“Like a tree withering from within…” – How the Pope views Europe

On his visit to Strasbourg, Pope Francis also paid a visit to the Council of Europe, which with 47 Member States is the institution that represents (nearly) the entire continent. A good occasion for some general reflections on the situation of Europe today. Here are some passages of the speech (comments in pink are ours):


How then do we pursue the ambitious goal of peace?

The path chosen by the Council of Europe is above all that of promoting human rights, together with the growth of democracy and the rule of law. [European “values” – but only if correctly understood…. wait and see:] This is a particularly valuable undertaking, with significant ethical and social implications, since the development of our societies and their peaceful future coexistence depends on a correct understanding [indeed!] of these terms and constant reflection on them. This reflection is one of the great contributions which Europe has offered, and continues to offer, to the entire world.

In your presence today, then, I feel obliged to stress the importance of Europe’s continuing responsibility to contribute to the cultural development of humanity. I would like to do so by using an image drawn from a twentieth-century Italian poet, Clemente Rebora. In one of his poems, Rebora describes a poplar tree, its branches reaching up to the sky, buffeted by the wind, while its trunk remains firmly planted on deep roots sinking into the earth.[1]

In a certain sense, we can consider Europe in the light of this image.

Throughout its history, Europe has always reached for the heights, aiming at new and ambitious goals, driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, development, progress, peace and unity. But the advance of thought, culture, and scientific discovery is entirely due to the solidity of the trunk and the depth of the roots which nourish it. Once those roots are lost, the trunk slowly withers from within and the branches – once flourishing and erect – bow to the earth and fall. [Rebora actually doesn’t write of falling branches (see note below) – but that appears to be the quintessence of how the Pope sees Europe.] This is perhaps among the most baffling paradoxes for a narrowly scientific mentality: in order to progress towards the future we need the past, we need profound roots. We also need the courage not to flee from the present and its challenges. We need memory, courage, a sound and humane utopian vision.

Rebora notes, on the one hand, that “the trunk sinks its roots where it is most true”. The roots are nourished by truth, which is the sustenance, the vital lymph, of any society which would be truly free, human and fraternal. On the other hand, truth appeals to conscience, which cannot be reduced to a form of conditioning. Conscience is capable of recognizing its own dignity and being open to the absolute; it thus gives rise to fundamental decisions guided by the pursuit of the good, for others and for one’s self; it is itself the locus of responsible freedom.

It also needs to be kept in mind that apart from the pursuit of truth, each individual becomes the criterion for measuring himself and his own actions. [This means: everybody becomes his own god – and, therefore, a tyrant for everyone else.] The way is thus opened to a subjectivistic assertion of rights [one feels reminded of the ever expanding “right to respect for one’s private life” in the ECtHR’s case law…], so that the concept of human rights, which has an intrinsically universal import, is replaced by an individualistic conception of rights. This leads to an effective lack of concern for others [calls for a “women’s right to abortion” show lack of concern for the rights of the unborn child, and calls for a “right to a child” (through adoption, procreation in vitro, surrogacy…) show a lack of concern for the rights of the children so created] and favours that globalization of indifference born of selfishness, the result of a conception of man incapable of embracing the truth and living an authentic social dimension.

This kind of individualism leads to human impoverishment and cultural aridity [very true! In many European countries “culture” is reduced to the deconstruction of the existing cultural heritage, but there is hardly any new cultural achievement that is likely to survive for long…], since it effectively cuts off the nourishing roots on which the tree grows. Indifferent individualism leads to the cult of opulence reflected in the throwaway culture all around us. We have a surfeit of unnecessary things, but we no longer have the capacity to build authentic human relationships marked by truth and mutual respect [an allusion to same-sex “marriage” as opposed to the fertile marriage of a man and a woman?]. And so today we are presented with the image of a Europe which is hurt, not only by its many past ordeals, but also by present-day crises which it no longer seems capable of facing with its former vitality and energy; a Europe which is a bit tired and pessimistic, which feels besieged by events and winds of change coming from other continents. [Indeed!]

To Europe we can put the question: “Where is your vigour? Where is that idealism which inspired and ennobled your history? Where is your spirit of curiosity and enterprise? Where is your thirst for truth, a thirst which hitherto you have passionately shared with the world?

The future of the continent will depend on the answer to these questions. Returning to Rebora’s image of the tree, a trunk without roots can continue to have the appearance of life, even as it grows hollow within and eventually dies. Europe should reflect on whether its immense human, artistic, technical, social, political, economic and religious patrimony is simply an artefact of the past, or whether it is still capable of inspiring culture and displaying its treasures to mankind as a whole. In providing an answer to this question, the Council of Europe with its institutions has a role of primary importance.

I think particularly of the role of the European Court of Human Rights, which in some way represents the conscience of Europe with regard to those rights. I express my hope that this conscience will continue to mature [façon de parler… I suggest what he means is that that conscience must re-awaken!], not through a simple consensus between parties [consensus isn’t truth, and truth isn’t found by striking a balance between divergent subjective interests], but as the result of efforts to build on those deep roots which are the bases on which the founders of contemporary Europe determined to build.

[1] “Vibra nel vento con tutte le sue foglie/ il pioppo severo;/ spasima l’aria in tutte le sue doglie / nell’ansia del pensiero: / dal tronco in rami per fronde si esprime / tutte al ciel tese con raccolte cime: / fermo rimane il tronco del mistero, / e il tronco s’inabissa ov’è più vero”: Il pioppo, in: Canti dell’Infermità, ed. Vanni Scheiwiller, Milan, 1957, 32.


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