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Tomás HalíkMay 18, 2022
Father Visvaldas Kulbokas, center, serves as translator as Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchange gifts during a private audience at the Vatican in this July 4, 2019, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The prophetic words of Pope Francis have come true this year: We are living not only in an era of change, but in an age-changing epoch. Pope Francis has long spoken of our time as a “piecemeal third world war.” Now even Vladimir Putin’s spokesman is talking about the fact that World War III has begun.

A new geopolitical map of the world is taking shape, a new world order, a new moral climate in international political, economic and cultural relations. A new chapter in history is beginning. Since the beginning of this millennium, the Western democratic order has undergone a series of increasingly difficult tests of its resilience, durability and credibility: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the financial crisis, Brexit, the populist administration of Donald Trump, the global coronavirus pandemic—and now the Russian aggression against Ukraine, representing the cynical destruction of the system of international law established in the decades after World War II.

A new geopolitical map of the world is taking shape, a new world order, a new moral climate in international political, economic and cultural relations.

The blindness and naïveté of European politicians, who have until now been guided only by economic interests, has contributed to the growth of Russia into a terrorist state. Russia has excluded itself from the civilized world with the occupation of Crimea and the current genocide in Ukraine, and now it blackmails and threatens that world. We do not yet know how international isolation, poverty and humiliation will affect Russian society. We do not know whether it will encourage a weak democratic opposition or, on the contrary, awaken a fanatical nationalist-fascist movement, as happened in Germany after World War I. The only thing that is certain is that even after the end of the hot war in Ukraine, the world will not return to the shape it had at the beginning of this year.

If the West is now unwilling or unable to help Ukraine sufficiently to stop Russian aggression and defend its national independence, if the West sacrifices Ukraine on the basis of the false illusion that this will save world peace—as happened in the case of Czechoslovakia on the threshold of World War II—then this will be an encouragement not only for further Russian expansion, but for all dictators and aggressors around the world.

Mr. Putin is so keen on Ukraine’s surrender because he knows very well that this would show the weakness of the West to the whole world and would be a de facto surrender of the whole system of liberal democracy. After all, this system stands or falls on the capital of trust that people place in the effectiveness of democratic institutions; this trust has already been shaken, and any further weakening could have fatal consequences.

Vladimir Putin has succeeded—against his will—in making Ukraine into a determined and united political nation that treats the notion of belonging to Europe not just as a cheap rhetorical phrase, but as a value for which thousands of people are laying down their lives. Ukraine is signing its application to the European Union with its blood. Ukraine is now more “European” than many of the so-called heartlands of Europe.

Does the West today have any political leader who can mobilize moral force like Volodymyr Zelensky?

Mr. Putin has also succeeded—against his will—in uniting the West to some extent. The difficult task remains, however, for the West to transform its unity against a common enemy into a deeper, positive unity. For the process of European integration to continue in a democratic spirit—which is not only desirable but necessary—a European demos must take shape, a community of values for which we are willing to sacrifice a great deal. This is a cultural, moral and spiritual task.

Today’s war in Ukraine is teaching the whole world a valuable lesson: Even the plans of a nuclear superpower can fail if they are countered by courage and moral strength and mobilized by leaders with personal credibility, a willingness to make extreme self-sacrifice and a gift for persuasive communication. Does the West today have any political leader who can mobilize moral force like Volodymyr Zelensky?

A battle of ideas

After Sept. 11, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stressed that the “war on terror” could not be only a war of weapons; it also had to be a battle of ideas.

Secular society has underestimated the power of religious language, symbols and rituals. Secular language is often not capable of conveying strong emotions in crisis situations. As a result, religious terms appear spontaneously in the language of politicians—even those who are very distant from personal faith and religious ethics—as they invoke suggestive images from the collective unconscious of society.

But religious language, symbols and rituals can be used in both constructive or destructive ways. Islamic extremists have succeeded in harnessing the potential of religious energy for their own purposes. What spiritual potential does secular Western society have? What role can Christianity play in the West? Have Christian churches recovered sufficiently from the revelations of the sexual abuse crisis, the pandemic and the latest wave of secularization (or, more accurately, de-churching) of Western societies?

From the experience of theologians on the front lines of World War I, like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., and Paul Tillich, a new theology emerged, a new conception of God and of the relationship between God and the world. Will a new spiritual energy, with new inspiring visions for the future shape of the world, emerge from this war?

What spiritual potential does secular Western society have? What role can Christianity play in the West?

The relationship between religion and politics

It seems that we have to ask again the question about the relationship between politics and religion. Some dictators and leaders of authoritarian regimes deliberately instrumentalize religion politically. When Stalin realized that the peoples of the Soviet Empire (especially Ukraine) were not ready to fight for communism when Hitler’s troops invaded, he redefined the conflict as the “Great Patriotic War,” in which Orthodox priests, with icons in their hands, marched at the head of Red Army troops.

Mr. Putin, a great admirer of Stalin, has also recognized that the “Greater Russia” he seeks needs a spiritual boost, and so he is trying to instrumentalize the Russian Orthodox Church. Some of the church’s leaders are his former K.G.B. colleagues. The Russian propaganda industry specifically targets conservative Christians who might be sympathetic to Mr. Putin, and it seeks to portray him as the new Emperor Constantine who will save Christianity from the corrosive influence of Protestantism and Western liberalism.

Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán of Hungary and some of Poland’s leaders have also portrayed themselves as saviors of Christian culture in their criticism of the European Union. In his role as prime minister, Mr. Orbán proclaims (and implements) a model of “illiberal democracy” that is close to Mr. Putin’s “managed democracy”; in reality, it is a cover name for an authoritarian state. In Poland, the alliance of populist-nationalist politicians with certain circles in church leadership—together with the revelation of a shocking level of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse by clergy—has led to the current dramatic loss of trust in the church, especially among the younger generation. This alliance between conservative Christianity and nationalism harms the church far more than half a century of Communist persecution did; Poland is now undergoing the fastest process of secularization in Europe.

Is there any form of Christianity in today’s world that could be a source of moral inspiration for a culture of freedom and democracy? We must look for a form that is not a nostalgic imitation of the past but one that respects the fact that our world is not, and never will be, religiously or culturally monochromatic, but is instead radically pluralistic.

The concept of religion (religio) is etymologically derived from the Latin verb religare, “to reunite.” Religion was understood as an integrative force in society. This role was largely fulfilled by pre-modern Christianity within the medieval Christianitas. But that chapter in the history of Christianity is long over. It was followed by the epoch of modernity, during which Christianity became just one of many “worldviews.” Christianity was then considered as a religion divided into different denominations represented by different churches. Today, this form of Christianity is in a serious crisis.

Is there any form of Christianity in today’s world that could be a source of moral inspiration for a culture of freedom and democracy?

The relationship between religion and politics has so far been viewed primarily as one between church and state. In the course of globalization, however, the churches have lost their monopoly on religion and the nation-states have lost their monopoly on politics. The main competitor of organized religion today is not atheism or secular humanism, but non-church spirituality on the one hand and religion as a political ideology on the other. In the course of secularization, religion has not disappeared, but it has undergone a profound transformation. Its role in society and in people’s lives is changing.

The role of religion as an integrating force of society has been taken over by other social phenomena in the process of globalization in late modernity, especially by the global market for goods and information (including mass media). Today, the process of globalization, along with the existing political and economic order, is undergoing profound upheavals and changes. There is no global unifying force. If the current unity of the West were based only on defense against Russia, it would not last. Similarly, if the process of world unification is to continue, we cannot rely on the economic aspects of globalization alone. The healing of the world presupposes an inspiring spiritual force.

To heal the wounds of the world

Pope Francis has put forth a vision of the church as a “field hospital.” Such a church does not remain in “splendid isolation” from the contemporary world, nor does it wage a priori lost “culture wars” within it. If the church is to be a field hospital, then its therapeutic ministry also presupposes the ability to diagnose competently the state of our world.

I suspect that religion in the future will be more akin to the meaning of the verb re-legere, “to read again.” It will offer a “relecture,” a new hermeneutic: a capacity for “spiritual reading” and a deeper interpretation of both its own sources (which is, in the case of Christianity, the Bible and tradition) and the “signs of the times.” The views of the media, politicians and economists need such a complement, one that offers a contemplative approach to our world. I see valuable inspiration for today and tomorrow in the social teachings of Pope Francis. I am convinced that Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” (including the chapters on the new culture of politics) can have a similar relevance for the 21st century as the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” did for the 20th century.

Today, I see Pope Francis’ call to transform the church from a rigid clerical institution into a dynamic communal journey as parallel to other periods of change in the church and the secular world. Just as the democratization of the church during the Reformation once contributed to the democratization of society, so the principle of synodality (syn-hodos, “common path”) can be an inspiration not only for the Catholic Church to practice openness to ecumenical, interreligious and intercultural cooperation, but also for a political culture of coexistence in a pluralistic world.

Now the world is at war, but we must think about the post-war world. We should not repeat old mistakes and underestimate the spiritual energy of the world’s religions.

Throughout history, Europe has been the mother of revolutions and reformations, the focus of world wars and the process of globalization. Europe has been the origin of many cultural, scientific, economic and technological developments that spread throughout the world and left significant light and dark traces in world history. Today, the dream of a united Europe “breathing with both lungs,” East and West, is threatened by the dangerous tumors of nationalism, populism and fundamentalism in both lungs. The therapeutic, not the destructive, potential of religion must be developed. A time of crisis is always also a time of new challenges and opportunities.

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