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Europe and Christendom

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Writing in the June 2004 issue of Commentary, George Weigel examines the European conflict between the "Cathedral and the Cube." The cube in question is La Grande Arche in Paris, which houses the International Foundation for Human Rights; the cathedral is Notre Dame, visible from the rooftop terrace of the cube. Weigel asks, "Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights and 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 France?"

This issue has been of particular interest of late, as the nations of the European Union has been engaged in a debate about whether or not to acknowledge Europe's debt to Christianity in the new constitution? To this point, the answer is now: "Thw twin roots of contemporary European civilization are identified as the continent's classical heritage ・the draft begins with a citation from Thucydides ・and the Enlightenment, leaving wholly unremarked a millennium-and-a-half of Christian influence on the formation of what is now 'Europe.'" This despite the fact that "over half of the people in the EU live in countries that formally acknowledge God in their constitutions," and in one case (Ireland) explicitly acknowledge "The Most Holy Trinity."

Several governments ・Poland and Italy in particular ・have pressed for the constitution to include some reference to Europe's Christian inheritance, but the majority view has been captured by comments from French leaders. Jacques Chirac has argued that "France is a lay state, and as such it does not have a habit of calling for insertions of a religious nature into constitutional texts." Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, broadened the point: "Europeans live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role."

Weigel gives a brief summary of what he calls "the most penetrating analysis of this debate and what it means both for the future of European integration and for European democracy," Joseph H.H. Weiler's A Christian Europe: An Exploratory Essay (published in Italian and Spanish). Weiler is "an Orthodox Jew born in South Africa," but presents the argument that "a founding document that deliberately ignores Europe's Christian roots . . . would be, from a CONSTITUTIONAL point of view, illegitimate." One function of constitutions, Weiler argues, is to express the shared moral commitment of a political entity that are also an expression of the culture's historical memory. Weiler suggests that Europe needs a constitution that both protects "freedom of religion and freedom from religion," similar to the Polish constitution formulated after 1989, whose preamble includes this statement: "Taking care for the existence and the future of our Fatherland, which recovered the possibility of a sovereign and democratic determination of its own destiny in 1989, we, the Polish nation, all the citizens of the Republic ・both those who believe in God as the font of truth, justice, and beauty, and those who do not share this faith but respect these universal values [as they] derive from different fonts ・equal in rights and responsiblities with regard to the common good."

Weiler's own summary of "Christian Europe" is as follows: "A 'Christian Europe' is not a Europe exclusively or necessarily confessional. It is a Europe that respects equally, in a full and complete way, all of its citizens: believers and 'laicists,' Christians and non-Christians. It is a Europe that, while celebrating the noble heritage of Enlightenment humanism, also abandons its Christophobia and neither fears nor is embarrassed by the recognition that Christianity is one of the central elements in the evolution of its unique civilization. It is, finally, a Europe that, in public discourse about its own past and future, recovers all the riches that can come from confronting one of its two principal intellectual and spiritual traditions."

This prompts several thoughts: First, I believe Weigel's initial question is badly framed. There is a contest between the cube and the cathedral, but the question is not properly which best supports the institutions of European democracy. To frame the question in that manner, it seems to me, necessarily makes "democracy" and "human rights" the leading "faith" which secularism or "religion" are called on to support. For all his insight and vigor and admiration for Christendom, I'm left with the same conclusion about Weigel's thought that I pointed to in Against Christianity, namely, that Weigel is finally an apologist for what I called "Christianity."

Second, and related to this, I don't see that Weiler's "Christian Europe" is a workable alternative. What, after all, is providing the "shared moral commitments" that he says are foundational to any moral community? It cannot be Christianity, since in his model Christian Europe is not confessional and explicitly makes room for "different fonts" of truth, goodness, and beauty. It cannot be secularism, at least in its virulent forms. It seems that he is advocating "democracy and human rights" as the overarching "faith" for Europe, though different individuals and countries might provide different foundations for that faith ・some a religious foundation, some a secular one.

Third, Weigel acknowledges that religious practice has been in decline in Europe for some time, but fails, in my judgment, to see the consequences of that decline. But he points out that the strength of opposition to the inclusion of some reference to Christianity shows that Christianity is far from a "nonfactor in the development of contemporary European public life." This is a fair point. It is striking that what is being debated is NOT whether or not Europe should be Christian, but whether the constitution should make some bow in the direction of Europe's Christian heritage. Yet, Weigel is no doubt correct that including a reference to Christianity in the constitution would be a significant symbolic victory, and provide ground on which to defend Christianity's public role in the future. One has only to recall what secularists have made of the absence of explicit reference to Christianity in the US constitution to see the wisdom of Weigel's argument.

The question that Weigel is addressing, of course, is a real one: How should European society be ordered, given both its Christian heritage and its current largely non-Christian (or at least, not homogeneously Christian) culture? Perhaps a truly pluralistic system is the best that one can work for, given the present circumstances? There is some hope that the intense Christianity of some Eastern European countries will help to tip the balance. But in the end, European Christians would be best served by adopting the program that led to the triumph of the cathedral in the first place ・the program of uncompromising evangelism, bold challenge to idolatry, establishment of networks of ministry, and so on. That program is the only hope, finally, for the cathedral's triumph over the cube.

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, June 10, 2004 at 09:48 AM

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