Secular asceticism is something which belongs to the world, but if it exists at all in the Church, it is misplaced. The mission of the Church today is to enable the world to open itself to a full experience of the Mystery of Christ. But for this to happen, the Church herself must be living this experience. The true human attitude then, is that which stakes all on the relationship with Jesus Christ.
In our culture the lines between secularism and the Christian life have been somewhat blurred, which is why so many baptised people today live a secular life. What is secularism? I would answer the question in this way: what secularism amounts to is the pursuit of fulfilment on the back of technological progress, together with the claim to moral relativism as an ideological imperative - forget God, we can make it; success is almost in our grasp! It is truly another Tower of Babel.
Secularism is not founded upon human nature, but upon human desire (which as we know is a "mixed bag"). Thus, although the secular pursuit has brought a minority to the fore, it has cost the lives of millions of babies, and has brought disillusionment, depression and loneliness in its wake.
The Christian attitude is founded upon the Gospel, which perhaps unexpectedly, embraces and nurtures all that is truly human. The Gospel proclaims an astonishing reality: that our real life connects with the inner life of God. Therefore, the one relationship which we should never loose sight of is our relationship with Him.
The most foundational teaching which the Second Vatican council made is the very first part of the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, paragraphs 1 to 6. All Catholics should have read this and know it. But I sometimes feel that, having made this Proclamation the Church then forgot it.
This Proclamation, which the Church made in 1965, announced the truth that we are called to Eternal Life; God wants to share His life with us. It is in the face of this awesome truth that the Christian attitude is formed. When God reveals Himself, when He comes to relate with us as friends, we surrender before so great an encounter.
The secular ascetic, which is such a draining, life-sapping, endeavour, is precisely what God does not look for in us. It is an ascetic born of fear. It is an ascetic born of a culture which has not heard the Gospel because the Gospel has not been announced there.
Dei Verbum, 1-6, teaches and proclaims the very beginning of new life for any one of us: that the inner life of God is made open to us so that we might have a new life, and that life is founded on love, born of love and so, uniquely is able to fulfil us. It takes root in us, not by us having to go through any 'obstacle course', but by saying 'yes' to grace. What does secular asceticism need today, whether it is found inside or outside the Church? The proclamation of the Gospel.