After the dust has settled — after the processions are over and the Masses have been said, after the new pope has accustomed himself to new apartments, new tasks, new vestments — Benedict XVI will face an extraordinary list of problems, ranging from the bioethical to the geopolitical. But for this German pope, among his toughest tasks by far will be the battle for acceptance on the continent of his birth.
It sounds paradoxical, given the European splendor in which the church has been cloaked for the past several weeks — the scenes of Rome, St. Peter’s Square, the Sistine Chapel — but nevertheless it is not Africa, or Latin America, or even the rebellious United States that poses the greatest set of difficulties for the Catholic Church at the moment. It is Europe itself.
By this I don’t mean merely that church attendance is falling in Italy and Spain, as is often reported, or that birth control is widely used among European Catholics. Although there is plenty of religious apathy in Europe, it is far less powerful than the antipathy directed not just at the Catholic Church in Europe but at religion in general. It’s not that Europeans think the church is out of touch or backward, but that they — or rather an influential group of intellectuals and politicians — heartily despise everything about it. Some of this was visible yesterday. Within hours of his election a BBC profile had already speculated that the new pope had honed his rhetorical skills in Nazi Germany (he deserted the Wehrmacht at age 15) while some on the German left were describing his election as a “catastrophe.” I expect we’ll hear far worse insults in the next few days.
The Catholic scholar George Weigel calls this phenomenon “Christophobia” (a phrase he borrowed from the South African-born American legal scholar J.H.H. Weiler, who happens to be Jewish). Weigel began investigating the phenomenon after being struck by the European Union’s fierce resistance to any mention of the continent’s Christian origins in the draft versions of the new, and still unratified, European constitution. In his recent book, “The Cube and the Cathedral,” Weigel lists the many sources of this very powerful, very profound and very European — as opposed to American — antipathy. He cites, among other sources, the experience of the Holocaust, which many European intellectuals concluded was the logical outcome of Christian bigotry through the centuries; the disappointment still felt among European leftists over the collapse of European communism, which many “blame” in part on the church; the legacy of the 1968 rebellions, which, there as here, opposed traditional authority of all kinds; and Europeans’ tendency to associate the church with the “right” in general and Christian Democratic political parties in particular. To this I would add one more: Europe’s present associations of “religiosity” with “America,” and in particular with George W. Bush, who still scores reliably high negatives in opinion polls across the continent.
For the many Europeans who dislike religion, it was easy enough to dismiss the late pope as a “backward” Pole, and to find him inconsequential even when he somehow persuaded millions of young people to attend his outdoor “youth” Masses. But the advent of a German pope, who in fact shares many of John Paul II’s views, may well make religion part of the European political debate again, this time on the western as well as the eastern half of the continent. At the very least, a German-speaking pope will be hard for Germans to ignore.
This will be a debate worth watching, even if you aren’t Catholic or religious (and I am neither), because it will reveal much about the direction in which European politics is heading. It might also hold clues to the future of the battered, long-suffering transatlantic relationship. While many of the cultural differences between Europe and America are vastly overstated, the religious differences are profound. It’s hard to be in politics in this country and not at least pay lip service to religion, as John Kerry can attest. In Europe, by contrast, political leaders who profess religious beliefs are derided. Tony Blair is mocked for his piety; the French protested when their president went to the pope’s funeral; and the Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione had to withdraw his candidacy as European commissioner on the grounds that his Catholicism might get in the way of his legal judgment.
In their decision not to pick a pope from a part of the world in which the church is actually growing, the cardinals showed that they’ve nevertheless not given up on the continent where the papacy was born. Perhaps they see some trend that is invisible to the rest of us. Perhaps they are betting that the enormous growth in the European Muslim population, with all the questions it raises about national identity in countries such as Holland and France, may lead many Europeans, if not directly back to religion, then at least to a recognition that there is a role for the church in public life, or at the very least in history books. In any case, when Benedict XVI finishes his glass of champagne — or whatever popes drink to celebrate their election — he’ll certainly find his work cut out for him.