The Church in Europe Must Stop Being Nostalgic and Look to the Future, Vatican Expert Says
Journalist Andrea Gagliarducci, author of a book marking the 50th anniversary of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, says Christianity’s future there lies in fostering ‘creative minorities.’
In a dramatically de-Christianized Europe, it is no longer time for nostalgia for religious leaders, but for the active construction of creative minorities. This is what Andrea Gagliarducci, Italian journalist and Vatican expert, asserts in the conclusion of his book dedicated to the fifty years of existence of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE).
Prefaced by the Council’s president between 2016 and 2021, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, Cristo speranza dell’Europa, 50 anni della Chiesa europea tra passato e futuro (Christ, Europe’s Hope: 50 years of the European Church Between Past and Future) offers keys for reflection on the vocation of this institution in the light of its history, marked at its beginnings by the profound changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council within the Church, and then by the collapse of the continent’s communist regimes.
In this interview with the Register, Gagliarducci — a seasoned Vatican analyst for EWTN’s Catholic News Agency and ACI Stampa — discusses the relevance of such an institution in today’s world, as well as the great challenges awaiting the Catholic Church in Europe in the coming years.
What is the real influence of the CCEE in today’s Europe, where the Church is constantly losing ground? What is its vocation and relevance?
If we are looking to some sort of political impact, it is hard to claim that there is any. The CCEE gathers together the bishops’ conferences from all over Europe, but it hasn’t so far had coordinated efforts to have an impact as a whole. It is rather a sort of group that finds common grounds and issues, but then leaves every bishops’ conference to make its way. For instance, family issues are always a big part of the discussions, but then every bishops’ conference, in its own nation, finds a way to carry the issue on.
The real vocation of the CCEE is to establish a working group on pastoral issues. Since the beginning, it was conceived as a sort of club of friends, as European bishops found out they had common history, values and challenges during the Second Vatican Council.
But let me add this: Although the CCEE work has no visible impact, I would say that its existence was important for Europe, because at least it showed the bishops they were not alone. It is important now, it was even more important when the CCEE was first established and Europe was still divided by the Iron Curtain.
What are the big challenges that the Conference faces today, compared to 50 years ago?
50 years ago, despite half of Europe being under atheistic and anti-religious regimes, there was still a religious sentiment that found in religions its main expression. The secularization was not as developed as it is today. Nowadays, secularization not only developed, but also became step by step increasingly more aggressive. 50 years ago, the Church-speak — let us call it this way — was not as demonized as it is today. Today, there is a new-speak that, in fact, kills everything. The Church’s message has not changed. The world has changed. The war tools are more refined. Christianity risks being culturally wiped out of the continent.
And this is the biggest challenge, I’d say. It is not anymore about being together and giving a contribution to build Europe. The Church can’t even contribute any more or, if it does it, it has to do it the way of the world. Otherwise, the Church becomes a victim of visible and subtle attacks.
On the question of religious freedom, which has been prominent in an unprecedented level since the founding of CCEE, what tools does the conference have at its disposal to defend its flock?
The theme of religious freedom was a powerful tool that the Holy See gave to the bishops and that Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, St. John Paul II, helped to develop. While participating in the Helsinki Accords that led to the establishment of the OSCE, the Holy See proposed a paragraph on the respect of religious freedom in every country involved in the discussions and in the future organization. It was a kicker, since the paragraph also compelled the Soviet Union to comply with it. And the Soviet Union, the promoter of the talks and in fact the country that invited the Holy See, accepted the inclusion of that paragraph. Cardinal Wojtyła, who was at the time archbishop of Krakow, immediately saw the opportunity to hammer the Communist system via the religious freedom tool. He brought the issue to the CCEE’s table, and European bishops also figured it was an opportunity for them to speak.
I dare to say that the shared understanding of the importance of religious freedom contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall some 15 years later. The fact that bishops spoke out on the issue of religious freedom, caught the moment and exploited it, has become a sort of precedent. Nowadays, it is a powerful tool whenever faith is discriminated against or attacked. It is incredible to say, but it also happens in Europe.
The title of your book — Christ, Europe’s Hope — refers to John Paul II’s post-synodal exhortation Ecclesia in Europa. Why did you choose this title?
John Paul II understood that, with the fall of the Berlin wall, Europe was going to be a real focus for the bishops. Things were going to change, and the transition from the communist regime to freedom was going to be hard. He summoned two special Synods about Europe, the first in 1991 and the second in 1999. The first was about acknowledging what was going on, the second was about fixing some issues and reaching out for the future. It was interesting to me that the post-synodal exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, published in 2003 (four years after the second synod) had this focus on Christ as the hope for Europe. There has been a lot of talk about re-evangelization, secularization and new challenges. Not only that document has clues on all of the modern issues, but it also provides an antidote to them, that is Christ. So, the title of the book is both an homage to John Paul II, who already helped as a cardinal to boost up the CCEE; and an homage to the prophecy of John Paul II in foreseeing the challenges of today.
You also develop the idea that the European divide, which was once between East and West, is now between North and South. What are the dynamics of such divide, and what impact does it have on the Church?
When I speak about East and West and North and South, I am not just speaking about geography. The East-West dialectic was very present during the time of the Iron Curtain, and it was clear that the world in the West was experiencing a quota of freedom and wealth that the people on the East could not experience. East and West talk about the differences between a free society and a State-driven society. North and South talk about the difference between developed and less developed societies. Now that the Iron Curtain has fallen, there are still differences between East and West, and sometimes it seems that one cannot get rid of the Eastern mentality when visiting some countries previously on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
However, this difference is always more faded, while the economic imbalances increased enormously. One gap has fallen, and yet it is still present. The other gap has exploded. The impact on the Church has been huge, as the Church has not resolved the East-West gap yet. There is a long path of reconciliation (with history, first of all) ahead. Countries in the Eastern Europe still think that countries in the West have not gotten what they have been through. So, the bishops and priests, with their knowledge and initiatives, are still working on healing the wounds of the past. In the meantime, they need to take care of the new imbalances, they have to take care of the first needs of the people. These people in need cannot care less of the wounds of the past, and neither the people in wealth can. As a result, the Church in Europe is still committed to finding a real balance on how to address the two gaps and end imbalances. Not an easy task, I know.
Noting the fact that “Christianity has shaped Europe and vice versa,” you write that looking to the past does not serve to reclaim a glory that no longer exists. What role should the Catholic Church play in the future of the Old Continent?
The Catholic Church can be the future of the continent if the Catholic Church works as the Catholic Church. When I speak about a no longer existing glory of the past, I want to say that way too often there is a certain nostalgia of the times when the Church was glorious and heard. This nostalgia has to end, because we are not living in that world now.
But the Church is committed to building a new world. It has to be. The role for the Church today, in my view, is that of feeding and nurturing the creative minorities of Catholics in every country. Many small creative minorities will build a greater community of Christians committed to politics, society, and culture. However, there is the need for creative minorities first. Which means that the Church has not to look for the big numbers, but is now called to look for the right numbers. That is, people who really believe and really have the mentality to build a new world. If the Church will do that, it will not only survive, but will generate a new generation and hope can be restored. Otherwise, the Church will be marginalized and, finally, not heard at all, considered just one voice, and a small one, among the others.