One line in Pope Francis’s “State of the World” address to diplomats last week really stood out, regarding the disaster that struck Notre-Dame on April 15, 2019. “The fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris,” Pope Francis said, “showed how even what seems so solid can be fragile and easily destroyed.” It would be easy to treat the line as little more than a throwaway – a brief nod to one of the year’s more startling events. That would be a mistake.
Pope Francis situated the remark in the middle of his discussion of “the European project”, which, he said, “continues to be a fundamental guarantee of development for those who have long shared in it, and an opportunity for peace in the aftermath of turbulent conflicts and injuries for those countries that aspire to take part in it.” He went on to warn Europeans against the loss of the sense of solidarity, which has been a distinguishing characteristic of European culture and civilisation for centuries, a constant, even and especially in the most trying times.
“May it not lose that spirit,” Pope Francis said, “which finds its roots, among other things, in the Roman pietas [duty] and the Christian caritas [love] that have shaped the spirit of the European peoples.”
One thinks of Belloc’s line: “Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe.” Far from being a synthesis of European chauvinism, and further still from a paean to Eurocentrism, the expression turns on understanding Europe precisely as a cultural and civilisational project, forged from the Greek spirit of inquiry, the Roman genius for social organisation (politics and governance), and a distinctive Jewish theology of history, the last element being the founding agent. Otherwise, Europe is, as Jacques Barzun roughly said, no more than a geographical designation: the name of a paltry peninsula jutting westward from the Urals into the sea.
The Pope is the universal pastor of the one true Church, founded by Christ on St Peter for the forgiveness of sins, the redemption of flesh, and the salvation of the world. The question of whether the European project is salvageable at this point is therefore not Francis’s ultimate concern. Civilisational orders come and go. But he grasps that the European project is inextricably bound up in the Christian endeavour in the world, for good or ill, hence that the only Europe worth trying to save is one from which Christianity is not excised.
“Our recent past,” Pope Francis told the European Parliament in 2014, “has been marked by the concern to protect human dignity, in contrast to the manifold instances of violence and discrimination which, even in Europe, took place in the course of the centuries.” He went on to note that the recognition of human rights did not come overnight, and is itself a fine and fragile acquisition.
“This awareness,” he said, “was grounded not only in historical events, but above all in European thought, characterised as it is by an enriching encounter whose ‘distant springs are many, coming from Greece and Rome, from Celtic, Germanic and Slavic sources, and from Christianity which profoundly shaped them’, thus forging the very concept of the ‘person’.”
That is where the real conversation is, if anyone is interested in having it. Buildings burn down, and may or may not be rebuilt. The Church has lived through decline and collapse, and will do so again. Not that the business isn’t traumatic; it is. “Eternal City,” wrote St Jerome in the wake of the sack of Rome in 410, “if Rome can fall, what can be safe?”
St Augustine of Hippo responded to the late imperial crisis with his City of God: 22 books known today for their development of a political philosophy that was at once a theology of history, which served as a blueprint for a thousand years of a civilisation called “Christendom”.
As part and parcel of that project, Augustine also faced – directly and unflinchingly – the accusation of a reactionary pagan elite that had come to insist that Christianity was not capable of sustaining the morals of a state. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
“Brothers and sisters,” Pope Francis told the high officials of the Roman Curia just before Christmas, “we’re no longer in Christendom, not any more!” That’s a literal translation of the Italian, which was “Fratelli e sorelle, non siamo nella cristianità, non più!” The line was widely quoted – and officially translated – as, “Brothers and sisters, Christendom no longer exists!” (emphasis in the official text).
In the 2014 speech to the European Parliament, Francis quoted an anonymous 2nd-century author, who wrote: “Christians are to the world what the soul is to the body.” The Pope noted that the soul quickens the body, is the seat of its consciousness – its conscience – and its memory.
“A 2,000-year-old history links Europe and Christianity,” Pope Francis said, “a history not free of conflicts and errors, and sins, but one constantly driven by the desire to work for the good of all.”
That sounds like a project – and a work in progress.
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