Pope Francis with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband during a private meeting on June 17, 2017 / CNS photo

Almost a thousand religion scholars gathered recently in Bologna, Italy, for the first conference of the newly established European Academy of Religion. Hosted by the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies, the conference drew attendees from around the world—mostly specialists in Christianity and Judaism, but also those who study Islam, Bahá’ísm, and new religions and religious movements. The conference’s title—Ex Nihilo: Zero Conference of the European Academy of Religion—reflected the aim of the gathering, namely, to create an international platform based in Europe for the study of religion. The intellectual and political potential of the initiative goes beyond the usual scope of scholarly engagement with religion in Europe.

The project draws inspiration from the much larger American Academy of Religion, with which it shares some similarities. First, it wants to extend beyond the geographic boundaries of its name: “European” in this case means a core Euro-Mediterranean group of scholars and institutions reaching out to the whole world, especially past the eastern boundaries of the European Union. The notion of “religion” is similarly expansive, encompassing religious studies, the history of religions, comparative canons and ecclesiastical law, religion and politics in comparative perspectives, and religion and media. This approach is institutionally and intellectually independent from ecclesiastical and pontifical institutions (something not necessarily obvious, in light of European history). Finally, the group wants is annual gathering to become the meeting place for European scholars of religion; the next conference will take place in March 2018, again in Bologna (beginning in 2019 it will be held at a different location every year), with the organizing committee chaired by Frederik Pedersen of the University of Aberdeen.

There are also a few significant differences from the AAR. The first is the linguistic fragmentation from country to country that is typical of Europe. This could significantly affect, for example, marketing efforts and publishing opportunities. There’s also its role in the academic job market. The AAR serves as a kind of ecosystem for interacting with and interviewing potential hires, whereas in the European Union the job market is constrained by national boundaries: Issues of language and culture can limit opportunities for finding work outside one’s country, as can bureaucratic restrictions. In Germany and elsewhere, for example, professors of theology must have a degree recognized by the state according to the criteria established by concordats with the Holy See.

Another significant difference: the political “intentionality” of the European Academy of Religion. This was apparent at the Bologna conference, where among the speakers were Italy’s current secretary of education along with Romano Prodi, former prime minister of Italy and former president of the European Commission. A number of diplomats and ambassadors to Italy and to the Holy See were also among the invited. The conference was held under the auspices of, among others, the European Parliament, the European Commission representation in Italy, and the Italian Commission for UNESCO.

For all its secularization, Europe is still at permeated at deep level by a religious understanding of itself

This line-up of institutional endorsements says something about the nature of the project, which was originally conceived in the early 2000s, when the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies was seeking assurances from European Union bureaucrats that religious studies would be part of the research infrastructure that the EU would fund. (Full disclosure: I was member of the steering committee for that effort on behalf of the Bologna Institute until 2008.) It also coincided with Romano Prodi’s term leading the EC, covering the early post-9/11 period and the beginning of the expansion of the European Union to the former “satellites” of Soviet Russia in Eastern Europe. Alberto Melloni, director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies since the death of Giuseppe Alberigo, has been the main organizer and leader of the European Academy of Religion, which is now rallying religion scholars of all backgrounds and areas of study against the indifference of institutions, and in dealing with a religious illiteracy that breeds radicalism and intolerance. It is built on the basis of a shared understanding of the importance of religious pluralism, religious freedom, ecumenical dialogue; of the role of religions and of religious studies in order to build peace and citizenship in the global world; and of the role of Europe in addressing the post-secular resurgence of the role of religion in the public square. It is not an exaggeration to say that this European network is in some sense the continuation of the two-decades-long research project on Vatican II organized and directed by the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s.

A lot has changed since then, when European scholars of religion saw European politics and religious studies as an asset in trying to avoid or deepen the “clash of civilizations” feared in the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the war in Iraq. Now, the EU is in a deep crisis, no longer a model for political and economic integration. Radical Islam is no longer about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but about the Islamic State and a regional war engulfing Syria and affecting all bordering nations, with IS franchises in Africa, Central Asia, and the Philippines. Now, radicalized Europe-born youth claim religious motives for attacking European capitals. Then, the Catholic Church was at the end of the long pontificate of John Paul II, who would soon be succeeded by Benedict XVI, while a pope like Francis was on almost no one’s radar.

Yet the role of religion remains as relevant as it was at the beginning of the century. The crisis of the EU is also a theological crisis of the ideas that inspired Catholic leaders in post-World War II Europe to help in creating an economic and political union to deal with the “German question,” and to bring peace to the continent after half a century of ideological and nationalistic bloodshed. It is no coincidence that the European leader with whom Pope Francis has met most often (six times) is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, daughter of a Lutheran pastor and in many respects the real successor of Helmut Kohl (who died on June 16), and who remains at the helm of a unified, post-Berlin Wall Germany.

For all its secularization, Europe is still at permeated at deep level by a religious understanding of itself, with its internal and external boundaries (north-south, east-west) still invisibly defined by long-term confessional and theological identities (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim). It remains to be seen what will become of the European Academy of Religion following the conference. But we can already glean two things. The first is that it is mostly private money that is helping individual scholars talk about religion in the public space in Europe; institutional funding for multi-religious scholarly enterprises is still very hard to obtain. The secularist ideology (and ignorance in matters of religion) of this generation of European leaders still blinds them and their institutions to the rapidly changing landscape of religion in Europe, with considerable political consequences. Very few EU politicians seem to realize that Europe is also living in a post-secular age. The thing to note is the strength of European networks of knowledge and soft power, and their intention to survive the current political turmoil or even the possible collapse of the EU. In this sense, the project was already timely when conceived fifteen years ago. That it is becoming a reality now may be more proof of the failure of the EU’s leaders over the past fifteen to twenty years. And thus it also seems a timely response to the situation in which the EU finds itself; to the populist and neo-nationalist waves around the world; and to the current place of religion globally. 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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