Europe’s two culture wars

The government of Slovakia fell in early February, when the governing coalition imploded after a fierce parliamentary debate over a report from the European Union’s “Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Human Rights.” The report took exception to a provision in a proposed treaty between Slovakia and the Holy See, in which Slovakia agreed to protect in its law the right of a doctor not to perform abortions, if doing so violated his or her conscience. The E.U.’s network of “independent” human rights experts, slavishly conventional in its political correctness, sharply criticized the Slovak conscience-clause as a violation of the “fundamental human right” to abort an unborn child, which “right” evidently trumps all other rights, fundamental or otherwise. If a new Slovak government does not kow-tow to the E.U. mandarins in Brussels, political and economic recriminations against Slovakia may follow.

Then there is the European Parliament which, this past January 18, passed a “non-binding resolution” condemning states that do not provide for homosexual “marriage” in their law as “homophobic.” The Polish bishops’ conference issued a brisk reply, thanking the Euro-parliament for rejecting “discrimination, ridicule, and violence against persons with homosexual orientation,” but insisting that the resolution also “distorts the truth rooted in the nature of the person who was created as man and as woman.” The Euro-solons’ charge of “homophobia” against those who understand marriage to mean what marriage has meant for five millennia or more “is a serious threat to marriage and family life and to the entire order of social life in Europe.” The bishops concluded by calling on the European Parliament “to abstain from activities which bear the stamp of (a) dictatorship of relativism, putting at risk the freedom of conscience of the citizens of E.U. member states.”

Will pressure from Brussels and Strasbourg on Poland and Slovakia lead to a reexamination of the Vatican’s often enthusiastic embrace of the European Union? The present E.U. project grew out of the work of three great Catholic statesmen: France’s Robert Schuman, Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer. That distinguished triumvirate understood their work on Europe’s economic and political integration as an expression of their commitment to revitalizing the Christian civilization of Europe after the catastrophe that was the first half of the twentieth century. It is very hard, however, to find traces of that Christian vision of Europe in today’s E.U. On the contrary; incidents like those I just mentioned confirm the suspicion that the E.U. bureaucracy is determined to impose lifestyle libertinism on all of Europe in the name of fundamental human rights.

The Holy See, which has notably toughened its rhetoric about jihadist Islam in recent months, might well consider a similar toughening of commentary on the E.U. The Polish bishops’ reference to a “dictatorship of relativism” was not a passing nod to a now-famous phrase used by Pope Benedict XVI just prior to his election; it was an accurate description of what the Brussels bureaucracy and the Strasbourg parliament would like to achieve in Europe. And as Belgian journalist Paul Belien has pointed out, that means that two culture wars are underway in Europe today.

The antagonists in the first are radical Muslims who detest the West and are determined to impose Islamic taboos on western culture, by violent protest and other forms of coercion if necessary. The antagonists in the second are radical secularists, motivated by what the Jewish legal scholar Joseph Weiler has called “Christophobia;” they aim to eliminate the vestiges of Europe’s Christian culture from a post-Christian E.U. by demanding “gay marriage” in the name of equality, by restricting free speech in the name of civility, and by abrogating core aspects of religious freedom in the name of tolerance. The adjective “Orwellian” may not translate well into other European languages. But it’s the proper description of the inversion of values that’s afoot in the second of Europe’s culture wars.

And that might well compel a re-examination of the Vatican’s strategy toward Europe, in which the E.U. is imagined as a kind of platform for Europe’s re-evangelization.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.