When churches are desecrated, statues smashed and priests attacked, the once-Christian West doesn’t know how to respond
On July 14, parishioners of Saint-Budoc à Porspoder in France learned that a vandal or vandals had vomited in the parish’s holy water stoups and thrown a cross in the trash.
On July 26, paint was splashed on the faces and crotches of figures in the Valinhos Way of the Cross in Fatima, Portugal.
On July 28, three men entered the sacristy of a Catholic church in Szczecin, Poland, demanded vestments for use in a same-sex wedding, and beat the church’s pastor. Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki described the attack as an instance of the “ever more frequent attacks of hatred against believing people and priests”.
The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians, a non-profit organisation based in Vienna, reports that anti-Christian attacks and acts of vandalism are on the rise across Europe. In France alone, according to the French Interior Ministry, anti-Christian acts quadrupled between 2008 and 2019.
The rise in violence against Catholics has been strangely ignored and downplayed – not only by the media, but by Catholics themselves. Many Catholics are understandably reluctant to complain about what Pope Francis has called “polite persecution” when their brothers abroad are being beheaded by ISIS. Catholic leaders also rightly stress that they suffer less than some other religious groups – most notably Jews, who likewise face a surge in violence.
Other Catholics fear that drawing attention to these attacks will encourage the scapegoating of Muslims, despite the fact that most of these acts do not seem to be perpetrated by Muslims. Satanist symbols like “666” or slogans of sexual liberation are a recurring features of these attacks. These are not the symbols employed by ISIS.
These legitimate concerns have led to an unfortunate pattern of minimisation. “We adopt a reasonable attitude. We do not want to develop a discourse of persecution. We do not wish to complain … We are not victims of a ‘Cathophobia’,” Archbishop Georges Pontier, head of the French bishops’ conference, told Le Point magazine. “In its history, Judaism has fought an ongoing struggle against anti-Semitic groups. We Catholics in France now do not have to face such violence every day!”
Attempts to minimise anti-Catholic violence may be well-intentioned, but it is doubtful they are having the desired effect. As several scholars have noted, one of the main reasons Western elites overlook the persecution of Christians around the world is the fact that they perceive Christians as a privileged group. Highlighting the rise in violence against Christians in the West is the simplest way to challenge this assumption.
It also seems unhelpful to pit anti-Catholic violence against anti-Semitic violence, as if acknowledging the one required ignoring the other. Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics have sought to stress what they have in common with the Jewish people. Today the two religions unhappily share the hatred of a society that resents the demands of religion, tradition, and community.
One of the goods that can be brought forth from attacks on Christianity is a heightened appreciation for what Catholics and Jews have in common. It is notable in this regard that Catholics have been attacked for a sexual ethic that they share with Jews. The disfiguring of the figures at Fatima is only one minor example. Sexual graffiti, disfigurings of the Blessed Virgin and other similar acts are commonplace in desecrations of Catholic churches.
One sign of how far we are from reckoning with anti-Christian acts is the fact that we have no generally agreed upon word to describe them. Acts of aggression against Islam and Judaism are instantly describable using widely understood terms. No such term exists for attacks on Christians. Various intellectuals and activists have suggested terms such as Cathophobic, Christianophobic, and Christophobic, but no suggestion has received wide acceptance. Our society has a kind of aphasia about acts of aggression against Christians. It is the violence that cannot be named.
Part of the problem lies in the sociologically unique position inhabited by Catholics in the West. Our liberal culture has a highly developed vocabulary for protecting minority rights. But there is no set of terms for describing violence against the faith that in many ways defined the West, and that remains the majority faith in many Western nations.
Given the unique constituting role Catholic Christianity has played in Western life, describing it as another subaltern faith will always be awkward. Even in Protestant nations, where Catholics have been an oppressed minority, Catholicism is widely identified with an oppressive past. As other religious bodies have cast off the formerly universal Christian opposition to contraception and abortion, Catholicism has stood firm. This makes it a symbol of tradition and authority even in societies that long ago shook off its authority.
One recent example of this occured at the height of the recent US debate over abortion laws. As heavily Protestant states such as Alabama and Georgia (77 per cent and 70 per cent Protestant, respectively) passed restrictions on abortion, the Catholic Church became a target of ire. On May 19, the doors of Notre Dame de Lourdes parish in the wealthy college town of Swarthmore, PA, were tagged with the words “You do not have the right to decide how others live, #ProChoice.”
Because the West was once defined by its acceptance of Catholicism and is now in many ways defined by its rejection of it, achieving an equal and neutral treatment for Catholicism is all but impossible. Western society looks on the Church as one might look on a former lover. Given their tangled history, the only future possibilities are resentful obsession or a revival of passionate attachment. Nothing is more unlikely than the kind of casual relationship one might enjoy with a new acquaintance.
JHH Weiler, a Jewish legal scholar who defended Italy’s practice of displaying the crucifix in public buildings before the European Court of Human Rights, has called on Europe to overcome its “Christophobia” by acknowledging its Christian identity. In a short book entitled A Christian Europe: An Exploratory Essay, Weiler described what such a Europe would look like: “It is a Europe that, while celebrating the noble heritage of Enlightenment humanism, also abandons its Christophobia and neither fears nor is embarrassed by the recognition that Christianity is one of the central elements in the evolution of its unique civilisation. It is, finally, a Europe that, in public discourse about its own past and future, recovers all the riches that can come from confronting one of its two principal intellectual and spiritual traditions.”
Benedict XVI issued a similar call in his 2011 message for the World Day of Peace. He lamented “hostility and prejudice against Christians” and urged Europe to “be reconciled to its own Christian roots”:
“I also express my hope that in the West, and especially in Europe, there will be an end to hostility and prejudice against Christians because they are resolved to orient their lives in a way consistent with the values and principles expressed in the Gospel. May Europe rather be reconciled to its own Christian roots, which are fundamental for understanding its past, present and future role in history; in this way it will come to experience justice, concord and peace by cultivating a sincere dialogue with all peoples.”
Confronting anti-Catholic acts requires a different sort of work than confronting violence against other faiths. The problem is not hatred of the other, but hatred of the self. It is a refusal of patrimony, an attempt to deny one’s own character. As Weiler and Benedict have both clearly seen, Christianity does not require the West’s tolerance; it demands its loyalty. Unless Europe realises that toleration of other religions does not justify denial of Europe’s own Christian identity, anti-Christian acts are likely to increase, while being studiously ignored by those who purport to deplore all prejudice.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things