November 9 marked the 21st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet if the open-borders Europe of the Schengen agreement is no longer divided by concrete walls, barbed-wire fences, and sandy death-traps, 21st-century Europe remains deeply divided nonetheless. Evidence of the depth and nature of that division was plentiful before and during the recent anniversary.
On the night of November 9 (which is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938 and the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923), Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian president of the European Union Council (and thus, by some reckonings, “president of Europe”), spoke in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum on the challenges facing European democracy in the 21st century. Three days earlier, in a homily at the venerable Spanish pilgrimage shrine of Santiago de Compostela, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a similar set of questions: Where will Europe find the civilizational energy to fuel its future as a distinct cultural enterprise? What, in fact, is “Europe”? Is it a set of pragmatic arrangements for mutual economic benefit? Or do its political and economic institutions express something like a common civilizational community? And if the latter is the case, then what are the sources of that community’s values and identity?
The answers given by Van Rompuy and Benedict could not have highlighted more sharply the different roads down which Europe might travel.
The Belgian’s speech was not without a certain comic quality, doubtless unintended. Van Rompuy fretted at some length about a new “Euro-skepticism,” which he identified with such anti-democratic forces as resurgent nationalism and populism — rather ignoring the fact that some Euro-skeptics would point to the completely undemocratic process by which Van Rompuy became “president of Europe” as one source of their skepticism about the project being imposed on them from Brussels. As for the new nationalism, the man whose own country threatens to splinter along linguistic fault-lines between its Flemish and Walloon segments, Belgian “nationality” being somewhat attenuated these days, condemned a nationalism that “is often not a positive feeling of pride of [he meant “in”] one’s own identity, but a negative feeling of apprehension of [he meant “about”] the others” (tell that to the citizens of Flanders and Wallonia). This “feeling all over Europe,” could, he warned, lead to war — although, given current European levels of defense spending, one might wonder what such a war would be fought with.
But it was Van Rompuy’s flaccid attempt to define the ethical sources of the new Europe’s identity that rang most hollow:
Alongside diversity — and diversity is certainly a strength of our societies — we still need, in each of our societies, a sense of unity, of belonging together. This sense of unity can lie in shared values; or in a language, a shared history, a will to live together. . . . And this will springs above all from the stories we tell each other.
Think of the ancient Greeks: The stories of Homer created bonds through the centuries. They have us spell-bound tonight. It can be the stories of war and peace, or Olympic exploits or saint-like sacrifice, of a prison stormed or a Wall which came down.
Such stories do what a treatise on “values” cannot achieve: They embody “virtues” in an understandable way, virtues shown by men and women in real situations. Courage, respect, responsibility, tolerance, a sense of the common good.
To keep such European virtues alive, to transmit their age-old qualities to our children and grandchildren, that will be one of the great challenges for the future.
Here is the post-modern theory of the triumph of “narrative” run so far amok that it becomes self-parody. Putting aside the question of whether, on present demographic trends, there will be all that many “children and grandchildren” to whom to tell stories of Attic courage, or the figure-skating gold medals of Sonja Henie, or the fall of the Bastille, or the breaching of the Berlin Wall, Van Rompuy’s European Story Hour is just that: a disconnected conglomeration of “narratives” telling no one compelling tale. Or if there is a tale here, it is, pace the Thane of Cawdor, a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Earlier in his address, Van Rompuy, with a nod to the Pergamon Museum’s antiquities collections, attempted a measure of eloquence about “the Gods of Olympus, before us and behind us, [who] take us to Greek civilization . . . with its temples, fountains, libraries, and theaters” (but not, apparently, its polytheism, paganism, slavery, exposure of unwanted children, and violence). Now, to be sure, no one who cherishes the civilization of Europe could deny the crucial importance in the formation of the modern West of truths first discerned in classical antiquity. What President Van Rompuy seems to have forgotten is that the best of classical civilization was preserved and refined, not by the Gods of Olympus (a rather rum lot to appeal to in defense of democracy!) but by the followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, who saved classical antiquity in the scriptoria and libraries of monasteries founded during the so-called Dark Ages.
This is not a point, however, that has ever been lost on Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, who took his papal name in no small part to honor the founder of European monasticism — one of the saviors of the riches of classical civilization.
In his homily at Santiago de Compostela, Benedict offered a far more richly textured vision of Europe’s civilizational foundations than Herman Van Rompuy managed. Unintentionally responding to (and rebutting) the European Council president’s encomium to the “Gods of Olympus,” Benedict drew his congregation’s attention to the Biblical author of the Book of Wisdom, who was “faced with a paganism in which God [or the gods] envied or despised humans” and who countered that Greek imagery with a question: “How could God have created all things if he did not love them, he who in his infinite fullness has need of nothing? Why would he have revealed himself to human beings if he did not wish to take care of them?” The men and women of the 21st century, the pope continued, “cannot live in darkness, without seeing the light of the sun. How is it, then, that God, who is the light of every mind, the power of every will and the magnet of every heart, be denied the right to propose the light that dissipates all darkness? That is why we need to hear God again under the skies of Europe.”
But according to the broad-gauged Benedict XVI, the voice of the God of Jews and Christians is not the only voice to which a revitalized Europe needs to attend, even if He is, to vary the medievals, the First Voice. To be sure, as the pope said, “Europe must open itself to God, must come to meet him without fear and work with his grace for that human dignity which was discerned in her best traditions.” But Europe must also reclaim the fullness of the riches of her civilizational patrimony: “not only the Biblical . . . but also the classical, the medieval, and the modern, the matrix from which the great philosophical, literary, cultural, and social masterpieces of Europe were born.” Thus “the Europe of science and technology, the Europe of civilization and culture, must be at the same time a Europe open to transcendence and fraternity with other continents, and open to the living and true God, starting with the living and true man.”
In 2003–04, as the preamble to the European constitutional treaty that eventually came a cropper was being fiercely debated, the burning question was whether the Christian (or, more broadly, Biblical) sources of contemporary European commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law could be acknowledged. The final answer was “No,” as the preamble cited classical civilization, the Enlightenment, and modern thought as the bases of the civil and tolerant Europe the constitutional treaty was to govern. Judging by his Berlin speech, Herman Van Rompuy would likely agree with that omission — or at least he wouldn’t fight very hard to rectify it. But Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, would certainly not accept it, for he knows that to deny the culture-shaping influence of Biblical religion on Europe (including Europe’s medieval reception of the classical heritage, as well as the debates generated by the Enlightenment and modern thought) is to perform an act of cultural self-lobotomization in the service of falsifying historical memory — and to do so in the name of an arid secularism that has no power to tell Europeans why they should be civil, tolerant, and law-abiding.
Herman Van Rompuy may sense, however dimly, that the Europe of the 21st century needs something more than the allure of the welfare state to sustain itself — not least because that welfare state is about to crash into a fiscal wall. One may doubt, however, whether the “Gods of Olympus” will fill contemporary Europe’s transcendence gap. Those interested in resolving that dilemma are more likely to find creative and historically nuanced answers in Rome than in Brussels, and from a Bavarian theologian rather than a Belgian politician.
– George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. His new book is The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — the Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Doubleday).