(EXCLUSIVE TO CHALCEDON)
How far has “Old Europe” gone down the road to oblivion? And is there any danger that America might follow the same path?
Acclaimed Roman Catholic scholar and theologian George Weigel recently discussed these issues with Chalcedon. Dr. Weigel, the biographer of the late Pope John Paul II, is the author of a new book that has captured wide media attention: The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God. The book addresses the conflict between historic Christianity and aggressive secularism.
Weigel’s most dramatic claim is that contemporary Europe’s spiritual emptiness is responsible for its “depopulating itself in numbers not seen since the Black Death in the 14th century.
“It’s bad enough that Spain will lose approximately 25% of its population by 2050,” Weigel said, “or that Germany by that time will lose the equivalent in population of the former East Germany. What really brings it home is to think that by 2050, 60% of Italians will not know from personal experience what a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle, or a cousin is.”
The Road to National Extinction
For more than a millennium, Europe was “Christendom,” the center of world Christianity. Now it’s so secular that Europe’s Christian heritage is not even mentioned in the European Union constitution. Meanwhile, nations like France, Germany, Spain, and Italy are depopulating themselves.
“As I try to show in The Cube and the Cathedral, Europe’s abandonment of its Christian roots has been going on for more than 150 years,” Weigel said. “The demographic implications of that have only become clear in the past several generations, but the process of ‘de-Christianization’ goes back well into the 19th century, and arguably earlier.”
But why should a loss of belief in God lead to national extinction?
“When a people’s horizon of aspiration is drastically foreshortened,” Weigel said, “the tendency is to turn in on oneself. That makes it difficult to think of one’s life as a life for others. And without that conviction, children are a burden, not a blessing. Given the availability of contraceptive technology, where all that leads has now become obvious.
“The point is that you can’t build a society, much less a ‘civil society,’ unless you have some notion of the good. To drive all normative notions of the good out of public life makes ‘society’ impossible because it makes public debate impossible.”
Can It Happen in America?
Dr. Weigel, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, and is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., has been on tour to promote The Cube and the Cathedral, appearing for interviews on many television and radio shows and granting interviews to many major newspapers and magazines nationwide.
Seeing as much of the United States as he has lately, he expressed more optimism for America’s future than for Europe’s.
Could what has happened to Western Europe happen to America?
“It’s already happening in some parts of the United States, those parts of ‘blue America’ [states that voted for Democrat John Kerry for president in 2004] that bear an eerie resemblance to radically secular Europe,” Weigel said. “There’s also the problem of our federal courts, which seem to want to impose secularism as the national creed.
“But I think the religious convictions of the American people are robust enough, as is American democracy, to keep us from the kind of crisis of civilizational morale from which Europe is suffering today.”
Weigel cited “contemporary Europe’s soul-withering fascination with the state-as-church” as a major cultural difference between Europe and America.
Cube vs. Cathedral
In the title of Weigel’s book, the “cathedral” refers to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which he uses as a symbol of historical Christianity.
The “cube” is a new monument in Paris; la Grande Arche de la Defense is an enormous, featureless, hollow cube, 106 meters high, that towers over the city and is a symbol of secular, atheistic Europe [for a photo of the monument, see http://www.virtourist.com/europe/paris/12.htm].
One cannot help wondering which French military triumphs the cube commemorates, but Weigel sidestepped the issue.
“I’ve beaten up on the French enough and don’t want to do so again,” he said.
“Many Europeans still insist — most recently, during the debate over the new EU constitution — that only a public square shorn of religiously informed moral argument is safe for human rights and democracy,” Weigel said. “Precisely the opposite is true. The people of the ‘cathedral’ can give a compelling account of their commitment to everyone’s freedom. The people of the ‘cube’ cannot.
“Can there be any true politics, any true deliberation about the common good, and any robust defense of freedom, without God?
“No — because, in the final analysis, societies are only as great as their spiritual aspirations.”
Is it too late for Western Europe?
“It’s never too late, although it’s getting much later,” Weigel said. “Europe could be reconverted [to Christianity], and in doing so, Europe would rediscover its civilizational roots.”
Weigel referred to a chapter in The Cube and the Cathedral, “Europe Reconverted,” that proposes means by which Europe might be reclaimed for Christianity.
Many Christian missionaries from Africa are coming to Europe today to re-evangelize the former colonial powers. If they are successful, Weigel wrote, “it will be because of the tremendous evangelical energies Europe poured into Africa in the 19th century.”
European atheism, he said, gave rise to the tyrannies of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism in the 20th century. These oppressive regimes inspired “great Christian witnesses like Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Edith Stein,” whose actions and words continue to resonate throughout Europe today.
At the same time, “new movements of Church renewal sprang to life” in many European countries, “from the world-renowned ecumenical community at Taize in France to such Catholic movements as Focolare [which quietly helped keep Christianity alive behind the Iron Curtain] and Opus Dei [which played an important role in Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy].”
Despite Europe’s recent “history of apostasy — a deliberate, self-conscious detachment of the present and future from Europe’s Christian roots,” Weigel said, there is still hope for what was once Christendom.
Thanks to missionaries from other parts of the world, enduring Christian witness, and ongoing activities by home-grown Christian movements, he concluded, there remains “the possibility that Europe is reconverted and finds within Christianity … the spiritual, intellectual, and moral resources to sustain and defend its commitments to toleration, civility, democracy, and human rights.”
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.