December 8, 2006
Europe’s religious time-bomb
The International Herald Tribune can’t seem to make up its mind about the future of religion in Europe:
More than a century ago, France passed a landmark law declaring a clean break between church and state. Riots erupted and a papal encyclical denounced the 1905 act as a “most pernicious error.”
Such extreme passions long ago cooled. But the core questions remain as strong as ever. Debates over religion, politics and civic life — and how much they should overlap and interact — are demanding attention across Europe in ways more pressing than at any time in recent decades.
… “Religion — for good and bad — is reasserting itself as a force in Europe,” said Gerhard Robbers, a professor of political and religious studies at Germany’s University of Trier. “The period of secularism is coming to an end. A new landscape is emerging.”
But many would argue it’s a very uneven terrain.
The European Union’s center of gravity is no longer solidly in northern Europe, where church attendance and religious influence are in freefall.
When the EU expanded in 2004, it inherited a swath of Eastern Europe where churches — particularly the Roman Catholic and Christian Orthodox — have been reasserting their voices in civil affairs after being sidelined for decades by communism. Two of the other newcomers have deep church-state bonds: Malta with Catholicism and the Greek-speaking zone of divided Cyprus with the Orthodox church. Two more predominantly Orthodox nations, Bulgaria and Romania, will enter the EU fold in January.
In Poland, another new EU member, top government officials have been guests on a popular Catholic radio station, Radio Maryja, whose ultraconservative views and commentary on political affairs and relations with Jews has drawn criticism from the Vatican.
Many of the new EU states were among the strongest voices in the unsuccessful effort to add a mention of God or Christianity in the EU constitution, which was effectively mothballed after rejection last year by voters in France and the Netherlands. The EU hopes to restart the ratification process, with some officials setting a target of 2008.
But on the other hand:
[T]he general trends appear to be moving in a different direction. There’s clear momentum to dismantle or dilute the few remaining “official” church-state links.
In Greece, the head of the powerful Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, said he would not object to a “velvet separation” between church and state, which would allow the church to retain its tax breaks and other privileges but would eliminate clergy from presiding at official events such as the swearing-in of political leaders.
A poll in January by the Institute for Greek Public Opinion found nearly 60 percent support for ending the official status of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Anglican clergy in Britain — where the crown is the nominal head of the Church of England — have been steadily dropping the practice of including prayers for the monarch in another small but noticeable crack in the church-state structure, which could come under further strains if Prince Charles takes the throne because of disputes over his divorce and remarriage.
Norway, which is not an EU member but has close economic ties with the bloc, opened hearings in April on whether to separate church and state after 469 years of Lutheranism as its official religion. A government panel recommended the split in January, but it could not happen until at least 2014 because of rules on changing the constitution. Neighboring Sweden ended its “official” Lutheran church in 2000.
“We are witnessing post-Christian Europe taking shape,” said Jonathan Bartley, co-director of Ekklesia, a London-based group that examines religious and social trends. “The remaining alliances of religion and governments don’t make sense anymore, in many people’s eyes, and they are coming apart.”
Except where they aren’t. Which is why even if political and economic differences don’t tear Europe apart, religion probably will.
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