The view from the ground.

Benedict’s Crusade

Can the Pope bring God back to Europe?

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

The Vatican’s recently-founded Pontifical Council for New Evangelization seems at first glance to be a somewhat redundant enterprise. Isn’t the Catholic Church already pretty good at spreading the faith? Not in its own backyard, it turns out.

According to the Vatican’s statistics, the number of Catholics worldwide in the past ten years has increased at a healthy 11 percent clip, faster than the global population as a whole. But that’s largely been driven by a 33 percent increase in the Catholic population in Africa. Meanwhile, in traditionally Catholic countries like France and Germany, church attendance has dropped below 20 percent. In the cathedrals of Paris, tourists now regularly outnumber churchgoers. And in Ireland, where just 30 years ago 91 percent of the population went to mass regularly, local dioceses are suddenly bereft of laity and leadership: church pews are empty and hundreds of priests are dying every year with no one to take their place. In the words of the Irish religion journalist David Quinn, "It’s not a crisis, it’s a catastrophe and it’s happened in a generation."

The Vatican’s new official administrative apparatus is, in fact, committed to the unprecedented, and ostensibly quixotic, task of combating that catastrophe. Its sole goal is the re-evangelization of Europe. The council will shape the Vatican’s messaging and direct European churches in their efforts to steer the public back towards the "perennial truth of the Gospel of Christ" and away from an "eclipse of God." It’s tasked with finding and implementing methods, both pastoral and political, to convince Europeans to put Christ back at the center of their lives. Not surprisingly, the Vatican has faith that it can turn back the secular tide. But it’s also going to have to show a newfound willingness to compete for believers, and, even then, it will probably need a good dose of luck.

With the odds so stacked against it, the new council begs the question: why Europe? As Catholicism continues to spread rapidly in the global south, the European continent — with its aging population and diminishing political influence — seems a curious strategic priority for a global institution like the Vatican. Scholars and laymen alike used to think that Europe’s secularism epidemic was spreading: soon everyone would follow in exchanging prayer beads and crucifixes for fast food and sitcoms. But Europe proved the exception rather than the rule. The United States didn’t secularize, and most of the rest of the world grew steadily more, rather than less, religious during the late 20th century.

So why devote resources to a problem that seems unlikely to spread? While Europe’s growing secularism may be the "exceptional case," as British sociologist Grace Davie has deemed it, it is a concern exceptionally close to Pope Benedict, both to his personal career and his theological reflections.

The German-born Pope Benedict XVI (nee Joseph Ratzinger) has long held fast to the goal of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, to preserve "the Christian roots of Europe and its Christian soul."

As John Paul’s prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger became the Vatican’s key player in 2004 in the battle over the preamble to the European Constitution, a document that was supposed to be a symbol of the continent’s "ever closer union."

While many political representatives at the constitutional convention insisted that Europe remain secular, the Vatican lobbied hard for the document to reflect the continent’s millennium and a half of Christian history. Europe, Ratzinger argued, was not a geographic or political concept, but a "cultural and historical" one, founded on Christianity. He and the Vatican ultimately had to settle for the compromise phrase: "the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe."

Subsequently, Benedict’s papacy has had a particular emphasis on Europe. Cardinal Ratzinger chose his pontifical name partly in honor of Pope Benedict XV, the early-20th-century pope who sought to bring peace to a continent devastated by World War I, and partly in honor of St. Benedict of Nursia, whom Ratzinger, reflecting on his choice of name, called "the co-patron of Europe," and described as "a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization." Since ascending to the throne of Peter, Benedict has made 16 foreign visits. Ten have been to European countries.

The pope is motivated by a deep concern that Europe’s spiritual foundation is slipping away, taking with it the continent’s future, both earthly and eternal. This concern lay behind both his reservations about Turkey’s prospective EU membership and his infamous 2006 Regensburg lecture, in which — with prose both dense and controversial — he voiced reservations about Islam’s adherence to human reason. But, apparently, the pope now deems the threat of secularism more urgent than that of Islam.

Addressing the members of the European People’s Party in 2006, Benedict observed that there was now a "fairly widespread" culture in Europe "which relegates to the private and subjective sphere the manifestation of one’s own religious convictions." This "deliberate promotion of religious indifference or practical atheism," as he calls it in his encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, threatens development and democracy, liberty, and equality.

He does not, of course, imagine that Europe is about to slide back into the totalitarian nightmares of the past. But Benedict does warn that without conception of inalienable human dignity, a people are apt to commit horrible abuses against one another and themselves. Absent religion, what resources does our culture have to stop medical science, for example, from entering into gene manipulation, human cloning, or use of human fetuses for research purposes? In the pope’s geopolitical vision, Europe, because of its Christian heritage, is an ideal defender of human dignity on the world stage.

Benedict’s and the Vatican’s concern with evangelizing Europe, then, is not simply a matter of increasing congregation sizes, still less of hauling the center of Catholic gravity back north and west. Rather, it is a concern with the dissolution of the social and political foundations of the continent and of the world at large. New Evangelization is as much about strengthening the church’s ties to its spiritual roots, thereby protecting Europe’s political and religious future, as it is about merely putting butts in seats.

It’s not often that the Vatican introduces a new administrative arm devoted to such a parochial cause. By making European secularization a major political priority, Benedict has demanded that some of the Church’s most powerful and respected players — including Italian bishop Salvatore Fisichella, who heads the council — work together on solving the problem and speak with one voice when addressing it. Presumably, they will also be held responsible for producing results.

But those results might demand a "free market" solution for which the Vatican is wholly unprepared. The recent best-selling book by Economist editors Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait, God is Back, argues that the only way religious belief will flourish is if churches are disestablished and religious "markets" liberalized. They cite numerous successful examples of this market model from around the world, not least the United States, where religious freedom and religious vitality apparently go hand in hand. They bolster their argument with a counterfactual example from European religious history — the all-but-monopolistic religious markets of the 18th century, where the well-fed establishment clergy had been "bribed into indolence" and attitudes to Christianity were notoriously lax and apathetic.

One of the few European religious success stories of recent years is that of independent churches, commonly evangelical or Pentecostal, run by so-called "pastorpreneurs" who can create, innovate, and follow the religious market wherever it leads. New Life Church, City Life Church, Hillsong, Elim Pentecostal Church, The Lighthouse, Glory House — the variety of independent churches in Europe’s large urban centers is now bewildering for those who hold fast to the dominance of established churches.

The demand-side market is perhaps the very antithesis of Vatican culture, whose hierarchy sees itself as the guardian of a unique spiritual truth. The centralized and hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is thus both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gives Catholic Christianity a structure and unity that allows it to disseminate its message — not least its message about the inalienable dignity of human beings — with clarity and force. On the other, it prevents local priests and pastors from operating with the sort of autonomy that might be essential to spur dramatic re-evangelization.

In that way, the success of Catholic "New Evangelization" in Europe might turn out to require a decentralized church structure that would weaken the very message that, in Pope Benedict’s view, makes such evangelization necessary in the first place. That dilemma would make the new Pontifical Council’s job very difficult indeed.


Nick Spencer is director of studies at Theos, a public theology think tank in London.

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