It will take a lot to bring religion back to today's Europe, where faith in the power of the welfare state has just about replaced more traditional religious observances. As a pithy British observer of contemporary mores recently noted, "The National Health is as close to a religion as most British get these days." Yet, these are times of mixed signals and internal contradictions. Even in countries where the marriage rate is dropping, baptisms can still pack churches to the brim.
The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to head the world Catholic Church, has received mixed reviews. Germans were obviously delighted to have a countryman in the Vatican, the first since the Middle Ages. Yet concerns about Pope Benedict XVI's strict doctrinal views almost immediately became an issue.
As a close aide of John Paul II, Benedict is likewise known for his conservatism. "As such, he was an unsurprising choice," opined the Economist. "But to many, he will inevitably be a disappointing one."
"Critics have attacked not just his tough conservative stance - speculating that it may alienate churchgoers of the 21st Century who prefer a more flexible doctrine - but also wonder whether the78-year-old is charismatic enough to engender much affection," offered the BBC News.
Leaving aside for the moment the oxymoron of a "more flexible doctrine," the magnitude of the misconception reflected in the BBC commentary is interesting. From much of the coverage of the pope's election, you got the impression that becoming pope is a kind of popularity contest. But the Catholic Church is about something far more important, more enduring than the transient concerns of today's busy, noisy world. In this particular case, it may involve the battle for Europe's soul.
George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II, has commented regarding Benedict that, "He is going to take re-evangelization, especially of Europe very seriously. I think this represents a recognition on the part of cardinals that the great battle in the world remains inside the heads of human beings - that it's a battle of ideas."
The choice of the name Benedict itself is an indication, being the name of the patron saint of Europe. It reflects a desire that a future Europe be one of values, perhaps in reaction to the fact that after intense debate, "Christianity" was left out of the preamble to the European Constitution, whose future is now being decided in referenda in the EU member states.
Even as Catholicism is growing in Asia and Africa, faster than Islam, European are Catholics alienated. (In North and South America, numbers, too, are dropping.) Just one quarter of Italians attend mass weekly. Even John Paul II, despite his great popularity, was not able to reverse the decline throughout the continent.
But can an "arch-conservative" as Benedict has been called in the media, do any better in liberal Europe? Like John Paul, Benedict believes in holding the line on celibacy, homosexuality, birth control, euthanasia, and the ordination of women. Some predict that he will "rule with a scepter of iron."
And yet, for someone reputedly so doctrinaire, the new pope's first actions and statements were striking. From the start, he promised a "dialogue with other civilizations." The fact is that such an interfaith dialogue is better conducted from a position of strong beliefs. European secularism has not stood up well to the competition from Islam, which is spreading through Europe's fast-growing Muslim populations.
European Muslims are highly likely to be segregated - or segregate themselves - and their faith radicalized against their surroundings. Therefore, Benedict's pledge to continue the outreach to other religious groups, work started by John Paul II, is both significant and promising.
The day after his installation, Benedict met in Rome with members of the Muslim community, telling them "I assure you that the church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and society as a whole."
Now, that does not sound much like the "arch-conservative" hard-liner whom the press has been denouncing. Nor do the words of Benedict's his homily on Sunday, "My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole church, to the word and the will of the Lord."
In a world of turmoil, the message that the Pope is already transmitting - encompassing firmness of faith and tolerance of other religions - is one we would all do well to hear.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times