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To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Rewriting History by Law is Stalinist

During his November 2007 visit to Spain, EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies George Weigel was interviewed by Miguel Gil for the Spanish weekly Epoca. The interview was published in the magazine’s January 11-17, 2008, issue. A translation from the Spanish follows.

Does Islam “fit” in a democratic society?

Muslims who accept religious freedom as a human right, and who accept the institutional separation of political and religious authority in a rightly-ordered state, can certainly “fit” in a democratic society, and indeed can make important cultural contributions to such a society.

Can we —  western civilization — dialogue with Islam?

Yes, but we need to focus the dialogue on Islam’s assimilating the idea of religious freedom as a basic human right,  and on Islam’s acceptance of the distinction of political and religious authority in a democratic state.

Doesn’t that require a new Islam? Isn’t Islam a religion that proscribes a separation between Faith and State?

It requires an Islamic development of doctrine, which might perhaps be analogous to the Catholic development of doctrine on church-and-state that took place between Leo XIII and the Second Vatican Council.

Is such a development possible without a supreme religious authority?

It’s more difficult, but it’s not impossible. Leo XIII created the ecclesiastical conditions for the possibility of a Catholic development of social doctrine on church-and-state, but it was theologians, canonists, and historians who did the intellectual heavy-lifting over the following


For some authors, such as Peter Kreeft, the clash between Islam and the West is partly disguising the true “clash of civilizations,” which is between faith and secularism. Is there something in that? 

I’m unfamiliar with what Dr. Kreeft has written on this, but to be candid, I wouldn’t take much comfort from the fact that states like Saudi Arabia tend to vote the right way on the crazier U.N. resolutions about the family, marriage, abortion, etc.

Would you agree with more severe measures against Iran’s nuclear program?

An Iran that is not developing nuclear weapons and is running its internal affairs according to accepted international human rights standards can be an important economic and culture actor in the world. The key to getting that kind of Iran is a change in Iranian regime, and that’s primarily the responsibility of the Iranian people. It would be extremely imprudent to doubt, however, that the current Iranian regime covets nuclear weapons.

Do you think that, in Europe, some governments are confusing “the separation of church and state” by attacking the Catholic Church’s efforts in the public sphere?

The institutional separation of church and state — which is good for the Catholic Church — cannot mean the separation of religious and moral conviction from public life. It is profoundly undemocratic to tell people of faith that they can’t bring the deepest sources of their moral convictions — religious sources — into public life.

Is there a remedy for the European social democratic consensus?

Reality, especially demographic reality, is providing a remedy — or should be, if Europeans will look at the numbers.

You were recently in Spain. What do you think of our political situation? 

I was deeply impressed by the hospitality extended to me, but I must say that I found the political situation very difficult. The attempt to rewrite history and human nature by law [as the present Spanish government is doing with its “Law of Historical Memory” and its legislation on gay marriage and gender-change] is, in a word, Stalinist.

Is the modern state substituting itself for religion in a secularized age?

The state exists to serve society. When the state becomes the master of society, the proper balance is missing, and the drift to authoritarianism is strong. Democracy, understood as a system of procedures, is dependent on democracy, understood as a way of life: a culture, a set of moral understandings. The proceduralist account of “democracy” cannot give strong answers to the question, “Why be democratic, civil, tolerant?” Those answers have to come from elsewhere, from religion and philosophy and culture.

Does secularization make people identify the positive law as the ultimatesource of moral legitimacy?

There is a long tradition in Europe of legal positivism — the notion that the law is what the black-letter law says it is, period — and insofar as I can tell, that tradition antedates Europe’s secularization. Still, I’d argue that continental Europe needs to  think again about the relationship of the natural moral law to positive law, and about the Anglo-Saxon idea that the  “common law” tradition is the intellectual matrix of positive law.

In Spain, for instance, the current government considers that positive law is the only source of moal legitimacy in society. That’s why the government doesn’t tolerate criticism of its legislation on “gay marriage”…

If the current Spanish government doesn’t recognize that “marriage” has a meaning embedded in history and in human nature that the state must respect, then the people of Spain should find themselves a new government.

As the biographer of John Paul II, what similarities do you find between John Paul and his successor, Benedict XVI?

They are both men of the Second Vatican Council, deeply committed to the new evangelization in the third millennium of Christian history. They are both men deeply familiar with modern European thought, and eager to engage in a genuine dialogue of cultures.

How would you summarize the legacy of John Paul II to a non-believer?

John Paul II demonstrated to the world the courage to be human.

And his legacy as as a “geopolitical agent”?

He showed how the courage of one’s conviction — if those convictions are firmly grounded in the truth — can change the course of history and “geopolitics.”

Does the United States have the same “background problems” as Europe?

The problem of aggressive secularism and moral relativism is obvious in American high culture and on the American political left.

What , in your opinion, are the roots of European anti-Americanism?

I tried to explore these in a small book, The Cube and the Cathedral. To be desperately brief: Europe is a post-Christian society; America isn’t. So we think about democracy in different ways, and we see the world differently — both of which differences tend to make Europe nervous, in terms of policy but also at a very basic level of political culture.

Does the United States incarnate the true European ideal today?

A lot that moved across the Atlantic has been improved in the process, but I would be the first to acknowledge that the American ideal of the free and virtuous society has deep European roots.

Can we speak of a Catholic-Protestant alliance against “liberal culture” [i.e, secularist culture] in the United States? Who’s winning?

I wouldn’t call it that, but I do think the forces in defence of moral reason are better organized, more culturally assertive, and more politically effective in the United States than in Europe.

What’s your forecast for the 2008 elections?

A new president will be elected. Beyond that, I don’t have a prediction.

What would be your ideal Republican ticket?

I don’t do tickets.

On balance, what’s your judgment of the Bush Administration?

The Bush Administration got the Big Questions right, and history will eventually acknowledge that. The implementation of policy has been not-so-well-done, and American public diplomacy has been miserable. But on the Big Questions — jihadist Islam, biotechnology, the imperative of the promotion of liberty — the administration has been admirable.

This article was originally published on Islam|jihad


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