Yesterday, Pope Francis became the latest recipient of the Charlemagne Prize. That is the EU's annual exercise in self-promotion, which was once awarded to European statesmen like Robert Schuman, Paul Henri Spaak, Alcide deGasperi, and Konrad Adenauer, but more recently has actually been awarded (in 2002) to the euro!
Charlemagne, whose Frankish-Roman empire corresponded more or less to the original 6-nation European Common Market is as good a patron as any for the "European Project." Charlemagne's empire fell apart after his death, but the old idea of a Western Latin "Roman" empire outlasted him - in part because, while Charlemagne himself had reigned in Aachen and his successors as Holy Roman Emperors reigned from various other northern and central European cities, that earlier version of the "European Project" had a spiritual partner in Rome, the heart of Western Christendom, which was more than a partner but in a real sense the soul of that "European Project."
The Holy Roman Empire ended 210 years ago. Since then, the modern, secularized "European Project" has had three very different incarnations - first, Napoleon's military and cultural conquest of Europe, second, Hitler's military conquest combined with a much more ambitious and lethal attempt at cultural conquest (which fortunately failed completely), and, third, the post-war Christian-Democratic European integration that has evolved into the present post-Christian and increasingly post-democratic EU. The original leaders of the post-war "European Project" were motivated by Christian Democratic values and a common desire to end Europe's history of fratricidal conflicts. (In fact, of course, it was the Cold War and a common enemy that accomplished the latter goal. And, as soon as the Cold War was over, fratricidal conflict resumed in full ferocity in the Balkans!)
Receiving the award in the Sala Regia, in the presence of various European statesmen (and the King of Spain), Pope Francis spoke eloquently about Europe, with obvious references to the plight of contemporary migrants in Europe. I dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime but a summons to greater commitment on behalf of the dignity of every human being. Diagnosing the symptoms of European malaise, he challenged his hearers with a call for a new humanism based on three capacities: the capacity to integrate, the capacity for dialogue and the capacity to generate.
In his diagnosis, Pope Francis referenced his earlier use of the image of Europe as a "grandmother" and a growing impression that Europe is weary, aging, no longer fertile and vital, that the great ideals that inspired Europe seem to have lost their appeal. There is an impression that Europe is declining, that it has lost its ability to be innovative and creative, and that it is more concerned with preserving and dominating spaces than with generating processes of inclusion and change. There is an impression that Europe is tending to become increasingly “entrenched”, rather than open to initiating new social processes capable of engaging all individuals and groups in the search for new and productive solutions to current problems.
The only thing missing from that otherwise on-target analysis was any consideration of how the post-Christian, post-democratic EU itself may be one of the major contributing causes of Europe's malaise!