God is being pushed to the margins of society, thwarted by an "aggressive secular ideology", according to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The cardinal, who is the Pope's doctrinal chief and one of the Vatican's most outspoken figures, said secularism was no longer a neutral influence which opened up space for religious freedom.
Instead, he said, "It is being transformed into an ideology which is imposed through politics and does not give public space to the Catholic or Christian vision, which runs the risk of becoming something purely private and thus disfigured." In an interview in La Repubblica, the Italian daily, on 19 November he warned: "We must defend religious freedom against the imposition of an ideology which is presented as if it were the only voice of rationality, when it is only the expression of a 'certain' rationalism," he said.
Recent debate on the role of Christians in Europe has been heightened by the row over Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian politician rejected by the European Parliament as EU Security and Justice Commissioner because of his castigation of homosexuality and his conservative views on the role of women. Earlier this year, the Vatican failed in its attempts to have mentions of God and Christianity included in the text of the European Constitution.
Cardinal Ratzinger has until now not been considered papabile, but some commentators in Rome now believe he may yet succeed to the papacy himself, possibly, given his age - 77 - as an interim pope after the lengthy papacy of John Paul II.
Below are excerpts from Ratzinger's La Repubblica interview.
Q: For you, what is secularism?
Ratzinger: A just secularism allows religious freedom. The state does not impose religion but rather gives space to religions with a responsibility towards civil society, and therefore it allows these religions to be factors in building up society.
Q: Where is God in modern society?
Ratzinger: He has been put on the sidelines. In political life, it seems almost indecent to speak of God, as if it were an attack on the freedom of those who do not believe.
The world of politics follows its norms and paths, excluding God as something that does not belong to this world. The same in the world of business, the economy, and private life. God remains marginalised.
To me, its seems necessary to rediscover - and the energy to do so exists - that even the political and economic spheres need moral responsibility, a responsibility that is born in man's heart and, in the end, has to do with the presence or absence of God. A society in which God is completely absent self-destructs. We saw this in the great totalitarian regimes of the last century.
Q: A big issue is sexual ethics. The encyclical Humanae Vitae produced a gap between the magisterium and the practical behaviour of the faithful. Is it time to remedy that?
Ratzinger: For me, it is clear that we must continue to reflect. In his first years as Pope, John Paul II offered a new anthropological, person-centred approach to the problem, developing a very different vision from the relationship between the "me" and "you" of men and women.
It is true that the pill has given rise to an anthropological revolution of great dimensions. It has changed the vision of sexuality, the human being and the body itself. Sexuality has been separated from fecundity and in this way it has profoundly changed the concept of the human life.
The sexual act has lost its purpose and finality, which before was clear and specific, so that all forms of sexuality have become equivalent. Above all, from this revolution comes the equalisation between homosexuality and heterosexuality. This is why I say that Paul VI indicated a problem of great importance.
Q: Homosexuality is a topic that regards love between two people and not just mere sexuality. What can the Church do to understand this phenomenon?
Ratzinger: Let me say two things. Above all, we must have great respect for these people who also suffer and who want to find their own way of correct living. On the other hand, to create a legal form of a kind of homosexual marriage, in reality, does not help these people. Q: Therefore you judge negatively the choice made in Spain?
Ratzinger: Yes, because it is destructive to the family and society. The law creates morality or a moral form, since people habitually think that what the law affirms is morally allowed.
And if we judge this union to be more or less equivalent to marriage, we have a society that no longer recognises either the specific nature of the family, nor its fundamental character; that is to say, the nature of man and woman which is to create continuity - not only in a biological sense - for humanity.
For this reason the Spanish decision does not provide a real benefit to these people since in this way we are destroying the fundamental elements of an order of law.
Q: Sometimes the Church, in saying no to everything, has met defeat. Should it not at least be possible for a pact of solidarity between two homosexuals to be recognised and protected by law?
Ratzinger: But to institutionalise an agreement of this type - whether the lawmaker wants it or not - would necessarily appear in public opinion like another type of marriage that would inevitably assume a relative value.
Let us not forget that with these choices, to which Europe tends today, shall we say, in decline, we make a break from all the great cultures of humanity that have always recognised the very meaning of sexuality: that is, that men and women were created to be jointly the guarantee of the future of humanity - not only a physical guarantee, but also a moral one.
Read this article on the Tablet website (new window will open).