Only Christianity can rescue Europe

by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali

Flowers lay outside the Carillon cafe, a site of last Friday's attacks in Paris

Flowers lay outside the Carillon cafe, a site of last Friday’s attacks in Paris

Some have seized on attacks by Islamists to smear all religions by association. But the Christian faith can play a key role in awakening the West from its slumber

The large numbers of people arriving on Europe’s shores, whether refugees or economic migrants, and the evil advent of ISIS as well as other Islamist extremists, have led the historian Niall Ferguson to compare, in The Sunday Times, the present state of Europe to the arrival of Germanic tribes and the Huns of central Asia at the gates of Rome in the 5th century.

There certainly are points of contact with the state of the western Roman Empire then and of Europe today. We have the same decadent and dilettante popular culture, where anything goes and “bread and circuses” keep the population quiescent with a never-ending round of sports, entertainment and games of chance. There is the same cynicism about faith and the values that spring from it and the same accidie, or weariness, of ageing cultures. But we have to be careful about being anachronistic and imputing to Rome all our alleged virtues and vices. It is quite astonishing that some, instead of seeing Christianity as part of the answer to Europe’s predicament, are taking this opportunity to smear all religion by association, whatever the facts of history.

It is particularly inaccurate to take the violently anti-clerical Edward Gibbon, of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as a reliable guide in comparing the role of Christianity in the Roman Empire then and the arrival of Islamist extremists in our midst now. As Larry Siedentop has well shown in his Inventing the Individual, there were no “secular” cultures in antiquity. All we had were religions of the family, tribe, city or empire, and Rome was no exception. After all Caesar, as with many rulers of antiquity, claimed divinity and, at the time of the rise of Christianity, was styled dominus et deus.

It is this that caused so much trouble for the early Church. It could honour him as emperor but had to refuse him divine honours and worship. It is simply wrong to claim that the strength of  “secular” Rome was sapped by the arrival of monotheistic Christianity. It is also highly misleading to compare pacifist early Christianity with the violent extremism of ISIS and other Islamist outfits. Most importantly, Christianity replaced the corporate cults of family, tribe and city with a deeply personal spirituality and the possibility of belonging to a classless and universal community. As Siedentop tells us, it is Christianity that has provided us with the idea of the “person” and of his or her freedom and value. If Christians have not always been faithful to this vision, that is not a reason to make false comparisons with a totalitarian system, such as radical Islamism, where there is little scope for personal freedom and hardly any for the internal forum of conscience. Siedentop shows too that the secular realm has emerged from Christian ideas about respect for conscience and the non-coercive nature of early Christianity, not from the supposed pagan antecedents so beloved of Christianity’s cultured despisers.

The fact of the matter is that Rome was saved from the worst excesses of the Vandals and the Huns by Pope Leo the Great and, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, the candle of learning was kept alight in the Dark Ages by the Benedictines and other religious communities. We certainly need statesmen today like Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman, who saw post-war European integration as needing a Christian moral basis. We need also a John Paul II, whose role in liberating the countries of eastern and central Europe from another alien ideology needs no repetition. There certainly is an encroaching and growing darkness but Christianity is the light that can shine in it and, eventually dispel it. By all means, pray for a Benedict or a Wojtyła but who would want another Nero or Domitian?

Ferguson rightly notes the emptiness of the shopping malls and entertainment culture. But he does not mention the chaotic state of family life brought about by confusing liberty with libertarianism. To this we may add the impoverished symbolism of those trying to grieve over an appalling atrocity but with no frame of reference, no system of belief and only a dim apprehension of anything transcendent. As John Henry Newman described it in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world”. Why is it that the secular Fifth Republic has to have the memorial for the victims in the glorious Notre-Dame Cathedral and not (say) the completely secular and featureless Pompidou Centre? Can this be a clue to the role the Christian faith can play in helping Europe to wake from its slumber, to keep its nerve and to assist in its moral and spiritual renewal?

The truth of the matter is that Europe needs to recover its grand narrative by which to live, by which to determine what is true, good and beneficial for its people. The nostrums of Marxism and Fascism have brought frightful suffering for its people. Now another totalitarian ideology threatens. A truly plural space can only be guaranteed by intrinsically Christian ideas of the dignity of the human person, respect for conscience, equality of persons and freedom not only to believe but to manifest our beliefs in the public space, without discrimination against or violence to those who do not share them. Instant self-gratification and endless entertainment will no more contribute to contemporary European survival than they did to ancient Roman. What is needed is an ethic of service, selflessness and sacrifice for the sake of the common good. Many will recognise this as the teaching of the Galilean Master, not of any paganism, ancient or modern, nor of any ideology, secular or religious.

There is no such thing as neutrality or value-free process in these matters. The extremists have decided what their values are and from where they come. Have we anything to counter with? The institutions, culture, achievements and values of Europe can most readily be understood with reference to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, its teaching on the value of the person, the common good and, most crucially, the necessity of self-criticism and renewal. This is the time to reappropriate it, in its broadest sense, as the wellspring of our values, to celebrate it and to offer it to all of goodwill as a basis for working together for an open but cohesive Europe. Has anyone any viable alternatives?

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (20/11/15)

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15 Responses to Only Christianity can rescue Europe

  1. Michael says:

    An excellent essay from Nazir-Ali, who always provides clear and insightful commentary on these matters (the threat of Islamism and the impoverishment of a post-Christian, secular West). Having grown up in Pakistan, and spent much time engaging with Christian communities in other Muslim countries, he is better placed than many others to talk about the way in which Islamic societies see their relationship with their religion and with the rest of the world.

    So much of the ‘Islam is a religion of peace/there is nothing to justify this in the Qur’an or Islamic tradition’ rhetoric is founded not only in political correctness, but a basic ignorance about Islam and the effect it actually has on the views of people who follow it, with respect to politics, personal freedom, etc (and therefore how much credence IS – not necessarily all their methods, but their motives and rationale – might actually have in many people’s eyes). With respect to how things stand in the West, and how we can respond in the long term, I think the article is summed up well by a passage towards its end:

    There is no such thing as neutrality or value-free process in these matters. The extremists have decided what their values are and from where they come. Have we anything to counter with?

    It is also my hope that eventually Michael Nazir-Ali will enter the Catholic Church. I’m not overly optimistic about this, but he has spoken very warmly about the opportunities presented for Anglicans dissatisfied with the mad goings on in the CofE etc by the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and has given several talks to their congregations. As I say, I’m not hugely optimistic, but you never know, and it would be a great boon for the Church in England and Wales to have another clear, orthodox voice to counter the waffle that comes from the Bishops Conference (and particularly from Westminster).


  2. Michael says:

    Oh, and another particularly good point Nazir-Ali makes is that of the grieving process not having an adequate frame of reference. It was notable in the aftermath that (as it is in all occasions of public mourning) people either resorted to religious-style language and actions (e.g.; #prayforparis, holding vigils, placing flowers in places of significance) or rituals that were, to be frank, empty of any real content other than that of feel-good sentiment ‘let’s show IS how nice we all are and that’ll show them’ etc (e.g.; the giving out of free hugs in a square in Paris).

    As is noted above, events of this gravity lead us to seek out hallowed places (like Notre Dame) and any communal secular spaces become redundant (in fact, very few secular spaces exist at all for this kind of thing) because, despite having reduced our horizons to the this-worldly, the immediate, the tangible and commercial, we find in moments that remind us how fleeting such things are that there is another dimension to our humanity – one which cannot be satisfied solely by material concerns, and which thus requires a context of transcendence and of the sacred in order for us to make sense of our lives as a whole. We can forget about this narrowing of our experience most of the time, but tragedy makes it that much harder to avoid thinking about.


  3. toad says:

    Agreed, Michael – very thought-provoking.
    “The nostrums of Marxism and Fascism have brought frightful suffering for its people. Now another totalitarian ideology threatens. A truly plural space can only be guaranteed by intrinsically Christian ideas of the dignity of the human person, respect for conscience, equality of persons and freedom not only to believe but to manifest our beliefs in the public space…”
    I just wonder if an overwhelmingly Catholic (or Protestant) society would permit or allow this. It has signally failed to do so in the past on several occasions.
    Are Catholics interested in a “truly plural space?”
    “There is no such thing as neutrality or value-free process in these matters. The extremists have decided what their values are and from where they come.”
    Can you explain to me in what way that does not apply equally accurately to Catholicism? Can you assure me that Hindus, Mormons, Atheists and Agnostics will go unmolested in the Christian Europe fervently advocated by some?


  4. kathleen says:

    Thank you for your interesting views, Michael. (By the way, I am very surprised that this insightful article from Bishop Nazir-Ali has received so few ‘likes’!)

    As you point out, Nazir-Ali asks why the memorial for the victims of the Paris atrocity were held “in the glorious Notre-Dame Cathedral” rather than any other large secular centre. It is indeed at times like this when we realise with greater discernment the fragility of life (that can we wiped out in an instant by evil forces) and the strong abiding roots of our Christian heritage where faith and hope can be awakened anew. Our loved ones will live on.
    We are spiritual beings with an immortal soul; our lives have meaning and purpose and are not confined to a purely material existence.

    If any good can come of such a terrible tragedy as this, perhaps it would be a greater awareness that we should at all times be ready to meet our Lord and God, i.e. to be always in a state of grace.
    And secondly to revive our [Catholic] Christian heritage – the One True Faith – once more. It would wake us up from the acedia and self-indulgence into which Europe has fallen, make us strong in the face of our ‘enemies’, and bring true joy and true hope, even in the face of suffering. For these are desires that agnostic Secularism is quite incapable of ever achieving.


  5. Michael says:

    Kathleen @ November 21st, 08:38:

    Yes, I wondered why it hadn’t received that many ‘likes’ myself!

    As you say, one thing that may come out of things like this is a greater awareness of our mortality, and a subsequent reassessment of what our priorities are (and how ready, or not, we are to meet our Maker). Unfortunately, I feel that any such effect will be limited in scope, as we have so very many distractions available to us now and thus have many means by which we can avoid properly engaging with the things events like this bring up.

    In fact, another thing noticeable in the aftermath of the Paris attacks is how superficial the movement to respond in ‘solidarity’ was/is – this seems to consist of putting up a tricolour filter on one’s facebook profile, making a few ill-informed comments about Christian history (along the lines of we’re just as bad as ISIS really, or it’s all the fault of the West and basically we need to be even more inclusive), followed by a vague assertion of Western ‘values’, and then dutifully avoiding thinking about the roots of the problem, or any opportunity to reconsider the inadequacy of our current frame of reference.

    However, I do think that, re your second point, we might indeed see more awareness on the collective level that the precepts we’ve tried to put in place within our culture to replace the older, Christian ones aren’t really fit for purpose, and thus we might see more people, if not actually return to the Faith, recognise its contributions to Western culture, and suggest a more positive, conciliatory approach to it (i.e.; try to adopt a less aggressive secularism). Whether, in time, this leads to more people actually coming back to the Church or not is harder to predict, and I’m certainly not optimistic, but I really don’t see how much longer we can keep up the current charade as it is, and the fact that there are no other really viable alternatives surely cannot escape people for that much longer…

    Here are some more interesting thoughts on Paris, Islam and the West to complement Nazir-Ali’s:


  6. kathleen says:

    Thanks, Michael, and I’m sure you are right, unfortunately.
    And thanks for the great article you link to. As the author rightly states:

    “Islam is one of many ideologies competing to fill the void left by the West’s abandonment of its Judeo-Christian heritage. And before we lose our minds over Islam we need to recognize that we’ve got an even bigger problem to confront at home.”

    If only enough cafeteria or former Christians could wake up to this reality, and return to their Faith we might have a hope… but we just seem to be going from bad to worse at this present time. 😦


  7. Michael says:

    If only enough cafeteria or former Christians could wake up to this reality, and return to their Faith we might have a hope…

    Yes – true indeed, and perhaps, to expand upon my response to your two points above, as things do get worse (in various respects) it might wake up some of the lukewarm or lapsed to reassess their own priorities and…well, come back! It’s one of the unfortunate facts about human nature that things often have to get pretty dire before we get woken up out of our comfort zones – or, to put it another way, things do often have to get worse before they get better.


  8. Michael says:

    P.S. Just seen a short discussion on the Islamist problem on Raymond Arroyo’s The World Over that might be of interest:


  9. kathleen says:

    Some startling and worrying revelations given here by Walid Phares in this interview with Raymond Arroyo. Makes a stark contrast to the PC vision of the migrant issue we are being bombarded with by the MSM.


  10. Michael says:

    It does indeed, and most worryingly of all, it seems that the reality of the situation (as described by Phares above) is being wilfully ignored by his own President. Presumably because the latter’s commitment to ‘equality and diversity’ at all costs has made him blind to the flaws in such a narrow and simplistic way of seeing the world. His readiness to scoff at and write off anything that might quarrel with such a view, or point out its limitations/contradictions is already all too evident.


  11. Michael says:

    P.S. Kathleen, to go back to what we were discussing previously (the effects that exterior pressures may have on a reassessment of the roots of our culture – particularly with respect to the situation in France), have you seen this article?


  12. Michael says:

    And this one, linked to near the end of the CWR article, whilst coming from a more anecdotal perspective, is very good:


  13. Robert says:

    My perspective extends backwards in order to understand the present and future.
    What we call Rome is not the same as the first 18 centuries after Our Lord. Even the title Bishop of Rome isn’t true today. Vatican Catholicism is a fact for some 2 centuries.
    Pope Leo XIII vision 13 Oct 1884 (Fatima 33 years later to that date 1917 the age of Our Lord at the time of his Passion).
    That vision was just after saying Mass (Tridentine facing the altar).

    St Michael remember battled against Lucifer and the fallen angels in per-heaven.
    At the moment its ISIS but actually all heresy’s are rampant.
    Satan’s century? We have this claim over Evolution and supposedly proven with the sciences, arts and modern financial/economic/political thinking.
    Kingship – outmoded etc.. Modernism and materialism.
    I say that Fatima actually predicted this seeing Fatima as the pinnacle flowing from La Salette, Lourdes, Cure D’Ars, St Therese and Leo XIII. Why would the simply prayers of the Rosary be promoted by Heaven? Why the Brown Scapular?
    The Rosary has been described as a mini Gospel, seen through Our Lady’s eyes. These deceptively simply meditations BUT with depths NOT understood. Do I see Christianity in terms of the middle ages? No I see Christianity as Christ Restoring All things which means His Kingdom on Earth! I am looking forward not backwards but with the certainity of a divine threads Sacred Tradition and The Bible.
    Christianity rescue Europe? That’s not a Catholic view. All Men not this pampered spoiled pagan region called Europa. If Israel and now Europa have abandoned and denied Our Lord then it follows they have chosen the road to Hell over that of Heaven. Leo XIII vision couldn’t have been more clear and the destruction of Christianity in Europa fulfils that vision.


  14. kathleen says:

    Michael @ 12:03 yesterday

    I have only just now managed to finish reading this outstanding and informative article you linked to yesterday – many thanks. It sums up the situation in France (re Catholicism) so well I believe. My only criticism with it would be the downplaying of the role of Msgr. Lefrebvre and the SSPX (that is so strong in France) has played and which could well have been the role model that has helped encourage the rebirth of the Faith in the country.


  15. Michael says:

    Kathleen @ 09:26:

    It is good isn’t it (and encouraging too). With respect to Lefrebvre and the SSPX, I must say that I have to plead ignorance as I really know very little about them aside from the consecration issues etc. But it certainly does seem plausible that they would have provided a bulwark for many during the torrid times of the 60’s and 70’s, and that what they preserved made the recovery under John Paul II and Benedict XVI more readily achievable.

    To change the focus back to the wider problem though, I just read another article (so yet another link, haha!) that provides some really good summaries of the situation we currently find ourselves in (and thus what movements like that described in France have to reckon with). Here are a few excerpts:

    …whereas for medieval people things in the natural world were experienced as in some sense signs, grounded in a higher reality and full of meaning, the modern view is determinedly disenchanted. For modernity, meaning retreated from things into minds, any intrinsic purposes being expelled. The interior life became impermeable to the natural world or to higher realities (giving birth to what Taylor calls “the buffered self”). Society dissolved into a collection of individuals (what Taylor calls “the great disembedding”). The conception of the good life ceased to be oriented toward the transcendent…

    …pressures arise from three principal sources: the experience of personal agency (“the sense that we aren’t just determined, that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents”); from ethics (the sense that our ethical motives are more than just disguised biological instincts); and from aesthetics (the sense that art has meaning and significance for us). Now, it seems to me that these cross-pressures, so enumerated, pertain especially, or even exclusively, to the secular side, for it is precisely there that determinism, relativism, and meaninglessness are most likely to find a footing, and so it precisely there that the experience of freedom, goodness, and beauty can trouble one’s complacency…

    …In a world sundered from transcendent sources of meaning and authority, the spiritual quest is left without referents, and people feel justified in finding their own path to whatever meaning and significance they discern. Hence arises the topsy-turvy notion that one can pick and choose to adhere to those elements of a religious tradition that make a personal appeal, and disregard the rest. “Authenticity” is in the ascendent, and the religious impulse is turned inward to serve the individual, his interests, and desires, adorning them with blossoms plucked from the vineyard of the Lord.

    It’s a review of a précis of another book, but in it the author does manage to capture rather well the essence of the changed view of existence that modernity has finally given us, and in doing so provides a good analysis of the shortcomings of that view. It seems clear to him (as it does to me) that secularisation as we now know it is an inadequate way of giving an account of our own existence – the only question is, having (gradually, and possibly very slowly, as the secular worldview does provide some obvious perks that people don’t want to give up!) recognised this, in which direction do we go and how long will it take to turn around.

    That’s where movements like the one in France come in – it is small at the moment, but who knows what fruit it may bear in the future if enough people see in and through it the answer to the insistent question mark(s) they feel growing within? It is not so much showing the basic inadequacies of secular culture that will be the main task, as I think this will gradually show itself, but in showing people shaped by that view of things that meaning, purpose and happiness are to be found beyond the immediate concerns of the individual. Once the disenchantment narrative has lost its sway, the ‘autonomous self’ idea (which itself generates the idea we can pick and choose different beliefs, often taken out of their contexts, from some kind of spiritual marketplace) will probably persist for some time.


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