Catholic Lite and Europe’s demographic suicide

George Weigel

Ten years ago, after my meditation on Europe, The Cube and the Cathedral, had appeared in several languages, I was invited to speak to members of the European Parliament in Brussels. There, I pointed out what seemed three rather obvious points.

(1) Europe is committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself in what British historian Niall Ferguson has called “the greatest sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death in the 14th century.”

(2) This unwillingness to create the future in the most elemental sense, by creating new generations, is at the root of many of Europe’s problems, including its difficulties assimilating immigrants and its fiscal distress.

(3) When an entire continent – healthier, wealthier, and more secure than ever before – deliberately chooses sterility, the most basic cause for that must lie in the realm of the human spirit, in a certain souring about the very mystery of being.

The response to this analysis that has stuck in my mind ever since came from an Italian Euro-parliamentarian, who said, in so many words, “Look, we know we’re finished. We’re trying to arrange things so that we can die comfortably in our beds. Don’t you Yanks come over here and start stirring things up.”

It was brutal but it had the merit of being honest, and it came back to me the day after the recent French presidential election, when it was pointed out by several observers that the prime ministers or presidents of Europe’s largest economies – and of all the European members of that exclusive global club, the G7 – are without children: German’s Angela Merkel, Great Britain’s Theresa May, Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni, and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Add to the mix the childless Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and the childless prime minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, and something quite striking comes into focus: of the six founding members of what has evolved into the European Union, five are now led by childless prime ministers or presidents, a situation that would have been unimaginable to one of the founders of modern “Europe,” Konrad Adenauer, who was the father of eight.

The childlessness in this elite cohort certainly has different causes, given the diverse personalities involved. Some of these leaders doubtless experience their childlessness as a sorrow – although none seems to have taken the option of adopting children. Nonetheless, the childlessness of so many western European leaders is, if nothing else, a stark illustration of the crisis I identified more than a decade ago – and which my Italian interlocutor in Brussels confirmed, if in a thoroughly depressing way.

The members of the American commentariat most attuned to this plague of Euro-childlessness tend to discuss its impacts in terms of the rapidly growing Muslim population in Europe and the difficulties so many European states seem to have in assimilating immigrants from a different civilizational orbit. Those problems are real enough. But for a Catholic, Europe’s demographic winter bespeaks, first and foremost, a colossal evangelical failure. Acknowledging that also sheds light on the contemporary Catholic situation in Europe.

In recent years, the Catholic Lite Brigade has reasserted itself in western Europe and in the counsels of the world Church. It is time to ask whether Catholic Lite – as displayed in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere – does not have something to do with Europe’s demographic meltdown. It is time to ask whether Catholic Lite is not at least partially responsible, not only for Europe’s self-chosen sterility, but for Europe’s rapidly accelerating embrace of euthanasia. It is time to ask why Catholic Lite has been such an abysmal failure in forming public moral cultures in which self-gift, not self-aggrandizement, is the touchstone of human aspiration.

Sixteen years ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told me that “Organized Catholicism in Germany is a task force for the old ideas” – the ideas of Catholic Lite. The same might be said of “organized Catholicism” throughout much of western Europe. And while there are signs of hope to be found in renewal movements and new forms of Catholic community across the continent, the continued embrace of Catholic Lite by too many western European Catholic leaders and intellectuals bodes ill for a European Catholicism that can inspire Europe to reject demographic suicide and rediscover the joy of creating the future through having children.

Featured image by Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35972521

COMING UP: A Hillarian lesson for Church leaders

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Perhaps it was being “overcome with Paschal joy” (as the Prefaces for Easter put it). Maybe it was my guardian angel whispering in my ear. Perhaps I’m just getting older and thus less crotchety. But for a brief moment, at around 0730 EDT on the morning of May 3, I felt a blush of sympathy for Hillary Clinton for the first time in twenty-five years.

The material cause of this unprecedented emotion was that day’s Washington Post where, on p. A4 below the fold, I read this headline: “Clinton blames Russia, FBI chief for election loss.” As for the frisson of sympathy, it went something like this: “The poor woman. She still doesn’t get it.”

Get what? Get that she was the reason she lost.

The case for that judgment is made at length in Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes (Crown), which I had just read on a long flight and which has had tout le Washington in a tizzy for weeks. Political junkies will relish the book’s story of the infighting between data-driven analysts on the Clinton campaign staff and the on-the-ground pols in the field; the latter sensed that something seismic was shifting in the electorate, which the former refused to believe because of their “models.” But according to Shattered, the fundamental reasons for one of the greatest upsets in American presidential history were that Hillary Clinton was unable to articulate a compelling reason for her candidacy; her staff couldn’t come up with a reason that resonated with voters; and no one on that staff had the nerve to tell her that she was the basic problem.

In choosing senior campaign workers, Hillary Clinton evidently valued loyalty above all other virtues, and defined loyalty as never being critical of the boss. Shattered’s most lurid revelation is that, after her 2008 loss to Barack Obama, Mrs. Clinton and her husband devised a loyalty scale by which they measured Democratic members of Congress – and then took systematic revenge against those who were either not supportive in the 2008 primary contest with Obama or insufficiently supportive. Thus the word got out: if you want to work for HRC, check your critical faculties at the door. Or as Allen and Parnes put it, while a lot of insiders knew last year that the Clinton campaign’s biggest liability was the candidate, “no one who drew a salary from the campaign would tell her that. It was a self-signed death warrant to raise a question about Hillary’s competence – to her or anyone else – in loyalty-obsessed Clintonworld.”

In all of which, I suggest, may be found a cautionary tale for Church leaders, especially bishops.

An old wheeze of Catholic black humor has it that, after a man is ordained a bishop, he’ll never again eat a bad meal or get a straightforward answer. It’s not true, of course, but there’s enough truth lurking inside the clerical cynicism to bear reflection.

The Church’s unique, Christ-given structure invests great authority in bishops. And that, in turn, puts a high premium on the ability of the bishop to know his weaknesses and learn from his mistakes. But to know and learn from his weaknesses and mistakes, the bishop has to recognize them – or be invited to recognize them, if one of a number of vices prevents him from seeing himself making mistakes. Wives and children do this charitable correction for husbands and fathers. But Catholic bishops don’t get that form of correction because they don’t have wives and children. So it has to come from somewhere else.

“Fraternal correction” among bishops is an ancient and honorable tradition in the Church. Patristic-era bishops practiced it with some vigor, the most famous case being the controversy between Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen, Bishop of Rome. Today, bishops’ respect for each other’s autonomy tends to mitigate against the practice of fraternal correction. Still, if “affective collegiality” means anything, it ought to mean having enough care for a brother-bishop, no matter his position in the episcopal college, to suggest to him that he is off-course, if that is one’s conscientious judgment, tempered by prayer.

Fraternal correction is a delicate instrument, to be used with care. If its use completely atrophies, however, the Church risks becoming an ecclesiastical version of Clintonworld.

Featured image by Astrid Stawiarz | Getty Images