ROME – Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, said that though it’s “legitimate” to speak of a decadence and decline of the West, he’s optimistic that the decline is not irreversible.

“I recognize that it is legitimate to speak both of the decadence and decline of the West,” he told the Italian quarterly Le Sfide. “But in all honesty, I do not share these opinions because I have hope and faith, I keep an optimism that leads me to believe that with due commitment we can rise again.”

He said one reason he is “cautiously optimistic” is because for the first time in a century Europe and the West are faced with the enormous challenge represented by the COVID-19 pandemic that unites it with the rest of the world.

“We too, therefore, live and face what many populations, in Africa and Asia, have experienced and faced many times over the years,” he said. “The pandemic challenges us first of all in our humanity, in everything we believe in. It challenges our systems, our governments, our social and economic structures. It is, paradoxically, an experience that can help us to review our priorities a little and to reflect on the direction of our society. If there is a decline, it is therefore not irreversible. We can reverse the trend by facing reality.”

The English archbishop has served as the Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See’s Secretariat of State since 2014.

Speaking about anti-Christian persecution around the world today, the prelate said that the Church appeared timid at times, but “we reacted strongly, albeit not in a public way. It was a dictated by the desire not to give the impression that the Church was fueling the clash of civilizations, a theorem that some have even tried to spread.”

Gallagher said that many countries have been hesitant to acknowledge the fact that persecution is a Christian reality.

“This attitude was dictated by different reasons in the West rather than in the realities of those most at risk, where there was also a tendency to address the issue more broadly, speaking of persecuted religious minorities rather than just Christians, also to avoid retaliation,” he said.

Nevertheless, he mentioned a “growing sensitivity” on the issue of persecuted Christians, with several governments, including that of Italy and Hungary, starting initiatives to support persecuted Christian populations.

According to Gallagher, the Holy See is always open to dialogue with many nations and international organizations, remaining faithful to the Church’s values “is a challenge.”

“We are and we want to be open to others, but often it is others who want us to be more consistent with ourselves,” he said,  then he quoted Mahatma Ghandi, who once said: “I do not hate Christians, but I cannot appreciate the fact that they are not faithful to Christ.”

It’s not only a question of not being faithful, Gallagher said, but of not being consistent: “a Muslim has no problem kneeling on a mat at Fiumicino Airport to pray, but a Christian, a Catholic, thinks twice before making the sign of the cross wherever he is. It is not about being more daring but a little more ourselves. We have to ask ourselves who we are, who we want to be and what are the things that really matter to us.”

Gallagher also argued that “the West” must be open to learn from the East, even from those systems “we don’t have an immediate sympathy for.” Here, he gave the example of China.

“But one of their goals is to eliminate extreme poverty,” Gallagher said. “On November 23, 2020, the Chinese government declared that it had already eradicated absolute poverty. This is an ambitious project. One can critically analyze and discuss many aspects of that area, but we cannot fail to take into account this objective.”

China, he said, has a strong perception of poverty as a social scandal, and the West, with all its programs and policies, has often forgotten this dimension, and has thus far been unable to solve the problem, even minimally.

“Thus, we have resigned ourselves,” Gallagher argued. “Perhaps, there will always be poverty. But it would at least be useful to wonder how to eliminate poverty or reduce the economic and social inequalities that in recent decades have increased dramatically.”

Acknowledging that he didn’t always understand Pope Francis’s idea of a third world war being fought piecemeal, the archbishop said that if the world does not come together to “resolve some conflicts, if we don’t work to increase understanding, to be more tolerant of the diversity of political and governing systems that exist, I believe we will face something serious and truly terrible.”

Talking about some of those challenges, he mentioned the need to care for creation, arguing the United Nations summit in Glasgow later this year will be decisive on this front.

“We must change,” he said.

“How much plastic waste do we produce every day?” Gallagher asked. “I live alone and, pausing for a moment, I realize the impressive amount of waste that I produce! Without collective awareness, millions of tons of waste will end up in rivers, seas and oceans. We must therefore work so that everyone acts in a more reasonable way, taking into account that every human activity has an impact on nature and therefore on our very existence.”

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