George Weigel, the well-known theologian and papal biographer, has written perhaps his best (and shortest) book, The Cube and the Cathedral (Basic Books, New York, 2005).
His timing could not have been better. With the death of John Paul II, the startlingly apt election of his collaborator Pope Benedict XVI, and the surprising rejection of the ponderously compiled Constitution of the European Community by key member states, Weigel's analysis takes on even greater importance.
Here in America, the increasing chasm between alternative worldviews evidenced by the election of November 2000 and the bitter battles over the confirmation of federal judges shows our need to learn from Europe's lesson. Whatever the outcome, the United States is at most only decades away from taking a decisive turn one way or another — either becoming a largely Christian nation, in keeping with our origins, or following Europe into a radical secularism on its way to obsolescence, overwhelmed by demographic shrinking and immigration.
Weigel offers a penetrating critique of Europe's problems, which grow ever more acute as it proceeds towards demographic extinction of its Christian population, who are being replaced by other ethnic groups, most notably adherents of Islam. A stultifying cradle-to-grave welfare state, producing high unemployment and very slow economic growth, accompanies these demographics.
Then there are the moral problems: accelerating illegitimacy; the gradual disappearance of marriage as an institution through its radical redefinition in the law; the indecency at all levels of the entertainment industry.
In short, Europe has lost its way. Over the next few decades, its influence as a great power may shrink to conform to the reality of its relatively small landmass.
Weigel opens with an observation from his 1997 trip to Paris during World Youth Day. There, two great monuments on the Paris skyline, which could not have differed more in their appearance, struck him. The first was the “Grande Arche de la Defense,” Mitterrand's monument marking the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens. Every guidebook Weigel consulted emphasized that the whole of the Cathedral of Notre Dame would fit comfortably inside the Great Arch.
Clearly, there was an ideological intent behind this image reproduced from guidebook to guidebook — the Enlightenment swallowing and digesting the centuries of Catholic culture that had made France.
Reflecting on the two different inspirations for these monuments, Weigel asked himself, “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?”
This book is the result of the question he posed for himself in Paris.
Of course, Weigel writes as a convinced American Catholic with a tremendous love for all that Europe has meant. Like the great majority of Americans, he is descended from European immigrants. He has traveled throughout Europe, where he is frequently invited to lecture and teach. In addition, he both knew and wrote about arguably the greatest European of the past century, Karol Wojtyla.
At the same time, as a loyal American, Weigel is concerned for the future of the United States, fearing that the United States may follow the road Europe appears to have chosen. This book is motivated in part by his desire to help his fellow Americans avoid Europe's mistakes.
Weigel then turns to “Christophobia” — a term coined by international legal scholar J.H.H. Weiler (himself an observant Jew) to describe a phenomenon clearly prevalent in many parts of Europe, where even a mention of Christ or the Church in private conversation, much less in a public forum, is enough to cut short public dialogue or private conversation. What a contrast with John Paul's ringing proclamation in his first encyclical of Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of man!
Weigel distills from Weiler's work eight components of Christophobia. In somewhat different ways, the reader will see that they also apply to North America, affecting our culture, entertainment, media, government, education, etc.
The first factor is the “20th century experience of the holocaust,” as if the Shoah resulted from a Christian-based anti-Semitism. Second is “the 1968 mindset” that many leaders of that generation took with them as they rose to important positions in government, the universities, and the media. These aging veterans of the spirit of '68 can echo the Ecrasez l'infame (Crush the infamous thing!) of Voltaire in the 18th century, the infamy being Christ and his Church. Third among the components of Christophobia, and more particular to Europe, is “a psychological and ideological backlash to the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe; strangely enough, because the Revolution was largely fueled by Christians reacting against communism as the ‘embodiment’ of secularism, psychological denial followed.”
Fourth on the list Weigel recounts is “continuing resentment of the dominant role once played by Christian Democratic Parties in post-war Europe … in the creation of the Common Market, then the European Community and so forth.”
As can clearly be seen from all of the above, “Christophobia” is part of a massive rewriting of a historical past, which includes the editing out of unruly realities that contradict the secularist interpretation of history. Certainly Europe would be something quite different today if Catholic statesmen such as Charles de Gaulle, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer had not steered post-World War II Europe during the years when the Soviet threat loomed largest over their countries.
The fifth point is “Europe's tendency to parse everything right/left — and then identify Christianity with the right, which is the party (as the left sees it) of xenophobia, racism, intolerance, bigotry, narrowness, nationalism, and everything else Europe must not be.”
Similar name-calling is increasingly pervasive in the United States, with opponents throwing mud recklessly, instead of calmly discussing issues. Next Weigel lists resentment toward Pope John Paul II (now transferred to Benedict XVI) among both secularists and Catholic dissidents.
The popes and the Church are accused of being pre-modern, but as Weigel sagely points out, “The alternative possibility — that John Paul II was a thoroughly modern man with an alternative, and perhaps more penetrating reading of modernity — simply cannot be entertained.”
Seventh among the conditions conducive to Christophobia is that Europeans have been “fed by distorted teaching about European history that stresses the Enlightenment's roots of the democratic project to the virtual exclusion of democracy's historical cultural roots in the Christian soil of pre-Enlightenment Europe. Nothing new here. Since the “Whig” historians began propagating their view of the progress of human history flowing out of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, mainstream historians have basically shrugged off the so called “Dark Ages” and Middle Ages as obscure wasted centuries full of Papist superstition and barbarian warfare.
For the eighth element in Christophobia, Weigel conveys Weiler's suggestion “that the aging children of 1968, now middle-aged and soon to be retired, are upset that, in some cases, their children have become Christian believers.”
Of all his points, this is both the most hopeful and perhaps the least realistic.
The proof of its accuracy will be the presence in 2030 of many Catholic lovers of Christ seriously influencing the culture of a newly reborn Europe.
Weigel concludes his fascinating book by laying out various scenarios for the future. He clearly is pessimistic about Europe, but shows a tremendous desire to be proven wrong. Like many, he sees John Paul II — the very best that Catholic Europe had to offer — as the emblem of hope for possible positive change, particularly as his writings are studied and implemented by the Church in the decades and even centuries ahead.
Meanwhile, every educated, committed Catholic needs to think geopolitically, grappling with the big questions opened up by the world's rapid transition, like it or not, into the “global village” of Marshall McLuhan. Only in this way can we participate fully in the “New Evangelization.”
Maybe this time we will get it as right as it is possible to get anything in our fallen, yet redeemed world.
Reading George Weigel's elegant contribution is a good way to begin.
Father C.J. McCloskey is a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute and a priest of Opus Dei.