State of the Church

What does it mean to be a European? Though it does not entail a common language or cuisine, these days, we're told, a growing number of young people on the continent are more likely to describe themselves as European than by any identity drawn from the language they speak, or their home country. Yet perhaps the most obvious aspect of European identity that transcends the continent's national borders stands rejected by the continent's citizens: despite the entreaties of Pope Benedict XVI, Europe, it seems, is loath to claim its Christian (largely Catholic) heritage as a common bond. Benedict argued hard for a mention, in the European Union Constitution, of Christianity as the root of European values, and lost.

In his quest to return Europe to its former status as the Christian continent, Pope Benedict XVI lays the blame for Catholicism's loss of Europe to many things: modernism, relativism, multiculturalism. But never, it seems, has he looked in the mirror to find the true reason the church has lost its status as Europe's foremost expression of faith. Europe's rejection of Catholicism has less to do with a loss of spirituality by the people of God (as the worldwide congregation of Catholics became known during Vatican II) than with a rejection of an authoritarian institution many regard as, at best, morally inept; at worst, morally bankrupt.

Earlier this month in the New York Times Magazine, Russell Shorto introduced American readers to the pope's quest to restore (Catholic) Christianity as the first pillar of European identity. Benedict's effort comes as Islam claims its prize as the fastest-growing religion on the very continent that was once a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rome.

The pope, Shorto shows us, views the phenomenon of Europe's famously empty pews as the result of the modernity that flowed from the Enlightenment. As he wrote in 2005, just before his election to the papacy:

"While Europe once was the Christian Continent, it was also the birthplace of that new scientific rationality which has given us both enormous possibilities and enormous menaces ... In the wake of this form of rationality, Europe had developed a culture that, in a manner hitherto unknown to mankind, excludes God from public awareness ... A culture has developed in Europe that is the most radical contradiction not only of Christianity but of all the religious and moral traditions of humanity."

Curiously, though, in the speech he delivered at his alma mater in Germany -- the speech that set aflame the Muslim world last September -- Benedict seemed to attribute the violence of religious terrorism by Muslims to what he saw as a lack of reason in Islam. Christianity was great, he explained, because of its roots in the philosophical traditions (wherein reason lies) of the ancient Greeks. What Benedict seemed to be saying was that faith divorced from reason leads inevitably to violence, and that reason absent faith leads in the same direction -- bringing with it, as well, a host of other societal ills. As stated here, I have no great argument with that sentence. But it has little to do, I think, with why Europe no longer goes to church, and why I believe the church is destined to fail in its mission to restore the Catholicism of yore. The answer to the question of Catholicism's dwindling presence in Europe belongs to history far more recent that that favored for citation by this pope.

When assessing Europe's lack of Christian religiosity, much is made of modern philosophy and modern, secular democracy. Almost never is the impact of the world wars on the European psyche factored in, and no one dares to examine Germany's National Socialist Party and Hitler's murderous reign in the context of once-Christian Europe. The blood-soaked fields of Europe after the First World War proved fertile ground for existentialism and its bitter cousin, nihilism. But without centuries of church-sanctioned anti-Semitism, would Europe have so easily looked away while the Nazis exterminated millions of Jews?

To Europeans, the Roman Catholic Church represents not simply a spiritual tradition or a repository of culture. It is arguably the most significant actor in European history, much of it not pretty. It wasn't until 1870, during the Prussian Wars, that the Church lost the last of its temporal power, with the seizure of the Papal States by Italy after the capture of Napoleon III. With the formation of France's Third Republic in the wake of those wars, self-declared anti-Semites, supported by the Church, agitated for a reunited, Catholic France, which had lost territory to the Germans during the war. The Dreyfus affair is often described as an expression of these forces. The tensions between Germany and France eventually gave way to World War I.

During the revolution in Spain, the Church didn't exactly side with the angels, with most clergy choosing to ally themselves with the dictator Francisco Franco. In Croatia, during World War II, the Church sided with Ante Pavelic, whose murderous Ustaae committed atrocities against Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Then there's the Church's weak response to Nazism, which, I believe, is why it suffers so now.

The Roman Catholic Church simply never recovered from World War II. And then the Church blew its one big chance to make itself relevant in the modern age, when the Second Vatican Council rejected its own commission's conclusion that the church should sanction the use of birth control. The more recent scandal of sexual abuse in the Church, for which the Vatican has never taken responsibility, has only compounded its alienation from the public.

Two years ago, the Boston Globe's Charles Sennott gave us some numbers:

In Italy, where 97 percent of the population considers itself Catholic, church attendance has fallen to 30 percent, according to figures compiled by Famiglia Cristiana, a popular Catholic weekly magazine. In large cities such as Milan, the figure is no more than 15 percent, church officials say.

In France, where 76 percent of the population considers itself Catholic, only 12 percent say they go to church on Sunday, according to Georgetown University's Center for the Study of Global Christianity, and Vatican officials say the percentages attending Mass drop as low as 5 percent in cities, such as Paris.

I'm not surprised to read in Shorto's piece and elsewhere that Christianity in Europe continues to thrive in lay movements, where worship is conducted outside the official church. Given the history of bitter and bloody division that Europe has endured over the last century and a half, I think it would be more surprising to find the majority of its people embracing any organized religion, seeing how the God of priests and ministers and rabbis failed to spare so many Europeans the wrath of their neighbors. To expect them to venerate, in the preamble of a new E.U. Constitution (the document intended to herald the dawn of a new day), the Roman Catholic Church requires nothing short of hubris. And at a time when the continent could use some spiritual guidance, the Church is too often AWOL on the most difficult questions of the age, choosing instead to chase the past.

Adele M. Stan is the author of the weblog, AddieStan, and the book, Debating Sexual Correctness.

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