Two Versions of Secularism
Secularism #1: Imagine a pluralistic society--that is, a society where there are lots of people with lots of different worldviews. (Of course, this is not hard for those of us in the United States to imagine, for it is precisely the sort of society we live in.) All the different people realize that in order for civil order to be maintained, they are going to have to work together. Most of them agree that civil order is a good thing, because it is necessary to protect certain "rights" and "freedoms" for individuals living in the society. They don't necessarily agree with each other about what a "right" is in the deepest, philosophical sense, but they agree that it is desirable that some kind of governing system exist which stops people from being randomly killed, robbed, etc. So they get together and create a government which makes laws about such things and enforces them.
This government will do its job imperfectly. It will be a result of compromise between people of conflicting worldviews and therefore probably conflicting (to some extent at least) ideas about ethics and social justice. Hopefully, it will enact many laws deemed just by all parties; but it will also almost certainly enact laws that are considered unjust by some of the parties. For example, a Catholic worldview opposes abortion and euthanasia as unethical, whereas many Atheists and Agnostics these days find these practices to be at least sometimes ethical. (If you want to explore this further, see here.) If the state legalizes euthanasia or abortion, it will be enacting an unjust law according to the Catholic worldview. But if the state illegalizes either, it will be enacting an unjust law according to the viewpoint of many Atheists and Agnostics. If the former happens, the Catholics will work to change minds and hearts in society and in other ways to influence things so that they can eventually get the law changed to be more just. In the latter case, it will be the Atheists and Agnostics who will be trying to change the legal norm.
Despite its imperfections, however, both sides might agree that a "secular" governmental system--that is, one that is the result of working together and compromise between disagreeing groups as opposed to attempts by the groups to wipe out, subjugate, or dominate the other groups through, shall we say, less democratic methods--is the best plan, at least for the time being, because the alternative, less democratic approach is likely to lead to much greater injustice in society and possibly even the collapse of civil society altogether.
Secularism #2: We have our pluralistic society, full of people with differing worldview beliefs. But they all agree not to impose their own worldview beliefs on the others. They decide to form together a governmental structure that is worldview-neutral--that is, one that does not assume anyone's point of view to the exclusion of anyone else's, or impose anyone's beliefs on others by making legal requirements based on those beliefs. The government will base its laws only on ideas and values that are neutral between all the parties, thus avoiding favoring any party over any other.
Such a system, by its advocates, is seen as "perfect." Of course, everyone recognizes that no human society can be perfect in every way, but such a "secular" system is seen as perfect in the sense that, if carried out ideally, it will never step on anyone's toes (at least fundamentally). It will be compatible with everyone's worldview beliefs and so will be seen to be just in all its essentials by reasonable people of all worldviews. By contrast, Secularism #1 is an inherently non-ideal system. The very idea of it is that nobody is getting everything he wants; everyone's worldview is being trampled on at some time or other, because the underlying point is that it is a compromise-system between people who can't agree.
Problems with Secularism #2
It is important to keep these two versions of "secularism" distinct, because in fact they are very different, even contradictory, proposals for civil government. I submit that Secularism #2 is practically impossible, because there will never be able to be true governmental neutrality in a pluralistic society. Consider my examples of euthanasia and abortion. What would the "neutral" law on these matters be? What law could we pass that would please both the Catholic point of view and all the Agnostic and Atheistic points of view? "Well," someone might suggest, "we could make euthanasia and abortion legal. Catholics could be permitted to avoid participating in them, due to their religious beliefs, but, recognizing that religion is a private matter, they would avoid enforcing their Catholic values on others through the law." The problem with this is that religion cannot be merely a private matter, because religious beliefs are beliefs about reality, and reality has implications not just for one's private ethics but for one's sense of social justice as well. The Catholic worldview holds that both euthanasia and abortion are murder, and that not only does the private individual have a moral obligation to refrain from participating in murder, but the state also has an obligation to use laws and law enforcement (among other things) to oppose murder and protect life. So the Catholic position is not simply that euthanasia and abortion are immoral for private Catholics, but that they are objectively unethical for everyone and that it is unethical for a society to grant a right to them in law. So a law legalizing euthanasia or abortion could only be seen as neutral towards the Catholic worldview by a person who doesn't understand what the Catholic worldview teaches on these subjects.
The fact is that there is no way, on these and on many matters, for a state to maintain neutrality between the conflicting worldviews in a pluralistic society. Promoters of Secularism #2 often (consciously or unconsciously) sell this version of secularism by misrepresenting the beliefs of some of the people in the society (as we just saw above), and also by conflating Secualrism #2 with Secularism #1. "Don't you think we should all get along and work together?" they ask. "Don't you think that we should put aside violence and live peacefully with each other in society? If so, we must cooperate, and that is what secularism is all about." But this way of thinking neglects the distinction between the two very different ways of envisioning a cooperating pluralistic society that I have laid out above. There are other ways in which people of different worldviews might cooperate in society besides attempting to embrace an impossible ideal of governmental worldview neutrality.
It might be argued that Secularism #1 is an unjust and therefore less desirable system compared to Secularism #2 because it is unfair. In Secularism #1, people of different worldviews, while working together and continuing to support society when they don't get what they want, yet are still working to impose their own views in the law and to make laws that violate the views of others. So Catholics, while they may get along with Atheists and Agnostics and refrain from resorting to violent revolution when laws they consider unjust are passed, are still working to change the laws to reflect their own values and to impose those values on others by, for example, banning euthanasia and abortion, practices which some non-Catholics find wholly acceptable and even the right and best thing to do in certain circumstances.
The first, most immediately practical answer to this objection is that if such a system is unfair, we will have to live with it, for the alternative is impossible. A state has no choice but to either legalize or not legalize euthanasia and abortion (and, of course, to decide the exact parameters of what is and is not legalized). If it makes them illegal, it will impose views and values amenable to Catholics on some people in society who don't share those views and values. But if it makes them legal, it will also be imposing views and values amenable to some on those who do not share them. Catholics, in this latter situation, will be forced to live in a society in which what they consider to be great crimes against humanity are legally authorized. They may not be forced personally to participate in these things, but the society will still be opposing their viewpoint and acting in a way that they cannot condone and which is against their will. To say that they are not being imposed upon because they are not personally forced to participate is to neglect the fact that most people are not wholly selfish. They are not only concerned about what they personally can and cannot do but also about what sort of society exists. An unjust society causes pain to any person who cares about social justice, regardless of whether or not the injustice is directly aimed at him personally. Because of the multiplicity of worldviews and ethical positions in a pluralistic society, it will be simply impossible for such a society to avoid having laws that counter deep-seated concerns and desires and beliefs of some of the population. So if such countering is unfair, unfair we must be.
But it is not a foregone conclusion that everyone will regard such a situation as unfair. In fact, I don't think that most proponents of abortion or euthanasia consider the legalization of these to be unfair to those who are opposed to them. In their view, people have a right to abortion and euthanasia, and therefore a just complaint if these are made illegal, while people have no right to have a society that refuses to tolerate these practices, and therefore there is no just basis for complaints of unfairness if the state allows in these cases what they think should not be allowed. Legalizing abortion and euthanasia is the just thing for society to do, they reason, and so reasonable people on all sides will recognize this as the best thing and will not consider it unfair. On the other hand, those who are opposed to abortion and euthanasia do not believe that any unfairness is done to any by making illegal these unethical and harmful actions, any more than unfairness is committed against any when other harmful actions (drunk driving, theft, etc.) are prohibited. In their view, no one has a right to abortion or euthanasia. Charges of "unfairness" are never leveled by the people who manage to get their own positions and values enshrined in laws, but only by those whose values are excluded. We don't typically see the state of things as "unfair" when the society favors our own views and opposes views we consider wrong, but only when the society rejects our views and favors the contradictory views of others. Despite the calls for "neutrality," it is not really neutrality that is wanted. To paraphrase the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm, we want a state that treats all views and values equally, but also one that recognizes that some views and values are more equal than others. I would, in fact, argue that most calls for "governmental religious neutrality" today are actually thinly veiled calls for the government to embrace an Agnostic worldview and Agnostic values as the official viewpoint of the society, to the exclusion of contrary views.
Catholicism and Secularism
The question is sometimes raised as to whether or not Catholicism is compatible with secularism. Distinguishing between the two versions of secularism helps us to answer that question more clearly. The Catholic worldview is incompatible with Secularism #2, because Catholicism calls on all citizens to work for justice in the social sphere, and it recognizes that the ultimate standard of justice, whether personal or social, is God's moral law. Quesion #463 in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts this clearly and succinctly:
Authority should always be exercised as a service, respecting fundamental human rights, a just hierarchy of values, laws, distributive justice, and the principle of subsidiarity. All those who exercise authority should seek the interests of the community before their own interest and allow their decisions to be inspired by the truth about God, about man and about the world.
If decisions are to be "inspired by the truth about God, about man and about the world," obviously they cannot be neutral towards these truths and their corresponding falsehoods.
Morality requires that we recognize and protect a place in our society for the formation of conscience, and out of this comes a moral obligation to protect liberty of conscience and religious freedom. But such liberty is not absolute. It must be balanced with other ethical concerns, and the framework according to which all ethical concerns are to be properly balanced is the moral law of God. In deciding where to draw the line between what is to be tolerated and what is not to be tolerated, and when, the state does not look to some illusory "neutral" guideline, but to the standard of truth and justice found in God's law. Thus, while toleration is often required with regard to the beliefs, values, and actions of others, not all views and values are or should be treated equally (even if that were possible). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2109--footnotes removed) puts it this way:
The right to religious liberty can of itself be neither unlimited nor limited only by a "public order" conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner. The "due limits" which are inherent in it must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with "legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order."
Secularism #1, however, is perfectly compatible with Catholic doctrine. We live in a fallen, very non-ideal world. In such a world, it is often the case that the attainment of certain goods must be foregone in order for other goods to be maintained or for greater evils to be avoided. This is precisely the rationale for Secularism #1. In order to achieve the best social order practically possible, it is usually necessary to some extent to tolerate certain evils. This is especially the case in a pluralistic society, where lack of such toleration is very likely typically to bring with it a great degree of social injustice and in some cases even social chaos. Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Libertas, #33 (footnotes removed), put it this way:
Yet, with the discernment of a true mother, the Church weighs the great burden of human weakness, and well knows the course down which the minds and actions of men are in this our age being borne. For this reason, while not conceding any right to anything save what is true and honest, she does not forbid public authority to tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, or of obtaining or preserving some greater good. God Himself in His providence, though infinitely good and powerful, permits evil to exist in the world, partly that greater good may not be impeded, and partly that greater evil may not ensue. In the government of States it is not forbidden to imitate the Ruler of the world; and, as the authority of man is powerless to prevent every evil, it has (as St. Augustine says) to overlook and leave unpunished many things which are punished, and rightly, by Divine Providence. But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake; for evil of itself, being a privation of good, is opposed to the common welfare which every legislator is bound to desire and defend to the best of his ability. In this, human law must endeavor to imitate God, who, as St. Thomas teaches, in allowing evil to exist in the world, "neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills only to permit it to be done; and this is good." This saying of the Angelic Doctor contains briefly the whole doctrine of the permission of evil.
For more on the impossibility of worldview neutrality in civil government, see here. For more on the Catholic view of religion and civil law, see here. For a brief consideration of how pluralism and secularism (particularly Secularism #2) relate to peace and stability in society, see here.
Published on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary