Ross Douthat reflects on the meaning of the murder of Father Jacques Hamel, the elderly Catholic priest butchered at the altar of his parish church by Islamists. He says that it is possible to say both that Father Jacques was a martyr in the old-fashioned sense, but that it is unwise to make overly broad generalizations about Islam from his killing. But, he goes on, there is a sense in which the barbaric slaughter of Father Jacques challenges the entire sense of normality that people like Pope Francis and other liberals (Catholics and others) wish to pretend were the case. Here’s Douthat:
But our today is not actually quite what 1960s-era Catholicism imagined. The come-of-age church is, in the West, literally a dying church: As the French philosopher Pierre Manent noted, the scene of Father Hamel’s murder — “an almost empty church, two parishioners, three nuns, a very old priest” — vividly illustrates the condition of the faith in Western Europe.
The broader liberal order is also showing signs of strain. The European Union, a great dream when Father Hamel was ordained a priest in 1958, is now a creaking and unpopular bureaucracy, threatened by nationalism from within and struggling to assimilate immigrants from cultures that never made the liberal leap.
The Islam of many of these immigrants is likely to be Europe’s most potent religious force across the next generation, bringing with it an “Islamic exceptionalism” (to borrow the title of Shadi Hamid’s fine new book) that may not fit the existing secular-liberal experiment at all.
Meanwhile the French Catholic future seems like it may belong to a combination of African immigrants and Latin-Mass traditionalists — or else to a religious revival that would likely be nationalist, not liberal, with Joan of Arc as its model, not a modern Jesuit.
This future, God willing, will preserve the late-modern peace. But it promises something more complicated and more dangerous than the liberal imagination, secular and Catholic, envisioned 50 years ago.
Some of the nervousness about calling Father Hamel a holy martyr reflects the limits of that imagination. After all, it would have seemed all but impossible, in the bright optimism of the 1960s, that a young priest of the church of Vatican II should, in his old age, die a martyr’s death in the very heart of Europe.
But it wasn’t, and he did.
Over the weekend, I heard from two different friends, both conservative Catholics. One had been at World Youth Day, and the other reflected on a smaller Catholic gathering. The message both of them had was, “Things are much worse than most people think.” One of the guys said:
I think we orthodox Christians need to realize how alone we are. We need to love this world and the people in it and go to its heart but we have to understand even those who seem to be fellow travelers on the surface aren’t.
I am more and more convinced that Pope Francis is sort of an anti-man for the times. In other words, he’s precisely what we do not need right now. Put differently, he’s exactly what the spirit of the age needs. He is a man so unsuited for his office and for the challenges of the day that it is scary.
Last week I interviewed legal scholars and others about the situation small-o orthodox Christians are going to find ourselves in very soon regarding our ability to keep our schools and institutions open, and to find work in various fields. The news is bad, folks. It’s really bad. I kept hearing these people who work in law saying that pastors have to inform themselves and start preparing their congregations for what’s upon us now. It’s not a joke. Pope Francis-style Christianity — Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox — is not going to withstand what’s coming. In far too many cases, we small-o orthodox Christians cannot afford the leadership we have. They’re either fighting yesterday’s battles, fighting for the enemy, or not fighting at all, satisfied instead to think everything’s going to be fine if we just sit right here and wait.