The archbishop also said that, in his view, there is “often a great degree of misinformation and 'scaremongering' of the sizes of the Islamic communities around Europe.” The Pew Research Center estimates that Muslims constituted 6% of Europe’s population in 2010.
While Europe works to carve out a path forward, Gallagher said he believes religions will play “a positive role.” This, he said, is first of all because “we do recognize that some of the liberal, secularist thought that was part of much of our societies, is not in good health either.”
He said we have to “combat a lot of political correctness that exists within Europe,” as well as the tendency “to kick religion into the private sphere and not to allow it to be part of the public debate.”
“This is something which we obviously have to work on, and it is a work in progress,” he said.
Also weighing in on the issue, Cardinal Marx, Archbishop of Munich, President of the COMECE and Coordinator of the Vatican's Council for the Economy, noted that 20 years ago many people thought “religion would disappear” from society.
“That was the common conviction of many sociologists and politicians, that society will progress and religion will disappear; secularism.” However, “that's not the case.”
“Religions will be very important for the 21st century,” he said, explaining that a key question conference participants will have to ask themselves on the role of religions is: “will they be an instrument of peace and dialogue, or of confrontation?”
For Christians in particular, the Second Vatican Council said the People of God, the Church, are “a sacrament of unity for all human beings,” and not just those inside the Church.
“We are not only for us, and the Pope is underlining this,” Marx said. “We are not narcissistic, inside ourselves, we are part of a solution for all human beings.”
“I do not see that the Church is 'less interesting' in the public world,” he said, and stressed the need to continue pursuing a dialogue with Islam, which he noted isn't new to Europe.
“So for the future, I think the Catholic Church has to play a very important role to find ways of dialogue, ways of relating to this religion, which is very important for the 21st century and Europe,” he said.
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The cardinal said his greatest fear moving forward is not so much that religion will be ignored or eradicated, but that “it will be instrumentalized for other reasons, for political reasons. That will be perhaps the great fear for the 21st century.”