AS ERASMUS has already noted, there are places all over Europe where right-of-centre politicians are sounding a clarion call of Christian nativism while progressive Christian clerics are pulling in the other direction, urging tolerance and respect for diversity. The latest locus of this surreal standoff is the German region of Bavaria, which has for centuries been a bastion of Teutonic Catholicism.
Markus Söder, the newish Bavarian premier, has decreed that from June 1st a crucifix must be displayed in all offices of the regional government. He described the decision as a “commitment to Bavarian identity and culture” which was not explicitly doctrinal. Given that in this context the “cross is not a sign of religion” its display did not amount to a “violation of the principle of neutrality” by state authorities. As might have been expected, the decision was immediately welcomed by politicians who stand to the right of Mr Söder’s Christian Social Union, which dominates Bavarian politics, and deplored by those on the political left and centre-left. A Green spokesman said that “instead of nailing crucifixes to the wall” the CSU administration should be showing Christian values like mercy and charity.
Among the most outspoken critics is Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who is the Archbishop of Munich and chairman of Germany’s Catholic bishops. Cardinal Marx has accused the Bavarian authorities of “instrumentalising” a Christian symbol for political purposes and exacerbating social divisions. “This is…pitting people against each other,” said the Cardinal, a progressive figure in Catholic terms who said in recent days that the church’s social doctrine owed something to his famous namesake, Karl.
If Mr Söder’s claim that the cross is not really a religious symbol sounds peculiar, it is fully in line with a famous ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in 2011, which has been studied carefully (and widely criticised) by law-and-religion pundits ever since. This was the so-called Lautsi case, in which a half-Italian, half-Finnish mother took to court her argument that the crucifix displayed in the Italian school which her children attended was an affront to the family’s secular convictions. The court found against her, on ground that “a crucifix on the wall is essentially a passive symbol…it cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities.” Given that displaying a cross did not amount to indoctrination, it was a matter that individual European countries could regulate according to their history and traditions, the court found.
Somewhat similar arguments have been constructed in defence of Mr Söder’s position. “The church does not have a monopoly on the cross,” insisted Felix Steiner in a commentary for Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. Whether on the walls of buildings or on the flags of many European countries (Switzerland, all Nordic countries, Greece, Britain and so on) it was a reminder of the collective history of those places, places which are “unimaginable in their current form without Christian influence.” DW also hosted a cogent piece of reasoning from the other side, penned by a Catholic journalist who found it appalling that his faith’s most prized symbol was being exploited by the CSU for political gain.
This controversy epitomises the dilemma facing churches in many historically Christian places, especially in the rich Western world. For historical reasons, the churches and their symbolism have a cultural resonance, and a social prestige, which goes far beyond the relatively small number who actively and passionately subscribe to Christian doctrine. (Germany is one example of this; its churches are relatively well-off because of a system whereby the state collects dues on their behalf, even though only a small minority of notionally Catholic and Protestant people are regular worshippers.)
Faced with this situation, the churches can either take full advantage of their privileged historical position and assert themselves as respected guardians of European culture, or they can self-consciously retreat into a smaller and more narrowly-defined world where the cross is not just a cosy cultural talisman but a challenging symbol of self-sacrifice and changing relationships between God and man. Plenty of politicians wish the church would take the former position, but Cardinal Marx is resisting that pressure. He seems unafraid of making political adversaries.
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