American Lessons From Europe's Fall
“In the middle of the journey of my life” unexpectedly I was able to take several months of sabbatical from my normal pastoral work in Washington, D.C., in order to write a book on conversions and evangelization. I am here now in London, part of a country once known as the dowry of Our Lady.
London, it turned out, was the perfect choice. As one who has spent decades voraciously reading English history and literature, what could be better than to live, work and sightsee in one of the great cities in the world? England is a country with so many ties to the United States culturally, both enemy and ally in war and peace, even unto this day.
I'm living in the borough of Hamp-stead surrounded by the houses of Beatrice and Sidney Webb (founders of Fabian Socialism and in-laws of Malcolm Muggeridge), of Sigmund Freud (founder of American modern culture, judging from what I saw of the Super Bowl halftime show) and a mile or so away from Karl Marx's grave site. All of this leads to musings on “the big picture.”
Some weeks ago, I gave a two-part talk at Oxford on the 2003 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (The Church in Europe), a document I am sure few American Catholics have read. It makes for grim reading, but reading and musing upon it is important for us across the pond. Europe these days is “within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.“ And the question for the United States is whether, with God's grace, we are going to fight and win our own current culture wars in the decades ahead that can lead to a “new civilization of love and truth” or are we going to follow the path of Europe into the deepest abyss of the culture of death?
Europe's Rise and Fall
To put the current situation in context, we might roughly divide up Europe's history in this way: [L50776] The rise of Christianity from 33-500;
• The rise of Christianity from 33–500;
• The conversion of the Barbarians from 500-1100;
• The Middle Ages and Renaissance from 1100-1550;
• The Protestant revolution, Enlightenment and rise and fall of ideology 1550-2000; and
• The new paganism, Islamic resurgence/new Christian evangelization in the context of globalization from 2000 to the present.
The Holy Father explains in the document the current situation of Europe:
“I would like to mention in a particular way the loss of Europe's Christian memory and heritage, accompanied by a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history. It is no real surprise, then, that there are efforts to create a vision of Europe that ignores its religious heritage and, in particular, its profound Christian soul, asserting the rights of the peoples who make up Europe without grafting those rights onto the trunk that is enlivened by the sap of Christianity.”
This indeed is the Europe I have encountered during my travels during the last decade or so.
In many ways, it is like a huge well-run museum of Christendom complete with cathedrals, monasteries, paintings, sculptures and even folk customs and festivals. This all comes from Europe's often-glorious 2000-year run as the heart of the Christian culture and religion from which it spread throughout the world.
There are a few bright spots here and there, but generally there reigns among the people the “agnosticism and religious indifference” that is fed on one hand by the bourgeois affluence of Western Europe and on the other, by the almost 50 years of economic depression and oppressive dictatorships in the East.
Europe is tired, and its people are chiefly concerned with the present as evidenced by their lack of creativity, their embracing of the enveloping welfare state and above all by their remarkable reluctance to procreate. With the influx of Islamic workers and the current rates of fertility, one begins to see that it is not a question of whether “Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe,” as Belloc put it almost a century ago, but rather if within 50 years Europe will be at all.
The Pope seems to agree:
“This loss of Christian memory is accompanied by a kind of fear of the future. Tomorrow is often presented as something bleak and uncertain. The future is viewed more with dread than with desire. Among the troubling indications of this are the inner emptiness that grips many people and the loss of meaning in life. The signs and fruits of this existential anguish include, in particular, the diminishing number of births, the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and the difficulty, if not the outright refusal, to make lifelong commitments, including marriage.”
Why has this happened?
I see it as the inevitable development flowing from the sundering of Christendom and, apart from a brief spike of recovery coming out of the Catholic reformation, a gradual decline of Christianity and its influence on culture and politics to the point that a “united” Europe cannot even acknowledge its Christian roots in the current debate on the content of the European constitution. Complete moral relativism, yes; Christ and Christendom, no. There is no real hope in a secular sense, only a vague sensual existentialism.
Now you might say, can it really be that bad? Who knows what miracles God will work over time or even quicker (John 11:43-45)? Certainly the Church never gives up on its wayward children. The salvation of even one soul is worth the effort; the greatest signs of life and hope in Europe I have seen lie in the presence of the newer ecclesial movements and institutions.
They, in their turn, can help revitalize the decreasing vocations to diocesan priesthood and religious life. They are the bright lights shining in the darkness. Movements such as Foccolare, Regnum Christi, the Neocatechumenate, and Communion and Liberation stand out among many others in the apostolic zeal in carrying out the New Evangelization.
The Pope makes special mention of them: “Such groups, in fact, help Christians to live a more radically evangelical life. They are a cradle for different vocations, and they generate new forms of consecration. Above all, they promote the vocation of the laity, and they help it to find expression in different spheres of life. They favor the holiness of the people. They are able to be both the messenger and the message for people who otherwise would not encounter the Church.”
The signs and fruits of this existential anguish include, in particular, the diminishing number of births, the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and the difficulty, if not the outright refusal, to make lifelong commitments, including marriage.”
— Pope John Paul II
A Shift South?
The spiritual illness of Europe might be terminal, at least speaking in the short run of the decades ahead. This would not be the first time a great swath of Christendom came to ruin. After all, the Middle East, Asia Minor and Northern Africa were once flourishing centers of Christianity.
Could it be, as the noted historian Philip Jenkins posits, that the future of Orthodox Christianity in this century lies “south“ — in the continents of South America and Africa?
I think that might well be the case in God's providence. But that brings us back to the present-day empire — the United States — and the immense struggle we are waging for the soul of our country.
This war is more important than the war against Islamic terrorism. Our weapons are, above all, prayer, the sacramental life and our willingness to live the fullness of the Christian life in our family, professional, social and political life.
St. Thomas More, whose cell in the Tower of London I recently visited, gives us a wonderful example to follow in that regard. His example as a statesman, lawyer and man of letter was outstanding, but his devotion to his family, prayer life and to the Church is even more impressive. It may well be that we or our immediate descendants will lose our heads, but we also could be the ones who bring Catholicism back to the Europe from whence it came to us. Only time will tell.
Father C.J. McCloskey III (www.frmccloskey.com) is a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.
- April 25-May 1, 2004