No author that I know of has written more extensively on the writings of Benedict than Fr. James V. Schall -- see SchallonBenedict.blogspot.com, our blog devoted exclusively to his papal commentaries.
In his latest column on Pope Benedict's visit, Fr. Schall returns to the familiar topic of secularity -- particularly, the two rival meanings of secularism at work in the world today and which influence our own American conceptions of religion and public life:
In an interesting address on December 9, 2006, to Catholic Lay Jurists, Benedict spelled out the proper relation of the Church and State. They do not exist essentially in terms of antagonism. When properly distinguished, their respective purposes and mutual limits compliment each other. The pope is aware that such a thing as "democratic tyranny," a notion also found in John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (#44-45), is possible. This would be a system in which the will of the people, the majority, has no limits. Indeed, Benedict thinks much of modern secularism tends in that direction.
In his address to the Catholic Jurists, Benedict recalled the medieval meaning of the word "secular." It referred to lay secular authority over against ecclesiastical authority. Both sides were Catholic, however. In modern times, secularity means "the exclusion of religion and its symbols from public life by confining them to the private sphere and to the individual conscience." Religion is reduced to the individual conscience. Religion is wholly interior and has no public significance.
What is the common sense alternative? Vatican II, as Benedict recalls, used an almost similar phrase, "the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs" (GS, #36). Reflecting the distinction between God and Caesar from the New Testament, where this distinction originally arose, a distinction exists between the two bodies that are not necessarily hostile or exclusive. Indeed, it is the standard Catholic position that the State will not be what it should be without revelation and that the Church cannot be itself a state.
Such a thing as "healthy secularism" acknowledges "the effective autonomy of earthly realities, not indeed from the moral order but from the ecclesiastical sphere. Thus, the Church cannot point out the preferred political and social order; it is the people who must freely decide on the best and most suitable ways to organize political life." That there should be government is part of human nature. That it should be in this form or that is a matter of judgment and prudence. The Church may "prefer" one form of government as ideal. In modern times, this is usually a "democracy," but the Church is also realistic. It knows that the form of rule does not automatically guarantee moral rule.
"Any direct intervention from the Church in this (political) area would be undue interference." The Church simply does not ambition political rule, contrary to many prejudices about its purposes in this world. "Moreover, 'healthy secularism' implies that the state does not consider religion merely as an individual sentiment that may be confined to the private sphere alone." The Church has a visible and public organization with transcendent and immediate purposes to carry out. "Since religion is also organized in visible structures, as is the case with the Church, it should be recognized as a form of public community presence."
"This (recognition) also implies," Benedict adds, "that every religious denomination (provided it is neither in opposition to the moral order nor a threat to public order) be guaranteed the free exercise of the activities of worship—spiritual, cultural, educational and charitable—of the believing community.'' This freedom is what religious liberty means, something surely well within the central American tradition. "Likewise, to refuse the Christian community and its legitimate representatives the right to speak on the moral problems that challenge all human consciences today, and especially those of legislators and jurists, is not a sign of healthy secularity." This is simply free speech that is being insisted on also for the expression of moral judgments in the public order about the human good and man's purpose.
Is this "interfering" with politics by religion? Hardly. "It is not a question of undue meddling by the Church in legislative activity that is proper and exclusive to the State," Benedict explains, "but, rather, of the affirmation and defense of the important values that give meaning to the person's life and safeguard his or her dignity. These values are human before being Christian, such that they cannot leave the Church silent and indifferent. It is here duty to firmly proclaim the truth about man and his destiny." What is often not understood is that most of the Church's interest in what are called political affairs do not arise from revelation, but belong to what is known by reason and forms the basis of any reasoning and understanding of public things.