National Catholic Register


Is European Ennui Contagious?

Weekly Book Pick

BY John M. Grondelski

July 24-August 6, 2005 Issue | Posted 7/24/05 at 1:00 AM




by George Weigel

Basic Books, 2005

202 pages, $23

To order: (800) 371-1669


The “naked public square” is how, more than 20 years ago, Father Richard Neuhaus described efforts in some quarters of American law and culture to erase religion from our country's public life.

Any manifestation of religion in American civil life, proponents of the naked public square argue, breaches the “wall of separation” between church and state supposedly erected by the First Amendment.

Advocates of the “naked public square” are alive and kicking in Europe, too, often occupying key places in government and the opinion-making circles of both high and popular culture. Last year's debate over whether the proposed constitution of the European Union should include references to God in its preamble, argues George Weigel, is a perfect illustration of this secularist trend.

What does this have to do with everyday life?

America's relations with some countries in Europe, especially during the war in Iraq, have been tense. Lots of ink has been spilled over why. Robert Kagan captured part of the problem when, adapting John Gray's phrase, he argued that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.”

Americans and Europeans do “see the world and world politics…differently,” admits Weigel. The question is: Why?

The answer, according to Weigel, is: It's the culture, stupid. Transatlantic tensions have political and economic components, but neither politics nor economics alone suffices to explain, for example, why a rich and contented Europe is undergoing population implosion. Culture, says Weigel, accounts for many of Europe's most pressing problems: its baby bust, its flight from the rough-and-tumble of politics, its economic enervation, and its wobbly-kneed responses to terrorists.

“History is not simply the by-product of the contest for power in the world,” he writes. “History is certainly not the exhaust fumes produced by the means of production, as the Marxists taught. Rather, history is driven, over the long haul, by culture — by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good and noble; by the expressions they give to those convictions in language, literature, and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.”

Weigel has no doubt that Europe is in the midst of a culture war, in which secularists want to drive religion off the public square and into the sacristy where, given abysmal church attendance, it can die of loneliness. In contrast to America, Weigel argues, the secularists have gotten much further in Europe — a fact that doesn't augur well for the United States.

Why are the stakes in that struggle so critical? Invoking the Christian humanism of Pope John Paul II, Weigel insists that democracy bereft of a transcendental reference must ultimately destroy itself. Absent an opening to something beyond itself, human life closed on itself will be devoured, as Jacques Maritain observed, by the “Minotaur of history.” He shows how the bloody history of the 20th century, where the “culture of death” was born in the run-up to World War I, continues to reap a sorrowful harvest.

Weigel writes with finesse, making even the most complex subjects accessible to all. No Catholic interested in state, society, culture or modern life should miss this book.

John M. Grondelski writes from Warsaw, Poland.