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Christianity beyond Christendom: reflections on a European sojourn

By Noel Preston - posted Wednesday, 7 November 2012


Olga and I have just returned from a guided tour of Italy and central Europe. Predictably, our daily diet included one 'bloody church' after another. To a tourist from the antipodes, these cathedrals and abbeys with their multi-century histories are awesome. As structures, their construction defies the imagination. Architecturally, they are masterpieces. The music they create is superb, while the stain glass windows, statues and frescoes retelling the biblical sacred history are artistic wonders.

At the end of the day, however, they are testimonies to the significance of institutional Christianity in the past era of Christendom in which the spoils of power and wealth were shared between church and state amid great violence which often enslaved and impoverished the masses.

At the same time it cannot be denied that in post-Feudal days, institutional Christianity, arguably influenced by the Enlightenment, was the crucible from which many social welfare initiatives were born. Moreover, these structures still radiate spiritual influence, inspiring countless devotees to compassionate service, as a visit to Assissi reminds us. To this day these grand places of worship provide an ambience for the remaining faithful to celebrate rituals in settings which point to the transcendent.

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However, even if one were to approach these amazing sites as a pilgrim seeking the mystical and magical among the medieval, only intellectual dishonesty would deny that, in the twenty-first century, they are essentially museums and mausoleums.

As we moved from sanctuary to sanctuary, there were reminders of martyrs who witnessed to costly discipleship, sometimes in spite of the established church, though such stories often went unmentioned by our guides. For instance, the official tour of Westminster Abbey made no mention of the ten twentieth century martyrs (including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Father Kolbe and Martin Luther King) represented in a row of stone busts above the entrance to the Abbey. While in Florence, the story of Girolama Savanorola, a Dominican Monk executed in that city in 1498, went unnoticed. Savanorola was put to death after condemning the corrupt excesses of the Medicis and the incumbents of the Vatican. One exception was in very secular Prague where the monument to Jan Hus, burned to death for heresy, stands prominently in the town square, perhaps more as a testimony to Czech nationalism than faith.

In my heart of hearts the question was never far away: what would the Nazarene think of all this? Though, as a twenty-first century tourist, I observed all this as a theologically trained tourist, schooled by the social sciences to see religious phenomena as a social construction.

Two conclusions are unavoidable: Without doubt, European civilisation is now thoroughly secular, though that doesn't mean that religion or spirituality is dead. The property wealth of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Lutheranism are sure indicators that institutional religion is far from dead.

A story from my Protestant youth came to mind. As the wealth of the New World of the Americas was confiscated in the sixteenth century and brought back to Europe, indeed, much to the coffers of Cardinals, Archbishops and the Pope himself, one churchman was heard to say to another (recalling a story in the Book of Acts): "No longer need St Peter say, 'silver and gold have I none' to which the other replied, "yes but no longer can he say ' in the name of Jesus rise up and walk' ". Perhaps that story is apocryphal, though as we wandered around Vatican City and observed the homeless huddled in behind its colonnades it certainly had the ring of truth. It poses the conclusion our travels provoked: too often temporal power has been traded for spiritual integrity?

It so happens that our journey coincided with significant events for establishment Christianity: the search for a new Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict's convening of a Synod of Bishops. The Synod was to debate how to counter rising secularism on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, whose conclusions Rome now seemingly eschews. During October, the Synod has heard the call of the Pontiff for a "new evangelisation", while returning Catholicism to Roman orthodoxy. Europe is a special concern of this German Pope for, across Europe, Rome is fast losing adherents and many priests are joining the rebellious laity disenchanted with the hierarchy. This concern was clearly flagged by Cardinal Ratzinger when he became Pope taking to himself the name 'Benedict', the saint who led the evangelisation of Europe in the first millenium of the Christian era.

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Incidentally, on our return from Europe we were fascinated to see two excellent Compass reports on ABC television (October 7 and 14) which documented the struggle going on within Catholicism in Europe and the connections between the Vatican and regressive, even fascist, groups like Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ.

At the end of our tour, in a Bolognian bookshop, I stumbled across a copy of the just released title by Matthew Fox, The Pope's War: why Ratzinger's Secret Crusade has imperilled the Church and how it can be saved. ( Fox was one of the many casualties during Ratzinger's period as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith). Meanwhile, at Gatwick, I read a newspaper with an article headed "Bishops to counter rising secularism" outlining the forthcoming Vatican Synod.

It concluded how the present Pope, as a young theologian, was an adviser to the Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII. The journalist quoted the young Ratzinger from those promising days: "Faith has to come out of its cage, it has to face the present with a new language, a new opening". The Report went on to say, "But then came 1968 – a traumatic year for Ratzinger when students at his faculty interrupted professors and mocked dogma in the name of revolution".

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Prestonís recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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