Europe Suffering From Spiritual Malaise

ROME — In his book The Europe of Benedict: In the Crisis of Cultures, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger proposed a role model for today's irreligious Europe — St. Benedict of Norcia.

For the cardinal who became Pope Benedict XVI, it is no coincidence that the Benedictine Order, founded by the sixth-century monk, saved Western Europe from a descent into barbarism after the fall of the Roman Empire and subsequently became the continent's main instrument of learning, literature and cultural revival.

Today, the Holy Father sees that history of decline repeating, but with a new twist. The idea of God, he notes in the book, has all but disappeared from mainstream European culture, with potentially disastrous consequences.

The Europe of Benedict is a compilation of three sermons Cardinal Ratzinger gave between 1992 and 2005 while he was still prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Benedict commented again on the spiritual malaise afflicting Western societies during his vacation last month in northern Italy.

“The mainline churches appear to be dying,” he said during a meeting with the bishop and priests of the diocese of Aosta, the Internet news service reported. “This is true above all in Australia and also in Europe, but not so much in the United States.”

In a speech delivered in Subiaco, the birthplace of the Benedictine Order, the day before Pope John Paul II died, then-Cardinal Ratzinger spoke extensively about Europe's “crisis of culture.” Much of that speech is incorporated in the new book, which cites some of the problems that have resulted from the cultural crisis, including threats to internal security, the dangers of genetic engineering, growing poverty and a decline in “moral energy.”

Europe's Christian roots and identity have been replaced by “modern Enlightenment philosophies,” the Holy Father wrote in The Europe of Benedict. Such philosophies recognize only what can be mathematically or scientifically proven and deny any metaphysical reality, he noted.

Freedom Undermined

Unable to recognize God's existence or objective truth, morality is consequently reduced to a relative concept, leading to a “confused ideology of freedom that leads to dogmatism” and ultimately “to the self-destruction of freedom,” Benedict said.

The Pope cited the growing intolerance of criticism of homosexuality as an example of this phenomenon.

“The concept of discrimination is ever more extended,” he wrote, “and so the prohibition of discrimination can be increasingly transformed into a limitation of the freedom of opinion and religious liberty. Very soon it will not be possible to state that homosexuality, as the Catholic Church teaches, is an objective disorder in the structuring of human existence.”

Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's minister for culture and a philosophy professor, encountered this first-hand last October when the European Parliament rejected his nomination for a seat on the European Commission because of his Christian beliefs — particularly his Catholic views on homosexuality.

Buttiglione blames his rejection on a “nihilistic secularism” that now pervades Europe. And like the Holy Father, Buttiglione regards St. Benedict's legacy as one component of an effective antidote to the injuries that relativism and secularism are inflicting in Europe and in other Western countries.

“What Europe needs most is not so much politics, but the spiritual strength that encourages young people to get married, to find a job, to have children, that helps people to stay together, to forgive each other,” said Buttiglione.

During the Middle Ages, Benedictine monasteries made a similar reconciliation possible after Europe suffered a period of lawlessness and violent conflicts following the disintegration of classical civilization, Buttiglione added.

“[Europeans] came to monasteries to live under the law of St. Benedict, and this meant that it was more human, there was something more of the natural law,” he said. “Our children could marry one another; new nations were formed through baptism and forgiveness.”

Benedictine Father Christopher Jamison, Abbot of Worth Abbey in England, believes the monastic tradition can again help foster the spiritual strength needed to renew Europe by providing a “sanctuary” where people seeking a better way of living can find space for silence and prayer away from today's hectic lifestyles.

“The invitation to listen to God, to other people, and to yourself, lies at the heart of the Benedictine vocation,” explained Father Jamison. “And it's that profound listening that St. Benedict offers Europe because Europe has become a noisy place where people are not attentive — they fill up every waking moment with noise so that when there is a moment of silence they have to have background music.”

Father Jamison acknowledged that the monastic tradition can't revolutionize European attitudes all by itself. But, he said, it can serve as an important “stepping stone” by which the continent's masses of non-believers and “un-Churched” Catholics can rediscover the spiritual, moral and cultural heritage bequeathed to them by Catholicism.

“They might step back into their own context and begin exploring joining the Church,” he said. In this way, the monasteries could again be invaluable for “saving the soul of Europe.”

Reality Check

Powerful support for Father Jamison's perspective came from an unexpected quarter this spring. His abbey was the subject of a surprisingly popular BBC reality show broadcast in May, in which a group of men with little or no knowledge of Catholicism spent six weeks living as monks.

“What the program offered was a picture of five very modern men, stepping back from [modern life] to live in a sanctuary that had been created by the Rule of Benedict and which they were then invited to internalize,” the abbot said. “When they internalized this sanctuary, enormous changes began to occur in their lives.”

“[The public] loved the programs,” Father Jamison added. “They wrote to us, they came to visit us on our retreat program and the comments they've made about how they had touched their lives in a profound way, which has changed their whole approach to life, have been very, very striking.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.