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Issue Date:  July 1, 2005

'Religious right' wrong model for Europe

Recent weeks have offered intriguing hints that despite all-time lows in birthrates, levels of Mass attendance and vocations to the priesthood and religious life, European Catholicism may have some gas left in the tank after all.

On June 12 and 13, the Italian bishops, above all Cardinal Camillo Ruini, played a key role in defeating a national referendum that would have liberalized that country’s restrictive law on in vitro fertilization. Though the factors that kept voter turnout below 50 percent and thus invalidated the referendum were complex, there’s little question that the mobilization of the church had an effect.

Next, on June 18, at least a half-million people marched in the streets of Madrid, Spain, in a massive rally, whose immediate aim was to protest a gay marriage law set for approval by that country’s Socialist-controlled parliament June 30. In this case, the Spanish bishops were a supporting cast; the organizational work and public advocacy was carried out by a burgeoning network of lay Catholic individuals and groups. Indeed, there is evidence that the bishops of Spain are divided on the tactics used.

Though passage of the gay marriage law is a foregone conclusion, virtually every Spanish analyst believes the demonstration will give the Socialists pause before challenging the church on other issues. Most immediately, it may slow momentum toward a liberalization of Spain’s abortion laws.

Flush with this sort of success, some European Catholic leaders seem eager to press the fight in other contexts. Ruini, for example, said June 17 that an European Union-level review of the abortion issue is in order.

While some may legitimately wonder if the crowds would have assembled if the protest were not against a gay initiative, some saw the demonstrations as signifying a budding “rebirth” in the public role of European Catholicism.

Some say it is exciting to see -- given the recent events in Italy and Spain -- that in the post-religious, hyper-secular context of contemporary Europe, men and women of faith are finding a voice. Perhaps in the wake of the collapse of the European Union’s draft constitution, which excluded a reference to God in its preamble and minimized the Christian roots of the continent, European elites may finally ask themselves whether the lack of enthusiasm for the union may be in part because it seems so detached from the real values of a considerable portion of Europe’s population.

On the other hand, there are worrying elements to this European Catholic reawakening, if that’s what it is, that need to be addressed before they become irreversible. American Catholics may be forgiven the presumption of offering advice, because in some ways, we’ve seen it all before.

Most important, it would be a serious mistake for European Catholic activists to mimic the rise of the “religious right” in the United States, which essentially wedded the “religious vote” to the Republican Party. The result is that “faith and values” as a political force in the United States has come to be tightly identified with conservative positions on a handful of hot-button cultural issues -- especially abortion, homosexuality and stem cell research. The result has been “religion” fit for bumper sticker declarations and TV sound bites. The religious voice in the public square has been largely limited to issues of personal sexuality and reproduction, areas over which government rightly demands little from its citizens and over which it should have little control. In other areas, such as war, health care, poverty, education, civil liberties and a general concern for the common good, those same religious voices too often echo the ultra individualism and me-first ideology that characterizes extreme secularism.

One organizer of the Spanish rally told NCR that his movement is inspired, at least in part, by the Christian Coalition. Carrying that parallel too far could be detrimental. One need only look at the Catholic bishops in the United States and the divisive strategy they employed during the last presidential election. Instead of trusting adult Catholics to choose among numerous political strategies one might reasonably employ, some bishops took it upon themselves to declare only one strategy as legitimate for Catholics. It became apparent that there was wide disagreement among bishops, and the moral force that would have attended arguments on principle dissipated in the ugliness of partisan warfare.

As important as the cultural issues undeniably are, surely people of faith, motivated by Gospel values, must have a broader range of concerns and access to a broader range of practical politics.

One example for Europeans would be Venice’s Cardinal Angelo Scola, who held an international symposium June 21 dedicated to dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and spent time talking about the need for a “politics of integration” for Islamic immigrants in Europe -- adequate schooling, housing and employment to give these new arrivals confidence that they have a place in European society, thereby avoiding the seductions of radical Islamic movements.

Some day soon, lay Catholic activists should take to the streets, in Madrid, Rome and elsewhere, advancing this sort of platform. After all, this too is a “family values” issue.

Further, one hopes the “politics of identity” associated with minority groups in the West will not drive Catholics into a desire for self-affirmation so strong that it eclipses their capacity for dialogue and self-criticism. Catholicism’s millennia-old tradition of rational theological reflection gives the church a capacity for nuance that neofundamentalists lack, and hence the capacity to work patiently with others, instead of forever reducing disagreement to a binary conflict. It would be a tragedy to squander that for the transient, chest-thumping satisfaction of “striking back” in the culture wars.

In the present polarized situation, the Christian right seems to have a near-monopoly on the defense of life at its beginning and natural end, while the religious left, which labors to articulate a more nuanced position on those issues, often does a better job with what comes between the beginning and end of life. The opportunity facing European Catholics, since for better or worse they can almost build from scratch after decades of dormancy, is to unite these two impulses into a comprehensive pro-family, pro-life, pro-human dignity movement.

It’s a worthy aim, for which the Christian Coalition is not the best model.

National Catholic Reporter, July 1, 2005

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