Belgian cardinal Jozef De Kesel has lamented what he sees as the “great problem in Europe” today: that Europeans “have all too often been reduced to a soulless economic and financial project” when the citizens of the continent are in fact called to be a “real peace project between peoples and nations”.

The big picture

In an interview with New Europe, Cardinal De Kesel stated his conviction that to be Catholic in Europe today is to contribute to a “pluralistic society, a secular society, where there are also other beliefs”.

To be Catholic in Europe today “is the desire to live together while respecting others”, said the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, 72.

“The Church is not here to ‘reconquer lost ground’. This is not its mission. To be Catholic is to be faithful to one’s convictions in an environment that has changed to a pluralistic society. This implies respect for human being and his or her beliefs”, affirmed the cardinal.

“We must always be respectful of each other, to accept the person as he or she is, without wanting to impose ourselves on an individual person or on society. However, we have a mission inside this society. We have convictions and values that we want to defend. It must also be noted that there is interfaith solidarity and this is the mission of the Catholic Church. We stand in solidarity with all those who strive for a more just and more fraternal society”.

“The Catholic Church does not oppose a secularised society”, insisted De Kesel. “Citizens have the right to believe or not to believe and I stand for that”.

One level deeper

In terms of the biggest challenge for the Church on the continent today, De Kesel said it is “to wholeheartedly accept secularised society “, something which he also called an “opportunity”.

“It must be understood that Christianity was, for a long time, the cultural religion in Europe. Today this is no longer the case”, recalled the cardinal. “And it would be dangerous to go back because it is always dangerous to have one religious tradition that obtains a monopoly. This is true for Christianity, for Islam…for any religion”.

Why it matters

“Some people say that the Catholic Church is looking for power, as in the past. This is not true”, said De Kesel, affirming that “what we claim is the right to be who we are. This applies to everyone, to all religions, and to non-believers too”.

What the Church defends, according to the Belgian cardinal, is none other than a genuinely human progress.

“What is progress? If we talk about euthanasia for example, is it progress or not? Progress is a progress only if it is valid for every man and for the whole of mankind”, explained the prelate.

“Because we can progress economically, we can become rich and be, at the same time, spiritually and humanly very poor”.

“The Church must move towards openness based on respect for the other. There are two values – the value of the human being and their liberty and solidarity. If there is no more respect for a person, society drifts towards totalitarian tendencies”.

Between the lines

In terms of what that genuinely human progress looks like, De Kesel turned to the thought of Pope Francis to identify one problem above all others in importance in the world today: that of poverty.

“It is a global problem that also affects the problem of immigration”, said the cardinal. “This can only be resolved through solidarity. The Church must, in our modern world, stand up for the respect of a human being, for their freedom, and defend solidarity. We must seek a balance between these two notions”.

In terms of the relationship between Church and State, De Kesel was clear. “The state cannot impose everything”, said the cardinal.

“Look, for example, in Italy at the statement of Mr (Matteo) Salvini, who says that the Captain of the Sea Watch allowed migrants to be rescued in Lampedusa committed a criminal act. Does he have the right to say that? Others think what he did was not a criminal act”.

“The state must respect freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. The limits of the rule of law must be respected by the state, otherwise one drifts towards a dictatorship. In a dictatorship, the laws are decided arbitrarily, and one demands obedience to the law, but there is also the objection of conscience”.

What’s next

In the interview De Kesel also issued a resounding call to young people on the continent, encouraging them to “know the past”, “not lose their souls” and to practise “solidarity”.

“We live in a rather individualistic society where it is fashionable to say that happiness is, “to be able to do what I want””, lamented the cardinal, adding that “it does not fill a life”.

“What makes me happy is what I can mean for another person. It’s part of my commitment to ask what I can do for my family, for my friends, for the world. Of course, to commit to this is to lose a little bit of one’s freedom. it is these limits to my freedom that give meaning to my freedom. It’s the commitment. It’s answering the question “what should I do with my life?””