- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

George Weigel is the nation’s most important lay Catholic thinker and writer, and the author of “Witness to Hope,” the massive authorized biography of John Paul II that he is now revising to offer an account of the final years of this historic papacy. Along the way, however, Mr. Weigel has dropped off a slender and eloquent volume on a subject of keen concern to the pope in his last years: the state of Christianity in Europe and, in particular, the place for religion in the emerging European Union.

The EU today, whose member-states have before them for ratification a Constitutional Treaty that will further bind them into a supranational whole of pooled sovereignty, is a thoroughly secular project. And, of course, it has been true for some time that throughout much of its territory on Sundays (Poland being a notable exception), churches are largely empty. The precipitating occasion for this little book, “The Cube and the Cathedral,” and the cry from the heart that recurs throughout, is the refusal of the drafters of the Constitutional Treaty to include anywhere among its 70,000 words a reference to Europe’s Christian heritage.

It is not as if it simply failed to occur to the secularly minded drafters. The pope, among others, pressed for a reference. The request was rebuffed, supposedly out of a deep commitment to official EU neutrality on all religious matters, what the French call laicite. Mr. Weigel’s point is that neutrality crosses over into outright hostility toward religion when officials are no longer able to acknowledge such basic historical facts as that religion played an enormous role in shaping European civilization as it is today.

Mr. Weigel’s title refers to the stark contrast in the Paris of today between the 14th century Cathedral of Notre Dame and the supremely modernist, 40-story open glass cube monument to fraternity, La Grand Arche de la Defense — into whose central open space, as the guide books all note, Notre Dame could fit. “Which culture, I wondered,” the one that built Notre Dame or the one that built the Grand Arche, “would better protect human rights? Which culture would more firmly secure the foundations of democracy?” To Mr. Weigel, it seems clear that a thoroughly secular Europe, a place for “politics without God,” offers only an uncertain foundation for securing the freedom and equality before the law that modern, secular man has come to think of as a birthright.

Mr. Weigel writes, “European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular. That conviction has had crucial, indeed lethal, consequences for European public life and European culture. Indeed, that conviction and its public consequences are at the root of Europe’s contemporary crisis of civilizational morale.” The most conspicuous sign of this “crisis of morale” is the decline of European birth rates to the point at which European civilization may be said to be literally failing to reproduce itself — to create subsequent generations of human beings willing to carry on the project.

As things stand, religious conviction of a traditional sort has become a bar to holding high public office in the European Union. Mr. Weigel recounts the story of the Italian Catholic philosopher Rocco Buttiglione’s rejection as European Commissioner for justice. Mr. Buttiglione professed his commitment, amply justified by his years in public office, to uphold and enforce European laws protecting gays against discrimination and women’s rights. But he would not repudiate his personal religious conviction, in keeping with Catholic doctrine, that homosexuality, abortion and contraception are immoral. This attack on conviction, not action, Mr. Buttiglione called a “new totalitarianism.” Mr. Weigel agrees, and notes, “That this new totalitarianism flies under the flag of ‘tolerance’ only makes matters worse.” Mr. Weigel is gloomy about Europe’s future prospects in the absence of a resurgence of religious belief. He sketches four scenarios, the most pessimistic of which he calls “1683 Reversed,” a reference to Christian Europe’s defeat of the Islamic Ottoman Empire at the gates of Vienna.

It is possible that Mr. Weigel’s concerns are overstated and that the secular Europe now emerging will be a secure home for the Western world’s most cherished political values. But where Mr. Weigel is at his most persuasive is in the pages he devotes to the Middle Ages, the heyday of Christian Europe. According to the Enlightenment propagandists who came later, this was a time of benighted stagnation and meaningless religious war. In fact, as Mr. Weigel shows, it was the working out of conflict between church and state in this period that created the basis of the societies we are fortunate to live in today.

Mr. Weigel is right about the debt of gratitude even a secular world owes to its religious heritage. And he is also right that a world in which religious faith as such is a disqualification from serving in public office is its own species of (anti-) religious tyranny.

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