On the night of the Notre-Dame fire on April 15, 2019, Christians and non-Christians, French nationals and citizens, from all over the world, shared a common feeling of loss. What was lost? A remarkable vestige of Gothic architecture? A sign of national or universal communion? A worldwide known symbol of Christian religion? A metaphor of what the French Catholic Church, exposed to a series of sex abuse scandals (among them, the Preynat affair involving cardinal Barbarin of Lyon and the accusations against Jean Vanier), was currently experiencing? Olivier Roy in Is Europe Christian? indirectly addresses these questions in a very inspiring way. Is Christianity still a foundational element of European identity? How could Christian heritage contribute to revive the European project?
One year later, while the coronavirus has spread all over Europe before reaching other continents, the question raised by Roy seems even more urgent. Will European countries rediscover the course toward unity? How will Europe’s Christian origins be invoked to avert the crisis? How will Christian churches collectively, and their members individually, take part in Europe’s recovery process?
Europe’s capacity to rediscover its “fundamentals” is critically tested here. It is no wonder that the world’s eyes are, more than before the coronavirus pandemic, turned toward Europe, a laboratory of consensus on norms and values. Roy significantly stresses the crucial importance of two “fundamentals”: European liberalism and Christian tradition, both dreadfully affected, even if in a different manner, by the coronavirus crisis. In fact, the Catholic Church, worn out by the successive sex abuse scandals, has difficulty overcoming internal conflicts between clerics and lay faithful, increased by the impossibility of the latter to participate in Eucharistic celebrations.
The coronavirus crisis harshly reveals how secularization ultimately leads political powers to set the place of religions in the public space, as Roy points out. Executive orders across Europe have closed churches and mosques, and prohibited in-person religious services. Forged by a strong clerical identity, revived by the 1980s conservative backlash, the Catholic Church is particularly vulnerable. The confrontation between the Church and the secular states, which had concentrated on sexual norms (abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.) in the past decades, is moving to worship practices and religious freedom. The coronavirus crisis might open a new chapter of the European secularization process, depicted by Roy.
Is Europe Christian? eloquently describes Europe’s centuries-long secularization, highlighting the acceleration of the phenomenon in the 1940s: secularization, dechristianization (decrease of religious practice), and shortage of priestly vocations were concomitant. This evolution is not only historically confirmed, but was yet, at that time, perceived by pastoral agents. Famous books, like France a missionary land? (1943; translated into English in 1949) by Henri Daniel and Yvan Godin, contributed to spread the information. Moreover, Catholic journals, especially those addressed to the clergy, were also vectors of a new awareness of European Christianity’s crisis. Still, comforted by postwar optimism, Christian reformers encouraged new pastoral initiatives and requests for changes, which finally led to the Second Vatican Council.
Thus, I would argue that some paradigmatic anthropological changes were already occurring in the decades preceding Vatican II. Roy skillfully shows how a new system of values, centered around personal freedom, progressively emerged and blossomed around 1968. Following World War II, new requests for freedom came up from Catholics themselves. The front against modernism was no longer united. If avant-gardist priests and religious were often condemned to silence under Pius XII’s pontificate, Catholic lay intellectuals were less constrained and could count on the support of the media to relay their claims.
This new lay magisterium played a decisive role in the evolution of contemporary anthropology. Jacques Maritain’s contribution to the elaboration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was indeed influential. The definition of moral values was no longer the priests’ exclusive privilege. Moreover, lay intellectuals’ demands did not embrace sexual freedom only, but also doctrinal freedom. Anthropological changes were intimately connected with social and cultural evolutions, giving birth to a “new European culture.” In a way, they also favored the development of a new Church culture, characterized by Vatican II’s desire for a dialogue with the world. Such dialogue necessitated the official recognition of the human person’s dignity and freedom by the Church. Anthropological transformations pervaded the Catholic Church’s secularization of its internal structures and encouraged a reconciliation with Europe’s secular ideal.
Roy appears to concentrate his attention more closely on the Catholic side of the story of European secularization. Resistance to secularization mainly came from the Catholic Church. The Church’s self-secularization was only temporary, and, I would add, partial. Paul VI made clear at Vatican II that the issues of birth control and priestly celibacy were of his competence. The rise of social progressivism, which favored a convergence with secular social movements, contrasted with the permanency of moral traditionalism.
In Europe, the 1980s conservative backlash is probably constituted not so much by the apparition of a new moral conservatism, but rather by the decline of Catholics’ involvement in social and charity activities. If social justice remained a key notion in John Paul II’s discourse, the growth of “tradismatic” movements—associating doctrinal and liturgical traditionalisms with charismatic practices—turned Catholics away from social activism. These “new ecclesial movements,” such as the Opus Dei or the Legionaries of Christ, combined clerical and lay forces, and were the main agents of John-Paul II’s pro-life policy. Interestingly, Pope Francis, without shifting the view on abortion, is promoting a reformist alliance between family and social values. His revitalization of a Catholic social justice agenda, together with softening restrictions on sexual discipline, provokes resistance from within the Church itself on both sides of the Atlantic.
In this context, how does the Church react to the appropriation of some of her symbols—the cross, nativity scene, among others—by rising populist forces in Europe? Answers from the Catholic ranks are often ambiguous. One can surely observe strong oppositions to a secularization of religious symbols, coming from Catholic officials in particular. On the other hand, when it comes down to concrete reality, alliances between European populists and Catholics can occur: paradoxically, the secularization of religious symbols allows a new cultural presence of the religious in the public sphere. This form of presence is often found preferable to relegating religion to the private sphere for Catholics of the most secular countries, like France. Moreover, this evolution coincides with a revival of popular piety in the Catholic Church. Notably, Pope Francis insists on the contribution of religions, and popular piety especially, to popular culture. In a way, popular piety—pilgrimages, devotion to local saints, or the prayer of the rosary, for instance—can be considered the central locus of negotiation between religious and secular values.
Is Catholic disengagement from social justice responsibilities irreversible? As I have outlined above, encouraging stronger social commitments principally comes from the top of the Church hierarchy, namely from Pope Francis. Catholic opinion remains divided around the migration question, the most conservative proponents sharing populists’ xenophobic views. Ecology is certainly a much more unifying issue.
The current coronavirus crisis might revitalize Christian social activism, as a new concern for the dignity of the human person, especially the most vulnerable—the elderly, the migrant, the low-income worker—surfaces. If family norms and values nevertheless continue to be highly divisive in European society, a renewed consensus around social values might arise. Christians’ contribution to the assertion of solidarity and social justice is critical for the future of the European project. Such a contribution depends greatly on the Catholic Church’s capacity to surmount her internal divisions, and give priority to the common good and the economic and social reconstruction in Europe after the coronavirus pandemic.
On the night of the Notre-Dame fire, hope had dawned that unity might rise from the ashes of the cathedral. The monument has not been rebuilt yet, and the coronavirus pandemic will certainly cause delays, but Notre-Dame’s universal mourning on the night of April 15 remains engraved in many memories. There is still hope for Europe if she accepts to be part of larger, universal solidarities. There is still hope if she revives her universalistic ideals and promise of solidarity. “We have no choice but to go back to fundamentals,” concludes Roy. His words offer a path for overcoming the crisis.