The Gospel as Good News for Europe Today

Author: Archbishop Angelo Amato

The Gospel as Good News for Europe Today

Archbishop Angelo Amato
Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints

Archbishop Angel Amato on Catholicism and secularism in contemporary Europe

The following are excerpts from the discourse given by Archbishop Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, to professors and students at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, U.S.A.

What will the detachment of Europe from Christianity bring? In 2005, shortly before his election as Supreme Pontiff, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented the religious and moral crisis of the European continent where "a culture has developed that constitutes in a most absolutely radical way the contradiction not only of Christianity but of the religious and moral traditions of humanity" (L'Europa di Benedetto nella crisi delle culture, Siena, Cantagalli, 2005, p. 37).

And, in fact, the European Constitution does not make any reference to God and to the Christian roots of its civilization. In this way, the profound structure of a society that is spiritual and cultural, more than political and economic, is forgotten. And European identity is disfigured.

Is the accent on the Christian roots of Europe an offense to non-Christians, who are present in great numbers on the old continent?

"Who would be offended?" asked Cardinal Ratzinger. "Whose identity is threatened? The Muslims, who in this aspect are often and willingly called into play, do not feel themselves threatened by our Christian moral foundations, but by the cynicism of a secularized culture that denies its own foundations. And even our fellow Jewish citizens are not offended by reference to the Christian roots of Europe, in so far as these roots reach back to Mount Sinai: they carry the imprint of the voice that made itself heard on the mountain of God and they unite us in the great fundamental orientations that the Decalogue has given to humanity. The same is true for the reference to God: it is not the mention of God that offends those who belong to other religions, but rather the attempt to build the human community absolutely without God" (ibid.,p. 40).

The reason for this double "no", to God and to Christian roots, is found in the presupposition that only a radical rationalist culture can constitute European identity. But the tragic history of Europe of the last century has shown that human freedom, detached from God and from his law, leads to a dogmatism that, in the end, humiliated man by suppressing his freedom. The atheistic ideologies of Nazism and Communism have not produced earthly paradises but only tragic regimes of terror that have denied dignity and freedom to the human being, to their victims and even to their own executioners.

The Christian response to atheistic secularism is based upon the experience of the centuries, on the golden rule according to which "living in the truth can change that which in history seems unchangeable".

In contemporary Europe emancipation from God and the denial of his law produces effective behavior which is blameworthy. Just as in the economy and politics, so also in biomedicine and biotechnology, research that is detached from ethics allows man, with impunity, to dispose of life and of other human beings, above all of the most weak and defenceless. Biopolitics, which makes no reference to natural law, can permit, for example, the annihilation of fetuses, the manipulation of embryos considered as simply biological material, clonation, hybridization, contraception and euthanasia. Life loses its inviolability and the human being loses his identity. Then, the very notion of family as a community composed of a father, a mother and children is attacked. Marriage is no longer between just a man and a woman. The adoption of children even by homosexual couples is permitted.

If this is Europe — one can ask — why insist on its Christian roots since it finds itself culturally alien to Christianity?

The answer is to be found in the fact that Europe can not be understood without Christianity. It loses its identity and its originality. European history demonstrates that the "concept Europe" is a plurimillenary construction made up of diverse and complementary strata (Joseph Ratzinger, Chiesa, ecumenismo e politica. Nuovi saggi di ecclesiologia, Cinisello Balsamo, San Paolo, 1987, pp. 207-221).

The first stratum is that offered by Greek civilization. Europe, as a word and as a geographical and spiritual concept, is a Greek creation. The elements of this "Greek-ness" could be synthesized in this way: right of conscience, relationship between reason and religion (ratio et religio),the affirmation of democracy in a binding harmony with that which is just and right.

The second stratum is that inherited from Christianity, from its humanism that, in Jesus Christ, the synthesis between the faith of Israel and the Greek spirit is operative.

The third stratum is that inherited from the Latin tradition. In history, Europe has been identified with the west, and, that is, with the sphere of the Latin culture and Church which, however, embraced the people of the Romance languages, Germanic peoples, Anglo-Saxons and a part of the Slavic peoples. The "Christian res publica" (res publica christiana)was certainly not a politically constituted European reality. It existed in the totality of a unifying culture, visible in its juridical systems, universities, councils, religious orders, and the circulation of the life of the Church. The whole had Rome as its center.

Finally, the fourth stratum of Europe is inherited from the modern era. The elements of such an heredity are: the distinction between State and Church, the freedom of conscience, human rights and the self-responsibility of reason.

All of these diverse elements have been brought together into a unity by the Church of Christ, that has been the matrix of European civilization, of its defense and of its spreading in the world. In his volume, How the Catholic Church has built western civilization, (Siena, Cantagalli, 2007) Thomas E. Woods, Jr, lists the multiple contributions that the Catholic Church has brought to European civilization, with its monasteries, universities, scientific research, art, international law, economy, charity, ethics and, above all, with freedom.

Thus, Europe of the future can not be only the product of a political and economic unification, but also the synthesis of the values inherited from tradition. It would, therefore, have to take into account its Greek roots and the intimate relationship between democracy and good government (eunomia). It would have to base its laws upon moral norms which respect the natural law. It would, also, have to bind its public law to respect for the moral values of Christianity and not relegate God just to the private sphere. It would, rather, have to recognize him publicly as supreme value. An exasperated atheism would not guarantee the survival of a State of law.

For this reason, the Catholic Church above all by means of papal magisterium, both of John Paul II with his Post-Synodal Exhortation, The Church in Europe,and of Benedict XVI with the three exemplary lessons given at Regensburg (12 September 2006), at the Rome University La Sapienza (18 January 2008) and at Paris (13 September 2008), does not flatten out on the agenda of ideological and political secularism. It rather continuously solicits an attitude of "positive laicism" that values the input of Christianity with its "yes" to life, liberty, democracy and respect of the dignity of every human being. This attitude seems to recall what Blaise Pascal said to his non-believer friends when he invited them to live "as if God existed" (veluti si Deus daretur).In this way, no one loses his freedom, and moral decisions find a sure foundation which they urgently need.

With its aversion to Christianity, the European community is a body that is always growing but without a soul. In his analysis of the project of the European Constitution, Joseph H. H. Weiler, an orthodox Jew born in South Africa, Professor of law at the New York University School of Law, recognizes the historical absurdity of eliminating Christianity from modern European history. Indeed, he arrives at the affirmation that a European Constitution, which deliberately ignores the Christian roots of Europe, would be constitutionally illegitimate (cf. Un'Europa cristiana: Un saggio esplorativo, Milan, Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 2003). A Christian Europe, in fact, would respect the rights of all citizens, believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians. The deficit of its Christian roots brings about the deficit of democracy.

Weiler also speaks of Christophobia that manifests itself with diverse accents and motivations. For example, there is the mistaken conviction of European intellectuals who consider the tragedy of the holocaust to be a logical conclusion of an historical anti-Judaism, whereas it is the direct consequence of the atheistic conception of National Socialism. A second component of Christophobia is present in the followers of the youth revolution of the 1960s, which was substantially anti-Christian. Furthermore, Christophobia is the psychological and ideological counter-attack to the fall of communism in 1989 in Eastern Europe due to the extraordinary influence of the personality of John Paul II.

It is unthinkable, however, to dream of a Europe as "a special place of human hope" (the Preamble of the projected European Constitution) without the men and women, great and small, who have contributed their genius and creativity to European civilization. In the same way, it would be unthinkable that Europe might defend "the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person" without the foundation of Christian civilization.

This apostasy from Christianity, that is propagated in the daily press, is in reality plunging Europe into a grave moral and social crisis: "Relativism, laicism, scientism and all that which today is put in the place of faith are poisons, not the antidotes, the viruses that attack the body that is already ill, not the anti-bodies that defend it" (Marcello Pera, Perché dobbiamo dirci cristiani. Milan, Mondadori, 2008, p. 5).

The experiment that is taking place today in Europe, and that is, living as if God does not exist, is not producing its promised fruits.

Above all secularism, which is the basis of civil rights, does not justify itself without a strong reference to the good and the true. It remains without foundation. Christianity, on the other hand, which perceives man as the image of God, brings to society the incommensurable value of personal dignity. Without this, there is neither freedom nor equality, neither solidarity nor justice.

Furthermore, Europeanists lament the lack of "European identity" and seek a soul for the new Europe. Without Christian identity, however, Europe is not more open, more tolerant and more peaceful. On the contrary, "Without the awareness of Christian identity, Europe detaches itself from America and divides the West; it loses the sense of its own limits and becomes an indistinct container; it does not succeed in integrating immigrants, in fact it places them in ghettoes or it surrenders itself to their culture; it is not capable of defeating Islamic fundamentalism, in fact it favors the martyrdom of Christians in many parts of the world and even in its own home" (ibid., p. 6).

Thirdly, it is affirmed that freedom consists in welcoming all freedoms and, therefore, it would not be necessary to insist upon the Christian religion since democracy is a religion in itself. As Plato had already seen, however, one discovers that such a relativist democracy is self-destructive. It devours itself (cf. Plato, The Republic, VIII, xi-xiv). If truth no longer exists, but only the sum of the various beliefs does; if the moral natural law no longer exists, but only the absolute freedom of the individual does, "then, the moral good need only be put to a vote and a vote, look at our laws on bioethical questions, can decide that anything is good" (M. Pera, Perché dobbiamo dirci cristiani,p. 7).

Europe must profess itself to be Christian if it wishes to find again its soul, its identity, its foundations and the truth of things. The great theoreticians of liberalism, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Immanuel Kant exalted human freedom, but placed a precise condition in order to be able to realize it: respect for the natural law. For Kant and the others, respect for that law, however, was assured by the duty of conscience to adhere to the principle of good and not to that of evil. And the good, to which Kant also was referring with his religion in the limits of reason, was that proper to the Christian ethic.

There are many reasons that would have to motivate Europeans to profess that they are Christians: the memory of their origin, the possibility of overcoming the crisis of their society, the inhumanity of a self-sufficient and atheistic secularism, the maintenance of social stability, the pride of the universality of European civilization, the rational and non-prejudicial foundation of the distinction between State and Church and the survival of sociopolitical institutions.

Benedetto Croce, also, in August of 1942, right in the middle of the Second World War and at the height of the greatest crisis of civilization in Europe with Marxism and Nazism, wrote the work, Why we cannot not profess ourselves to be Christians. For him Christianity was the greatest revolution of humanity that has produced an extraordinary human civilization, which still today sustains contemporary society. Christianity is at the basis of modern thought and of its ethical ideal.

Today Europe is without a soul because it rejects that Christian soul which history has given it. It is not sufficient to speak of unity in diversity or of mestizaje of cultures. These are ambiguous formulas because they do not provide an identity. Integration presupposes an integrating subject.

Inthe end, Europe must profess to be Christian if it wishes to be united, if it wishes to affirm itself as a civilization of fundamental human rights; if it wishes to defend itself and avoid wars of religion; if it wishes to overcome the tragic season of its recent past; if it intends to defeat its profound moral crisis.

Why do millions of people from other continents and from other non-Christian cultures knock not only at the doors of the United States of America but also at those of Europe, and invade it? Do they do it only to find a job and a better condition of life? Perhaps. But the deeper reason is only one: because they find liberty and because the real native country of mankind is not the territory where he or she was born but the land where he and she can live free.

If Europe wishes to continue to live with freedom for all, it must continue to live "even if God existed" (etsi Deus daretur), and be based upon Christian tradition. If Europe wishes to integrate people coming from other cultures, it cannot be without identity. It must, however, still have trust in the values that identify it, appreciate them and even have the serenity to consider them good. If they were not good, they would not be sought after by millions of immigrants.

Does integration then mean conversion to Christianity? Not necessarily. Integration means adhesion to the fundamental values of European civilization: "If Europe is not a melting pot but only a container, it is because it does not have the sufficient energy of its identity to blend the contents" (ibid.).The community without God, which Europe is constructing through laicism, relativism, scientism and multiculturalism, is not just an obstacle to its identity. It is also an impediment to the politics of integration. Does this presuppose a new Christian fundamentalism? No, because while Christianity recognizes itself as the religion of universal salvation in the mystery of Christ, it avoids fundamentalism through the antidote of religious liberty, of respect for the individual conscience, of the distinction between error and the one who errs, of the commandment of love towards all, even towards one's enemies.

The attitude of the Church in regard to contemporary Europe reflects the Gospel message of love and freedom: "Go out into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mk 16:15-16); "He came among his own people, but his own, however, did not receive him. To those who did receive him, he gave the power to become children of God" (Jn 1:11-12). The Church proposes, but does not impose, the Gospel.

The Gospel is essentially good news even for today. As a result, our reflection on the situation of Catholicism in secularized Europe is intended to be good news.

The task of the Church in Europe is threefold: to accept the Gospel, to witness to it with coherence and to announce it in the modern Areopaghi of culture, of politics, of mass media and of the education of youth. For Europe, the Gospel remains, even for the third millennium, its Book par excellence, a book of life, of truth and of light, as Christ, the Word of God incarnate, is life, truth and light. Let us once again take into our hands this Book. Let us devour it, taste it and celebrate it. This was the exhortation of the Servant of God John Paul II.

On his part, the Holy Father Benedict XVI, a great scholar of Europe and of its Christian identity, has at various times encouraged Europe not to be ashamed of the Gospel, but to appreciate and live it. During his meeting with French intellectuals in Paris on 12 September 2008, he stated: "For many, God has become truly the great Unknown.... A merely positivist culture that has removed into the subjective field the question about God as nonscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renouncement of its highest possibilities and therefore a breakdown of humanism, the consequences of which could only be grave. That which has established the culture of Europe, the search for God and the willingness to listen to Him, remains even today the foundation of every authentic culture".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 August 2009, page 3

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