As Europe declines, the Church dithers

Six decades after the Treaty of Rome, the European Union is in deep trouble. But is the Catholic Church capable of helping Europe change course?


In 1985, the then-European Economic Community which eventually became today’s European Union formally adopted what’s known as “The Flag of Europe.” Consisting of a circle of 12 golden stars on an azure background, many believe that the flag, first used by the Council of Europe in 1955, combines the traditional Marian blue with the crown of twelve stars worn by the Woman Clothed in the Sun portrayed in the Book of Revelation.

The overseer of the flag’s design, Paul Lévy (himself a Catholic convert), denied later in life that Marian themes influenced the flag. There’s no reason to disbelieve him. That said, the European flag bears an uncanny resemblance to the statute of Mary which may be found in Strasbourg Cathedral in the city where the European Parliament sits for part of the year.

Several of the primary founders of today’s EU—men such as France’s Robert Schuman, Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, and West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer—were devout Catholics. For them, promoting an integrated Europe wasn’t only about increasing intra-European trade and diminishing war. They also had a Christian humanist vision of Europe as the continent in which Christianity had integrated Jewish wisdom, Greek philosophy and Roman law, thereby giving Western civilization its distinctive character.

The fact that the signing of the Treaty of Rome 60 years ago this month in the Palazzo dei Conservatori’s audience hall occurred in the presence of an enormous bronze statue of Pope Innocent X may have unsubtly underscored that point. In this light, it’s not surprising that EU heads of states and government will gather in Rome on March 24 to celebrate the Rome Treaty’s anniversary and be received by Pope Francis.

A troubled Europe

Today, however, the EU is light-years away from the optimism which marked the Rome Treaty. Poll after poll shows profound dissatisfaction with the EU in many member-states. The European Commission’s headquarters, Brussels, is now shorthand for “unaccountable bureaucrats presided over by out-of-touch career politicians who live in a self-referential bubble.” Britain’s June 2016 decision to exit the EU was simply the most direct expression of how negatively many ordinary Europeans regard the European integration project.

It’s also true that the EU has long since wandered far from any generically Christian outlook. Symptoms of this range from the EU’s upside-down understanding of the principle of subsidiarity, to many EU agencies’ promotion of gender theory: something contrary to everything that reason and Revelation tell us about the nature of human beings. Concerning the historical fact that Christianity has been the dominant religious force to shape Europe, many European political leaders tiptoe around the subject, preferring to speak of “religious and humanist influences.”

If there is any normative vision that Europeans and non-Europeans alike associate with today’s EU, it is surely secularism. This has little to do with a healthy secularity which distinguishes the temporal from the spiritual realm. Rather, it’s an ideological secularism: one that involves adherence to a plastic view of human nature, the grounding of rights upon subjective feelings, a hostility to natural law, a preferential option for top-down bureaucratic solutions to most problems, and notions of tolerance that seek to crush dissent from secularist claims.

Of course, not all the European integration project’s roots are Christian. It was also influenced by social democratic, liberal, and Enlightenment thought. Some who adhere to these views today have actively sought to exclude Christian witness from the European public square, or (perhaps worse) to reduce it to the harmless contributions of a humanitarian NGO.

It’s too easy, however, to blame aggressive secularists for the EU’s drift away from those European roots which happen to be Christian. It also reflects Catholicism’s weakness and marginalization—and often self-marginalization—through much of Europe today, particularly in Western Europe.

An enfeebled Church

To speak of “European Catholicism” is somewhat of a misnomer. Spanish Catholicism has a quite different history and present-day reality to that of the Church in, say, Slovakia. The Church’s influence also differs from country to country. Catholicism’s contemporary sway in Poland dwarfs, for instance, the Church’s impact upon life in Switzerland.

Secularization in the sense of a drift away from regular religious practice has been happening in Europe for a long time. But there’s little question that the decline in Catholic practice throughout Europe accelerated after Vatican II. Nor is Catholicism in Europe growing in the way that it is, for example, in Africa. It’s also the case that much of the post-Vatican II Catholic response throughout Europe to these developments has proved ineffective.

For many post-Vatican II Western European Catholics, liberal theology seemed the best way to engage the secular European mind. But like all forms of theological liberalism, the effect was to empty much of Catholic life of any distinct content. It also encouraged Catholics to take their primary cues from whatever is happening in the world (here they gravitated towards secular left-liberal preoccupations) rather than the Scriptures and 2000 years of Christian reflection. This left many European Catholics with little to say about anything which can’t be said by your average secularist.

Nor has the bureaucratization of much of the Church throughout Europe helped. Consider Catholicism in Germany. The state levies a tax on people who belong to particular churches. These revenues help the church pay for the upkeep of historical buildings and fund its extensive welfare and humanitarian services. That’s one reason why the Catholic Church is Germany’s second largest private employer.

Whether there’s anything especially Christian about how the German church delivers its social programs is debatable. But an associated and deeper problem is the accompanying bureaucratization of Church life. This contributes to unhealthy trends, such as prioritizing institutional maintenance over spreading the Gospel. Bureaucratization also facilitates resistance to any initiatives which imply that the status quo isn’t working. When combined with the liberal theology that dominates German-speaking Catholicism, you end up with the worst of all worlds: a Church that resembles an appendage of the welfare state and which self-marginalizes its core messages.

To be sure, some European Catholics have resisted these trends. That starts at the very top. Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI could hardly have said more about Christianity’s role in shaping Europe’s identity and how it might creatively engage modern Europe. Among other things, Pope John Paul called two Special Synods for Europe. He also penned an entire apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (2003) on the subject. Before becoming pope, Joseph Ratzinger wrote extensively on themes ranging from Europe’s identity to how Christianity influenced the development of constitutionalism.

How much this Wojtyla-Ratzinger program has been put into effect is open to question. When it becomes central to Catholic life, the results are often impressive. The revival of much of French Catholicism, for instance, owes much to the willingness of the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, other clergy, and perhaps above all lay French Catholics to bring this perspective to bear.

In many other European countries, it is harder to find evidence of large numbers of Catholics adopting similar approaches. Here and there you’ll find bishops, priests, and lay movements who are enthusiastic proponents. But throughout Catholic Europe, there’s also plenty of resignation to secularization. In some instances, there is an unspoken assumption that Catholicism should morph into liberal Protestantism: a future which guarantees permanent decline and eventual extinction. Belgian Catholicism is perhaps the poster-child for that way of thought in Europe today.

And Pope Francis?

Unfortunately, I don’t think we can expect much leadership from Pope Francis in this area. This isn’t because he is Latin American rather than European. The more salient factor is that Francis doesn’t appear entirely at ease with his predecessors’ approach to such matters.

In a 2016 interview with La Croix, for instance, Francis stated that he didn’t like the tone often accompanying evocations of Europe’s Christian roots. While acknowledging these roots as a historical fact, Francis worried that the phrase often “takes on colonialist overtones” (though he excluded John Paul II from making such an error). Precisely how Christians speaking about Europe’s Christian roots could amount to a type of colonialization remains unclear.

This made it all the more curious that the City of Aachen awarded Pope Francis its prestigious Charlemagne Prize in 2016. Named after the first Holy Roman Emperor who united much of Western Europe under one crown, this prize is awarded to a person “distinguished by their outstanding work toward European unity or cooperation between its states.” Previous winners include Schuman, de Gasperi, and Adenauer, but also John Paul II. The Polish pope’s unique contribution to half of Europe’s liberation from Marxist totalitarianism was hard to deny.

In explaining why they chose Pope Francis as recipient of the 2016 award, the award committee stated that he “orientates millions of Europeans to what the European Union brings together at its core: a valid system of values, respect for human dignity and civil liberties, the uniqueness of human beings whatever their ethnic, religious or cultural background and respect for creation.”

At face-value, these aren’t bad things in themselves. Yet the same words could have used to describe the beliefs articulated by many prominent secular Europeans: convictions sometimes antithetical to Christian teaching. Much depends upon what “values” we’re talking about or what we mean by “respect for creation.” All this suggests that Francis isn’t posing the sort of questions about Europe and the EU that causes secular-minded Europeans to think outside their comfort zones.

Francis’s forthcoming meeting with EU heads of states and government would be an opportunity for the pope to help Europe begin thinking about the type of reset it desperately needs. In this regard, European politicians don’t need religious leaders to remind them to care for the poor and refugees, to remember the marginalized etc. Legions of secular Europeans do this day after day in the pages of the Guardian, Le Monde, and El País, and in the German Bundestag, the Spanish Cortes Generales, the Irish Dáil, and the European Parliament.

What Europe needs are religious leaders willing to gently but clearly remind its peoples of some truths they aren’t likely to hear elsewhere. That, for instance, European civilization existed long before the EU and can’t be reduced to modern Europe’s particularities. Or, that the West’s specifically religious roots are undeniably Jewish and Christian and thus open Europe to the fullness of the truth about God and man. Or, even more provocatively, that the Catholic Church isn’t a loosely-religious NGO that’s going to limit its commentary about Europe to nebulous references to common values, dialogue, diversity, and other staples of secular discourse. The business of the Church is teach the truth. And that includes speaking the truth about Europe and Christianity’s role in shaping Europe—for better and for worse.

Personally I’m not optimistic that Francis will speak in these terms. Nothing, however, would make me happier than to be proved wrong. For if Europe isn’t to lapse into managed decline amidst a strange mixture of sentimentalism and soft paganism, it desperately needs clear Christian witness to the truth about the decisive turn taken by the continent when Rabbi Saul of Tarsus crossed into mainland Europe sometime around 52 AD. As the successor of another Apostle of Rome, this would a great service which Francis could perform for the continent that is, after all, now his home.

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About Dr. Samuel Gregg 39 Articles
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. The author of many books—including the prize-winning The Commercial Society (Rowman & Littlefield), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (Edward Elgar), Becoming Europe (Encounter), the prize-winning Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Regnery), and over 400 articles and opinion-pieces—he writes regularly on political economy, finance, American conservatism, Western civilization, and natural law theory. He can be followed on Twitter @drsamuelgregg

1 Comment

  1. In Africa, Asia and Latin America – the Church is a beacon of hope to millions. Zealous missionaries from spiritually vibrant Africa, Asia and Latin America could be deployed in situations that are of immediate concern.

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