Church-State Relations in America and Europe (Part 2)

Robert Kraynak on the Different Paths of Development

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HAMILTON, New York, MARCH 26, 2005 ( European countries may appear to be more in line with Church teaching on many issues, but their motivation is much different, says a political scientist.

Robert Kraynak, professor at Colgate University and author of «Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World» (Notre Dame) shared with ZENIT how the United States and Europe have taken different paths in church-state relations and what roadblocks the respective nations have faced.

Part 1 of this three-part interview appeared Friday.

Q: Why have church-state relations developed differently in the United States and in Europe since the 17th century?

Kraynak: The paths of America and Europe leading to the present condition have overlapped and diverged in crucial respects. Both were shaped by the major currents of modernity that produced powerful liberal democracies with dynamic industrial economies; they also have a common alliance in NATO and shared commitments to world organizations such as the United Nations.

But the paths taken in Europe have been more violent and exhausting than in America — leaving an older and more tired European civilization that is skeptical of grand causes and claims of ultimate truth.

For example, the Europeans experienced terrible wars of religion in the 1600s, which means that religious diversity can remind them of sectarian warfare rather than the robust pluralism of America, where the sects persecuted but never killed each other.

Religious establishment in Europe was a way of imposing civil peace, settling the issue by convention instead of claiming ultimate truth — as in England, where Anglicanism emerged as a political compromise rather than a theological truth.

The Europeans also battled the Muslims, so the Spanish, French and Austrians are naturally suspicious of a religious pluralism that gives Islam an equal claim that could be converted into domination in a few generations.

Politically, the European democracies emerged from centralized monarchies, often by violent revolution, or from the defeat of totalitarian regimes. They also had colonial empires and fought bloody world wars on their soil with millions of casualties — leaving them tired and quasi-pacifist, and suspicious of the strong claims of good and evil that Americans are fond of asserting.

The centralized welfare states of Europe are expressions of the desire for guaranteed social security, to which religion is irrelevant and even a danger. Culturally, the Europeans experienced radical forms of the Enlightenment from France and Germany, as well as morbid forms of post-Enlightenment existentialism and nihilism.

By comparison, the Anglo-American Enlightenment was always modestly progressive, maintaining a belief that truth will emerge from the free competition of ideas.

The overall result is that Europeans are tired and want to play it safe, so they are comfortable with lingering religious establishment and spiritual indifference. They have a deep fear of Islam exploiting religious pluralism because some Muslims have the passion for religious absolutism in a dangerous form.

It is possible that Cardinal Ratzinger underestimates the Islamic threat that Europeans sense but are paralyzed to confront head on — as was evident from the howls of protest against Italian President Silvio Berlusconi’s remark that Western Christian civilization is superior to Islamic civilization. The European reaction seemed to be, «Don’t tap the hornets nest!»

Q: In spite of recent hostility to Christian viewpoints in Europe, many European nations have policies on controversial moral questions — such as abortion — that are closer to the Church’s teaching, than does the United States. What accounts for this phenomenon?

Kraynak: In certain respects, European policies seem closer to the social teaching of the Catholic Church; but overall, I do not think that this is true.

On issues such as the death penalty, social justice, environmentalism, and support for the United Nations and the Palestinians, Europeans sometimes sound more in tune with the Vatican than Americans. But the motivations of the Europeans and even some of their policies are radically different from the Church’s teaching.

Germany, for example, has articles in its Federal Constitution that call for protecting «the natural bases of life by legislation» as well as protecting marriage and the family and allowing religious instruction in state schools — see Articles 6, 7, 20. But in reality abortion, divorce, birth control, gay marriage, stem cell research and artificial fertilization are readily available.

The most vital Catholic countries — Ireland, Poland, Spain and Italy — are in the process of changing their laws to reflect the permissive freedoms of secular society, despite opposition from the Vatican — though Ireland remains staunchly anti-abortion, while permitting divorce.

On the other hand, marriage and family life actually may be more stable in Europe than in America because European societies are more stable than America — there is less social mobility, less rootless individualism and less crime to weaken the bonds of family life.

In general, European nations are more communal or corporatist than America, and that means more limits on competitive individualism and greater social cohesion. Hence, environmental restrictions and workers’ protections are more in line with Catholic teaching, as well as the virtual elimination of the death penalty and opposition to wars, like the war in Iraq, without strong U.N. approval.

But these European laws and policies are not motivated by Catholic natural law, or Christian charity, or anything particularly noble. They are motivated by the secular materialism of the social welfare state that seeks safety and security in «this world» at all costs.

In the worst cases, Europeans have lost sight of the highest human aspirations and the courage to seek them — leading them to seek a risk-free world where it is too strenuous to work hard, to marry, to have children, to go to church, to pursue high culture and even to fight for their survival.

If this goal is fully realized, Europe will go the way of the Roman Empire, with Muslim immigrants playing the role of conquering barbarians.

Q: In the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII condemned the heresy of what he called «Americanism.» Has the Church’s perspective on the American experiment changed since Leo’s time?

Kraynak: It is not entirely clear if Cardinal Ratzinger’s cautious endorsement of the American model reflects a change of attitude about the American experiment since Pope Leo XIII.

That is partly because Leo’s condemnation of Americanism was not a rejection of American democracy or religious liberty per se — which he said could be acceptable under certain circumstances. Leo defined Americanism as the tendency to trim the Catholic faith to fit the fashions of the time — something that today is called cafeteria Catholicism or progressive Catholicism.

I think Cardinal Ratzinger is fully aware that Americanism in Leo’s sense is still present in America and in every other modern democracy.

One can even trace the devastating sex-abuse scandals in America to this tendency. They were caused by seminaries that let in the sexual revolution of the 1960s under the belief that the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics was outdated and by bishops who lost confidence in their authority to discipline and punish abusive priests.

I do not think that Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II have any illusions that Americanism in this sense has disappeared. Nor are they uncritical of many features of American society — such as consumerism, inequali
ties of wealth, Roe v. Wade and American unilateralism.

So, Pope Leo XIII was not rejecting the American model of democracy in all cases, and Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II are not endorsing it wholeheartedly, either.

What may be new is an acceptance of the American principles of disestablishment, God-given natural rights, and religious pluralism as the best arrangement for Christianity in the future. There is also a sense that the future lies in Africa and Asia, for totally different reasons.

The Church, after all, has always distinguished the Two Cities — the city of God and the earthly city — and held that the eternal truths of the spiritual and moral realm are compatible with changing prudential judgments in the temporal and political realm.

In the present circumstances, the newer American model looks comparatively better than the older European one; but the American model also has weaknesses that may lead it down the path of Europe and Canada.

In that case, we will have to devise different strategies for spiritual renewal amidst a variety of hostile forces — a situation that will look a lot like the early Church and that will require similar kinds of martyrs, saints, and heroes to begin rebuilding the city of God on earth.

[Sunday: Catholicism and Americanism]

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