Adrift between earth and heaven

05 December 2014

Sometimes we need help to see ourselves as others see us, says Paul Vallely

THERE was an interesting contrast between the way Pope Francis spoke to the Muslims of the world, during his visit to Turkey this week, and the way he spoke to the politicians of Europe, lamenting that our continent has lost something integral to the vision of human dignity on which our common culture claims to be based.

In Istanbul, he moved with diplomatic delicacy. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had wagged a finger, with a warning that Islamic extremist groups were a consequence of the "serious and rapid rise of Islamophobia" in the West. A sense of "rejection" among Muslims in Europe was a factor behind the radicalisation of the young men who joined violent groups.

The Pope responded with the gentlest of exhortations. It would be, he said, "beautiful" if Islamic leaders would speak out clearly and condemn such violence, "because this would help the majority of Muslim people", who were people of peace.

A few days before, on his visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, he had been more analytical and more admonitory. News headlines reported how he chastised politicians for their policies on immigration, and for their bureaucratic insensitivity to the needs of ordinary individuals. They had allowed Europe to turn into an "old and haggard" continent that had become, he added rather tactlessly, like an ageing grandmother, who is "no longer fertile and vibrant".

What was not widely reported was another image he used. He recalled a Vatican fresco by Raphael, depicting the School of Athens philosophers. He said: "Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato's finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky; to heaven, as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world; concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent - to God - which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe's practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems."

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What Europe had lost, he suggested, was that balance between the transcendent and the earthly realities. One of the founding principles of modern politics, he continued, is human rights. These are rooted in an awareness of the unique worth of each individual human person - an idea Europe inherited from Christianity, as well as from ancient Greece. But the ideal has become corrupted by the notion that human rights belong to individuals, ignoring the fact that each person's rights are bound up with those of other people.

The result in Europe today is the loneliness of those who have no connection with others: the elderly, the unemployed, the homeless, young people bereft of prospects, the ill and vulnerable, the children who are killed in the womb. We have confused means and ends, and become mere cogs of consumption.

Sad that it should take an outsider - a pope from Argentina - to see so clearly what we in Europe can apparently no longer see of ourselves.

Paul Vallely is a Senior Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester.

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