Rethinking Christendom – The Church and the New Europe

Jonathan Luxmoore

Anyone who has followed the arguments over the European Union's new Constitutional Treaty will know that the role of Christianity and churches has enjoyed a high profile. They were a key debating topic at the European Convention which drew up the Constitution in 2002-3; and they will be important in Britain in the run-up to next year's referendum.

I don't propose to go into the rights and wrongs of the Constitution now – other than to say that it is important to read it (even if, with its annexed protocols and declarations, it runs to 784 pages), rather than relying on what politicians and journalists say it says. I would, however, like to raise some of the questions about Christianity's past, present and future in Europe which need to be considered when to comes assessing the issue of churches.

First, why have the churches and Christianity been an important issue at all?

The answer, I think, is that they raise questions of identity whose importance is sensed by everyone. Although we live in a multi-cultural Europe, opinions are deeply divided as to what kind of Europe this really is – a secular, pragmatic, technocratic Europe; or a Europe which claims to be united at a deeper level in shared ethical values and spiritual aspirations. Christianity is clearly important here. This explains the perceived need to clarify its current status.

All mainstream Christian churches wanted to see an invocatio Dei, or reference to God, in the Constitution preamble, as well as a specific acknowledgement of Europe's Christian roots. It was argued that this was necessary as a "reminder that public power is not absolute", and to help citizens identify with the EU and its institutions. Among the many depositions sent to the Convention, chaired by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a good contemporary explanation of the role of churches and faiths was offered in May 2002 by the Commission of EU Catholic Bishops Conferences (COMECE), which is one of over 50 church organisations with permanent offices in Brussels:

"Religions provide the foundation and orientation that give meaning to life – they have the potential to inspire innovation in society and governance.... Churches and religious communities are committed to serve society – inter alia, in the fields of education, culture, media and social work – and they play an important role in promoting mutual respect, participation, citizenship, dialogue and reconciliation between the peoples of Europe, East and West. They also emphasise Europe's responsibility not just for its immediate neighbours, but for the whole human family".

In the event, the references to God and Christianity were turned down by those who believed this would violate freedom of conscience. Although opposition was led by France, opponents also pointed out that two-thirds of the expanded EU's 25 member-states make no mention of Christianity in their own constitutions. Instead, the final Constitution preamble, signed by heads of state and government on 29 October 2004, talks about drawing "inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe", an inheritance which has "developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law".

There is disappointment about this omission – particularly among Christians of all denominations who hoped the EU's enlargement last May would strengthen the church's voice. COMECE, for example, called it "a form of disdain for the convictions of a significant number of citizens". Poland's Roman Catholic bishops went further, labelling it a "falsification of historical truth, and a deliberate marginalisation of Christianity".

Most Church leaders agree that we can, if necessary, live without it. Both COMECE and the Conference of European Churches (composed of 125 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic churches) have welcomed the Constitution's call for a "society of pluralism, tolerance, justice, solidarity and non-discrimination", as well as its incorporation of the 2002 Charter of Fundamental Rights, and its stress on human dignity and the role of civil society. They are also pleased Article 1-52 notes that the EU "respects and does not prejudice the status of churches in member-states", and commits the EU to maintaining an "open, transparent and regular dialogue" with churches. This appears to create for the first time a legal basis for the participation of churches in EU affairs.

And yet the disillusionment remains. Some believe it confirms the EU's domination by a secularist elite, by what the Polish bishops called an "ideological laicism" at the heart of EU affairs. We heard echoes of this during the recent controversy over the blocking of Rocco Buttiglione's appointment as Justice Commissioner because of his alleged attitude to homosexuals and women. In October, the Vatican's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said Christian values were being "forced underground by secular forces".

"Secularism is no longer that element of neutrality which opens up space for freedom for all. It is beginning to change into an ideology which is being imposed through politics... We must defend religious freedom against the imposition of an ideology that presents itself as the only voice of rationality".

No one is suggesting that Christians are better Europeans – still less that Europeans should be Christians. But is there a special sense in formally acknowledging Christianity's contribution to Europe? To what extent do Christian precepts underpin European values? Is one possible without the other?

To begin to answer questions like these, we have some idea of the state of Christianity and the churches in Europe today. In Western Europe, the trend in Church affiliations has been unmistakeably downward for the last half-century, with Britain, France and Sweden currently competing, according to the European Values Study, for the title of least religious country. Yet if we look at the visible presence of Christianity, we see the picture is a lot more complex. Around 80% of West Europeans still describe themselves as Christians in surveys, while nine-tenths of France's 230,000 registered historical monuments are Christian in origin. Throughout the continent, signs of the Christian faith remain conspicuous in every town and village.

Even at a deeper level, it can be argued that the very idea of secularisation is suspect. Sociologists have identified a process of "re-spiritualisation" over the last decade, beginning in Europe's largest cities. Although this can be seen as a protest against secular life, rather than a return to mainstream churches, it clearly offers the churches opportunities too.

In Eastern Europe, the picture is similarly complex. With over nine-tenths of its 38 million inhabitants declaring themselves Church members, and half attending Mass regularly, Poland shares with Malta the title of Europe's most Catholic society, and offers the most striking exception to the continent's plummeting affiliations trend. While seven of Ireland's eight Roman Catholic seminaries have closed in the last decade, Poland's 86 seminaries have seen a 10% growth in enrolments over the past three years, and the country currently provides 12% of all Catholic priests working in Western Europe.

Elsewhere, though, the picture varies. In Slovakia, a census three years ago showed Catholic church membership had risen by a tenth in the eight years of independence, reaching 69% of the population. In the neighbouring Czech Republic, by contrast, it had dropped from 40% to barely a quarter. Meanwhile, although four-fifths of Lithuania's 3.7 million citizens call themselves Catholics, only 15% practise their faith and a third of parishes lack regular pastors. These differentials are broadly similar in Hungary and Slovenia.

Crude data like this have limited value only. But they suggest the myth of a "spiritual East" and "materialistic West" is now heavily outdated. They also show that, despite everything, the Christian faith is still alive. What then has this faith contributed to Europe in historical terms?

In a September 2003 Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Europa, the Pope talked about the "multiple spiritual roots" underlying Europe's commitment to human dignity, and freedom of thought and speech". "These roots have helped lead to the submission of political power to the rule of law and to respect for the rights of individuals and peoples", John Paul II added.

"Yet it must be acknowledged that these inspiring principles have historically found in the Judaeo-Christian tradition a force capable of harmonising, consolidating and promoting them.... In the process of building a united Europe there is a need to acknowledge that this edifice must also be founded on values most fully manifested in the Christian tradition. Such an acknowledgement is to everyone's advantage".

I think there is an even better analogy available for explaining Christianity's role in European history. If that history is a verdant plain, then Christianity is the river which flows through it. It is a river with various sources: Judaic tradition, oriental faiths, Greek philosophy, Roman law. But it has also been broadened by incoming streams over two millennia – Celtic, Germanic, Slav and Finno-Ugric culture; Islam, humanism, Romanticism, Marxism – embracing and redirecting them, but also being enriched and deepened by them.

This capacity for dialogue, however resisted at certain times and places, has been Christianity's strength. It has fuelled many dilemmas and conflicts. But it has also helped other faiths, philosophies and ideologies to contribute to European civilisation, a civilisation full of contrasts and contradictions, but flowing from the same inclusive river of Christian norms and values.

Christianity, it can be said, placed them all in a coherent philosophical and ethical framework. This made Christianity the foremost influence on Europe's cultural and social formation, and the only religion which played a direct and consistent part in the emergence of its institutions of law and governance.

How was Christianity able to do this?

For one thing, Christianity was a syncretic faith, which borrowed heavily since its inception from other religious and philosophical traditions. It had its Ten Commandments. But it had no fixed set of instructions for Christian life, and had to turn to other sources of teaching for practical insights, interpreting and incorporating their best elements.

For another, Christianity was conflictual and prone to internal disputes. The divisions which beset it from the very beginning culminated in the 1054 Great Schism between eastern and western Christianity, and led on to the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Yet even then, the disputes continued, generating hundreds of separate denominations, all with their own interpretations of the faith. This proneness to discord, especially in Western society, marked Christianity off from other faiths – including Islam, which has suffered only a single great division between Sunnis and Shias since the death of Muhammed in 632 AD. By encouraging pluralism, it fostered freedom and became a motor for intellectual, cultural, social and political development.

For another thing, Christianity was rooted in the world, thanks to its doctrine of Incarnation. The result was a constant struggle between self-confidence and self-criticism, which spurred a permanent dissatisfaction with the current state of the world and a constant yearning to improve it. Christianity rejected the notion that the ruler was also divine, a doctrine which had characterised regimes from the Epyptian pharoahs to the Roman emperors. It also dismissed the idea that the natural world was evil and should be shunned in favour of a disembodied life of the spirit. In this way, it contributed several golden rules to human society:

  • that the individual has dignity since all are equal in the sight of God;
  • that secular and spiritual power structures are separate and must compete for human loyalties;
  • and that faith and reason must be linked in mutual respect.

Of course, these noble principles have often been betrayed and abused by Christians themselves. Not only that – it can also be argued, paradoxically, that they created conditions in which the very same principles could be turned against Christianity.

The Enlightenment in the Eighteenth Century had roots in a relativisation of values, and a certainty that reason could flourish without the obscurities of faith. Yet it can be argued that the Enlightenment and its scientific precursors were themselves the product of Christianity and could not have occurred without it. This was true at a personal level too. Descartes and Locke were believing Christians. Francis Bacon wrote prayers and translated the Psalms. Isaac Newton wrote theological commentaries and dated the world's divine creation to 3500 BC.

Even the French Revolution, which established a precedent for confrontation with the Church, as well as a model for two centuries of struggle against the social order, was not, initially at least, directly hostile to the Church. The notion of Laicite implied a distinction between Church and State offices, rather than an anti-Christian or irreligious mindset. The Revolution pioneered an alternative culture, capped by the abolition of the Christian year in 1793 and the crowning of the "Goddess of Reason" in Notre Dame cathedral. But the secularist mood dissipated and Christianity recovered. Even Robespierre, who presided over 16,000 executions in 10 months, considered the festivals of Reason to be ''ridiculous farces" and equated atheism with aristocratic decadence.

Instead, the real crisis for Christianity came with the rise of ideologies in the Nineteenth Century.

Although these built on the ideas of the Enlightenment and Revolution, they also gave them their first concretely anti-Christian application. Anti-clericalism was a central feature among those who believed the Christian churches of the day were hostile to progress and had no answer to poverty, exploitation and injustice. But under the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the crisis became something wider and deeper – a rift between paternalistic Christian ethics and the new forces of secular radicalism.

To be fair, Christianity had always presented contrasting faces – and contrasting vices and virtues – ostentatious wealth and saintly simplicity, pluralism and authoritarianism, prejudice and tolerance. What identified the Church's hierarchy with the forces of power and wealth – and what provoked radicals – was very largely its support for the restoration of the ancien regime at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-5. Even then, most radical movements – Romantics, nationalists, early socialists – were not overtly hostile to Christianity as such. It was only with Feuerbach and Marx that a full-scale rejection of Christianity took place, partly at least provoked by the lack of any responsive dialogue.

Even then, contemporaries were well aware of the dangers. More than a century before the Holocaust, the German writer Heinrich Heine, who was Jewish, saw the dangers of Christianity's decline. "A drama will be enacted in Germany compared with which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll", Heinrich Heine wrote in the 1830s. "Christianity may have restrained the martial ardour of the Teutons for a time, but it did not destroy it. Now that the restraining talisman, the cross, has rotted away, the old frenzied madness will break out again". And so it did.

On the side of the Church, views remained divided between those who were ready to trust reforming movements, and who saw them as dangers to the social and moral order. The essential dilemma was between revolutionary and evolutionary change.

The Church's leaders were ill-prepared anyway, intellectually and psychologically, for the flood of new ideas. But what they feared most was a comprehensive breakdown in order, brought about by manipulative social engineering. Their worries were poured out in a stream of passionate, colourful denunciations. In 1829, we find Pope Pius VIII urging Europe's leaders to clamp down on those "who, completely opposed to God and to princes, are wholly dedicated to bringing about the fall of the Church, the destruction of kingdoms, and disorder in the whole world". Just three years later, Gregory XVI deplores the fraudulent claims of social refomers: "Depravity exults; science is impudent; liberty, dissolute", the Pope says. "All that is sacrilegious, infamous and blasphemous has gathered as bilge water in a ship's hold, a congealed mass of all filth".

Among ordinary Christians, however, opinions were much more varied. Thus, in France, the conservative Catholic Joseph de Maistre deplored the Revolution's "satanic character", whereas the "social Catholic", Felicite de Lamennais, a priest, saw the Revolution as a gift from God.

"Death, near and seemingly inescapable, threatened the Catholic Church, but God took pity.... He opened the treasury of His mercy and sent the Revolution. People saw only its horrible side; they still had to see its salutary consequences. Without it where would it be? Nothing less than this storm could have swept away the deadly fog which covered a stagnant and polluted society".

When France's Catholic bishops declared support for Louis Napoleon's 1851 coup, Lamennais conceded that social Catholicism was an illusion. It had yielded, he said, to a regime based on "the priest, the soldier and the spy" – "a damp, cold cave where in the silence and darkness venomous reptiles crawl and make your skin creep".

The point of these references is to remind us of how divided Christians have always been when it comes to applying Christian values in concrete political conditions – but also how far all political movements referred to Christianity, using it as a source of inspiration, whether positive or negative.

It can be argued that the next 100 years were largely a story of how the whole Church came to terms with what Pope Leo XIII called "new things" (Rerum Novarum) – such as democracy, multi-party politics, trade unions and family rights. It was a long and painful struggle, punctuated by anti-clerical campaigns, totalitarianism and world wars, which forced the Church to abandon its political pretensions once and for all and left it badly battered.

Yet even in 1945, in a broadcast to defeated Germany, TS Eliot could still praise Christianity's crucial importance to Europe's future. The cultural and ideological assaults on Christianity, Eliot said, had weakened European civilisation by closing its "mental frontiers". But only a Christian culture could have produced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche.

"I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith. I am talking about the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is, and about the common cultural elements which this common Christianity has brought with it.... It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe – until recently – have been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe the Christian faith is true; and yet what he says, and makes and does will all depend on the Christian heritage for its meaning".

Five years later, we find the historian, Herbert Butterfield, lauding Christianity in more concrete terms:

"Our religion, as it mixes with the events of the world, generates new things – now a kind of art, now a form of science, now liberty, now a theory of egalitarianism. Above all, throughout our history, it has been of the first importance that our church has not merely launched or inspired great human enterprises, only too often to watch them break away and sail off on their own account; it has not merely leavened society generally with its principles of Christian charity, for example, so that the enemies of religion have owed more to it than than they have ever been able to recognise; but, by being here, the church stands as a perpetual centre from which the whole process can be forever starting over again".

It can be argued that the subsequent four decades or so witnessed a curious paradox – on the one hand, a visible decline in church membership and affiliations (although there was a revival immediately after the War); and on the other, an impressive renaissance in Christian thinking about the Church's presence in the world.

As one example, we can look at the very publicly Christian inspiration of the European Union's founding fathers – Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer. The influence of Christian social teaching was evident in the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 and in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which used Christian concepts such as subsidiarity, popular sovereignty, the common good.

As another instance, we can look at the voluminous documents of the Second Vatican Council, which set a baseline for Catholic thinking about society, contemporary culture, human rights and social justice, as well as about other churches and faiths.

As another, we can consider the rediscovery of Christian values as the ethical common ground for the movements which brought down communist rule in Eastern Europe, when, in the case of Solidarity, the forces of industrial protest looked to the Church as an ally, and the Church for the first time saw the potential of mass social movements as vehicles for positive change. Anyone who was in Eastern Europe in 1989 will remember the sense of excitement, of a new beginning, which was very closely connected with Christianity. I myself vividly remember standing in Prague cathedral in April 1990, five months after the Velvet Revolution, and hearing the Pope proclaim the collapse of "one of the many towers of Babel in human history". "You were called the Church of silence", he said. "But your silence was not the silence of sleep or death. In the spiritual order, it is in silence that the most precious values are born".

I believe those values are still alive. And yet in the mere 15 years since, we seem to have witnessed a polarisation in how they should be expressed, if at all. In a recent book, Cardinal Ratzinger described 1989, along with 1968, as one of the most damaging years of the 20th Century. It is a surprising judgement; and what he means, I think, is that Europe fell into a kind of spiritual vacuum after the collapse of communism, which has manifested itself in a disregard for ethics, and a growing hostility towards Christian values and aspirations.

If true, one can speculate about the possible reasons for this.

One may be the advance of individualistic attitudes which seek to bar religion from public life and relegate it to the private sphere. Another may be the deliberate assault on Christian values by a profit-led consumer establishment, which has seen off all competitors and now views churches as a final obstacle to be overcome. Still another may be the lack of confidence on the part of churches about competing on equal terms with a cynical secular media and indifferent liberal mass culture.

It may be that we are still living with the legacy of the 19th Century ideologies which I referred to, whose modern inheritors assume conflict must be inherent between the realms of reason and science, and faith and spirituality.

It may also be that we are still living with stereotypes about the Church. Perhaps it faces the dilemma of a great actor who is only remembered for his role as Hamlet. Having given up its identification with conservative powers a century ago, and become a purely moral and social force, the Church has failed to redefine itself in political terms. Thus, when political language is used, it is still viewed as reactionary and repressive.

Whatever factors may be cited, this is the struggle which is being played out today over rival conceptions of Europe. Despite the efforts of the founding fathers, churches and religions were not mentioned in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty on closer integration and gained only a brief mention in the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam. Clearly, the balance of opinion within the EU's institutions had already swung decisively in favour of those who viewed Europe as no more than a technocratic entity, bonded together by liberal utilitarian attitudes and the priorities of an efficient market.

The debate over the EU Constitution, it seems to me, has provided an opportunity for those who believe the united Europe should be something more, a community of shared values which still draws inspiration from Europe's Christian heritage. We know from history – at least we should know – what the consequences of repudiating this heritage may be. We also know that the so-called "culture of death" will generate a demographic catastrophe within 50 years, with all the attendant consequences for human rights and democracy.

But what kind of Christianity should we be defending?

Clearly, it must be an open, tolerant Christianity which avoids charges of Euro-centrism and respects the continent's pluralistic, multi-cultural and multi-faith character. It must also be a Christianity which accepts the humanistic premise of worldviews which differ from its own and recognises their own input into Europe's evolving culture.

This is, I think, precisely the Christianity which we have in Europe today – a Christianity which combines strong moral values and spiritual aspirations with a concern for the poor and excluded. It is also the kind of Christianity which can be, and is being, defended by Jews and Muslims too, who rightly see in the Christian churches an ally and source of support.

When mosques and churches were attacked in the Netherlands in November, after the murder of the controversial film director, Theo van Gogh, by an Islamic militant, the country's Roman Catholic bishops wrote an "Open Letter to Dutch Society":

"Far from feeling opposed to Islam, the Catholic Church shares the experience of being religious in a secularising society and the conviction that everything is given us by God. Together, we hold the same belief in the inalienable dignity of every human life, and a striving for justice and peace... Inculturation and adaptation cannot mean being forced to accept the dictatorship of a politically correct majority view. A society which doesn't tolerate dissenting religious views gives a token of weakness, not power. Does freedom of speech mean a licence to ridicule the sacred and offend others? The answer to such questions lies not in laws, but in people's consciences".

As for the Constitution, the same considerations must apply. We cannot expect people to identify with Europe, if that Europe fails to identify with them. There is much of value in the Constitution. It defines the EU's democratic mission. It identifies shared values and objectives. It makes the EU's institutions and tasks easier to understand. It provides an opportunity for citizens to contribute to a Europe of peace, justice and solidarity.

But by failing to acknowledge Europe's central over-riding tradition, it may well also be the EU's greatest missed opportunity.