Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
This may sound hypocritical and undiplomatic coming from someone who works at a think tank and spends a lot of time at conferences, but is there anything European churchmen and politicians do besides attend high-level summits, dialoguing with each other to no obvious end?
That’s my overly cynical reaction to the European Bishops Conference (COMECE) gathering entitled “(Re) Thinking Europe: A Christian contribution to the future of the European Project” held in Rome last week. Maybe it’s just sour grapes on my part for not being included among the invited dignitaries. Perusing the program, however, just off the top of my head I can think of twenty better uses of time, only a few of which involve some form of physical mutilation.
Forgive my harshness. Working at places like the United Nations, I have spent countless hours wondering why I am paying attention to speakers who seem intent on using words to convey absolutely nothing of substance. I often find myself thinking uncharitable thoughts: Are they purposely trying to bore the audience to death, speaking in such an anodyne fashion to hide their true motivation of world domination?
Since I’m not conspiratorially minded, my hunch is that the European politicians arrive where they are precisely because they say non-controversial things. Charismatic European leaders didn’t have a good track record in the 20th century, so boring is probably preferable to fanatical. But there must be something in between….
It would be easier to find a middle ground between the sleep-inducing and the insane if there was something for Europe to actually do. The very term “European Project” indicates some kind of purpose or goal. What that is remains unclear; what’s worse is that something is bound to fill the spiritual vacuum that is otherwise known as the European soul.
Americans have had a lot of fun mocking Europeans for their cradle-to-grave welfare states and their lack of military effectiveness, which stands to reason. America came into existence by rejecting European ways when they were much more “active” than they are today, especially if you happened to be a part of a persecuted religious minority. At the same time, Americans can’t help but be impressed (“Wow!” is the Yankee expression most heard on the Old Continent) by the beauty and culture found here.
In fact, contrary to all the peace-talk coming out of the mouths of its current leaders, Europe’s greatness and most impressive treasures were born out of conflict. European peoples were willing to sacrifice their comfort for something better. So perhaps what Europe needs are new forms of productive rivalry, something more important than the UEFA Champions League matches that are about the only thing capable inciting passion among the people these days.
Competition in business would be one option, but Europeans prefer stability to growth because growth means someone must lose (many soccer matches end in ties, if you haven’t noticed). If the rules of the game are set by the elites, we already know who those losers will be and there’s no reason for them to change things. Until, that is, it’s too late to stop the revolutionary spirit that grips Europeans every so often.
Encouraging people to take risks is made more difficult when Pope Francis decries the “black market” and “precariousness” as immoral. His moral indignation is understandable but entirely misplaced. If there is one thing European politicians are capable of, it’s over-regulating the economy and creating the black markets and youth unemployment the pope decries. Europe acts only to prevent its people from acting. Instead, the COMECE agenda says nothing about the decline of the family, which, as Mary Eberstadt brilliantly points out, is at the root of our broken-down, hyper-sensitive identity politics.
I wish Francis would apply what he says about the spiritual realm (the Church as mission, going out to the peripheries, etc.) to the temporal realities of Europe. He’s already called the continent a “grandmother” for its tiredness and sterility so we know he’s thinking along these lines. He just needs to put away the socialist economics that have failed everywhere (see contemporary Venezuela and North Korea) they have been implemented.
If Christians aren’t going to serve Europe by getting “off the couch,” someone else will, and the consequences will not resemble Christian humanism. Five-hundred years after the Reformation, I’d rather see Christians competing with each other for their spiritual heritage than simply give in to whoever has the energy to show up. The first step may be to stop holding so many conferences, which only highlight the imposed purposeless of Europe and lead to more despair, not hope.