What will happen to Europe in the future? Can we look ahead with any hope?
The problems that confront Europe are not really economic, although money, the Euro, and financial issues are all in the headlines at the moment. But the real issues are moral, spiritual, cultural, and demographic. Europe is dying – the number of births across the continent is below replacement level. At the moment, this is seen in the growing problem of caring for large numbers of elderly people with a smaller number of younger ones. But as the next years roll on, this will move from being a problem to a crisis.
Having children is a sign of hope in the future. Today, Europe is not facing famine or war: we are more prosperous than ever before in recorded history, and there are no wars being fought on European soil. One of our biggest health problems is obesity. We throw away large quantities of good food every week. At Christmas, many of the gifts bought and exchanged will not really be wanted – children will be swamped with too many toys, and adults will smile politely over innumerable boxes of chocolates or bath-salts. So why are we so afraid of the future that we can’t bring ourselves to commit to marriage, family, and the raising of the next generation in reasonable numbers?
A couple of years ago, a television programme investigated the demographic crisis in Italy. The camera team visited a village where just one child had been born in recent years. The one child was much petted and admired – but no one seemed keen to follow the example of its parents – and they themselves were doubtful about having any more. Why? “Well…when I am old, I don’t want the worry of children” one young woman explained “When I have made some money, I want to relax, travel, enjoy myself. Not raise children.” Who, one wonders, does she think will fly the aeroplane on which she proposes to travel? Who, indeed, will care for her when she feels she’s done enough travelling? Why should anyone bother to care for elderly Italians as they linger in increasing loneliness in grubby homes, unable to care for themselves? Will Africans or people from Asia hurry to Europe to rescue them and work, unpaid, at caring for them as they linger into old age?
There are real issues here, and they are not going to go way. Having money isn’t what enables people to survive. You can’t eat money – you can only use it to buy food that people have grown and raised and put into the shops. Money can’t be used as medicine or bedding – it can only buy medicines that people have created, or beds and sheets and blankets that people have made. If you don’t have people, it is useless to sit on a box of bank-notes.
The spiritual crisis of modern Europe was addressed by the great John Paul, when he begged Europe not to forget its Christian heritage, and to look to the future with courage and faith. It has been addressed by the present Holy Father who has called Europeans to a fresh evangelisation and a seeking of God so that they can have a future. And now the call has been echoed by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, in a remarkable lecture, delivered at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. This is a landmark in history – a Rabbi speaking at this most prestigious Catholic centre of learning, at the very heart of the Church. You can read the whole lecture here: http://www.chiefrabbi.org/ReadArtical.aspx?id=1843 and it is most warmly recommended.
Lord Sacks reminds us of some central economic truths – on this subject his lecture is absolutely crucial reading. But he is most passionate about the great moral truths.
“The concept of the holy is precisely the domain in which the worth of things is not judged by their market price or economic value. This fundamental insight of Judaism and Christianity is all the more striking given their respect for the market. Their strength is that they resisted the temptation to believe that the market governs the totality of our lives, when it fact it governs only a limited part of it, that which concerns goods subject to production and exchange. There are things fundamental to being human that we do not produce; instead we receive from those who came before us and from God Himself. And there are things which we may not exchange, however high the price.”
“When everything that matters can be bought and sold, when commitments can be broken because they are no longer to our advantage, when shopping becomes salvation and advertising slogans our litany, when our worth is measured by how much we earn and spend, then the market is destroying the very virtues on which in the long run it depends. That is the danger that advanced economies now face. At such times the voice of our great religious traditions needs to be heard, warning us of the gods that devour their own children, and of the ruins of once-great buildings that stand today as relics of civilisations that once seemed invincible.”
As 2011 draws to its close, we have to take seriously the call for spiritual and moral renewal: selfishness and greed, lack of responsibility for one another and a refusal to teach profound moral truths to the young have caused misery and made us fearful of the future. Lord Scks has challenging but encouraging words:
“What can we do, we who, because we have faith in God, have faith in God’s faith in humankind? There is a significant phrase that Pope Benedict XVI has often used: creative minority. If there is one thing Jews know how to be it is a creative minority. So my proposal is that Jews and Catholics should seek to be creative minorities together. A duet is more powerful than a solo. Renouncing any aspiration for power, we should seek to encourage the single most neglected source of energy in a consumer-driven, profit-maximising society, namely the power of altruism.”<p></p>
“We should enlist business leaders to help us teach that markets need morals; that without a strong ethic, there may be short term success but no long term viability; and that conscience is not for wimps, it is the basis of trust and confidence on which business, financial institutions and the economy as a whole depend.”
“We should use this moment of recession to restore to their rightful place in society the things that have value but not a price: marriage, the family, home, dedicated time between parents and children, the face-to-face friendships that make up community, the celebration of what we have not the restless pursuit of what we don’t, a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving, and a willingness to share some of God’s blessings with those who have less. These are the true sources of lasting happiness and have been empirically proved to be so.”
“We should seek to recover the alternative world created by the Sabbath, one day in seven in which we set limits to the power of the market to enslave us with its siren song, and instead give our relationships the chance to mature and our souls the pure air they need to breathe. We should challenge the relativism that tells us there is no right or wrong, when every instinct of our mind knows it is not so, and is a mere excuse to allow us to indulge in what we believe we can get away with. A world without values quickly becomes a world without value.”