Guestview: Why has Pope Benedict chosen a European strategy?
Pope Benedict will boost the European majority among the men due to elect his successor when he creates 24 new cardinals at the Vatican on Saturday. The nominations are part of a wider strategy by the German-born pope to strengthen Roman Catholicism in Europe. The following is a guest contribution and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Jean-Marie Guénois is deputy editor-in-chief of the Paris daily Le Figaro and a specialist on religion. The article first appeared in French on his Religioblog.*
By Jean-Marie Guénois
We always knew that Benedict XVI is a European pope, but lately he’s been proving this more and more clearly. In this phase of his five-year papacy, the the old continent is clearly his priority. For the past two years, the European destinations have taken precedence over all his travel (France, Czech Republic, Malta, Cyprus, Portugal, United Kingdom). Twelve of his 18 international trips have also been devoted to Europe. As for the visits due next year, they will all be in Europe: Croatia, Spain and Germany (his third visit there as pope).
(Photo: Pope Benedict with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as King Juan Carlos looks on in Barcelona November 7, 2010/Albert Gea)
The choice of these medium-haul flights could be explained, of course, by his age. At 83-1/2, Benedict takes it slow and easy. Must we recall the health of John Paul II at the same age, six months before his death in 2005? But the real explanation for these short-distance, time-saving trips is surely elsewhere. How can we best explain this? It can be done explicitly, through the speeches the pope delivered in those countries. But also implicitly, through the diagnosis bishops bring to Rome on the state of the European churches.
The diagnosis has led to a strategy that can be seen more and more clearly. After his visit to Spain, this seems confirmed by the clear priority given to the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, Spain, Italy and Poland are emerging emerge as the three pillars which underpin this implicit strategy by the Holy See.
This strategy does not aim to reconquer old ground, because the past will not return. It’s not exclusive either, because the world is wide and complex. The aim is to survive and face up to the decline of European Christianity now seen in Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands. The former bastions of Catholicism there may still be very much alive but they are in the minority.
(Photo: Anti-pope demonstrators at Westminster Cathedral in London March 28, 2010/Suzanne Plunkett)
So there is a tactical withdrawal underway to focus on these three countries where the Catholic Church still is a major force in society. There, the Holy See wants to reassure, consolidate, preserve and revitalize the role it can play. Benedict has understood that while the global epicenter of Catholicism shifts every day to the southern hemisphere, that vast region can never replace the weight of history and culture. Given that fact, he believes, Christianity has not spoken its last word in Europe.
Of the three countries, Rome sees Spain as the one needing the most care. Hence Benedict’s three trips there (counting his visit to the World Youth Day in Madrid next summer). That will be as many trips as to his native country of Germany, where he is due to visit Berlin in autumn of 2011. Three papal trips in six years to the same country amounts to a lot of attention.
In Poland, the Church still lives under the guidance of “its” Pope John Paul II. There are difficulties, indeed, but not very worrying ones; both the base and the roots are robust. Religious practice and vocations have declined since the heyday of resistance to communism but these indicators have more or less stabilised, as if the country, following its opening to the West, had reached a balance between tradition and modernity.
Italy remains unique in the world, particularly because of the presence of the Holy See. This proximity and a political history defined by positions for or against the Catholic Church always makes the Vatican feel a bit “at home” in this very religious country. Secularisation struck a long time ago but the Italian soul exhibits a Catholic tropism.
In these three countries, therefore, the Church puts across the same message through the pope’s speeches and through the local bishops’ conferences.
(Photo: Catholics attend Stations of the Cross led by Pope Benedict XVI at the Colosseum in Rome April 10, 2009/Max Rossi)
On the political front in these three countries, the Church has enough weight to pursue its political aims such as defending the family, including defending marriage as the union of a man and woman and respect for life from its inception to its natural end.
At the Church level, it wants to improve recruitment and shape a Church according to Benedict’s decidedly classical tastes – one without qualms, one able to defend its position by reason rather than by emotion.
On a cultural level, the Holy See wants to work for reconciliation with Enlightenment thinkers, who promote secular rationalism for the edification of oneself and of society, and with Christian thinkers whose philosophy is based on the unity of faith and reason.
In short, Benedict is more focused than his predecessor John Paul on reinvigorating the Christian soul of Europe. From this point of view, he is much more of a politician than he seems to be. The movement whose imprint he wants to stamp on the Catholic Church, to give it a clear and unambiguous identity, converges with a rather conservative political trend on the rise in Europe. This trend is fed by a return to values that are not progressive and are far from liberalism and social democracy.
Benedict didn’t seek out this policy convergence. He’s a theologian who keeps his distance from political manoeuvering. But it’s out there and it indicates that the Catholic Church, despite its weaknesses, has not spoken its last word in Europe.
*Pourquoi Benoît XVI choisit une stratégie européenne ? (translation by Reuters)