6 February 2006
Europe, America, and Pope Benedict XVI
Earl Hall Auditorium, Columbia University, New York
1. Three questions
The book we are discussing today – Without Roots – deals with the West and Europe from several standpoints, philosophical, political, historical, religious. It maintains one main view, that the West, and Europe in particular, is passing through a serious state of crisis, both moral and spiritual.
This view is certainly not original, because it has been upheld by many scholars in the recent past, and it is much debated today in the press, in cultural and academic circles, as well as political thinkers and leaders on both shores of the Atlantic. However, to the best of my knowledge, this view has never been argued in such alarming terms as those used by Pope Benedict XVI. To give you an idea, this is what he writes:
«The victory of the post-European techno-secular world and the universalization of its lifestyle and thinking have spread the idea that Europe’s value system, culture, and faith – in other words the very foundations of its identity – have reached the end of the road, and have indeed already departed from the scene» (66)
«There is a clear comparison between today’s situation and the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already subsisting on models that were destined to fail. Its vital energy had been depleted» (66-67).
«[There is] a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological … All that [the] West sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure» (78-79).
I agree with this view, and would like to present and discuss it. In particular, I will raise three questions.
1. What are the symptoms of this crisis?
2. Why is this crisis stronger in Europe than America?
3. What remedies, if any, can we make use of to overcome this crisis? Since the Pope’s view is so authoritative, I will endeavor to answer these questions using his words and then add my own just to support and complete what he says.
2. The symptoms of the crisis
Let me begin with the symptoms of the European crisis. Here are the main ones.
First symptom. Europe refused to mention its Judeo-Christian roots in the Preamble to the European Constitutional Treaty, which failed following the French and Dutch referendums. Regarding Europe’s cultural and spiritual origins, the Treaty adopts two slightly different formulations which were accepted after a long debate and many quarrels. One states that “the peoples of Europe … [are] conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage”. The other refers to the “cultural, religious and humanistic heritage of Europe”. It is patent that both these formulations are extremely poor and deliberately reticent, because neither of them defines exactly what heritage and what religion Europe stems from. The question then is: can Europe unify economically, socially and politically if it lacks the strength even to mention the religious tradition without which it would not even exist? My answer is: no, it cannot.
Second symptom. The Pope states that fundamental human rights, above all the right to the dignity of the person, are neither created nor granted by the State but are recognized by it. This amounts to the general principle that fundamental rights pre-exist law, politics, parliamentary acts and cannot or should not be affected by any political decision. However, this principle, which is widely recognized in Europe, is often violated in practice. As the Pope writes:
«If one considers cloning, the storing of human fetuses for research purposes and organ harvesting, and the whole field of genetic manipulation, no one can fail to have noticed the thread represented by the slow erosion of human dignity» (75).
Third symptom. What role is played by religion in European society? After the wars of religion, Europe slowly attained the separation between State and Church. This separation – which actually stems from the Gospels – is a civil achievement of which we should be proud but about which we should not be confused. It refers to political institutions and their limits, not to human dimensions and their domains. In other words, the separation between State and Church does not imply that religion must be expelled from social life, considered to be only a private affair, and relegated to a “ghetto of subjectivity”. This is however what happens in Europe. Religion is not allowed to express itself in public. As a consequence, religion cannot nourish our civil customs, provide a spiritual ground for our societies or act as a support for our public rules and behavior.
There is something worse. Not only is the principal religion of our tradition, that is the Christian or Judeo-Christian religion, deprived of any significant social role, it is actually discriminated against with respect to other religions. As the Pope says:
«In our contemporary society, thank goodness, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great figures must pay a fine. The same holds true for anyone who dishonors the Koran and the convictions of Islam. But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, instead, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good» (78).
The storm spreading these days all over Europe after the publication by a Danish newspaper of a few satirical cartoons about Islam and Muhammad is the best evidence of what the Pope says and is emblematic of how feeble Europe’s religious identity has become. To the best of my memory, no one of those politically correct commentators and leaders who today blame those cartoons has ever before blamed those much more blasphemous publications, movies, TV sketches, commercials about Christianity, Jesus Christ and the Pope himself, and Moses and Rabbis, which are so widespread in Europe. In this case the principle that we have to combine two values – freedom of speech and respect for the people – has rightly been invoked. But does this principle hold good for Islam alone?
The fourth symptom is multiculturalism, that is the view that communities have rights over the individuals. As a result of its declining birth-rate and the growth of immigration, also Europe is becoming an increasingly multicultural society. “However – as the Pope says – multiculturalism cannot survive without common foundations, without the sense of direction that is offered by one’s own heritage” (79). Instead, in Europe, multiculturalism “sometimes amounts to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own heritage” (79). This means that Europe no longer knows where it comes from, who it is, and what it wants to be.
The fifth symptom is relativism. When applied to politics, relativism is the doctrine that every culture, every civilization, every form of life is as good as any other and there is no way of considering it better than any other. In that cage of hypocrisy that goes by the name of “politically correct language”, the term “better” is applied at best to cuisine, works of art, fashion but not to political regimes. The Pope rejects this way of thinking. He writes:
«Political correctness … seeks to establish the domain of a single way of thinking and speaking. Its relativism creates the illusion that it has reached greater heights than the loftiest philosophical achievements of the past … I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition by a new pseudo-enlightenment, which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion» (128).
The sixth, and final, symptom that I will mention is a consequence of the fifth. It is pacifism. If cultures or civilizations are incommensurable because each of them have their own standards, therefore, if European Christian civilization is as good as any other, because it has no intrinsic special merits, why use force to defend it? Before even French President Jacques Chirac unexpectedly announced that nuclear weapons could be used against terrorist states – a view not different from President Bush’s theory of preventive war – many European political leaders and the majority of intellectuals had brought back Kant’s old theory of “perpetual peace” as if this ideal state of affairs were really attainable.
Not all. Europe has developed a sort of “guilt-syndrome”. If Islamic terrorists have declared a jihad against us – many intellectuals and political leaders still argue – they must feel resentful towards us. If they feel resentful, this must be the result of social and economic inequalities. If such inequalities exist they must be the fault of the West. If it is the fault of the West, it is the fault of the most powerful country of the West, America, because of its economic expansion, military imperialism and cultural arrogance. Ultimately, if the West is guilty of all this – as indeed it is, because it tries to promote and export its own life style as though it were valid for everyone everywhere – then the West deserves everything that happens to it. The conclusion is: it is all our fault. More exactly: it is all America’s fault. Is this way of arguing not also a sign that, according to European culture, there are no longer any values worth defending?
The Pope does not discuss the issue of the war, but in his reply to me he writes:
«You and I are of a single mind in rejecting a pacifism that does not recognize that some values are worthy of being defended and that assigns the same value to everything. To be in favor of peace on such a basis would signify anarchy, which is blind to the foundations of freedom. Because if everyone is right, no one is right» (108).
The total of all these symptoms reveals a serious illness. Europe is going through a crisis of identity. If Europe no longer does not generate enough children, if it does not progress at the desired pace, if it is not competitive, if it is absent from the international scene, if it shuns its responsibilities, this is also a consequence of its moral and spiritual crisis. One who does not know who he is, does not know where to go either. And he who does not know where to go is bothered if his partner presses him to go somewhere in particular. It is also for this reason that Europe gets annoyed with America.
3. Europe and America
This brings me to the second question I raised. Does the crisis of identity affect only Europe or the whole of the West?
The difference between Europe and America cannot be denied. The split is not between Europe-Venus and America-Mars, according to the well-known thesis put forward by Robert Kagan, because these two roles can be exchanged and played alternately. The difference is not even that Europe wants to be multi-polar while America, being a superpower, tends to be uni-polar, because these roles, too, can change according to circumstances.
In my view, the true difference – indeed a deep fracture – is that Europe, unlike America, believes today that a Venus-like world is a state of nature or a natural right, which therefore should never be violated by any unilateral act, no matter what the consequences are. Accordingly, for Europe, multi-polarism is the only way of living in a Venus-like world. It is not without reason that, in Europe’s view, the United Nations is the best institution for dealing with international affairs, no matter how frozen or blocked it is.
The main reason for this difference is, in my opinion, that America is not going through the same crisis of identity as Europe. I do not know whether Chesterton’s famous definition of America still holds today – “a nation with the soul of a church”. I know, however, that no Tocqueville would find in today’s Europe anything akin to what he found in America.
In the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution have a religious foundation, and religion still plays an important role within society. In Europe, after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, this has no longer been the case. Not only have European states become secularized, European society has become de-Christianized. As the Pope writes,
«Europe, unlike America, is on a collision course with its own history. Often it voices an almost visceral denial of any possible public dimension for Christian values» (109).
It follows that, whereas in Europe religion is confined to the private sphere and excluded from public life, in America, as the Pope writes, “the private sphere has an absolutely public character. This is why what does not pertain to the state is not excluded in any way, style or form, from the public dimension of social life” (111).
This has devastating effects on Europe. In the absence of any deep belief, strong faith, spiritual bond, what can we hang on to and how can we justify all those noble values – freedom, democracy, tolerance, respect, fraternity, etc. – which are nevertheless professed by Europeans? If the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is dead and we want to live as though God did not exist, how can we believe in, and devote our destiny to, anything deserving commitment and sacrifice? How can we hope to find an identity, and respect and defend it?
This brings me to my third and final question. What remedies can we use to break free of the crisis of Europe?
4. The remedies
The Pope mentions the role of “creative minorities” and affirms that “Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority” (80). In my contribution to the book I suggest that they should develop a non-confessional Christian civil religion. “Civil” because it should be incorporated in our behavior as social custom. “Christian” because the Judeo-Christian tradition is an undeniable historical fact of Europe. And “non-confessional” because it should unite both believers and non-believers.
The Pope does not reject this thesis, although he makes two conditions: first, that believers and non-believers should be willing to engage in effective dialogue, without any barriers; second, that non-believers should not exclude that the reason they refer to should be open to the religious dimension.
Personally, I think that both points can be accepted. More exactly, I believe that common ground already exists on which it is possible to begin work. This consists of fundamental human rights. The problem raised is: if, as our European constitutions establish, these rights are not created by the state, where do they come from?
The Pope’s answer to this question can only be as follows: “The existence of values that cannot be modified by anyone is the true guarantee of our freedom and of human greatness; in this, the Christian faith sees the mystery of the Creator and the condition of man, who was made in God’s image” (75).
The answer of non-believers cannot refer to Christian revelation. However, if they are willing a) to use the force of reason as their sole basis and b) ensure that these rights are guaranteed to anyone, then it is the non-believers’ duty to develop a rational theory of fundamental rights, that is, a universal anthropology or ethics in which these rights are considered the imprint of every man insofar as he is a man.
From a negative standpoint, this means rejecting many views current today in Europe and also in the United States: ethnocentrism, according to which fundamental rights are an asset pertaining to westerners alone; relativism, according to which they have no rational foundation; conventionalism, according to which they are stipulations that have been agreed upon and embodied in our laws through a political decision; and historicism, according to which they are mere accidental facts due to the development of our material conditions.
On the positive side, the search for rational justifications of fundamental human rights means committing oneself to a research program in which all can and must take part.And in the meantime? In the meantime, I would suggest accepting the exhortation the Pope addressed to non-believers: follow Pascal’s and Kant’s old invitation to live “as though God existed” (velut si Deus daretur). In my view, this is a wise solution as it makes us all morally more responsible. If God did exist, there would be moral limits to my actions, behavior, decisions, projects, laws, and so on.
I will conclude by saying that what the Pope writes in this book can be beneficial to Europe, call America’s attention to the values of its origins, contribute to bridge the gap between the two shores of the Atlantic, possibly unite the West and make the world a better place.
The West does not necessarily have to set itself against other areas of the planet. But if the West loses its identity, it cannot even engage in that dialogue with the other areas of the planet to which it says is committed. For my part, I consider this to be a cultural and political program worthy of being pursued by those creative minorities who are worried about how things are going in Europe, America and elsewhere.
I understand this program is hard and requires real effort, but how can creative minorities, including an Italian senator, hope for a easy life?