Scott Hahn provides crucial perspective on religious freedom: Traditional notions of religion, justice antidote to secularism

Scott Hahn – a former Protestant pastor who converted to the Catholic faith and is now a Catholic theologian, apologist, author and speaker – is coming to St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Omaha on July 24.

He will discuss the Eucharist and the Year of St. Joseph.

But Hahn, who is chair of biblical theology and the New Evangelization at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and founder and president of the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology, has many areas of expertise. Among them is religious freedom – an area where Catholics are increasingly challenged to uphold their faith amidst attempts to make them conform to the ambient culture.

In 2020, Hahn co-authored a book on the subject, “It Is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion,” and recently spoke with the Catholic Voice about it.

He teamed up on the book with Brandon McGinley, a Catholic writer, editor and speaker from Pittsburgh.

A liberal, secularist society has tried to relegate religion into a private, individual matter.  But a classic understanding of religion, underscored in the book, goes deeper, calling it the virtue of rendering what we owe to God and a necessity for our civilization.

Q: How do you define religion? Why is it important?

Brandon and I recognize that there are at least a dozen other options when it comes to how to define religion. So what we do is try to step outside of the contemporary debate and go back to antiquity because the notion of religio has a pedigree that goes all the way back to the Greco-Roman times, so that you have Plato and Aristotle, but especially Cicero and Seneca, identifying justice as the highest virtue.

What we owe to our neighbors is something that we must repay as justice. When we purchase something, we ought to pay for the groceries when we check out. A higher form of justice than that is what we owe our culture, our society, in terms of the common good. But the ancients recognized a still higher form of justice. … The highest form of justice, even for these pre-Christian pagans, was religio reverence. That is what we owe Heaven, what we owe the Divine, what we owe the Force of All Being, according to Aristotle, Plato, Cicero and Seneca.

They didn’t have the clarity that comes to us through the Word of God and Scripture and Tradition. But they had sufficient clarity to say, look, if we apply our own natural reason to the natural order, we can draw the conclusion that there is an infinite and eternal source for all that we know.

This book is an attempt to recover the virtue of religion for persons who will pray from the heart and for families that will pray together around the hearth, and parishes as well with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the celebration of the sacraments. … The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each person the love of the true and the good. That requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion, which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church.

We often tend to absorb the values of a secularized culture that wants to privatize religion and relativize morality. What we’ve got to recognize is that as faithful Americans who embrace the Christian faith, Catholics are called to be leaven.

I think that’s our role. It isn’t just to sanitize and clean up society. It is to sanctify the temporal order. It isn’t to turn the society into a monastery, but it is to allow the holy to really transform that which is properly secular, but not secularism.

That’s why this book is written, to kind of make simple distinctions. It isn’t a political program so much as it is a part of what Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis call the New Evangelization. And that is re-evangelizing the de-Christianized. That’s not just true for persons and families, but it’s true for our culture as well.

The book is meant to inspire joy and hope more than anger or despair.

Q: How do you define justice? Why is it important?

Justice is understood in terms of giving to others what you owe them. … What we owe God is not less, but more. It comes under justice, but it’s the highest form of justice. …

It’s what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 22, when he’s asked what the greatest law is. Well, the greatest law, the greatest commandment, is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And the second is like unto it, that is, to love your neighbor as yourself.

His Jewish contemporaries are like, yeah, he answered well. He knew exactly where to go and what to quote. But for us, because we’ve lived in civilization that for five centuries or so has been secularized, religion has been privatized, morality relativized, to a majority American consensus.

Secularism is almost like a parasite. When it tries to form a social order, it does it a lot like a parasite that sucks the blood from a host. When you look at the idea of freedom and you look at the idea of justice, when you look at the idea of tolerance or love, you’re looking at things that don’t arise from atheism or secularism, much less Marxism. You’re looking at the blood that is inside the parasite that has been sucked out of a host. And over time, you’re looking at a shriveled host where the last vestiges of Christian culture have mostly been sucked dry. The parasite then claims to be the owner of true justice, of righteousness, and it has the right to define traditional morality as hate speech.

Q: How does the future of civilization depend on true religion and true justice?

I think we all recognize that social order depends upon justice. We just don’t agree on what justice means anymore. So what we have to do is to recognize that it isn’t enough to think in terms of election cycles. It isn’t enough for us to just be practical in the short run. … The need to do that is so real, but it can obscure or eclipse from our view the fact that we’re also Catholics, not just Americans. Instead of thinking simply in terms of election cycles, we’ve got to think in terms of generations. Mother Church thinks in terms of centuries.

We’re not just planting a crop that we’ll harvest this fall to have food for the winter. We’ve got to think in terms of planting forests that we might not live to see. … I think as Catholic Americans, we think in terms of the short term, the long haul and everything in between. It is what religion gives us. It’s an eternal perspective. It gives us a divine perspective. What are we doing on earth for Heaven’s sake? Not only to get there, but to take as many people with us as we can.

It just seems common sense for Catholics to recognize that we need to be planting the forest, not only physically for the social order to be up and running a century or two from now, but for citizens to become saints, for our great-great-grandkids to find the path to Heaven.

“It Is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion” by Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley (Emmaus Road Publishing) was released in late 2020. (Photo courtesy of Emmaus Road Publishing)

“It Is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion” by Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley (Emmaus Road Publishing) was released in late 2020. (Photo courtesy of Emmaus Road Publishing)

Q: The book addresses liberal and secular ideologies as obstacles to true religion and justice. What are some of the threats they pose?

The secular notion of secularism should not be confused with secularity because secularity describes the natural order, the material realm, the physical things that are good as God made them, and he declared them to be good. But when we reduce life down to what-you-see-is-what-you-get and nothing-more-than-what-you-see, that isn’t materiality, that’s materialism; that’s not secularity, that’s secularism. You suddenly reduce everything down to the here and now. The best way to make sense out of what is happening here and now is to see it from an eternal perspective.

(Secularism) deprives us not only of joy, but also of basic human rights, beginning with the sacredness of life – physical life, spiritual life, human life, but also the divine life that God made us for.

Secularism sucks the sacredness out of secularity. And likewise, liberalism claims to liberate, when in fact you find it doing the opposite. When you free people from the God who loves us and who gave us life and who gives us new life and literally redeems us and liberates us, it’s the law of unintended consequences. In the name of liberation, you end up enslaving people to the economic, to the materialistic, to the consumeristic.

Q: Can we promote a religious society without becoming a theocracy, that is, a government that recognizes God as a supreme ruling authority?

The fact is that Christ is right now the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings, regardless of who occupies the White House – not because we elected him 2000 years ago, but because God the Father raised him from the dead and enthroned him at his right hand. So whether people acknowledge him as the Lord of Lords or the King of Kings, that’s who he is, that’s what he does. That’s why we can take great comfort in his Lordship, even if our lives involve a lot of suffering, if we ended up facing persecution.

So we’re not out to form a theocracy. God has already done that. … We’re not here to establish utopia. That’s the shortcut to dystopia. But we are here in a certain sense to lead as many people, ourselves included, to Heaven.

Q: The book uses the analogy of a cross, with vertical and horizontal axes of justice that represent justice due to God and justice due to others. Could you briefly explain that, and how the horizontal axis is dependent on the vertical one?

I don’t use the image in the book as much as I do in my classroom. I point out that the cross beam, which is horizontal, represents social justice and human relations and love of neighbor. … But ultimately the cross shows us that the horizontal rests upon the vertical beam,  and that if there is no relationship with God – who is the force of life and the force of love and the source of law and order – if we just do away with the vertical beam, the horizontal beam crashes to the ground.

We don’t just cut ourselves off from the source of life. We subvert the very justice that we claim to be defending. When Jesus says, seek first the kingdom of heaven, and these things will be added, it’s another way of saying, if you love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength, then you’re going to be in a position to really love your neighbor as yourself, as Augustine adds, for the love of God.

The cross is also a sign of how we maintain social order, starting in my own heart, through prayer, in my relationship to God, whereby he gives me his eyes to see my bride, Kimberly, whom I have been married to for 42 years now, next month, as his beloved daughter first and foremost. How I treat her really matters to God a whole lot. Then how I treat our kids, our six kids and our 20 grandkids, all this flows from seeing things from God’s perspective.

Q: We appear to be living in a post-Christian culture, with troubling results. What can individuals do to restore justice?

(In the book) we referenced Jim Marshall … who never made it into the NFL Hall of Fame, but he’s arguably the greatest defensive end to play the game. I think he still holds the record – or is tied for the record – for the most fumbles recovered. But his most famous fumble is … when he runs to the end zone, and it’s the wrong way, it’s the wrong end zone. And so instead of scoring a touchdown with a pick six, he scored a safety for the other team. … So instead of congratulating him, his teammates were berating him in the wrong end zone, but not because he betrayed the team, but because he sincerely believed that he was scoring a touchdown.

We can be sincere and still be sincerely wrong. I think on the football field of our lives and on the football field of American society, we’ve got to step back and ask ourselves, am I running in the right direction? … Because we can be totally sincere and still be completely wrong and lead people the wrong way.

Being sincere, it’s just not enough. We’ve got to recognize that a lot of American Catholics are more American than Catholic. And so, if we allow an American society that has become increasingly secularized to steer us in that direction, we’re going to end up losing our faith.

Whereas if we, as American Catholics who love our country, recognize that the greatest gift we could give our land, our people, our nation is the fullness of the Catholic faith lived out freely, joyfully and shared generously and fully – even if our neighbors don’t recognize that as a patriotic gesture, I do believe that is the thing that will really make a difference for ourselves and for our country and for other countries, too.

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