Anyone following the arguments over the European Union’s Constitution may well have wondered why, in today’s secular environment, Christian churches assumed such a high profile? The answer appears to be that they raise questions of identity which all Europeans recognise as vital. We live in a multi-cultural Europe. But opinions are deeply divided as to what kind of Europe this really is – a secular technocratic Europe, or a Europe which claims a deeper unity in shared ethical values and spiritual aspirations. Christianity is clearly important here. Its status is certain to be a matter of debate when the Constitution is submitted to a referendum.
Although all mainstream churches urged an acknowledgement of Europe’s Christian roots in the Constitution’s preamble, this was turned down. Instead, the final text, signed by heads of government in October, talks about drawing inspiration from Europe’s “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance”.
Church leaders seem to agree we can live without the Christian reference. Comece – a body representing the bishops’ conferences of the European Union – has welcomed the constitution’s stress on human dignity. It was pleased that Article 1-52 respects “the status of churches in member states” and commits the EU to maintaining an “open, transparent and regular dialogue” with churches.
Yet there’s deep disillusionment too, particularly among Christians who hoped the EU’s enlargement last May would strengthen church voices. No one is suggesting Christians are better Europeans – still less that Europeans should be Christians. In western Europe, the trend in Church affiliations has been unmistakably downward for half a century, with the British, French and Swedish competing, according to the European Values Study, for the title of least religious nation.
Yet if we look at Christianity’s visible presence, we see the picture is more complex. Around 80 per cent of western Europeans still describe themselves as Christians in surveys, while signs of the Christian faith remain conspicuous in every town and village.
In eastern Europe, the picture is similarly complex, suggesting that the myth of a “spiritual East” and “materialistic West” is now heavily outdated. But the East offers further proof that, despite everything, the Christian faith is very much alive.
To what extent, then, do Christian precepts still underpin European values?
Christianity’s role in European history can be summed up by an analogy. 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 and Slav culture; Islam, humanism, Romanticism, Marxism – embracing and redirecting them, but also being enriched and deepened by them.
This capacity for dialogue and assimilation has been Christianity’s strength. Of course, it has fuelled numerous conflicts. But it has also helped other faiths and philosophies contribute to European civilisation, by placing them in a coherent framework. It made Christianity the foremost influence on Europe’s cultural and social formation, the only religion that played a direct, consistent role in the emergence of its institutions of law and governance.
How was Christianity able to do this? For one thing, this was a dynamic faith, which borrowed heavily from other religious and philosophical traditions. For another, it was highly conflictual – by encouraging pluralism, it fostered freedom and became a motor for intellectual, cultural, social and political development.
Christianity was rooted in reality, thanks to its doctrine of the Incarnation. The result was a constant struggle between self-confidence and self-criticism, which spurred a permanent dissatisfaction with the world and a constant yearning to improve it. Christianity rejected the doctrine of the divine ruler, which had characterised regimes from the Egyptian pharaohs to the Roman emperors. 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.
Often enough, these lofty principles have been abused and betrayed by Christians themselves. But paradoxically, they created conditions for the very same principles to be turned against Christianity during the century of anticlerical campaigns, totalitarianism and world wars which followed the industrial revolution.
Yet in 1945, broadcasting to a defeated Germany, the poet T S Eliot could still stress Christianity’s crucial importance to Europe’s future. Only a Christian culture, Eliot said, could have produced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche. The cultural and ideological assaults on Christianity would weaken European civilisation by closing its “mental frontiers”.
“I do not believe the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith,” Eliot argued. “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.” The diplomatic historian, Herbert Butterfield, saw Christianity’s role more concretely. “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,” he wrote in 1950. “The enemies of religion have owed more to it than than they have ever been able to recognise. 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 subsequent decades have witnessed a curious paradox – on one hand, a visible Church decline; and on the other, an impressive renaissance in thinking about the Church’s presence in the world.
Yet in the 15 years since western society finally saw off the challenge of communist rule, a spiritual vacuum has also opened up, accompanied by a growing hostility towards Christian ethics.
One cause may be a deliberate assault on Christian values by a secularist establishment, which has seen off all competitors and now views churches as a final obstacle to its dream of a utilitarian, profit-led world. Another may be a lack of confidence on the part of churches about competing with cynical liberal elites for the loyalty of a confused, disorientated public. It may be we are still burdened by the legacy of those same 19th-century ideologies, whose modern inheritors assume conflict must be inherent between the realms of reason and faith, science and intuition.
Whatever the explanations, the coming debate over the EU Constitution will be an opportunity for those who believe that a united Europe can still draw inspiration from its Christian heritage.
We know from history – at least we should know – what repudiating this heritage could mean. We also know that the “culture of death” which follows from Christianity’s abandonment will generate a demographic catastrophe within 50 years, with all the attendant consequences for democracy and human rights.
So what kind of Christianity should we be defending? Clearly, it must be a Christianity which respects the continent’s pluralistic character, and accepts the humanistic potential of world views which differ from its own – a Christianity that combines strong moral values and spiritual aspirations with a concern for the poor and excluded.
This is the kind of Christianity which can be, and is being, defended by European Jews and Muslims, who rightly see Christian churches as allies and partners.
When mosques and churches were attacked in the Netherlands this November after the film director Theo van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic militant, the country’s Catholic bishops published an open letter to Dutch society.
They wrote: ‘’Far from feeling opposed to Islam, the Catholic Church shares the experience of being religious in a secularising society. 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 of 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.” Sentiments like these should provide a good starting point for the referendum debate.
Jonathan Luxmoore is a journalist covering Church affairs in Europe. This article is based on a recent talk for the Keston Institute at Oxford’s Regent Park College.