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Pope's hope to revive Europe's Christian heritage imperiled

Pope Benedict XVI lights the paschal candle before the start of the Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 3. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

PARIS -- Days after being elected pope in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI referred to one of Europe's patron saints, Benedict of Norcia, as he explained his choice of papal name to thousands of pilgrims massed in St. Peter's Square.

“He represents a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe and a strong reminder of the unrenounceable Christian roots of its culture and civilization,” the new pontiff said on a sunny April morning in 2005.

Now, five years later, Benedict is reeling from reports of sex abuse scandals mushrooming across Europe that risk undermining a central mission of his papacy: promoting and reviving Europe's Christian heritage.

Worse, some analysts say, the scandals may accelerate the drift away from the Roman Catholic Church that has been underway here for decades.

“The pedophilia scandals are seriously weakening the project to re-Christianize Europe,” said Philippe Portier, director of the Group on Society, Religion and Secularity at the French National Center for Scientific Research. “The church will have great difficulty in regaining the confidence even of its activists who are essential of putting the goal of re-Christianizing Europe into action.”

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Other experts argue the scandals may actually help cleanse and renew Europe's church. Indeed, a new IFOP poll published in France's La Croix newspaper offers one heartening statistic: Some 61 percent of Europeans believe Christian messages and values still have meaning.

But whatever Christian revival takes place will be in the long term, predicts Isabelle de Gaulmyn, head of La Croix' religious coverage.

“For now, all the efforts of the pope and the Catholic churches in Europe to have a legitimate voice in society have really been hurt by these disclosures,” she said.

The damage is reflected in voices like Jean Gosset, a disenfranchised French Catholic in Paris.

“The church has lied on many things,” he said. “It makes it difficult to hear the real message of Christ from a church which is riddled with faults.”

Benedict began his papacy by shouldering a project spearheaded by his predecessor, John Paul II. The church had lobbied hard -- and unsuccessfully -- for a mention of Europe's Christian heritage in a draft European constitution that was ultimately discarded.

Even the watered-down constitution adopted last year, the Lisbon Treaty, only makes passing reference to holding an “open, transparent and regular” dialogue with churches.

The increasingly secular bent of institutional Europe is reflected among ordinary Europeans; a little more than a quarter identify as Roman Catholic, according to the 2010 Atlas of Global Christianity. Of some 70 percent of French who consider themselves Catholic, for example, less than a third go to Mass, church officials say.

Ironically, says Vatican observer David Gibson, Europe's religious disenfranchisement might make it easier for the Vatican to handle the current crop of sex scandals -- compared with those that rocked a stronger and more unified Catholic community across the Atlantic in 2002.

“In the United States ... practice of the faith and at least cultural loyalty among Catholics was much higher, so the sense of betrayal and the anger was that much sharper,” said Gibson, a religion columnist for PoliticsDaily.com and author of “The Rule of Benedict,” a biography on the pope.

By contrast, “the effect of the scandals could be mitigated in Europe by the fact that so few people go to church anyway,” even as it make the Vatican's European evangelism here all the more difficult.

To be sure, the impact of the pedophilia crisis has varied widely across Europe, with Germany, Austria and Ireland among the most seriously affected. By contrast, the scandal has been more muted in nominally Catholic France, Spain or Italy -- where Catholic communities arguably lack a culture of protest, analyst Portier says.

“It's not that the scandals don't exist, but there's no structured movement to allow them to be publicly denounced,” he said, citing France in particular.

Others disagree, arguing French bishops took steps several years ago to tackle pedophilia. In neighboring Belgium, a grisly and unrelated 1996 trial involving pedophile and murderer Marc Dutroux sparked national soul-searching.

“In Belgium society, the Dutroux affair was an enormous catalyst,” said the Rev. Jean-Pierre Delville, a priest and theologian at the Catholic University of Leuven. “It had immediate repercussions within the Catholic Church” leading to a number of cases brought before justice.

Belgium's example, he says, shows that rather than bringing Europe's church to its knees, the scandals may help revitalize it.

“I think a new moral conscience is emerging and that it can allow a real purification,” Delville said.

Other church supporters, meanwhile, seek inspiration from the past.

“In my heart and my brain, I think there is a deep hope that the church will overcome this crisis as it overcame other crises in history,” said Christian Weisner, German spokesman for the Catholic lay reform movement We are Church.

In France, Monsignor Tony Anatrella, a psychoanalyst and expert consultant in a number of church abuse cases, has no doubt Benedict will continue, undeterred, with his Christian mission.

“This is a determined pope and he's not going to be swayed by the events of the moment,” Anatrella said. “He's going to say what he needs to say and do what he needs to do. Even if, obviously, it's under difficult circumstances.”

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