La fin de la chrétienté (The end of Christianity)
By Chantal Delsol. CERF. 2021. 171 pages. In French.
Is Christendom dead? Is it dying? Chantal Delsol, a French philosopher, novelist and columnist for Le Figaro, attempts to answer these crucial questions in La fin de la Chrétienté. Even though it is only available in French at the moment, it was favourably reviewed in the New York Times.
First and foremost, she distinguishes between Christian civilization (Christendom) and the Christian faith (Christianity). The Christian faith, she argues, will survive forever. She maintains this not on the basis of Christians’ supernatural belief in the eternity of revealed truth, but rather on the sociological premise that as long as there is a single Christian on earth, the Christian faith will survive.
On the other hand, the phenomenon of the Christian civilization had a clear beginning (she identifies it not as the year 1 AD, but rather the Battle of the Frigidus in 394 AD) and a clear end (which she construes as the legislative success of abortion on demand in the second half of the 20th century).
The author is a practising Christian and was at the forefront of La Manif pour Tous, a French movement in support of the traditional view of marriage as between one man and one woman.
However, one puzzling aspect of her book is that her personal viewpoint only becomes clear in the very last chapter. Earlier on, her description of sociological and philosophical phenomena had been very balanced (always a plus!) but also perplexingly disengaged.
She identifies a change of religious paradigm which led to a transformation of the moral code of the West. Moral behaviour seems to possess a greater inertia than the religious principles which generated it, so today’s culture is still, by and large, imbued with a pseudo-Christian morality.
Whilst many aspects of traditional Christian morality (notably those concerning sexuality) have been rejected by many in Western countries, remnants of the old code survive (e.g. solidarity). However, there has been a paradigm shift: what ruled the life, habits, beliefs, and ethics of the past 1,500 years has been overturned in recent decades.
The void left by a fading Christian faith, in Delsol’s view, is being filled not by atheism (as many Christians believe or fear), but rather by what she calls pantheism. She points to the growing and widespread “worship” of nature and the strict demands of ecological morality.
This is unconvincing. Firstly, what she calls pantheism should rather be called, in my opinion, panentheism. It is not that our contemporaries worship the Sun or the Moon or the Wind. Many of them cherish a concept of ecology which divinizes it, rather than Mother Earth.
If it is a pantheism, it is a pantheism without gods, a godless religion. There is no adoration, although there are liturgical rites conducted by groups like Extinction Rebellion. Even the climate change youth movement led by Greta Thunberg is depressingly lacking in enthusiasm for the beauties of nature. Its members seem mainly to be moved by fear, not joy or enchantment.
Another puzzling feature of Delsol’s discussion is her treatment of paedophilia scandals. More than any other failure of Christendom, these have succeeded in discrediting Christianity.
She correctly notes that moral outrage over paedophilia is a relatively recent phenomenon; in times past, it was mainly ignored or silenced. Thus, she believes, we are denouncing crimes which were almost regarded acceptable in the not-so-distant past.
This was true for the ancient Greeks, but it was not true for Christians. Just read the Liber Gomorrhianus, a tract denouncing paedophilia and other sexual sins written by St Peter Damian in 1051. Paedophilia has always been considered a sin by the Catholic Church, like all other forms of “disordered” sexual behaviour.
Delsol seems to maintain (but I may have misread her) that it is unfair to condemn past failures by contemporary moral standards.
There is some truth in this. For instance, as a professional musician, I am not going to refuse to listen to Wagner’s music because of his antisemitism (although Wagner would have been horrified by Auschwitz). But Wagner’s position does deserve to be censured because it is always wrong to despise somebody on racial grounds.
Paedophilia was condemned as evil in the past. Not enough, alas; and therefore it is right and just for the Churches to investigate the behaviour of their clergy and to apologise to victims (without witch hunts).
I also disagree with Delsol on some points regarding abortion.
Widespread acceptance of abortion, even in the legal systems of most Western countries, does denote a major shift in social morality. But I am surprised by her argument that the US is exceptional among the Western countries in its respect for unborn life.
As readers of MercatorNet know well, some states do protect the unborn, but Roe vs. Wade and Casey vs. Planned Parenthood have established a supposed right to abortion and made possible the extermination of millions of children. Moreover, in some “pro-choice” states, abortion can be performed up to the foetus’s complete development – which is simply infanticide in disguise.
More importantly, I disagree with Delsol when she argues that it is useless to argue for the pro-life cause until Christian principles become more widely accepted. She writes that Christians’ struggles “have no chance of succeeding”, without a prior spiritual revolution: “Convert people to Christianity, to the intrinsic dignity of each embryo, and you will be able to abolish abortion”.
This is, in my opinion, a very worrying position. In my opinion, the pro-life case can, should, and must be argued for on human and scientific terms: today’s technologies fully demonstrate the unborn baby’s humanity. And unless society is ready to accept that each and any human life can be terminated at will by another human being, it must accept that abortion is an evil.
On the other hand, I think that Delsol is right in calling for a change of mentality in the Christian Churches. Instead of lamenting lost privileges and prestige, they should accept what is happening as a grace, allowing them to find a humbler way to bear witness to the Gospel.
Perhaps her views are too heavily conditioned by her position – writing from old Europe and secularized France. Christianity is alive and kicking in many Eastern European countries and in many countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Who knows: perhaps the end of Christendom is not as near as it seems.