It seems to have become commonplace lately, especially among those who try to assess the state of the world and make recommendations about the sort of leadership that is needed in the Catholic Church, to bemoan the de-Christianization of Europe, an idea the media have embellished by contrasting Old Europe with the United States. These are large claims about big concepts. But I believe they are misleading and open to challenge. It is true that Western Europeans no longer affiliate with the Catholic Church to the degree that their forebears once did. Over the course of several decades I have traveled often to Germany and on attending Sunday Mass in such places as Berlin, Cologne, or Mannheim have felt odd sitting in huge churches that are full of art and rich in history, but virtually empty of people. Churches with seating for over 1,000 might have 50 communicants at a Sunday Mass.
It also must be true that Western Europeans are practicing forms of artificial birth control, as birth rates in Spain, Italy and France, the Catholic countries, have been below the replacement rate for decades. So too in these and other Western European countries, the number of entrants to the priesthood has declined over the years, thereby producing a shortage in an institution that relies on priests for administration of the sacraments.
This portrait could be enlarged with references to the rising public presence of homosexuals, childbirth by choice outside of marriage, legalized prostitution, divorce and more. These and other signs may suggest that Old Europe has gone backward, entering modernity with amnesia about its Christian past and no ethical compass for future direction. Yet my own experiences in Germany, whose situation is consistent with trends elsewhere in Western Europe, suggest otherwise.
On my last visit to Germany, I landed at the Frankfurt Airport at 7:30 a.m. and immediately saw that baggage carts are plentiful, near at hand and free. The airline employees were knowledgeable and civil. They offered directions to the train station two stories down from the arrival level of the airport. At the station, one can board trains that travel throughout Germany and Europe. Moreover, the trains run on time, to the minute, and appear on the tracks at which they are scheduled. (I cannot help but contrast this with the never-ending debate about whether to build a rail line from Washington, D.C., to Dulles Airport and which government unit should pay for it. The $65 taxi fare for the 25-mile trip from Dulles to Washington is the same amount I would pay to travel 100 miles from the Frankfurt Airport to the center of Cologne, and twice what I would pay to journey the 40 to 50 miles to Mannheim or Heidelberg.)
In Mannheim I was greeted by a longtime friend who teaches at the nearby university. He speaks German, Italian, French and English, reads in three of these languages and is aware of current political affairs throughout the European Union. In this he is typical of the German professors of higher education whom I know.
My friend’s mother-in-law recently died after a long illness. The family was able to pay for her health care, but had they not been able, the state-supported health system would have provided the same care. My friend is nearing retirement age, and we discussed his plans. After he leaves his position at age 65, the state retirement system will provide him with roughly two-thirds of his present income along with health insurance. It is well known that Germany’s demographics threaten this scheme economically. Committees of experts are discussing ways the nation can meet its future needs.
The university campus was teeming with students, all of whose tuition was state-supported. Students attend this university because their chosen major subject matches what this university offers. Moreover, when applying to the school, students are counseled about their choice of major with eventual employment prospects taken into account.
The next day, Saturday, we had breakfast on my friend’s back patio. Mannheim is in a heavily industrial area, but the sky was clear of soot and smog. After breakfast we headed on a shopping tour for groceries, bread, flowers for the house, a DVD and wine. All commercial business ends at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and does not resume until Monday morning. The no shopping period is driven by labor unions’ definition of the workweek, a cultural sensitivity for family time and need for relief from commercialism.
That evening we planned to attend an opera in Heidelberg, which is 20 minutes away by intercity streetcar. I offered to purchase the opera tickets but was embarrassed to recall how inexpensive they were. The symphony, opera, theater and other high culture events are affordable and accessible to all segments of the population. And should an event end at, say, midnight, attendees need not fear the streets. Violent crime is virtually unknown. The walk to public transportation is conveniently short and utterly safe.
On Sunday morning we ate breakfast outside, again under a seemingly smogless sky. I attended Mass at one of my favorite churches, which until three years ago had been maintained in the scarred condition inflicted by Allied bombings during World War II. As in Berlin, bomb and smoke damage have been purposely left unrepaired so that subsequent generations will not forget the war. (I could not help but think about the grandiose, multimillion-dollar World War II memorial plunked down in the middle of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Comprised of pillars and wreaths, and made of marble, it carefully skirts any reference to the destructiveness of war.)
After Mass, we took a walk in the woods, one of the many public parks kept up by the local government. As on any Sunday, the paths were filled with families spending the day walking in the outdoors and lunching at a nearby restaurant. On this particular Sunday, there was a light rain, which reminded me of a hike my wife and I took in similar weather with a couple from the former East Germany. As we walked, they told us about the difficulties of the transition from socialism to capitalism and democracy. At the same time, they expressed optimism about unification and hoped that the monetary decision to exchange East German marks one-for-one with West German marks signaled a spirit that would be long-lasting.
On Monday, I left for Cologne to give a speech to a group of European educators who were interested in exploring service learning as a means to enrich schooling. On the train heading north, I noticed that a number of German passengers were reading The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, by the American author Dan Brown.
This brought to mind a general observation that has plagued me for decades. Many of my German friends in their 60’s cringe when they watch the German national soccer team score a goal. I suppose that deep down they want their team to win, but they cannot bring themselves to cheer the team aloud. With their nation implicated in retrogressive devastation, torture and inhumanity during the first half of the 20th century, it is difficult for many Germans to identify with their country. Their identities are conflicted. This may be why elderly Germans situate their collective past psychologically in the 18th and 19th centuries of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others who manifested the Enlightenment through music, writing and art. They hesitate to take pride openly in Germany’s postwar achievement of democracy and its sound economy based on principled labor laws and a sense of the common good. In this Germany, even today, most executives of large corporations earn only three to five times the amount their employees make, not the 100-plus multiplier that prevails in the corporate United States. Still, my colleagues recall too well the National Socialist Party, the Holocaust and the fierceness with which their forebears fought for the fatherland. And thus they live with ambiguity.
How de-Christianized is a nation that respects employees’ rights, provides health care for all citizens, assures financial security for its elderly, supports an ultramodern and efficient public transportation network, values family life, takes a respite from commercialism on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, educates its young with public funds, learns the languages of its neighbors, offers access for all its citizens to high culture, honors its natural parklands, recognizes the need to conserve the environment and has little violent crime, even in the heart of its largest cities?
How de-Christianized is a nation that does not support capital punishment, welcomed the return of its Eastern relatives by treating them with dignity, struggled deliberately to create a democracy from a sordid fascist past and developed a corporate ethos that deliberately avoids greed and ostentation?
How de-Christianized is a nation that willingly risked its economic superiority to join the European Union, whose elite continue to reflect on their national identity, and that did not repair its bombed and bullet-pocked churches and public buildings so that citizens would never forget the horrors of World War II?
Christian principles are distinctive enough. They ought to be recognizable when one sees them.