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Is the Vaticanís worry over the secularization of Europe and loss of core values one possible reason some bishops in this country were so outspoken about this year's candidates for President??

Secularism' in Europe vexes Vatican

By Liz Sly
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published November 5, 2004



VATICAN CITY -- Surveying the world beyond the cloistered walls of its Roman enclave, the Vatican sees much to worry about: Terrorism, war, AIDS and poverty are ravaging the lives of many of its constituents around the globe.

But of all the ills afflicting the modern world, none is causing deeper concern than the rising tide of what Vatican officials call "militant secularism" washing over Europe.

The symptoms of that have been piling up fast recently.

In traditionally Roman Catholic Spain, a new socialist government is aggressively promoting legislation that will permit gay marriage, facilitate abortion and speed up divorce.

In historically Catholic France, the government's ban on the display of "conspicuous" religious symbols in state institutions stirred controversy because while it prevented Muslim girls from wearing veils to school, it also outlawed Christian symbols such as crucifixes.

And perhaps most galling of all, the new European constitution signed with much fanfare last week just across the Tiber River from the Holy See contained no mention of Christianity, despite a vigorous campaign led by the pope for a reference to Europe's "Christian roots" to be included in the preamble.

Vatican officials say they accept that a Europe with a growing Muslim population cannot describe itself as Christian. But the absence of any reference to Christianity was a bitter blow for an institution that over centuries has laid down the law for the continent's secular rulers.

For the ailing Pope John Paul II, whose 26-year papacy has seen a dramatic expansion of the Vatican's authority worldwide, Catholicism's waning influence in Europe is a source of deep dismay, Vatican officials say. The pontiff expressed his regret about the constitution to worshipers at last Sunday's mass in St. Peter's Square, urging Christians to continue to lobby Brussels, home of the European Commission.

"Taking into account the Christian roots of the European continent remains fundamental for the future development of the union," he told the pilgrims.

The omission is more than symbolic. Had the reference been included, the Vatican would have been able to challenge Europe-wide legislation that conflicted with its teachings as unconstitutional, said Marco Politi, the Vatican correspondent for Italy's La Repubblica newspaper.

Instead, the church fears that its teachings will be swept aside, even in countries where it still has influence, by the emerging new European bureaucracy.

"There's a real feeling that the church is under an attack, an aggression, and that it must defend itself against this wave of de-Christianization," Politi said.

The Vatican long ago surrendered authority over the largely Protestant nations of Northern Europe, which broke, often bloodily, with Catholicism in centuries past. Gay marriage is legal in Belgium and the Netherlands, and some form of same-sex union is recognized in several other countries. Britain is making huge strides in the field of embryonic stem cell research. Abortion and divorce are readily available in many European nations.

The prospect that such practices could take hold even in Catholic strongholds is being perceived by some powerful church figures as a threat to Christianity's very existence. In much publicized comments last month, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, attacked what he called a "new holy inquisition" targeting Catholicism in Europe by groups "motivated predominantly by prejudice toward all that is Christian."

It's not just a question of Christianity or even Catholicism, said Archbishop John Foley, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

"There's this militant secularism, a denial of spirituality, of the destiny of the human person, and it's a great concern," he said. "A number of Muslim countries are closer to us on these issues than some of the European countries."

The Vatican intends to fight back. It is encouraging churches in Spain to protest the government's legislation. It is constantly exploring new ways to remain relevant to ordinary Catholics. A new Vatican radio program features cardinals discussing soccer. A newly published Vatican-endorsed sex manual called "It's a Sin Not to Do It" encourages married couples to have more sex.

Politi, a veteran Vatican watcher, suspects it is too late for the Vatican to reverse the tide.

"All they can do is protest. They can't do more," he said. "The fact is that the church in Europe represents a minority view. So many countries and most public opinion simply don't support the stance of the Catholic Church any longer."