Christians in a Secular Europe
Despite alarmist headlines a new Kulturkampf is a long way off
by Cornelius Conwell


Towards the end of November last year an interview given by Cardinal Ratzinger to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica gained fairly prominently coverage here. Under the front-page headline "Secular forces 'pushing God to margins'" the Daily Telegraph writers Bruce Johnston and Jonathan Petre described Ratzinger's "fierce attack on the forces of secularism", which the Cardinal apparently claimed were "fostering intolerance in Europe and forcing Christianity underground".
The Catholic Herald of November 26th also placed its report of Cardinal Ratzinger's interview on the front page under the misleading headline, "Secular Europe is the Enemy, says Ratzinger". In an editorial which painted a lurid tabloid picture of Ratzinger as "the Pope's 'Bavarian enforcer'" and part of a conservative "border control", the Herald spoke of a European Union "increasingly under the control of militant secularists and multiculturalists" who were, among other things, watering-down the EU's Christianity by scheming to extend membership to Muslim Turkey.
From its own distinctive and sometimes useful perspective the National Secular Society interpreted the Cardinal's remarks as a "strong attack" on the idea of a secular Europe. The Society reminded readers that Ratzinger - a "powerful right-wing voice at the Vatican" - had led the Church's efforts to suppress Liberation Theology and dissident theologians like Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff. His views, said the NSS, indicated "panic" over the Catholic Church's loss of political power in Europe. [1]
The historical context
The background to Cardinal Ratzinger's interview is not a simple one, especially from a British perspective. Britain's separate religious history and the European Catholic Church's long involvement in the cause of political reaction must be borne in mind.
England became a Protestant country in the 16th and 17th centuries. Attempts by the papacy and the Spanish crown to draw England back into the circle of Catholic Christendom failed resoundingly. Catholicism became a proscribed religion and it was not until the late 1800's that the small Catholic population, augmented by occasional waves of immigrants, began to recover liberties and rights lost during the Reformation. Catholic Church leaders pursued their aims tactfully for the most part and endeavoured to offset suspicions that Catholics were unreliable subjects, secretly more loyal to the Pope's temporal rule.
The establishment of the Anglican Church and the early introduction of a constitutional monarchy meant that in England there had never been explicitly religious parties allied to the cause of the ancien regime as on the continent. Consequently atheism, anti-clericalism and republicanism were never prominent components of any political movement in Britain as they were of the European left.
Thus, as parliamentary democracy developed in Britain, Christians were active in all political parties, not only those of the right. In the late 19th and early 20th century the established church may have been caricatured as "the Tory party at prayer" but many Christians expended their moral energies in left-wing and reformist causes. Keir Hardie was a convert from atheism and an Evangelical lay preacher, and it was famously said that the Labour movement owed more to Methodism than Marxism.
In Europe in the 1930's and -40's the struggle against Fascism helped to re-draw the lines of political allegiance: many of the 19th century divisions, including those between believers and secularists, were set aside as members of the resistance movements fought together against a common enemy. After the Second World War, revulsion towards Nazi excesses and commitment to the cause of social reconstruction united "all men of goodwill" in seeking to formulate norms of human dignity and rights and establish a tolerant, pluralistic democratic order. The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, for example, was closely involved in drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the late '40's.
Against this backdrop ecumenical and inter-faith discussions, dialogues between Catholicism and Marxism, and between atheist and Christian humanism, came into their own in the 1950's and -60's. The Second Vatican Council encouraged these progressive tendencies by affirming the principles of religious freedom, the primacy of conscience and the separation of church and state in clear terms, especially in the 1965 Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae.
The older position that, wherever possible, governments should formally privilege the Catholic faith and at best merely tolerate other denominations or religions was abandoned, although informal relationships between Church and state in countries such as Ireland, Franco's Spain and the dictatorships of Latin and South America left Catholic hierarchs with considerable political influence. Secularists and left-leaning Catholics pointed to the weak democratic instincts of Church leaders and their incorrigible bias towards authoritarian governments which upheld "order".
More recent developments
British coverage of Cardinal Ratzinger's November interview gave the impression that his comments on political and cultural matters were surprising and rare. In fact it has traditionally been far commoner in Europe for Catholic theologians and intellectuals to intervene in public debate through press interviews, seminars, academic addresses, etc. Moreover, as the arguments surrounding the evolution of the European Union have developed in recent years, some unexpected alliances have formed and some unusual divisions opened-up.
The influential German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, for example, has on several recent occasions declared his support for greater recognition of Europe's Christian heritage, despite his own atheist convictions. He has praised traditional religious communities for embodying a "sensitiveness" towards the many forms of human dislocation, suffering and failure which is missing from today's advanced capitalist societies. Habermas has even claimed that Christianity is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy: "To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter." Other professedly atheist thinkers have echoed many of Habermas' sentiments. [2]
But at the same time prominent Catholic intellectuals have voiced their unease at some of the new political-philosophical marriages of convenience, arguing that Church authorities should accept the secularity and pluralism of modern Europe and abandon their struggles to influence such matters as the EU Constitution. They believe Catholics should rejoice that the Church is no longer entangled in the coils of secular power.
The Church historian Professor Alberto Melloni points out that Catholicism is now a world religion, no longer bound by the norms of European culture. It is an insult to Christians in far more dangerous parts of the world to talk about the Church being persecuted in Europe, he says.
On one level it might be natural for the Catholic Church to seek to register its influence in the European Union but, Melloni contends, in practice such efforts reduce Christianity to a civic religion, serving the interests of the wealthy and powerful. They open the Church to exploitation by fair-weather allies, conservative political forces uncommitted to the content of the gospel. "The Christian faith does not need such apologists," he maintains. "It can defend itself by its own means, which are firmness and meekness." [3]
And so it was against this background of history and current debate that Cardinal Ratzinger made his remarks about Christian faith and the secularism of modern Europe during an interview at the end of last year:
"Secularism is no longer that element of neutrality, which opens up space for freedom for all," he said. "It is beginning to change into an ideology which, through politics, is being imposed. It concedes no public space to the Catholic and Christian vision, which as a result runs the risk of turning into a purely private matter, so that deep down it is no longer the same. In this sense a struggle exists and so we must defend religious freedom against an ideology which is held up as if it were the only voice of rationality, when instead it is only an expression of a ‘certain’ rationalism. In politics, it seems to be almost indecent to speak about God, almost as if it were an attack on the freedom of someone who doesn’t believe. A secularism which is just, is a freedom of religion. The state does not impose a religion, but rather provides free space to those religions with a responsibility to civil society."
And he added: "We've gone from being a Christian culture to one of aggressive secularism, which at times is intolerant". [4]
Naturally there is much one could say about these assertions. For one thing we might note (with Prof. Melloni) that Ratzinger is overstating his case somewhat: European states are far from denying "public space" to the Catholic or any other religious "vision".
What makes European politicians nervous in the religious sphere is an authoritarian tendency to claim, on the basis of exclusive truth, that a single faith should enjoy freedom of expression and practice, while, others should be suppressed on the old ground that "error has no rights". The hysterical, infantile Christianity which has surfaced within American Republicanism - little more than an extreme form of religiously-sanctioned nationalism - and the theocratic tendencies of some Islamist movements both lean heavily in this direction.
Secondly we might draw attention to economic factors: the EU is a capitalist institution and exists to further the interests of European-based businesses. Ratzinger is wrong to locate the source of anti-Christian sentiment in an abstract ideology of "secularism", aggressive or otherwise.
Far more real (and inherently secularising) is the culture produced by market capitalism, which exaggerates certain aspects of human character - self-centredness, anti-social individualism, acquisitive and appetitive instincts - and rejects any values that undermine our identity and role as compulsive consumers. The impoverished character-type produced by advertising and marketing propaganda certainly conflicts with traditional Christian notions of material simplicity, self-denial, mutual responsibility and loving service. Ratzinger's choice of target betrays an element of intellectual aloofness from the economic factors which shape popular attitudes and values in the region he is criticising.
However, against the interpretations put forward both by Ratzinger's most strident supporters and his bitterest critics, his remarks above cannot be seen in any way as favouring a return to "Christian Europe", or even as mourning its passing; nor does he say anything to suggest that he is panicking at any loss of political power on the Church's part.
His words seem carefully chosen and his criticisms completely consistent with the principles of Vatican II: a secular, pluralist state should be neutral with regard to the claims of different faiths while upholding the principle of equal liberty for all religious groups. If neutrality and pluralism give way to the promotion of a single ideology or philosophy then it is a long-standing and rightly-cherished liberal principle which is under threat. It certainly does no harm to raise such a concern periodically.
Church State relations
Interestingly, two thousand years of Christian history and theological reflection have never yielded a single definitive model of Church-State relations. From the days of the first Christian communities different situations and contexts have produced different positions: on the one had the conservative appeal to obey state authority, which is seen as possessing legitimate authority under God; on the other a more radical, prophetic position which views state power as fundamentally oppressive, an outgrowth of fallen human nature lodged firmly in the realm of a world given over to Satan.
Yet perhaps at a basic level the New Testament contains some pointers. Jesus' reply to the Pharisees' trick question about paying Roman taxes has always been interpreted as implying a separation of spiritual and temporal spheres and the autonomy of secular government from religious authority (Matt 22:21). Jesus' words to Pontius Pilate in St. John's gospel - that his Kingdom is not of a worldly character, and that Pilate's political authority is transient and relative - reinforce this train of thought (Jn 18:36 and 19:11).
More generally we might recall how Jesus, at the beginning if his ministry, rejected any use of worldly power as a demonic temptation (Matt 4:8-10). In addition he frequently contrasted the ethos of God's Kingdom with the typical arrogance, pride, self-serving ambition, coercive authority, avarice etc. of those who were "great" in earthly terms: "You know that the rulers of the nations act as tyrants, and the powerful oppress them. It shall not be so among you" (Matt 20:25-26).
These and other brief scriptural statements do not in any sense provide a Christian theory of the state, but they do show that Christianity has no inherent theocratic tendency. Rather the opposite: membership of God's Kingdom involves a certain scepticism towards "earth's proud empires" and a sensitivity to the spiritual dangers of power.
The distortions of faith
In reality of course this has not stopped Christians from justifying everything from class divisions and obedience to civil authority to persecution of minorities, coercion and torture, all with the aim of upholding a supposedly "Christian Order". But what is true of these historical instances is also true of modern Islamism, American born-again fundamentalism, Hindu chauvinism in India and Sri Lankan Buddhism: religion can easily be manipulated to justify an agenda which is political in origin. In all such cases, past and present, ideological aims are primary; religion is simply brought in to provide a metaphysical underpinning.
This characterises, for example, many Islamist groups' rejection of democracy, sexual equality, the rhetoric about converting the whole world to Islam by violent jihad, etc. Serviceable aspects of the religion are isolated, distorted and exaggerated; unserviceable or downright contradictory aspects are filtered out. This applies equally to the bizarre notion common among American evangelists that the United States is a special instrument of God's will - and indeed God's vengeance - in history, an idea totally without scriptural or doctrinal foundation. But for those to whom a strong sense of righteousness is emotionally necessary such manoeuvres offer a means of hiding basically self-interested motives under the cloak of a godly, noble cause.
It is also worth reflecting on the historical lesson that whenever the clergy have become involved in the exercise of political power, or preoccupied with establishing a sort of religious-cultural monopoly, the result has always been profoundly corrupting. The prestige and influence of the institution is sought as an end in itself and the original message is compromised.
For an example near to home and closely tied to the experience of the Catholic community in our own country we need only glance at the recent history of Ireland. The Church hierarchy complacently assumed that it could command popular respect and exercise strong political influence long after it had ceased to embody the values of the gospel or, more to the point maybe, even after it had effectively ceased to provide the social cohesion of a credible folk-religion.
As in many other historically Catholic countries, material luxury, proximity to secular power, freedom from scrutiny or criticism, separated the leadership from the grassroots and robbed it of moral authority. The more recent exposure of sexual scandals simply completed a process of disillusion which was already well under way. Hopefully in the long term the Irish Church's fall from grace will bring about a purification, a new humility and a new radicalisation of commitment.
Conclusion
With Professor Melloni and others I believe that we should have no regrets about the decline of cultural Christianity or the Church's loss of influence in its former heartland of Europe. The benefits of such influence were always dubious in any case. Contrary to the wishes of certain traditionalists - and the fears of the secularists - I would argue strongly against trying to restore aspects of Christendom to modern Europe. Nor do I believe that we should waste our energies trying to preserve whatever tattered vestiges still remain.
I would much prefer to see Christians of all denominations embracing our current position as a minority in a secular, pluralist society. This was the intention of the Second Vatican Council, after all, which urged Catholics, whenever possible, to join with others "in the search for truth and for the right solution to [the] many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, art. 16).
I do not by any means underestimate the degree of hostility towards religion in modern Eurpean society, especially, it often seems, towards Christianity. I know very well that other motives exist for attacking the Church besides selfless dedication to truth and reason. I am also only too aware of the corrosive effects of secularization within the contemporary Church, which is a different issue altogether, and should be strongly resisted.
But Christians must meet the challenge of secularism in all its manifestations intelligently, constructively and hopefully, preserving our own distinctive beliefs and values while helping to confront all the problems of a violent, unjust, divided world. We must, as Cardinal Ratzinger says, defend the modern principle of religious liberty: it is a bulwark against bigotry and fundamentalist intolerance of all descriptions. But as a Church community we must also work patiently to create a situation where our public interventions can be seen to be genuinely free from self-interested or ulterior motives. Then perhaps our participation - and our criticisms - will be accepted more readily by those whom Cardinal Ratzinger presently finds so “aggressive” and “intolerant”.


Notes and References
[1] "Secular forces 'pushing God to margins'", Bruce Johnston and Jonathan Petre, Daily Telegraph, 20th November 2004; "Secular Europe is the Enemy", Freddy Gray, and editorial "Ratzinger for Pope?", Catholic Herald, 26th November 2004 ; "Catholics in Panic over Loss of Power", National Secular Society Press Release, www.secularism.org.uk/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=198&Itemid=35#eight.
On the question of Turkey's possible entry to the European Union, the official position of the Holy See is that there is no intrinsic reason to oppose the ongoing negotiations. Cardinal Ratzinger has recently expressed his personal opposition on two occasions: in an interview with Le Figaro Magazine on August 13th and in a speech to the pastoral workers of his titular diocese, Velletri, on September 18th which was published in the Catholic newspaper of the Swiss town of Lugano, Il Giornale del Popolo.
[2] "The Derailment of Modernity, How Habermas and Ratzinger Justify Faith", Alexander Kissler (translated by Jonathan Uhlaner) Sü ddeutsche Zeitung, January 21, 2004.
[3] See "The Church Is Under Siege. But Habermas, the Atheist, Is Coming to its Defense" by Sandro Magister followed by "An old maneuver that has never been good for society or the Church", An interview with Alberto Melloni, on the website www.chiesa, http://213.92.16.98/ESW_articolo/0,2393,42281,00.html.
[4] Cardinal Ratzinger is quoted thus in "Catholics in Panic over Loss of Power", National Secular Society Press Release. See note [1] above.
[5] Perhaps Iran in the aftermath of the Khomeini revolution (1979) would constitute an Islamic example of a related phenomenon. Liberal, secular and pluralist currents were marginalised from the outset and now, twenty-five years after the Shah's deposition, ordinary Iranians seem to be heartily sick of the restrictive, reactionary clerical regime.