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Can Our Christian Heritage Still Inspire The European Project? (Part I)

Can our Christian heritage still inspire the European Project? (Part I)

Discover the keynote address by Dr Teodor Baconschi at the State of Europe Forum 2019 in Bucharest (May 9th 2019)

We are living in times for what I should call an ‘organized amnesia’ regarding the Christian roots, not only of our common history but also of the value of the European project as we know it from sixty years ago. That’s why, well, allow me to deliver some remarks in the context of our gathering tonight. 

But before, I would like to add my personal thanks to his Beatitude for hosting us. This is also a statement from the head of the Orthodox Romanian Church, a Pro-European one, which is very important in our present day’s context, regional context and with all that’s happening when we are looking to the East: Russia, Crimea, Ukraine, etc. 

I believe that we are underplaying the importance of religion in forging a common European destiny. I count myself among the critics of radical Secularism, a phenomenon which, I think, can partly account for the rise of Euroscepticism across the old continent. Indeed, without its Christian identity, the European Union represents nothing more than a supranational bureaucratic framework, from which an increasingly large number of European nation states feel estranged. Regardless of whether European citizens and their representatives will seek to revive the Gaullist concept of a ‘Europe of Nations’ or move towards a federal configuration; the need to reaffirm the legacy of Christianity as an integral part of the European public imaginary is pressing.

After World War I, Europe found itself overtaken by Nihilism and Totalitarianism, an ideational drift that anticipated and, perhaps, precipitated World War II. Let us not forget that both Nazism and Communism were fundamentally opposed to Christianity. It was only after 1945 that Europe reconnected with the profound wisdom entailed by the Christian experience which heralded the longest period of peace and prosperity in our continent’s history. I believe it is our duty to constantly revisit the circumstances that turned the dream of a united Europe into a reality. 

The European Project has been both conceptualised and put into practice by Christian Catholics and Protestants. Despite their differences, they all share the strong commitment to democracy and Atlanticism, as well as a common resentment for Fascism and Communism. The Christian-Democratic doctrine, which was inspired, as we all know, by the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, outlined the image of a free and peaceful European Union, whose existence would not undermine national sovereignties, but rather unify them under the principle of subsidiarity.

Throughout the Cold War, Western European countries strengthened their ties with the United States, justifying their adherence to NATO on the basis of their ethical and social values, which were fully compatible with those of the Christian tradition. Contrary to popular belief, the USSR had many allies in the West. A large share of the French, German, or Italian intellectual elites admired Stalin and held the tenets of Marxism in high regard. Their published works, however, never accounted for the solitary dread of the Soviet Gulag. Upon his arrival in the West, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was treated with suspicion. He ultimately found refuge in a modest cabin, buried deep in the forests of Vermont. Under the pretext of Pacifism, many sympathisers of the USSR, who were being financially supported by European Communist parties, developed an anti-imperialist rhetoric. Maoism and Trotskyism provided the conceptual framework for most of the student protests that took place in May of 1968 – in the same year that the troops of the Warsaw Pact quelled the mass protests that had taken Czechoslovakia by storm.

Nevertheless, the West’s dominant cultural identity throughout the second half of the 20th century remained profoundly marked by liberalism and conservatism. The moral and ideological downfall of the Soviet regime was precipitated by decisive action of three political figures, namely Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, alongside the Christian-Democratic German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was also responsible for the reunification of Germany. Karol Wojtyła opposed Communism from early on in his career, when he was serving as Archbishop of Krakow. After becoming Pope, he managed to persuade all of the signatory states of the Helsinki Accords, including the Soviet Union, to accept the inclusion of religious freedom among the list of fundamental human rights. The relevance of this addition was not only symbolic, but also practical, since it offered European democracies a powerful diplomatic lever that they could use to combat Soviet oppression.

Indeed, the pressure to safeguard the religious rights of citizens and communities within the USSR ended up eroding the system just as much as President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ initiative. In its desperate attempt to compete against the US, the Soviet Union was arguably ruined by excessive military spending, but also as a result of the internal power dynamics of the OSCE: although the Soviets believed that signing the Helsinki Accords would enable them to maintain the status quo of global bipolarity, it ended up undermining their own power.

Even though Western Europe’s rebirth was fueled by the Christian-inspired value of solidarity and a personalist conception of human rights, it also led to the development of highly consumerist and mediatised societies, in which liberalism and secularism became intimately associated. Indeed, regular religious practice has continuously declined, while scientific positivism and anti-clericalism have spread at a rate reminiscent of the 19th century.

In fact, between 1945 and 1989, the West has cultivated an increasingly broader sense of social and cultural autonomy, laying the foundations for a more developed form of self-critical historical revisionism, which was nurtured both by the realities of decolonisation as well as the plethora of civil rights movements that emerged in the past decades. The future came to be defined in opposition to the past. No dogma or taboo were meaningful enough to challenge the utopian quest for unrestrained freedom.

The French concept of ‘laïcité,’ which has spread throughout all of Western Europe, removed religion from the public sphere in the name of a confessional neutrality of the state. The Second Vatican Council has also contributed to the reconceptualization of the institutional purpose of the Church – since it suggested that the Church should be principally regarded as a provider of charitable services and sponsor of social solidarity, which implicitly and perhaps inadvertently silenced its transcendental dimension.

(The second part will be published next week)

Dr Teodor Baconschi

Former Foreign Affairs Minister of Romania and former ambassador of Romania to the Vatican, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Republic of San Marino, France, Andorra, Monaco and Portugal.

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