The following article by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, appeared in The Times of 21 July 2007.
Recognising Christianity's role in Europe's history could save the European project and reinvigorate democracy for the new century
I remember sitting at home in Reading as a boy of 9 listening to the radio. It was 1941, a very bad time for England in the Second World War. Winston Churchill was reading a poem, Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth by Arthur Clough. The last verse has always resonated with me:
And not by eastern windows only, When daylight comes, comes in the light.
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly, But westward, look, the land is bright.
Churchill hardly needed to explain to his anxious audience that while darkness had fallen across Europe under the Nazi shadow, it was from the West – across the Atlantic – that the rays of hope shone brightly.
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.
Europe’s mood is pessimistic. This is surprising, as the institutions that were created postwar to keep the peace in Europe – the EU itself, Nato, and the European Convention on Human Rights under the Council of Europe – have been remarkably successful in this perennially troubled continent. Part of the problem may be that the role of religion is not usually acknowledged. The American example suggests that seeing Christianity as part of the European vision, rather than ignoring it, could only enhance the construction of a common European civilisation.
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 consumerism 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.
Europe and America appear to be at different stages in their journey of faith. And there is a warning to both of them in that. In America’s case, the warning comes from the Old Testament history of another people that believed itself chosen. The warning is that there is a cyclical rhythm, where faithfulness is followed by laxity, even idolatry and unfaithfulness. The things of God become instruments of power, used for selfish or wicked purposes. In this spiritual cycle, the people who lost their way in the wilderness were rescued when a prophet appeared to remind them of their sins and show them the way back. Where Europe is in that cycle, and where America is, I leave to your imagination. But wherever they are, each can learn from the other. The American experience shows that religion and democracy must make room for each other: to banish religion from the public square in the name of freedom and democracy is to threaten freedom and democracy, and the very existence of that public square. The separation of Church and State may indeed guarantee diversity and the exclusion of none; but if it systematically excludes any, problems will follow.
I conclude on an encouraging note – closer, I believe, to the reality we face – with another verse from Arthur Clough’s poem:
For while the tired waves vainly breaking
Seem here no painful inch to gain;
Far back through creeks and inlets breaking
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
This is an edited version of a lecture given by the Cardinal at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, on April 14.
(c) Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.