Christianity, the Crucifix, and European Values

Posted on March 28, 2011


It was with surprise that many people heard last week of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), by a majority of 15-2, to overturn its own much-criticised decision in 2009 to forbid the display of crucifixes in Italian schoolrooms.

Perhaps it would be kinder not to point out to the hapless plaintiff – a Finnish atheist – that the publicity generated by the case actually resulted in crucifixes being restored to schoolrooms which had not displayed them for decades.  In a number of places the legal requirement to display the crucifix had been forgotten until public officials outraged at the ECHR ruling not only refused to remove crucifixes, but set about placing them where they had not been before.  One mayor imposed a fine of €500 for failing to display a crucifix in school classrooms and instructed local police to enforce his orders.  Elsewhere, billboards normally used to convey information to the public broadcast digital images of crucifixes, whilst one contractor erected a 16-foot high cross in protest at the ruling.  Perhaps not all has been done in the best of taste, but the reactions have been, for all that, significant.

And so the issue of the proper place for Christianity to assume in the public life of Europe rears its head again.  Being a practising Christian is begrudgingly acknowledged by many people as a positive trait, insofar as it generally correlates with higher levels of charitable giving and more time spent volunteering for good causes.  The unspoken suggestion is that Christianity should be tolerated until it is possible to organise society in such a way that what was previously provided by the altruistic impulses of the pious can be replaced by flawless State welfare systems catering for all our material and spiritual needs.

Interestingly, it was recently reported that after many years of study to uncover the West’s secret of success, Chinese intellectuals are now concluding that it is ultimately rooted not in our particular economic or political arrangements, but in the ‘Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life’.  One report observes that whilst ‘we are doing our best to destroy our Christian heritage…  Chinese intellectuals are coming around to the view that it is precisely this heritage that has made the West so successful’.  Christians are generally what they are not, of course, because they think their faith offers a nice blueprint for the organisation of society, but because they hope thereby to save their souls.  Nevertheless, that does not mean we should not ask important questions about the contribution of the Christian faith to European values.

Ironically, in the Italian crucifix case, the original complaint was lodged under the argument that the plaintiff’s rights under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated.  This article obliges the State to ‘respect the right of parents to ensure such education…  [as is] in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’.  Yet the recognition of this fundamental right is itself the logical outworking of Christian philosophical principles.  During the medieval era, the question was hotly disputed among theologians as to whether children of Jewish people living in Europe could be baptised against the will of their parents.  The Scotist school of theologians argued that since salvation could not be had without baptism, civil authorities could command Jewish children to be baptised even against their parents’ wishes.  The Thomists, on the other hand, followed Thomas Aquinas in arguing that this would be a violation of ‘natural justice’, for ‘it would be an injustice to Jews if their children were to be baptized against their will, since they would lose the rights of parental authority over their children as soon as these were Christians’.  It was the second opinion which won the day, and was later confirmed by a papal bull in 1747.  More importantly for our purposes, however, even before this it was the second opinion which was better received in the ecclesiastical courts which have provided the model for modern courtrooms, and by medieval canonists who laid the foundations for modern legal thought and jurisprudence.

We in the West are in danger of taking for granted the principle that parents should choose how their children are to be educated as simple ‘common sense’, but it is evidently not so, as many Islamic countries, for example, forbid the teaching of religions other than Islam, and other secular regimes – notably communistic ones – have prohibited parents from giving their children an education in accord with their own religious and philosophical convictions.  Now this is not because Muslims and Communists are necessarily lacking in common sense.  The reason principles like these have so permeated our culture that they are no longer consciously considered is because Christian values have been, for centuries, part of the air we breathe here in Europe, and it is difficult for us to consider how life might have been had things been different.

But it is sobering to consider how long such Christian values can survive once they have been cut loose from their moorings.  The example given, of course, is just one among many.  Without the faith which gave birth to them, and which provides a will to maintain them, it is doubtful whether our cherished Western values will last long, and many are already showing signs of advanced decay.  It is often said that we are now living in a ‘post-Christian’ age in the West, but one rarely hears the enthusiastic harbingers of this age ask how long the values they hold dear will remain after the collapse of the faith which made European civilisation what it is today.

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