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Theological Notebook: The Problem of Europe Going "Post-Christian," and Current European Catholicism

Two interesting, or even compelling, pieces on the current state of Europe. The first piece, "While Europe Slept," by Jean Bethke Elshtain, who is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, is a really striking piece about what the implications are of Europe going "post-Christian," with some intersections with the dialogue between Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger recently released as The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, which I've just started reading. I also include a recent column by John Allen, modified from a lecture he gave in Dublin recently, on the current state of European Catholicism that dealt with some parallel themes. I was particularly appreciative of how he related some of what is happening in Europe to things the United States has already experienced, having been in this case a few steps ahead in the creation of an Enlightenment state that still made room for religion.

The hope of preserving the human rights tradition of Enlightenment democracy is far more tied into Jewish/Christian heritage than contemporary anti-religious dogmatic Secularism has recognized, and it is particularly compelling to hear such insights coming from atheists like Habermas or Marcello Pela in Italy as well as from Christian thinkers like Ratzinger. It is one of the most curious ironies in political philosophy that the absolutizing of an ideology of "freedom" in the mode of the New Left since the 1960s seems to actually end up destroying political freedom, reminding us once again that "freedom" is no simple reality in itself but in democratic society is in fact a difficult and complicated balance between a number of competing forces and interests.

While Europe Slept

by Jean Bethke Elshtain

In the great cathedrals in Europe, a few people—usually elderly women—can be found at worship. Everybody else is a tourist, cameras hanging around their necks, meandering through. I was recently in Scotland, and I read a newspaper story commenting on three hundred deserted churches dotting the Scottish countryside, asking if they should be destroyed or turned into bars and cafes. Europe herself, in her proposed constitution, refuses to acknowledge the heritage of Judaism and Christianity—although Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment are acknowledged.

Europe cannot remember who she is unless she remembers that she is the child not only of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and the Enlightenment but also of Judaism and Christianity—the child, therefore, of Catholicism and the Reformation. If Europe abandons her religious heritage, the idea of Europe dies. And Europe has abandoned, or forgotten, her religious heritage. Europe is now “post-Christian.” What does this mean? What does it portend?

If a culture forgets what it is, as I believe Europe has done, it falls first into an agnostic shrugging of the shoulders, unable to say exactly what it is and believes, and from there it will inevitably fall into nihilism. Detached from its religious foundations, Europe will not remain agnostic. The first result is manifest in those ideologies of multiculturalism that make “difference” a kind of sacred, absolute principle, although no principle is considered to have any such status. Difference tells us nothing in and of itself. Some ways of life and ways of being in the world are brutal, stupid, and ugly. Some a human rights-oriented culture cannot tolerate. A culture must believe in its own enculturating responsibility and mission in order to make claims of value and to institutionalize them in social and political forms. This a post-Christian Europe cannot do.

Multiculturalism is then, in practice, a series of monoculturalisms that do not engage one another at all; rather, the cultural particulate most enamored of gaining and holding power has an enormous advantage: One day, it proclaims, we will bury you. A sign carried by radical Islamist protestors in London during the fracas over the Dutch cartoons proclaimed, “Europe is a cancer / Islam is the answer.” A perverted idea of Islam confronts a Europe that has lost a sense of who she is and what she represents.

For that Europe, the window to transcendence is slammed shut. Human values alone pertain. But these human values are shriveled by a prior loss of the conviction that there is much to defend about the human person, and they are seen as so many subjectivist construals without any defensible, objective content. Unsurprisingly, what comes to prevail is a form of reduced utilitarianism that rationalizes nihilism.

The territory as one’s own property is the self itself, or an understanding of the self shorn of any encumbrances of the past, any shackles of old defunct moralities. The self blows hither, thither; it matters not, if it blows my way. The question of what the self is, and whether it has any transcendent meaning, is answered with a shrug.

The late John Paul II saw the result of the belief that we are sovereigns of ourselves, wholly self-possessing. In Evangelium Vitae he writes: “If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself.” Society “becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds.”

Someone may attach a value to us—we may have a market price, so to speak—a price, but not a dignity. Should no one attach value to us and we be too bereft or wounded to attach it to ourselves, we become dispensable. The final triumph of this notion will be a world in which the powerful have their way simply because they can and because the ethical and moral barriers to taking what they want have all been lost. The final fate of the disabled in a liberal society will not be a happy one. We champion “access” even as we redraw the boundaries of humanity to exclude wide swaths of human persons from this access.

Over time human rights, now almost universally accepted among Europeans, will themselves come to be seen as so many arbitrary constructions that may, on utilitarian grounds, be revoked—because there is nothing intrinsic about human beings such that they are not to be ill-treated or violated or even killed. Even now, many do not want to be bothered with the infirm elderly or damaged infants, so we devise so-called humane ways to kill them and pretend that somehow they chose (or would have chosen) to die. Elderly patients are being killed in the Netherlands without their consent. A new protocol for euthanizing newborns with disabilities is institutionalized in the Netherlands, and the doctor who authored the protocols, Eduard Verhagen, tells us how “beautiful” it is when the newborns are killed, for, at last, they are at peace.

The Australian utilitarian Peter Singer predicts confidently that the superstition that human life is sacred will be definitively put to rest by 2040. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that by that moment “life unworthy of life” will routinely be destroyed—in the name of liberal humanitarianism and compassion, and even cost-effectiveness, rather than the triumph of a master race. It is a softer nihilism than the past’s, but it is nihilism all the same.

In an interview for a British magazine during the summer of 2005, Singer said that if he faced the quandary of saving from a raging fire either a mentally disabled child, an orphan child nobody wanted, or normal animals, he would save the animals. If the child had a mother who would be devastated by the child’s death, he would save the child, but unwanted orphans have no such value.

This is the entirely consistent result of the view that human life no longer possesses an innate dignity, that we are only meat walking around, and we can be turned easily into means to the ends of others, just as we may turn others into means to our ends. It is the old master-slave scenario come to life, even as we congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment.

Ironically, while Catholicism has become a champion of human rights and democracy as the political form that supports human dignity most fully and bids to be the political form within which human flourishing is most likely to take place, much secular reason has increasingly manifested itself as secularism. And secularism—a rigid cultural ideology that mocks religion as superstition and celebrates technological rationalism as the only proper and intelligent way to think and to be in the world—has developed into nihilism, into a world in which we can no longer make judgments of value and truth in defense of human dignity and flourishing.

No good has ever— ever—come from narrowing and constricting our understanding of humanity in this way. The Jerusalem side of the European heritage tells us that all are equally children of God—the disabled, the ugly, the bad-smelling, the boring, the lonely—all require our care and concern. As the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, even the most wretched life is worth living before God.

Without God, without some transcendent principle, the wretched life is not worth living at all. And others have the power to decide whose life is wretched based on utilitarian criteria. The utilitarian ethic would annihilate the Christian ethic in the name of progress and decency and the ending of suffering.

For three centuries, Europe was defined in and through a complex dialectic and dialogue between belief and unbelief. This unbelief was not reducible to secularism. In his life and work, Albert Camus illustrates this dialectic at work, with the brilliant sort of self that may emerge from it and the other kinds of self that will emerge when the dialectic is ­rejected.

In his famous “Letters to a German Friend,” Camus tells a friend who has taken up with National Socialism that the Nazis think of Europe as a property to possess, while he thinks of Europe as the place within which he finds his being. This Europe is a capacious place and a beautiful one. “It is a magnificent land molded by suffering and history,” Camus writes. “I relive those pilgrimages I once made with all the men of the West: the roses in the cloisters of Florence, the gilded bulbous domes of Krakow, the Hradschin and its dead palaces, the contorted statues of the Charles Bridge over the Ultava, the delicate gardens of Salzburg.”

More important, Camus’ Europe is not the Europe of nihilism within which everything reduces to the same shade of gray and no truth is to be found. The German friend believed that “everything was equivalent and that good and evil could be defined according to one’s wishes,” and from this he drew the inevitable conclusion that the “only pursuit for the individual was the adventure of power and his own morality.” Camus, who did not believe the world had ultimate meaning, nevertheless held that the world was meaningful and that one could make judgments about right and wrong. Not all opinions are created equal. Not all views deserve respect.

What happens when, unlike Camus, Europe loses—abandons or forgets—one side of the dialectic? She winds up with a monologue, and the unbelief side becomes exaggerated and distorted into an ideology of secularism fueled by subjectivism, with the results we have seen. She comes to believe as did Camus’ German friend.

Thinking of human beings as consumer subjects—as does the European Union, an econometric, highly bureaucratized, and legalistic construction—is not a sufficiently robust conception to commit people civically over time. One of the glories of Western pluralist democracies has been their capacity to forge unity out of diverse mixes of peoples—diverse in nearly every way in which people can differ. The United States has done this remarkably well, allowing immigrant communities to hold on to cultural aspects of their identities as long as these could be expressed in ways consistent with the constitutive norms, rules, and practices of democratic civil society itself.

What happens when, having lost the belief side of its historical dialectic, Europe loses a sense of self-confidence about her enculturating and civic mission? The first thing that happens is that it ceases to engage in the determined making of citizens. Assimilation becomes a dirty word. Ethnic communities are excluded from the broader streams of life under the rubric of an allegedly benign multiculturalism, where they fester in resentment and isolation. “Guest workers” live for generations in a twilight zone of semi-citizenship. Little is done to absorb and enculturate the newer waves of immigrants who have no experience of democracy and bring with them an officially sanctioned hatred of Western culture.

In Great Britain before the attacks of July 7, 2005, radical imams used the cover of religious liberty to recruit death-dealing militants who openly preached virulent anti-Semitism, scorn of democracy, the replacement of the civic law by Shari’a law, and contempt for anything Western. A deadly deal was struck, apparently, that Britain would leave them alone if they left Britain alone and did their bad stuff elsewhere. Clearly, relations with unassimilated minorities do not work like that. Britain shrugged its shoulders, but the hatred spilled into the streets, the subways, the buses.

France’s Muslim majority lives in an angry subculture scornful of France and Europe, high in criminality and intolerance, often engaged in some circles in practices that openly defy constitutive principles of human liberty and freedom, such as arranged marriages for girls as young as eleven and honor killings and assaults. An antidemocratic, illiberal zone exists within the wider democratic body. Then the French government decides it must do something, and it takes a determined stand—against the head scarf! Resentment grows. In the Netherlands, the notion of pillorization got perverted to mean cultural isolation for the immigrant Muslim population.

Unsurprisingly, it was in Europe that the killers of September 11 became radicalized, picking up on, perhaps, the ideology of anti-Americanism preached enthusiastically by French elites and the anti-Semitic strain on the left.

Democracies often have a difficult task in figuring out how to deal with internal threats, with those within the body politic who would destroy it if they could: Witness Weimar dealing, or not dealing, with Adolf Hitler. Perhaps Europeans today are altogether too complacent, too convinced that economic rights and expressivist self-sovereignty can carry us through. But no one can miss the signs of cultural slackness and exhaustion all around in today’s Europe. Demographic collapse is one sign of an existential loss of hope and a turning of the self inward on the self, refusing to extend the self to a child and thus abandoning the task of civic formation on this most fundamental and private level.

Europe suffers from many self-inflicted wounds—the wounds of indifference, the wounds of self-absorption. Will Europe be able to deal with all the daunting challenges she faces, including destabilization, economic stagnation, a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and all the rest? Only if she remembers who she is, with something precious and valuable to offer, which means accepting her religious heritage and its normative constraints on what people are permitted to do and how they may do it. Only if Europe can sustain principles and commitments that are historically derived from presuppositions of divinely sanctioned human dignity. I speak here not of faith but of sustaining cultural memory, including that which resolutely rejected the view that we are all forced to choose between faith and reason, which would rule Europe’s historical dialectic irrelevant.

Absent such remembering, Europe will continue down the path of what Vaclav Havel calls “arrogant anthropocentrism,” in which we see the face of European nihilism. In a recent essay, Benedict XVI (a European intellectual, after all) writes that, in Europe today, those who abuse Judaism and Islam are shamed or fined. But when Christianity is abused, “freedom of speech becomes the supreme good.”

This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is ­commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of ­outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure. . . . Multiculturalism, which is so constantly and passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own heritage.
Europe, he continues, needs “a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive. . . . Europe [must] reclaim what is best in its heritage and thereby place itself at the service of all humankind.”

To this end, everyone should reread Camus’ great essay, The Rebel, a text that got him excommunicated from French intellectual life by Sartre and his bullying minions. But Camus understood the dilemma and Sartre did not. His poignant struggle—the unbeliever engaged with belief, and we would add the believer engaged with unbelief—illustrates that often brilliant dialectic and dialogue central to the European ­heritage.

When I was an undergraduate more than forty years ago, I attended a lecture by Sir Julian Huxley, scion of the Enlightenment, a distinguished branch off the tree Huxley, a proponent of scientism, enthusiastic about eugenics as the forward march of progress. Without qualification of any kind, he pronounced that by the year 2000 religion and nationalism will have disappeared, having been supplanted by the total victory of scientific rationality and a benign world order. The view of the human person celebrated by Huxley was that of the sovereign individual, ruler of his own domain, master of all he surveys. There is no soul to fret about, only mastery to achieve.

Four years ago in April, a beloved Pope John Paul II lay in repose in Rome. As his body was carried into St. Peter’s, the pallbearers made a circle through the crowd and then carried his body into the basilica as the people wept and applauded and the litany of the saints rang out with its beautiful, haunting chant that tells us we are not alone on our earthly journey.

Here we witness another sort of reality, another future, even another international order embodied. The view of the human person celebrated in the litany of the saints and honored by the presence of the millions, many of them young people, who poured into Rome to celebrate and to mourn, is very much that of the ensouled body, keeping body and soul, spirit and flesh together. This life is exquisitely social, its meaning and purpose immanent yet framed by the transcendent.

Which represents Europe? Huxley’s optimistic view of a vision of progress unencumbered by faith and moral fretting, or John Paul II’s “sign of contradiction”? There could scarcely be a wider gap than that between a view of human life as encompassed entirely by birth and ending definitively with death, with both birth and death coming increasingly under rationalistic and scientist control, and a view of human life as a gift and a blessing, given meaning because we understand that our good is not ours alone but a good that links us to a world of others, our brothers and sisters, although they may be foreign and strange and even hostile.

That Europe should wind up poised between two such powerful and contrasting worlds results from no incoherence, as a moral philosopher might claim, but rather from the intrinsic telos embedded in each distinctive understanding and deeded to it by its history. Europe was defined for centuries in and through an energetic dialogue between belief and unbelief and, having lost belief, finds nihilism. If human beings do not tend to what is good—if, indeed, they no longer believe in any such thing—they create a vacuum, into which comes that negation called evil and sin in Christian theology, a draining away from what is good.

Evil need not take the form of the Hitlerian ­monster of Europe’s past or the serial killers of contemporary movies. It can take the form of medical practitioners killing handicapped newborns or infirm patients, rather than healing and caring for them; the form of isolating and neglecting immigrants; the form of ignoring antisocial behavior and cruelty until it turns into open and widespread criminality; the form of an indifference that, in the name of toleration, permits a zealous minority to call for the murder of those who have drawn cartoons (however stupid those cartoons may have been) and for more suicide bombers and the killing of innocents.

Evil can take the form of refusing to be what one is. The retreat from defining Europe in relation to her Jewish and Christian heritage is the face of European nihilism. When a reaction comes, it is likely to be extreme and distorted because indifference prevailed too long.

The Europe Camus described will one day die if, forgetting the heritage of Judaism and Christianity, she withers into something no longer recognizable as herself. In his great novel The Fall, Camus’ world-weary narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clemence, says of modern European man: “He fornicated and read the papers.” Now we might say that “he—and she—fornicated and surfed the Internet.” It is scarcely an improvement, and certainly not the stuff out of which strong, vibrant, lasting cultures are sustained.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.

John L Allen Jr Weekly's blog

The current predicament of European Catholicism

I was in Ireland this week, delivering the inaugural lecture sponsored by the Irish Catholic newspaper on Wednesday night in Dublin. The subject was, "Christianity and Europe: Pope Benedict's vision and the question of European integration."

From the outside, it may seem a curious theme to invite an American to address. It didn't take long on Irish soil, to grasp the logic: The European Union is a deeply contentious issue here, and thus it seemed safer to my hosts to tap someone not clearly identified either with the pro-EU or "Euro-skeptic" line. This was all the more relevant, I suspect, because the Irish Catholic, the country's lone nationally circulated Catholic paper and my host this week, has a broadly pro-EU editorial line.

In the wake of my experience, here's an off-the-cuff observation about Catholic culture on the two sides of the Atlantic: In some ways, the debate over the EU plays the role here that abortion does in the States, as the most polarizing question in Catholic life. Of course, the two issues are not completely unrelated, since much Catholic skepticism about the EU is fueled by fear that liberal social policies might be imposed through the bureaucratic back door of European regulations or court decisions. In any event, one has the impression that much conservative Catholic energy in Europe, which in the States would be funneled into the pro-life movement, is consumed here by anti-EU campaigns.

Reflecting the passions people feel, an overflow crowd assembled at Dublin's Davenport Hotel for the lecture on Wednesday, despite the fact that Ireland's national soccer team was playing a World Cup qualifier match that night. I don't know if I've ever spoken to a more heterogeneous crowd, at least in terms of the range of Catholic temperaments represented. The group included ultra-traditionalists and ferocious opponents of big government (one woman, for example, slipped me a small notebook filled with hand-copied scriptural "proofs" that the Treaty of Lisbon will trigger the reign of the anti-Christ), along with members of the liberal reform group "We Are Church," priests of both the Legionaries of Christ and Opus Dei, moderate-to-progressive pro-EU Catholics, and every point of the compass in between.

As I said on Wednesday, we certainly have these constituencies in American Catholicism too, but rarely do we get them all into the same room.

Q&A at the Davenport occasionally turned a bit raucous (it's Ireland, after all), but the evening offered an object lesson in the church's diversity -- as well as a reminder of how hard Catholicism has to work to remain one family of faith, rather than a cluster of competing ideological and theological tribes, defined more by our political differences than our shared spiritual convictions.

Below, I offer a few excerpts from my remarks on Wednesday evening.

* * *

I am of course aware that the good people at the Irish Catholic have asked me to address the subject of "Christianity and Europe" not as an American, but as a writer on Vatican affairs. Nonetheless, I cannot help seeing our subject partly through American eyes, and I confess that doing so has brought me a fair bit of amusement -- though I warn you in advance that you may not find it quite so funny.

In preparing for this lecture, I consulted with contacts I've made in Europe over the years. … These are thoughtful people who are both fully Catholic and fully European, and many told me that they are experiencing a growing tension between those two elements of their identity.

What I've heard is that, on the side of the new Europe, the elite makers of culture are sometimes openly hostile to Catholics, treating them almost as a foreign body. The Rocco Buttiglione episode is merely the best known example of a spreading "No Catholics Need Apply" mentality in some secular circles. On the side of the Church, meanwhile, some worry that the Vatican sees things only in the most negative terms, and tends to view Catholics working to articulate the faith in Europe's new cultural milieu -- working, in other words, to find a new way of being Catholic on a changing continent, one marked by considerable religious and ethical pluralism -- with suspicion, as if these pioneers somehow risk betraying the teaching and tradition of the Church.

I have listened to these voices carefully, and as an American, my instinctive reply cannot help but be: "Welcome to our world."

What I mean is this: With allowances for the obvious historical differences, all of the above could have been said, and certainly was said, of Catholicism in the United States at various points in our history. During the 19th century, our own elite makers of culture -- who were not secularists, but rather Protestants -- also hung out "No Catholics Need Apply" signs, and generally abhorred Catholicism as a foreign presence in America's body politic. At the same time, those American Catholics who attempted to craft a form of Catholicism that could be at home in the competitive religious marketplace of the United States, one that could do justice to the country's multi-faith and democratic ethos, were viewed with deep suspicion in Rome.

The mischievous corner of my soul thus takes delight in the current predicament of European Catholicism, because, for once, we American Catholics can play the senior partner in a conversation with our European brothers and sisters.

Here's the good news: In the short space of a century, the standing of American Catholicism, both in Rome and among our fellow citizens, has improved considerably. Consider that in 1899, Pope Leo XIII essentially invented a heresy called "Americanism" in order to condemn those Catholics in the United States who defended our form of separation of church and state, indirectly suggesting that we ought to be more "European." In 2008, meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI travelled to our shores to deliver a tribute to the American approach to church/state relations, arguing that in the United States the "wall of separation" between church and state means freedom for religion, while laïcité in Europe often means freedom from religion. In effect, Benedict expressed a certain longing that Europe should be more like us!

Of course, I am not suggesting that European Catholicism should look across the Atlantic to find a model for its own way forward. Our histories and cultures are too different to simply transplant strategies from one continent to the other; and in any event, there are important aspects of American Catholicism that are still very much a work in progress. Rather, my point is that, from a historical point of view, a new culture is emerging in Europe today, with new legal and political institutions and a new set of values, and it is hardly surprising that Catholicism is struggling to adapt. If there is a lesson to be learned from the path that American Catholicism has walked over the last century, it is that efforts to express the faith in a new world often initially generate tumult and alarm, but can eventually come to be seen as a gift to the universal Church.

* * *

I then sketched four "pillars" of the thinking of Benedict XVI personally, as well as the Vatican corporately, with regard to the process of European integration.

Pillar One: The Importance of Europe

In the abstract, a hypothetical sociologist from another planet might wonder why Benedict XVI bothers about Europe at all. He seems to have soured on what some derisively call the "ecclesiastical winter" in Europe, not to mention a cluster of social currents such as declining fertility rates and growing acceptance of alternative forms of the family. In any event, Europe accounts for an ever-shrinking share of the overall Catholic population.

The banal answer as to why Benedict XVI does not simply "cash out," of course, is because he is himself European, because his intellectual and personal formation are inextricably linked to European history and culture, because he has written widely over the course of a lifetime on European affairs, and because, frankly, at the age of 81, it is far too late for him to shed this particular skin.

All this is true so far as it goes, but it does not cut to the heart of the matter. More deeply, the Holy Father is profoundly convinced that Christianity's relationship with Europe is not simply an accident of history but rather part of the divine plan, a constitutive element of Heilsgeschichte -- the unfolding of God's logic of salvation through time. ... If three centuries of Hellenistic influence cannot simply be thrown aside, more than a millennium of Christian development that bears the imprint of Europe is even more integrally tied to the culture of Catholicism. Benedict XVI may not quite go so far as Hilaire Belloc in claiming that "Europe is the faith," but he would certainly concur that the faith is inextricably linked to Europe. The Holy Father believes that Christianity cannot renounce Europe without renouncing itself.

If I may be forgiven for paraphrasing the language often used by pundits and politicos to justify bailouts of major corporations in my country, Benedict XVI believes that Europe is simply "too big to fail."

Pillar Two: Support for Integration

In broad strokes, both Benedict XVI personally and the Vatican corporately support the project of European integration, which is nothing more than a concrete application of the universality and consequent relativization of national identity that is of the essence of Catholicism.

All this creates a context in which basic support for European integration is simply part of the "DNA," so to speak, of the Vatican. To translate this point into political language, one could say that the Vatican is certainly not a "Euro-skeptic."That is not to say, of course, that there aren't many points concerning the direction of the European Union about which the pope and his lieutenants are indeed skeptical, with the failure to mention God in the preamble to the draft constitutional document being only the most well-known example.

Within this essentially positive framework, there are two points in particular which both recent popes and the Vatican's diplomatic corps have stressed.

The first is the need for generosity towards the nations of the East, reflecting a vision of Europe stretching "from the Atlantic to the Urals." The second is the insistence of Benedict XVI and the Holy See that religious bodies -- what we in America would call "faith-based groups" -- must have a seat at the table in the new European institutions. This is a specific instance of a broader argument from Benedict XVI, which is the danger of exiling faith from public life, as if religious commitment were a purely private affair with no consequences for politics or culture. Instead, Benedict has repeatedly argued, democratic institutions rely upon an infusion of values which democracies themselves cannot generate.

Pillar Three: Christianity Identity of and in Europe

Here we arrive at what, in church-speak, we would call the "neuralgic" point: the insistence of Benedict XVI, like John Paul II before him, that Europe not sacrifice its Christian identity upon the altar of tolerance and multi-culturalism. This, as we say, is where the rubber meets the road in terms of competing visions of what an integrated Europe ought to look like.

Suffice it to say that it is a bedrock conviction of Benedict XVI and senior Catholic officials that an integrated Europe cannot simply be an open market or an arrangement for mutual defense; it must in the first place be a community of values, and that those values ultimately rest upon the Christian foundations of Europe.

You will note, however, that I carefully titled this section "Christianity identity of and in Europe." The use of the dual prepositions reflects perhaps the most significant contrast between John Paul II and Benedict XVI with regard to Europe. John Paul aspired to move history in the here-and-now, to reclaim Europe for Christ; Benedict is a bit more of a realist. As a consummate student of modern trajectories in European culture, Benedict does not harbor the same lively sensation that consensus around Christianity identity in Europe is a likely prospect in the short term.

As a result, while Benedict certainly continues to make the argument that Christian values ought to play a role in shaping public policy and European institutions, he is more focused on fostering a robust sense of identity within the Church itself: hence Christianity identity "in" Europe, not merely "of" Europe. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that the dominant "mega-trend" at the policy-setting level of the Church today is what I have termed "Evangelical Catholicism," meaning a strong affirmation of traditional Catholic identity -- traditional markers of Catholic thought, speech and practice, such as Mass in Latin, Marian devotions, and the wearing of habits and Roman collars -- understood as a personal choice rather than as something one imbibes from homogenous Catholic cultures. Benedict XVI has referred to this project as coming to see Christianity, in language he borrows from Toynbee, as a "creative minority" -- no longer a culture-shaping majority, but rather a distinct presence with a strong sense of its own identity which can act as a leaven within the broader society, infusing it with a new sense of moral purpose.

To put all this into a sound-bite, John Paul's top priority for Europe was for the Church to influence culture; Benedict's is rather to influence the culture of the Church first, and then to bring that to bear on the broader society.

Pillar Four: Europe's Role in the World

Historically, Vatican diplomats have long encouraged the project of European integration, in part because they have seen a unified Europe as a "third way" in global affairs, positioned between the United States and whatever other major ideological competitor is on the horizon -- Soviet Communism during the Cold War, Jihadist Islam today. The idea has been that a Europe with a common foreign policy and defense strategy could project a different face of the West on the global stage, more humanitarian and multi-lateral than the perceived militarism and arrogance of America's interventions abroad.

Some of the wind has gone out of the sails of this vision, related both to souring attitudes within the Vatican about the cultural direction of Europe, and, in the meantime, the election of a new President of the United States whose approach to foreign policy seems, well, almost "European" in its soft touch.

Nonetheless, Benedict XVI and the Holy See nevertheless do still look favorably upon the emergence of the European Union as significant player on the global stage, believing that on a number of issues, the EU is more likely to align with the Church than the American White House, regardless of who happens to occupy it at given moment. Such concerns include disarmament, an absolute commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, the ethics of free-market global capitalism, the abolition of the death penalty, strong protections for the environment and for labor, and a cluster of other issues.

For all these reasons too, one can expect that despite the vicissitudes of current events, over the long run Benedict XVI and the Holy See will remain basically favorable toward the project of building an integrated Europe, if not always the particular political instruments to which that project is attached.

* * *

I closed along these lines:

If the Church is to articulate a coherent and constructive response to Europe's new realities, or to anything else for that matter, there is a preliminary bit of business to which we must attend. Before Catholicism can foster the unity of Europe, or of the broader human family, we must first do a better job of being unified among ourselves. The new questions being asked in the 21st century are extraordinarily complex, and there is obviously more than one Catholic opinion about how we ought to respond. If we fall back into the familiar patterns which have characterized our internal life in the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council -- of fractures between left and right, between ad intra interests and ad extra, between the hierarchy and the base, between the avant-garde and the defenders of tradition, between what Jacques Maritain once rather colorfully termed the "Sheep of Panurge" and the "Ruminators of the Holy Alliance" -- we run the risk of paralysis, of serious new fractures and new heartache, which will make it impossible to articulate a compelling response to this changing world.

Preventing this from happening will require energy and imagination, and it's not primarily a task for our hierarchy or our theological guild, though obviously it has to be fleshed out in collaboration with both. In the first place, however, it's a work for all us, because what it requires is not new policies or structures but rather metanoia -- a change of heart, a willingness to think beyond the sterile ideological battles of the past and to embrace the great Catholic passion for synthesis.

Do that, it seems to me, and the rest will follow.

Tags: atheism, catholicism, cultural, europe, historical, philosophical, political, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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