Olivier Roy: an impartial observer of Europe’s crises

A cleric stands near a statue of the Virgin Mary in front the European Parliament building in Strasbourg (Getty)

Is Europe Christian?
By Olivier Roy
Hurst, 112pp, £14.99/$19.99

Everything seems to be about identity these days: politics, culture – even religion. Some of this is directed at persuading people that they should support a particular view simply because they belong to a particular group. In other cases, reflection on identity issues is a way of comprehending what is happening to a locality, nation, or even continent. The latter is the focus of Olivier Roy’s

Is Europe Christian? A professor at Florence’s European University Institute, Roy seeks to outline what is happening in Europe vis-à-vis religion and what this means for Europe’s self-understanding.

The first thing to note is that Roy does not have an agenda. His book is not concerned with bolstering or damaging any particular cause, whether it is liberal religion, Catholicism, Islam or secular substitutes for faith. Though he stresses that much European angst about religion proceeds from concern about Islam, Roy illustrates that much deeper currents are at work that have prompted a series of interrelated crises throughout Europe which cannot be left unresolved forever.

Considerable mythology surrounds the subject of Europe and religion, such as the legend that Islamic-ruled Spain was an oasis of tolerance. That myth and many others are shown by Roy to have much more to do with efforts to address contemporary issues. Nor does he hesitate to demolish the clichés which litter the discussion of religion’s place in Europe: “there is no real difference,” he writes, “between Catholic fertility rates and Protestant fertility rates”. Elsewhere, he observes: “The Confessing Church in Germany, which took a stand against Nazism, may well have been Protestant, but it was in Protestant Prussia and not Catholic Bavaria that the Nazi Party achieved its highest scores.”

Having cleared the field of many fake facts, Roy turns to what really matters in comprehending religion’s place in contemporary Europe’s self-understanding. This is the relationship between Christianity and European modernity. Much of this is read through the lens of secularisation: both in terms of the legal construct of politics’ autonomy from religion and the decline of religious practice as a major feature of European life.

This has produced a variety of political and cultural trends. One is the emergence of those (mainly on the political right) who emphasise Christianity as part of national or European identity but who put considerable distance (to say the least) between themselves and orthodox Christianity’s dogmas and doctrines. They will defend, for instance, having crosses in public places as a matter of national heritage – but only in those terms. This is identity-politics. The effect is to reduce Christianity to a historical curiosity.

Other trends include liberal Christianity’s widespread collapse, the implosion of the Christian Democratic political option, the disappearance of any significant Christian presence on the European centre-left, a noticeable growth in dynamic Protestant evangelical groups and the reduction of many Christian organisations to more-or-less secular NGOs. Yet another development is the emergence of Catholic movements which bring together orthodox faith with a type of charismatic character and varying degrees of openness to other faiths and the secular world.

An integral part of this story, Roy stresses, is that at the very moment when the Second Vatican Council sought to open a series of conversations between Catholicism and secular modernity, the latter moved away from the common values it had once shared with Christianity. This concerned not just moral questions but also, at a deeper level, the very understanding of human nature. The gap may be summarised as existing between those who embraced a “new morality” – one that rejects natural law, views human nature as infinitely fluid and conceptualises liberty in hedonistic terms; and those who adhere to what is known as Christian anthropology and insist that right reason allows us to know objective truths about God and humanity. There is no common ground here.

Moreover, the new morality’s dominance in politics, law and culture cannot help but lead Christianity’s further marginalisation from ideas of what it means to be European.

The dilemma is that, historically speaking, Christianity is central to European culture, and secular modernity is proving to be a very poor substitute. We see this whenever European Union bureaucrats invariably resort to sentimental humanitarian bromides like “diversity” as they try to identify European values. The only way out of this situation, Roy concludes, is “to go back to fundamentals”. By this, he means the roots of European liberalism and the continent’s Christian heritage. The hope, presumably, is that fresh thinking about religion’s place in Europe can be effected at a foundational level. How that might occur, I’d suggest, would be an ideal future topic for Roy to address – and, for Europe’s sake, sooner rather than later.

Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute and author of the newly released book, Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilization