"The Preachers chiefly shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe and believe, but that which is agreeable to the Doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, and that which the Catholick Fathers and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that Doctrine." A proposed canon of Elizabeth I, 1571

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Location: Bedford, Texas, United States

I am a presbyter in the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (Anglican Church in North America). I serve as Chaplain at St. Vincent's School and as a canon of St. Vincent's Cathedral Church in Bedford, Texas. In addition to my parish duties and teaching Religion classes in the school I am also the Middle School Social Studies teacher.

Monday, April 18, 2005

George Will in the Washington Post

A note about this post: My posting it was not meant as an unqualified endorsement of the ideas expressed therein. In fact, my own opinions are closer to those of M.B. Hwang's excellent responses than those of Mr. Will on several of the points at issue. I simply thought it might stimulate interesting discussion.

Suicide by Secularism?
By George F. Will
Sunday, April 17, 2005
The astonishing pilgrimage of Europeans to Vatican City for the most attended funeral in history obscured a stark fact confronting the conclave that tomorrow begins selecting the next pope: Vatican City is 109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief.

Poles, especially, traveled to Rome to honor John Paul II. But what was said of Georges Clemenceau -- that he had one illusion, France, and one disillusion, mankind, including the French -- might with some exaggeration be said of John Paul II and Poland. He was vexed by the zeal with which Poles, liberated from the asceticism inflicted by communism, embraced consumerism, materialism and hedonism. From Catholic Ireland to Catholic Spain to Poland, the most Catholic nation, the trends of contraception, divorce and abortion are moving against Catholic teaching.

The challenge confronting the church can be expressed in one word: modernity. The church preaches that freedom is life lived in conformity to God's will as manifested in revelation and interpreted by the church. Modernity teaches that freedom is the sovereignty of the individual's will -- personal volition that is spontaneous, unconditioned, inviolable and self-legitimizing.
John Paul II's mastery of the presentational aspect of the papacy -- a mastery dependent on two modern technologies, television and jet aircraft -- may cause the conclave to seek a candidate with similar skills. But the substance of what he presented did not amount to accommodation with the culture of modernity.

In America, a market-driven society, there is a religion market in which the most successful competitors for congregations are churches with clear doctrinal and strict moral positions. For these churches, the "crisis of Christianity" is congestion in their parking lots.

Christianity is a varied and complex structure -- theological and institutional -- erected on a foundation of biblical prophecies and reports of the activities of Jesus. For two millennia these prophecies and reports have been, to say no more, subject to various interpretations. Hence the search, from the earliest days of Christianity, for sources of authoritative interpretation. That search produced great councils -- Nicaea, Trent -- and the post-Reformation papacy. When the conclave begins, a European epoch may begin to end.

It took 455 years to pry the papacy out of Italian hands. Now, after 26 years of a pope from Eastern Europe, the church that is withering in Europe is flourishing in the Southern Hemisphere, where materialism and consumerism are less powerful but people passionately desire the affluence that drives materialism and consumerism.

Europe itself is withering. On the day of John Paul II's funeral, the European Union's statistics agency reported that the decline of birthrates means that within five years deaths will exceed births in the European Union. By 2013 Italy's population will begin to decline; the next year Germany's will begin to drop. After 2010 Europe's population growth will be entirely from immigration. By 2025 not even immigration will prevent declining fertility from accelerating what one historian calls the largest "sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death of the 14th century."

In his new book "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God," George Weigel, biographer of John Paul II, argues that Europe's "demographic suicide" will cause its welfare states to buckle and is creating a "vacuum into which Islamic immigrants are flowing." Since 1970 the 20 million legal Islamic immigrants equal the combined populations of Ireland, Denmark and Belgium.

"What," Weigel asks, "is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense, by creating a next generation?" His diagnosis is that Europe's deepening anemia is a consequence of living on what he considers the thin gruel of secular humanism that excludes transcendent reference points for cultural and political life. Such reference points are, he thinks, prerequisites for freedom understood as "the capacity to choose wisely and act well as a matter of habit."

Perhaps. But Weigel also argues that Europe's crisis of civilizational morale was catalyzed by World War I. So Europe's retreat from religion may reflect a reasonable weariness and wariness born of four centuries of religious wars and convulsions wrought by the political religions of fascism and communism.

Weigel doubts it is possible to "sustain a democratic political community absent the transcendent moral reference points for ordering public life that Christianity offers the political community." Absent a reconversion of the continent, Europeans, who -- like many Americans -- find the injection of transcendence into politics frightening, are going to find out whether Weigel is right.


Blogger Julian said...

Given the sort of talk I heard yesterday, I find this an eloquent but rather irresponsible article - the sort with an alarmist tendency, but declining to analyze or even throughly present the arguments at stake. It's a huge leap to draw such a direct connection between declining birth rates and religious apathy. It fails to acknowledge that it is entirely possible to be religiously and morally responsible *and* be in support of contraception. Besides, we ought to wonder we are at least a little prejudicial when we are so alarmed about the "suicide" of Europe but really could care less about the many other ethnic/religious groups that are dying out. It's one thing to point out that Europe's demographics are changing significantly, but another to stir up a dangerously vague sense of alarm without properly defended foundations. If we have a bias towards the preservation of "European culture" or European welfare states, we should also be talking about why we support them or why it is advantageous to us et al.

2:55 PM  
Blogger texanglican said...

Eloquently put, MB. I was hoping you would post. I was actually thinking when I read this essay that it puts the kind of Eurocentric pride you experienced yesterday in a special light. Perhaps the "Europe" your table mates were seeking to defend is alreay gone?

3:06 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

No, this is exactly the sort of thing they were saying. They want Ratzinger to be Pope so that religion will be serious and European civ will be saved :-) Just as I did not like what was being said because it was full of general assumptions and neither reasons nor acknoledgement of one's own prejudices, I do not like this article be cause it fails on the same counts. It is probably quite true that declining fertility has a lot to do with shifts in values and society that came about in tandem with a more secular society. But do you not notice a certain Eurocentrism in this article itself? The implied arguement could very well be, "If Europe would reclaim its Catholic heritage (and therefore quit using birth control), its culture would not be losing ground." Can you imagine Mr. Will or Mr. Weigel applauding the dedication to "transcendent moral reference points" and challenge to "secularism" that the influx of Islamic immigrants is undoubtedly bringing? Isn't this a little reminiscent of the "Turks can't possibly be European" argument? It's not just "transcendent moral reference points" that are being held up as necessary for democracy: it's a certain form of Christianity. Yet Mr. Will declines to explain or even acknowledge this bias in his article. I find that rather irresponsible and tasteless because his article is exactly the sort from which quick readers and sloppy thinkers might glean a few well-turned phrases and alarmist ideas and go around saying precisely the things I heard around the table yesterday. How do you think they got those very stereotypically "conservative" ideas, anyway? And when the New York Times can't even spell their words correctly, is the Washington Post going to be any better? I would like Mr. Will to write about the poor standards of style and scholarship in the printed media :-)

5:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice riposte, MB! I was moved to compose this limerick in your honor.

There once was a gifted polemicist
Who challenged a popular columnist
To back his assertions
With more than aspersions
Or to cease and entirely desist

Jay ;)

8:52 PM  

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