WASHINGTON -- The astonishing pilgrimage of Europeans to Vatican City for the most attended funeral in history obscured a stark fact confronting the conclave that on Monday begins selecting the next pope: Vatican City is 109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief.
Poles, especially, traveled to Rome to honor John Paul II. But what was said of Georges Clemenceau -- that he had one illusion, France, and one disillusion, mankind, including the French -- might, with some exaggeration, be said of John Paul II and Poland. He was vexed by the zeal with which Poles, liberated from the asceticism inflicted by communism, embraced consumerism, materialism and hedonism. From Catholic Ireland to Catholic Spain to Poland, the most Catholic nation, the trends of contraception, divorce and abortion are moving against Catholic teaching.
The challenge confronting the church can be expressed in one word: modernity. The church preaches that freedom is life lived in conformity to God's will as manifested in revelation and interpreted by the church. Modernity teaches that freedom is the sovereignty of the individual's will -- personal volition that is spontaneous, unconditioned, inviolable and self-legitimizing.
John Paul II's mastery of the presentational aspect of the papacy -- a mastery dependent on two modern technologies, television and jet aircraft -- may cause the conclave to seek a candidate with similar skills. But the substance of what he presented did not amount to accommodation with the culture of modernity.
In America, a market-driven society, there is a religion market in which the most successful competitors for congregations are churches with clear doctrinal and strict moral positions. For these churches, the ``crisis of Christianity'' is congestion in their parking lots.
Christianity is a varied and complex structure -- theological and institutional -- erected on a foundation of biblical prophecies and reports of the activities of Jesus. For two millennia these prophecies and reports have been, to say no more, subject to various interpretations. Hence the search, from the earliest days of Christianity, for sources of authoritative interpretation. That search produced great councils -- Nicaea, Trent -- and the post-Reformation papacy. When the conclave begins, a European epoch may begin to end.
It took 455 years to pry the papacy out of Italian hands. Now, after 26 years of a pope from Eastern Europe, the church that is withering in Europe is flourishing in the Southern Hemisphere. There materialism and consumerism are less powerful -- but people passionately desire the affluence that makes materialism and consumerism possible.
Europe itself is withering. The day of John Paul II's funeral, the European Union's statistics agency reported that the decline of birthrates means that within five years deaths will exceed births in the EU. By 2013, Italy's population will begin to decline; the next year, Germany's will begin to decline. After 2010, Europe's population growth will be entirely from immigration. By 2025, not even immigration will prevent declining fertility from accelerating what one historian calls the largest ``sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death of the 14th century.''
In his new book ``The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God,'' George Weigel, biographer of John Paul II, argues that Europe's ``demographic suicide'' will cause its welfare states to buckle and is creating a ``vacuum into which Islamic immigrants are flowing.'' Since 1970, the 20 million legal Islamic immigrants equal the combined populations of Ireland, Denmark and Belgium.
``What," Weigel asks, ``is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense, by creating a next generation?" His diagnosis is that Europe's deepening anemia is a consequence of living on what he considers the thin gruel of secular humanism that excludes transcendent reference points for cultural and political life. Such reference points are, he thinks, prerequisites for freedom understood as ``the capacity to choose wisely and act well as a matter of habit."
Perhaps. But Weigel also argues that Europe's crisis of civilizational morale was catalyzed by World War I. So Europe's retreat from religion might reflect a reasonable weariness and wariness born of four centuries of religious wars and convulsions wrought by the political religions of fascism and communism.
Weigel doubts that it is possible to ``sustain a democratic political community absent the transcendent moral reference points for ordering public life that Christianity offers the political community." Absent a reconversion of the continent, Europeans, who -- like many Americans -- find the injection of transcendence into politics frightening, are going to find out whether Weigel is right.