In his article "Benedict's ongoing battle against secularism," National Catholic Reporter columnist John Allen claims that European secular attacks on Catholicism led to Pope Benedict XVI's recent controversial decisions to allow the Society of St. Pius X and conservative Anglicans into the Catholic fold.
Allen points to a recent court ruling as evidence that Europe has become overly secular. The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasburg, "issued its ruling in response to a petition from an Italian woman named Soile Lautsi, who lives near Padua and who claimed that having crucifixes in the public school classrooms attended by her two children violates the church/state separation provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court agreed, awarding Lautsi 5,000 euros (roughly $7,400) in damages."
Allen argues that, following this ruling by the European court, we cannot fault the pope and his prelates for seeing European secularists as ferociously attacking Catholic identity. This is why the pope, according to Allen, is welcoming "groups into the church who are ferociously committed to important markers of identity, such as traditional forms of liturgy and devotion and traditional moral teachings." (The court did eventually rule that crucifixes hanging in public classrooms in Italy were a violation of religious freedom.)
While I find Allen's assessment correct, I am troubled by the fact that Catholic identity hinges on revering crucifixes, celebrating traditional forms of liturgy, and adhering to conservative moral teachings. There has to be more than this to the Catholic tradition and identity as a follower of Jesus.
After all, according to many scholars, the crucifix wasn't even the original symbol for Jesus. Scenes of Jesus sharing a meal with the marginalized and healing others were the two most common representations of Jesus among the early Christian communities. Eating together with the oppressed and healing do not belong to any particular faith, but these acts of compassion are nevertheless central to Christianity.
The erosion of the Catholic social tradition among Catholics is a more serious threat to Catholic identity than the removal of crucifixes. I attended a Catholic university and could honestly say that the Catholic social tradition was relatively unknown and even ignored by professors, administrators, fellow students, and even some priests and deacons. They, with a few exceptions, knew little about various liberation theologians and the social writings of all popes since Benedict XIV.
Benefiting from years of wisdom, the Catholic social tradition provides a sound framework for prayer, critical reflection, and action in response to today's major social and environmental issues. Hence, even with the publication of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace's Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Catholic social teaching still remains the Catholic church's best-kept secret.
Perhaps secularism is right to decry Catholicism's current state. Maybe the Catholic hierarchy and laity need to discover and rediscover a tradition that seems to be forgotten and ignored, but is fundamental to the Catholic identity of following Jesus.
Jesus worked for justice and the elimination of oppression and marginalization. Jesus did not worry about the removal of holy symbols or correct liturgical procedures. He focused on eradicating political and religious corruption. He worried about the naked, homeless, starving, and impoverished individuals.
This is what the Catholic social tradition represents, and this is what many Catholics have forgotten or ignored. Perhaps secularism, by removing the crucifixes, can help us recall the original images of Jesus healing and eating with the oppressed and marginalized