Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Church and State should help Europe grow

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in a lecture given at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, on April 14 and published in The Times on 21st July 2007 says that recognising Christianity’s role in Europe’s history could save the European project and reinvigorate democracy for the new century.

He contrasts the European experience with that of the United States.

""Today Americans still readily embrace both religious faith and patriotism, a striking paradox in a land where Church and State are deliberately separated. We have much to learn from the people of the United States. Their search for a better life and their optimism are linked with their religious faith. From their first day at school, American children learn to salute the flag and declare their Americanness. They say: “God bless America,” and then happily add: “I’m a Baptist, or a Jew, a Catholic or a Muslim.” To them, it seems, being a good Catholic, a good Jew, a good Baptist or a good Muslim fits in perfectly with being a good American. Americans always look with hopeful eyes to the future. Problems can be solved, people can be saved and God will continue to bless his people. Since the days of the Pilgrim Fathers, Americans have seen themselves as a chosen people, called to share in God’s work in history.

The contrast with Europe is striking. In the first place, Europeans have misgivings about patriotism because of the extreme nationalism that blighted Europe throughout the past century. The European Union is a conscious attempt to transcend national loyalties and to foster a new “European” identity based on common values. But Europe’s slow and painful birth has involved an attempt to brush under the carpet the continent’s Christian heritage. Whether it is motivated by overt hostility to religion or by a desire to find a lowest common denominator, such denial of the obvious is unhealthy and dishonest.


The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason were intellectual landmarks as much in Europe as in America, but the two continents have handled them very differently. The Founding Fathers who devised the American Constitution combined the vision that came from faith with the rationality that came from the Enlightenment.

In Europe faith and reason have generally been seen as mutually exclusive. But pure reason will never inspire bold visions and great deeds. It is worth remembering that the founders of postwar Europe were also men of faith (though no doubt entirely rational). If we Europeans now choose to ignore the energy that drove them, it is hardly surprising if the resulting grey edifice fails to fire the imagination of its citizens. Pretending that Christianity played no part in Europe’s history could undo the whole European project.

Europeans are tired of mindless con-sumerism and hungry for meaning at deeper levels. Meaning cannot be imposed from on high and the institutional churches in particular must learn to follow a humbler path than they have been used to. There is an alternative to the “city on a hill” model of the Kingdom of God which is central to American self-understanding and which has sometimes seemed to sanction a powerful and triumphalist role for the Church in society. The gospels offer the more modest, but no less vital, metaphor of the leaven in the dough, the unseen agent that enlivens and animates society from within.

The Church understood as leaven does not rule but serves. This kind of Church is inspired by Christ’s example to seek out the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, the stranger, the lost and lonely, to attend to their needs and to stand alongside them offering hope and love. The Church in a plural society must shun every form of privilege and power and dedicate herself to serving the common good. She is challenged to renew herself so that she may do good “by stealth”. Her structures need to be recast so that they can better serve those who serve others, the laity above all. This recalls an ancient title given to the Pope, “servant of the servants of God”.

A servant Church poses no threat to anyone, so there are no good grounds for excluding it and forms of secularism that do so are unacceptable. Without Christianity’s optimistic and imaginative vision of the human person and the State, European society risks becoming spiritually barren. "