Pope Benedict XVI’s preoccupation with the moral and cultural condition of Europe has given Christianity’s legacy in its traditional heartland a new prominence and revived the question of the Church’s role in an avowedly post-Christian society.
For Pope Benedict the history of post-Enlightenment Europe has unfolded as a grave and sombre tragedy. The recent refusal to include any reference to God in the preamble of the European Constitution appeared to him to plumb new depths of disorientation.
In July this year, while still Cardinal Ratzinger, he delivered a lecture in which he argued that the Godless morality of the European Enlightenment had resulted in a culture which “constitutes the absolutely most radical contradiction not only of Christianity but of the religious and moral traditions of humanity”.
The concept of freedom, severed from belief in the transcendent and sovereign Creator, he went on, leads paradoxically to dogmatism and, in the scientific field especially, degenerates into “a power of destruction”. He concluded: “The attempt, carried to the extreme, to manage human affairs disdaining God completely, leads us increasingly to the edge of the abyss, to man’s ever greater isolation from reality”.
End of an era
Whether or not we agree completely with Cardinal Ratzinger’s grim diagnosis we certainly have to accept that the Christian era in Europe is long-gone. In this country, and on the continent, Christianity has had a good innings, with a dominating influence at the heart of society. But now, for good or for ill, we are returning to a situation similar to that of the early centuries, when the Christian Church was a peripheral and insignificant sect.
The new Pope’s criticisms of contemporary European culture should not be interpreted as nostalgia for the days of the Holy Roman Empire, despite his reputation as an arch-conservative. Traditionalist Catholics may pine for the glories of the Age of Faith but Benedict XVI has indicated that he sees good reasons why we should look to the first Christian communities as an example, model and ideal for our Church life today. For my own part I would specify three aspects of the early Church that we can learn from and imitate.
An alternative community
Firstly, the early Christians saw themselves for what they were: a small minority in a corrupt society. They were very conscious that there was a decisive difference between the moral values and the ideas of human happiness that came from believing in Christ, and the values and beliefs which were commonplace in society at large. And because they saw themselves as a small minority they had no illusions about exercising great influence or transforming society as a whole.
Instead they understood the Church as an alternative to the majority values, a sort of counter-culture. The letter of Jude speaks about new members of the Church being saved by being " snatched from the fire" (Jude, v.23). In other words, becoming a Christian meant being snatched from the fire of sinful ways of living, and the decadent state of pagan society, and joining an alternative community instead.
Secondly, the first communities of Christians were in earnest about what they believed. Their standards were high, and the demands of membership of the Church were rigorous. Although they always welcomed new converts, they didn't go out of their way to attract them. There was no propaganda activity, no Alpha courses and the like. Before new members were baptised, they had to wait several years, during which they were introduced to the beliefs and practices and ceremonies of the Church.
The Church didn't make it easy for people to join. Certain professions were proscribed. Soldiers couldn't become Christians, unless they changed jobs - not because of a pacifist objection to war, but because they were servants of the pagan state. Actors and actresses were also proscribed, because of the profane and sensual nature of most theatrical entertainment.
As one historian put it: "The Church did not want mere half-Christians. She preferred to remain small in numbers rather than to be unfaithful to her principles or to endanger them. Many who could not muster the required strength to make such a decision must have gone away sad."
Love of Christ - love of the poor
Thirdly, the early Christians placed a high priority on caring for the poor. In the cruel social ethos of the pagan empire this was an extraordinary novelty. In those days, as now, material want was accompanied by sickness, stress, mental disability and ostracism. These evils were seen by the majority as shameful.
But the Christians saw in all these forms of suffering a reflection of their Saviour and a call to imitate Christ's love and compassion. Not only did the Church organise care and relief for the poor on an unprecedented scale, but prophetic Christian leaders also excoriated the rich for their hard-heartedness and indifference. These attitudes and practices highlighted further the difference between members of the Church and those outside.
Accommodation, not opposition
Today we find ourselves in circumstances that are very similar to those of the first followers of Christ. But have we the courage, the boldness, the faith, to respond in the same way?
Ever since the Second Vatican Council Catholics in this country have been more concerned to accommodate themselves to the prevailing values of society than to forge their own identity in opposition to "the spirit of the age".
The Council's desire that the Church should be open to the world - i.e. open to those values and attitudes which are implicitly Christian - has, in many respects, been manipulated into an indiscriminate acceptance of secular moral trends.
The Council’s Decree on Ecumenism has been used as a means of blurring the vital distinctions between the Church and the other denominations, resulting in a belated countermeasure, in the shape of such teaching document as One Bread, One Body.
As for the much-vaunted "option for the poor", it means little more, in practice, than a few comfortable Christians giving a fragment of what is left over from their excess wealth. It certainly does not mean, as in Third World Catholicism, a wholehearted embrace of Christ's own poverty and self-denial. And any observer of modern British society would identify the Catholic Church more as a haven for Tory ex-ministers and their cronies in the right-wing press than as a defender of the poor or a focus of resistance to the ideology of the global market.
Both in internal Church affairs and in regard to wider social issues, the leadership of the Church in England and Wales has failed in boldness and prophetic zeal. Our bishops are timid, somnolent and futile. Indeed, along with their love of bureaucratisation, in imitation of the business world, aren't these the very qualities which would recommend them for seats in a “reformed” New Labour House of Lords?
There is an overwhelming tendency in the English and Welsh Church to wish to evade contentious issues rather than face them squarely, to lower the temperature always, and to reduce everything to a humdrum level. The result is that we are like the Church of Laodicea in the Book of the Apocalype, to whom Christ says: "Therefore, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth". (Rev. 3:16).
I believe that two futures lie before us at this juncture in our history. If the Catholic Church in these islands can pull itself back to the core of the Catholic tradition, in all its fullness and integrity, if we can recapture the sense of distinctive Christian identity which motivated the first disciples, our survival is assured. But if we cannot, the future is full of menace. Nothing then lies before us but a protracted and melancholy twilight.
My own hope and prayer is that as a community we will take a leaf from the early Church's book. Instead of feeling anxious to be relevant, popular and successful, we will be content to remain small in numbers. Instead of dreaming up expensive public relations schemes to increase our membership, we will concentrate on being faithful to our own beliefs and our Christian way of living, and let our example attract other people who want to do the same.
Cardinal Ratzinger himself appeared to draw similar conclusions, referring prophetically to the saint he would soon take as patron of his pontificate.
“Only through men who have been touched by God can God come near to men,” he declared at the end of his lecture. “We need men like Benedict of Norcia, who at a time of dissipation and decadence, plunged into the most profound solitude, succeeding, after all the purifications he had to suffer, to ascend again to the light, to return and found Montecasino, the city on the mountain that, with so many ruins, gathered together the forces from which a new world was formed”.
If the small groups of Christians remaining in Europe choose the approach outlined above they will realise their vocation as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart" (cf. First Preface of Sundays in Ordinary Time). They will also be far likelier to succeed in transmitting the treasure of the faith to the future inhabitants of their continent.
The text of Cardinal Ratzinger's lecture on the Cultural Crisis of Europe, given in the convent of Saint Scholastica in Subiaco, Italy, the day before Pope John Paul II died, can be found in the archive of the Zenit website, http://www.zenit.org/english/, posted in four parts between 26th - 29th July 2005.