Changing Religions

But while legal and political issues could have their impact, the most significant developments promise to be in the specifically religious realm, as changes in contemporary Europe affect members of different faith groups around the world. Muslims of course run the greatest risks in the short term and should benefit most in the longer perspective. For many Muslims, the encounter with Europe has produced a sudden and often shocking immersion in modernity and has, in addition, created a hothouse atmosphere of controversy and free speech. Though the resulting intellectual and spiritual turmoil contributes to political extremism, the long-term pressures are likely to create an ever-more adaptable form of faith that can cope with social change without compromising basic beliefs. Whether or not we call it Euro-Islam, such a development would be of immense benefit not just to European societies but to neighboring regions of Africa and the Near East as well. The United States would gain immensely from a decline of religious tensions in these regions.

However counterintuitive this may seem, the advent of Islam might also be good news for European Christianity, in an era when those two words were beginning to sound increasingly like an oxymoron. As European states redefine their attitudes to one religion, they have no choice but to take account of the far more numerous presence of Christianity. From a grassroots level too, the immense attention paid to religious concerns and Europe's heritage in the past few years probably will drive more Europeans to take a renewed interest in their Christian roots, to rediscover what it is that so many academic experts seem to be consigning to oblivion. As mainstream Europeans rethink the religious roots of their society, some at least will be led to take that religious dimension more seriously. We know that a broad interest in religion and Christian spirituality survives in Europe, while more focused movements are cultivating new forms of devotion and instruction intended for contemporary societies. It would take a bold prophet to speak of a widespread Christian revival in near-future Europe, but we can see surprising portents of recovery, however localized.5

Contrary to expectation, then, Christianity is surviving amid European secularism and often achieving far more than mere survival. That fact has potent implications for other parts of the world facing secularization in the future, not least perhaps in areas of the United States. The changes have a special impact for Roman Catholics, who continue to represent the world's largest single religious institution. European Catholics face severe challenges to their traditional position and must adapt to a world of falling vocations and declining clerical prestige, of a new minority status even in countries familiarly regarded as quintes-sentially Catholic, while church-state tensions grow. Each issue poses real problems, which demand a rethinking of the nature of church loyalties, the relationship between religion and national identity, and the proper role for the laity. If, though, the European Church can adapt successfully to the role of "creative minority," that augurs well for the fate of churches facing similar problems elsewhere. If the Catholic Church can survive contemporary Europe, it can survive anything.

The church's strong European roots mean that tactics and movements that originate here are likely to spread to other parts of the world, so that as in earlier centuries, European Catholicism provides a creative laboratory of faith. The opportunities to interact with Islam give lessons learned in Europe still wider applicability. And the presence of so many Christian immigrants makes it all the more probable that solutions devised in Europe will spread round the world.

Indeed, the recent despair over the fate of "God's continent" finds a good many historical precedents. Viewed over the centuries, perhaps the best indicator that Christianity is about to expand or revive is a widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its closing days. Arguably the worst single moment in the history of west European Christianity occurred around 1798, with the Catholic Church under severe persecution in much of Europe, and skeptical, deist, and unitarian movements in the ascendant across the Atlantic world. Among other horrors, that was the year that French revolutionary armies seized Pope Pius VI and carried him into exile, an event that many took to mark the end of the papacy, and (yet again) the terminal crisis of the Catholic Church. That particular trough in Christian affairs also turned into an excellent foundation, from which various groups built the great missionary movement of the nineteenth century, the second evangelical revival, and the Catholic devotional revolution. Nothing drives activists and reformers more powerfully than the sense that their faith is about to perish in their homelands and that they urgently need to make up these losses farther afield, whether overseas or among the previously neglected lost sheep at home. Quite possibly, the current sense of doom surrounding European Christianity will drive a comparable movement in the near future. Death and resurrection are not just fundamental doctrines of Christianity; they represent a historical model of the religion's structure and development.

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