In the January issue of First Things, Pope Benedict XVI, in an article entitled, "Europe and Its Discontents," asks the question "What is the true definition of Europe?" It is his contention that Europe is only a geographical term in a secondary way. First and foremost, "Europe is rather a cultural and historical concept" (16), though many modern Europeans deny this.
In a brief and well written manner, Benedict traces the significant points of European history in order to draw the significant conclusion that Europe's current denial of its religious and moral foundations has led to its general lack of optimism, its lack of hope. Nowhere is this seen more clearly in the European view of children. He writes,
"Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as though they were taking something away from our lives (19)."
Benedict compares this similar view of children with the declining days of the Roman Empire, when the great structures of the empire still functioned, but its vital and renewing enery had been depleted. The thesis of Oswald Spengler seems to be prophetic for Europe: every culture moves through a progression from birth, to gradual rise, and then flourishing, to slow decline, aging, and death. Europe's life cycle nears the end.
Benedict wonders, however, whether the diagnosis of Europe's demise is correct. "We must ask whether it is in our power to reintroduce the religious dimension through a synthesis of what remains of Christianity and the religious heritage of humankind" (19). He makes several observations that are germane not only to Europe, but to the United States as well.
First, the state churches of Europe are chracterized by fatigue. The church is not providing the moral foundation necessary on which to build a revitalized Europe.
Second, the Christian heritage in the United States is decaying at a rapid pace, although the huge influx of Latino immigrants, with their significant religious traditions, may somewhat ameliorate the situation.
Third, although Europe has long recognized that a Communist economy does not work, the moral and religious fallacies of Marxism have yet to be addressed, and still have strong influence.
Thus Benedict concludes, "Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the identity of Europe, we will also fail in providing a service to others to which they are entitled. To the other cultures of the world, there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West. They are convinced that a world without God has no future" (21-22).
What strikes me about Benedict's argument is how germane it is to the American context. The sacred and the secular wage war in our midst; we may be twenty years or so behind Europe, but nonetheless we are heading in that direction. I do not pretend to have all the answers as we move our way through the thorns of Constantinianism and what it means for the church to be a light to the nations and an alternative to the world, but is it not the case that if a society denies its religious roots and thus its moral foundations, will it not result in hopelessness and the lack of interest in the future? Will not our children then be viewed as a liability rather than an asset, a statement that there is hope? Is not the fact that abortion is legal in this country a sign that such a decline is taking place?
My former teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, would say in class that abortion is a no-confidence vote in the future. It is not a coincidence, I think, that the legalization of abortion, the increasing acceptance of euthanasia (yes, Terri Schiavo was euthanized), and the slow but growing support for human cloning, is the result of an ever increasing secularism that undercuts the moral foundations that once were so familiar and so cherished.
Are we in our culture in the last stages of our aged existence, or is there hope for the future? Like Pope Benedict XVI, I err on the side of hope.