Freedom, Faith, and the Question of Europe

In a couple of previous posts, here and here, I have discussed how deeply Europe’s identity is rooted in its Christian – and specifically its Catholic – history, with the unity of the Faith providing an underlying cultural infrastructure to Europe that has been a solidifying and sustaining principle for centuries. This cohesive principle – a shared commitment to Christian beliefs and values – was first interrupted during the fragmentation of Christendom that took place during the Protestant Reformation, and then, as the lack of unity in belief and of authority to mitigate engagements with societal changes continued to work itself out, it gradually became weaker and weaker.

Today, Europe is profoundly un-Christian. Whilst vestiges of Christian moral commitments remain to some extent, commitment to its doctrines and church attendance are at an all-time low. This does not mean that Europe has become corporately atheist – most people still profess some belief in a ‘life-force’ or suchlike, and see themselves as being ‘spiritual’ (whatever that may mean in any given case) – but it does mean a wholesale rejection of Christianity as something that might act as a cultural touchstone or resource for moral decision making. This was made explicitly clear in fact, when in June 2004, a new EU Constitution* was written, in which any mention of Europe’s Christian roots was deliberately excluded, bizarrely re-writing history in the name of a supposed ‘neutrality towards worldviews’.

In that same constitution’s preface, a commitment was made to upholding the ‘universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law.’ The question that presents itself though, now that the doyens of the EU have decided for us all that Christianity is to play no part in Europe’s future (and apparently played no part in shaping its past), is whether or not secularism actually provides an adequate basis from which to protect the ‘universal values’ mentioned in the preface.

In his book The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel examines this question of which worldview can best give an account for our commitment to certain values, and argues powerfully that it is only the Christian vision of man and the universe that can do so coherently, and therefore sustainably, and that it is Christianity which provides the most compelling historical reasons for why we embrace those values in the first place:

The democratic project did not emerge, a kind of political virgin birth, in either the Glorious Revolution of 1688 or the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. To be sure, those were crucial turning points in the history of modern political thought and in democratic political institutions. But the cultural foundations for the ideas and institutions of self-governance had been laid centuries before in the European universities (entirely Christian in their origins); in such Christian practices as the direct, democratic election of superiors in Benedictine monasteries; in the pilgrimage tradition by which the men and women of an emerging Europe met and came to understand themselves as members of common civilisational enterprise; in the rich social pluralism of medieval life; and in the cultural instincts and commitments that were gleaned from these distinctive European experiences.

The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (2005), p.106, Gracewing.

            To this Weigel adds that the experience of the investiture controversies in the eleventh century helped to definitively draw the lines of separation between Church and State, and to limit the powers of the latter – a distinction which was notable by its absence both in Byzantium and in Tsarist Russia, where the Church was regularly subordinated to imperial or royal powers, with woeful consequences for both it and society at large. This limitation is now being gradually erased in our own time

Also, Christian thought recognised the existence of a transcendent order of justice that each ruler was accountable to. The undermining of objective morality through relativism (an ideology which the exclusion of Christianity from the public sphere is in part designed to protect), and the endorsement of a utilitarian ethic, have instead left us with the increasingly arbitrary rulings of legislators as our only guide to what is right and wrong. So now, instead of our rulers being accountable to a higher realm, they shape the moral law themselves, and are accountable to very little.

Most importantly perhaps is Christianity’s role in shaping and preserving our beliefs about human dignity. A commitment to the dignity of each and every human person, though enshrined in the EU Constitution, is being exposed as more and more farcical every day – what it really seems to mean is a commitment to the ‘rights’ of each human person to do what they want, when they want, as long as they’re not (directly and immediately) hurting anybody else. Conversely…

The Christian idea of vocation – the unique role that each Christian plays in the cosmic drama of creation and redemption – is one root of the Western idea of individualism, which was not, in its origins, a matter of self-constituting autonomy but of living out the singular, God-given destiny that is every human life. Moreover, the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation (God entering history in the flesh) and the Redemption (“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:16-17]) gave the world a dignity it could not achieve by its own efforts.

ibid, pp.102-103.

            Essentially, the only thing that guarantees the rights and dignity of each human person is that they are made in the image of God, that God affirmed and consecrated the goodness of the human condition by becoming Incarnate in it, and that He thought it worth dying for. The secularist vision provides no real reason as to why human beings (of whatever condition in life, and no matter how ‘useful’ they might or might not be) should be considered of any more worth than any other animal, and its position on issues of human life such as abortion and euthanasia provides damning evidence that any commitment to such a vision is more rhetorical than substantive.

The other problem with the modern, secular vision of Europe, is in its basic premise that a.) it can be neutral towards worldviews, and b.) that this is the best environment in which to provide tolerance towards other worldviews, as well as freedom to embrace different philosophies of life. The first claim is manifestly untrue: none of us can be ‘neutral’ in the way we see life, and secularism is no different – it proposes a vision wherein religion does not and cannot have a public voice (ostensibly in the name of not excluding other religions), and then calls this position neutrality, when in reality this already presupposes that the only way to be neutral is to be secular. Secularism is an ideology like any other, and to claim it as some sort of ideological tabula rasa is gravely dishonest.

Secondly, it is a highly suspect claim that a secular Europe does make tolerance and freedom more possible than a Europe which embraces its Christian roots. For starters, without any established convictions about ultimate reality, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to say why we should be tolerant – all we are left with, if we exclude objective claims about reality, is scepticism and relativism (which themselves presuppose an a-religious worldview, and so are already themselves ideological positions), and finally indifference. We do not tolerate others because we respectfully disagree with them, and are willing to live alongside those with whom we disagree, but because we don’t believe in anything and see the various competing claims as ‘just’ private beliefs.

When these private beliefs, which all good secularists tolerate/are indifferent to, become articulated in public however, and especially when they impact upon the way in which certain aspects of civic life are conducted, the only option available is to silence those voices, because they do not fit the secular paradigm. Thus, rather than true tolerance, we have indifference coupled with repression – despotism, the soft way. The rationale for excluding these voices is also almost completely arbitrary – superficially it is in the name of maintaining a tolerant society, but in actuality it is geared towards ridding religion of any significance. Thus any dialogue on moral issues (which are always religious issues) becomes inevitably one-sided, and freedom is sidelined.

A different model is presented by the Christian vision of man, which sees each individual as inherently worthwhile simply because they are human, and reveres free will, which not only renders us responsible for our actions (thus providing grounds for good citizenship), but also sees the freedom of those with whom we disagree as something to be preserved, and this as an obligation to God, not legislators. This vision was given powerful articulation by (now Saint) Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation of 2003, Ecclesia in Europa, where he wrote that:

In building a city worthy of man, a guiding role should be played by the Church’s social teaching. Through this teaching the Church challenges the continent of Europe about the moral quality of its civilization. This social doctrine arises from the encounter of the biblical message and human reason on the one hand, and on the other with the problems and situations involving individual and social life. By the body of principles which it sets forth, the Church’s social doctrine helps lay solid foundations for a humane coexistence in justice, peace, freedom and solidarity. Because it is aimed at defending and promoting the dignity of the human person, which is the basis not only of economic and political life, but also of social justice and peace, this doctrine proves capable of upholding the supporting structures of Europe‘s future. It contains points of reference which make it possible to defend the moral structure of freedom, so as to protect European culture and society both from the totalitarian utopia of “justice without freedom” and from the utopia of “freedom without truth” which goes hand in hand with a false concept of “tolerance”. Both utopias portend errors and horrors for humanity, as the recent history of Europe sadly attests.

Ecclesia in Europa, 98.

            This vision does not mean returning to the Christendom of the past, with everyone professing the Christian faith. Not only is that an impossibility, but it is in some ways a situation the Church would not want to return to – the power she enjoyed in the past, and the closeness of its relationship to the State presented many temptations, and without them she can focus more readily on her essential task, which is the conversion of hearts, minds and souls. No, what Saint John Paul recommended is something that benefits all European citizens, of whatever faith, or none:

Because of its intrinsic connection with the dignity of the human person, the Church’s social doctrine is also capable of being appreciated by those who are not members of the community of believers. It is urgent, then, that this doctrine be better known and studied, and that more and more Christians become familiar with it. The new Europe now being built demands this, since it requires individuals formed in these values and disposed to working for the attainment of the common good. This will require the presence of Christian lay faithful who, by their various responsibilities in civic life, the economy, culture, health care, education and politics, are able by their activities to imbue these spheres with the values of the Kingdom.

ibid, 99.

            Europe cannot operate for long if it continues as it is now – a collection of countries joined to one another by political and economic alliances, and adherence to an increasingly small (and increasingly meaningless) set of shared values. It must, if it is to continue as a thing with a soul as well as an outer shell (and if it does not recover its soul, I fear it will not continue long at all) recover a sense of where the values that it is formally committed to come from, what justification it has for professing them, and where its cultural identity has its roots. The Catholic Church alone, with the resources of its rich history of patronising the arts, sciences and philosophy, as well as its contemporary statements on freedom, human dignity and tolerance, remains capable of offering us a robust vision of man which is able to do this.

There is much, much more to be said about this topic, but one important objection remains, and that is that the history of the Church is a chequered one, with instances of religious intolerance, and tacit approval of state persecutions blotting its past. However, one other benefit of a Christian vision of humanity is that at its heart is a divine initiative of the forgiveness of sins, which is designed to perpetuate itself in the life of Christian believers. To be able to confess one’s sins before God (as various Church representatives have done, at the highest level) and to ask for forgiveness, is to genuinely engage with the darker aspects of human nature, and to begin a process of authentic reconciliation and reform.

Repentance of this kind is not available to the secular mentality, which instead expresses itself in the jargon of political correctness and does not engage with the real issue of human sin (as sin is something that it denies) that underpins all our misdemeanours. This then is another way in which secularism presents a vision of Europe, and of humanity, which is narrow, without justification for its core beliefs, and in the long run, unsustainable of the things it holds dear, rendering it unable to effectively engage with other cultures (c.f.; Islam). Let us instead have the humility to turn back to our past, uncover the Christian roots of our cultural identity, and embrace a worldview that is profoundly committed to life, truth and real human happiness.


*Formally known as the ‘Treaty for Establishing a Constitution for Europe’ it was finally superseded by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, but this was principally concerned with voting procedures, the scope of EU legislation, and the rights of member states to leave the Union. The deliberate exclusion of Christianity’s role in the development of European culture and values remained.  


3 thoughts on “Freedom, Faith, and the Question of Europe

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