John Paul II somehow managed to transform his ‘apostolic’ visits into media events of much broader interest. Implicitly, he gave the Catholic Church a bigger visibility in an increasingly secular world. The tradition started by the predecessor continues with Benedict XVI who does not hesitate to join the same media game, actually accepting it as a challenge. Vatican diplomacy shows creativity when setting the itinerary of papal visits, insisting on their symbolic resonance.
Papal speeches also count on a strategy of more than just symbolic convergence. It is one way of conducting a dialogue at a much larger scale. Of course, the area of this missionary diplomacy taking advantage of the ‘rostrums’ of democratic dialogue to confess its specific creed is somewhat limited: representative political institutions, religious communities, social organisations with a certain profile.
In a context like that, papal speeches are primarily seeking to enhance ‘messages’ with a political impact, and such thing can only be achieved by identifying exactly those issues that respond to a sensitivity that goes beyond the borders of a purely religious interest. But the resort to ‘politics’ is not what it used to be, the Vatican no longer supports regimes or establishes militating movements.
The religion-politics relation has changed and is now closer to the evangelical epoch. Atheism, drift of social values, politics without ideals, religious competition, secularisation – here are the general data on Europe (and not only) today.
The Catholicism, like the other ‘historic’ Churches that have the tradition of ‘homogeneous’ Christian societies behind, discovers under the pressure of history an indifferent and hostile world that restricts, sometime drastically, its public presence.
In pope’s homeland Germany, a country with a Christian-Democrat chancellor, the atheists are already a majority. Something needs to change about the perception of its mission – this is a thought of common sense if not even a prophetic one. But it is not enough to re-launch a more ‘authentic’ evangelic rhetoric, to look for points of convergence, or to call on immortal responsibilities.
One of the recurrent themes of the visit was the loss of intensity of Christian life and the progressive degradation of Christian values not only with the others, but within its own ranks. His co-nationals were blamed for individualism and moral inconsistency, despite their proverbial organisational spirit. The German Catholic Church is perfect from an institutional point of view – says a pope who knows it well – but the spirit of the life of its members has distanced itself from the evangelic one. The pope was thus able to utter one scandalous truth: there are atheists who are more preoccupied with God than many declared Christians.
The conclusion is there is one matter of substance which should come back on the agenda of all Christian Churches: how Christian is Europe (and the world, in general) these days? The debate should re-launch several issues that so far have been confined to an almost exclusively political area. One recent book is called ‘Godless society. Risks and collateral consequences of dechristianisation of Germany’ (author Andreas Puttman).
In general, the ‘rise and fall’ of Christianity is seen in an abstract way, without connection with concrete social contexts. There are forms of social concreteness of belief which, in fact, lies at the foundation of any ecclesial institution. After all, before being a special institution, the Church is a convergence of sociable inclinations. The problem therefore is not the social influence of Christianity or of any of its Churches, but the social spirit is drives. Christianity did not exist before it became social, but its forms are not fixed and limited, but always re-invented. The missionary ambition of Christianity is a major one: preach the social viability of its values. As one Orthodox theologist (Alexander Schmemann) was so beautifully summarising, the most terrible criticism of Christianity comes from Nietzsche, who accused its followers of not knowing what joy is. The decline of Christianity in Germany and Europe in general is not just the result of adverse historical contexts (Nazism, Communism, virulent secularisation), but also of the lack of a spiritual ‘supply’ not adverse to the individual. The entire Catholic human rights struggle of the last decades (from the unborn fetus to paralytics, from the outcast to conscience opponents) is for building a new type of humanism where God no longer becomes, in a subtle and perverse way, the number one enemy of human fulfilment. Spiritual requirements which take ascetic effort are one thing and the culture of excessive penalisation in the name of pseudo-religious demands is a different thing. The Catholic Church (but not only) has been coerced to return to the fundamentals if Christianity – the salvation of man.