I am writing this from a beautiful Carmelite monastery in Snagov in Romania, where I am speaking at a gathering of Andante – the European Alliance of Catholic Women’s Organiations. I travelled here by train from London, because minor eye surgery prevents me from flying. My mobile phone provider tells me that my three-day journey took me through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania – each time with a text reminding me that calls and data roaming are free because my contract covers travel in other EU countries. Last year, driving from Croatia into Bosnia, which is not in the EU, my internet connection suddenly cut out and I started having to pay for data roaming. It was one small reminder of how dramatic Brexit might be for us Brits and the freedoms we take for granted in Europe.
The European Union has many failings, not least is the extent to which it has become a driving force behind neo-liberal economics and corporate power, and its bureaucracies are undoubtedly cumbersome and expensive. But it has also served its members well in sustaining at least a partial peace in this troubled continent since the Second World War. My journey through Europe has reminded me of how fragile and threatened that peace is. Europe’s bloody history has left its mark on its landscapes and cities, with Romania being one of the more recent manifestations of that as it recovers from years of communist dictatorship and the brutal tyranny of Nicolae Ceaușescu. As the train trundled through this country’s rolling countryside and dramatic mountains, there was evidence everywhere of the ruins of the past and the gradual rebuilding of homes and communities.
The founders of the EU were inspired by the principles of Catholic social teaching – solidarity, subsidiarity and participation, rooted in a belief in the transcendent dignity of the human person. These principles may be frayed round the edges, but they have enduring significance and are vital for the creation of any just and free society. Sadly, some of their greatest enemies today are Catholic power brokers seeking to drive Europe down the dark road of far right politics rooted in violent racial and religious ideologies. The divisions that were fermenting in the Church under the last two papacies have exploded, and America’s culture warriors are seeking to establish a foothold in European politics through their promotion of a militant form of Catholicism that draws on deeply rooted historical conflicts and rivalries, including the language of the crusades. Steve Bannon’s organization, The Movement, is making inroads and exploiting the fractures currently opening up all over Europe. On the taxi drive from Bucharest station to the monastery, I saw a large banner promoting The Movement draped from a building.
All this lends added significance to this group of Catholic women meeting here, representing organizations from across eastern and western Europe. There is, I believe, a growing sense of resistance and solidarity among women in the Church – and a determination to create a better future for ourselves and our children.
My paper is titled “The Future Church: A Home to Hope For?” In it, I reflect on what it means for women to build the church of tomorrow, as an inclusive and welcoming home for all. I also ask what this means in the context of Pope Francis’s call to care for Mother Earth, ‘our common home’ in his encyclical Laudato Si’.
This work of building a shared future cannot happen without respect for cultural and historical differences. Francis’s papacy has been marked by a new respect for the principle of inculturation, and he repeatedly reminds us of the importance of local communities, cultures and traditions for creating an incarnational sense of a faith rooted in history and shaped by different contexts. The women gathering in this beautiful monastery are evidence of both the necessity and the challenge of accommodating these diverse realities. For those from eastern Europe, memories of persecution under communist regimes mean that the Church is still often seen as the custodian of a vital truth embedded in her teachings and sacraments that must not be questioned. For those of us accustomed to a more critical and challenging approach, this calls for attentive and patient listening and learning as we explore together what it means to build the church of tomorrow.
Recent events in the news have rekindled an awareness of just how deeply Catholicism is embedded in our shared human story. The response to the fire at Notre Dame revealed the vast symbolic significance of Catholicism for European identity and culture. The suicide bombings of churches in Sri Lanka that killed hundreds attending Easter Masses remind us that for many in our world today, Catholicism is not about aesthetics and culture but about a faithful commitment to follow the crucified Christ wherever He leads – even to death and beyond.
Here in this quiet place, women come from across this Catholic spectrum. Some bring memories of persecuted and martyred loved ones; others bring what can seem like relatively insignificant concerns about the role of women in the Church and our exclusion from positions of leadership and sacramental representation. Yet as we stand at this critical moment in Europe’s history, I do not believe that these are separate issues. The Church faces a choice – to plough on along its old androcentric path where time and again it has ended up colluding with war, fascism and violence, or to truly become a maternal presence of peace and healing in the world by embracing the wisdom, experience and insight that women can bring to its pilgrim journey through time. That is why I dare to hope that this small group meeting in a quiet place of prayer and contemplation is not insignificant. Beneath the hubris and clamour of men who claim to speak for and sometimes as God, it is always the still, small voices that speak God’s redeeming word to humankind.
Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London.