Europe, Secularism and the Church

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor Outlines Challenges

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

LONDON, MAY 28, 2005 ( We should have hope for the Church in Europe, exhorted the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. His words came during a speech Wednesday that closed a cycle of conferences titled, “Faith in Europe?”

Other speakers at the Wednesday evening talks held at Westminster Cathedral over the last weeks were Sir Bob Geldof, Lord Patten, Irish President Mary McAleese, Jean Vanier and Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, 72, started by recalling his impressions upon looking over the packed St. Peter’s Square when the new Successor to Peter was announced. For three weeks the world was transfixed by the drama surrounding Pope John Paul II’s death and the election of a new Bishop of Rome. “What marvels the Lord performed in that time,” the British cardinal said. “We will not easily forget them. No wonder that among Pope Benedict’s first public utterances were those ringing words, ‘The Church is alive!'”

With the election of the new Pope, continued the archbishop of Westminster, “We had elected a wise and holy pastor, a German from the heartland of our old continent whose culture is impregnated with Christianity like no other.”

The name of Benedict, moreover, is full of meaning at a moment when the future of the faith in Europe is under debate. St. Benedict’s rule, noted the cardinal, was of great value during the Middle Ages. Then, in the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV confronted the skepticism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. Benedict XV (1914-1922) was a great bridge-builder, “the still, small voice of compassion and peace in a continent that was tearing itself apart in hatred and violence, war and revolution.”

A continent’s soul

One of the inspirations behind the conferences, he explained, was John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in Europa.” The cardinal commented that the 2003 document “exhorts us to relive our roots; to be again what we are.” John Paul II knew that even if European culture is composed of diverse elements, “he also understood that Europe has a soul, a soul imbued by the Christian faith, and that the neglect of that soul is shriveling our continent to the detriment of all.”

For this reason John Paul II had “invited us all to take stock, again, of our home, to dust off the crucifixes, to escape for a time from the clamor and hear again the still, small voices deep in our European souls.”

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor also recalled the first words of the Second Vatican Council document on the Church in the modern world, which also make up his episcopal motto: “Gaudium et spes.” That document, he noted, opens with those immortal lines: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ too.”

The task of taking on those joys and hopes in a more secular Europe is a challenge for the Church. But the cardinal explained that it is important to distinguish between different types of secularism. There is a neutral type, and there is a more-aggressive kind which does not respect a proper separation of the temporal and the spiritual, and which is hostile to the legitimate presence of the Church. This aggressive secularism, the cardinal said, “sets out to eliminate God and his Church from playing its role in civic and social formation.”

Secular Europe, admitted Westminster’s archbishop, has made important contributions to Europe’s development, particularly in science, education and technology. He warned, however, “If Europe seeks to forget God, and does not also inherit and survive with the great values of its Judeo-Christian tradition, it falls into anguish, because it fails to look beyond herself.”

Therefore, one of the main contributions the Church can make is to act as a sort of repository of the continent’s tradition, and remind Europe of its Christian roots and of God. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, the cardinal affirmed, Europe has been shown the dignity of the human person and the transcendent meaning of human relationships. This mystery of living and dying has given Europe its soul, heart and true vocation.

Preaching Christ

During his talk Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor also cited words that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had written in his 1994 book, “Turning Point for Europe?” It is vital, wrote the future Pope, that “the Church, or Churches, should first of all truly be themselves. Christians must not allow themselves to be downgraded to a mere means for making society moral, as the liberal State wished; still less should they want to justify themselves through the usefulness of their social works. … What the Church must first do, decisively, what is her very own: she must fulfill the task to which her identity is based, to make God known and to proclaim His Kingdom.”

Thus, the Church’s primary task must be to proclaim Jesus Christ, insisted the Westminster archbishop. And this preaching must not be based on mere human wisdom, “but on the Spirit and on His power.”

This preaching, he explained, must start with the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From there, the Church needs to provide a response to the “innumerable challenges and questions posed by modern technology and progress.” The Church must address a multiplicity of themes, ranging from sexual ethics to genetics, themes of economic justice and world peace. The teachings on these matters “must always be an invitation to real happiness and to a discipleship rooted in the true meaning of love.”

The cardinal also exhorted Europeans to live their freedom with a greater commitment to solidarity, involving themselves with others and not living their lives as “lone rangers.” And, regarding technical progress, they must also be wary. “Technology must be our servant, not our master; we must shape it to God-shaped human priorities, not the other way round,” he warned.

The tendency to individualism and the freedom offered by technology and the modern lifestyle has brought with it greater freedom, but also brings the danger of exalting our free choices to an absolute level, thus corroding consciences, the cardinal observed.

Truly human

True freedom, explained Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, starts by acknowledging that God created the world and each one of us. This carries with it the consequence that the Church’s moral doctrines “are not what secular Europe so often reduces them to — a manual of dos and don’ts — but rather, an invaluable guide on how to be truly human.”

He also spoke of the need to offer Christians the experience of some form of community life, which will allow them to pray together and to receive mutual support. It is a paradox, the cardinal noted, that many today consider religion to be boring. Religion, in fact, deals with matters so dramatic that only rarely can the stage or screen adequately portray them, he said.

The Church in Europe and particularly in Britain, the cardinal observed, is in a time of crisis. It is not a crisis of disintegration; rather, it is a crisis of uncertainty, change and development, he contended. At this moment the Church must “offer people a real choice, a choice about salvation: pilgrimage or death. Babel or Pentecost. Despair or happiness.”

We must, he concluded, invite people to seek holiness and to turn to God in prayer. Thus, he added, we can have confidence for the future of the Church in Europe.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation