Christianity and the Secular
by Robert A. Markus.
University of Notre Dame Press, 99 pages, $15.



In Hoc Interim Saeculo “In this transitory world,” St. Augustine says in the City of God , referring to the subject of his long meditation. What is the nature of this world? How are Christians to live in it? Can they share anything with those holding different beliefs?

All these questions are taken up by Robert Markus in Christianity and the Secular , his new monograph, formed from the Pope John XXIII lectures delivered at Notre Dame. The word secular in the title is a clue to Markus’ position. He conceives of it as a third realm, distinguished from both the sacred and the profane. While the sacred concerns itself with the sphere of Christian belief and the profane with those practices that Christians must repudiate, the secular belongs to a neutral dimension, referring to those elements from the surrounding culture capable of being accepted or adapted. It is the domain of what may be shared legitimately with non-Christians.

The central argument of the book, then, is that the “Christian tradition has a legitimate place for the autonomy of the secular,” meaning that Christians need not subject all social, political, or cultural institutions to distinctly religious views.

Rejecting what has been called Constantinianism or, with a different connotation, intégrisme , Markus examines several stages of Church history. Between the apostolic age and Constantine, Christians were a palpably defined group, distinct from their society and culture, amounting to a tertium gens alongside Romans and Jews.

Even with this clearly demarcated boundary, the problem of distinguishing the profane from the secular existed: Should Christians bear arms? Should they enjoy pagan literature and philosophy? With the Constantinian settlement, the status of Christianity changed radically. From 313 to the 390s, Christianity went from tolerated to respectable to established. As the Church’s influence in society expanded, the question of boundaries was irrepressible”Christianity was now tied to the empire, and Christians were increasingly assimilated into the wider culture.

For later Christian writers, such as John Howard Yoder, this period constitutes nothing less than the “Constantinian heresy,” with the Church legitimating the existing sociopolitical order. But Yoder’s position, Markus argues, “rules out” any possibility of a shared social or individual morality between Christians and non-Christians. It excludes, in other words, the secular realm that Markus is championing as truly Augustinian. Secular institutions, he claims (relying on Romans 13:6), are viable and provide a legitimate function, even under Christ’s rule. The Church neither condemns secular forms as profane nor places them under her auspices. She recognizes them for what they are: elements belonging to an autonomous dimension.

AUGUSTINE HIMSELF, Markus maintains, resisted the growing coincidence of Church and world that had developed since the Theodosian emperors. Though briefly euphoric by the Christian triumph throughout the empire, Augustine quickly came to see that Christianity was not inextricably linked with the empire, since Rome had no privileged place in God’s inscrutable providence. But if the saeculum is opaque as regards God’s plan, Markus insists, then one may properly defend an autonomous neutral region, protecting it from a “hostile takeover” either by those wishing to incorporate it into the sacred or by those repudiating it as entirely profane.

Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine serves as the major interpretative key for Markus’ understanding of the secular. Observing that pagan philosophers have had insights that are true and in harmony with Christian faith, thereby breaking any innate link between philosophy and pagan culture, Augustine makes the case for the legitimacy of secular disciplines”with the proviso that they be ultimately subordinated to Christian wisdom.

Augustine’s insights in the philosophical sphere, Markus argues, parallel his thought about existing social and political structures; both Christians and non-Christians have a similarly important stake in the res publica . It is true, of course, that in Book Nineteen of the City of God Augustine relativizes all sociopolitical institutions. Markus argues, however, that this constitutes a simultaneous assertion of a real autonomy of these enterprises within their restricted purview.

The insistence on an autonomous secular precinct leads Markus to examine two rivals to Augustinian political theory: those who see Augustine as tying public life inextricably to Christianity, and those who insist on severing the connection between religion and the public realm. Against the former, Markus argues that for Augustine, real if imperfect virtue may be found among denizens of the earthly city. And both Christians and non-Christians can make use of the same finite goods even if, as Augustine specifies, with a “different faith” and a “different hope.” In other words, they can share existing social and political structures, just as they can share philosophy, subject always to Christian valuation. He concludes that any interpretation of Augustine that disallows a significant place for the secular dimension is unacceptable.

But Markus equally argues that it is illegitimate to adduce Augustine as a supporter of secular liberalism, regarding the saeculum as a sphere without moral standards, ensuring only order, security, and material needs. Augustine saw man as a social being, attached great significance to shared cultural values, and would have rejected individualism. Here one finds a tension in Augustine’s thought: While it is true that he would be suspicious of the ability of political institutions to promote a moral life, nevertheless, he would not have restricted the public realm simply to material needs and basic security. Even while recognizing the gap between Church and world, Augustine would have sought “to maximize the moral and cultural consensus” of society.

Finally, Markus observes, this autonomous secular order was eclipsed by the end of the sixth century, during the papacy of Gregory the Great. For Augustine, the ancient intellectual and cultural traditions were living realities; Christians could share in all of them (except idolatry). By the time of Gregory, however, the secular had disappeared. Society was now sacral, with the Church controlling the educational and cultural institutions as the heterogeneity of Augustine’s world collapsed.

In a brief coda, Markus claims that John XXIII and Vatican II restored the autonomy of the secular, ending 1,650 years of Constantinianism, or Christendom, by opening the Church to the world in order “to learn from its ways, to engage in unending dialogue, sharing all that is truly human.” In fact, with Pope John and Vatican II, the Church came to embrace the secular, acknowledging its value and autonomy and even “its sacredness or holiness.”

While Markus is correct that there is room for a shared “secular” dimension in Augustine’s thought, calling this an “autonomous” sphere is not entirely precise. I think le mot juste for which Markus is searching is not pure autonomy, implying a realm separate from God, but relative autonomy, which is what Augustine champions in On Christian Doctrine . There is no entirely separated domain of discourse and action. There is only one supernatural order, even if, within this graced estate, there is a quarter that Christians and non-Christians may share, what might be called the province of nature. The phrase “relative autonomy” (used by Balthasar in his dialogue with Karl Barth) would exhibit this point more clearly.

ONE FINDS A distinct parallel here with John Paul II’s comments in the encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998). The pope argues that philosophy has its own methodology, of which it is “rightly jealous,” as well as a “legitimate autonomy” that cannot be compromised by theology. But the pope equally insists that one must distinguish between philosophy’s autonomy and its “self-sufficiency.” Philosophy can never be self-sufficient, because it can never be “absolutely independent of the contents of faith”; it ultimately requires the truth offered by revelation. The “relative autonomy” of philosophy is thereby sanctioned, while recognizing that the discipline necessarily undergoes a transformation under the light of faith.

Markus endorses this autonomous secular sphere as a contemporary model, and he offers Augustine’s attitude toward classical learning and the political order as prototypes for our own times. But one must distinguish between the classical culture that predated Christianity and the contemporary culture that has often been formed in reaction against Christian beliefs and norms. This does not mean there cannot be a relatively autonomous shared space, but it does mean there is not quite the same neutrality of culture today that may have existed in the ancient world. One can say, for example, as Markus does, that from Pius IX to Pius XII the Church turned its back on culture. But one must also take account of the fact that the secular culture of the Pian era differed from culture at the time of Augustine. This is why the compelling question today is so pointed: How does one participate in contemporary political and social institutions while avoiding sectarianism yet maintaining Christian orthodoxy?

Vatican II, however, did open the Church to dialogue with the world, thereby recovering the Spoils-from-Egypt tradition that began with Origen, Basil, and Augustine. John Henry Newman said that the Church absorbs ideas from many sources but purifies them in the refiner’s fire and stamps them with the image of the Master. The historian Henri de Lubac, in his 1938 work Catholicism , similarly stated that “nothing authentically human, whatever its origin, can be alien to the Church.” Just as Cyril used Plato, so Ambrose used Seneca, and Aquinas used Aristotle, and Matteo Ricci used Confucius.

The council adopted the insights of Newman and de Lubac when it declared that the Church looks with great respect on all that is true, good, and just in the institutions that the human race has established ( Gaudium et Spes 42); that whatever good is found in the various practices and cultures of diverse peoples is healed and perfected in Christ ( Lumen Gentium 17); and that while a bountiful God has distributed treasures among all nations, these riches must be illumined by the light of the gospel “to set them free and to bring them under the dominion of God their Savior” ( Ad Gentes 11).

There is, in other words, a relative autonomy of the secular, always needing further purification in Christ, precisely as Augustine had argued. This last point, the healing and ennobling of the secular order, while certainly alluded to by Markus, needs to be more forcefully pressed: Scriptural revelation is the ultimate norm of truth.

Thomas G. Guarino is professor of theology at Seton Hall University