God-talk and our European cousins

Nothing more graphically illustrates the cultural gap between the United States and western Europe than the recent flap over President Bush’s public references to God, to good and evil in the world, and to the workings of Providence in history.

German President Johannes Rau complained that “Nowhere does the Bible call for crusades.” (Amalek, call your office.) French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose government is leading the charge against any acknowledgment of Europe’s Christian heritage in a new pan-European constitution, sniffed that “In no way can God be called on for a vote of confidence.” Cardinal Karl Lehmann, one of whose newer books bears the striking title, Now Is the Time to Speak of God, chided the President for his “careless way of using religious language;” the cardinal also suggested that invoking God in public was “not acceptable anymore in today’s world.” Italian monk Enzo Bianchi went completely over the top and equated Bush’s comments with the notorious “God with us” of Hitler’s Deutschechristen [German Christians].

What were the presidential texts that got these worthies into such an uproar?

“Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” (Address to the nation, September 20, 2001)

“We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.” (Commencement address at West Point, June 1, 2002)

“The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” (State of the Union address, January 29, 2003)

This is incipient religious fascism? Please.

In a late April interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw, President Bush explained that he certainly didn’t imagine God as a political partner. Rather, he prayed for wisdom, and for the strength to see the truth and act on it. Yes, George Bush frankly admits that his conversion to serious Christian faith was the turning point of his life; yes, he freely concedes that he thinks about his presidency in vocational, not simply careerist, terms; yes, he insists it’s possible to distinguish between good and evil in world politics; yes, he believes that, confronted by certain kinds of evil, the first responsibility of public officials is to stop it. If, in some European eyes, those convictions make him a dangerous religious fanatic, then perhaps those eyes should be examined and their myopia corrected.

During the week following the 1997 death of the Princess of Wales, I remember remarking to a friend that it was unsettling to watch an entire country, Great Britain, have something like a nervous breakdown. This past February, it seemed at times as if an entire demi-continent, western Europe, was coming apart at the seams. Political rhetoric and media commentary are always to be taken with a grain of salt; but what do you take when the rhetoric and the commentary lose all tether to reality and raw emotion reigns? That was “Old Europe” in the first quarter of 2003.

Western Europe is in cultural crisis, and likely has been since the “Great War” of 1914-1918 — a war which increasingly looks like an act of civilizational suicide. Europe’s extraordinarily bloody twentieth century (from which it had to be rescued by American lives and American treasure on three separate occasions) deeply damaged something in the European spirit. Take, for example, Europe’s appalling birth rates, the lowest in recorded human history. When, at a time of great prosperity, entire nations fail to provide for the future in the most elemental sense — that is, by providing next generations — something is seriously awry.

That very same something, perhaps best described as cultural exhaustion, explains at least part of the Euro-bashing of George Bush as a religious fanatic. Much of western Europe seems incapable of gathering itself for large tasks: the defense of the West against Islamist terrorism, for example, or the reconstruction of Europe’s own faltering economies. Amidst that spiritual malaise, it is understandable that President Bush’s convictions can be perceived as simplistic certitudes in a world of dangerous ambiguities.

To understand is not to agree, however. We know what Europe’s ambiguists did in Flanders’ fields in 1914-1918, and at Munich in 1938. These are not examples to be emulated.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash