Eurojess 2013: Secularisation in Europe


Eurojess is a network of Jesuits, and of our collaborators in our social centres and social institutes. Each two years Eurojess holds a congress, to which is also invited other persons competent in the subject concerned. This year’s congress, Secularisation, the Context of our Evangelisation (Lviv, August 2013), searched for an adequate understanding of and response to this long cultural process which may or may not be irreversible. JESC was represented by Stephen Rooney and Frank Turner SJ.

The congress featured three kinds of discussion.

1. Experts discussed the general history of the process; current theoretical debates about the concept itself; the cultural framework (pre-modern, modern and the post-modern reaction against the simplicities of ‘modernity’. We discussed the representations of ‘religious and secular’ in the media; and in politics and public debate; and recent sociological data were presented covering both church attendance and (more broadly and perhaps more significantly) people’s self-reporting of the significance of religious considerations in their lives.

2. We anchored these broad theoretical debates in country case studies. What, for example, of the supposedly ‘natural religious sensibility’ of Africans. as illustrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo? What about the post-Soviet transition, and in particular the revival of the Orthodox Church, in our host country Ukraine? What about Italy, where the regulating idea of laicità means something remarkably different from the equivalent French term laïcite?

To answer that last interesting question crudely, and by way of illustration, laïcite implies a radial separation of the realm of the state and the realm of religious institutions and their relative autonomy. An Italian who had grown up with the notion of laicità was baffled to find that his Parisian university was simply ‘unable’ to advertise an academic publication from an Italian Catholic institution. Laïcité implies not only separation of faith communities and the French state, ‘La République’, but also the right and duty of the state to govern the public activities of the Church: the state cannot tolerate any body, any civic movement, of which it (the state) does not determine the rights, the obligations and the competence. In contrast, the idea of  laicità (and indeed the very Constitution of Italy) requires the Italian state to recognise the independent authority of another state – in this case the Vatican – and Italy cannot decide alone how to regulate this relationship.)

3. We considered within ‘sector groups’ how a Jesuit apostolate, committed to sharing the Gospel, can respond clearly and respectfully to a European culture that operates mainly on assumptions that seem inhibit the practice of a Christian life in the public arena. Groups considered this question from the perspective of school education, of ministry to young people, and of our social apostolate itself.

An impression and a selective response

Complex intellectual debates, over three days, cannot be rendered in soundbites. By way of report, I make two main points and draw a kind of conclusion from them, about Jesuit European mission.

1. Given the sharp cultural differences we discovered – fr example, between Italian laicità and the French laïcité – we asked whether a common European perspective possible? If not, then any notion of European cultural integration is probably an illusion.

Such as shared vision seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. Even if we make the doubtful assumption that the process of European integration continues, European institutional systems will not override long-standing cultures. Malta will not suddenly become indistinguishable from Estonia or Cyprus or Germany.

However if there is not a shared vision there is a shared ideal of respectful pluralism. Up to 2004 there seemed to be a sense that a clear and irreversible process of secularisation was being pursued in European politics, towards the French model. There was a symbolic event of 2004, the Buttiglione case, where a European Commissioner was rejected because of his personally expressed private, religious belief._

Yet, in the same year, 2004 ten new member states entered, and two more in 2007, with very diverse models of Church-state relationship. It soon became obvious that pluralism in this matter had to be accepted and strict laïcité would not prevail.

One result of this process is the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 which for the first time gives a legal basis to dialogue between the EU institutions and religions, churches and humanist and non-confessional organisations. Whether viewed from the side of the EU’s institutions or from that of the churches and faith communities, this system is far from perfect: that is another story. The institutions remain secular, of course, but the road to official secularism is closed. The churches have a recognised voice. On the Transparency Register, JESC declares its church affiliation. The writer of this note has ready access to the Parliament and can get appointments at the Commission (though hardly at the Council). The de-privatisation of religion is legally recognised!

At the same time, remember that I cited the half-joke made to me by a senior official of the European Commission (a friendly remark from someone himself a Catholic): ‘We have to talk to you because we need to talk to Islam’. The interesting implication of this remark is that religion is widely seen as a problem that, because of its new-found political weight, cannot be ignored: but that it is seen as a problem,  rather than as a resource for thinking, a resource for public reason

2. I am very happy to accept and support the system of secularity. The Indian Jesuits will tell you that this system is crucial to them. When there was a religiously-based government in India, linked to radical Hinduism, the threats to religious minorities were intensified, given almost a public  legitimation. .

Second: I think we have agreed here that secularisation has many diverse aspects, some healthy even from a religious point of view, some regrettable.

Third: I would oppose secularism. I can well understand secularism as a historical reaction to the dominance and the oppression of, say, the Catholic Church in Europe. We heard of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the Pope’s appallingly triumphant Te Deum: or the evils of cuius regio eius religio as that was played out in the Thirty Years’ War.

But this version of history is highly selective. In the twentieth century, the great slaughters (Stalin, Hitler, Mao Pol Pot) were committed in the spirit of militant secularism, of the belief that the state has an absolute status over against all dissident expressions of civil society.  Secularists too need to ‘repent’ of intolerance and of the violence committed in their name, and to recognise the danger of their absolutising: but they rarely do. The outsider’s question about French laïcité (and I stress that this is a question) is whether this laïcité could share the danger of absolutising: for example, the quasi-divinisation of ‘La Republique’. This mystical appeal to ‘La Republique’ seems to me, ironically, to mirror a certain kind of no less abstract ‘high ecclesiology’ that has not quite disappeared from Catholicism. Christians can sin, but the Church cannot, because as soon as Christians (including bishops) sin they are no longer acting as Church. The Church cannot reform because it cannot offend! So also a former French President can be tried for alleged corruption, but ‘La Republique’ remains absolute and beyond challenge.

And yet, even within that long-established culture of laïcité, the Church finds ways of operating, of bringing influence to bear publicly: and in some ways the state supports the church – e.g., financial, maintenance of church property.

As a conclusion: I want to suggest that we ought neither to be bullied by this militant brand of secularism, nor afraid if it. I make three points.

1. As I argued, secularism is fully  understandable as a historical reaction. But it is not acceptable as a principle! There is no good reason why believers in God should agree with the specifically secularist project to disallow expressions of their belief in the public sphere. If you exclude people’s deepest convictions from political debate, political debate becomes unreal. It is not a neutral position to say that religion is irrelevant.

In our congress it was explained how the influential philosopher John Rawls argued that in the political sphere one cannot use religious arguments exclusively: one must back them up with reasons accessible to the non-religious. I agree. But many secularists go further than Rawls. One cannot use religious arguments at all in the political realm, since such language is simply illegitimate. Therefore religion can have nothing to say about politics. In discussion yesterday I heard of two well-qualified Jesuits involved in technical discussions of politics and economics that as Catholics (and perhaps especially as Jesuits, as ‘professional religious’) they had no right to make their arguments. (One was French, operating witin the system of laïcité: the other Italian in what appears the more accommodating laicità!)

Yet from personal experience I notice that anti-religious language is very common. In practice, it is forbidden to defend Christian belief but legitimate to attack it. What is demanded by this kind of secularism is not separation, but separation plus control.

2. If the expression of religious belief and its implications for politics is confined to the ‘private sphere’ what would this ‘private sphere’ be anyway? The family? But the family has a central societal role: and the topic of the family is itself highly politicised. (Who gets to define marriage and the family in the public legal domain? The state.) The state well knows that, in the old phrase, the ‘personal is political’. A Jesuit in South Africa in the apartheid era, once insisted that – at least on church premises and during the liturgy – there would be no enforced separation of races. He was accused of ‘meddling in politics’! When Christian communities express their faith adequately, even ‘in private’ states may still strive to interfere.

The restriction to the private sphere is incoherent, since no serious religious believer could accept that God is Lord of only one section of their life. The politicians recognise that Islam cannot possibly privatise in that way, nor need Christianity.

3. We do not best oppose rigid secularism by adopting the polar opposite as our absolute. One speaker at the congress noted helpfully that the key contrast for him is not for him is not that between ‘believers’ and ‘secularists’ but between those who speak exclusively from a clear a priori stance (for example, Catholic identity or anti-Catholic identity) and those who commit themselves to look at the issues themselves – both in their  technical and in their broader ethical and political aspects.

We are not condemned as Christians to silence: but we need to practise ‘restraint’. It is not even intelligent politics to advance arguments which opponents or potential supporters simply cannot accept or even understand. It serves only to block the dialogue that we need, and it ensures that we will learn nothing from those who disagree with us but have their own contribution to make.

By Frank Turner, SJ

1 In brief: the European Parliament rejected the nominated Commissioner Rocco Buttiglione (and because the rules were that you could not pick off single Commissioners, rejected therefore the whole college of Commissioners), on the ground of Buttiglione’s personal view of homosexuality formed, they said, by his Catholicism.) He said that he had never declared a view on homosexuality as a politician, that he would act as a Commissioner in full respect for human rights; and that, by their own rule of separation, they had no right to ask him in Parliament about his private religious belief. But he was still rejected despite President Barroso’s attempt to  defend him – by denying that any discrimination against homosexuals in EU policy would be permitted.]