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Pope Francis on European Secularism by Jonathan Culbreath

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Essay

Pope Francis on European Secularism

Apostolic Journey to Cyprus and Greece: Press conference on the return flight to Rome, December 6, 2021.

Photo: Vatican.va

In a December 6th interview on board a return flight from his official visit to Greece, Pope Francis made some noteworthy comments about the European Union, in response to its attempts to cancel the word “Christmas.” His comments revealed certain dimensions of his political worldview that are not commonly noted by mainstream media, and which point to the futility of trying to ‘classify’ his political teachings in the terms provided by conventional ideological categories. 

In November, the EU Commission had drafted a document (subsequently withdrawn after much public outcry) intending to promote more “inclusive” language, which entailed avoiding the sort of language which might assume that everybody was a Christian, such as the word “Christmas.” Instead, the document had recommended the more neutral phrase “holiday period.”

In response, the Pope made a surprising comparison between the EU and the dictatorships of Nazism or communism, remarking:

[T]his is an anachronism. In history many, many dictatorships have tried to do so. Think of Napoleon: from there . . .  Think of the Nazi dictatorship, the communist one . . .  it is a fashion of a watered-down secularism, distilled water … But this is something that throughout hasn’t worked.

He then clarified that he was not absolutely condemning the EU as an institution, but rather calling upon it to return to its original roots in the ideals of unity and greatness, without treading the path of “ideological colonisation.”  To this end, he stated:

[T]his could end up dividing the countries and [causing] the European Union to fail. The European Union must respect each country as it is structured within, the variety of countries, and not want to make them uniform. 

In his encyclicals Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis has previously emphasized the desirability of international political institutions, even calling explicitly for the establishment of a one-world government. Moreover, his vocal sympathy for immigrant peoples has lent additional support to his image as an opponent of nationalism and a proponent of globalism. In this respect, he is repeating a long tradition that can be traced through to several of his predecessors. 

The Pope’s comments on the plane ride from Greece, however, offer another perspective regarding his vision of politics, one that doesn’t quite contradict his globalist political vision but does offer some balance to it. He explained:

[E]ach country has its own peculiarity, but each country is open to the others. The European Union: its sovereignty, the sovereignty of brothers in a unity that respects the individuality of each country.

It is difficult not to perceive in these words an implicit reference to the EU’s ongoing conflict with Christian countries like Poland and Hungary, whose late revival of their national Christian cultures (not to mention their often harsh policies on immigration) frequently earns them the label of ‘nationalist’. Yet these countries may equally well be identified as victims of the very “ideological colonisation” that Pope Francis is warning the EU to avoid. 

There is another important dimension to the Pope’s comments, namely the issue of “secularism.” When the Pope beckons the EU to return to its roots in the ideals of “unity and greatness,” he means something quite specific. Indeed, when read in the context of his overall opinion of Europe, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Pope is referring to the EU’s own Christian roots.

In this context, it is worth reading the Pope’s letter to the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, on the subject of Europe. The letter was written on the occasion of Cardinal Parolin’s scheduled visit to Brussels in October of 2020, which was cancelled on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In this letter, the Pope reveals his deep reverence for the original ideal of the EU; an ideal which informs all of his eloquent teachings on global issues and international politics. In particular, Pope Francis honors the legacy of the Catholic statesman Robert Schuman, the author of the famous Schuman Declaration, and one of the founding figures of the EU itself. The Pope praises the noble ideal of international solidarity which motivated Schuman’s politics, and he calls upon Europe to renew its commitment to this ideal.

Significantly, Pope Francis also insists upon the importance of Europe’s Christian heritage in the pursuit of this international ideal of universal solidarity. He writes:

Europe, find yourself! Rediscover your most deeply-rooted ideals. Be yourself! Do not be afraid of your millenary history, which is a window open to the future more than the past . . . Do not be afraid of your thirst for eternity, enriched by the encounter with the Judeo-Christian tradition reflected in your patrimony of faith, art and culture.

In this respect, the Pope is again in continuity with the ideals that motivated Schuman, who was inspired by none other than the high ideals of Catholic social teaching itself, including the traditional Catholic doctrine of integralism. Catholic integralism professes that although Church and State are distinct, they are not opposed. Indeed, this doctrine states that church and state should even be in a certain harmony with each other such that, even in people’s political lives, they are directed to the worship of a transcendent God. 

Pope Francis himself gestures towards this ideal when he writes:

I dream of a Europe marked by a healthy secularism, where God and Caesar remain distinct but not opposed. A land open to transcendence, where believers are free to profess their faith in public and to put forward their own point of view in society. The era of confessional conflicts is over, but so too—let us hope—is the age of a certain laicism closed to others and especially to God, for it is evident that a culture or political system that lacks openness to transcendence proves insufficiently respectful of the human person.

The Pope’s emphasis on “healthy secularism” is important, and it must be starkly contrasted with the “watered-down secularism” which he criticized in his December 6 interview. There, the Pope expressed his fears that the EU will adopt a “watered-down secularism” by censoring its Christian heritage and the Christian heritage of the individual nations under its mantle. In his letter to Cardinal Parolin, he dreams of a Europe marked by a “healthy secularism” which is truly open to transcendence and to religion in the public sphere.

It is also interesting to note that the phrase “healthy secularism” had been used previously, by Pope Pius XII in 1958, in a speech reassuring the Italian people that the Church had no desire to “take from Caesar what is Caesar’s,” even as it did desire a proper unity between Church and State. Pope Pius XII had also expounded both the integralist and the internationalist ideals years earlier, in his encyclical Summi Pontificatus, and was another strong supporter of the original idea behind the formation of the EU. Pope Francis has thus shown himself to be in continuity with his predecessors.

In more ways than one, the globalist network of liberal media often has tried to claim Pope Francis for their own. Yet this interpretation of the Pope’s approach to international politics and the intersection of politics and religion, based on his engagement with the subject of Europe, differs significantly from the usual interpretation that can be deciphered from the selective reports of the mainstream media. 

Pope Francis’ comments on the anachronistic and watered-down secularism of the modern EU suggest that the globalization of liberal ideology is little more than a form of ‘ideological colonisation’ that neither respects the cultural particularity of individual nations nor protects the openness of the public sphere to the worship of God—and that this is a problem. In this way, Pope Francis is hardly an old-fashioned liberal.

Jonathan Culbreath is a writer living in Southern California. His writing has appeared in publications including The American Conservative, The Daily Caller, The Bellows, Crisis Magazine, and America Magazine. He may be followed on Twitter at @maestrojmc.

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