In his new book, Is Europe Christian?, Olivier Roy continues his reflection on the deterritorialization of religion in modernity by exploring its consequences on the relationship of Christian values to European politics. The book is fresh with the sort of illuminating and often wry ironies that mark Roy’s mastercraft and that have long been an inspiration to countless scholars of religion and politics (myself included). He points to a sort of unholy trinity animating religion, politics, and society in contemporary Europe, with poles marked out by secularists, practicing Christians, and populists (or what he terms “national identitarians”). The question of Islam in Europe has revealed these poles to be fundamentally incommensurate, in large part, Roy argues, because the deal struck between Christianity and democratic modernity in the 1960s is no longer tenable. Both secularists and identitarians have internalized an understanding of moral relativism that is irreconcilable with the Catholic Church’s system of values, leaving the Church largely in reactive mode. (In Roy’s account, mainline Protestants have essentially disappeared into the secular mainstream and contemporary European Evangelicals are, de facto, viewed as deterritorialized entities.)

As a result, Roy is generally pessimistic about the future of Catholic politics in Europe. The post-1960s forces he describes have invariably consolidated the secular normativity of Europe and its legal authority over religious questions, reducing the remnant Christian faithful to an increasingly misunderstood minority. In short, Roy paints a portrait of the end of the Christian religion in Europe  (as opposed to religiosity) and the end of religion in general.

I want to offer a reflection on two religious developments in contemporary Europe that highlight but also challenge Roy’s account and indicate diverging scenarios for the future of Catholic politics in Europe. The first trend involves a significant reformulation of Catholic values in nationalist terms, as evidenced in the rise of Catholic sovereigntists across Europe and the United States. The second trend involves a significant reformulation of pluralism in Catholic terms, as evidenced in the new dynamics of interreligious dialogue within the Catholic Church and other global religions. Both trends amount to distinctively Catholic readings of post-modernity, which reject its moral relativism and revive public religious arguments. In order to construct these readings, each trend has tried to pair up with either pole of Roy’s unholy trinity, by combining Catholic values with nationalism, as in the first case, or Catholic values and pluralism, in the second.

Church, populism, and the rise of Catholic sovereigntists

Central to Roy’s story is a distinction between identity and values, a dichotomy he uses to describe the gulf between the use of Christian identity by European populists (especially viz Islam) and the theological opus and instincts of the institutional church. Drawing on populist figures like the Le Pens in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Roy observes that identitarians are happy to laud the Christian past and current social landscape to the extent to which they affirm national culture. These same populists, however, reject the religious content of religion itself. Populists, he points out, tend to be nonpracticing Christians who do not pray, regularly attend church, or publically engage in Catholic values discourse. As he writes, “The vast majority of populists insist on a secular culture and do not challenge the achievements of the 1960s.” Therefore, the use of religious symbols by populists “empties these signs of their religious significance.”

And yet, one of the more interesting developments within Catholic politics over the last couple years has been the development of a religious, and specifically Catholic, argument for nationalism, one that has infused populist arguments with an explicit political theology that actively draws on Catholic values. The “Against the Dead Consensus” manifesto published last year by First Things goes a long way to articulating this idea and the way in which it has been embraced by a number of conservative Christian intellectuals in Europe and the United States (and rejected by others). As the manifesto states, “we embrace the new nationalism insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world that, in practice, leads to universal tyranny.” This “new nationalism” has manifested itself in a number of high profile conferences, including the National Conservatism series. These events have brought together intellectuals who signed the manifesto, like Rod Dreher and Patrick Deneen, along with similar-minded European intellectuals like Ryszard Legutko and Roberto de Mattei, and connected them with the populists themselves, including Marion Maréchal (Front National), Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d’Italia) Matteo Salvini (Lega) and Viktor Orbán (Fidesz).

The new nationalists represent one way of connecting the dots in Roy’s work. They expand a philosophical and theological attack on liberalism and individualism that Roy associates with the 1960s sexual revolution. They argue that cosmopolitan elites have institutionalized a regime of moral relativism, particularly through the courts of the EU, and have gradually criminalized the religious claims Christianity might make over individual believers. As such, the new nationalists’ embrace of the nation state is presented as a defense of (national) religious freedom from the tyranny of (global, cosmopolitan) secularism.

Nationalism, in this account, represents a means to reclaim the traditional, religious identity of the nation in such a way that reverses “the eclipse of permanent truths,” and restores moral values and political virtues. In making these arguments, new Christian nationalists advocate for policies—like a return to family-centered working class politics—that align Catholic philosophical critiques of liberalism with contemporary populist politics and current cosmopolitan/sovereigntist divides. In short, new Christian nationalists bridge the gulf between Catholic values and Christian national identities.

There are important generational differences here, with parallels to religious political experiences elsewhere (as in the cases of Israel and Palestine), in which we can observe a new generation of religious nationalists substantiating a cultural understanding of religion with a theological one. Roy notes but does not make much of the differences between Marine Le Pen and her niece, Marion Maréchal, on this account. In Italy, even more striking is the religious evolution of the Lega Nord from Umberto Bossi—who adopted a pagan nationalist mythology and had choice words to say about both the “Polish Pope Wojtyla” and the German one afterwards—and Matteo Salvini. While Salvini’s rosary-kissing stunts may be seen as just that, he has framed his public actions carefully, even on immigration, as being theologically coherent with the Gospels. With his recent move to challenge the state over Covid-19 church closures, Salvini makes public religious claims that channel religious sentiments felt by many Catholics in Italy.

Catholic politics and interreligious dialogue

So one way of publicly countering the self-secularization forces highlighted by Roy has been developing a thicker theological and religious account of nationalism that has brought identitarians and Christian intellectuals closer together in places like Poland, Hungary, Italy, France, and the United States. We could also observe a very different response, one that tries to make its religious peace with pluralism in a way that has echoes to the peace that Vatican II sought with democracy.

Throughout the book, Roy brilliantly digs at the paradox that the Catholic Church arrived at a religious synthesis of liberal modernity just as liberal modernity moved on, circa 1968, to embrace a new philosophy of individual choice that would make further syntheses between the two unlikely. Vatican II, in particular its 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), combined a defense of both individual freedom and absolute truth claims about the foundations of morality. Roy reads Pope Paul VI’s subsequent encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) as an affirmation of the second part of that equation and as opening up a post-1968 defensive religious phase that would be carried on by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Under both papacies, the church committed itself, politically and institutionally, to a clear set of non-negotiable values that lay beyond the input of individual choice or reasoned, deliberate consensus-making.

On the one hand, Roy argues that there can be no negotiation on fundamental values for the church, or it risks producing secularity, as in Mark Lilla’s thesis of the “stillborn god” birthed by liberal theology. On the other hand, Roy also argues that the church’s decision to hold the line at Humanae Vitae led to a process of religious sifting that has divided practicing from nonpracticing Christians in increasingly clear fashion. As Roy writes, “The grey areas described by sociologists of religion (regular practice, irregular, occasional, and so on) no longer exist.” This sifting has led to fundamental misunderstandings by secular liberals about the nature of religion itself. Secularists, Roy argues, misread the capacity of religion to negotiate and therefore do not understand the hostility incurred when they argue that the Quran should be revised, that infants should not be circumcised, or that women must be ordained priests.

While “negotiation” may not be the best term to describe the complex theological consultations of Vatican II, the Council certainly embraced new theological positions (i.e., on human freedom), rejected old ones (like Ex Ecclesiam Nulla Salus), and opened up pathways for new forms of theological and sociological complexity that would require further elaboration. The new dynamics of interreligious dialogue, as my current research explores, could be understood as a similar attempt at synthesis, and part of the on-going process of global religions like Islam and Christianity to come to terms with pluralism in a way that preserves their truth claims.

The discovery of dialogue as a means to embrace a fundamentally positive view of pluralism while still making demanding religious claims on believers in part explains the growing attraction to dialogue by conservative religious actors, including within some Muslim and Evangelical communities, as the recent Alliance of Virtue project highlights. In various ways, the papacy of Francis collects and materializes these tendencies within the Catholic Church. His Human Fraternity Document signed in 2019 with Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb of Al Azhar could be read as an important statement on the compatibility of pluralism, absolute truth claims, and religious solidarity. Thus, while the document is dedicated to the poor, destitute, and marginalized—and promotes equality, interreligious solidarity, and inclusive citizenship—the document also serves as a call to religious revival. As it states, “we affirm also the importance of awakening religious awareness and the need to revive this awareness in the hearts of new generations,” and it blames religious extremism on moral relativism as much as anything else.

At the same time, Francis has studiously avoided the language of “non-negotiables” and promoted an entire new generation of cardinals who are, in theory, more pastoral, who “smell like sheep” and are as close to their home flocks as they are to Rome. This approach would seem to match Roy’s “spiritual reconquest” option for Catholic politics in Europe, as in a church that remembers, as he writes, “the unbearable lightness of being” in order to re-propose itself as a credible generator of territory-specific moral values.

In making these moves, Francis could be seen as elevating the religious experience and intuitions of many Christians, in both the global South and Europe, who incorporate religious attachments and political choices in complex, plural ways that lay outside the politically center-right and religiously charismatic or “tradismatic” designation that Roy gives to most of the Christian remnant in Europe. Critically, many of the new religious movements (as well as many parishes and dioceses), have combined tradismatic forms of religiosity with territory-specific reservoirs of social capital. The discourse and social development of religious movements like Muhammadiyah or NU in Indonesia, the Gülen movement in Turkey, or the Focolare movement within the Catholic Church, indicate, to some extent, the global dimensions of this trend and the centrality of interreligious dialogue within it. The Focolare movement, which has been a forerunner for interreligious dialogue in the Catholic Church, is an important example in this respect, and has essentially conceptualized dialogue as a form of “faithful inculturation” that can lead to civic as well as religious dynamism.

In other words, the religious instincts and experience of interreligious engagement seem to offer a possibility for reconciling pluralism with the church’s “desire for rootedness and inculturation, which alone are able to re-establish the link between the church and a society that has lost faith,” as Roy writes. In short, while there are multiple ways that either trend could fall apart, or lose steam in their own contradictions, new religious dynamism has emerged over the last decade in both nationalist and cosmopolitan guises. As religious political projects, both seek to reconcile faith and identity in Europe again.