|George Weigel on Europe's Malaise
ROME, 24 DEC. 2004 (ZENIT)
Here are excerpts from an address given by
George Weigel at the Gregorian University this month. Weigel is a senior
fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
* * *
Politics Without God?
Reflections on Europe and America
By George Weigel
At the far western end of the axis that traverses Paris from the Louvre
down the Champs Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe is the Great
Arch of La Défense. Designed by a sternly modernist Danish architect,
the Great Arch is a colossal open cube: almost 40 stories tall, faced in
glass and 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble. Its rooftop terrace offers
an unparalleled view of the French capital, past the Tuilleries to the
Ile de la Cité, Sante Chapelle, and Notre-Dame.
The arch's three-story high roof also houses the International
Foundation for Human Rights. For President François Mitterrand planned
the Great Arch as a human rights monument, something suitably gigantic
to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of
the Rights of Man and Citizen. Thus, in one guidebook, the Great Arch
was dubbed "Fraternity Arch." That same guidebook, like every other one
I consulted, emphasized that the entire Cathedral of Notre-Dame would
fit comfortably inside the Great Arch.
All of which raised some questions, as I walked along that terrace in
1997. Which culture would better protect human rights and secure the
moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this rational,
geometrically precise, but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture
that produced the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the asymmetries and
holy "unsameness" of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of
Those questions have come back to me, if in different forms, as I've
tried to understand Europe in recent years. How, for example, should one
understand the fierce argument in Europe over whether a new
constitutional treaty for the European Union should include a reference
to the Christian sources of European civilization? Why did so many
European intellectuals and political leaders deem any reference to the
Christian sources of contemporary Europe civilization a threat to human
rights and democracy?
Was there some connection between this internal European debate over
Europe's constitution-making and the portrait in the European press of
Americans (and especially an American president) as religious fanatics
intent on shooting up the world? Was there a further connection between
this debate and the fate of Rocco Buttiglione's candidacy for the post
of Commissioner of Justice on the European Commission?
Understanding these phenomena requires something more than a
conventional political analysis. Nor can political answers explain the
reasons behind perhaps the most urgent issue confronting Europe today
the fact that Western Europe is committing demographic suicide, its
far-below-replacement-level birthrates creating enormous pressures on
the European welfare state and a demographic vacuum into which Islamic
immigrants are flowing in increasing numbers, often becoming radicalized
in the process.
My proposal is that Europe is experiencing a crisis of cultural and
civilizational morale whose roots are also taking hold in some parts
quarters of American society and culture. Understanding and addressing
this crisis means confronting the question posed sharply, if
unintentionally, by those guidebooks that boast about the alleged
superiority of the Great Arch to Notre-Dame: the question of the cube
and the cathedral, and their relationship to both the meaning of freedom
and the future of democracy.
To suggest that Europe is living through a "crisis of civilizational
morale" is a very broad description. Let me raise some specific issues
that point toward that conclusion
and to the necessity of a cultural, indeed theological, analysis of
Europe's situation today.
Why, in the aftermath of 1989, did Europeans fail to condemn communism
as a moral and political monstrosity? Why was the only politically
acceptable judgment on communism the rather banal observation that it
Why, as historian John Keegan puts it, do Europeans often espouse "a
philosophy of international action that actually rejected action and
took refuge in the belief that all conflicts of interest were to be
settled by consultation, conciliation, and the intervention of
What accounts for disturbing currents of irrationality in contemporary
European politics? Why did one of every five Germans (and one-third of
those under 30) believe that the United States was responsible for 9/11,
while some 300,000 French men and women made a best seller out of "L'Effroyable
Imposture" [The Appalling Fraud], in which the author, Thierry Meyssan,
argued that the twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed by
the U.S. military, using remote-controlled airliners?
Why did the voters of Spain give a de facto victory to appeasement in
their March 2004 elections, held days after Al-Qaeda operatives killed
hundreds and wounded thousands by bombing a Madrid train station?
Why is Europe retreating from democracy and binding itself ever tighter
in the cords of bureaucracy? Why do European states find it virtually
impossible to make hard domestic political decisions
as on the length of the workweek or the funding of pensions? Why is
Europe on the way to what French political philosopher Pierre Manent
calls "depoliticization?" Why does Manent have "the impression today
that the greatest ambition of Europeans is to become the inspectors of
Why are so many European public intellectuals "Christophobic," as
international legal scholar J.H.H. Weiler (himself an observant Jew)
puts it? Why is European high culture so contemptuous of both religious
and secular tradition, as French philosopher Rémi Brague has pointed
Why do certain parts of Europe exhibit a curious, even bizarre, approach
to death? Why did so many of the French prefer to continue their summer
vacations during the European heat wave of 2003, leaving their parents
unburied and warehoused in refrigerated lockers? Why is death
increasingly anonymous in Germany, with no death notice in the
newspapers, no church funeral ceremony, no secular memorial service
"as though," as Richard John Neuhaus observed, "the deceased did not
Above all, why is Europe committing demographic suicide, systematically
depopulating itself in what British historian Niall Ferguson calls the
greatest "sustained reduction in European population since the Black
Death of the 14th century"?
Why do 18 European countries report "negative natural increase" (i.e.,
more deaths than births)?
Why does no Western European country have a replacement-level birthrate?
Why is Germany likely to lose the equivalent of the population of the
former East Germany in the first half of the 21st century?
Why will Spain's population decline from 40 million to 31 million by
Why will 42% of Italians be over 60 by 2050
at which point, on present trends, almost 60% of the Italian people will
have no brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, or uncles?
What is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than
ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental
sense, by creating a next generation? ...
Probing to the deeper roots of Europe's crisis of civilizational morale
is important for understanding Europe today and for discerning whatever
promising paths of European renewal there may be. Getting at the roots
of "Europe's problem" is also important for understanding a set of
problems Americans may face in the not-too-distant future. And that
means that both Europeans and Americans must learn to think in new ways
about the dynamics of history.
During 13 years of research and teaching in east central Europe, I've
been impressed by what might be called the Slavic view of history. You
can find it in a great thinker who lived in the borderland between
Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Vladimir Soloviev, who challenged the
fashionable nihilism and materialism of the late 19th century.
You can find it in 19th-century Polish novelists, poets and playwrights,
who, breaking with the Jacobin conviction that "revolution" meant a
complete rupture with the past, insisted that genuine "revolution" meant
the recovery of lost spiritual and moral values. You can find it in such
intellectual leaders of the anti-communist resistance in east central
Europe as Karol Wojtyla, Václav Havel and Václav Benda, who all argued
that "living in the truth" could change what seemed unchangeable in
The common thread among these disparate thinkers is the conviction that
the deepest currents of "history" are spiritual and cultural, rather
than political and economic. "History" is not simply the byproduct of
the contest for power in the world
although power plays an important role in history. And "history" is
certainly not the exhaust fumes produced by the means of production, as
the Marxists taught.
Rather, "history" is driven by culture
by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies
deem to be true and good and noble; by the expressions they give to
those convictions in language, literature and the arts; by what
individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.
Poland is one embodiment of this way of thinking, which Poles believe
has been vindicated empirically by their own modern history. For 123
years, from 1795 to 1918, the Polish state was erased from Europe. Yet
during that century and a quarter the Polish nation survived with such
vigor that it could give birth to a new Polish state in 1918. And
despite the fact that the revived Polish state was then beset for 50
years by the plagues of Nazism and communism, the Polish nation proved
strong enough to give a new birth of freedom to east central Europe in
the Revolution of 1989.
How did this happen? Poland survived
better, Poland prevailed
because of culture: a culture formed by a distinctive language, by a
unique literature, and by an intense Catholic faith (which, an its
noblest and deepest expressions, was ecumenical and tolerant, not
xenophobic, as so many stereotypes have it). Poles know in their bones
that culture is what drives history over the long haul.
This "Slavic view of history" is really a classically Christian way of
thinking about history, whose roots can be traced back at least as far
as St. Augustine and "The City of God." Yet, it is the Slavs who have
been, in our time, the most powerful exponents of this "culture-first"
understanding of the dynamics of the world's story. ...
World War I, the Great War, was the product of a crisis of
civilizational morality, a failure of moral reason in a culture that had
given the world the very concept of "moral reason." That crisis of moral
reason led to a crisis of civilizational morale that is much with us
This latter crisis has only become visible since the end of the Cold
War. Its effects were first masked by the illusory peace between World
War I and World War II; then by the rise of totalitarianism and the
Great Depression; then by World War II itself; and then by the Cold War.
It was only after 1991, when the 77-year-long political-military crisis
that began in 1914 had ended, that the long-term effects of Europe's
"rage of self-mutilation" could come to the surface of history and be
seen for what they were
and for what they are.
The damage done to the fabric of European culture and civilization in
the Great War could only been seen clearly when the Great War's
political effects had been cleared from the board in 1991. Recognizing
that damage for what it is brings into sharper focus the contemporary
European cultural and political situation and its lessons for the United
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's insight into the meaning of the Great War
reinforces the intuition that we should look to the realm of culture for
a deeper explanation of the currents of history. So let us take a first
step in reading history the old-fashioned way
St. Augustine's way
through lenses ground by the tools of theology. And that brings us to
another Christian analyst of modern European history.
Henri de Lubac was one of 20th-century Catholicism's most distinguished
theologians. Like other Europeans who had witnessed the Continent's
travail during the first four and a half decades of the century, Father
de Lubac was haunted by the question, "What happened?" Or, perhaps more
to the point, "Why had what happened, happened?"
Father de Lubac was fascinated by the history of ideas, which he knew to
be fraught with "real world" consequences. Thus, during the early 1940s,
he turned his attention to some of the most influential intellectual
figures in pre-20th century European culture. The result was a book,
"The Drama of Atheistic Humanism" ["Le Drame de l'humanisme athée"],
which argued that the civilizational crisis in which Europe found itself
during World War II was the product of a deliberate rejection of the God
of the Bible in the name of authentic human liberation.
This, de Lubac suggested, was a great reversal. In the classical world,
the gods, or Fate, played games with men and women, often with lethal
consequences. In the face of these experiences, the revelation of the
God of the Bible
the self-disclosure in history of the one God who was neither a willful
tyrant (to be avoided) nor a carnivorous predator (to be appeased) nor a
remote abstraction (to be safely ignored)
was perceived as a great liberation. Human beings were neither the
playthings of the gods nor the passive victims of Fate. Because they
could have access to the one true God through prayer and worship, those
who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus could bend
history in a humane direction. History was thus an arena of
responsibility and purpose.
Yet what biblical man had perceived as liberation, the proponents of
atheistic humanism perceived as bondage. Human freedom could not
co-exist with the God of Jews and Christians. Human greatness required
rejecting the biblical God, according to atheistic humanism.
This, Father de Lubac argued, was something new. This was not the
atheism of skeptical individuals. This was atheistic humanism
atheism with a developed ideology and a program for remaking the world.
As a historian of ideas, de Lubac knew that bad ideas can have lethal
consequences. At the heart of the darkness inside the great mid-20th
century tyrannies [of] communism, fascism, Nazism, Father de Lubac
discerned the lethal effects of the marriage between modern technology
and the ideas borne by atheistic humanism.
He summed up the results of this misbegotten union in these terms: "It
is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world
without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it
against man." That is what the tyrannies of the mid-20th century had
ultramundane humanism is inevitably inhuman humanism. And inhuman
humanism cannot neither sustain nor defend the democratic project. It
can only undermine it or attack it. ...
The argument over acknowledging any Christian contribution to the
democratic civilization of the 21st century may have clarified the
understandings of "democracy" and "human rights" that shape contemporary
European high culture and the political elite in the
Brussels-Paris-Berlin axis, but it also raised serious questions about
Europe's capacity to defend its democracy, morally and philosophically.
If democratic institutions and procedures are the expressions of a
distinctive way of life based on specific moral commitments, then
democratic citizenship must be more than a matter of following the
procedures and abiding by the laws and regulations agreed upon by the
institutions A democratic citizen is someone who can give an account of
his or her commitment to human rights, to the rule of law and equality
before the law, to decision-making by the majority and protection of the
rights of minorities. Democratic citizenship means being able to tell
why one affirms "the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable
rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of
law," to cite the preamble to the European constitution. Who can give
such an account?
Here is one of the richest ironies involved in the question of the cube
and the cathedral. The original charge against Christians in the Roman
empire was that they were "atheists": people who were "a-theos," people
who had abandoned the gods of Rome and who were thus a threat to public
life and public order. To be a-theos was to stand outside and
over-against the political community.
The "Christophobia" of contemporary European high culture turns this
indictment inside out and upside down: Christianity cannot be
acknowledged as a source of European democracy because the only public
space safe for pluralism, tolerance, civility, and democracy is a public
space that is thoroughly a-theos.
It is all very strange. For the truth of the matter is that European
Christians can likely give a more compelling account of their commitment
to democratic values than their fellow Europeans who are a-theos
who believe that "neutrality toward worldviews" must characterize
democratic Europe. A postmodern or neo-Kantian "neutrality toward
worldviews" cannot be truly tolerant; it can only be indifferent.
Absent convictions, there is no tolerance; there is only indifference.
Absent some compelling notion of the truth that requires us to be
tolerant of those who have a different understanding of the truth, there
is only skepticism and relativism. And skepticism and relativism are
very weak foundations on which to build and sustain a pluralistic
democracy, for neither skepticism nor relativism, by their own logic,
can "give an account" of why we should be tolerant and civil.
In contrast to this thin account of tolerance
we should be tolerant because it works better
there is the argument for tolerance given by Pope John Paul II in his
1989 encyclical letter on Christian mission, "Redemptoris Missio" [The
Mission of the Redeemer]. There the Pope taught that "The Church
proposes; she imposes nothing." The Catholic Church respects the "other"
as an "other" who is also a seeker of truth and goodness; the Church
only asks that the believer and the "other" enter into a dialogue that
leads to mutual enrichment rather than to a deeper skepticism about the
possibility of grasping the truth of things.
The Catholic Church believes it to be the will of God that Christians be
tolerant of those who have a different view of God's will, or no view of
God's will. Thus Catholics (and other Christians who share this
conviction) can "give an account" of their defense of the "other's"
freedom, even if the "other," skeptical and relativist, finds it hard to
"give an account" of the freedom of the Christian. That the Church did
not always behave according to these convictions is obvious from
The point today is that the Church recognizes, publicly, that acts of
coercion undertaken in its name were offenses against its own true
doctrine. That is why, on March 12, 2000, Pope John Paul II led a "Day
of Pardon" at St. Peter's Basilica. This was not an exercise in Catholic
political correctness, nor was this pandering to approved victim groups.
This was confession: an acknowledgment of sin and a plea for divine
mercy that recommitted the Church to live the truth it professed about
the freedom of the human person.
A community capable of such acts
the community of the cathedral, if you will
is a community capable of learning from the past, capable of a reformed
life. A community capable of such acts of public repentance is a
community that can give a compelling account of its commitments to
Can others? Can those who are a-theos
can the people of the cube
grapple with the dark passages on European history caused by radically
secularist understandings of the human person, human community, and
human destiny: the Reign of Terror, Nazism, and communism?
These concerns are not, let me repeat, the products of American
Euro-phobia, nor are they the result of the sharp division between much
of Europe and the United States over the Iraq War. Indeed, there is
nothing very original in my reading of Europe's current condition: You
can find the same points of concern in John Paul II's 2003 apostolic
exhortation, "Ecclesia in Europa." There, the Pope suggests that, within
Europe itself, there is an intuition that a "Europe" of political, legal
and economic structures alone is insufficient. Like John Paul II,
thoughtful Europeans are asking whether a "Europe" that represents the
continentwide triumph of bureaucratic regulation is all that might be
The debate over the "invocatio Dei" in the new European constitution was
also the present and the future, not just the past. Those who insisted
that there be no overt recognition that Christianity played a decisive
role in the formation of European civilization did not do so in the name
of "tolerance," despite their claims to the contrary. They did so
because they are committed to the proposition that there can be
politics-without-God: that a Europe free, tolerant, civil, and
pluralistic can only be built as a public space from which the God of
the Bible has been excluded.
That this position is shared by more than a few American political,
judicial, intellectual, and cultural leaders is obvious, and suggests
that what has been unfolding in Europe in recent decades
indeed, over the past two centuries
could well be replicated in the United States (as it is already being
replicated in Canada). To repeat, that is why "Europe's problem" is,
from an American point of view, "our" problem, too.