It’s a complicated thing, identifying the source of a society’s ills. But in Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, a short book, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and Marcello Pera (a philosopher and president–not, unfortunately, king–of the Italian senate) succeed in presenting a sweeping analysis of the fundamental problem facing Europe, and an equally sweeping outline of the solution.
There’s obviously something the matter with Europe. Most of the manifestations of this problem somehow involve Islam; but it would be a mistake to suppose that the problem’s source is solely something external, a confrontation with a hostile and foreign culture. After all, Europe cannot bring itself even to admit, never mind do anything about, the fact that its own culture has been rejected by, and is incompatible with, that of radical Islamism.
European society stands for nothing if not for acceptance and tolerance. Unfortunately, it is confronted with an enemy that seeks to destroy it for that very reason; so it would be wise to look to the foundations of this tolerance. Ratzinger and Pera agree that Europe is crippled by relativism, and that its inability to respond to attacks from radical Islam is only a symptom of this widespread disease. If relativism is the justification for tolerance, then Europe is in quite a predicament–for cultural relativism, posing as multiculturalism, does not permit criticism of a militant Islamic culture, which is a culture that Europe simply cannot uncritically accept.
Why would European society embrace a relativism that seems sure to entail its downfall? Because it does not see how truth and tolerance can be compatible. As Pera writes, “[The West] is paralyzed because it does not believe that there are good reasons to say it is better than Islam. And it is paralyzed because it believes that, if such reasons do indeed exist, then the West would have to fight Islam.” While Pera points out the fallacies of this complex of attitudes, Ratzinger argues that Europe can rid itself of these misconceptions only through an acknowledgment of its Christian roots.
Disentangling the church and the state–or, to put it more abstractly, distinguishing between the realm of faith and the realm of reason–has long been a central concern of Western civilization. (As Ratzinger points out, it was in the fifth century that Pope Gelasius I made the distinction to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I.) And it is rightly seen as essential to the political freedom that has allowed the West to flourish. Nevertheless, although the separation of church and state is a given in modern Europe, the intellectual underpinnings of the separation remain open for discussion.
The state is but one element of society, and it cannot survive on its own. While the state must protect certain rights, it neither grants nor creates them. The state’s work depends on the belief of its citizens in the dignity of the human person, a belief that finds its roots in faith and religion. The destructive tendency of the last century has been for the state to establish itself as society’s highest authority, and to reject this prior belief. The result has, often, been a dictatorship–most recently, what Pope Benedict calls the dictatorship of relativism.
So is the solution to Europe’s woes an established civil religion? Yes, thinks Pera. Nothing manufactured, though, Ratzinger says: “Such a religion can obviously not be built by experts, since no committee or council, whoever its members, can possibly generate a global ethos. Something living cannot be born except from another living thing.” He goes on to emphasize the importance of “creative minorities”–citizens whose sincere religious beliefs animate the entire society.
Over the centuries, the West has grown in its understanding that the state must respect and protect the freedom of conscience of its citizens. It now seems to believe that this freedom can be guaranteed only if Christianity is renounced, and relativism embraced. But there is no reason why this must be so–on the contrary, few institutions are as forthright in defense of the freedom of conscience as the Catholic Church. For Europe, there need be no contradiction between acknowledging a dependence on Christianity and recognizing the freedom and tolerance the state must show in questions of religion. The roots of Western belief are Christian: It is this specific faith that has informed Western society’s belief in the transcendent value of the human person. Cut off from these roots, the West will find it hard to avoid sinking deeper into a nihilistic, and deadly, relativism.
–Maximilian Pakaluk is an associate editor at NRO.