Pope Francis believes the remedy for Europe’s woes is a return to its humanist Christian cultural core. It is a noble vision, but one wonders to what extent it is realistic…
Editor’s Note: Pope Francis delivered this address to “the heads of state and government of the European Union in Italy for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome” on March 24, 2017.
In keeping with the idolatry of ignorance reigning supreme in the modern mass media, Pope Francis’s speech on the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome—the founding document of the European Union—has gone unnoticed. This is a pity, because Pope Francis continues not only to illustrate accurately the chief political problems facing different parts of the world, but to offer promising solutions. Sadly, just as the critics missed the Pope’s address to the United States Congress, so his Rome address garnered little attention. Yet unlike most of the largely instinctive political actors who have risen to the challenges of contemporary times, the Pope offers a far more pensive reflection on the crisis:
The term ‘crisis’ is not necessarily negative. It does not simply indicate a painful moment to be endured. The word ‘crisis’ has its origin in the Greek verb kríno, which means to discern, to weigh, to assess. Ours is a time of discernment, one that invites us to determine what is essential and to build on it.
Pope Francis is clearly determined that Europe should build on its Christian roots in the existing context of a multicultural society. This contention, explicit in the Pope’s address, is understandably the source of consternation for those of us who consider the existing context of a multicultural society both the result of the entropy of Christianity and the cause of Christian cultural attrition. Yet the Pope is careful to note that “in our multicultural world, these values will continue to have their rightful place provided they maintain a vital connection to their deepest roots.”
To thoughtful Christians, this point is neither misplaced nor novel. From the earliest days of Christianity, when Peter and others quarreled over whether a pious Christian can commune with non-Jewish Christians, the faith has been a religion of tension between its particular and its universal aspect. The present Church faces the same challenge: How to encompass a global humanity with its multiplicity of cultural forms while remaining truly Christian? The notion of remaining amongst one’s own is a temptation already faced by St. Peter and now once again overcome by Pope Francis. Contrary to pessimists, this is not the distillment of Catholicism—this is the fulfillment of Catholicism:
Rome, with its vocation to universality, symbolizes that experience and was thus chosen as the place for the signing of the Treaties. For here… were laid the political, juridical and social foundations of our civilization. It was clear, then, from the outset, that the heart of the European political project could only be man himself.
Man, not God, because the aim of God Himself is Man, whom God loves. The Pope’s humanism is Christian humanism. The Pope does not propose that Man should be the measure of all things—rather that Man is the aim of political order precisely because God has made Man’s happiness the aim of cosmic order.
Pope Francis calls upon the European Union to pursue the good of peoples, families, and the individual—not the good of some abstraction. That the Union has appeared at times to serve an abstract citizen rather than its very concrete members is a sad truth that has become apparent not only in extreme cases such as the British secession but likewise in the political upheavals in various EU member states. Pope Francis gives voice to this fact, reminding the various heads of government in Rome that “one frequently has the sense that there is a growing ‘split’ between the citizenry and the European institutions, which are often perceived as distant and inattentive to the different sensibilities present in the Union.”
Yet this same Papal demand for attentive concern for the peoples of the Union is likewise present in the Pope’s call to shower attentive care on the peoples coming into the Union from war-torn and impoverished countries in the Middle East and north Africa. Naturally, this phenomenon—unexpected and drastic in its effects—is a principal source of the aforementioned split between the institutions of the EU and her citizens. The Pope clearly believes that the remedy for this split is solidarity with the needs of the nations composing the EU and with the peoples flooding into the EU. The material and practical limits of this solidarity do not seem to faze the Pope, who advocates invigorated idealism as an antidote to material and practical political limitations:
The immigration issue poses a deeper question, one that is primarily cultural. What kind of culture does Europe propose today? The fearfulness that is becoming more and more evident has its root cause in the loss of ideals. Without an approach inspired by those ideals, we end up dominated by the fear that others will wrench us from our usual habits, deprive us of familiar comforts, and somehow call into question a lifestyle that all too often consists of material prosperity alone. Yet the richness of Europe has always been her spiritual openness and her capacity to raise basic questions about the meaning of life. Openness to the sense of the eternal has also gone hand in hand, albeit not without tensions and errors, with a positive openness to this world. Yet today’s prosperity seems to have clipped the continent’s wings and lowered its gaze.
The Pope seems to argue that the very thing we tend to blame on mass migration—namely the nihilism it leads to through the evaporation of high culture in the swamp of multiculturalism—is a phenomenon which preceded mass migration and has made the migrant crisis almost impossible to navigate. The Pope suggests that a Christian Europe, confident of its identity and ideals, would be capable of not only doing good in the face of the migration crisis, but also of making something good out of the waves of incoming migrants. This may be true, insofar as the cultural rot afflicting the West is not imported. The West’s cultural collapse has been a process rooted in the fabric of Western cultures. The migrant crisis simply magnifies Western helplessness; it does not lay at the root of it. Thus, the Pope concludes that populism has its roots in the one real common sentiment truly felt by all Europeans—fear:
Europe finds new hope in solidarity, which is also the most effective antidote to modern forms of populism. Solidarity entails the awareness of being part of a single body, while at the same time involving a capacity on the part of each member to ‘sympathize’ with others and with the whole. When one suffers, all suffer (cf. 1 Cor 12:26). Today, with the United Kingdom, we mourn the victims of the attack that took place in London two days ago. For solidarity is no mere ideal; it is expressed in concrete actions and steps that draw us closer to our neighbors, in whatever situation they find themselves. Forms of populism are instead the fruit of an egotism that hems people in and prevents them from overcoming and ‘looking beyond’ their own narrow vision. There is a need to start thinking once again as Europeans, so as to avert the opposite dangers of a dreary uniformity or the triumph of particularisms. Politics needs this kind of leadership, which avoids appealing to emotions to gain consent, but instead, in a spirit of solidarity and subsidiarity, devises policies that can make the Union as a whole develop harmoniously. As a result, those who run faster can offer a hand to those who are slower, and those who find the going harder can aim at catching up to those at the head of the line.
It is clear, based on this speech, that Pope Francis believes the remedy for Europe’s woes is a return to its humanist Christian cultural core. The revival of European idealism is at the heart of his solution for Europe’s problems. It is a noble vision, but one wonders to what extent it is realistic. Could it be too late for Europe? Disaster and decay seem omnipresent—not just conflict, but senseless conflict engulfs her. Those who potentially understand ideals and intelligence do not have the power. Those who have the power in Europe are mostly ignorant and narrow-minded. The Western European is exactly as Pope Francis describes him: A fearful creature of comfort, he was content to ravage foreign lands but recoils when the foreigner arrives at his doorstep. He does not know what to do with the immigrant because he does not know what a citizen is. He reluctantly concludes that feeding and clothing the migrant—even when this means ghettoizing the migrant—is sufficient, because he measures others by his own material standards. In this sense, the decadent Western European and the migrant masses deserve one another. They personify the twin evils of mass fear and mass resentment. And insofar as the migrant is culturally superior—the migrant’s culture will overtake Western decadence. But at what cost? Perhaps the West is soon to be replaced by what the Russian foreign minister, in a recent interview for National Interest called the “post-West.” The post-West is the civilization that is now arising in Western Europe.
We are then left to ask: Where will the salvation of Europe come from? Who in Europe will implement the ideals that the Pope refers to? Who will weather this storm for Europe, avoiding the pitfalls of fearful parochialism and disengaged elitism? The Pope hints at this when he acknowledges that Europe properly understood stretches to the Urals and the Baltics. For really there are only two cultural strains with any life in them in Europe now: the Slavic Christian cultures and the newly forming Muslim migrant cultures. These cultures are both superior in piety, aesthetic, and sense to the degenerate remnants of Western nihilism. Yet it is clear to any thinking individual that only one of the two is suited to be the root upon which the multiplicity of cultures in Europe can grow in peace and harmony. The European Union—to save itself—must unite with Russia and all Slavic lands between Warsaw and Moscow. It must do so not piecemeal, not by trying to pull Ukraine from Russia or by further polarizing Serbia, but by opening itself fully to Eastern European Slavic Christian culture. If Western Europeans do not do so, and if the perverse proponents of war with Russia continue to rule the largest Slavic nation in the Western family, then Europe will become multicultural but rootless, it will become what everyone fears: a sea of chaos. Difference without unity.
The European Union can only exist as a humanist endeavor. The unification of a multiplicity of national cultures is impossible without Christianity. Yet that very Christian humanist impulse that calls for unity amongst European nations is paradoxically not exclusive to European nations, but to all peoples. Yet practical politics is as much a question of limits as it is if idealism. The Pope seems to be suggesting that the two principal phenomena now gripping Europe cannot coexist. Europeans cannot be multicultural nihilists. Rootless multiculturalism is nothing but chaos or dreary isolation. The Pope understands this and is creating a truly international Catholic Church with strong Christian Foundations spanning global humanity. The European Union is like a great tree whose roots have dried out. In his previous speech to the EU parliament, the Pope compared the EU to an old woman incapable of bearing new life. In Rome he was more conciliatory, arguing that sixty is—in the modern world—the age at which Western people tend to finally mature. We shall now see if Europe is capable of maturity.
The Pope’s full address can be found here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.