Politics & Policy

Godless Continent

From the April 25, 2005, issue of National Review.

The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, by George Weigel (Basic, 224 pp., $23)

In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Renaissance sage Pico della Mirandola declared that “whatever seeds each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear in him their own fruit.” Elaborating, he provides us with an index by which to measure European man’s predicaments and prospects: “If [these seeds] be vegetative, he will be like a plant. If sensitive, he will become brutish. If rational, he will grow into a heavenly being. If intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God.” Five centuries after Pico, George Weigel offers a bleak report on contemporary Europe’s germinations in his new book The Cube and the Cathedral. In effect, he worries that Europe as a whole is indifferently slipping into vegetable life, while its elites clear away any visions of angels that would interfere with their cultivation of an elegantly Godless Continent.

Weigel contends that Europe’s current demographic and cultural barrenness is the result of a great civilization’s abandonment of its longstanding source of self-comprehension and advancement. This diminution should concern Americans, the book persuasively argues, because the eventual outcome of Europe’s present course could pose profound difficulties for the United States: It would create a sanctimoniously post-Christian world power that would both compete with the U.S. internationally and encourage the ambitions of America’s own domestic secularists.

In Paris in 1997, Weigel visited La Grande Arche de la Défense, a gargantuan, Mitterrand-era glass-and-white-marble cube that houses the International Foundation for Human Rights. It is also, the guidebooks note, large enough to contain the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Weigel finds this contrast highly provocative: “Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights? Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy ‘unsameness’ of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?”

Weigel is best known as the author of the definitive biography of Pope John Paul II and as a leading Catholic thinker on just war and democratic institutions; this reputation forecasts his answers to these questions and, at times, Weigel could be accused of preaching to the choir. Indeed, his argument would be even more formidable if it engaged the ideas of “the people of the Cube” with a greater portion of intellectual sympathy tempering its muscular critiques. Offering as much might open otherwise stuffed ears to this book’s accomplishment: a consistently winning apology for Christianity’s preeminence in the formation of European civilization, an acute diagnosis of the maladies that have followed upon Christianity’s banishment from the European public square, and a clear-eyed brief on Christianity’s vital role in securing a redemptive future for the Continent.

Bland 20th-century architecture might have started Weigel thinking in these directions, but 21st-century constitution-making provokes his passions. A great deal of the book is concerned with the EU’s protracted debate over the inclusion of a reference to its Christian inheritance in the preamble to its constitution. Weigel charges that the marked resistance that was mounted, like the eventual decision in the negative, represents “self-inflicted amnesia” provoked by “Christophobia” among Europe’s elites: their view of Christianity “as an obstacle to the evolution of a Europe at peace, a Europe that champions human rights, a Europe that governs itself democratically.” While rightly irritated at this misjudgment, Weigel skirts the premodern Church’s actual role in Europe’s history of absolutist rule, mentions the “wars of religion” only in passing, and fails fully to address the burden these phenomena have placed upon the Continent’s political development.

He focuses instead on decrying the historical absurdity of the preamble’s citations of Thucydides and the Enlightenment–with nothing in between–as testaments to Europe’s grand heritage. In response to this elephantine silence, Weigel brings a plethora of evidence to bear. The accumulated effect is the correction of a patently artificial divide between Christianity’s bestowals and Europe’s most prized elements: its free institutions, its rich sense of common identity, and its longstanding valuing of freedom and human dignity. Weigel’s proof ranges from St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology to the community-forming effects of Continental pilgrimages, from the direct democracy practiced by Benedictine monks to Pope John Paul II’s thoroughly modern, thoroughly Christian sensibility. Weigel consistently emphasizes that “Christianity taught European man his own dignity” and, in turn, that it proposed to him how best to be responsible and virtuous in forming societies organized to reflect and secure the inherent individual liberty of all. With severe precision, he argues that Christianity’s omission from the EU’s preamble exposes Europe’s abandonment of a morally regulated democratic sensibility for an emptily procedural equivalent.

In the book’s closing chapters, Weigel entertains a series of possible outcomes for Europe. The chances of the EU’s dream of a post-Christian perpetual peace are slim to none; Weigel more realistically predicts that Europe’s various muddles will persist into the foreseeable future. He finds hope for Continental renewal in the still active Catholicism of Central and Eastern European nations, and in a Continent-wide critical mass of energetic Catholic youth rejecting the wayward wobbles of recent generations for the deep reserves of Christian Europe. The darkest possible outcome, according to Weigel, would be “1683 Reversed”: the continued large-scale immigration into Europe of Muslims armed with very different ideas about religion and politics. If current trends continue, these immigrants would encounter a Continent equipped to welcome them with only self-inflicted cultural amnesia, watery pluralism, and mundane humanism. Passion for the crescent would overwhelm indifference to the Cross, and these new Europeans would take charge of a demographic and democratic wasteland.

This last matter suggests most immediately why Americans have a stake in Europe’s future: Though it would take decades for such a situation to develop, a Europe potentially defined from its leadership down by a broadly anti-Western Muslim majority would pose striking civilizational challenges to the U.S. Yet for all his concern and complaint, Weigel refuses to abandon Europe to itself, and he demands the same of his readers–specifically in how we understand our own historical formation. Though patriotic amnesiacs may resist him, Weigel emphasizes that the success of the American experiment owes a great deal to the influence of Old World civilization. While qualifications and refusals of this fact have been made from Emerson’s time through our own, The Cube and the Cathedral makes powerfully clear the self-destructive consequences of squandering one’s inheritance.

Mr. Boyagoda recently completed his Ph.D. in English at Boston University and will be a postdoctoral fellow with the Erasmus Institute at Notre Dame next year.

Randy BoyagodaMr. Boyagoda, a novelist, is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also the principal of St. Michael’s College.


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