Saturday, July 23, 2005

In the wake of the French and Dutch “no” votes against the European Union constitution, European elites are worried that the prospect of a unified Europe is slipping away. But a more pressing issue is whether Europe itself, particularly Western Europe, is fading into oblivion. If that sounds drastic, it is: There are indications that Europe is beginning to diminish demographically and culturally amid declining fertility rates, burgeoning immigrant populations and an apparent loss of political and social self-confidence. Europe’s decline is sure to be a slow one. But the indicators point only down.

Not since the plague has Europe’s population dropped so precipitously as it has in recent years and as it is expected to in coming decades. Germany is expected to lose the equivalent of the former East Germany’s population by 2050, while Spain, whose fertility rate is only about half replacement level, is expected to lose nearly a quarter of its population. In Germany, France, The Netherlands, Britain and elsewhere, burgeoning immigrant Muslim populations with little interest in assimilation appear poised to fill the population gap Europeans are creating. What accounts for all this? According to George Weigel, the reason is simple: Europe is bored. Or, put more fully, Europe is failing to reproduce because it cannot arrive at proper reasons why it should. “The failure to create a human future in the most elemental sense — by creating a successor generation — is surely an expression of a broader failure: a failure of self-confidence,” he writes. Put baldly, Europeans no longer believe in their culture or in themselves.

The question of Europe’s declining birthrate is just one of the motivations behind “The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God,” Mr. Weigel’s brisk look at the state of European culture and politics. Among the questions Mr. Weigel asks: Is Europe still committed to democracy and human rights? Why do European nations find it virtually impossible to solve difficult political questions about the economy, welfare, work conditions or immigration? And related questions, why do Europeans pin their political hopes on unelected bodies in Brussels far removed from the public at the expense of national legislatures and other expressions of popular sovereignty? Why do European intellectuals find much of the Western tradition, particularly Christianity, to be so detestable?

For Mr. Weigel, in order to get at the answers, one must first understand that there exists two cultures which are struggling for the soul of Europe. One is postmodern and relativistic; the is other a modernized form of Christendom. His book’s title, “The Cube and the Cathedral,” refers to two buildings in Paris which symbolize each: La Grande Arche de la Defense, the cube, and the cathedral of Notre Dame. La Grande Arche, a structure initiated by President Francois Mitterand in 1982 and finished in 1990, is “stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise,” but it is also “essentially featureless,” Mr. Weigel writes. Its sides house offices, and its interior is hollow and open. As Paris tourbooks cited by Mr. Weigel unfailingly point out, the cube can contain the entire cathedral of Notre Dame inside that hollow space. The cathedral, in contrast, is quintessentially Gothic. With “vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and ‘holy unsameness,’” Notre Dame is irregular but intricate. And it took far longer than eight years to build. It hearkens back to centuries of Christian cultural dominance, to a premodern era when Europe was increasingly ascendant in the world and its self-confidence was high.

It’s pretty clear where Mr. Weigel is going with the analogy. A Catholic theologian who authored the acclaimed biography of Pope John Paul II “Witness to Hope” — and perhaps the leading lay American Catholic theologian — Mr. Weigel thinks the culture of La Grande Arche is responsible for Europe’s confusions. He also thinks a resurgence of the Christianity that Notre Dame represents could cure many of its ills — the cultural ones primarily, but also some political ones. Before Mr. Weigel is written off as a theocrat, it’s worth examining the argument in detail. It has many compelling aspects and is worth the time of people who might otherwise ignore his book.

To begin with, although Mr. Weigel the theologian must necessarily look askance at a starkly secular Europe, his primary goal in “The Cube and the Cathedral” is to examine whether Europe’s postmodern culture is compatible with traditions of democracy and human rights in Europe, and whether some modernized Christendom could in fact offer things Eurosecularism cannot. This question is nowhere on the radar in modern European thought, but it surely deserves to be. The reason is that Christianity has contributed more to democracy and human rights in Europe in recent decades than Eurosecularism, which if anything, has sided with antidemocratic forces and excused the horrors of governments that abuse rights.

The biggest victory on the Christian side of the ledger is the great anticommunist efforts of the Catholic Church. In the most dramatic example, in its support for Solidarity in Poland, the Church proved a critical front in anticommunism. Indeed, Solidarity benefited immensely from ties to underground Catholic anticommunism and initiated the revolt against Soviet rule which eventually freed Eastern Europe from communism. Mr. Weigel takes the argument farther than most when he writes that the Roman Catholic Church “has become arguably the world’s foremost institutional promoter of the democratic project.” But there can be little doubt the Church has been a key defender of democracy and human rights in the face of tyranny.

What did secular Europe do in the meantime? First, it excused communism. Then it placed its hopes in antidemocratic institutions in Brussels and elsewhere two or three steps removed from actual European voters. As regards communism, Mr. Weigel is unsparing. “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 anodyne observation that it ‘didn’t work’?” he asks, without any good answers except that European culture now seems incapable of recognizing bad political ideas for what they are.

As regards Brussels and supranational institutions, Mr. Weigel is nearly as harsh. “The Continent has wandered into a postpolitical wilderness in which the authority to settle virtually all the hard issues has been delegated to transnational courts and the Brussels bureaucracy.” Mr. Weigel literally thinks Europeans have gone soft, or perhaps mad. “Hand in hand with this arrangement of public life — itself the by-product of statism and a softer form of socialism — goes a (sometimes cheerfully) nihilistic attitude toward the idea of any transcendent standard of judgement (or justice) by which public life is to be ordered,” he writes.

Mr. Weigel’s hope seems to be that European elites could at the very least let go of their “Christophobia,” as he puts it, and stop strangling traces of Christianity out of public life. “It took a long time for the people who built the cathedral to articulate, from within their own religious convictions, a persuasive, compelling case for democracy. But they have done that.” Now it’s time for European elites to let Christians be Christian, and to stop egregious instances like the EU’s barring of the distinguished Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione for the sole reason that he is a committed Catholic. Mr. Weigel’s analysis is likely to provoke. Whatever one thinks of it, it’s certainly clear that bad things have arisen on the Eurosecularist watch. And it’s also clear that Europe could benefit if it ceased being ashamed of its traditional culture and religion.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide