The Church’s role in modern Europe: an interview with Cardinal Jozef De Kesel

Cardinal Jozef De Kesel

Originally published on July 5, 2019 by New Europe, The European political newspaper.

Belgian Cardinal Jozef De Kesel sat down with New Europe to discuss the role of the Catholic Church in today’s Europe, where pluralism and secularism have changed the dynamic between Europe’s citizens and their relationship with one of the continent’s oldest institutions.

New Europe (N.E.): What do you think it means to be Catholic in Europe today? What are the core values that a Catholic should represent?

Cardinal De Kesel (CDK): We must remember that for centuries Europe has been a collection of Christian countries. After antiquity, a Christian culture was established in Europe. From the 17th century and during the Enlightenment, particularly during the French Revolution, little by little the Church found that Europe was no longer an entirely Christian society. It is a pluralistic society, a secular society, where there are also other beliefs.

I believe that being a Catholic in Europe today means being part of this scenario. It is the desire to live together while respecting others. The Church is not here to “reconquer lost ground”. This is not its mission. To be Catholic is to be faithful to one’s convictions in an environment that has changed to a pluralistic society. This implies respect for human being and his or her beliefs.

We must always be respectful of each other, to accept the person as he or she is, without wanting to impose ourselves on an individual person or on society. However, we have a mission inside this society. We have convictions and values that we want to defend. It must also be noted that there is interfaith solidarity and this is the mission of the Catholic Church. We stand in solidarity with all those who strive for a more just and more fraternal society.

If we fight for the respect of freedom of religion, it is because we agree with secularised society, but within this society, we have values to defend. The Catholic Church does not oppose a secularised society. Citizens have the right to believe or not to believe and I stand for that.

NE: What are the challenges that the Catholic Church is facing nowadays in terms of its role in Europe?

CDK: Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Church in Europe, and it’s also an opportunity, because it helps us to rediscover our roots and our mission, is to wholeheartedly accept secularised society. It must be understood that Christianity was, for a long time, the cultural religion in Europe. Today this is no longer the case. And it would be dangerous to go back because it is always dangerous to have one religious tradition that obtains a monopoly. This is true for Christianity, for Islam…for any religion.

The Catholic Church must accept these new cultural circumstances. It requires a certain conversion from the Church. For me, personally, and I believe that also this is the case for many bishops in our Church, I see this as an opportunity as this forces us to rediscover ourselves and meet each other.

Some people say that the Catholic Church is looking for power, as in the past. This is not true. What we claim is the right to be who we are. This applies to everyone, to all religions, and to non-believers too. For us, for the Catholic Church, it was The Second Vatican Council that signalled a fundamental change regarding openness. Before Vatican II, the Church had trouble accepting modernity, but Vatican II said “it’s over, a dead end. It’s fruitless and it’s not the truth”. This is no reason to condemn the past, it’s just that the historical circumstances have changed. It’s not good to live life through nostalgia and for a past that is no longer possible.

NE: You’re personally known to be a “progressive” or “liberal” Cardinal, what are the main points on which you think the Catholic Church should evolve in the modern world?

CDK: First of all, I do not like labels. Some say I’m progressive and others say the opposite. I do not feel comfortable when I’m told that I am “progressive”. I prefer the word “open”. What is progress? If we talk about euthanasia for example, is it progress or not? Progress is a progress only if it is valid for every man and for the whole of mankind. Because we can progress economically, we can become rich and be, at the same time, spiritually and humanly very poor.

The Church must move towards openness based on respect for the other. There are two values – the value of the human being and their liberty and solidarity. If there is no more respect for a person, society drifts towards totalitarian tendencies.

The problem of the French Revolution, for example, was to place freedom first and foremost. It’s right that freedom is fundamental but there is no true freedom without solidarity. The other opposite, of course, is Communism. It is fraternity without freedom. That is horrible. If freedom is what allows a man to do what he wants, that isn’t progress. If freedom asserts itself in an absolute way, this is not at the service of progress. The two always go together – freedom and fraternity. This is a Christian concept that today no longer belongs to it alone, it has entered into our culture.

The greatest challenge in the world today is something that Pope Francis always repeats – poverty. It is a global problem that also affects the problem of immigration. This can only be resolved through solidarity. The Church must, in our modern world, stand up for the respect of a human being, for their freedom, and defend solidarity. We must seek a balance between these two notions.

The Church cannot withdraw from society. We are with all citizens working for a more just society. As Pope Francis says, our planet is our “common home”, for which we are jointly responsible. We cannot privatise all that is religious. When we have a religious conviction, we are at the same time citizens. We cannot separate the two. It is true for Catholics and for other religions and convictions. Of course, there is a separation of Church and State, but we are still part of civil society. There is no separation between religious conviction and citizenship. I am a religious person and I voted.

This remains a challenge because there are extremist tendencies in society. Also within our Church that makes us close in on ourselves. But the mission of the Church is to work together for a more humane and just society. This must be realised and we have to work with each other.

NE: The religious landscape of Europe is not the same as in the past. What are your views on this and how do you think religions should interact in this new landscape?

CDK: In Belgium, we live in a secularised and pluralistic society. However, in Belgium, as in Europe, there is a tendency to privatise everything concerning belief and religion. One trend that you hear these days is, “we respect religious beliefs, but religion has relevance only for the privacy of the citizen and has no place in the public sphere.” I do not agree with that. I wholeheartedly support a pluralistic society, but this pluralism, I see as an active pluralism. Of course, laws are determined by the Parliament, but civil society is an area of freedom in which religions have a role to play. It is clear that it is not a religion that will make the law, not the Gospels, nor Sharia, nor the Jewish Torah, nor any other religious law. But if I am for a secular government, I am not for a forced secularism. I don’t want to see a regime in which religions no longer count and where they are denied any value.

Respect for a human being also applies to the legislator. The rule of law must recognise its own limits. In the case of euthanasia, the state alone has a monopoly on violence. It cannot delegate this power. It can determine that in certain particular situations, euthanasia is possible. Whether this is good or not is another story. But it cannot tell the doctor “it’s up to you to decide” by delegating its power to him. If the state does that, it goes beyond its prerogatives and its monopoly of violence. What the state cannot do is force doctors to practice euthanasia.

The state cannot impose everything. Look, for example, in Italy at the statement of Mr (Matteo) Salvini, who says that the Captain of the Sea Watch allowed migrants to be rescued in Lampedusa committed a criminal act. Does he have the right to say that? Others think what he did was not a criminal act.

The state must respect freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. The limits of the rule of law must be respected by the state, otherwise one drifts towards a dictatorship. In a dictatorship, the laws are decided arbitrarily, and one demands obedience to the law, but there is also the objection of conscience.

In a way, that’s why I think all religions are there to say that man does not just live on bread. We are spiritual beings and therefore the dimension of the soul must be taken into account when talking about progress. The spiritual dimension of man is what is defended by religions. I talked about freedom and solidarity, but spirituality is also a fundamental value. And it is also a temptation for the rich West to forget this dimension. Moreover, in some so-called “developing countries”, they are, on these points, sometimes more advanced than us.

The great problem in Europe is that Europeans have all too often been reduced to a soulless economic and financial project. Instead, it needs to be a real peace project between peoples and nations. Religions must work together on this, all religions – Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other religions. We need openness and interreligious dialogue. Of course, this dialogue exists whilst keeping our convictions, because in this dialogue, the goal is never to convince the other to convert. The goal is to interact, with respect for what each of us is. The goal is the richness of the encounter, of knowing each other. For example, I visited a Scientology centre and it was interesting to know each other, to discover the other in its otherness. It’s like that for Europe. The unity of Europe does not affect the diversity of countries. This is its richness.

NE: What would be your message to young generations in regards to Belgium as well as Europe?

CDK: I would tell them to know the past. We must not forget what happened in Europe, for example, what happened during the Second World War. You have to know what happened in Belgium regarding the rounding up of Jews. In Antwerp, the police collaborated and arrested the city’s Jews. In Brussels, they refused to obey that order. Young people need to remember this.

I would also tell young people not to lose their souls. There is a need for spirituality. What does society say to young people today when they ask what to do with their lives? Society says “whatever you want”. But what gives meaning to my life? What can fulfil my life? What makes me happy? These questions find their answer in spirituality.

And I would also like to call them to solidarity. We live in a rather individualistic society where it is fashionable to say that happiness is, “to be able to do what I want”. It does not fill a life. What makes me happy is what I can mean for another person. It’s part of my commitment to ask what I can do for my family, for my friends, for the world. Of course, to commit to this is to lose a little bit of one’s freedom. it is these limits to my freedom that give meaning to my freedom. It’s the commitment. It’s answering the question “what should I do with my life?”

Life is so beautiful, but you have to do something with it. A limitless human life makes no sense and we must not live only for ourselves. You have to know how to give a part of yourself. There are many possible commitments for a more just society, for beauty, for art, for the environment. And that is what is important in life.