National Catholic Reporter
All Things Catholic
by John L Allen Jr on Nov. 06, 2009
Much has been made lately of Pope Benedict XVI's apparent lenience for "cafeteria Catholicism" on the right. Two developments have fed the perception: talks between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X, the "Lefebvrites," who broke with Rome in protest of liberalizing currents after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65); and new structures to allow Anglicans to become Catholic while preserving their heritage, with the most likely takers being conservative Anglicans opposed to homosexuality and women's ordination.
Though it's not clear how many Lefebvrites or Anglicans will walk through the doors Rome has tried to open, the effect on both fronts will be to inject new pockets of traditionalist believers into the Catholic circulatory system.
What's the underlying logic for such moves? While it may at first blush seem unrelated, a controversial decision on Tuesday by the European Court of Human Rights, which held that displaying crucifixes in Italian public school classrooms violates freedom of conscience, can help provide some context.
In effect, Benedict's outreach to Lefebvrites and dissident Anglicans forms part of a trend I've described as "evangelical Catholicism." One cornerstone is to reassert markers of Catholic distinctiveness -- such as Mass in Latin, and traditional moral teaching -- as a means of ensuring that the church is not assimilated to secularism. At the policy-setting level of the church today, this defense of Catholic identity is job number one.
Historically, "evangelical Catholicism" is a creative impulse rather than something purely defensive, with roots in the papacy of Leo XIII in the late 19th century and his effort to bring a renewed Catholic tradition to bear on social and political life. Nevertheless, fear that secularism may erode the faith from within is also a powerful current propelling evangelical Catholicism forward.
To over-simplify a bit, Benedict XVI is opening the door to the Lefebvrites and to traditionalist Anglicans in part because whatever else they may be, they are among the Christians least prone to end up, in the memorable phrase of Jacques Maritain, "kneeling before the world," meaning sold out to secularism.
At this stage, some critics may be tempted to ask if the cure is perhaps worse than the disease -- in other words, if secularism is really so bad.
Benedict XVI himself has talked about a "healthy secularism," which involves the separation of church and state and recognition of the essentially lay character of politics. Evangelical Catholics such as the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris actually see this kind of secularism as a precondition for authentic faith, because it forces Christianity to be a personal choice, rather than something imbibed from religiously homogenous cultures where faith and practice are buttressed by the state.
"We're really at the dawn of Christianity," Lustiger used to say of the transition to a secular world.
Yet that's not the perception of secularism that tends to drive the ecclesiastical train these days, especially in Europe. At senior levels of the church, there's a growing conviction that a tipping point has been reached -- that Western secularization is crossing the line from neutrality to outright hostility, toward religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Cardinal Renato Martino, the former President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, put things this way: "It looks like a new Inquisition. It is a lay Inquisition, but it is so nasty. You can freely insult and attack Catholics, and nobody will say anything."
All of which brings us back to the stunner this week from the European Court of Human Rights.
The court, based in Strasbourg, issued its ruling in response to a petition from an Italian woman named Soile Lautsi, who lives near Padua and who claimed that having crucifixes in the public school classrooms attended by her two children violates the church/state separation provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court agreed, awarding Lautsi 5,000 euros (roughly $7,400) in damages.
The court did not order Italian schools to remove the crucifixes, in part because under European law it had no authority to do so. Lautsi had tried and failed to press the issue in Italian courts, which rejected her claim on the basis that crucifixes are symbols of Italy's national identity.
The Vatican was predictably dismayed. Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, issued a statement greeting the ruling with "astonishment and sorrow." Lombardi decried the effort to "cast out of the educational world a fundamental sign of the importance of religious values in Italian history and culture."
It's tough not to regard the ruling as a way for European judges to grind an axe, since whatever else it may mean, it certainly does not augur the end of crucifixes in Italian classrooms. Italian authorities have said they will appeal, and politicians of the left, right and center tripped over one another denouncing the ruling. Polls have consistently showed overwhelming public support for leaving the crucifixes in place.