The End of Political Christian Humanism in Europe?

Catholic leaders in Europe once shared a deep seated Christian humanism that guided their political activity as they worked to rebuild their own countries. What happened?

Following World War II, there were a number of exemplary Catholic political figures who were critical, political movers in the reconstruction of Europe as well as in the creation of a more unified European continent. These included Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, and Alcide De Gasperi, all devout Catholics and all considered founders of the present European Union. What they also had in common was a deep seated Christian humanism that guided their political activity as they worked to rebuild their own countries and create structures that would bind the nations of Europe in a modern, more unified economy and forms of political cooperation. They understood that only a Europe reestablished on its Christian roots could truly hope for a renaissance and communion that could survive the inevitable tensions of modernity.

Indeed Schuman once wrote that without the faith as a bedrock of this union, or a union that ended up rejecting Christianity would be “a caricature ending in anarchy or tyranny.” Alan Fimister, a scholar of EU history who teaches at St John Vianney Seminary in Denver, insists that Schuman himself had doubts as to whether European unity would in fact turn out well. Fimister writes that “Schuman thought that the Church has to keep its game up, basically. Because if it doesn’t, if the institutions turn against Christianity and the Church, what will happen is that they will turn into anti-Christian institutions: a sort of nightmare.”

Well, after reading and rereading Pope Francis’ recent address when receiving the Charlemagne Prize, it struck me that the speech is not a particularly strong support for the notion that the Church is “keeping its game up,” and it offers little evidence that that Church still effectively supports a Christian humanism as the key to any future of the European Union. Except for one brief paragraph on the Church’s possible contribution to a stronger revitalized Union, which is reduced pretty much to a mercy that “consoles and encourages” and to personal witness, the speech could have been written by a good secular humanist.  Indeed at the end, the Pope says he “dream[s] of a new European humanism, one that involves “a constant work of humanization” and calls for “memory, courage, [and] a sound and humane utopian vision”.

It is quite striking that a Twenty-first Century Pope would dream not of a Europe revitalized and integrated by a Christian humanism but by a “new European humanism” that involves “a constant work of humanization.” Now, in fact, these words are preceded by the one sentence where a hint of a role for Christian humanism and what it hopes for by this silent Christian witness:  “Only a Church rich in witnesses will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe.” Had only the whole talk revolved around that sentence!

But still, the role of the Church is clearly reduced to bearing witness to Gospel values with the hope that this will somehow generate a rebirth of those roots deep in the Gospel. Gone are the days when the Church had the courage and conviction to preach the Gospel in word and not just in works of mercy. Gone is the Church as the great teacher of the nations, a mother who instructs the mind and not just the emotions and who speaks about the real situation of man and the political order and does not drift off into a “sound and humane utopian vision,” whatever that may mean.

In his excellent work, Robert Schuman: Neo-Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe, Fimister summarizes a short address at a Catholic European Congress by Msgr. Benzler, Bishop of Mainz, who unhesitatingly says to the congress:

“… the great Christian symbol, the Cross, must dominate all of our lives, because everything comes from Jesus crucified and everything returns to Him; the cross must direct all our enterprises, be the support of all our battles and the labarum of our victories.

Ah, it seems to be in truth, that in these days I see above our dear city the shining Cross of Constantine with the words of promise: In Hoc Signo Vinces, the arm of God has not grown short, and though the Church  is always embattled, roused yourselves like the legions of Constantine against every modern Maxentius. If we remain faithful to the sign which we have been given, if our generosity and our perseverance are up to the task, we can have every confidence: In Hoc Signo Vinces! By our faith in Jesus the Redeemer, by our fidelity to His immortal church, by our submission to His infallible Vicar we will find among ourselves and the necessary unity for the combat and for the victory: In Hoc Signo Vinces!”

Now, this was delivered at a political congress as a motivational speech aimed at those who had the concrete task of rebuilding a new Europe from the rubble of World War II. One can hardly imagine it being given today, anywhere. Schuman was in the audience that day, and while he did not repeat the challenge given by the Bishop, there can be little doubt that he essentially would have agreed with it. It was a common doctrine for centuries that was being repeated there. There could be no true lasting and vital Europe that would abandon its Christian roots and be built on anything but a Christian humanism.

The Bishop obviously was not calling for a conquering by arms, which caused the very catastrophe they were just emerging from, but a conquering of hearts, and a conquering of the sins and vices that corrupt politicians and by extension the political order itself.  Democratic institutions are not exempt from this problem but in fact multiply the problem by multiplying the numbers of infected rulers. Sin does not cure itself, and enlightened political institutions are not exempt from being undermined by sin.

Nor are healing grace and truth simply ubiquitous, otherwise Jesus could have skipped the Church as the dispenser of His truth and grace. Some Churchmen today seem to have a virtual Pelagian view of the moral life of politicians, where grace is unnecessary, or a semi-Pelagian view where it is ubiquitous and simply grease on the wheels of moral conversion. No wonder the Church’s contribution to the secular order is reduced to being the great witness to the power of mercy in transforming the hearts of men. In such a worldview, Christian humanism is in practice dead when it comes to shaping the political order, reduced merely to a nice idea in the history of ideas.

Any humanism that is purely secular at best presents but a pale vision of man in comparison to a true Christian humanism.  In the end, it will be an illusion which turns the political order into something more or less tyrannical, and it will become inevitably an enemy of Christ. Schuman was right on this point. And why? Because, as St. John says, “We know that we belong to God, while the whole world is under the evil one.” 1 Jn. 5:19.

The “world” John speaks of obviously includes the political order and its institutions whenever they are divorced from God, that is, from Christ Who is the Truth. Moreover, all men, including political leaders, are inveterate sinners who cannot cure themselves, and their sinfulness inevitably blinds them to truths of the highest order. Only a true Christian humanism holds out hope for a political order fit for man.

However, it now appears that this deeply held conviction of generations is no longer held by many Churchmen today. The great post-war Catholic politicians, and Catholic intellectuals like Maritain, DeLubac, Danielou and so many others would surely be shocked at this development.

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About Fr. Mark A. Pilon 0 Articles
Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary Seminary, a former contributing editor of Triumph magazine, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at