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Is Europe Christian?, by Olivier Roy

11 October 2019

Alexander Faludy reads a European analysis

IN THIS volume, the prominent French political scientist Olivier Roy unpacks a conundrum: why is religion a significant flashpoint in political and legal discourse while religious practice is, largely, a topic of bemused indifference to today’s Europeans?

This is an important subject, and Roy has some strikingly quotable opinions to offer. I appreciate especially his critique of French identitarians, whose rituals of pork and red-wine consumption (which are excluding of Jews and Muslims) Roy appraises as “essentially caricatures of the Eucharist, metaphors that destroy what is being mimicked”.

The contextualisation of the genesis of Europe’s “Christian Democrat” parties within the Roman Catholic Church’s long struggle with modernity is lucid and helpful.

Flashes of insight cannot, alas, rescue a book that is flawed in almost every other respect. Roy introduces its eponymous central question only halfway through. This move follows a framing historical narrative that, though related to the headline topic, is poorly co-ordinated with it and riddled with errors.

The contention (page 1) that “Benedict XVI” advocated in 2004 the inclusion of reference to Christianity in the preamble of the EU’s constitution is clumsy, but forgivable. John Paul II reigned until 2005, but Cardinal Ratzinger certainly pursued such advocacy before his election to the papacy. Unfortunately, Roy’s other missteps lack any plausible excuse.

English Common Law was emphatically not a “product of monasteries under the Plantagenet dynasty” (page 13). The Common Law emerged incrementally from the public courts and was first systematised (c.1235) by Henry de Bracton — a secular priest and working judge.

Alleging that the Reformation “changed Europe” by “breaking up” the previously “universal influence of the Catholic Church” makes no sense unless one maintains that Eastern Orthodox lands aren’t “European”. One might also have to excise the Baltic (Estonia remained pagan until the 1200s). Does only Latin-rite Western Europe count as Europe?

The assertion that Benedictine monasticism developed “in the Sixteenth Century” (page 116) is painful.

A political scientist’s struggle with history can be indulged if his handling of his own sphere is credible. Here, it is not. Proffering a chapter on 20th-century “Self Secularisation of Religion” which ignores churches in Eastern Europe under Communism is problematic. Worse, failure to give any citations for pivotal cases involving freedom of religion or belief heard before the European Court of Human Rights (chapter 8) renders the volume useless to researchers.

The assertion that Alpha is “an institution of pontifical right” under RC Canon Law (page 91) might surprise the Revd Nicky Gumbel. Claiming that “The Catholic Church in Europe has always kept its distance from populist movements” (page 107) ignores present realities in Hungary and Poland.

The section on “Blasphemy” (pages 136-8) is woefully careless: the UK did not, as stated, repeal its blasphemy laws in 1988 after the Rushdie controversy. Reform in England and Wales occurred only in 2008. Provisions linger in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Hurst & Co publishes many fine “politics and religion” books. This is not one of them.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently pursuing studies in law.

Is Europe Christian?
Olivier Roy
Hurst £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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