Italian Crucifixes and Swiss Minarets

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It has been a hard month for Europe in its handling of public religious symbols. In early November, the European Court of Human Rights decreed from on high in Strasbourg that Crucifixes could not be displayed in Italian schools, in deference to non-Christians who might be oppressed by going to the chalkboard (happily, chalkboards still exist in Italy) under a Crucifix. This decision united Italians across the political spectrum, as possibly no other decision could have, in favor of protecting an Italian national identity that is historically tied to Christianity. Mariastella Gelmini, the current Italian Minister for Education, said that the ruling was “an offence against our traditions. The presence of a Crucifix in the classroom does not signify adherence to Roman Catholicism, rather it is a symbol of our tradition.” She pointed out, “The history of Italy is marked by symbols and if we erase symbols we erase part of ourselves. No one, and certainly not an ideological European court, will succeed in erasing our identity. It is not by eliminating the traditions of individual countries that a united Europe is built.”

Well, let’s leave aside the question of what a Crucifix, with the image of our Lord suffering on the cross, might mean to those for whom Christianity has no immediate relevance. Let’s be glad that the Crucifix still means anything at all in the public discourse in Europe, if not on the bench in Strasbourg. It’s Advent, after all, and we can wait for something better.

Ho hum. Another moment in post-historical, post-Enlightenment, post-Christian Europe. But then, on November 29, in a country that seemed to have forgotten long ago what the cross on its flag meant, Swiss voters jolted their political elites by approving a referendum banning the construction of minarets, the towering (and often beautiful) spires that adorn many mosques. Now, this little display of direct democracy caused real alarm across the bien-pensant salons of Europe. Some in Switzerland’s political class rushed to condemn the primitive instincts of the electorate to whom they are, in theory, accountable. The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors without Borders and a solid supporter of secular human rights, pronounced himself “a bit scandalized” by the vote (one wonders whether he thought about the original meaning of “scandal,” or what else in contemporary European society might be scandalous). Advocates of religious liberty joined the chorus, and with good reason, given that the suppression of religious symbols is a shame, even where those symbols also carry political connotations.

But Kouchner’s boss, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, took a different tack and wrote about the Swiss decision in the U.K.’s Guardian:

The Swiss vote has nothing to do with religious freedom or freedom of conscience. No one, in Switzerland or anywhere else, questions these fundamental freedoms. Europeans are welcoming and tolerant: it is in their nature and culture. But they do not want their way of life to be undermined, and the feeling that one’s identity is being lost can cause deep unhappiness. The more open the world – the greater the traffic of ideas, people, capital and goods – the more we need anchors and benchmarks, and the more we need to feel that we are not alone. National identity is the antidote to tribalism and sectarianism.

Sarkozy hit on the central question in this era for Europe: identity. For Americans, minarets (of reasonable proportion) at a newly constructed mosque might raise eyebrows and provoke questions. But they do not immediately strike at the sense of American identity. American identity is not yet as fragile as that of post-Christian Europe, which looks back at its earlier self through the blinders of post-Enlightenment relativism, empiricism, and materialism. Puzzled and aware of something crucial that has been lost, Europeans perceive dimly a past when the Crucifix might have been generally understood not just as a secular cultural symbol but as having transcendent sacramental meaning. Sarkozy knows there is something wrong. The 57 percent of the Swiss voters who favored the minaret ban know there is something wrong. The Muslims of Europe know there is much wrong. But for now, only the latter group is offering a solution that suggests strength and endurance in what was once known as Christendom.

The Vatican condemned the ban on school Crucifixes in Italy and supported the Swiss bishops’ reprimand of the referendum on minarets. The Holy See is right to support religious liberty in a consistent way, and we should hope for the day when European identity is strong enough to welcome, without fear, symbols of other faiths and cultures. But for now, Europe is muddling through a sea of secularist disbelief, disoriented by the assertions of those with a different faith and, even more, by its own loss of faith and of confidence in reason. The past month brought the confusion to the fore but offered no way forward.

So, for now, we wait.

Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.