The Pope will find more glory without power

September 14, 2010
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This article published in The Times on  14th September 2010

Can a society survive for long without some kind of religious base? When a nation loses faith in God can it sustain faith in itself? Does Britain, or Europe as a whole, have faith in itself any more? Does it know what it is and why?

These are the questions we should be asking in the context of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, because he has been posing them for some time. The current Pope is more than the leader of the largest religious community in the world. He is also a significant public intellectual with a strong sense of history. He has been issuing a repeated warning we would be foolish to ignore.

One of its starkest formulations came in a lecture he delivered in 2004 to the Italian Senate when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In it he contrasted the resurgence of Islam with the loss of identity and purpose in Europe. The former had been reborn because of people’s conviction that “Islam can provide a valid spiritual foundation to their lives.” Europe, having largely lost its Christian faith, “seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system.”

According to George Weigel, who edited the lecture for publication, it had originally contained much stronger language. In an earlier draft the Pope had spoken about the “self-hatred” of the contemporary West. It had fallen out of love with itself and was embarrassed by its past. It was self-critical but loathe to criticise others. It was unsure whether it wanted to survive at all.

The proof, he said, could be seen in European birthrates. Not a single country in Europe is sustaining itself demographically. “Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present.” People had come to see parenthood as a burden. When a society cannot summon the energy to give birth to new generations, it is losing the will to live.

Europe, he said, was beginning to resemble the last days of the Roman Empire. Its technology and trade might still be strong but its values, culture and faith were fading fast.

In an age that prefers Jeremy Clarkson to Jeremiah, it is hard for such a warning to get a hearing. But it deserves it, not least because you do not have to be religious to see the danger. Whether or not you accept the phrase “broken society,” not all is well in contemporary Britain.

The family is in disarray. Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. In 2008, 45 per cent of children were born outside marriage, up from 36 per cent in 1997. Three quarters of a million children have no contact with their fathers.

According to Save the Children, 3.9 million children are today living in poverty, 1.7 million of them in severe, persistent poverty.  4000 children call Childline every day.  100,000 children run away from home every year. 20 per cent of deaths among young people aged from 15 to 24 are suicides.

In 2009, 29.4 million antidepressants were dispensed, up 334 per cent from 1985. During the same period, Samaritans answered 4.6 million calls from people in distress. An estimated one million elderly people do not see a friend or neighbour during an average week.

These are the kinds of social problem that cannot be solved by government spending. They are the result of the breakdown of families and communities and the loss of trust and social capital. In the broadest sense, they have to do with culture and the lack of a shared moral code. Having lost much of its Christian heritage, Britain does not seem to have found a satisfying substitute.

There is a recognisable pattern here. A clock has ticked in the history of every civilization, leading first to growth, affluence and power, then to hedonism, individualism and decline. Will Durant, who with his wife Ariel spent forty years writing The Story of Civilization, summed it up well. Religion is always a major force in the early stages of a civilization, but it is eventually enfeebled by scepticism. “The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and – after some hesitation – the moral code allied with it.” Cultural elites become anticlerical. Personal behaviour, no longer shaped by religious teaching “deteriorates into epicurean chaos.” Life itself, without meaning or consolation, becomes a burden. “In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death.”

The Pope is not the only one to sound the warning. My doctoral supervisor, the late Sir Bernard Williams, a principled atheist, was convinced that we had returned to the cultural situation of pre-Socratic Greece. That case was recently re-argued by Ferdinand Mount in his book Full Circle. Neither ancient Greece nor the last days of Rome is a happy place to be.

There is an alternative. Britain in the eighteenth century had a secular, rationalist culture and deep social problems. Yet in the nineteenth century it became re-moralized in a process in which John Henry Newman, the man Pope Benedict XVI has come to beatify, played a significant part. It was a joint effort of churches, temperance movements, Sunday schools, charities and friendly societies. It was, admittedly, an imperialistic age, but it also saw the abolition of slavery, the birth of universal education, and campaigns against inhuman working conditions and cruel punishments. It showed that national decline is not inevitable. A culture can be renewed.

Britain today is a deeply secular place, and that is not about to change. What is interesting, though, is that Pope Benedict XVI sees the role of the Catholic Church as being a “creative minority,” more interested in influence than power. That is a relatively new position for Catholics, but one Jews have been used to for more than 2,000 years. That is the best place for religion to be: powerless, countercultural, willing to question the idols of the age, speaking to the better angels of our nature, supportive of families and communities, working with others regardless of their faith or lack of it, to make ours a more gracious social order. That is a spiritual challenge worthy of our time.