Humanism & the Roman Catholic Church

by Benna Crawford

Humanism is a way of looking at the world that places man in the center of the frame. Throughout history, humanism has been at odds with organized religion, specifically with the Roman Catholic Church, which was predominant in the Roman Empire and then in European culture from the Middle Ages on. Humanism is based on liberal principles and a heritage of philosophical thought concerned with ethics. There are secular and Christian versions of humanism.

Humanism in the Renaissance

Humanism in Europe was at its peak from the 14th to 16th centuries, during the Renaissance. The rediscovery and copying of ancient manuscripts of classical Greece and the study of philosophy, the humanities and the arts sparked debate about what it meant to be human, the importance of rational thought and science, and whether ultimate truths could be revealed through study, contemplation and logic. In Northern Europe, humanism included the early works of Christian writers whose spare and vigorous faith was appealing to those who studied and discussed the classics. Many were monastery-educated, like Erasmus, who forged common ethical bonds between his religion and his classical studies. He incited the ire of Roman Catholic Church leaders by insisting that the spontaneity of early Christians could be as illuminating as rigid Church practices. Ideas like those of Erasmus paved the way for the Protestant Reformation, which sought to revitalize the Catholic Church.

Christian Humanism

Christian humanism begins with the moral teachings of Christ and embraces a religious belief that affirms humans are made in the likeness of God, which is the basis for personal worth. Christian humanism has evolved from a desire to revitalize and reform the Roman Catholic Church to activism on behalf of human rights based on a dynamic relationship with God and Christian teachings. The "liberation theology" preached and practiced by the clergy and faithful during mid-20th century periods of brutal injustice in Central America and apartheid in South Africa is an example of Christian humanism in action. The belief that human history is determined by the strength of the relationship to God unites faith and moral behavior. Christian humanism argues for the compatibility of Christian and humanist principles as opposed to the negative views about religion in secular humanism.

Secular Humanism

Secular humanism is, as its name suggests, non-theistic. The philosophy that humans are the basic measure of everything has its roots in the rational thinking of classical Greece and the teachings of Socrates and Plato. Secular humanism values science, reason, evidence and human intelligence and accepts the theory of evolution. In this philosophy there is no place for religion or a God, divine intervention, heaven, theocracies or dictatorships. Humanists value ethical behavior that benefits society, individual freedom, satisfaction and happiness, and responsibility for the protection of nature and human rights. They argue for the separation of church and state and abjure any form of discrimination, censorship, restrictions on individual freedom of choice and the death penalty. Devout Christians, including Roman Catholics, believe that secular humanists embrace a false belief system.

Papal Call for Humanism

The head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, wants to end proliferating warfare by declaring a new age of humanism. The pope defined humanism as a moral and spiritual mission to create a culture of peace, to rededicate resources from military spending to solving global economic and environmental problems and to agree to universal disarmament. Personal development and the elimination of violence are essential components of this "new humanism," as are compassion and a widespread commitment to solidarity in working for peace and social justice. In a sense, Pope Benedict is doing what Erasmus attempted to do in the 16th century -- finding a way to reconcile secular ethics and scientific knowledge with a belief in God and fidelity to the core teachings of the Church.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .

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