Pope Francis has encouraged young people gathered at the European Union Youth Conference in the Czech Republic to present to the world “a new face of Europe”, and one which is more inclusive. “As young Europeans,” he stressed, “you have an important mission. If in the past your ancestors went to other continents, not always for noble interests, it is now up to you to present the world with a new face of Europe.” The Pontiff also urged young Catholics to protect the environment.
There was much to admire in the Holy Father’s message, such as not allowing ourselves to “be seduced by the sirens that propose a life of luxury reserved for a small slice of the world.” However, the Pope’s remarks about a new face for the Continent – while recalling that the desire for a united Europe led to a period of peace – seemed to ignore the elephant in the room, which is the massive cultural schism which today splits the continent and EU between a largely conservative and re-Christianising (as well as largely Catholic) east, and a more progressive, secular and increasingly diverse west.
When the Pope then discusses a new face for the Continent, which face is he referring to? Of course, liberal Catholics may believe the progressive position taken by western Europe is actually truer to the Christian message – this division among Catholics is reflected in the varied response among the faithful in the United States both to the issue of abortion and the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. For central and eastern Europeans however, their Christian faith is bound up with freedom, democracy and life after communism, as well as national identity and rejuvenation. While it is understandable that the Vatican does not went to get dragged too deep into politics, at some point this cultural cleavage within Europe is going to have to be addressed.
Turning to the subject of Communion for Catholic office-holders who support abortion access – an issue which came up recently with regards to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – Pope Francis merely said this was an issue of conscience for said officials. The Pope instead said that clerics should remain pastors. “When a pastor loses the pastoral dimension, he creates a political problem,” the Pope said, referring to the “polarised” debate in US. Recently, the Pope has accused conservative bishops of politicising office holders who oppose abortion personally but support it for others.
While publicly condemning abortion, Pope Francis also recently instructed new archbishops to welcome everyone into the Church, and not to “remain pinned to some of our fruitless debates.” Although the Vatican has not ruled on the specific issue of Communion and politicians supporting abortion, Canon Law states that people in a situation of persistent sin must not be allowed to receive Communion. It has also exhorted Catholic office-holders to uphold principles consistent with Church doctrine. While the Pope may feel he can call upon the support of liberal US Catholics, he risks further alienating conservatives who are more representative of those attending Mass.
Much then of what the Pope said to those gathered in Prague or to viewers of Spanish TV will not come as a surprise. Still, at some point the issue of the cultural division within Europe is going to have to be addressed, especially as the Catholic Church is for many the inspiration for their position in this Continental culture war. Meanwhile, the Pontiff will have done little to put rumours of resignation to bed. Perhaps more interesting to ponder is to what extent a Pope (emeritus) Francis would be a loadstar for liberal Catholics – much as Pope (emeritus) Benedict has been for conservatives – should he retire, and especially if the next Pope comes from central and eastern Europe.
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