Francis, and Sin.
Part II is here: Humanism and the Sacred.

Footnotes and References

The original endnote numbering was preserved but some references appear in the text above, and those are noted with “inline.”

  1. cf. numerous court decisions tolerating Christmas creche and similar displays as only cultural, secular celebrations with no necessarily religious suggestions.
  2. Francis Canavan, S.J., “Commentary,” The Catholic Eye, No. 63, Dec. 8, 1988.
  3. cf. New York case Lamb’s Chapel v Center Mariches Union Free School District discussed in William Watkins’ The New Absolutes, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, 1996, p.55.
  4. inline
  5. inline
  6. inline
  7. inline
  8. Watkins, op. cit., p. 51-54.
  9. Watkins, ibid., p. 55, gives National Review, May 6, 1996, p. 14 and 16, as source for this California decision.
  10. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1994, p. 52.
  11. Ibid., p. 53.
  12. inline
  13. inline
  14. inline
  15. inline
  16. Ibid., p. 26.
  17. Maritain, op cit., p. 89 (and inline on the quote)
  18. Pope John Paul II, op. cit., p. 38.
  19. John Paul II, loc. cit.
  20. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, University of Chicago Press (Midway Reprint), 1983, p. 74.
  21. Alexandr L. Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture on Literature, Thomas P. Whitney trans., Harper & Row, N.Y. 1972.
  22. Glen W. Olsen, Communio quarterly, winter, 1995, p. 709. Referring to ideas in The Crisis of Western Education by Christopher Dawson, Franciscan University Press.
  23. Ibid., p. 711.
  24. Ibid., p. 713.
  25. Ibid., p. 714.
  26. Vincent Miceli, S.J., The Gods of Atheism, Arlington House, New Rochelle, N.Y., 1971, p. 476.
  27. Pope John Paul II, op. cit. p.107.
  28. inline
  29. John Paul II, loc. cit.
  30. inline
  31. inline
  32. Vide ibid., p. 256-8 for details of this terrible period.
  33. inline

This article, The Banishment Of Religion From Public View: Dark Victory of the Enlightenment is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

Frank J. Morriss, J.D.

Frank Morriss was a board member and frequent contributor to the Wanderer Forum Foundation. He was a well-known name in Catholic journalism. After obtaining his J.D. in 1948 from Georgetown University, he was an associate editor with the Register system of newspapers, 1949-1960, and 1963-1967. During that time he also taught English at Catholic colleges in the Denver area. He was a founding editor of Twin Circle in 1966. He has been a freelance writer since 1967 and a contributing editor to The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly newspaper for over 25 years.
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