This past October, Edward Gough Whitlam, former prime minister of Australia and leader of the Australian Labor Party, died at the age of ninety-eight. Though Whitlam’s government was marked by intense controversy during its three-year term (1972–1975), a significant consensus holds that “Gough,” as he was universally known, was a remarkable Australian, one who made a distinguished contribution to our national life. His memorial service in Sydney Town Hall was marked by a number of fine eulogies, including a heartfelt speech by the actor Cate Blanchett, who attributed some of her key career opportunities to the benefits of Whitlam’s initiatives.

Perhaps the most powerful address was given by the Australian indigenous leader Noel Pearson, who has strong links to the heirs of Whitlam’s political opponents. Pearson spoke as someone raised “next to the wood heap of the nation’s democracy,” in an indigenous community still confined within the petty bureaucracy of racially discriminatory laws later abolished by the Whitlam government’s Racial Discrimination Act. He noted that Whitlam, who came from an upper-middle-class background, “harbored not a bone of racial, ethnic, or gender prejudice in his body,” and was passionately dedicated to extending equality of opportunity in Australia. In a telling and amusing rhetorical ploy, Pearson spoke of Whitlam—both tall in stature and supremely confident in bearing—as “Roman,” and asked, “What did this Roman ever do for us?” He answered his own question with a long list of the achievements of Whitlam’s government that have helped shape Australian society since the 1970s.

Though Gough Whitlam had a Christian family background, from early on he was not a believer. He was first in class in divinity at his Anglican grammar school, yet the prize went to another pupil, Francis James (later a distinguished journalist); as Whitlam recalled decades later, the headmaster called both boys in and announced he was giving the prize to James “because Francis believed it.” Rather like Winston Churchill, who compared himself to a “flying buttress” of the church, supporting it “from the outside,” Whitlam—wittily adapting a Cold War phrase—termed himself a “fellow traveler” of Christianity. More than a traveler, he was a contributor; tributes by Catholic leaders emphasized the crucial contribution he made to Catholic education in Australia by opening the way for large-scale federal-government funding of Catholic schools. He was later to be an honored guest at the inauguration of my own institution, the Australian Catholic University, in Sydney Town Hall in 1991.


THE EXAMPLE OF Gough Whitlam can assist us in reflecting on the relationship between secular humanism and Christian humanism in our culture. In this context, we can usefully distinguish between “secular” and ”secularist.” By the former I refer to a set of ethical and political values that is agnostic about religious claims and embraces a certain separation of church and state; by the latter I refer to a set of ideologies that advocates the marginalization or privatization of religion on the basis of atheistic convictions. There are many contexts in which we can speak of secularist humanism, whether it be the anticlericalism of French republican politicians during the Third Republic, the refusal by some European politicians to countenance any mention of Europe’s Christian heritage in the European Union’s representative documents, or the different variants of Marxism-Leninism.

The secular humanism that Gough Whitlam exemplified shares many ethical goals with Christian believers, but not their faith in an almighty and loving God. Whitlam was an outstanding example of those countless members of Western societies who do not share Christian faith, yet who do share with Christians many of the key ethical values that can motivate and energize democratic political life. Whitlam articulated some of these values in a speech during the election campaign of 1972. “Our program,” he announced,

has three great aims. They are: to promote equality; to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land; and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people. We want to give a new life and a new meaning in this new nation to the touchstone of modern democracy—to liberty, equality, fraternity.

Whitlam’s political goals expressed a commitment to human dignity, manifested in the pursuit of justice and motivated by a love of neighbor—a love of neighbor expressed, for example, in his passionate dedication to eliminating discrimination. These values have substantial overlap with those of Christian humanism. For Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Caritas in veritate, love transcends justice while not undermining it. This dynamic is understood through the concept of gift, which the encyclical links both to the concept of fraternity and to solidarity—a term originally derived from the labor movement rather than the French revolution, and used to powerful effect by John Paul II, notably in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis (On Social Concerns). By using these two terms, Caritas in veritate links its own argument with the best expressions of secular political movements that have been fundamental to the search for freedom and justice in the modern world.


THIS SIGNIFICANT commonality of ethical and political ideals between secular humanism and the contemporary Catholic Church has a complex and turbulent historical background. The litany of suffering of members of the church at the hands of revolutionary political movements is a long and terrible one. Yet the relationship between the Catholic Church and movements for democratic change and social justice has happily, and surprisingly to many, developed into a shared commitment to defending human rights. In his recent work, The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights (Georgetown University Press) the social theorist Hans Joas proposes that

we understand the belief in human rights and universal human dignity as the result of a specific process of sacralization—a process in which every single human being has increasingly, and with ever-increasing motivational and sensitizing effects, been viewed as sacred, and this understanding has been institutionalized in law.

For Joas, two key events in this process of sacralization were the campaign for the abolition of slavery and the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, after the catastrophic desecration of human dignity in World War II. As Jacques Maritain remarked at the time, different members of the drafting committee shared a commitment to human rights even though they did not share religious or metaphysical convictions. In a similar vein, John XXIII’s Pacem in terris, promulgated in 1963, affirmed the church’s willingness to express its evangelical commitment to the human person in the language of human rights, offering the church’s support for the search for “peace on earth” through a reverence for the sacredness of the person that it shared not merely with Christians, but with “all people of good will.” This affirmation would be echoed subsequently by Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, by Paul VI’s Populorum progressio, and in the many statements and symbolic actions of John Paul II.

Caritas in veritate, of course, emphasizes that love must be linked to truth: “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and Resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity.” It is here most of all that we must reflect on the tensions between Christian and secular humanism. Both—at their best—are passionately dedicated to a vision of justice motivated by love, by care and concern for one’s fellow human beings, and by commitment to an equality of opportunity that removes all barriers to human flourishing.

So in what sense is there a difference between the Christian’s vision of justice and that of their “fellow travelers”? I believe it would be arrogant and unwarranted for Christians to claim that faith gives their love a higher quality than that manifested by their secular fellow citizens. In fact, there exists an authentically biblical quality in a love that is, in a sense, agnostic about its own motivations and ultimate significance. Matthew’s gospel affirms that those who assisted the poor and wretched did not know that it was the anonymous Christ who was embodied in them: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” (Mt 25:37). Those who acted with charity are welcomed into the Kingdom even though they did not know to whom they ministered. The quality of love as a gift to those in need is motivated, as the gospel affirms, by the need of the human beings we encounter, and expressed in the quality of our care rather than in its ultimate meaning, ground, or reward.

Yet a Christian knows that there are times to bear explicit witness, affirming the bond between faith, hope, and love that is at the heart of Christian faith. For Christians, human love—however real, ardent, and unselfish—is vulnerable and unsupported without the hope that is grounded in faith. As Pope Benedict wrote in Spe salvi:

When someone has the experience of a great love in his life, this is a moment of “redemption” which gives a new meaning to his life. But soon he will also realize that the love bestowed upon him cannot by itself resolve the question of his life. It is a love that remains fragile. It can be destroyed by death.... In this sense it is true that anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life (cf. Eph 2:12).

One of the greatest modern expressions of this vulnerability is Albert Camus’s novel The Plague. Its hero is Dr. Rieux, a doctor selflessly dedicated to caring for his fellow human beings amid a plague that has broken out in the Algerian city of Oran. When Tarrou, a character who assists Dr. Rieux, asks him, “Why are you yourself so dedicated when you don’t believe in God?,” Rieux answers that while he doesn’t know “what awaits me or what will come after all this,” in the meantime “there are patients who have to be cured...[and] I am defending them as best I can, that’s all.” When Tarrou presses further, Rieux ventures a challenging idea—that “since the order of the world is governed by death, perhaps it is better for God that we should not believe in Him and struggle with all our strength against death, without raising our eyes to heaven and to His silence.” The observation sparks the following stirring colloquy:

 “Yes,” Tarrou agreed, “I can understand. But your victories will always be temporary, that’s all.”

A cloud seemed to pass over Rieux’s face.

“Always, I know that. But that is not a reason to give up the struggle.”

“No, it’s not a reason. But in that case I can imagine what this plague must mean to you.”

“Yes,” said Rieux. “An endless defeat.”

Camus’s character powerfully expresses the most significant attributes of an agnostic or atheistic humanism: the refusal to accept that this world, in which so many children die painful deaths, could have been created by a God of love; the dedication to relieve human suffering through effort and solidarity; the acceptance that there is no ultimate meaning to human existence; and the recognition that all human striving fails in the face of death. In his now seminal work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor notes that Dr. Rieux is a key example in contemporary literature of someone who has “the greatest degree of philanthropic action with the minimum hope in mankind.” In a certain sense, such a stance—whether in literature or in life—might actually seem more heroic than Christian commitment, since it views acts of love for others as gratuitous, lacking a basis in any transcendent meaning to human existence. Yet, as Taylor asks,

[I]s this the ultimate measure of excellence? If we think of ethical virtue as the realization of lone individuals, this may seem to be the case. But suppose the highest good consists in communion, mutual giving and receiving, as in the paradigm of the eschatological banquet. The heroism of gratuitous giving has no place for reciprocity. If you return anything to me, then my gift was not totally gratuitous; and besides, in the extreme case, I disappear with my gift and no communion between us is possible. This unilateral heroism is self-enclosed. It touches the outermost limit of what we can attain to when moved by a sense of our own dignity. But is that what life is about? Christian faith proposes a quite different view.

HOW CAN CHRISTIANS support their “fellow travelers” by offering a communion of love sustained by faith in God and the hope to share in Christ’s Resurrection? In suffering, in defeat and disappointment, Christians do in fact experience the kind of existential absurdity Camus wrote about—the absence of meaning—as part of the human condition they share with their secular fellow humans. Their proclamation of hope in the Resurrection, that focuses on Christ as the suffering servant and on the paradox of the crucified Son of God, affirms their solidarity with human pain and their faith in a divine power that will ultimately vindicate our attempts to effect justice in this world. The church’s proclamation of the Resurrection must demonstrate its awareness that in this life we never leave Good Friday behind us, since we share our brokenness with all our fellow human beings. If Christians can profess their hope in this way, allowing the light of the Resurrection to illuminate their lives, they will give a uniquely valuable service to all who strive to enact a justice motivated by love. In their attempt to live by love of neighbor, Christians know that they are profoundly at one with all others who make love the true meaning of their lives, since love itself is implicitly fused with faith. And this unity, as Pope Francis noted in Lumen fidei, includes non-believers:

To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith.... Anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by his help, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk towards the fullness of love.

In the great domain of human rights, a Dr. Rieux and a believing Christian can usually be found in solidarity with one another. Yet there exists a notoriously important field of tension between them—namely, in the questions surrounding sexual ethics and dilemmas about the beginning and end of life. It is important to note that secular humanists are by no means necessarily at odds with Christians on these matters. Secular humanists can of course be committed to fidelity in marriage—Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret were only a few weeks short of their seventieth wedding anniversary when she died. They can deplore whatever degrades and commodifies the sexual dignity of the human person; they can recognize that the human fetus is a unique individual that deserves protection as much as those already born; and they can agree that euthanasia threatens the moral community binding us all in the trust that we will not kill one another. A lack of religious faith does not preclude someone’s being open to the ethical force of this or that particular Christian stance.

At the same time it is also clear that Christian and secular humanists experience their strongest and most intractable disagreements in these ethical fields. While some secular humanists maintain what could be broadly described as a traditional Christian ethic on these matters, others are much more influenced by a combination of Kant’s ideal of autonomy (albeit divorced from the context that Kant himself held it in) and utilitarianism’s emphasis on the minimization of suffering. However incompatible these two positions may be in strictly philosophical terms—since for a utilitarian, eliminating the suffering of many may override individual autonomy—in popular ethical culture they tend to be joined together as partners against perceived religious or metaphysical impositions on ethical experience.

In response to these points of tension in the fields of sexual ethics and bioethics, Christians should acknowledge that they experience disagreements of their own about some of these questions. And in attempting to build public consensus, they should persevere in presenting key Christian stances on these questions as ethical reflections on the human good, rather than as doctrinal positions mandated by religious authority. While their faith certainly gives a profound and specific context to marital and sexual fidelity and the cherishing of human life from conception to death, the ethical power in these stances can be shared with secular fellow citizens. The former premier of New South Wales, and later foreign minister of Australia, Bob Carr, a secular humanist, asserted in a debate on euthanasia in 1996 that “the bottom line that we must face as legislators” is “whether it is possible to legislate euthanasia with the safeguards necessary to assure the sick, vulnerable, indigenous, and invalid”—and affirmed his own view that he did not believe it possible.

There is little use in denying that the task of ethical communication has been complicated by revelations of sexual abuse in the church, and by the scandalous ways in which it was sometimes dealt with (or not dealt with). Nor, on the other side, can one exonerate those secularists whose gratuitous mockery of Christian faith and the church’s social role damages civil discourse. (A particularly egregious example was the attempt by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to have Pope Benedict arrested for “crimes against humanity” on his arrival in the UK in 2010.) But the important point is that anyone committed to promoting sexual ethics and bioethics should avoid making these areas the hallmark of Christian ethical identity. Rather our first focus should be found in loving reverence for human dignity in the context of creation, and in resistance to any and all forms of commodification and degradation of the human person. In this reverence and resistance, Christians will find many “fellow travelers” among secular humanists, and may also find opportunities to share with them their hope in the God who is the source and end of all love. 

Robert Gascoigne, professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University, is the author of The Church and Secularity: Two Stories of Liberal Society (Georgetown).

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Published in the June 12, 2015 issue: View Contents
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