The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, whom Pope Francis – then a young Jesuit – invited in 1968 to speak at the school where he taught, once wrote an essay about the relationship of Argentine culture to European traditions.
Having absorbed millions of its emigrants, built cities that imitated Paris and Madrid, and being profoundly marked by European ideas and history, Argentina was firmly part of the west, wrote Borges in ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”
Yet their distance from the old continent and openness to the world meant that Argentines could treat the great European themes “without superstition, and with an irreverence which could have, and does have, fortunate consequences.”
It was a classic Borgesian paradox: Argentines, who are not Europeans, were free to be loyal to Europe even after Europe forgot itself.
Borges would have been amazed and delighted to see an Argentine Pope irreverently recalling Europe to itself. Francis’ Charlemagne Prize address on Friday has a New World bravura about it; but it is moved, above all, by pain. When he asks, “What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations?”, he expressed an American son’s anguish at his European mother’s betrayal.
When Francis travels, he identifies the seeds of the Gospel, the “soul” of a nation or continent, and then holds up a vision of that soul like a mirror, inviting a people to be true to their own promise. For the Pope, the European project, born of the ashes of the Second World War, was the moment when Europe was true to its soul (“states united not by force but by free commitment to the common good and a definitive end to confrontation”) and to its vocation to build unity.
He sees Europe now as having strayed from that vocation, displaying signs of desolation: turning in on itself, “tempted to yield to our own selfish interests and to consider putting up fences here and there” and digging in, “more concerned with preserving and dominating spaces than with generating processes of inclusion and change.”
Francis invites Europe to renew itself not by returning to the lost age of Charlemagne and of Christendom but by recovering the vision of the postwar founders of the European Union.
Describing Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer as “the founding fathers of Europe” is a major slap in the face for Euro-skeptics such as those currently campaigning to take Britain out of the EU: Francis has no truck with a vision of Europe that does not involve the integrating project of the European Union.
The most striking parts of his speech are those lauding the founders’ vision as bold, radical, courageous and prophetic – words rarely found in a papal speech addressed to political leaders.
So while he is skeptical of the way Brussels has built EU institutions, observing that at times “the walls of the common home” have been built in ways that depart from “the insightful plans left by the original builders,” Francis is in no doubt that Europe can only be renewed by returning ad fontes, by means of what he calls a “memory transfusion.”
His vision of Europe giving birth to a “new humanism” — a term that recalls the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s “integral humanism” that inspired the EU’s founders — depends on recovering that original, bold vision.
It is a humanism that depends on three key capacities: for integration, dialogue, and generation.
The first is essentially the ability to synthesize, to forge new cultural realities from discrete ingredients, by exercising the virtue of solidarity, that is, “creating opportunities for all the inhabitants of our city … to live with dignity.”
As always with Francis, the value or the vision is followed by signalling the main temptation that subverts it: in this case, “ideological colonization,” a rigidity of thinking that prevents the culture of Europe from being renewed from its edges.
The second value is dialogue. Francis is convinced that contemporary societies must learn the arts and skills of pluralism; here he calls for the next generation to be equipped with the tools of encounter, negotiation, and conflict resolution. As with popes before him, Francis wants to see a bigger, bolder civil society capable of holding politics and business to transcendent values. The alternative — which he does not spell out — is a Europe increasingly divided by ideology and economic interests.
The third value, that of generation, fills out his famously irreverent critique at Strasbourg of Europe as an “infertile grandmother” which, he later admitted, had offended the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Rather than withdraw the metaphor, here he explains it in positive terms, spoken “like a son who rediscovers in Mother Europe his roots of life and faith.” It is a dream of a Europe “that is young, still capable of being a mother,” capable of “envisaging that humanism of which Europe has been the cradle and the wellspring.”
Specifically, this means a reordering of Europe’s economic and social structures and priorities, captured in his image of moving from a “liquid economy” to a “social economy.”
A liquid economy — the term comes from Zygmund Bauman’s famous essay, Liquid Modernity — is one dominated by speculation, consumerism, inequality and unemployment. Citing St John Paul II, Francis instead posits “a social economy that invests in persons by creating jobs and providing training,” and that “guarantees access to land and lodging through labor.”
Key to this future will be the capacity of Europe’s economy to create meaningful employment for its young people.
“We cannot look to the future without offering them the real possibility to be catalysts of change and transformation,” says Francis, adding: “We cannot envision Europe without letting them be participants and protagonists in this dream.”
But the Pope is also careful to show that the European Church, too, needs renewing. Like many Latin-American churchmen, he believes that the European Church, having initiated the Second Vatican Council, slammed on the brakes afterwards, and is today in decline as a result, stuck in worldliness and fear.
He offers two signs of renewed vigor: a Church of mercy, which evangelizes through people who “live for the Gospel, seeking nothing else.”
“Only a Church rich in witnesses will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe,” he says.
Like the best speeches of leaders, Francis’ Charlemagne Prize address freeze-frames the historic moment, names the crisis, and posits a clear way forward. There is no doubt where he sees the future of Europe: recovering its true mission in the prophetic vision of its postwar leaders.
Like his vision of church reform – a recovery of the essence of its mission, purged of temptations – Francis’s irreverent, loving plea to Europe is a call to go forward by an act of remembrance.