[inline:01]My 16-year old son is off to the World Youth Day gathering in Cologne, where Pope Benedict XVI is addressing young people from all over the world next Saturday. He left by train from Brussels with a group of friends and will spend a week in prayer and meditation before the Pope’s address and also a week after. He clearly belongs to the generation that Time described last week as the “John Paul generation.” Says Time: “Young people today are more likely to attend mass weekly, pray daily and trust their church than their parents’ generation. More than 50% of young Catholics attend mass weekly, compared to 39% just a generation ago. Nearly 90% believe that religion is important, compared to 77% from the prior generation.”
Time was referring to the data in a study about young Americans. Europe is a far less religious society where only 15% of the people attend a place of worship once a week, compared to 44% of Americans. I have no figures to prove this, but, judging by my children’s friends, I suppose that on the old continent, too, young Europeans are more religious than their parents. Though young Christians in secular Europe clearly belong to a minority they have more openly Christian friends than my wife and I used to have in the 1970s. The cynicism of the previous generation – widely referred to in continental Western Europe as the “1968 generation” after the May 1968 student riots in Paris – seems to have worn off. The only example of this poisonous skepticism that I could find in the Time article was a mean remark by the cynical German Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the Bishop of Mainz, about the previous World Youth Day in 2004 in Rome where he said that “the girls in St. Peter’s Square who cheer the Pope have the pill in their pockets” (however would he know?), implying that these youngsters are hypocrites like himself.
Through my 22- and 20-year old daughters I happen to know some of these girls. And, no, I do not think that they have the pill in their pockets whilst they cheer the Pope. And, no, I do not think they are hypocrites on a par with Cardinal Lehmann and some other “princes of the Church.” The sourness of the latter is understandable. At the very time when they thought they could claim victory in the campaign to secularize the entire Western Church, young conservative Catholic laymen, in a resurgence of faith, begin to reclaim the Church from their grasp.
Newsweek, also, had a lead article in last week’s issue on the indications that we might be on the verge of a return of Christendom to Europe. The continent is “shaken by terrorism and almost existential social uncertainty” which may have a cathartic influence, making it receptive for the Church’s crusade against what Pope Benedict recently called “the cynicism of a secularized culture that denies its own foundations.” Conservative American Catholics, such as Michael Novak and George Weigel, observe this process of re-Christianization in modern Europe with particular interest. Society cannot exist without a shared set of moral values. Typically these are provided by religions. Failing this the state usurps the role of religion and governments will impose moral standards. We have been witnessing this phenomenon in Europe throughout the past three decades, during which governments aided by supra-national organizations like the EU and various UN organizations have begun to impose a doctrine of relativism and multi-culturalism.
Since the demise of Christianity, the moral clash has been one between these secular “values” of the state and the morals of the millions of Muslim immigrants that began to flock to Europe when the religious vacuum created by the (near) suicide of European Christianity also led to a demographic implosion. George Weigel, who wrote biographies of both Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, the present Pope, says in Newsweek that the latter’s mission to re-Christianization Europe is very important for the United States, as America, according to Weigel, might follow Europe’s godless example. I do not know whether Weigel is correct in this particular fear. True, the worst enemy of the Church is active within its own ranks and the American episcopacy has its own cynics in the mold of the German Cardinal Lehmann. In America, however, these cynics must overcome the deeply entrenched religiousness of American society. America is not a secular society and hence secular clerics (though they have done – and are doing – a lot of harm) have not been able to cause as much havoc as in Europe.
“American exceptionalism” is the name which the American Catholic sociologist Father Richard John Neuhaus gave to the phenomenon of American religiousness (which, by the way, had already been perceived by the French author Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century as the major difference between the “new” and the “old” continent). Unlike in Western Europe, religion “is in maddeningly diverse ways, vibrantly alive in America, despite the fact that America is a modern, perhaps the most modern, society.” Today, Neuhaus prefers to speak of European exceptionalism, or at least of Western European exceptionalism. “While Germany, France, and the Netherlands, among others, seem to be in thrall to a numbing secularization, around the world – in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere – there is a resurgence of religion, with all the cultural and political consequences that attend such a resurgence. This is the reality examined by Harvard’s Samuel Huntington in his much controverted, but I think essentially accurate, ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis. I am inclined to risk going a step further and say that, if the proverbial man or woman from Mars asked about the most important single thing happening on planet earth at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a very good answer might be the de secularization of world history.”
Europe’s American Roots
If Pope Benedict XVI, aided by the young generation currently assembling in Cologne, succeeds in re-Christianizing Western Europe he will at the same time be making it more similar to America. In an earlier article in The Brussels Journal I pointed out that “Europe should find its roots in America.” North America was colonized by freedom loving people. Many of them had left Europe because they longed for the freedom to live according to their own conscience instead of the conscience of the centralist absolutist rulers in power across Europe.
American traditions were rooted in the political decentralism of the late Middle Ages and the Aristotelian philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas [biography by G.K. Chesterton – warning: protected by copyright outside of Australia] and his followers, the Scholastics, reconciled reason to religion. Chesterton wrote that Aquinas’ contribution to theology “might be called the appeal to Reason and the Authority of the Senses.” “Reason,” Aquinas said, “has a right to rule, as the representative of God in Man.” Pope Benedict agrees with this. Last week’s Newsweek points out that “Ratzinger argues that reason and humanism are at the very core of Christianity, and that is precisely why, beyond the obvious historical facts, Christianity is the true foundation of European culture and values.” It is this foundation that has been preserved in a truer form in the United States than in Europe itself, where from 1789 (the French Revolution) onwards, the state has begun to replace God. It did so, ironically, by contrasting reason to religion. Reason was seen in this sense as the need to centralize and uniformize society.
Newsweek perceives in Pope Benedict a certain “nostalgia for the Middle Ages.” This is true where it refers to a longing for a Europe that does not cut itself off from its (medieval) roots but builds on them, instead of continuing the fallacy of 1789 that has led Europe along the path of the three “G”s – Guillotine, Gas chambers and Gulag (three phenomena which America has escaped, not by coincidence) – to the present abyss at the edge of which it teeters. It is time to walk away from this abyss and return to Europe’s roots. That is what the Pope will be saying later this week in Cologne. He could also say it in different words, which he will not employ because they would be perceived as too political, but which amount to the same message: If Europe wants to regain its freedom and its sanity it should learn from American conservatism.