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The Cathedral and the Cube: Reflections on European Morale

At the far western end of the magnificent urban axis that runs from the Louvre down the Champs Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe, crossing the Seine at the Pont de Neuilly, is the Grand Arch of La Défense—one of the “great projects” of the late French president François Mitterrand. Designed by Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, a Danish architect of sternly modernist sensibility, La Grande Arche is a colossal open cube: almost forty stories tall, 348 feet wide, faced in glass and in 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble.

On a hot, sunny afternoon—which is when I first saw it some seven years ago—La Grande Arche is, quite literally, dazzling. An elevator, definitely not recommended for anyone inclined to vertigo, whisks the visitor up to a rooftop terrace, which offers an unparalleled view of Paris, past the Tuileries to the Louvre and on to the Ile de la Cité, Sante Chapelle, and Notre-Dame.

The arch’s three-story-high roof also houses the International Foundation for Human Rights. For Mitterrand intended the Grand Arch as a human-rights monument, something suitably gigantic to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Thus, in one guidebook I consulted, La Grande Arche was nicknamed “Fraternity Arch”; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.

This prompted a question as I walked along the terrace admiring one of the greatest of the world’s cityscapes. 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?

Over the past year and a half, the same question has come back to haunt me time and again. I thought about it when so much of Western Europe’s political leadership opposed the liberation of Iraq—in the French case, out of a particularly disturbing combination of avarice, folie de grandeur, and anti-Americanism; when I read the astonishing poll, commissioned by the European Commission, which revealed a majority of Europeans to be of the view that Israel and the United States were the world’s greatest threats to peace; when, following the terrible events in Madrid on March 11 of this year, Spain’s democratic electorate in effect recused itself, pleading only to be left alone by the forces of international terror; and especially as I followed the debate over whether the preamble to the proposed new European constitution should acknowledge the Christian sources of European culture.

These phenomena are related, and understanding them requires something more than a conventional analysis of Europe’s power-deficit as measured against the United States. Political answers alone cannot explain Europe’s current political crankiness, whether over the processes and structures of European integration or over the war against terrorism. Nor can political answers alone explain the most salient fact of European reality—the fact, that is, that Western Europe is committing demographic suicide, its far-below-replacement-level birthrates creating the vacuum into which Islamic immigrants are flowing in increasing numbers, often becoming radicalized in the process.

The question for Europe is one of cultural and civilizational morale. And over it, to return to my rooftop meditations at La Grande Arche, may well hover the choice between the cathedral and the cube.

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On May 1 of this year, ten new members-Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, and the Greek section of Cyprus—were formally admitted to the European Union, bringing the full membership to 25. EU expansion, another step toward ending the artificial cold-war division of Europe into “East” and “West,” has also set in motion a lengthy process of drafting the EU’s first constitution. The process has not been without its share of acrimony and political horse-trading, as old and new members alike have struggled to find a method of collective decision-making that will protect small states while acknowledging the contributions of the more populous nations to the EU’s coffers; a meeting scheduled for this month will see still another effort to create a weighted voting formula acceptable to all 25 members.

At the same time, another issue, to which I have already alluded, has set off a fierce controversy in Europe but received remarkably little attention in the United States. The question is this: should the new constitution, whose preamble cites the sources of Europe’s distinctive culture, make any reference to Christianity? In the current draft, that question has been answered with a resounding no. The 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.”

The Polish government (largely composed of ex-Communists) has protested this omission; so has the Italian government, and so did the previous Spanish government. Pope John Paul II, whose support for the EU may have been decisive in Poland’s national referendum over joining the body, devoted many addresses to the subject last summer, arguing at one point that “the Christian patrimony of [European] civilization . . . must neither vanish nor be disregarded.”

In the European public square, however, these are minority voices. Last September, President Jacques Chirac of France made his government’s position clear: “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.” Chirac’s laïcité was taken a step farther by Olivier Duhamel, a Socialist member of the French Chamber of Deputies, who warned against any mention of God or Christianity on the grounds that this would amount to excluding Muslims, other non-Christians, and atheists from the political community of the new Europe.

The same note was sounded by Linda McAvan, a British Labor member of the European parliament, who decried the potential offense to “those many millions of different faiths or no faith at all.” Sweden’s largest daily likewise editorialized against any such move, while Lena Hjelm-Wallen, a former deputy prime minister of Sweden and a member of the European constitutional convention, greeted as little more than “a joke” the news that her country’s Christian Democrats actually favored some recognition of the Christian sources of European civilization. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France who is now the president of the constitutional convention, summed up the case in these blunt terms: “Europeans,” he noted, “live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role.”

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As a matter of empirical fact, Giscard is mistaken; over half of the people in the EU live in countries with established churches or countries that formally acknowledge God in their constitutions. What is undeniably true, however, is the extraordinarily low level of Christian practice in Western Europe today. For anyone inclined to Giscard’s view, constitutional nods to God (or, in the case of Ireland, to “the Most Holy Trinity”) must seem little more than vestiges of a past with no relevance to the present—and even less to the future.

Still, the ferocity of the opposition—the rhetoric becomes quite intemperate when the organized gay and “humanist” lobbies weigh in—suggests that more is afoot here than a combination of historic French laïcité, contemporary European secularity, and a supposed passion for social inclusiveness. After all, if the mere mention of a Christian contribution excludes Muslims, Jews, and non-believers, does not the elevation of the Enlightenment exclude Aristotelians, Thomists, and postmodernists who think Enlightenment rationalism had it wrong?

A reading of the draft preamble and the debate surrounding it suggests something else: in the minds of many Europeans, Christianity is not merely a nonfactor in the development of contemporary European public life but has functioned historically as an obstacle to the evolution of a Europe at peace, a Europe that champions human rights, a Europe that governs itself democratically From here it is but a short step to the conviction that even to mention Europe’s Christian heritage is to invite a regression to the intolerance, obscurantism, and fratricide of yesteryear. Ecrasez l’infâme, Voltaire famously advised; crush the (Judeo-Christian) infamy To judge from the debate over the preamble to the proposed European constitution, crushing the “infamy” of Europe’s Christian heritage would seem, as far as many contemporary European politicians and intellectuals are concerned, a necessary precondition to securing the democratic foundations of an enlarged European community. This is why it is so important to argue that nothing of consequence happened in Europe between the ages of Thucydides (or, perhaps, Marcus Aurelius) and Descartes.

In this proposed act of historical repression it is easy enough to see the desire to repress a rather different European history. I am speaking, of course, of the 20th century. For it is not from the alleged dark night of medieval Christianity but rather from the all-too-modern and all-too-secular horrors of Nazism and Communism—from, in other words, its own modernity—that the new Europe has but recently emerged. However the debate over the preamble to the Euro-constitution is ultimately resolved, the debate itself can be seen as yet another aspect of the unspoken and still unmastered confrontation of today’s European elites with the terrible record of modern European history.

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As it happens, the most penetrating analysis of this debate and what it means both for the future of European integration and for European democracy has come not from a European or a Christian but from an Orthodox Jew born in South Africa: Joseph H.H. Weiler, director of the Jean Monnet Center and professor of law at New York University. In a small book, A Christian Europe: An Exploratory Essay (unfortunately available only in Italian and Spanish),1 Weiler challenges Europe’s secularists on grounds of legal and political philosophy: a founding document that deliberately ignores Europe’s Christian roots, he argues, would be, from a constitutional point of view, illegitimate.

As Weiler sees it, constitutions do three things. First, they organize state functions, identifying the responsibilities and boundaries of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Next, they define the relationship between citizens and the state. Finally, they are the repository, the safe-deposit box, of the values, symbols, and ideas that make a society what it is.

It is this third function, Weiler suggests, that Europe’s secularists seem to have forgotten. Historical memory, he writes, is essential for moral community, and no free political community can survive in the absence of shared moral commitments. The draft Euro-constitution acknowledges this, both in its claim that Europe is a continent bearing a distinctive civilization and in its celebration of the particular common values of freedom, tolerance, and equal civil rights. But by denying to Christianity any role as one of that civilization’s “constituting” assets, and any part in the historical evolution or contemporary defense of those same values, Europe’s constitutional framers have put themselves in a self-contradictory position—violating, in effect, the constitution’s declared commitment to tolerance. In doing so, they jeopardize, or even abort, the entire constitutional process.

There can be, then, no constituting something called Europe without consciously incorporating its Christian cultural origins. In Weiler’s view, what an integrating Europe needs is a constitution that protects both “freedom of religion and freedom from religion.” He has in mind something more than a mere acknowledgment that both believers and nonbelievers have equal rights in the political community. As an alternative to a “Europe” built on the model of the French agnostic state—an “Orwellian” (his term) imposition of laïcité in the name of pluralism—Weiler offers the truly inclusive solution adopted by Poland in its post-1989 constitution. He cites from the Polish preamble approvingly:

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 responsibilities with regard to the common good. . .

And so forth. Other commentators have complained for years about the elitist character of the EU’s institutions and decision-making apparatus, charging that the entire Brussels-directed project suffers from a “democracy deficit.” When it comes to the EU constitution, says Weiler, the democracy deficit is in fact a Christian deficit. How to make up that deficit in a “Christian Europe” is a question on which he has quite capacious views:

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 “laïcists,” 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: its Christian heritage, particularly [as understood in] the post-Vatican II era by a pope whose teaching makes him second to none in grasping the situation of contemporary history.

In a forceful reminder to Europe’s contemporary secularists, Weiler points out that the founding fathers of today’s European Union—Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schumann, Jean Monnet—were, to a man, serious Catholics, each of whom saw European integration as a project of Christian civilization. In contrast to their example, the secularist account of the origins of today’s Europe is at best incomplete, a repudiation of “part of the patrimony of Europe for believers and nonbelievers, Christians and non-Christians, alike.” The meanings of that patrimony may be up for debate, but to deny its existence is to play false to democracy itself.

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In what, though, does that patrimony consist? Here, another recent book is especially helpful: Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000.2 In a narrative that ebbs and flows between the grand sweep and the poignant detail, Brown, perhaps best known for his magisterial biography, Augustine of Hippo, fixes one particular image in the reader’s mind. The year is about 700 C.E., and two boys are living several thousand miles apart, one in what is now County Antrim, Ireland, the other in Panjikent, east of Samarkand in Central Asia. Both boys are doing their lessons in copybooks. The former is writing in Latin, in wax on wood; the latter on potsherds, in Syriac. Both are industriously copying the same work, the biblical book of Psalms—trying, in Brown’s words, “to make their own . . . what had become a truly international sacred text—the ‘Holy Scriptures’ of the Christians.”

Brown is hardly the first to have pondered how this remarkable synchronicity of experience came about. One familiar answer was given by Christopher Dawson, the mid-20th-century English “metahistorian” who spent the last decade and a half of his teaching career at Harvard. According to Dawson’s account, Rome was the center of a civilizational enterprise that extended from the British Isles through North Africa and onward to the Syriac-speaking worlds of the Middle East and Central Asia. When Rome’s defensive perimeter collapsed, this vast enterprise was shattered by the forces conventionally known as “the barbarians”—in effect, my Germanic ancestors. Throughout the ensuing “Dark Ages,” what remained of Roman civilization was preserved by monks, who would later sally forth from their cloisters to convert the barbarian hordes. Their greatest success was with the Franks, who subsequently produced Charlemagne, whose Carolingian empire preserved the achievements of Roman civilization and set the foundations for what we now call Europe.

Told in these terms, the high point of the story falls on Christmas day in the year 800, when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III (an event marked to this day by the large red alabaster stone on which Charlemagne knelt, now lodged in the marble floor of the nave of St. Peter’s in Rome). In Charlemagne and Leo, emperor and pope, Rome embraced the barbarians, the barbarians embraced Rome (and, by extension, Athens and Jerusalem), and European civilization stood poised on the cusp of the Middle Ages, its first great moment of flourishing.

Like Christopher Dawson before him, Peter Brown knows that there is no understanding Europe without Christianity. But 40 years of scholarship have persuaded him that Dawson’s storyline—expansion (the Roman Empire), contraction (barbarian invasions and Dark Ages), absorption (Charlemagne)—is too simple. My Weigel ancestors were not, Brown insists, those familiar “Wagnerian figures, with winged helmets, scale-mail breastplates, cloaks trimmed with fur, and baggy trousers.” Rather, they were rural people who interacted commercially and socially with “Romans” along a wide and relatively permeable border that ran straight across Europe, following the line of the Rhine and the Danube. It was a far more various business than Dawson’s account allows.

Still, if there was no center in Dawson’s terms, there was a different kind of center—one that both accounted for the “triumph” and disciplined the “diversity” of Brown’s subtitle. That center was Christianity, or rather what Brown dubs the “inter-connectivity” of Christianity, and it was exemplified in our two 8th-century schoolboys and their copybooks. One was growing up in what would become western Christendom, the other in the Christian East. Both, however, were part of the same cultural enterprise, no matter how much their respective Catholic and Orthodox descendants would deny this fact after the mutual excommunications of 1054 C.E., and no matter how much European secularists would deny it today.

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In the West, the complex encounter between the barbarians and Christianity changed both parties irrevocably. This Brown richly illustrates through sketches of such seminal figures as Gregory the Great, Augustine of Canterbury, Patrick (author of “the first pieces of extensive Latin prose to be written from beyond the frontiers of the Roman world”), Columbanus, Bede, and Boniface. What finally emerged, in the centuries immediately following the close of his narrative in the year 1000, was the distinctive Christian civilization of the High Middle Ages—the civilization that produced the cathedral that stands in contrast to the modernist cube of La Grande Arche.

It was this same civilization that, in resolving certain controversies between the Catholic Church and the public authorities of the day, produced ideas that in the fullness of time would come to be applied to the defense of human rights and to the democratic project. Thus, within 75 years of the end of Peter Brown’s story, Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) was embroiled in the investiture controversy, which had to do with whether the Pope or the emperors would nominate and “invest” bishops—the heads of local churches. It was a theological and canonical argument fraught with historic consequences. Famously, Henry IV knelt in the snow at Canossa, doing penance before the pope; but the same Henry would later drive the same Gregory out of Rome into exile in Salerno, where he died; so the controversy continued. When the political and ecclesiastical dust finally settled, European civilization had absorbed a number of lessons from this early struggle between, to indulge in an anachronism, church and state.

One lesson was that a transcendent moral order stood in judgment on political power; “right” was not simply what people in power declared to be right. Another involved the rudiments of what we call pluralism: the sheer fact of the Church and its claims to authority over men’s lives meant that the emperor (or, later, the state) could not be all-in-all. Politics was thereby de-sacralized; the reach of public authorities was understood to be circumscribed, at least in principle; an anti-totalitarian vaccine was injected into the European bloodstream; and the cultural ground was prepared on which a politics of consent could eventually be built. By the same token, it was paradoxically in the school of Christian culture that Europe learned about the proper dignity of the “secular”: according to the Church, which took this teaching from its Jewish parent, the task for mankind was to humanize the world, which in Christian terms meant learning not to reject but rather to become “at home” in the world, even as one prepared for the world to come.

It takes a deliberate act of willfulness to contend that this rich soil was without nutrients for the Western democratic possibility. The Whig theory of history had it wrong, and so do today’s French intellectuals and political leaders. The democratic project did not emerge, in a kind of political virgin birth, with either the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 in France. Those were indeed turning points in the history of democratic institutions and modern political thought, but the cultural foundations had been laid centuries before. In that sense, Peter Brown and Christopher Dawson, for all that they would have disagreed on precisely how it happened, are agreed on the more fundamental point: there is no apprehending Europe without taking full account of what Christianity taught European man about himself, his dignity, his communities—including his political communities—and his destiny.

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The arguments over Europe’s past, and over the relationship between Christianity and Europe’s democratic present, have a great deal to do with Europe’s future. For there is no denying the grave problems that confront the continent today, including its demographic implosion and its political incapacity. Both are symptoms of a deep crisis of morale.

Let me put this in the stark terms the situation deserves. Yes, there are economic, sociological, psychological, and even ideological reasons why Europe’s birthrates have fallen below replacement level for decades. But the failure to create a human future in the most elemental sense—by creating a successor generation—is surely also an expression of a broader failure: a failure of self-confidence. And to my mind, that broader failure is no less surely tied to a collapse of faith in the God of the Bible. For when God goes—and the death of the biblical God in the European public square is what today’s Euro-secularists seek and have to a significant measure accomplished—so does God’s first command: “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).

In place of its faith in the God of the Bible, European high culture has enshrined various secularist deities: tolerance, pluralism, laïcté, and the rest. But the worship of these substitute gods has drastically lowered Europe’s moral and historical horizon. In domestic affairs, the continent has wandered into a post-political wilderness in which the authority to settle all the hard issues has been delegated to transnational courts and the bureaucracy in Brussels; hand in hand with this arrangement of public life, itself the by-product of statism and a kinder, gentler socialism, goes a cheerfully nihilistic attitude toward the idea of any transcendent order of judgment.

In international affairs, the situation is much the same. Over and above specific disagreements with American policies in the global war against terrorism, one senses an instinctual recoil from, even a horror of, the idea that freedom (as in George W. Bush’s repeated declarations) is a gift from God that must be actively defended, if necessary through the “hard power” of armed force. Unapologetic confessions of religious faith by Americans are dismissed by many Europeans as evidence of fanaticism, xenophobia, and aggression—and thus, in a perverse example of displacement, are made to substitute for the danger that dare not be named: the Islamist enemy that is now inside Europe’s house.

And this is where contemporary European defects intersect dangerously with American concerns for the future, including the future of the Western alliance. Having had to rescue Europe from two lethal political failures in the 20th century, Americans may once have taken comfort in the emergence of a spiritually apathetic Europe. For a while, it seemed that a political culture built on consumerism and womb-to-tomb social security would be less likely to require a further investment of American blood and treasure. But now we know differently. Europe’s loss of faith in the future, embodied in its catastrophic birth rates at home and its posture of cynical appeasement in world affairs, is a danger to the United States, a nation that not coincidentally is still in touch with its own roots in the unique cultural enterprise that arose out of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome.

Joseph Weiler, whose confidence in the power of persuasion is striking, believes that the people of the cube and the people of the cathedral can coexist in a Europe that recognizes the contributions of both. The question he leaves open, a question that touches issues far beyond European constitution-making, is to whom and to what each party can appeal in grounding its commitments to freedom, pluralism, and tolerance. For their part, Europe’s dwindling numbers of Christians do know (in some cases, belatedly) why they need to engage the convictions of others with respect: because it is their Christian obligation to do so. But who, or what, teaches a similar sense of obligation to the people of the cube—the people for whom La Grande Arche represents a great leap forward from Notre-Dame? Who, or what, will teach the Europeans of the future that the democratic values this cube claims to represent are indeed worth promoting—and, especially, worth defending?

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Footnotes

1 The Italian edition, from which I have made the translations below, was published in 2003 by Rizzoli.

2 Second, revised edition. Blackwell, 416 pp., $29.95 (paper).

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About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).




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