In 1949, after Mao Tse-tung’s Communist troops overthrew the US-backed government of Chiang Kai-shek, the Communists seized control of mainland China, and the old regime fled to Taiwan. Almost overnight, one of America’s allies had become a Communist enemy. Mao’s takeover was especially painful for Catholics and Protestants, as China was then home to many Christian missionaries—soon to be expelled or persecuted for their faith.
After the establishment of Mao’s “People’s Republic of China,” debate raged in Washington over the reasons for and consequences of the Communist victory. “Who Lost China?” was the constant refrain of the 1950s.
An analogous debate is taking place in our own time, over the collapse of Christianity in Europe. Pews are emptying, churches have gone on sale, atheism and agnosticism are on the rise, and Christian morality has been repudiated in major legislation dealing with life, death, sexuality, and marriage. Formerly the very symbol of cultural Christianity, Europe has become hostile to the faith that once gave it so much life and hope.
As frustration mounts about the decline of Christian Europe, some have begun to point fingers. Among their latest targets is Pope Francis.
In two strident articles that appeared in May, Hank Berrien of the Daily Wire and Giulio Meotti of Il Foglio accused the Pope not only of turning his back on Europe’s Christian heritage, but of encouraging the acceptance of Islam as an alternative.
Berrien opens his article with a direct charge—“Pope Francis is now conceding Europe to Islam”—and attempts to prove it by quoting from Francis’s recent interview with La Croix: “It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam. However, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest.”
Berrien remarks caustically: “Of course, Jesus didn’t exactly tell his disciples to kill the infidels, but let’s not get picky.”
Meotti’s polemic is no less aggressive: “The two previous pontiffs both fought for the cradle of Christendom. . . . Pope Francis, on the contrary, simply ignores Europe, as if he already considers it lost.”
Where to begin? First, Francis’s interview with La Croix is not what some have made it out to be. In it he states, without qualification, “It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam.” These are not the words of a politically correct Pontiff. Then he says that it is “possible” to “interpret” Christianity as likewise seeking conquest—which any honest study of history will prove.
It is indisputable that some Christians have interpreted the Gospel as giving them a right to conquer and convert non-Christian peoples. Francis is acknowledging and rejecting such violent triumphalism of the past, not Christian evangelization per se, especially as it is peacefully spread today. In the same interview, he observes: “Yes, Europe has Christian roots and it is Christianity’s responsibility to water those roots. But this must be done in a spirit of service. . . . It must not become a colonial enterprise” (emphasis added).
As for welcoming Muslim migrants and other unwanted peoples, Francis has indeed called upon Europeans to do just that, but, contra Berrien, not without limits. As he said to La Croix, “one cannot open the gates wide unreasonably.” He has already warned of ISIS jihadists using Europe’s migrant crisis as a way in to the continent. The Pope and Church’s position on immigration is far more nuanced than common caricatures make it appear.
Similarly, the idea that Francis has abandoned Christianity and evangelization in Europe cannot be sustained by anyone who studies his speeches. His yearly World Mission Day messages alone disprove that.
It’s important to stress that the weakening of Europe’s attachment to Christianity began long before Francis became Pope. It has, in fact, been taking place gradually over several centuries, as Owen Chadwick pointed out in his Gifford Lectures. Philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand and historian Christopher Dawson also wrote about this process, and lamented it. And as charismatic as St. John Paul was, and as brilliant as Benedict’s speeches were, Francis did not inherit from his predecessors a Europe that was healthy in its faith and morals. He inherited one that has been indifferent to truth for some time.
One quote from the Pope’s La Croix interview that has been virtually ignored is this: “Europe is experiencing the grave problem of a declining birth rate. A demographic emptiness is developing.” As the desire for marriage, children, and families has waned, so too has commitment to God. It is therefore the once-Christian Europeans themselves, exercising their own free wills, who have “lost” their own faith and heritage.
Rather than use Francis as a scapegoat for Christianity’s travails in Europe, we might listen to what the Pope said last month about the faith of the early disciples. Theirs is a witness we should carry
throughout the whole week into our homes, our offices, our schools, our gathering places and entertainment venues, our hospitals, prisons and homes for the elderly, into places crowded with immigrants, on the outskirts of the city. We must carry this witness every week: Christ is with us; Jesus is ascended to Heaven; He is with us; Christ is alive!
If Christians need an inspiring blueprint for the re-evangelization of Europe, or any other secularized land, they have one—and it comes not from the Pope’s critics, but from Francis himself.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.