18 September 2003

Dawson, liberalism and Christianity

The Catholic news service Zenit carries an interview with Gerald Russello on the place of Christianity in the old and new Europe. Here he suggests, following historian Christopher Dawson, that liberalism has effectively dechristianized Europe more easily than communism was able to do. Asked to compare the thought of the current pope with Dawson, Russello answers as follows:

Dawson shares with John Paul II an appreciation of some achievements of modernity, as well as its limitations. Dawson wrote: "The liberal movement in the wider sense transformed the world by an immense liberation of human energies, but liberalism in the narrower sense proved incapable of guiding the forces it had released."

Dawson devoted much of his work to trying to reintegrate the achievements of modern society with its religious and spiritual foundations, in an effort to protect and further the spiritual dimension of human life. I believe Pope John Paul II, in encyclicals such as "Centesimus Annus," expresses a similar point.

Both saw in the rise of the consumer culture a strong challenge to traditional Christian morals. What John Paul II has called "the culture of death" was very much in Dawson's mind as he wrote in the 1950s and 1960s when the totalitarian threat of Nazi Germany had passed.

Although Communism remained a threat, Dawson was convinced that the internal dissolution of Christian culture from the pressures of economic and moral liberalism was a graver threat. Because liberalism dispenses with acknowledging spiritual values, it becomes vulnerable to appeals to economic utility or political power.

Both Dawson and Pope John Paul would agree, I think, that these cannot substitute for a religious faith that expresses eternal truths and a rich spiritual life.

Perhaps this goes some way in explaining why post-communist Poland is still a more Catholic country than either France or Italy.

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