Conservatives, in the United States and elsewhere, are sometimes faulted for blaming “the 1960s” for many of today’s most persistent social ills. Surveying the situation in contemporary Europe, French social theorist Olivier Roy suggests that they are mostly right—at least with respect to recognizing that the 1960s mark a moral and religious watershed in modern history.

The fallout from that decade sets the backdrop for the question posed in Roy’s pointedly titled book Is Europe Christian? Not mincing words, Roy argues that “[e]verything changed in the 1960s,” when a “revolution in morality took place” and a “new anthropology centred on human freedom” was born.

Roy is a professor at the prestigious European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy, and a longtime student of contemporary European religiosity (and secularity). He has emerged as one of the most astute scholars in his field—comparable to the late sociologist Peter Berger in his wide-ranging interests, theological and historical literacy, humor, and gifted writing. Much of his work remains in French, so the Anglophone world owes a debt to London’s Hurst Publishers for sponsoring this translation.

A Complete Anthropological Revolution

A compact book can only accomplish so much, but Is Europe Christian? nicely introduces the contours of Roy’s thought on the contemporary religious scene in Europe—although much of what he writes might apply to other Western countries as well. Careful with terms, Roy makes a crucial distinction between secularization and dechristianization. The former process, understood politically as the rise of tolerance and religious freedom, has been taking place for centuries. The latter, however, is a more recent phenomenon, taking off in Europe most aggressively in the last 50 or 60 years—although it has earlier harbingers, including the radical phases of the French Revolution and Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Roy warns that we will misinterpret the 1960s if we see it as a “mere hedonistic craze.” Hedonism, he adds, might have been part of the decade, but “the [student] revolts of 1968 marked a complete anthropological revolution, whose values are today enshrined in law and deployed in rigorous codes of human relations. … The Sixties revolution brought about new moral norms precisely because it broke with the previously dominant culture”—one that had been largely shaped by the Judeo-Christian heritage, broadly understood. Not for nothing, the French have a phrase for a ’68er: soixante-huitard.

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What were the new moral norms ushered in by the demonstrations? For Roy, they are twofold: First, “the valorization of freedom,” not simply as a political ideal but as a reality that should encompass the entirety of human desire (except for explicit violence and pedophilia); and second, “the valorization of nature”: the view that the environment, one’s body, and one’s instincts are simply terrestrial realities, manifesting nothing transcendent and certainly not serving as the locus for “natural laws,” as the classical and Christian tradition had long posited. One should take care of nature, to be sure, but purely to secure a good earthly life, not because it signifies the splendor of God.

One might wonder if Roy has gone too far in treating Europe after 1968 as a dechristianized place. After all, recent nationalist and populist movements in Europe often make emotion-laden appeals to recover Europe’s “Christian heritage.” Roy’s response is that appearances can deceive. These movements are primarily interested in defending Christianity as a cultural heritage (and as a bulwark against Muslim immigration and influence), not as a matter of living faith. In Roy’s pithy words: “Many populists defend churches against mosques, as long as [the churches] remain empty or at least quiet.” Roy believes the conflict between populist defenders of this heritage (operating largely within national communities and commitments) and Europe’s elite knowledge classes (more inclined to multicultural and cosmopolitan ideologies) is and will remain a pivotal matter of European politics for years to come.

Roy spends considerable time analyzing the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), the Catholic church’s move away from the severe anti-modernism it had adopted since the French Revolution and arguably the most important religious event of the 20th century. Pope John XXIII’s catchword aggiornamento (which means “bringing up to date”) symbolized the church’s desire to enter into dialogue with modernity in a more robust sense. It was a noble effort, in Roy’s estimation, but since it coincided with the moral revolution of the 1960s, it produced ironic consequences and unforeseen hazards for the church. The church thought it was adapting to the modern world as it had existed in the 1940s and 1950s, when considerable residual Christian influence existed in Europe, but this was not the case. “When the Church decided to adapt to the modern world,” he writes, “the modern world was experiencing considerable upheaval, as a new value system emerged out of what has been called ‘the spirit of the 1960s.’” Many subsequent internecine church struggles—among Catholics and, for that matter, other Christians too—involve clashes over how much one should adapt to or resist these new values.

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Drivers of Revival

Could there by a Christian revival in Europe, Roy wonders? If so, he doubts that it would originate with European Christians. They are too numerically weak and, for the most part, lacking in knowledge of their faith. They have also engaged in what Roy calls “self-secularization,” voluntarily accommodating themselves to so much of the post-1960s ethos that they no longer constitute a separate cultural force in their own right. Still, Roy wonders if Catholics and evangelical Christians drawn from the Anglophone world and the Global South—where Christianization, not dechristianization, is the relevant reality—could be drivers of a revival. While acknowledging the growing presence of these types of Christians in Europe today, as they attempt to re-Christianize a secularized Christendom, he concludes that the jury is still out.

Revival or not, the office of the pope is and will remain important and influential in Roy’s judgment, even if it is no longer the powerful office it was in the Middle Ages. While he sees John Paul II and Benedict XVI as cut from a different cloth than Pope Francis, Roy is nonetheless keen to point out how similar the three men are with respect to traditional morality. In his judgment, the liberal press overemphasizes Francis’s progressive-sounding utterances and ignores remarks that strike more morally traditionalist notes. Roy makes clear, however, that any influence that the pope exerts has been severely compromised by the recent waves of sex scandals that have plagued the Catholic church.

The book is not without weaknesses. Roy says practically nothing about Eastern Orthodoxy, which should merit at least some attention. Further, while he invokes the influence of Global-South Christianity at several points, he does not provide much data to support his generalizations. Finally, his interpretation of Vatican II tends to emphasize its novelty, which overlooks how it also affirmed many of the Catholic church’s traditional teachings, retaining the substance of the past while grounding it in updated phrases and explanations.

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But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise stimulating and rewarding book. Accessibly written, it offers both scholars and regular readers much food for thought. If one is unfamiliar with Roy, this slim volume can serve as an insightful introduction to his work and to the considerably-but-not-completely-dechristianized continent from which he hails.

Thomas Albert Howard is professor of humanities and holder of the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. He is editor of The Idea of Tradition in the Late Modern World (Cascade).

Is Europe Christian?
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Is Europe Christian?
Oxford University Press
Release Date
March 1, 2020
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