The Churches in Europe? “They are losing vitality, the number of children attending catechism is decreasing year after year and this is happening in virtually all countries, including deeply-Catholic countries such as Poland and Ireland. They are progressively losing their faithful, coupled by declining numbers of priests. They are losing influence in society. More often than not they are targets of ironic media coverage, with no consideration whatsoever. All these elements put together form a very negative picture.” A veritable tornado swept over the Plenary Assembly of the Presidents of European Bishops’ Conferences gathered in Santiago de Compostela October 3 through 6. It was triggered by a woman named Chantal Delsol: a French philosopher, political historian and writer. Outspoken Catholic, she describes herself as a “liberal conservative.” She was asked to inaugurate the Plenary (which this year chose as its theme “Europe, time to wake up? The signs of hope”) with a cultural, political and social analysis of the situation in Europe. And she did so by twisting the knife in the problem and voicing concerns without mincing words. Her speech shocked the bishops, as 11 plenary interventions at the end of the talk testify to, along with the fact that the bishops went on to exchange views, divided into 4 working groups.
Professor Delsol, you presented an extremely difficult situation for the Church in Europe. Here the bishops are looking for signs of hope. How did they react?
Someone pointed out that what I said leaves no room for hope. But why should we be optimistic at all costs? Instead, I think it is more useful to examine what we are. There is no point in hoping for that past to come back one day. The past is past. It’s over. We will no longer have a lead position with respect to laws; we will no longer have the possibility of preventing divorce or abortion or euthanasia. That time is over. We may regret it. We may dream up another situation. But by doing so, we will never move forward.
Why have we reached this stage?
For a number of reasons. I think that the revolutionary shift brings us back to two centuries ago, with Enlightenment, which targeted Christianity. It sparked off a long-lasting process that began in the 18th century and ended in the second half of the 20th century. Two centuries that have strongly changed the paradigm of reference that ultimately wiped out the guiding role of the Church. Nowadays, the Church no longer has a determining role with respect to customs, ethics and laws. It is a finite past. The Church today is living as a minority that can be active, intelligent, yet nevertheless it remains a minority.
In this minority condition, which mistakes can the Church no longer afford to make?
The Church’s deeds must reflect her words. When there are bishops or cardinals who preach Gospel simplicity and then live in 250 square meters with a plethora of good nuns serving them, the Church loses credibility. This needs to be stopped. It is necessary to simply start to bear witness to what is being said. First be witnesses and then good preachers. I see it as the first thing to do.
And the second…?
We must learn to be a minority. A minority that can also be intelligent and full of energy.
We are a minority and we must accept it.
We could ask the Protestants or the Jews, who were always minority groups, what it means and how they managed. In any case, it must be accepted.
To what extent have the sexual abuse scandals changed the Church?
I’m not so sure whether it has actually changed. The Church is a closed society, as are trade unions, political parties and the family. By closed society I mean a society that in its midst has a tendency to defend the institution before defending the people who form part of it. The Church did the same and permitted the institution to defend herself before defending the child. This shows that the Church is an institution like all others and certainly no better than any other. It is made up of men, and men make mistakes. Let us remember that a minority church has an even greater duty of perfection, for the illicit behaviour of even one of its members exacerbates a decline that is already underway.
The Church has not understood that as minority deprived of power, it is all the more afflicted and discredited by scandals.
The Church always voiced the proposal of bringing the Gospel into our present times. What are the needs of European men and women?
They need to give a meaning to life. They have understood that market society cannot fulfil this endless thirst for meaning.
They thus start seeking various forms of wisdom, through yoga or going vegan. But I believe that Christianity encapsulates a stronger sense of life, which reflects a great culture. A culture founded on human dignity, on individual conscience, a culture of truth as a gift of science, a culture of progress. These are all qualities that can be offered to the men and women of our present times.
What was your advice to bishops with regard to engaging in dialogue with men and women today?
My suggestion is to be witnesses. Your actions must not contradict your words. People will never believe you if you act this way. Consistency between words and way of life is of the essence. Way of life is the first thing. That’s what people must see first of all, only then can you speak. This is what I said.