The recent analysis of the 2011 Census results appears to indicate that before the end of this decade Christianity – once the faith of the great majority of British people – will become the faith of a significant minority. If most English people no longer identify themselves as Christians it will surely be one of the most momentous changes in our history since missionaries sent by Pope Gregory arrived on the coast of Kent in the year 597 AD. However, I want to suggest today that this may not be an entirely negative development as it dispels any ambiguity and requires of Christians a greater clarity in both teaching and witness. As Catholics we speak of this as nothing less than a “new evangelisation”, a new proclamation of the Gospel in our time. It is “new” not because there is a new faith or a new Gospel but because we face a new and changed situation. It was surely with this in mind that Pope Benedict called for the “Year of Faith” as an invitation in the Pope Emeritus’s words to “rediscover the joy of believing and enthusiasm in communicating the faith” (PF n.7) and “to profess the faith in fullness and with a renewed conviction” (PF n.9). This is surely what is now needed and it is what this Northern Catholic Conference sets out to address.
The bishop speaks of the current moment as “the twilight of Christian England.” Who could possibly doubt him? Is it just me, though, or do you too cringe when he speaks of this epochal catastrophe for Christianity as possibly “not an entirely negative development”? I mean, I see what he’s getting at, but that phrasing strikes me as like finding something positive to say about the firebombing of Dresden because it hastened urban renewal.
To be fair, I don’t know what I would have the good bishop say under these circumstances. When I was in the Netherlands and Belgium recently, it was striking to me how very different the US and Europe are about religion. Even though we are secularizing, Christianity has a far more powerful presence in American life than it does in European life. I know, I know, I’m stating the obvious, and being a pessimist, I suspect that my grandchildren will live in an America that is more like Europe is today. I hope I’m wrong, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Still, I find in my conversations with Europeans that they are so post-Christian that they don’t even have a hostile view towards Christianity. They pretty much don’t have a view towards Christianity at all. It’s a cultural nullity.
I spoke last week with a dear Dutch friend, a kind and gentle soul who has become devoted to a self-curated mélange of New Age, Buddhist, and Hindu practices. “You were baptized a Catholic,” I said. “Why do you find it easy to believe in these other things, but the Church’s message not worth considering?” She gave a simple, direct, and profound answer: “Because I don’t believe that I’m a sinner.”
She explained that she doesn’t believe in sin, not as Christians conceive of it, but rather in “consciousness” (enlightenment) or its lack. There is nothing to be saved from, therefore no need of a savior. I told her that even when I didn’t take Christianity seriously, the reality of sin, and my own sinfulness, was something I was utterly convinced of. This simply didn’t make sense to my friend.
You know what I would like to read? A smart, short history on how Europe de-Christianized. The world wars, obviously, had a lot to do with it, as did the French Revolution and the ideas and movements it spawned. But I would like to see something comprehensive and balanced, not only so I could understand what happened to Christian Europe, but also so I can do my part to keep it from happening in my own country and culture, while there is still time. Has such a book been written? Let me know.