Europe’s Uncertain Values: Christianity, Or Secularism And Decline?

Fr. Benedict Kiely Father Bendict Kiely, a native of England, is a Catholic priest. He is a columnist for the international magazine of Catholic Culture, ‘The Saint Austin Review,’ and former columnist for the national English Catholic weekly, ‘The Catholic Times.’
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Recent months have seen, once again, terror and murder on the streets of Europe. Despite the naïve and ignorant words of politicians that these attacks have “nothing to do with Islam,” the fact that they are perpetrated by declared Islamists, in the name of Islam, seems to be an unpleasant fact best ignored. It is rather like a politician claiming that the attempted murder of Margaret Thatcher, at the Brighton Conference, had “nothing to do with Irish nationalism.”

Islamic terrorism, in Paris, London, and of course, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria – the list is almost endless – is the new normal; it will be for some considerable time. Many were moved by the sight of millions marching in Paris after the Islamist attacks, and there was much talk of “European values.” Yet it is worth asking in an increasingly secular Europe, and a Europe legislating against public expressions of faith: just what are these “European values” that apparently unite us in the face of radical Islam?

On a recent visit to England to see my family, on two consecutive days the newspaper described Christians in Britain who had been disciplined or fired for the public display of their faith. The first was a nurse who simply prayed with another person – she lost her job. The second was also a nurse, told not to wear her Cross on duty – she was disciplined. Yet when I arrived at Heathrow Airport, I was interested to see a family being screened at the arrival desk. The mother wore the full hijab – the scarf covering most of her face. The customs officer, a female, also wore the full hijab, covering most of her face. It seems, in practice, the first “European value” to be preserved and celebrated, is the marginalization of public expressions of Christianity and the celebration of the public display of other faiths.

Pope Francis gave one of his most interesting and thoughtful speeches when he addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2014. Most commentators focussed on his description of Europe as “elderly and haggard” – not only because of the demographic winter sweeping across the continent, but critically because of the loss of ideas and ideals. He challenged the legislators, not only in the grotesquely bureaucratic and increasingly despotic “parliament,” but also legislators in the true nation states of Europe.

Noting the increasing concern – and legislation – about ‘human rights and human dignity,’ Francis asked pointedly, “what kind of dignity is there without the possibility of freely professing one’s religious faith?” He described an attitude in Europe – perhaps one of the real “values” lauded by the politicians, which he called a “legacy of the enlightenment,” which just tolerated religion, but believed it to be of “little consequence.”

He described Europe as “no longer fertile and vibrant.” It is no longer fertile because families are not having children, and because of a key European “value” which is sacrosanct and not to be questioned – the “right” to kill the child in the womb. It is no longer “vibrant” because it denies its very foundational roots – the Christian and Catholic faith. It is worth remembering the debate on the European Constitution, something which gravely concerned Pope Saint John Paul II, when no reference was made to the Christian heritage of the continent. A denial of the very foundation of the structure will mean the structure will fail. Speaking at a later date, Pope Benedict XVI said, “As Europe listens to the story of Christianity, she hears her own.”

To forget your “story,” your history, is not a value, but a recipe for cultural suicide.

In Strasbourg, echoing the earlier words of both Saint John Paul and Pope Benedict, Francis identified the key to Europe returning to “vibrancy and fertility” – a “Europe open to the transcendent, appreciating its religious roots.” If aggressive secularism is one of the “values” touted by the gathered politicians – and pushed by academia and the elites who control the media – there will be nothing foundational to weather the storms of ideology and extremism. This is something the liberal/secularist mind-set seems utterly unable to grasp – that it is precisely because of “openness to the transcendent” – acknowledgment that religion not “a problem to be solved,” as Benedict XVI said in the Great Hall of Westminster – that Europe will be, in Pope Francis’ words –“all the more immune to the many forms of extremism spreading in the world today, not least as a result of the great vacuum of ideals we are currently witnessing in the West.”

There is the key to the radicalization of young Muslim men and women in Europe – not poverty, marginalization, poor self-esteem – the “great vacuum of ideals” in a post-Christian West. Let us not forget that the man who murdered the journalist Daniel Pearl, was a graduate of one of Britain’s finest Universities – hardly one of the “deprived and marginalized.” The source and root of Western culture – European culture – is Christianity. The only “values” which can truly unite Europe are values based on their roots, otherwise, Benedict XVI said in a powerful phrase perhaps consciously echoed by Pope Francis, Europe remains in a “state of culturelessness,” which is why “extremist and radical movements emerge to fill the vacuum.”

To discover an antidote, or at least a means of fighting the disease, one must first identify the cause and the symptoms. The modern, secular European state appears to have as the central “value” to unite the populace, “freedom of speech and expression.” Yet this does not extend to a street preacher who hands out pamphlets which condemn homosexuality, or even a nurse who wants to wear a Cross.

It is Europe’s Christian roots which will “supply the continent with the spiritual and moral sustenance to enter into meaningful dialogue with people from other cultures and religions,” wrote Pope Benedict. It is the secularist who is blind to this reality, not the person of faith. Some might argue with Belloc when he said that “either Europe will return to the faith or she will perish,” but a Europe without the Faith will be certainly hard-pressed to find values that truly unite.