Rediscovering the Soul of Europe

Author: Father Vincent Twomey


Rediscovering the Soul of Europe

Father Vincent Twomey's Take on a Troubled Continent

DUBLIN, Ireland, 24 OCT. 2005 (ZENIT)

Can the devout Muslims in Europe's midst help the continent to recover its soul?

Father Vincent Twomey raised that question in his keynote address at the John Paul II Society's annual conference, held Oct. 7 at All Hallows College, Dublin.

Father Twomey is a professor of moral theology at the pontifical St. Patrick's College in Maynooth, County Kildare. Below is an adapted text of his address.

* * *

Europe — Risks and Opportunities

What does the world "Europe" mean to most people? Up to fairly recent times, Irish people — when they heard the word "Europe" — tended to think of "the Continent," a place perhaps to visit on vacation, where foreign languages were spoken. Europe meant foreign.

As part of the Anglo-Saxon world, we tended (and still tend) to identify spontaneously with one of the two powers in whose midst we happen to exist and whose histories have for centuries, for better and for worse, been entwined with ours: the former British Empire and the present American superpower.

Our history is such that we have deep emotional ties, both negative and positive, with Britain and America, whereas our historical ties to Europe are primarily of the distant past, when Irish monks were the harbingers of medieval Europe. Few today are even aware of the role they played.

It is noteworthy that when we needed help to broker an agreement between the rival parties in Northern Ireland, Dublin turned to Washington for help, not Brussels. And when we celebrate our National Feast Day — now a secularized Paddy's week — our head of government ritually pays homage to the president of the United States in the White House. Similarly, the rhetorical question as to whether we are closer to Boston than Berlin betrays the same sense, the distance we feel to the Continent and of closeness to the USA.

More recently, the term Europe might perhaps conjure up the European Union, from which we have benefited so much economically and where an increasing number of our citizens, especially the young, are working and living. But the Irish in Europe are too few and too recent to make us feel any sense of attachment to the rest of Europe.

Generally speaking, the European Union is seen mostly as the "common market," a lucrative source for subventions and for increasingly suffocating red tape in equal measure. The most obvious visible sign of the EU's presence is the network of new roads and motorways. Otherwise, the EU is seen as nothing more than a huge, anonymous bureaucracy imposing all kinds of procedures and demands on us, such as fishing quotas, etc.

The opening up of national boundaries across the EU has helped further a new phenomenon for Ireland: immigration of tens of thousands, mostly from Eastern European States who last year joined the Union, a ceremony presided over by the Irish presidency of the EU in May 2004. The presence of these skilled workers — so crucial for the economy — who are ready to work long hours for a minimum wage in our midst, does not always ensure that Irish people at home will become any more sympathetic to "Europe." Xenophobia is not unknown.

The sense of indifference to, if not alienation from, the EU project is not only felt in Ireland. Most Western European countries have centuries of history behind them. Many were great, independent powers whose influence covered the globe. Even tiny nations like Holland and Belgium exercised power overseas. The sense of national identity, often underpinned by a common language and a dominant, though now mostly dormant, religion, is deep.

The Second World War made nationalism suspect and led to the project to reunite Western Europe, itself under threat from the Soviet Union, by stressing what is common to these countries. The fathers of the EU were convinced Christians; most were practicing Catholics, who had a vision of Europe built on its Christian foundations.

Its goal was to make national identity something relative by subsuming the concerns of individual states to the greater common good of the broader community, first at the economic level and later, it was hoped, at the cultural and political level. The rejection of the proposed EU Constitution by the citizens of France and Holland shows how much these efforts failed. The reasons for the failure are complex, but the end result is clear. The French and the Dutch are in the first instance that: French and Dutch, not European.

However, one should not be too pessimistic, since at least two important goals were achieved: the end of wars among the European nations themselves — at least among those of them who were members of the EU — and the raising of the standard of living. The peace and prosperity of the past half a century has been a remarkable achievement. But the price paid has been enormous. The primary focus of each country's involvement in the EU was and is: their own economic well-being.

In a word, self-interest has been the primary value almost exclusively espoused by citizens and politicians alike. The phenomenal success of the EU in economic terms has in more recent decades evolved into the cult of consumerism. The price of progress has been the death of the spirit. Materialism is the dominant religion of the EU, while expediency is its dominant morality.

This morality is the basis of those laws passed by European counties to allow experimentation on human embryos and, more recently, stem-cell research and cloning for so-called therapeutic reasons — also recommended earlier this year by the Irish government-appointed bioethical commission.

The driving force in these developments would seem to be the pharmaceutical industry, which cloaks its self-interest with a facade of compassion by promising miracle cures. But the dominance of expediency — the triumph of utilitarianism — affects all aspects of life, in particular the family and education, all of which are under threat today. When the Minister for Health recently advocated that "[g]irls as young as 11 should be given the emergency 'morning-after pill' to prevent pregnancy if they are sexually active,"1 the justification for such a policy was based purely on expediency.2

The terrorist bombings in Madrid and London by fanatics who claim to represent some pan-Islamic cause drew dramatic attention to a phenomenon that heretofore attracted little public attention: the presence in our midst of some 17 million Muslims. Apart altogether from the threat posed by a small number of fanatics waging a jihad against the West, the increasingly large communities of Muslims pose huge problems of assimilation.

The questionable but intense battle in France over the wearing of headscarves by schoolgirls is one example. The growth of real ghettos in Berlin and other German cities, where Turkish is mainly spoken, is another. Muslims are young and fertile while the native Europeans are a dying race reluctant to bear children, having long embraced contraception and abortion with gusto. Tensions between native and emigrant, as was seen in Holland recently, can result in hostility of a violent nature.

Trying to explain the phenomenon of home-grown Islamic terrorists in Britain, one Islamic writer blamed their emergence on the fact that third-generation Muslims there feel increasingly marginalized from mainstream Britain, its culture and institutions, and so resort to fundamentalist religious sects, where they find a sense of identity in their commitment to a cause that is worth dying for, rather than roaming aimlessly around the streets of Manchester and Birmingham. The contrast is worth noting. The young Islamic fundamentalists have a cause that is worth dying for. How many European youths would be prepared to die to preserve Europe?

In sum, Europe, understood as the EU, is a very fragile entity held together by complex treaties and agreements, which the average citizen does not understand, and administered by anonymous bureaucrats somewhere in Brussels or Strasbourg. It is hard to feel much attachment to it. It rouses no passion. It is slightly alienating, threatening deeply held values such as the family and the sacredness of human life. It seems to stand for nothing but self-interest. And that is not enough to satisfy the human heart.

The attempt to bring the EU closer to its citizens by setting up a Forum in Dublin only highlights the abstract nature of the entity we now call Europe. Is it a purely public relations exercise? In any case, its deliberations generally leave the majority of people cold. Within Europe, new tensions are appearing, old passions are roused, no longer between the European nations but within them, while ethnic identities and nationalism are reappearing in the ugly guises of extreme right-wing parties and neo-Nazis.

* * *

But is the EU Europe? The short answer is: no. The present Pope has pointed out that the first recorded use of the term — by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century before Christ — shows that from the start Europe was never simply a geographical term. It does not refer primarily to a geographical continent but to a spirit.

This spirit is symbolized in the first place by a city, Athens. This is the Greek spirit of inquiry, namely, the search for the ultimate truth about reality and for the wisdom needed to become fully human. This spirit led to the great discoveries in philosophy and art, in geometry and music, in medicine and astronomy, which have shaped civilization down to our own day.

In a word, the Greeks discovered the soul, they discovered that the scope of reason is literally infinite — it can reach the Ultimate Being beyond time and space. The Absolute. This spirit is at the root of Europe.3

But Rome had its own genius or spirit, that of law and order, of administration and engineering. The primarily human achievements of Rome and Athens were fused with another spirit, that of Jerusalem, the Hebrew prophetic spirit of divine origin, when all three were taken up, literally, into Christ, where they found their fulfillment.

Christianity is the product of all three spirits now transformed by the synthesis that is Jesus Christ and his Body, the Church, and conscious of a world-embracing mission to redeem all humanity. The short term of its mission to save the souls of others, each human being is destined for union with God in Christ. What the Greeks dimly perceived — the reality of the soul's scope — Christianity proclaimed from the rooftops.

Christianity is a historical phenomenon. After Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, Christianity developed into two mainstreams, that of the Latin West and the Greek East, both giving rise to two great civilizations, Western Christendom and Byzantium, who finally parted company in the Schism of 1054.

Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453, but its spirit was continued in Russia down to our own day. A century later, Western Christendom split in two at the Reformation, the North predominantly Protestant, the South Catholic. With the discovery of the New World, the Protestant spirit dominated North America, the Catholic spirit South America. The spirit of Europe is not confined to geographical Europe. Indeed, one could say that today the Americas and Russia — each in its own way — represent the spirit of Europe in its two most basic forms more than geographical Europe itself, the original home of these civilizations.

When one takes a quick look at a historical map of Western Europe over the centuries, one is immediately impressed at the fluidity of the boundaries, and the futility of the many attempts over the centuries to unify Europe: first the ancient Roman Empire, then Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, later the Hapsburg Empire, Napoleon's empire, and finally the Nazi conquests. Spain and, later, England looked overseas and set out to establish worldwide empires. All collapsed in time, but the spirit that drove them did not.

Behind all these political developments, the peoples of Europe produced a civilization whose achievements have changed the face of the earth — thanks to the threefold spirit of Europe symbolized by Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem: the critical spirit of enquiry and discovery, the conservative force of law and order, and the prophetic spirit of the Christian saints with their concern for the poor and the outcast. This is the true soul of Europe.

The incredible civilizational achievements of the so-called Middle Ages — symbolized by great cities with their cathedrals, guilds, hospices, and universities — had an unfortunate side effect. Its achievements tended to make man forget the heavenly paradise and seek to establish an earthly one.

This released new forces, when the energy that once went into achieving heavenly perfection was channeled into creating a perfect society. And so a movement began in Western Europe at the height of its glory in the Middle Ages that would shatter the synthesis of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, namely, humanism, a turning of humanity towards itself, symbolized by the art of the Renaissance that was less concerned with the divinity and more concerned with the humanity of Christ and then, by way of extension, with human beings, indeed domestic concerns in general, while heaven faded into the background until it disappeared.

Originally of Christian — indeed Franciscan — inspiration, humanism became allied with a new understanding of history as a progression towards a perfect society here on earth. The Renaissance looked more and more exclusively to ancient Athens and Rome to the exclusion of Jerusalem. The Reformation, on the other hand, sought to recover the original Jerusalem (Revelation) to the exclusion of Athens and Rome (reason and authority/law). The original synthesis of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem began to fall apart. A shadow passed over the soul of Europe.

* * *

The wars of religion that accompanied the Reformation made critical thinkers skeptical of all religion. The wars ended with the division of Europe into confessional states where throne and altar were one, a deadly alliance.

Critical thinkers rejected the increasingly absolute throne and altar and began to conceive of a new basis for law and society, "as though God did not exist." Secularism was born, religion was separated from reason. The Enlightenment, inspired by Athens and Rome, made reason supreme and all traditional authority suspect.

Unfortunately, it was a reduced form of reason that the Enlightenment embraced, better described as rationalism since it excluded God from its scope. The power and the fragility of this new form of reason, now left to itself, gave modern Europe the specific shape we know today. The power unleashed by this form of reason gave rise to phenomenal developments in science and technology — and so to the Industrial Revolution — and it created the modern notion of human rights that fueled the American and French revolutions.

The fragility of reason was manifested in the reign of terror which was first unleashed by the French Revolution and found its most horrific expression in Marxism and Nazism, all products of that particular kind of reason, which first emerged in the Enlightenment.

God was left out of the equation and man sought to redeem himself by trying to formulate his own moral norms and to create a perfect society on earth through social engineering. Liberal capitalism, Marxism and Nazism are all attempts to achieve this goal, the most successful being liberal capitalism.

Despite their obvious differences, all share the same basic convictions about reality. All are materialist, that matter comes first, and spirit simply the product of matter, all deny the primacy of the human being, and all are based on the perversion of one of the most fundamental moral axioms, namely that the end does not justify the means. All crush the spirit of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, which constitute the true soul of Europe.

Pope Benedict XVI in his homily at the World Youth Day in Cologne said: "In the last century we experienced revolutions with a common program — expecting nothing more from God, they assumed total responsibility for the cause of the world in order to change it. And this, as we saw, meant that a human and partial point of view was always taken as an absolute guiding principle. Absolutizing what is not absolute but relative is called totalitarianism. It does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him."

When the Absolute, God, is denied, then those aspects of social life that should be relative become absolute: nation, efficiency, material well-being. As a result, individuals are freely sacrificed on the altar of a new god: race, nation, progress, health. Totalitarianism is not something of the past, but is a real threat today in Europe, Ireland included.

Its echo can be found in the thinly veiled threats made by a member of the government-appointed Crisis Pregnancy Agency to the few chemists left in Ireland that refuse on conscientious grounds to sell contraceptives. In a totalitarian state, even when it calls itself pluralist, all must conform. But it is those few chemists and others, like the Mater Hospital Ethics Subcommittee in recent days, who refuse to bow to the might of those who wield power and who affirm the primacy of conscience, properly understood.

What is conscience? St. Augustine once called it the sense for the good that is implanted in us. It is what is meant by common sense, the inbuilt capacity each person has to recognize goodness, to recognize what is common to all humans. The ancient Greek thinkers discovered conscience, when they discovered the soul is the "sensorium" of Transcendence: We human beings can rise about the limitations of our culture and inherited values to Truth and Goodness itself that judges all things, that establishes the moral norms that judge human laws, which can be unjust and immoral.

The recognition of God in his absoluteness and incomprehensibility makes all human activities relative. The soul can know, however inadequately, the incomprehensible Absolute, it can perceive a Law above that judges human laws (Sophocles).

The Latin thinkers recognized the primacy of law for order in society, a law that binds lawgiver and citizen alike, since its basis is that law above, natural justice, and not on arbitrariness. The Hebrew prophets revealed the fullness of the Law that arises from the Revelation that we are made in the image and likeness of God, that his absolute nature is reflected in ours.

And so there are moral norms that are absolute and beyond the power of the lawmaker to alter. Without a moral consensus based on certain non-negotiable moral principles — such as the sanctify of human life from conception to the natural death, the sacredness of marriage, the primacy of the family over the state — might becomes right and politics becomes manipulation of passing trends.

Jesus Christ revealed in the fullness of time that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life, that love is the fullness of the law, that we must obey God rather than men. That is why any future EU constitution must contain a reference to — rather, a recognition of — God.

"It is not ideologies," Pope Benedict XVI said recently, "that save the world, but only a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true. True revolution consists in simply turning to God who is the measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting love. And what could ever save us apart from love?"

* * *

I want to return briefly to what many see as the threat of Islam today. This, I feel, is exaggerated. Islam is not a stranger to Europe. Indeed, it itself has left its mark on Europe.

In 732, Arab invaders came right into France and were repelled by Charles Martel at a battle near Tours and Poitiers. They remained in Spain some 800 years, creating such architectural wonders as the Alhambra in Grenada and becoming the channel for much of the Greek thought that had been lost to Europe for over a 1,000 years. When translated into Latin, Greek thought helped forge the High Middle Ages.

The fall of Granada in 1492 marked the end of Islamic political power in Spain, though not, of course, the end of Islamic cultural influence in Spain. After capturing Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christianity in 1453, the Turks conquered the Balkans and Hungary, and eventually laid siege to Austria, only to be repelled by the combined Polish and German forces in 1683 and were eventually pushed out of Hungary and the Balkans into modern-day Turkey only in the 19th century.

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, 1571, when, under the initiative of St. Pope Pius V and in response to the capture of Cyprus, the Spanish and Venetian navies led by Don John of Austria defeated the Turks in the Gulf of Corinth. All of these earlier incursions into Europe were by the sword and were repulsed by the sword.

The recent presence of Muslims in Europe is peaceful. It is due to migration. Many, like the millions of Turkish "Gastarbeiter" who came to Germany after the war seeking work to support their families and made a huge contribution to the Germany economy; others, like the Algerians in France, came seeking a better way of life on the basis of their rights as citizens of the former French colony. Thousands risk their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean each year in search of the good life and the freedoms denied them in their own countries in North Africa, others coming to study in the universities, as in Ireland.

I attended a seminar recently on Islam given by two experts, one German, the other Egyptian. The overall impression I got is that Islam is a much more complex phenomenon than I had expected. It is true that the claims of Islam are in many ways incompatible with Christianity, but there are also some common elements, especially at the moral level. (It was the Arab nations which supported the Vatican at Cairo to ensure that the pressure from the EU and other countries to introduce abortion would not succeed.)

There are many different shades of Islam, including ancient divisions, such as that between the Sunnis and the Shiites, comparable to the older hostilities between Catholic and Protestant, some more traditional, others more open to reason, and still others are trying to come to terms with the modern world, a secular world hostile to the religious sense and common-sense morality.

Many look with horror at the moral decadence of the West and naturally feel a sense of superiority thanks to their own evident piety and strict moral practice. Others feel a sense of inferiority in the face of Western scientific and technical progress. Intellectual Muslims recognize the threat posed by a rationalistic critical spirit that could undermine their Holy Book and sacred traditions as it did in the case of Christianity.

Others fear the threat of atheism. Some are engaged in a mission to convert Europe to Islam, and that is a real possibility, considering their religious passion, on the one hand, and the emptiness of the lives of so many of our contemporaries on the other, which is due to the failure of the Church to preach convincingly. Others look forward to the day when they will outbreed the native European populations. But many are simply indifferent and simply want to earn enough to keep their families fed and with a roof over their heads.4

One of the experts claimed that many Muslims are searching for more than they find in their own traditions. He wondered, however, whether or not they would find Christians in Europe who would lead them to Christ.

My own hope is that the presence of Islam in Europe could prove to be catalyst for a revival of Christianity.

"On 13 November the Church will beatify Charles de Foucauld, the French aristocrat, military hero, award-winning explorer and desert hermit who served his priesthood among the Muslim Touaregs of the Sahara desert. Following his military campaigns in Algeria, he underwent a religious conversion in 1886 in Morocco. ... The seeds of de Foucauld's conversion lay in his encounter with Islam on his geographic expedition to Morocco in 1883.

"Islam produced in me a profound disruption ... the vision of this faith, of those souls living in the continual presence of God, made me perceive something larger and more authentic than mundane occupations: 'ad majora nati sumus' — we are born for higher things."5

It is possible that the encounter with devote Muslims in our midst can help Europe recover its soul? We are born for higher things than the EU in its present guise can offer.

--- --- ---


1. Irish Independent, July 27, 2005.

2. "'Much as we may find that astonishing, and it is astonishing, I think we have to deal with the reality and the consequences of that and we have to make sure that if the morning-after pill is required that it is available to somebody in that age group,' she said" (ibid.).

3. Ancient Greece covered most of Eastern Mediterranean, from Sardinia and Sicily to Egypt and Asia Minor. When Greece was captured by Rome, as Horace said, "Greece, once overcome, overcame her wild conqueror, and brought the arts into rustic Latium [Italy]." In other words, the spirit of Athens became a major cultural force in the Roman Empire, which stretched from modern-day England and Germany in the North, through Spain and North Africa in the South, to Arabia and Iraq in the East.

4. For an insight into the daily situation of Muslims in Britain, but also on the suffering of a young Muslim who converted to Christianity, see "The Battle for British Muslims' Soul" by Ahmer Khophar (The Word, October 2005, 14-5).

5. Editorial, The Word, November 2005, by Sarah McDonald.

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