Europe: the unsinkable ship?

Europe: the unsinkable ship? (From right) Jan Olbrycht MEP (Poland), Co-Chairman of the EPP Group Working Group on Intercultural Relations and Interreligious Dialogue, Michèle Alliot-Marie MEP (EPP Group, France), Chair of the European Parliament’s Working Group on Christians in the Middle East, and Romain Strasser, Head of the EPP Group’s Intercultural and Religious Dialogue Unit.
Europe could die without a civilisation to give it life, writes Colm Fitzpatrick


Why do some civilisations collapse to dust, whereas others are able to grow stronger and stronger? A quick glance at history’s fallen cultures like the Sumerian and Babylonian civilisations, as well as the Roman Empire, highlight the unwavering mortality of societies, and show us that our own modern-day countries, structures and practices are not immune to such a fate. Given this reality, one question all of us should be asking is: what is the future trajectory of the European project?

This was one of the many topics discussed at the European People’s Party (EPP) Group 21st Annual Intercultural Dialogue with Churches and Religious Institutions in Lisbon late last year.

The centre-right group, whose chairman is German politician Manfred Weber, are committed to creating a stronger Europe, built on its people. The immense role of religion in the debate on the future of Europe, family, education, youth as a primary source of society’s human, social economic and spiritual capital, and promoting peace and security in Europe and in the EU’s external policies was the top of the agenda for this conference.


Among the many speakers, which drew from a pool of various religious traditions and denominations, Fr Emmanuel Pisani OP, Director of the Institut des Sciences et de Théologie des Religions de Paris, addressed the viability of Europe, and argued that a civilisation can only stay afloat when it’s in a position “to rise to the challenges of its time”.

If Europe wants to survive and flourish, he said, it must respond to its most pervasive and difficult challenges: the complexity of family life; religious indifference; and interreligious dialogue.

According to Fr Pisani, families are a “basic building block of societies” and are vital in providing a structure for educating young people.

It is through the presence of families that civilisation emerges and thrives, meaning that this cohesive unit must be protected. In the same breath, however, it’s also important to remember that families aren’t perfect, and while religion sets a high bar for what families ought to look and be like, most never live up to such an ideal.

While families are the location where love, faith and charity prosper, they can also be a place of pain, of violence, of manipulation and entrapment.

“That’s also part of the realities of family life. It’s not just a place where everything is fine, [where] mummy and daddy and all the kids love one another,” Fr Pisani stressed, adding that families are intimately complex. The sentiment he describes captures Pope Francis’ vision of the family – one where difficulties are the norm but nevertheless are overcome by love.

“Families have difficulties. Families will quarrel. Sometimes plates can fly. And children bring headaches. I don’t want to speak about mothers-in-law. But in families, there is always light,” the Pontiff said in 2015 at Philadelphia’s Festival of Families.

By choosing not to romanticise families while at the same time recognising the powerful force they play in bolstering up civilisation, Fr Pisani believes Europe, and the people in it, can become stronger.


Another challenge the European project encounters today is religious indifference. While atheism isn’t perfect, Fr Pisani said this worldview at least has a position on God and religion. The real hurdle is a complete indifference towards religion, where individuals “don’t even address the question of God’s existence”.

“There’s a major sway in the population, and certainly among young people, who don’t even raise the question of God. They’re not interested in the issues posed by religions. That’s the challenge of indifference,” Fr Pisani explained.

Accompanying this indifference is a dearth of “interlocutors” to hold dialogue about religions and what impact they have on us and the world. Religions, he argued, “give rise to a process of questions”, allowing people to look at situations and ideas in a new light. But in a society where religion is passively swallowed but not digested this type of process can’t come to the fore.

Much like the maxim of G.K. Chesterton – “a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it” – only a society that is engaged with religions and values will truly flourish. This, Fr Pisani said, is why democracy in America, where religions play a full part in the larger civil society, is much more dynamic compared to democracy in France where religious vitality has gone stale. To combat this, Fr Pisani said, ecology, which is a common concern for humanity, can be one outlet by which an interest in politics and the democratic system could be reawakened.


The final challenge Europe faces today is the current lack of interreligious dialogue taking place among peoples and countries. While there was a surge of enthusiasm for dialogue in the 1980s, Fr Pisani said that in the last two decades or so, this approach has become “more difficult and complicated”.

We are living in a time, he added, where people are trying to build up walls around their identity rather than building bridges to reach to one another.

A solution to this problem is to have genuine dialogue with one another instead of pseudo-interactions which consist of just multiple monologues. Interreligious dialogue involves “actually listening” to partners from other religions and helping society move forward by finding new responses to these issues.

“Just as two heads are better than one, the same applies to culture and religions. You will be better placed to rise to new challenges,” Fr Pisani said.

With an unknown future ahead for Europe, given how damaging the results of Brexit may be for the project, it’s now, more than ever, time to rise to the challenges that Europe faces to ensure its longevity. These three challenges and solutions outlined are definitely a good place to start.