How to re-Christianize the West

In a recent tweet of Pope Francis we can read a clear exhortation: “The laity are called to become a leaven of Christian living within society“. This is indeed what our deeply confused society needs very much today and it still seems to be little understood by many Christians themselves. Is the Christian life sufficiently visible in Western societies to the point where Christians are a leaven? As Christians we often complain about aggressive secularization and about the many evil laws that are crowding the statute books – like those legalizing abortion or euthanasia -, yet we fail to see that these laws and policies have been developing for decades under our very own eyes as we live our comfortable lives of either being just lukewarm Christians or those hidden behind walls of self-righteousness, who certainly do many good works in society but who too often still refuse to be in that same society what Christ has called us to be: a sign of contradiction.

For example, let us take a look at the Christian democratic parties in Western Europe. They can be held largely (co-)responsible for the introduction over the past decades of a wide variety of laws that diametrically oppose the core tenets of Christian doctrine on life, marriage, family and education. Mostly the argument being used in defense of Christian politicians voting in favor of such ‘laws’ is that by doing so they are “avoiding a bigger evil”, for example by legalizing abortion to avoid women dying from illegal abortions in shady clinics. Now whilst such tragedies indeed need to be eradicated, this common defense of abortion liberalization ignores a fundamental principle of Christian theology: that doing one evil in order to avoid another evil is still evil and thus morally unacceptable. The end does not justify the means; even a good end does not justify evil means.

As Christians, we have increasingly lost our voice in democratic society, and we are mostly ourselves to blame for it. We have chosen to constantly compromise and seek consensus, rather than to explore common ground based on core principles. From leading the culture throughout centuries, we have been allowing more and more to be led by the culture, a culture that has now become openly hostile towards the reality of the created order and the Christian defense thereof.  Out of fear or out of expediency, a majority of Christian politicians and other policy-makers has stopped defending the natural and unchangeable order of God’s creation, the God they however still profess to believe in. A recent example here in Austria underlines this point: the Austrian parliament last month passed a controversial law further liberalizing reproductive medicine including destructive practices in cases of malformed human beings in the embryonic stage. The law also answers a claim that same-sex couples have “the right to a child” – thus essentially ignoring the rights of the child. The non-discrimination argument in favor of same-sex couples now trumps the natural physical and emotional need of every child to be brought up by a father and a mother, preferably the biological parents. The law furthermore liberalizes access to “pre-implantation diagnosis”, effectively widening the scope for destroying the life of human beings in the embryonic stage that show genetic disorders and are therefore deemed ‘unworthy of life’. Out of the 47 members of the supposedly Christian democratic ÖVP party, only 4 members voted against the law. This in spite of the fact that extensive evidence highlighting the severe ethical problems posed by the law was made public and the public debate asked for by many was never held.

A society that sheds its Christian bearings and cuts the life-giving roots to the objective reality of the natural created order ultimately also sheds its humanity and becomes barbaric. We have seen enough examples of this in the history of mankind, where laws that are meant to be the guardians of justice in fact become the instruments of mass killing and human destruction. The rejection of natural law along with the expulsion of Christian theology from society is always followed by de-humanization – when positive law is decoupled from the transcendent and focuses only on the individual or group desire of any given time. The Jewish agnostic writer Hannah Arendt masterfullly expressed this truth in her 1946 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” where she writes:

“A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for – for the individual, or the family, or the people, or the largest number – becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurements of religion or the law of nature have lost their authority. And this predicament is by no means solved if the unit to which the ‘good for’ applies is as large as mankind itself. For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically – namely by majority decision – that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof. Here, in the problems of factual reality, we are confronted with one of the oldest perplexities of political philosophy, which could remain undetected only so long as a stable Christian theology provided the framework for all political and philosophical problems, but which long ago caused Plato to say: “Not man, but a god, must be the measure of all things.”

Indeed, God is the measure of all things, not the majority opinion nor the minority pressure group. The way we have to re-Christianize the West is to bring back to society, whether it be in education, politics or elsewhere, a correct understanding of this measure of all things. This first of all requires us to accept one thing: we are not God. Understanding the measure of all things is a life-long journey. Christians should first and foremost take this journey by living a visible Christian life that attracts others by its clarity and charity – and that is also necessarily a sign of contradiction where it refuses to bow to the pressure of mass conformity and the dictatorship of relativism. The Christian life, and the necessary active involvement of Christians at all levels of society, does not come with self-righteousness and condemnation of those living different lives, but with the humble yet radiant witness of a life lived with a deep inner conviction – like those merciful and forgiving oriental Christians we discussed in the previous blog. They do not condemn their perpetrators and those that refuse to believe in Christ – but they also do not water down in any way their faith in Christ but instead proclaim it publicly and act upon it for all to see. Their vibrant faith is the measure by which they live. This is a true leaven in society.

The Sheer Power of Faith and Forgiveness

On Sunday, in the city of Lahore in Pakistan, we saw yet again how the persecution of Christians around the world is intensifying as two churches were bombed during Sunday services and 17 people died and many more were wounded. In his Angelus message on Sunday, Pope Francis prayed fervently for those affected and commented: “May this persecution against Christians, which the world is seeking to hide, end and may there be peace.” Indeed, who still speaks about the up to 70 Christian churches burned down in Niger only last month by orchestrated mobs? Who speaks about the Christian children routinely being beheaded in Syria and Iraq? Does any Western politician or news outlet still pay attention to the plight of over 200 mostly Christian schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria over a year ago and who are now living a life as sex slaves? Did political leaders from around the world march in Paris after the public beheading of 21 Coptic Christian Egyptians last month? Pope Francis is right, the world is still seeking to hide the harsh reality that Christians are by far the most persecuted people in the world and that the situation is becoming worse by the day.

We have to speak out, we have to form alliances worldwide to deal with these injustices and stop them – and we have to finally bring into the corridors and media of international politics the most potent weapon a Christian has at his disposal: the Gospel of Life and its message faith, hope and love. These three Gospel virtues are the foundation of what our broken world is most in need of today: the mercy of Christ our Redeemer. On Friday, March 13th, Pope Francis took the lead when – for many by surprise – in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome he announced a Year of Mercy, a Jubilee Year, which in the Christian tradition is a time of special graces. As a witness to mercy, the Pope said, the Church has to render this her primary mission more evident so that all Christians learn to ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful’ (cf. Lk 6:36). Especially in the times of merciless killing that we are experiencing today, Christ’s mercy is the only answer we can give that may lead to reconciliation, healing and peace.

The utter moral confusion, not only in the West but equally in those countries where ideologies persist thriving through hate and revenge, leads to a profoundly wounded world. This causes broken lives, broken families, broken communities, broken nations and the escape into a wide range of “isms”: militant secularism, consumerism, materialism, terrorism and ideological extremism, to name but a few. It is especially during the past months and weeks – and on Sunday again for all the world to see – that we have been witnessing the horrifying results of ideologically inspired violence, of fellow human beings whose hatred has become so intense that it consumes them entirely and leads to ever more grotesque acts of killing, aimed at creating fear and a violent response which would justify more violence.

But there is a much better answer: In recent weeks, some extraordinary examples of mercy, resulting from an unshakable faith in Christ and leading to heroic acts of forgiveness, have been publicized in response to the violence and killings in the Middle East. There is real hope: this destructive cycle can eventually be stopped through what Jesus makes very clear in Matthew’s Gospel:

Then Peter went up to him and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.

Three videos that will be shown below show the true meaning of the forgiveness Jesus refers to and are the best introduction to the Jubilee Year of Mercy announced by Pope Francis. When one sees the faith and ability to forgive of these persecuted brethren, what more do we need to learn about mercy? Mercy is first of all seeing and speaking the entire truth, but then instead of remaining with the question of guilt, to forgive the guilty one.

The first video shows an interview with a Christian child refugee from Iraq, Myriam, who tells us how she has forgiven her persecutors. This 10-year old girl who has lost almost everything…except her faith in Jesus Christ…

“We have to forgive, to let the grace transfer from generation to generation. If not, the pain and the hate will close the way to the grace of God (..) We have to take care of our children, they are our future, if not the next generation of ISIS will be from our side.”, says Father Douglas Al-Bazi, an Iraqi Catholic priest who was shot in the leg during Mass, whose church was bombed and who was kidnapped and tortured by Daish. When miraculously released, he returned immediately to his flock, knowing the dangers…

The impressive televised testimony of one of the brothers of the the 21 Coptic martyrs beheaded for their faith in Christ by Daish in Libya last month shows the power of faith, forgiveness and redemption in ways that we can hardly begin to imagine…

There is a lot for us in the West to learn from oriental Christians, especially when it comes to their faithfulness to Christ, their willingness to embrace their suffering whilst openly forgiving those that have harmed them. We Christians in the West have not been put to the test of faith as have the Christians in the East – they are the living examples of Christ’s mercy. Let them be our guides as we prepare for a truly Holy Year of Mercy.

The Good Argument and the Better Example

At the conclusion of the last week’s meeting of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference in Bregenz, the Conference Chairman, His Eminence Cardinal Christoph Schönborn – who is also the Grand Chancellor of the ITI – gave an interview during which he explained how the Catholic view on life is increasingly being regarded as a minority ‘opinion’, and what our response as Christians to this situation should be. We need sound arguments to explain why the Church is defending the humanity of society here, the Cardinal underlined, and even more we need the most credible argument of a life in Christ lived by example. In the future, “we will recognize Catholics by what they will not do”, Schönborn said, referring to a host of ‘medical’ procedures ignoring the inviolability of human life and dignity. The Cardinal specifically referred to the Church’s opposition against the selective (and massive) destruction of human beings in the embryonic stage during in-vitro fertilization procedures, as well as state-sanctioned assisted suicide. These Church positions have only one thing in mind, he concluded, and that is the preservation of a humane society.

The history of the 20th Century should have taught us enough lessons showing what happens to a society where the inviolable right to life and respect for the dignity of every human being, from the moment of conception onward and regardless of any human-made categories or labels, is not upheld in full and without exceptions. The moment one group in society starts making exceptions with regard to another group, we are already moving towards new forms of mass killing. This is the tragedy of human history: ever since we human beings discovered the power to kill, we have found reasons to explain to ourselves and to others why it is good to kill this person or that group. Endless exceptions have been created to God’s clear commandment “thou shall not kill”.

How true were the words of the Cardinal was shown this week on Tuesday when the European Parliament in Strasbourg adopted the so-called “Tarabella Report”. Meant to report annually on the development of equality between women and men in the EU, as so often happens the report was cleverly twisted by those wanting to introduce a “right to abortion”. For years efforts have been underway at the EU, the UN and other international organizations to introduce abortion as a fundamental human right. This report was part of this ongoing effort. EU reports have no legislative status, but they strongly influence policy making. The European Parliament approved the report with 441 to 205 votes and 52 abstaining. More such “reports” are in the pipelines. It is useful to analyze more closely some of the wording used to promote abortion, because those promoting it are of the – seemingly majority – opinion that this killing of innocent human life actually makes sense and is perfectly justified, and therefore should even be included in the international catalog of human rights.

Paragraph 45 of the “Tarabella Report” states:

“Maintains that women must have control over their sexual and reproductive health and rights, not least by having ready access to contraception and abortion; supports, accordingly, measures and actions to improve women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services and inform them more fully about their rights and the services available;”

The last part of the quote “inform them more fully about their rights and the services available” is particularly problematic because it not only equates the possibility to end the unborn life with a “right” the woman can insist upon at the cost of the taxpayer, it also presents it as a service that should be provided by the State. Language promoting abortion has thus developed to a point where the procedure of deliberately terminating an innocent life in the mother’s womb is seen as a service to women and to society as a whole. When before in the history of mankind has the possibility to kill a defenseless human being been called a service the State should provide? What is our understanding of human life when the State becomes the provider of life-ending “services”?

As Cardinal Schönborn said in his press conference, we need sound arguments and good examples to show why those promoting such procedures are wrong. We should show how these procedures destroying human life disregard the most fundamental reality of human life, so well expressed by the writer Michael D. O’Brien:

“Each human life, no matter how “small”, is miraculous, infinitely more valuable than an inanimate object. Each and every person is a word never before seen, never to be repeated, inexpressibly beautiful in the eyes of God.”

This simple yet profound truth is our most powerful argument, and is now increasingly being publicly confirmed by those testifying by example to the uniqueness and beauty of each and every human being by their own lives, even in the most painful of situations: abortion survivors and rape victims. Claire Culwell is a young woman who survived an abortion but lost her twin sister in the procedure. She is now a voice for the unborn and tells her story in this video. Three women in another video give testimony of their horrendous ordeals and how they still chose for life, where one of the women says:

“My daughter is just the absolutely greatest gift for me. I think that the biggest problem I have had in recovering from my rape is that for so long I wanted to go back and be the person I was before the rape. And, what my daughter taught me is that there is value to who I have become after my rape, and the value is in being a mother to her and learning to love in an absolute unconditional way, to start seeing the innocence and the beauty in life again. She has taught me all that… I have absolutely no doubt that my daughter was a gift from God to help me to overcome and survive this experience. She will forever know that she changed her mother’s life for the better.”

They are the best examples of what it means to answer evil not with evil, but with charity and generosity, and how this is the only right answer, because only love generates and regenerates life, even in the most difficult of circumstances. This is the hope by example and good arguments Christians are called to live, and this is also what we teach our students here at the ITI.


“Memorial for Unborn Children” by the Slovakian sculptor Martin Hudácek

The only true Theologians are the Saints

Last week, on February 25, the ITI had the great privilege of an evening lecture on the Prima Pars Quaestio of the Summa theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, held by our Grand Chancellor Cardinal Dr. Christoph Schönborn. Before being appointed bishop many years ago, Fr. Christoph Schönborn, O.P. was a professor of theology and a very good one at that. Not only does the Cardinal have a vast teaching experience and many publications on his name, he is above all a teacher with a great love for teaching, who also has a deep knowledge of the great Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the patron Saints of the ITI.

Essential for understanding the call of the Christian in today’s world, and thus also the call of each of the ITI graduates, is the point the Cardinal started his lecture with: only the Saints are true theologians, because the Saints lived in full – rather than merely study and discuss academically – the Word of God and the teachings of His Church. They are our best teachers because we can see through their lives what it means in the daily realities of our broken world to live a life in Christ. The Saints did not hide from the world, nor despise it; they actively engaged with it and so through their living example of love, redemption and the overcoming of their human weaknesses make it possible for us to see what our call in this world is, and how to humbly pursue it. Theology, therefore, before anything else, should be pursued to serve. The Cardinal here spoke some vital and humbling words for all of us:

“The fundamental task of any science should be to serve, knowledge has to serve. If not, it becomes pride, it becomes dangerous, very dangerous, it inflates, as St. Paul says. Theology should serve the faithful, and (..) if you feel superior of the simple faithful, you are already on the wrong track. All the science you acquire through studying theology academically is to serve the faith of the faithful. St. Thomas always speaks about the vetula – old woman, a simple old woman. For St. Thomas she is the measure; we have to serve the faith of the faithful and of the simple ones. If your theology pretends to be superior of the faith of the simple faithful then you are already agnostic and not a Christian theologian.”

The task of Theology thus is to serve the Kingdom of God that is being established on Earth through the faith of the faithful. At the ITI we do this by forming the minds and the hearts of men and women that can engage with the world and show it the light of Christ in all its brightness. It easily becomes clear when we look at the great suffering all around us, near and far, how much a serving theology is called for to heal the many wounds and to give hope. As St. Thomas says: “..yet the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things..” It is the hope that lies in these highest things that Theology is called to provide to all people of all nations.