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Issue Date:  May 6, 2005

By George Weigel
Basic Books, 224 pages, $23
The cultural roots of democracy

Reviewed by MARK S. MASSA

In his brief but predictably provocative book published this spring, George Weigel poses a decisive dilemma for his readers: “Choosing the future means confronting, honestly, the relationship between the cube and the cathedral.” The cube he refers to is the “Grande Arche de la Defense” -- the 40-story white marble building housing France’s ministry of defense that stands at the opposite end of the Champs Elysées from Notre Dame Cathedral. Indeed, the “cube” towers over Notre Dame, and the latter (“towers and spire included”) can fit comfortably inside that great arch. But that fact gives Mr. Weigel pause, leading him to wonder in the opening of his book, “Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundation of democracy? The culture that built this stunning, rational, but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the asymmetries and holy ‘unsameness’ of Notre Dame?”

Mr. Weigel pursues this question of “which culture?” to take up some important issues that emerged in the process of drafting and ratifying the new constitution for the European Union. The author notes that in the initial draft of that constitution, debated in the summer of 2004, a fierce controversy broke out about whether the preamble to the document should make any reference to Christianity in citing the sources of Europe’s distinctive culture. In that draft, the roots of contemporary European civilization (“its commitments to democracy, human rights and the rule of law”) were located in the continent’s classical civilization and in the Enlightenment, but “1,500 years of Christian influence on the formation of what is now Europe went unremarked.”

Mr. Weigel notes that even the ex-communists who composed the Polish government vigorously opposed this omission, as did the notoriously anticlerical Italian government. But when Pope John Paul II voiced the fear that such an omission risked squandering Europe’s prime patrimony, Olivier Dahumel of the French Chamber of Deputies observed that any mention of God or Christianity in the document would be “absurd,” while a former deputy prime minister of Sweden opined that such an inclusion would be a “joke.”

In Mr. Weigel’s estimation, the ferocity of this opposition to acknowledging any role for Christianity in the formation of that cultural constellation now known as “Europe” suggests something far more troubling than historic French laïcité; a passion for inclusivity in a Europe with increasing numbers of Muslim and non-Christian citizens; or even a predictable end result of the protocols of secularism. Rather, a closer reading of the debate surrounding the preamble leads the author to the conclusion that in the minds of many Europeans, “Christianity was not simply a non-factor in the development of contemporary European public life; Christianity was (and is) an obstacle to the evolution of a Europe at peace, a Europe that champions human rights, a Europe that governs itself democratically.”

But Mr. Weigel also believes that these intra-European debates (leading to an “exhausted and imploding Europe”) might have profound ramifications for the United States as well: He fears that such historical amnesia regarding Europe’s Christian roots poses both medium- and long-term threats to America’s security. The “demographic meltdown” now underway in which Europeans are failing to reproduce themselves, “coupled with the radicalization of Islam that seems to be a byproduct of some Muslims’ encounter with contemporary, secularized Europe,” might well lead to a reversal of the famous defeat of the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683. “The Europe of the 22nd century, or even the late 21st, [might be] a Europe increasingly influenced, and perhaps even dominated, by militant Islamic populations, convinced that their long-delayed triumph in the European heartland is at hand.” Such an eventuality -- in which increasing numbers of “Europeans” not devoted to, or influenced by, Europe’s Christian patrimony but nonetheless inheritors of the continent’s immense economic resources -- could have dire political (and even military) implications for the Christian-inspired democracies of North America.

Mr. Weigel is a past master at penning lively and lucid studies of contemporary issues, but this reviewer found a number of problems, both historical and theological, in the book’s argument that make it less than compelling.

First, the author poses John Paul II as exemplar of those riches of the Catholic tradition that represent the true roots of the European Union’s contemporary devotion to respect for freedom, democracy and the possibility of true multicultural dialogue. John Paul II needs no apologia from Mr. Weigel (or anyone else) for his crucial role in the victory of freedom and democracy in Eastern Europe, and even perhaps in making the European Union itself a reality. But contemporary Christian historians must also allow that John Paul II’s devotion to freedom of conscience, political liberty, democracy and religious dialogue between Catholics and people of other faiths represents a late-20th-century exception to much of the history of papal thought on these issues: Pius IX, Pius X, Pius XI and Pius XII all come immediately to mind as having offered -- well, let us say different answers to these questions. Indeed, with perhaps a furtive vote of thanks to Voltaire, most Catholic church historians would be the first to confess that much contemporary European dis-ease about mixing god-talk with politics proceeds not only from the lamentable acids of secularism or from the dark underside of the Enlightenment, but from an infallibly correct read of European history.

It was the likes of Voltaire who produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man while Roman pontiffs were penning the likes of the “Syllabus of Errors,” which condemned precisely such devotion to freedom of conscience that the declaration espoused. While Catholic Christianity certainly did come to such democratic and humanitarian principles, it did so comparatively late, and after a number of unpleasant (and violent) efforts to halt the spread of such principles. To read the figure of John Paul II backward as a complete historical embodiment of Christianity’s patrimony to contemporary European politics and culture is thus problematic, at best.

Further, the author seems to understand North American Christianity as simply one of those things “brought over on the Mayflower” from Europe, making the contemporary European debate about the public role of Christianity in politics and culture somehow emblematic of analogous tensions in the American public square -- the latter topic being something Mr. Weigel has written on extensively and often brilliantly. But it was the great Protestant tradition of separation of church and state that allowed North American Catholicism not only to flourish but to build one of the most extensive networks of Catholic educational and health care institutions in the Catholic world. Having 21st-century Europe follow the example of 18th-century Protestant America in celebrating the separation of church and state might well lead to the kind of religious flourishing in “Old Europe” that the author himself would like to see.

Jesuit Fr. Mark S. Massa is professor of theology and codirector of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2005

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