Grappling with the consequences of an ever more secular world is one of the great challenges we face today. Is it possible for a technologically advanced, economically sophisticated society to have traditional values in the modern world? Or does being modern necessarily mean a commitment to relativism and a denial of transcendence?

To answer some of these questions, MercatorNet interviewed Professor Mariano Fazio, an Argentinian historian who is the head of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. His book, A History of Contemporary Ideas: a reading of the process of secularisation, was recently published in Spanish.

MercatorNet: In your recent book, you distinguish between "strong" secularisation and "weak" secularisation? What do you mean by this?

Mariano Fazio: "Strong" secularisation implies that man has absolute autonomy. That is, it contends that man, and more generally speaking, earthly realities, are self-sufficient. They have no need for transcendence, for God. By "weak" secularisation I mean the growing awareness since the 16th century of the relative autonomy of the secular world. The distinction is between "absolute autonomy", as represented by Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, and "relative autonomy", and "relative autonomy", as understood by the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, especially in the document Gaudium et Spes. The latter means that earthly realities have their own laws, but that at the same time, these laws ultimately have their source in God.

MercatorNet: Is it possible to see a positive side to secularisation?

Mariano Fazio: From a Christian standpoint, the positive aspect of secularisation is "declericalisation". Let me explain. Clericalism asserts that there is no distinction between the natural order and the supernatural order, between political power and spiritual power. This clericalism was a common feature of the Middle Ages. Modernity as "weak" secularisation implies that we are applying the Gospel injunction to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's.

MercatorNet: For a long time it was believed — and still is — that secularisation was the inevitable consequence of economic development, urbanisation, rising mobility and higher educational levels. Does this theory still hold water?

Mariano Fazio: In so far as "strong" secularisation fostered certain aspects of life, such as economics or science, there is no doubt that it has contributed to progress. But the issue is whether this constitutes authentic human development. The disappearance of a transcendent vision of human existence has resulted in inhumane situations of meaninglessness and despair, and these have had consequences, both in economics and in technology, which have turned upon man.

Although historically there has been a relationship between secularisation and economic and technological growth, I do not believe that they are inextricably linked. We have to foster ways of development which do not privilege narrow aspects of human existence and which can give answers to questions about the ultimate meaning of our lives.

MercatorNet: It seem curious that secularisation sprang from within Christendom, and not in, say India or Saudi Arabia. How can this be the case?

Mariano Fazio: The doctrine of creation, one of the pillars of Christianity, underlies secularisation correctly understood. The world has been created by God and God himself has given it natural laws. God has given reason to men so that they can discover the structure of reality. It also makes it possible to access the deepest realities of life through faith. Harmony between faith and reason — a key theme of the teaching of Benedict XVI — leads to respect for the relative autonomy of earthly realities.

True, in traditionally Christian societies a radical separation between faith and reason has often appeared. This has led to secularisation in its "strong" sense, ie, to laicism and moral relativism. But such are the risks of freedom.

In other religions this is not even possible. They tend to be sceptical about man's capacity for reason and man's role is merely to accept revelation; there is no room for rational inquiry. This is what happens in Islamic fundamentalism (which need not be said of all Islam): citizenship in the political order is equated to citizenship in the heavenly order and political laws are derived directly from religious revelation. In such an environment, the possibility of secularisation is eliminated by a religious totalitarianism which denies the fundamental human rights.

MercatorNet: In the eyes of many people, secularisation accelerated strongly after the 1960s. What were the strongest influences in this?

Mariano Fazio: In the 19th century, secularisation was embodied in ideologies. These systems of thought paraded themselves as the possessors of the truth about man and history and promised happiness on this earth. But after two world wars, the attraction of ideology declined because predictions of paradise on earth had proved illusory.

Hence the stage was set for relativism. Some people believed that the underlying cause of the violence was the belief that one could possess the truth. In this case, the most prudent stance, following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, was to relativise all values. If good and evil, truth and error were all the same, the most sensible course was to choose pleasure. This is why Western culture is mired in hedonism, why human life has been relativised, and why institutions which were a point of reference such as the family or the church are fading. The student revolutions of 1968 brought these ideas to the fore.

But we have to point out that the crisis sparked by the world wars also encouraged a return to a complete consideration of the human person. The 20th century has also been a time in which other, more positive, cultural movements have flourished, such as personalism, the philosophy of dialogue, neo-Thomism, etc. Karol Wojtyla is a good example of these.

MercatorNet: What about the future? Should we regard post-Protestant Sweden and post-Catholic France as templates for the 21st century?

Mariano Fazio: Many writers have argued that the 21st century will be spiritual and religious or it will not be at all. I agree with this. The relativism which dominates in many societies is creating despair and anguish and leads to an inhuman culture. I believe that we can already glimpse signs of a return to a transcendent vision of human nature.

Certainly there is a cultural battle today between those who contend that everything is negotiable — life, the family, human dignity in all its dimensions — and those who believe in complete nihilism. But human nature inclines us to trust values which give life meaning. As the years pass, if we are coherent with these values, the cultural climate will eventually become open to transcendence.

MercatorNet: One writer has argued that "the twilight of the gods is morning for the magicians" — that secularisation inevitably creates irrational religions. Is there much evidence for this?

Mariano Fazio: If secularisation leads to relativism, this will also be the case for religions. If there is no ultimate truth, all religions must be the same. This explains the growing number of sects, Satanic cults, and magic in technologically advanced societies. When we stop believing in God we end up believing in anything. On the other hand, the emergence of so many beliefs at least shows that man is a naturally religious being.