Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, recently spoke at a meeting to honor the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Union. He diagnosed the state of Europe as being under the influence of a deep spiritual malaise. People have lost sight of their roots and the Christian religious heritage that shaped their culture. Their sense of identity is lost. The malaise is aggravated by the mass migration, economic troubles and terrorism that have washed over Europe in the past few years. This has shown itself in the recent turn to populist politicians both in Europe and the United States.
Parolin argues that people look for substitutes and palliatives to respond to the anxiety that is felt by many people, especially the young, as a result the European soul has been covered over by a culture of consumerism. He asks Europeans not to forget their Christian religious heritage which is the common element of European identity and culture.
Related to this has been a spate of books and articles about “post-Christianity”. These books and articles assume that Christianity has had its day. In this era of secularization, globalization and exploding technology Christian beliefs just don’t cut it anymore. The authors suggest a variety of responses to post-Christianity. Some celebrate, while others mourn. Still others attempt to find a way for Christianity to speak meaningfully to the present reality. Some see Christianity heading toward an apocalyptic end. Others advocate withdrawal from the chaotic cultural matrix that produces the alleged spiritual malaise. Others attempt to find some way to meaningfully engage contemporary culture.
The apocalyptic crowd sees little hope for contemporary culture. In their eyes, it has gone so far off the tracks that it can’t do anything else but come crashing down. They argue that every aspect of contemporary culture is almost the exact opposite of what Scripture describes as moral and righteous. The only thing that will cure the disease that is contemporary culture is its death. They envision a time when Christians are persecuted not by radicals from other religious communities but by secular authorities who reject any form of religion.
The second group I wrote about in prior columns, when talking about the “Benedict option”. This group hasn’t given up all hope but finds it difficult trying to meaningfully engage contemporary culture. There is a fear of being corrupted by the enticements and social pressure of contemporary culture. They advocate a strategic withdrawal from contemporary culture. This is referred to as the Benedict option. As Europe began to transition out of the late Roman era and into the early Medieval period, monasticism took root in Europe. It was a retreat from the barbarism and chaos of the era into communities of monks and nuns, who attempted to create ideal Christian communities in the European hinterlands. St. Benedict is associated with this movement, as his community and Rule became the norm for many who followed this path. These monastic communities kept Roman culture and learning alive in their libraries and schools, while focusing on Christian practice and belief. Those who advocate for a contemporary “Benedict option” haven’t totally given up on contemporary culture but argue for preserving Christian culture uncorrupted by contemporary culture to the extent possible.
The third group doesn’t view contemporary culture as the enemy but as the product of European history and its Christian heritage. For example, while the apocalyptic group views same sex marriage as a direct attack on God’s plan for marriage, this group sees same sex marriage as an issue of inclusiveness and justice. This doesn’t deny that same sex marriage is unacceptable by the Christian tradition but it does tend to take a more compassionate stand toward those individuals who don’t fit within the traditional norm. The concern for inclusiveness and justice are clearly the fruit of Gospel values and the best of Christian tradition.
Another example might be a steady European secularization of society. This needs to be viewed in the perspective of at least a thousand years of religious warfare in Europe where Christians killed Christians by the millions and laid waste to society. The European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries brought an end to much of the European religious warfare by separating religion from political power. The secularization of the state allowed for the development of nations that were not always at each other’s throat over religious differences, as well as allowing the Church to focus on faith and morals. While earlier popes have been viewed with suspicion because of political ties, all the popes since St. John XXIII have been viewed as towering moral leaders by most Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Thus, secularization has brought significant benefits to both society and the Church.
This doesn’t deny that it has also presented new challenges. While the church could count on cultural traditions and group identity to catechize each new generation, so that people absorbed their Christian faith almost as easily as they took in oxygen when they breathed, that is no longer the case. Secularization has placed responsibility for passing on the faith squarely in the hands of each generation of parents and pastors. If you are a parent, your children won’t grasp their Christian faith if they don’t see you engaged with your Christian faith. If it means nothing to you, it will mean nothing to them. If you are a pastor, you pass on the content of the faith through the quality of your preaching and the faithful service you provide to the people of your parish. The comfortable pastor, the lazy pastor, the self-satisfied pastor may have a leadership role in the parish but he is failing in that role. These are not easy challenges to address but they are the challenges of discipleship in each generation in each era.
The fundamental challenge perceived by this third group in response to the spiritual malaise of which Cardinal Parolin speaks is to unpack the Christian tradition in ways that effectively speak to the present generation. If people are feeling a spiritual malaise, this is a positive sign, as it shows that there is a hunger deep within their hearts for something more, for something worthy of their lives, their devotion and their discipleship. The task is to reveal the power of the Gospel to this generation, so that they both understand and feel its power in their lives. This is much harder than giving up and waiting for the end or retreating to Christian ghettos and ignoring those who do not share our particular flavor of Christian belief.
I think it is fair to say that one of the things that turns off the current generation of youth is the infighting among some Christian leaders over relative minor issues, such as how to deal with Catholics who don’t fit the ideal mold. When people see hardness of heart in leadership they are turned off; perhaps because they see a spiritual malaise and lack of compassion in their leadership. One of the reasons that Pope Francis is so popular is that he understands this need and does his best to challenge Christians to live the Gospel. He seems to place mercy and compassion at the center of his understanding of Church and tries to convey that mercy in practice.