At first glance, Olivier Roy’s latest book asks an old and tired question: Is there anything new to be said regarding Europe’s Christian identity? His opening paragraphs do little to allay one’s expectations in this regard. They bring to mind the multiple books and articles from the previous decade spawned by the debate over whether the planned Constitution of Europe should include reference to God or Christianity in its preamble. Yes, the “idea of Europe” is unmistakably Christian: as Hugh Seton-Watson once noted, “the interweaving of the notions of Europe and Christendom is a fact of history which even the most brilliant sophistry cannot undo.” Europe’s political and cultural trajectory has indeed largely been defined by divisions within Christianity and between Christianity and other faiths. Drawing on his now half century-old discussions about Europe’s secularization, David Martin explains that “religion is one reason why older maps exist like older paintings underneath contemporary configurations.”1 The story of Europe’s evolution vis-à-vis Christianity has been told well, many times over.
Roy’s titular question “Is Europe Christian?” also comes across as rather ill-timed, given his initial focus on the European unification project. In the current context of Covid-19, division over issuance of “Euro-bonds” to support the hardest-hit member states has exacerbated already intense rifts over management of the refugee crisis. These rifts in turn sat on the shaky ground of cacophony over bailouts of fellow member states during the European financial crisis. Thus, it seems the more pertinent question to ask is what Europe? The EU’s “fatal flaw,” headlines report, has been revealed: a lack of solidarity. By many accounts today, we have only the shadow of a united Europe.
Yet, Roy’s Is Europe Christian? reinforces the exhortation not to judge a book by its cover (or title), because ultimately his exploration unlocks the more nuanced and timely question of Christianity’s potential relevance to Europe’s future. Roy indicates that “if Europe is to become Christian again, it is in need of prophets, not legislators.” And throughout the text he offers a number of examples of such prophets in contemporary Europe: the French Cardinal Barbarin who was vocal in his stance against the Front National; the then-archbishop of Milan, Dionigi Tettamanzi, who harshly critiqued the forced evacuation of Roma camps in 2009; the Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, who reproached the Austrian populist Freedom Party for using the cross on its anti–immigrant propaganda posters; and the Polish archbishop of Gniezno, Wojciech Polak, who threatened priests with suspension if they took part in an anti–refugee demonstration. Unfortunately, however, such stances and actions are countered by those of far more prominent figures, such as Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban, who also use Christianity but towards opposite ends, against the idea of a unified Europe, and for maintaining a culturally Christian Europe.
In a variation on Roy’s proposition, one might take the point further and ask “if Europe is to become Europe again,” in the way a war-torn Europe was brought together by a handful of mainly (devout) Roman Catholic politicians in the last century, “what use could it make of prophets, or visionaries (whilst many of its legislators are stuck in a newly/renewed nationalistic rut)?” It is especially worthwhile asking this question in relation to Europe’s most recent crises: the financial, the refugee, and the Covid-19 crises—all of which, in their European manifestations, may be better interpreted as crises of solidarity and collective goods. Each of these crises has a critical, and unique, relation to Europe’s Christianity.
Emmanuel Macron’s use of “religious war” terminology in the context of the financial crisis was overstated, but it had its reference point in a clichéd yet not unpopular mental divide between the saints and sinners, the savers and spenders, and the creditors and debtors of (Protestant) north and (Catholic and Orthodox) south, respectively, in Europe. The latter finds scholarly expression in one analyst’s depiction of a “continuum of Christian Ethics during the European Debt crisis.” It also finds popular expression in many citizen complaints on either side of the divide.
But what of religion’s potential role in helping alleviate the symptoms of this financial crisis? In the annual meeting between EU and religious leaders in Brussels in 2013, the latter were presented with rather high expectations by the former: “You the religious authorities, help us with your societal and spiritual contributions, to rediscover the enchantment of our European future and to rebuild the strength of our European soul.” Certainly Christian churches across Europe helped to plug gaps in welfare provision, stepping up their game in tending to basic needs such as food and shelter. From Pope Francis’s calls on European leaders to forgive Greek debt, to individual Christian churches’ local activities, the predominant message emerging from Christian institutions was one of commitment to help the less fortunate. Yet there remained a considerable gap between such messages and the aforementioned expectations: there was no rediscovery of the enchantment of a common European future or the like during the life of the European debt crisis.
But such re-enchantment was also challenged by the fact that financial recovery was not completed before the next crisis hit: that of mass displacement following the uprisings in Arab states in 2011, perilous and often ultimately deadly journeys to cross European borders, and—at best—uncoordinated European management of the influx of immigrants. The management of the crisis experienced by refugees and other immigrants into southern Europe can even more accurately be described as a moral failure of Europe. The lack of will to help your EU neighboring country out of its debts may lead to a questioning of your commitment to European unity; but the failure to help the refugee who suffers in inhumane conditions after risking his life to reach your coasts . . . this casts doubt on your own humanity.
UNHCR estimates that more than 4500 unaccompanied minors are now in Greece. In 2015 Britain pledged to take in 3000 children, but three years later, only around 220 of these children had resettled in Britain. Besides reluctant and highly-selective policies of refugee admittances (only women and children; only highly educated; only Christian, etc.), policies such as the Swiss seizure of refugees’ assets as contributions towards their upkeep, and the Danish “jewelry law” allowing authorities to search for and confiscate refugees’ valuables, all raised fundamental questions regarding the lack of a basic Christian ethic to temper such approaches where lawmakers failed to do so.
Yet, Christianity factored on both “sides” of public approaches to the “refugee crisis”: there was a Christian call to compassion, hospitality, tending to the needs of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), and a call to protect Europe’s Christian identity from incoming Muslims. The simultaneity of both trends reflects what one scholar describes in Grace Davie’s terminology as “believing” versus “belonging” approaches to Christianity in Europe. The first category focuses on tenets of the Christian faith whilst the second champions Christian culture (notably, “the least of these” finds different interpretation by the latter category as “other [fellow Christian] believers in need”). Along these lines, both from their base in Rome and in the same Christian faith, Pope Francis calls for a welcoming of migrants and Matteo Salvini flaunts his Christian cross while actively barring their entry into Italy.
Here, as with the financial crisis, Christian groups have indeed played an active role in lessening the suffering of immigrants and refugees. In addition to the bright examples offered by Roy, there has also been increasing cooperation amongst various Christian denominations seeking to pool resources and know-how for a more effective response. One such is the “humanitarian corridors” initiative, reflecting collaboration between the Sant’Egidio Community, the Waldensian Church, the Methodist Church, the Federation of Evangelical Churches, and the Italian government to offer a safe passageway for refugees from their countries of origin into Europe. Study of this and several other such multi-faith initiatives suggests an enhanced positive impact on refugee integration. It also confirms the need for government financial support of such initiatives, which leads us to one consequence of European secularization: a weakening of ties between states, religions, and, in some cases, of due consideration by states of religions.
The latter is a prominent theme in our third crisis under consideration: Covid-19. In the initial weeks of the pandemic, Christian churches accused their host states of not taking religion seriously enough, either by enforcing their closures during lockdown, or by not lifting the lockdown from churches as a first line of priority. Complaints arose prominently from clerics in Greece, Italy, and France that churches were not included in first rounds of lockdown liftings. Continued bans on religious services while shops are allowed to be open are interpreted as evidence of “the way in which governments and public opinion conceive faith…as a personal matter of no use to the community.” Though many of these bans have since been lifted, government officials struggling to find the right balance between safeguarding public health and respecting human rights are exposed to religious freedoms claims. Threats of litigation are increasingly being waged. Whether such fervor will also be applied to address the poverty and inequalities exacerbated in the wake of Covid-19 remains to be seen.
This last crisis brings us closest to Roy’s concern regarding Christianity’s future role in Europe. Commentators ask “will coronavirus hasten the demise of religion—or herald its revival?,” noting that it has led to the Western world’s first experience of mass death since 1945. Considering it was experience of mass death that gave birth to the European unification project, one may wonder whether Covid-19 holds the potential to revitalize Europe, in fact, if not Christianity.
Roy describes the secularization of Europe as, in part, a loss of moral foundations as rooted in Christianity. The challenges facing European unity today are profoundly moral questions. How European Christianity will emerge from these challenges, and whether loud and effective enough prophets will influence that emergence, remain open questions. The fact that this is a defining moment is undeniable. Christianity in Europe has been pronounced dead many times over. Thus it turns out Olivier Roy’s question is neither too old and tired nor ill-timed, and Roy has breathed new life into the ongoing discussion of Christianity’s place—potential and real—in European life.
Martin, D. (1994) “Religion in contemporary Europe,” in J. Fulton and P. Gee (eds), Religion in Contemporary Europe. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, p.14.↩