In an interview with the Dutch newspaper Katholiek Nieuwsblad, Belgian Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, archbishop of Malines-Brussels, spoke about secularization and how it isn’t necessarily a problem.

On the contrary, he says, it can offer a new perspective for the Church.

“People tend to see the secularization of our culture as a negative development, but there’s no need to be sad about it,” De Kesel said.

In his latest book the 73-year-old cardinal, who recently completed treatment for cancer, talks about his vision on the role faith can play in modern times.

“Christianity has become a cultural religion in the West due to historical circumstances. However, that is not necessarily the case in other parts of the world, just look at Africa or Asia. Nor is it true that the Church can only live out her vocation in a Christian culture. That would be of course a comfortable position to be in, but it’s also never without its risks for the minorities and for the Church itself,” he said.

“Yet this image is the one deeply embedded in our collective consciousness”, the cardinal continued. “As a result, people tend to think that the Church is declining because the churches are no longer full. But they cannot fill up, because the number of seats in a church were determined in a time when we were living in a religious culture. The fact that our culture has become secular is seen as a negative development. However, we need not be sad about the fact that Christianity is no longer the religion of today’s culture, or because there are disbelievers or non-believers. It is in this world that God has called the Church to bear witness to his love.”

What follows are excerpts of his conversation.

Katholiek Nieuwsblad: You want to take away the fear of secularization?

De Kesel: I do question whether a purely secularist culture has a future, by which I mean a culture that ignores, marginalizes and privatizes religion. I strongly criticize such a radicalization of secularization, which I call secularism. It presents itself as a philosophy of life, as a kind of secular religion, which keeps society in check and makes for a pensée unique: only that which is politically correct is allowed. In such a culture, religion has no social relevance whatsoever and is regarded as a purely optional phenomenon. Man, however, is fundamentally a religious being. All premodern cultures were religious cultures. If I say ‘yes’ to a secular culture, it is not a ‘yes’ to a culture without religion. I do say ‘yes’ to a culture in which not one particular religion has the function of cultural religion, as used to be the case in the West or as is still the case for the Islam in other parts of the world. A secular culture guarantees diversity.

Can a secular culture really do that?

In my historical analysis I consider the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 (two peace treaties which ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), and brought peace to the Holy Roman Empire, KN) to be of great importance. Luther wanted to reform the Church, but divided it instead. We don’t realize how serious this was, but the ensuing Thirty Years’ War was actually the first world war. The first solution, ‘a country should adhere to the religion of the monarch’, didn’t work. In Westphalia it was decided that everyone adheres to the religion he chooses: It is up to the freedom of man and not to the dominant culture. The secular culture tries to give us the framework in which I respect my neighbor and therefore do not use violence.

Isn’t that a utopia?

I hope it is possible. Of course, this is not a miraculous solution to end all problems. I do not mean to idealize things. I simply argue that the secular framework is necessary to guarantee freedom and diversity. However, secularization must recognize its limits without becoming a cultural ideology itself. It should provide a framework in which I respect the other person. When a Muslim immigrates to this country, he cannot say that the Sharia is law here. Inculturation means to be respectful of the secular framework. The drama in the Middle East shows that tolerance is what’s needed instead of ostracism. In Iraq, where Christians are second-class citizens, Cardinal Sako is asking for a secular regime that treats them as citizens who want to rebuild the country together with others.

And does the Church still have a role to play in this secular world?

It is precisely faith that helps to be responsible citizens and not to remain standing on the sidelines. The Church must sympathize with and care for everyone. It is about integration, not assimilation. There can be no identity without openness and no openness without identity.”

In short, the Church should remain faithful to her fundamental mission.

It is my deepest conviction is that the Church must listen to God’s Word. There exists a huge cultural ignorance about the Christian faith. We must celebrate the liturgy well, also for all these people who visit the church at pivotal moments in their lives. We have to sympathize with the ups and downs of people’s lives, with the world’s major problems: poverty, refugees, climate and so on. The Church exists because God wills it, as a sign and sacrament for the world. It should therefore not go into hiding or get into an ‘us versus them’ dynamic. The Church must be present as a shining light. This is evangelism, but not Christianization. However, it’s an eschatological reality that the whole world will share in God’s glory, something for the end of time.

Whatever we do, we must do it well. It is infinitely important that we receive people well and listen with reverence. We must not approach them with premeditation. If there is a real encounter, something can happen. But we must refrain from exaggerated efficiency in pastoral care. It is God who opens hearts and God is patient and takes His time.

What is the true treasure of the Christian faith?

Every person is looking for happiness. What makes a person happy lies in what he can do for others. A person wants to love and be loved, to know and to be known. I believe that has to do with God. There is an infinite amount we do not know about God, but we do know this: that we are loved by Him on the good days and the bad. That doesn’t mean that there are no more problems or doubts. It is a deep realization that became concrete in the mission of his Son, who has a heart for every man and woman.

This article was translated for Crux by Susanne Kurstjens-van den Berk.