Christianity – Alien Presence or Foundation of the West?CHRISTOPH CARDINAL SCHONBORN
I see the situation of Christianity in Europe to be rather exciting and full of opportunity. A foreign body in Europe and also a root: that is the exciting position of Christianity in secular Europe.
If you are to follow my thoughts about Christianity and the West, I will have to call on that openness to the world for which your American tradition is so well known. I will concentrate my comments on Europe, as anything that happens on this continent will impact the United States sooner or later and is thus relevant to carefully observe. My thoughts are more precisely formulated in this question: "is Christianity an alien presence or the foundation of the Europe?" My answer will be that it is both!
On the one hand, Christianity is one of Europe's roots and, to a considerable degree, Europe's future in the world depends on it remaining conscious of that fact. Knowledge of this is decreasing – and alarmingly so.
On the other hand, Christianity is for many a foreign element in a world determined by reason, Enlightenment and democratic principles. My thesis is that this Europe, and the Western world as a whole, will not survive without the foreignness Christianity brings. In other words: Europe can only play its role in the concert of world cultures when it retains Christianity, this foreign body, as a part of its identity.
However, isn't Europe already on the way towards taking its leave of the concert of world cultures? Demographically, for instance. And does this not also have something to do with the fact that Europe has become the least religious continent in the world? Here I would like to quote two Jewish perspectives on the subject.
Jonathan Sacks, the British Chief Rabbi, believes that a culture of "consumerism and its instant gratification" of material desires is responsible for the falling birth rate in Europe. "Europe is dying" Sacks said, according to media reports of a speech held at the beginning of November in London (during the 2009 Annual Theos Lecture given in London last November), because its population is too selfish to raise enough children. "We are undergoing the moral equivalent of climate change, and no one is talking about it."
The highest representative of Judaism in Great Britain described Europe as the most secular region of the world. At the same time it is the only continent experiencing population decline. The Chief Rabbi sees a clear correlation between religious practice and the high regard given to family life. "Wherever you turn today, anywhere in the world, and whether you look at the Jewish or Christian or Muslim communities, you will find the more religious the community, the larger, on average, are its families"
To be a parent involves "a great sacrifice" of money, attention, time and emotional energy, Sacks said and asked "Where today, in European cultures ... will you find space for the concept of sacrifice for the sake of generations not yet born?" The Chief Rabbi compares the development of Europe to the decline of Ancient Greece with its "sceptics and cynics".
Sacks goes on to say that religious belief is fundamental to the cohesion of society: "God is back" he asserts, "and Europe on the whole still doesn't get it." That, he says, is its "biggest single collective cultural and intellectual blind spot".
A second Jewish observation is provided by Joseph Weiler, Professor of European Law at New York University who is himself an Orthodox Jew. In a sensational book he questioned why it is that Europeans are so afraid to acknowledge the evidence that Europe has Christian roots. He spoke of a European "Christophobia". He also sees a correlation between this loss of memory and the demographic development of Europe.
A third spotlight: In October 2007, the Presidents of the European Roman Catholic Bishops' Conferences met for their yearly plenary meeting in Fatima, the Marian place of pilgrimage in Portugal. The theme was on the family in Europe. One of us came straight to the point with what seemed to him, and to many of us, to be a dramatic situation. Could there come a time in the near future when the greater part of European society says to Christians: You are a foreign body amongst us? Your values are not ours. European values are not the same as Christian values. You do not belong to us!
And if that were so? If this came to be? Would that be so surprising? Didn't Judaism feel this sense of foreignness in relation to the ancient kingdoms of the Orient and later on to Christianity? Isn't this foreignness also found at the core of Christianity? "Do not be conformed to this world" (Rom 12.2) the Apostle Paul admonishes the church in Rome. At the Last Supper Jesus said "If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you" (John 15.18). "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul." (1 Peter 2.11) said the Apostle Peter.
They feel like foreigners in this world, despised and rejected. But they accept this foreignness: "Our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil 3.20) says Paul. At the same time they long for the city that is to come (cf. Heb 13.14), the heavenly Jerusalem (cf. Rev 21.10).
These "foreigners" are anything but a sect that cuts itself off from the world. They want to give shape to the world and change relationships by changing people. They call this conversion "metanoia" and for "foreigners" they are very committed to building a more humane society.
How does that look now? Is it this strange mixture of hope in the life-to-come and commitment to the here and now that has given Europe its specific character? Or does Europe begin to find its identity only when it has liberated itself from the paradox of Christianity and from being dependent on the churches.
How does this relate to Europe's Christian roots? The attempt to acknowledge the Christian tradition as an important element of European identity in the preamble to the European Union's constitution failed. The arguments that were given during the discussion about the now-famous preamble were: Europe has become multi-religious and this must be reflected in its constitution. And: This democratic culture founded on reason and Enlightenment had to be won in a bitter struggle against Christianity. Both arguments are well-founded. However, I believe the conclusions drawn from them to be false. This is because their view of the role of Christianity in Europe's history is too one-sided, seen through the lens of certain prejudices and these arguments do not take account of developments within Christianity itself.
The framework within which we can debate our topic is somewhat limited. It seems to me that to do justice to the topic we need to roughly outline the most important historical stages of Christianity and Europe. I am aware that this is an almost impossible task. Any serious historian would advise against it. Even so, I will try, because if we do not take time to reflect on our history our deliberations concerning the present are groundless and without foundation.
So let me attempt to say something about the development of Christianity and Europe by giving examples from the major historical epochs. I will limit myself to the three great periods of Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Modernity. Even so it can only be an outline, an example of the most formative events.
"Christianity emerged in a world which is kept at peace, and at the same time, kept in chains during the Pax Romana. In the first centuries of its expansion, it encounters a universal political religion: the cult of the Emperor". Roman culture had no problem with the integration of foreign religions and these religions had no trouble integrating into the cult of the Emperor.
With one exception: Judaism and, in its wake, Christianity. Soldiers returning from their campaigns brought new cults with them, slaves and freedmen belonged to others. All found their place in the Roman pantheon. Only the Jews and the Christians refused to become one religion among others in the pagan pantheon.
As a result of this they were severely criticized for being hostile to society. Their claim to be the vera religio was seen as arrogant. Both religions were accused of fostering an "odium humani generis", a hatred of the rest of humanity.
There is a paradox in claiming to be the vera religio and at the same time claiming to represent the vera philosophia comprehensible to all rational people. An example of this is the Roman philosopher Justin (who wrote and spoke Greek). In his fascinating dialogue with the Rabbi Tryphon (from around 150) he describes his path to Christian belief. After trying out a good many of the fashionable philosophical schools competing at that time, he was not satisfied with any of them. While walking by the sea, he meets an old man who proclaims another philosophy, the centre of which is Christ. This philosophy captivated him. In it he recognized the true philosophy he had been looking for. Christianity – the true philosophy. Right from the start it is claimed that in the particular revelation through the prophets and Jesus Christ the truth has been revealed, universally valid and accessible through reason (or at least not in contradiction to reason).
The opposition is strong. It will manifest itself politically in great persecutions. Again, martyrdom is seen to confirm that Christianity is the vera religio, the vera philosophia worth dying for. "Sanguis martyrum semen christianorum" says Tertullian (the blood of the martyrs is the seed for new Christians). Given the fact of these great persecutions and hostility expressed in writings, the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the known world and its development into the state religion of the Roman Empire is a miracle. If the word "miracle" is too strong, then at least one must speak of it as being a development that is difficult to explain.
And so we come to the question: How did Christianity, this foreign body, become the root of Europe? This change is often illustrated by means of a scene from the life of the Apostle Paul. It is found in the 16th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. During his second missionary journey Paul finds himself in Troas in Asia Minor. "During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.' When he had seen the vision," wrote Luke, who was accompanying Paul "we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them." (Acts 16.9-10)
And so it was that the Gospel first came to Europe via Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth and finally to Rome where Paul, like Peter, died for his faith.
What was it that came to Europe? A foreign import? An aid? Something that allowed Europe to become what it is? Or something from which Europe had to emancipate itself after a long process of Enlightenment, something it must continue to do today in order to free itself from foreign authorities?
Now that this "emancipation" is about to become a reality, concerned voices are raised that warn of the consequences of a de-Christianization of Europe. Upon closer examination we can find many examples of the fruits of these Christian roots.
I will mention three elements specifically:
At this point, I suspect there will be massive protests: Didn't modern man have to win his freedom through a long and laborious struggle against Christianity? Isn't what was once the strength of Europe's Christian roots, not rather a dogmatic and moral barrier to freedom?
We must turn to this question in the second and third part of this text when we look at the Middle Ages and Modernity.
So far I have taken three elements to illustrate what new things were brought to Europe by Christianity: the idea that man is made in the image of God, the idea that the human family is one and the idea that we have been given the gift of freedom. I could also name many others such as our understanding of time as being linear and not cyclical, that is the birth of history; an understanding
of work as illustrated by the dictum ora et labora summing up the Rule of St. Benedict, not in terms of slavish compulsion but as man's fulfilment and his participation in the work of the Creator.
But the problem is not with what we perceive of as the ideal of apostolic and early Christianity but "Christendom" in the form it assumed after the conversion of Constantine, above all with its establishment as the state religion by Emperor Theodosius in the year 380. It is precisely this Christianity which is the problem, with its enormous might and power, its cathedrals and monasteries and convents as well as its crusades and persecutions of heretics. In short: these are the "dark" middle ages from which we were saved by the brightness of the Enlightenment (and before that, by the Reformation). This image of a dark Christianity has a firm place in the canon of "justifiable prejudices" and comes up again and again when in present-day discussions it is claimed that "the Church" wants to take Europe back "into the darkness of the Middle Ages", with the Pope and the Catholic Church naturally being given top "ranking" on the Richter scale of reaction and general regressiveness.
But enough of the irony, let's come to the point. There has always been a great fascination with early, pre-Constantine Christianity. All, or let us say more carefully, many of the numerous renewal or reformation movements known in Europe have taken their bearings from this time when the Christian faith found its way into the hearts of the people without weapons, and without the protection and laws of the Emperor and state. We will return to this in our conclusions (you must still wait patiently for this).
Now, however, we will look at the 1000 years of "Christianity" between the conversion of Constantine and the beginning of the modern era. But a word in advance: After what has arguably been the darkest of all centuries in human history – the poet Ossip Mandelstam, a Russian Jew who was one of the millions of victims of the Soviet terror, called the 20th century the "century of the wolves" – those who continue to call the Middle Ages "dark" need to be told: "Study History".
In a certain way this new era of the "Middles Ages" begins with the Emperor's conversion to Christianity. Was it not justifiable for the persecuted Christians to have dreamt of this event? What would happen if the Emperor one day became a Christian? The freedom of the Church would be secure. They would be protected from persecution and they could develop freely. The dream was quickly over. What position would a Christian Emperor have? Does he rule over the church? The Apostle's words before the council in Jerusalem holds true for a Christian Emperor as well: "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5.29). St. Ambrose of Milan opposed the newly converted Emperor with words which could be said to represent the charter of "The Freedom of the Western Church" (which is the title of a book by Hugo Rahner, 1943, written during the terror of National Socialism): "The emperor is in the church, he is not above the church. A good Emperor seeks to encourage the church not to fight against it. As humbly as we say this, we hold to it and are unshaken, even when we are threatened by the stake, the sword and exile. We servants of Christ have forgotten how to fear."
With this the debate is started. This debate will shape the life of the western world for over 1000 years, unlike the eastern half of Europe – however more about this shortly: The process in which the imperium and sacerdotium, worked with one another and fought against one another, culminating in the dispute over the respective roles of the Pope and the Emperor.
Two Popes stand symbolically and effectively for the development that made the Christian West possible, but also led it into its deepest crisis. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) was greatly affected by the fall of Rome as he was a member of the upper aristocracy. He saw that the Rome of the East could only be expected to press its claims to dominate the Western Roman Empire but not to help it. That is why the Church itself began to take over the role of guardian and governor in the Western Roman Empire. Pope Gregory went as far as using symbolic language in an attempt to claim power for the Bishop of the Roman Church as Pontifex Maximus and to claim Rome as the caput mundi of a Christian Western Roman Empire. Although he only succeeded symbolically, it gave the Romans a new self-confidence and the Church a new purpose.
Two hundred years later his successor Leo III made a momentous decision. He asked the Franks for help and crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne Roman Emperor in 800 AD. The Byzantine Emperor felt this to be a serious betrayal of the unity of Christianity and the Empire. To this day the two "lungs" of Christianity, the eastern and the western, suffer from this mutual estrangement which continued to deepen until the final split in 1054. For Western Europe the Emperor's coronation was a crucial step in the development of its own "Western Christianity".
The consequences of this decision are well known: On the one hand, with the development of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation a high culture defined by Christianity emerged over the course of the centuries, the Latin Middle Ages. On the other hand, an equally lengthy conflict developed over who was to be the head of the empire: The Emperor, who was supposed to rule by divine commission, or the Pope as Pontifex Maximus, Christ's representative, who crowned the Emperor in the first place?
We know how the conflict ended: with the victory of the Sacerdotiums over the Imperium. However it was a pyrrhic victory. The belief that the Pope alone could manage to rule over all nations in Europe proved to be an illusion. The European kings and princes battled vigorously to create independent nations and obtain supremacy. They proved to be stronger. After many wars the medieval church state became a Sacerdotium with no importance/influence among the European powers. The only power the Pope held was in his role as spiritual, moral representative of a universal religion. The struggle over the sovereignty of the Empire, and then the "Church State" in competition with the worldly powers, weakened the Pope's spiritual importance more than it strengthened it.
The result of this was a deep-seated on-going crisis beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing into the Reformation, leading to the division of the western church, the religious wars, and finally culminating in Enlightenment and secularisation.
A lesson can be learned from this history. It is a mistake to believe that one religion, one denomination, can be strengthened by uniting itself with state and political power. Certainly religion needs the protection of the state (just as the state also needs the strength of religion) however it doesn't do religion any good if it were to be identical, so to speak, to state structures and political institutions. The distinction is necessary and it is good for both of them. That is the lesson of the long history of Christianity. It has always flourished best when it has not striven to do the same thing as the state but has demonstrated the inspirational, formative power of authentic belief.
Therefore, in this rapid overview of the Middle Ages it cannot be only about the conflict sacerdotium – imperium but above all it must be about those sources of strength of Christian life which made the West what it is. Before all else we must mention the religious orders and monasteries. One cannot overestimate their impact. Without the Irish monks there would have been no Christian mission. Knowledge of antiquity, pre-Christian as well as Christian, would have been lost. Monasteries were centres of science and learning. They fought for the purity of the faith. They cultivated the land, developed agriculture and the arts and crafts. They recorded and preserved history and they built communication networks throughout Europe.
Of course, there were periods of weakness and decadence. However, new waves of renewal emerged with unbelievable vitality. I can only name a few here. The first of which is the Cluniac Reform. Exactly 1,100 years ago, in the year 910, reform of the monasteries began in Cluny in France. Two hundred years later there were 1,200 monasteries spread across Europe living according to principles of this reform. There was a great energy in the social, economic, artistic and, of course, the spiritual realms. Pope Benedict XVI has said that through Cluny "a spiritual Europe began to emerge in the various regions of France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Hungary".
As Cluny began to show signs of decline, the next great wave of renewal followed with Bernhard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. In a very short time the Cistercians set up a close network of inter-communicating monasteries. As cities started to blossom in the 13th century yet another dynamic religious movement appeared: Francis and the Poverty Movement.
Has enough consideration been given to the freedom made possible by these renewal movements and how much Europe has been influenced by this? From its inception, Christianity allowed one to "step outside the temporal socio-political order". The idea that "man must listen to God more than man" brought an element of personal freedom to those wishing to oppose the pressures of society. One of the most impressive examples is that of the young Francesco Bernadone in Assisi in 1207 when he decided to forsake his father and the temporal authorities in order to listen to God alone. He gave his clothes back to his father so that he could walk naked with the naked Christ. Throughout the centuries, this freedom to follow a radical Christian life has set free great creative energy. Here we find one of the sources of Europe's inner vitality even in secular Europe, this radical way of following Christ continues to exert an effect. To be clear about my conclusions: I am convinced that in this lies one of the greatest potentials for hope in Europe. Just as the great renewal movements in Christianity blossomed in the Middle Ages and were energized, so too it has been in recent history and it continues to be so the present day. The Church (I am referring here to the Catholic Church but it is also true in other Christian churches) often has an undreamt of capacity for renewal. Why should we not have the kind of surprises ahead of us that the Poverello of Assisi triggered off 800 years ago?
Those who do not see Europe's roots in our early Christian heritage and its development in the Middle Ages, as I do, must undoubtedly find these roots with the Reformers and the Enlightenment, that is, in opposition to the Catholic Church. Modern Europe is, above all, a "child" of the Enlightenment which often articulated and fought for the implementation of its values and perspectives in opposition to the Church and against Christendom as a whole. Again and again the objection is made that the European view of human rights does not have its roots in Christianity but in a determined resistance to it, and in particular to the Catholic Church.
One thing is certain: the religious split of the 16th century shook western European society profoundly. We can hardly imagine the traumas that people went through on account of the division between the "new" and "old" beliefs. The resulting religious wars have been called the "hermeneutic civil wars" because the warring factions used different interpretations of the same Bible to legitimise their actions.
One of the most horrific outcomes of the religious wars was the "territorialisation" of the religious confessions: Cuius regio eius religio. One's place of residence came to determine one's religious denomination. Even today European politics suffers from the consequences of this principle: religious denominations functioning as the source of national identity whether in countries with an Orthodox majority or in the tragic conflict in Northern Ireland. In my opinion the catastrophic concept of "ethnic cleansing" as found in the Balkans is a consequence of this destructive principle. The expulsion of the German and Hungarian-speaking population of Czechoslovakia was a blatant example of this. The Balkan wars that took place in the 1990's is another instance. Given that the Habsburg "empire of many peoples" was an alternative and entirely contrasting model, it is no wonder that it was destroyed, though it actually anticipated today's goal of integration as hardly any other European phenomenon has ever done.
The religious wars had a second outcome: people had had enough of theological conflicts. They looked for a basis upon which to build a state free from theology and denomination. Thinkers such as Hobbes or Spinoza believed that this basis was to be found in mathematicalscientific thought. There are no heretics in physics or mathematics. Here was the basis on which law, ethics and metaphysics could be agreed upon, independent of a faith perspective. The incredible success of mathematical-scientific thought appears to prove that religion is reactionary and the scientific world view is progressive. Worse still, the religious wars appear to confirm that religions set people against each other and that Enlightenment sets them free.
If we try to dig deeper, the question of religion leads on to the question of the very question of God. It is finally addressed when we look at the crisis in Europe since the Reformation. The philosopher Odo Marquard speaks of "putting God before the tribunal": God himself is indicted. The old question of reconciling God's goodness with the presence of evil comes up again and in strong terms: Unde malum? Where does evil come from? The scientific world cannot answer this question. Their attempted answer was a belief in progress. At a single blow all evil would be eliminated, sickness would be overcome by medicine, injustices by economic advancements. Religion was replaced by belief in progress.
However, there are two problems. Firstly, future advances will not help me today. I will already be dead and the injustice and suffering that has already happened will not be taken away. Secondly, there is justifiable doubt about unlimited progress, because it doesn't exist. The expectations of salvation fostered by Marxism and other forms of belief in progress were not fulfilled. They could not be fulfilled because we are only guests on this earth. Our pilgrimage on earth is limited by time and resource. The question is sobering: Was that really everything?
Christianity's place in Europe is paradoxical. It appears to be marginalized to a large extent. The churches are still there, albeit amongst the "also rans". But they have hardly any weight or influence. Nevertheless, I do not see them as "obsolete" in a Europe with ample spiritual resources.
In many respects it is like being back again at the beginning of Christianity. In a world that is religiously and culturally pluralistic, in a largely "pagan" world in which the Christian way of life practiced over centuries has been forgotten, where astrology, abortion, superstition and anxiety are dominant. Although Christians are a substantial majority in Europe, practising Christians are in the minority.
I see the situation of Christianity in Europe to be rather exciting and full of opportunity. It is in many respects a foreign body – yet it still evokes a feeling of home in many. Europe has a constantly increasing number of people who after living a fully secular lifestyle find their way to a conscious faith. They often describe the journey as a homecoming.
Herein lies the distinctive and unmistakable strength of Christianity: it confers a dual-citizenship, at once earthly and heavenly. It invites one to a loyal participation in society, taking on responsibility for the civitas terrena without wanting to overthrow it in order to create some utopian society. This quiet engagement with the temporal is founded on the fact of a parallel citizenship in the civitas Dei. This claim to be not only a citizen of the earthly civitas has aroused hatred of the church by totalitarian thinkers and dictators. The Christian is free with respect to the state because he is never only a citizen of the state. Never before has this "Christian freedom" been more clearly expressed than when the "confessing Christians", in the freedom of their faith, defied the totalitarian grasp of the state. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a shining example of this freedom and likewise the simple Upper Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, to name but two.
This ferment of freedom is what Christianity has to offer Europe, as a freedom from the demands of the mainstream, from political correctness, or simply from the pressure of the latest fashions.
This freedom has a deeper source, an inexhaustible resource. We spoke at the beginning about the amazing phenomenon of the rapid spread of Christianity in its infancy. Among the many reasons for this, I see one in particular: this expansion has to do with the One who gave the church a clear mission and this promise, "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of time." (Matt 28.20). This saying of Jesus Christ is Christianity's most powerful resource and it continues to be so in the most surprising ways. This explains the inexhaustible power of regeneration in Christianity. So often declared as dead, it again and again experiences its resurrection in the power of the One who rose again.
A foreign body in Europe and also a root: that is the exciting position of Christianity in secular Europe. Europe is often critical of Christianity and that is good. Europe may need the healthy restlessness of the Gospel's prophetic voice, but Christianity also needs the voice of Europe asking critical questions in return. This does Christianity good. It wakes it up and challenges it. It questions Christianity's credibility. And why? Because I believe, deep down Europe longs for an authentic Christianity. In our hearts we Europeans, whether secular or religious, know that the root that will sustain Europe in the future is this: a credible Christianity that is true to its roots, however strange and foreign such a Christianity may at times appear to us.
This text is adapted from a lecture held at the Catholic University of America on February 3, 2010 and translated by Lucille Curran.
Reprinted by permission of Kairos Publications.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, was the general editor of the official 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. He is the author of Loving the Church: Spiritual Exercises Preached in the Presence of John Paul II, My Jesus: Encountering Christ in the Gospel, God's Human Face: The Christ Icon, From Death to Life: The Christian Journey, and The Mystery of the Incarnation. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is the editor of Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4).
Copyright © 2011 Kairos Publications
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.