Crucifix, Constantine, Church

You’ve probably heard that Christians in Italy and elsewhere are trying to defend crucifixes in public classrooms before Europe’s highest court, the European Court of Human Rights. “This is a great battle for the freedom and identity of our Christian values,” said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. Some speak of “intolerance” or even “persecution” of Christianity. The Catholic bishops of Malta said, “The display of the Cross in public places does not impose a religion: in our tradition, the cross is a symbol and expression of the highest altruism and generosity, and of the deepest solidarity offered to all.” Many Orthodox bishops further east are expressing similar sentiments.

I just don’t get it. The Christians in Europe seems thoroughly mistaken to me. I’m sure there is a complex history to these European disputes which an outsider like myself can’t begin to appreciate. But from my cultural perch some 5,000 miles away, it seems long past high time to get beyond the special privileges which the Church has enjoyed ever since Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century. I wish the Christians in Europe would get ahead of the story and be leaders in the transition, instead of being forced into it against their will.

I admit that I’m greatly influenced by Methodist (or is it ‘high church Mennonite’?) theologian Stanley Hauerwas in all this. I’ve retained much from that two-year stage I went through as an undergrad in which I read every book and article written by Hauerwas, even if I view a few things differently by now. Hauerwas taught me that the Gospel applies first of all to the Church, not the state. He taught me that Christians best serve nation-states not by their patriotism, but by their embodiment of an alternative Gospel vision. (I was ready by the second-last week of the last semester of my senior year, by now a pacifist, to join the Friday demonstration calling for the removal of ROTC from campus.) Hauerwas taught me that the Church’s mission is not primarily to preserve the achievements of Christendom, but to be an alternative community, a contrast society to the ways of the world. This vision contributed much to my decision to become a Benedictine monk.

The Maltese bishops rightly say that “the cross is a symbol and expression of the highest altruism and generosity.” But doesn’t this mean that we Christians should avoid using the cross in any way which is offensive to others? Doesn’t the self-emptying of Our Lord on the cross teach us to refrain from any coercion of others? Shouldn’t we reject the battle imagery of “Christians versus secularists,” where their win is our loss and vice versa, and be happy to “lose” in the eyes of the world if this is more faithful to Christ and more in accord with his loving act of self-offering?

I have the impression that the Christians in Europe are grabbing for every last scrap of privilege they once had in the hope that this will forestall the Church’s complete marginalization. It’s as if they’re saying, “We need yesterday’s cultural props because we can’t count on our own resources – our preaching of the Gospel, our celebration of the liturgy, our catechetical formation of the young – to inspire anyone to be a believing Christian.” I think it’s time to bite the bullet and and rely precisely on those resources. And to rely on Christ, whatever it means for the Church’s status.

Tomorrow is Independence Day in the U.S. I wish all the best to my fellow U.S. citizens. But you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m happy to live in a place where the focus of tomorrow’s Mass is the lectionary and missal texts for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Without any patriotic songs.



  1. As a European living in America, I see now some of the true differences in thinking between Europeans and Americans. Imagine a small European minority in Thailand asking all public images of Buddha to be removed? Europe is not a traditional land of immigration like the US – each country has its own peoples, histories, languages, religions and it is clear which is native and which is immigrant. In that respect, Europe is no different from Asia or Africa and most unlike the Americas. And I don’t think view on that differ much in Europe depending on whether one is relgious or secular.

    I do agree that the Church shouldn’t get too involved in fights it won’t win since the loss damages its prestige and thus its sacred mission.

    My wife and I were (half-)joking last night that the Church’s experiment with entering into time of the last 40 years should have disillusioned it by now as to this whole ‘time’ concept; perhaps the Church should withdraw from the concept as being beneath it. I was always taught that the Church stood outside of time and always found the Church to be at its least convincing when it was tryintg to be contemporary and relevant.

    If ghastly attempts to make the liturgy ‘fun’ and unsuccessful and undignified appeals to man-made institutions for recognition are all we have to show for it, we risk appearing as just another denomination in a crowded marketplace increasingly devoid of shoppers.

    1. Ceile De:

      I was always taught that the Church stood outside of time and always found the Church to be at its least convincing when it was tryintg to be contemporary and relevant.

      Catholicism has never been fully atemporal. The Church (as institution and Body of Christ) has always been enmeshed in political machinations and the practical boundaries of doctrine. In my view, Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate are profoundly temporal documents. In these, the institutional Church and Body of Christ are both called to turn towards the historical implications of Christianity and make amends for violence, prejudice, and exclusion.

      The Maltese bishops’ contention that the crucifix symbolizes altruism and solidarity displays only one face of an image of salvation. The crucifix has also been carried forth as an emblem of persecution. The creeping secularity in historically Catholic European countries might also provide a necessary reflection on both sides of the Cross.

      All Roman Catholics are bound by the two aforementioned documents. A special burden falls on those who defend the older liturgy. Vatican II is a whole cloth even if some like myself would rather question the liturgical documents and affirm the social justice documents. A jaundiced view of Sancrosanctum Concilium might hamper a well-rounded understanding of the Church’s bold acknowledgment of charity and dialog with other Christians and religions.

  2. In other words, and although I come at it from a different angle, I agree with Fr Ruff. I am interested to see how the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization will pan out.

  3. I would be interested to hear people’s (yes, even differing) views on the similar debate on this at NCR:

    Particularly this from John Allen: “Critics sometimes regard all this as a “rolling back of the clock,” meaning nostalgia for the church before the reforms of Vatican II. Seen through a sociological lens, however, it looks more like Catholicism adjusting to its post-modern minority status — you can debate the cure, but the diagnosis, at least, seems solidly in touch with reality.”

  4. There is a difference between removing a crucifix from a public classroom and the removal of a crucifix (or other Christian symbol) from a Catholic institution for fear of “offending.”

    1. Fr. Christopher, what does this have to do with the post? The post is about Christendom-type cultural supports for the Church, not about the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions. I want to make sure that you don’t derail the conversation with a concern which, though important, is not the topic at hand.

    2. I was agreeing with your post. Identity in a Catholic institution is different from Catholic identity/presence in the public sphere of a historically but probably nominally Christian secular society. I have seen many try to put both of these together. It does seem that there are different underpinnings from this issue than the American “Church and state” situation–because Church and state were together for so long in much of Europe.

      I do appreciate the personal responses to all my posts, by the way.

  5. One aspect of these struggles:

    When the “keep the crucifixes displayed” team uses heritage-talk to try to win, do they inadvertently strengthen the cultural conditioning already operating that invites people to (mis)identify the crucifix as symbolizing Christianity as “that thing of the past,” as mere heritage stuff?

    In terms of rhetoric, to identify a life-stance nowadays with “heritage” is to admit it to be irrelevant to our ongoing construction of the world here and now.

    It may be that people in contemporary Western societies would be better off relating more positively to what is in the past, but they don’t. And we really do live in the world in which they don’t. So it might help us communicate better if we take that into account.

    Wouldn’t it have been great if the crucifix team had instead seized the moment, a time in which people, however few, actually were listening to what some Chrisitan might say next, and argued, “We’re for liberation, the crucifix says liberation like this, statement x, so let’s keep it around.” Maybe they would have “lost” but that would have been better than what we’re going to get: heritage-symbol removed from classrooms.

  6. Fr Anthony, In response to your questions in the 4th paragraph – yes, yes, and yes!! As you also point out this goes well beyond the Catholic Church. Not only does it make Christianity look desparate but by having the state “protect” it, it also looks rather lazy.

    (I will be forever grateful you for intoducing me to Hauerwas in Introdution to Christian Tradition. I am also grateful that tomorrow I will worship in a Methodist setting that also celebrates that 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, sans patriotic songs.)

  7. I fervently hope that the Mass I attend tomorrow does not include patriotic songs. Unfortunately most of those I attend on US holidays seem to squeeze in America The Beautiful as the recessional song.

  8. Some Americans tend to stress almost a Jeffersonian separation of Church & state that is not traditional in many parts of Christendom before the French Revolution. To export this Jeffersonian view to Europe is inappropriate in my mind.
    Crosses and crucifixes are in many European schools because education has been the province of the Church and has been expressed that way in many concordats.
    I was pleased to sing “America the Beautiful” as the recessional at Mass. Far better than the Shaker anthem “Simple Gifts” that I’ve heard too many times.

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