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The Presence of the Church on the Horizon of Europe

Archbishop Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece

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Archbishop Christodoulos warns that eliminating references in the new European Constitution to Europe's Christian past eliminates historical memory and posits the new European Union as an economic zone rather than a cultural entity.

Address by His Beatitude Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, to the Pan-European Conference on "Values and Principles for building of Europe", Athens, 4-6 May 2003

Christ is risen!

This expression, both an announcement and a wish, still conveys in the best and most complete way my delight at seeing you here with us today.

Christ is risen, "and together with Him, He raised also the entire inhabited world" (John Chrysostomus, Contra Anomoeos, I, 2.432, Migne PG, vol. 48). The Resurrection is a fact, but it is also a wish, since it is not the fate of man, but a possibility given to man so that he may overcome his fate. The Resurrection is freedom, it is a step beyond the tyranny of necessity, it is a gift of strength and of a way for man to climb Jacob's Ladder.

He is truly risen! I wish that our Conference may pass this certainty on to the whole of Europe.

But why to Europe? Why Europe at all? What is the purpose of this distinction, this insistence, while globalisation is advancing, while the new technological and economic realities have turned the globe into a unitary space? What is it that can still be purely European, what is the signified of this signifier today? Is it possible that, when we speak of values in Europe, we refer to a past for ever bygone, which does no longer signify anything in today's and tomorrow's society? The questions go even further: is it possible that the move towards the unification of Europe came too late, sadly, because it had already been overtaken by events, by the new technological and economic conditions? Moreover, is it right to speak of values of Europe, as if they belonged exclusively to Europe, as if no other people had these values or as if no other people had the right or the capability to share them? Furthermore, we must ask ourselves not only the question, which are these values that Europe has, but also how Europe can maintain them within a globalised environment.

Consequently, let me please clarify the conceptual framework within which any reference to Europe as bearer of particular principles and values is not only legitimate but also desirable.

First of all, let me make it clear right away that the Gospel addresses and belongs to all men and not to the members of one race nor to the partakers of one culture. By the Grace of the Lord, there are Christians in all parts of the world. "In every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts, 10.35). We, all the faithful, constitute the Church of the Lord, because the Lord "gathered all nations from the East and from the West and from the North and from the South, and bound them together in one Church, one faith and one baptism in love" (Ephraim of Syria, Homily on the Shared Resurrection, 54.3). Therefore it is clear and indisputable that the Church is the Church of Christ and not of Europe, given that "our conversation is in heaven" (Philippians, 3.20).

It is also worth noting that from the moment we speak of Europe we accept of course a distinction, since this discussion presupposes a specific entity, which expresses something particular, namely that it has its own identity as does every other entity too. However, this distinction does not constitute an underestimation of the other, of the non-European. I do not question at all the value and the significance of other cultures -- and neither do you, I believe. Therefore, any discussion about Europe, in defence of Europe, does not imply an underestimation of the other cultures. Indeed, I would say that we have the right to honour Europe, because and if we also honour the other cultures and peoples, given that "God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (Acts, 10.28).

On these premises, let us now try and answer the question "why Europe?" Why should Christians bother about Europe, why should they convene and be preoccupied with its future?

At this point I must stress that, if Europe preoccupies us, it is not only because we are its citizens but primarily because we are Christians. After all, even though Christianity may not be constricted to Europe, at any rate Europe is Christian.

The part of religion in shaping civilisation is decisive, irrespective of the fact that not all men are believers or that they do believe but in different ways. Braudel noted that "the European, even if he or she is an atheist, remains bound by an ethics and a perception which have deep roots in Christian tradition. He remains of Christian origin having lost his faith" (Fernand Braudel, Grammaire des Civilisations, p. 347).

Before Christianity, Europe was a purely geographical term. Its inhabitants were distinguished into those who lived on this side of the frontiers of the empire, or of the "oecumene" (the inhabited world), as it was called, and to those who lived on that side of the frontiers, and were generally called "barbarians". May I remind you that only one part of the inhabitants of the empire were Roman citizens, whereas others were free men but citizens of their own homeland and not Romans (the Latin term for those was "peregrini"), others had no attributed citizenship and, finally, a large part of the population were slaves. It was Christianity that brought down discrimination, repudiated the division of the world into barbarians and non-barbarians, into citizens and mere inhabitants, into free men and slaves. It was Christianity which united all men into one community, recognising them all as brethren, all of them children of the one God. The Apostle Peter qualifies Christians by using politically loaded terms: he notes, we are "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation" (Peter 1, 2.9), in order to emphasise the unvalued state of the distinctions of the empire and, by the same token, the unity of the Church.

Nevertheless, Church community on its own does not create a new cultural formation. Common learning is also needed. And this is what the Church did. The ancient Greek and Latin authors were not interested in Christian Letters. But the Christians went in the opposite direction. Greek learning was never rejected by the Lord or by His disciples, as a Church historian noted (Sozomenos, Ecclesiastical History, V, 18.222). But their attitude was not one of passive acceptance. Clement of Alexandria claimed that Greek learning was a gift of God: "so also at the fit time were the Law and the Prophets given to the Barbarians, and Philosophy to the Greeks" (Stromata, VI 6.44.1). Christians often taught Greek learning. This caused the wrath of Julian, so that he banned such teaching on the grounds that Christians qua Christians had no right to teach Greek pagans (Epistle 42, 74.13-15). Gregory vehemently refuted this argument, and stated his position that the texts of the Greeks constituted the body of literature and not the religion of Christians and therefore the latter had every reason to study them and to teach them (Contra Iulianum, Oratio I, 35, 536.8-10). This position is the foundation of the learning which the Church offered to Europe, a foundation which remains unshakeable ever since.

As soon as Christianity was recognised, the Church began to put pressure on political leadership, the emperor and the local governors to rule humanely and justly. Gregory of Nazianzus addresses the emperor by admonishing him: "You rule with Christ, and you command with Christ. So you should imitate God's love of man. This is the most divine feature of man, namely to do good" (Ad cives Naz., 35, 976.25). Similarly, the great Photius, in one of his epistles which, I would say, could be read as the answer of a Byzantine to Machiavelli, instructs the young emperor how to behave, how to judge and how to make decisions. From this brilliant epistle let me quote here just one sentence: "inasmuch as one is prominent in power, just as much one ought to be prominent in virtue" (Epistula ad Michael Principem Bulgariae, PG, 102.904-906).

The request of the Church for respect of law was also of fundamental importance. For Orthodoxy this request somehow took the form of a demand for humaneness, charity and justice. For the Church of Rome, however, it went much further than culture.

Orthodoxy developed within a powerful state, where the rule of law was generally upheld. Of course, violations by the powerful did occur. But the important was that even those who contravened the law, felt the injustice of their act and tried to justify themselves. After all, this was the criterion for a lawful form of government: not that there would be no law-breakers or that the powerful would not find ways of getting away with it but that deep in their own conscience, too, they would feel like transgressors.

In contrast, the Church of Rome lived in an anarchic and insecure state. This was due to the fact that the Western Empire could not hold out against the invasions. Pope Gregory the Great realised that shaping the new world was a task for the Church of Rome, and immediately assumed the responsibility of turning the chaotic environment brought about by the invasions into a respublica christiana. I think that it is clear to everyone today that Gregory inherited the long-running and latent opposition between East and West and that he perceived the world that he wished to create as being foreign to the Eastern empire (Walter Ullmann, A History of Political Thought. The Middle Ages, p. 82ff). At any rate, he laboured to transmit Christianity both to the invaders and to the peoples of the North, and also to establish the rule of law, a common language and a common learning. As a result, it is only fair that his part in shaping the European world should be widely recognised. Nevertheless, we should also mention the Holy Fathers Benedict, Cyril and Methodius but also all the missionaries, who with their work rendered Europe Christian and gave her the unitary consciousness which she maintains ever since.

The result of this work of the Church is that the request for the unity of Europe remained alive, despite the failure of the plans to set up an interstate community in the West, and despite the fact that the Byzantine state eventually succumbed to the successive attacks of Islam and of Western Europe. It succumbed, yet throughout the centuries of its life, even when it was mutilated, it did not cease to be the "model fellow citizenship" in the consciousness of the Westerners, nor did it cease to inspire all Europeans. For the same reason, if the Byzantines did not express Christian commonwealth as a vision, it was precisely because they felt they were already living it.

We see the request for unification colouring the spiritual horizon of Western Europe, even when those who formulated it were anti-ecclesiastic. A telling example was Dante, who, despite his forceful anti-papalism, he, an Italian, requested the unification of Europe under Germany (In his work De Monarchia Dante uses the term "monarchy" in place of today's term "union"). We see it also in the case of the pupil of the great Thomas Aquinas, Pierre du Bois; and in the case of the Hussite king of Bohemia, George of Podebrad, who asked the King of France Louis Onze for his co-operation in establishing a European federation; we see it in the case of the French duke Du Sully, who envisaged a federation of anti-Catholic Europe; we see it in the writings of philosophers as different from one another as Leibnitz and Ortega ? Gasset; we see it in thinkers of the Enlightenment such as Montesquieu and in Romantic poets such as Novalis, we see it in many others too, whose names I cannot enumerate here, although their proposals were quite memorable. In brief, the entire Europe did not cease, for centuries, and in spite of nationalisms and bloody wars, to request her unification. And this too is the work of the Church, the blossom of the request for a Christian commonwealth, and the fruit of common learning.

Consequently, the request for the political unification of Europe was constant. This was because in the spiritual sphere Europe was united right from the outset, thanks to the Church and to the learning introduced by the Church. Plato and Cicero, Shakespeare and Goethe are classics to all Europeans. Basil the Great, Descartes, Mozart, Francis of Assisi, Kepler, El Greco, belong to all Europeans. All the children of Europe have been formed by the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. All Europeans in the Louvre or in the Prado feel that they see statues and paintings of their culture. All feel Florence, Amsterdam and Vienna as capitals of their civilisation.

European civilisation exists, it did not wait for this day and for our concerns so that it could be born. European civilisation is one and alive through the centuries and belongs to all of us. And I would like to believe that we all realise that we belong to it too. This means that, if the European Union aspires to be really what its title denotes, it will have to navigate by the pole star of its civilisation.

By this remark I mean that peoples the civilisation of which may be important or even brilliant, yet at any rate it is foreign to the European civilisation, do not belong to it and therefore should not join the European Union. The nature and the depth of the relations which we shall have with neighbouring peoples is an issue for the political leadership to decide. But what is certain is that the submission of Europe to temporary geopolitical considerations, which lead to the reversal of her cultural identity, is not only absurd but also invalid.

Civilisations, and indeed great ones, such as the European civilisation, do not commit suicide. If the political leadership of the European Union decides to integrate foreign civilisations into its body, the Union will automatically become fake. It will be reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire, which, according to Voltaire, was never holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. If the political leadership integrates totally foreign cultures into the Union, then the Union will be turned into an economic zone. At its best, it will be a defective copy of the former Soviet Union, which fell apart as soon as the central power loosened up.

Undoubtedly, it is the right of political leadership to follow the path which will divert the European Union onto a zone of economicopolitical specifications. The Church cannot and must not oppose this choice. But even in the event of such a derailment, the desideratum of the political unification of European civilisation will soon have to be raised again from scratch, as the central request. The Church will not abandon it. The spiritual forces of Europe will not abandon it.

I believe that the political leadership of Europe will not attempt to forge History nor will it transform the vision of unification into a lobby of interests. But even if it so wishes, it will not succeed. The vision of commonwealth is not just another political ideologeme which can be falsified, it is public consciousness in the hearts of the Europeans. In which case, it is absolutely certain that, even within that union of interests, which the ballastless and the spineless may wish to fabricate, there will be born the movement that will ask of the Europeans to unite into a new political entity which will genuinely express their culture.

It is through this lens that one must see the request for a mention of Christianity in the Constitution of the European Union. We want Christianity to be mentioned not only as the creative power of our civilisation but also as that power which reassures us precisely that the Union which is now carried will indeed be European. Christianity should not be referred to -- and we do not want it to be referred to -- as compulsory faith for the citizens of Europe. The formulation should be such as not to infringe upon religious tolerance, not to be binding upon the state, not to come into conflict with the rights of man, not to constitute a threat or a hindrance to the advancement of the non-Christians who are citizens of Europe. Woe betide those, who in the name of our culture will attempt to expel or to oppress our Muslim fellow citizens, woe betide those who will refuse the integration of, say, Albania or of Bosnia into the Union. We ourselves as Christians have the obligation not to condone the occurrence of a cultural nationalism. And yet we ourselves have also the obligation and the responsibility to keep the self-consciousness of Europe standing, to preserve her identity as a cultural existence.

All this is not merely about preserving our right to be different whilst in life, resting on the laurels of our achievements. We have work to do. Inhumanity is growing around us, and so is cynicism, and raw power in place of justice. Reinforcements have arrived for the powers which want to reduce mankind to a grey pulp capable only of producing and consuming, with a short interval of entertainment in between leaving one like an empty sack afterwards. The knife-wheeled chariots are advancing on the learning they want to cut up so that they may let alienation and the shattering of souls run riot. This is all marching in the name of the pursuit of greater gains.

Our civilisation has surely much work to do. Not towards greater gains but towards the respect of man. For the sake of the dignity of man.

In this struggle the Church is by man's side once again, and again, and ever unwavering.

His Beatitude Christodoulos is Archbishop of Athens and All Greece

Read this article on The Russian Orthodox Church: Representation to the European Institutions website. Reprinting allowed.



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