Loosening European Secularism’s Grip

The significance of Pope Benedict’s visit to France.

Secularism’s hold on Europe remains strong, but it appears that Pope Benedict XVI is loosening its grip here and there. His September visit to France offered a glimpse of this: enormous crowds greeted him in Lourdes and Paris, “more than greeted Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, in his visit to Berlin in July,” as The New York Times put it.

The papacy appears to loom larger in Europe as the continent’s long experiment against God increasingly exposes it to an external threat—en croaching Islam—and an internal fear—demographic im plosion. As secularism looks more and more exhausted and its failures multiply, Pope Benedict’s clout grows.

He addressed 150,000 pilgrims in Lourdes and 270,000 young people in Paris (see story on page 17). These scenes of enthusiasm contrasted with last year’s gloomy European Union 50th anniversary, an event which resembled not so much a celebration of the secularist super-state as a measure of its shakiness.

A poll conducted for the anniversary found that 56 percent of Europeans believe that “the European Union does not represent ordinary people” and only 25 percent of Europeans think “life had improved” since the European Union’s founding.

European leaders used to turn a deaf ear to the papacy. But now a few key ones—such as Angela Merkel in Germany, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, and Nicolas Sarkozy in France—give the papacy a respectful hearing, seeing in it a bulwark against threats to Europe’s future.

Sarkozy’s openness to Pope Benedict and the Church is particularly striking. Recall that former French President Jacques Chirac staunchly opposed even a minor mention of Europe’s Christian heritage in drafts of the European Union’s constitution. But in Sarkozy France now has a president who calls the Catholic Church a “spiritual family whose contribution to the history of the world and civilization is neither contestable nor disputed.”

Where Chirac repudiated Pope Benedict’s positions, Sarkozy echoes some of them. During Pope Benedict’s visit to France, Sarkozy spoke of the destabilizing character of skepticism and the need for a public life informed by the reconciliation of reason and religion:

“In the hour when so many fanaticisms reappear, in the hour when relativism exerts an increasing seduction, where the possibility even of knowing and of partaking in a certain share of the truth is questioned, in the hour when the hardest acts of selfi shness threaten the relations between nations and within nations, this absolute option for human dignity and its anchoring in reason must be held to be a most precious treasure.”

Surely historians in the future will find it remarkable that at the beginning of the 21st-century a pope landed in Paris and essentially heard his own critique of rationalism repeated by the French president who greeted him.

Torn by a militant Islam and an irrational rationalism, France under Sarkozy appears to be glancing back at its Christian past with some curiosity, perhaps even respect. Christianity, it is dawning on some, offers the only real solution to its crisis: not a distorted reason without faith, which rationalism proposes, nor a distorted faith without reason, which fanatical Islam advances, but reason and faith harmonized and properly understood.

“A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientifi c, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences,” Pope Benedict said in Paris. “What gave Europe’s culture its foundation—the search for God and the readiness to listen to him—remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”

In drawing Europe’s attention back to the Christian synthesis of reason and revelation, Pope Benedict is living up to his name, which he chose in part to recall the Christian roots planted by St. Benedict during the dark ages. Pope Benedict is addressing with growing success a secularism which has produced it own dark age—a Europe once again in need of the light of Christianity to dispel its shadows.

The large crowds in Paris perhaps represent his planted seeds that will germinate in decades to come. His trip to the Marian shrine at Lourdes was also in keeping with this mission: an historic reminder to France that faith in God produces hope while the false self-suffi ciency of secularism delivers only despair. The Virgin Mary stands as hope’s preeminent model, as he noted in his encyclical on that subject, and Europe more than ever needs her example to see that salvation comes not through the domination of science, nor through the projects of power politics, but through humble obedience to God.


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