This week’s Acton commentary from Research Director Samuel Gregg. Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here.
Benedict’s Creative Minority
By Samuel Gregg
In the wake of Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Britain, we have witnessed—yet again—most journalists’ inability to read this pontificate accurately. Whether it was Queen Elizabeth’s gracious welcoming address, Prime Minister David Cameron’s sensible reflections, or the tens of thousands of happy faces of all ages and colors who came to see Benedict in Scotland and England (utterly dwarfing the rather strange collection of angry Kafkaesque protestors), all these facts quickly disproved the usual suspects’ predictions of low-turnouts and massive anti-pope demonstrations.
Indeed, off-stage voices from Britain’s increasingly not-so-cultured elites—such as the celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins and others whom the English historian Michael Burleigh recently described as “sundry chasers of limelight” and products of a “self-satisfied provincialism”—were relegated to the sidelines. As David Cameron said, Benedict “challenged the whole country to sit up and think.”
Of course the success of Benedict’s visit doesn’t mean Britain is about to return to its Christian roots. In fact, it’s tempting to say present-day Britain represents one possible—and rather depressing—European future.
In an article welcoming Benedict’s visit to Britain, the UK’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs observed, “Whether or not you accept the phrase ‘broken society,’ not all is well in contemporary Britain.” The facts cited by Sach were sobering. In 2008, 45 percent of British children were born outside marriage; 3.9 million children are living in poverty; 20 percent of deaths among young people aged from 15 to 24 are suicides; in 2009, 29.4 million antidepressants were dispensed, up 334 percent from 1985.
Such is the fruit of a deeply-secularized, über-utilitarian culture that tolerates Christians until they start questioning the coherence of societies which can’t speak of truth and error, good and evil, save in the feeble jargon of whatever passes for political correctness at a given moment.
But what few commentators have grasped is that Benedict has long foreseen that, for at least another generation, this may well be the reality confronting those European Catholics and other Christians who won’t bend the knee to political correctness or militant secularism. Accordingly, he’s preparing Catholicism for its future in Europe as what Benedict calls a “creative minority.”
The phrase, which Benedict has used for several years, comes from another English historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975). Toynbee’s thesis was that civilizations primarily collapsed because of internal decline rather than external assault. “Civilizations,” Toynbee wrote, “die from suicide, not by murder.”
The “creative minorities,” Toynbee held, are those who proactively respond to a civilizational crisis, and whose response allows that civilization to grow. One example was the Catholic Church’s reaction to the Roman Empire’s collapse in the West in the 5th century A.D. The Church responded by preserving the wisdom and law of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, while integrating the invading German tribes into a universal religious community. Western civilization was thus saved and enriched.
This is Benedict’s vision of the Catholic Church’s role in contemporary Europe. In fact, it’s probably the only viable strategy. One alternative would be for the Church to ghettoize itself. But while the monastic life has always been a vocation for some Christians, retreat from the world has never been most Christians’ calling, not least because they are called to live in and evangelize the world.
Yet another option, of course, is “liberal Catholicism.” The problem is that liberal Catholicism (which is theologically indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism) has more-or-less collapsed (like liberal Protestantism) throughout the world. For proof, just visit the Netherlands, Belgium, or any of those increasingly-rare Catholic dioceses whose bishop regards the 1960s and 1970s as the highpoint of Western civilization.
Even the Economist (which strangely veers between perceptive insight and embarrassing ignorance when it comes to religious commentary) recently observed that “liberal Catholics” are disappearing. Long ago, the now-beatified John Henry Newman underscored liberal Christianity’s essential incoherence. Liberal Catholicism’s future is that of all forms of liberal Christianity: remorseless decline, an inability to replicate themselves, and their gradual reduction to being cuddly ancillaries of fashionable lefty causes or passive deliverers of state-funded welfare programs.
By contrast, Benedict’s creative minority strategy recognizes, first, that to be an active Catholic in Europe is now, as Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris writes in his Une mission de liberté (2010), a choice rather than a matter of social conformity. This means practicing European Catholics in the future will be active believers because they have chosen and want to live the Church’s teaching. Such people aren’t likely to back off when it comes to debating controversial public questions.
Second, the creative minority approach isn’t just for Catholics. It attracts non-Catholics equally convinced Europe has modern problems that, as Rabbi Sachs comments, “cannot be solved by government spending.”
A prominent example is Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Chairman of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow’s Department for External Church Relations. A deeply cultured man, who’s completely un-intimidated by either liberal Christians or militant secularists, Hilarion has conspicuously cultivated the Catholic Church in Europe because he believes that, especially under Benedict, it is committed to “defending the traditional values of Christianity,” restoring “a Christian soul to Europe,” and is “engaged in common defence of Christian values against secularism and relativism.” Likewise, prominent European non-believers such as the philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Marcello Pera have affirmed Europe’s essentially Christian pedigree and publically agreed with Benedict that abandoning these roots is Europe’s path to cultural suicide.
Lastly, creative minorities have the power to resonate across time. It’s no coincidence that during his English journey Benedict delivered a major address in Westminster Hall, the site of Sir Thomas More’s show-trial in 1535.
When Thomas More stood almost alone against Henry VIII’s brutal demolition of the Church’s liberty in England, many dismissed his resistance as a forlorn gesture. More, however, turned out to be a one-man creative minority. Five hundred years later, More is regarded by many Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a model for politicians. By contrast, no-one remembers those English bishops who, with the heroic exception of Bishop John Fisher, bowed down before the tyrant-king.
And perhaps that’s the ultimate significance of Benedict’s creative minority. Unlike Western Europe’s self-absorbed chattering classes, Benedict doesn’t think in terms of 24-hour news-cycles. He couldn’t care less about self-publicity or headlines. His creative minority option is about the long-view.
The long-view always wins. That’s something celebrities will never understand.
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, The Modern Papacy, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.