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Secularized Europe worries pope

He says continent has excluded God from its conscience

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Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger attends Mass at the Vatican in 2001.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger attends Mass at the Vatican in 2001.

Plinio Lepri, Associated Press

The rather pessimistic cultural outlook of Pope Benedict XVI comes into sharp focus in an address the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a day before predecessor John Paul II died.

The speech, translated into English and posted on the Internet by zenit.org, says Europe has excluded God "from the public conscience" in "a manner unknown before now to humanity," radically contradicting Christianity and all other religious and moral traditions.

Like John Paul, Benedict is distressed that the now-moribund European Union constitution deleted mention of the continent's Christian heritage, though it's a "historical fact that no one can seriously deny."

Benedict says mention of Christianity wouldn't offend Jews, who share the continent's biblical heritage, or Muslims, "who do not feel threatened by our Christian moral foundations, but by the cynicism of a secularized culture."

(In an aside, Benedict says terrorism is based on modern secular modes of "man's self-authorization, and not on the teachings of the Quran.")

What's the impact when the biblical God is relegated to the past?

Benedict endorses many good results of the Enlightenment, that period when Europe began straying from medieval Christian roots, including "freedom of religious choice," the "religious neutrality of the state" and democracy. But he warns that many dangers lurk when culture forsakes faith and morality.

He believes campaigns against "discrimination" are turning into attempts to limit churches' freedom, for instance, to morally oppose homosexual activity or limit the clergy to males. More generally, he thinks the culture seeks to suppress influences stemming from religion.

A "confused ideology of freedom leads to dogmatism, which is showing itself increasingly hostile to freedom," he says.

The pope believes that exclusion of God "leads to the self-destruction of freedom" and severs the roots that nourish morality and human decency, leading ultimately to "contempt for man."

In particular, he thinks "the gravest danger" of our time is that development of science and technology has not been matched by the moral strength which is the precondition for the security, freedom and dignity everyone yearns for.

Humanity has reached a point of biological "self-manipulation" and reconstruction, making the person no longer "a gift of the Creator" but "a product of our action" with traits selected according to various desires. Instead of bearing the image of God, the manufactured human "is no more than the image of man."

He concludes, "The attempt, carried to the extreme, to manage human affairs disdaining God completely leads us increasingly to the edge of the abyss, to man's ever greater isolation from reality."

What happened to Europe? Benedict doesn't theorize but a USA Today survey of Europe's secularization said "unprecedented affluence" could be one reason for secularization. But then, how to explain the wealthy but devout United States, which isn't examined in Benedict's speech?

USA Today said one consequence of religion's decline is a dearth of children, but that could just as easily be a cause of secularization.

Since U.S. history is so different, one useful factor could be Europe's past warfare between Christians and its church-state entanglements — which Benedict says violated the faith's true nature.

In Sweden's World Values Survey of 2000, only 18 percent of Americans said they "never" or "practically never" attend worship, compared with these percentages for Europeans: France (60), Britain (55), Netherlands (48), Belgium (46), Sweden (46), Denmark (43), Norway (42), Spain (33) and West Germany (30). Canada leans toward Europe, at 26 percent. Most percentages increased since a parallel survey in 1981.

Most observers think the problem is most acute in Western Europe, noting Christianity's strength in Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

USA Today said the need to revive European Catholicism was "among the main reasons" the cardinals chose Germany's Benedict as pope. That's debatable, but there's no doubt Europe's plight is much on the new pontiff's mind.

On the Net: Ratzinger text posted July 26, 27, 28 and 29: www.zenit.org