George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Their European Problem… and Ours

Let me take you back in your mind’s eye to the fall of 1940, the fateful period that Winston Churchill called Britain’s “finest hour.”

Having subdued the Low Countries and France, Adolf Hitler now turned his attention to the last remaining democratic power in Europe. Hermann Goering convinced Hitler that Britain could be bludgeoned into submission on the cheap, so the Luftwaffe unleashed a fierce aerial blitz intended to break the British will to resist. Night after night, London was in flames. You may remember one of the most famous photographs from those desperate days: a nocturnal silhouette of St. Paul’s Cathedral, its great dome standing strong and unshaken against the smoke and fire swirling through the City of London. That photograph stirs the emotions to this day, because it captures in one brilliant image the struggle of Western civilization against the barbarism that seemed on the verge of overwhelming it.

Now, turn your mind’s eye two generations forward.

About forty-five years after the Blitz, Mikhail Gorbachev, then the newly-chosen general secretary of the Soviet communist party, visited London on one of his first trips abroad. As part of the hospitality extended to Mr. Gorbachev and his party, they were taken to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I recall the story, after touring Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece Gorbachev turned to the Verger, one of the cathedral officials, and said, “A most interesting building. What is it used for today?” To which the Verger replied, “In order, sir, to worship God.”

A decade later, I was in London to lecture and looked up a young Czech seminarian, then studying at Heythrop College, who had been helpful to me when I was doing research in Prague on the Catholic Church’s role in the collapse of European communism. I asked my young friend what he wanted to see, and he mentioned that he hadn’t visited St. Paul’s yet. So we took the Tube to the City and went to the cathedral. To my surprise, I discovered that one could no longer enter St. Paul’s without paying an entrance fee. Yes, Christian worship continued at the cathedral church of the Diocese of London. But, at least on a Saturday afternoon in January 1995, it had been turned into a museum.

These three vignettes — St. Paul’s in defiance of the Nazi blitz, St. Paul’s confounding the leader of Soviet communism, and St. Paul’s become an architectural museum — come to mind when I try to understand what has happened in western Europe, and what has happened to western Europe in recent decades — and when I try to understand why Europe’s approach to democracy and to the responsibilities of the democracies in world politics seems so different from many Americans’ understanding of these issues. In the aftermath of 9/11, and particularly in the debate that preceded the Iraq War of 2003, Americans have become acutely aware that there is a “European problem.” Interestingly enough, so do at least some Europeans, including some European intellectuals, among them at least two prominent French political philosophers.

My proposal in this lecture is that, at its most fundamental level, this “European problem” is best understood in moral and cultural terms. My further suggestion is that the “problem” is our problem, too, as well as one besetting our European friends and allies.

In recent months, the most widely-discussed American analysis of America’s European problem and Europe’s America problem has been that advanced by my friend Robert Kagan in his book, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. In a line from his book that he may have subsequently come to view with a measure of chagrin, Kagan argues that “on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” However fetching such a characterization may be in a sound-bite world, it does scant justice to the seriousness of Bob Kagan’s argument.

To begin with, Kagan understands that not all Europeans are “from Venus” — Tony Blair comes to mind — nor are all Americans “from Mars” (witness the editorial page of the New York Times and the early phase of the contest for the Democratic Party’s 2004 presidential nomination). Yet Kagan insists that these conventional images — “Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus” — bespeak important truths. The United States and western Europe have different strategic visions: different understandings of how the world works, different understandings of the nature of power, different understandings of the causes of conflict in the world, different views of the role of international legal and political organizations in managing conflict, and different perceptions of the utility of military power in securing peace, freedom, and order in world affairs — and that’s before we get to the policy differences that now separate the United States and Europe on issues such as the path to peace in the Middle East, the International Criminal Court, the rebuilding of Iraq, and so forth.

Kagan suggests that these dramatically different strategic visions are not the by-products of national character, reminding us of Europe’s bellicose past and America’s traditional nervousness about international power politics and entangling alliances. Rather, on Kagan’s view, these different strategic visions are the product of a vast disparity of military power between the United States and Europe. That power-gap did not just happen, though; the disparity in military power between the U.S. and Europe is itself the product of an ideological gap between Old Europe and the United States — what Kagan terms “a different set of ideals and principles regarding the utility and morality of power.” The ideological gap, in turn, is based on a different set of experiences in the 20th century.

The devastation of their continent by two world wars; the continent’s division during a Cold War that, had it broken out into hot war, would likely have destroyed Europe; the longer European experience of vulnerability to terrorism — all of this, Kagan suggests, has led Europeans to a different set of perceptions about the threats to peace and freedom at work in the 21st century world. Moreover, these experiences have led Europeans to the convictions that security threats can and should be met, in the main, not by traditional applications of “hard power” but by the further refinement of international legal and political instruments of conflict-resolution. The most enthusiastic European “Venusians,” like European Commission president and former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, see the present European Union as the model, indeed the prefigurement, of a world run by “soft power.” As Prodi put it in a May 2001 speech in Paris, in Europe, “the rule of law has replaced the crude interplay of power…power politics have lost their influence; [therefore, by] making a success of [European] integration we are demonstrating to the world that it is possible to create a method for peace.” This, Kagan suggests, has become Europe’s new mission civilisatrice, its “civilizing mission:” Europe is to bring to the world the fulfillment of Immanuel Kant’s vision of “perpetual peace.”

Kagan understands that Europe’s passion for this new mission is in part a function of the fear-that-dare-not-speak-its-name: namely, that if the experience of an integrated, peaceful post-Cold War Europe isn’t universalizable, then it might not be a settled accomplishment for Europe, either. And that is to think the unthinkable in a circumstances in which, as Kagan nicely puts it, “the French are still not confident they can trust the Germans, and the Germans are still not sure they can trust themselves.” That, in turn, helps explain why Europe’s integration — originally intended to create a European superpower and an independent European foreign and defense policy — has gone hand-in-hand with a drastic decline, absolutely and relatively, in Europe’s “hard power” capabilities.

There are many ironies in the fire here, and Kagan neatly sums them up:





“Europe’s rejection of power politics, its devaluing of military force as a tool of international relations, have depended on the presence of American military forces on European soil. Europe’s new Kantian order could flourish only under the umbrella of American power exercised according to the rules of the old Hobbesian order. American power made it possible for Europeans to believe that power was no longer important. And now, in the final irony, the fact that United States military power has solved the European problem, especially the >German question,’ allows Europeans today to believe that American military power, and the >strategic culture’ that has created and sustained it, are outmoded and dangerous.”


And that, in Kagan’s view, leads to the “great paradox,” namely, that Europe’s emergence into post-history has been made possible by the fact that the United States still lives in history: “Because Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard its own paradise and keep it from being overrun, spiritually as well as physically, by a world that has yet to accept the rule of >moral consciousness,’ it has become dependent on America’s willingness to use its military might to deter or defeat those around the world who still believe in power politics.”

Which brief summary of his position will, I hope, drive home the point that Dr. Kagan does his argument insufficient justice when he reduces it to a matter of Martians vs. Venusians.

Yet I would also suggest that my friend Bob Kagan doesn’t drive the analysis deeply enough. Yes, western Europeans see the world differently, and thus have ordered their institutions, their politics, and their national budgets differently. Yes, that different vision of the world and its possibilities is the product of experiences unlike those Americans underwent in the 20th century. Yes, Europeans can find some historical warrant for believing a world of perpetual peace is possible in Kant’s idealism (and I mean “idealism” in both its philosophical and psychological senses).

But why did Europe turn out this way? Why did Europeans learn these things from their experience? And why have these learnings taken the political and ideological forms they have?

Why, in the aftermath of 1989, did Europeans fail to condemn communism as a moral and political monstrosity? Why was the only politically acceptable judgment on communism the anodyne observation that it “didn’t work”?

Why, to come to the present, do European statesmen insist on defending certain fictions in world politics: like the fiction that Yassir Arafat is interested in peace with Israel; or the fiction that the Kyoto protocols would be rigorously observed by the nations that signed the Kyoto agreement; or the fiction that there is something meaningfully describable in political terms as an “international community,” the highest expression of which is the U.N. Security Council as presently configured?

Why do Europeans defend the trial of Slobodan Milosevic in the Hague as a great triumph for world order, when its most measurable consequence to date has been to burnish Milosevic’s image in Serbia and revive the fortunes of his political party?

Why is Europe retreating from democracy and binding itself ever tighter in the cords of bureaucracy, with Brussels now concerning itself about the appropriate circumference of tomatoes and the proper care and feeding of Sardinian hogs?

Why do European states find it virtually impossible to take hard domestic political decisions — as on the length of the work-week or the funding of pensions?

Why do European courts seek an expanded international jurisdiction that, as in the Pinochet case, defies the democratically agreed-to arrangements made by free people in other countries?

Why is Europe on the way to what the French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls “depoliticization?” Why, as Manent puts it, does Europe “[drug] itself with humanitarianism in order to forget that it exists less and less politically”? Why does Manent have “the impression today that the greatest ambition of Europeans is to become the inspectors of American prisons”?

Why have most of Europe’s political leaders insisted that the new Constitution for Europe include a deliberate act of historical amnesia, in which a millennium and a half of Christianity’s contributions to European understandings of human rights and democracy are air-brushed from the continent’s political memory?

Why are so many European public intellectuals “Christophobic,” as international legal scholar Joseph Weiler (himself an observant Jew) puts it? Why is European high culture so enamored of the present and so contemptuous of both religious and secular tradition, as French philosopher Rémi Brague has pointed out? How can European intellectuals and lumpen-intellectuals still celebrate a man like Jacques Derrida, who, a month after the event, could say this of 9/11: “We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy — a name, a number — points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.”

Why did so many of the French prefer to continue their vacations rather than bury their parents when thousands of elderly Frenchmen and women died alone during the heat wave this past August — and were then left in overflowing refrigerated warehouses?

Above all, and most urgently of all, why is Europe systematically depopulating itself? Why is Europe committing demographic suicide? Why does no western European country have a replacement-level birth-rate? What is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense, by creating a next generation? The evidence of this extraordinary default can be found everywhere in Europe; Europeans regularly complain about it when they fret about immigrants “taking over.” Why, then, do they not reverse the trend? Why will they not admit that these demographics — which are without parallel in human history, absent wars, plagues, or natural catastrophes — are the defining reality of their 21st century?

These questions cannot be answered satisfactorily by reference only to Europe’s distinct experience of the 20th century and what Europe learned from that. A deeper question has to be raised: Why did Europe have the 20th century it did? Why did a century that began with confident predictions about a maturing humanity reaching new heights of civilizational accomplishment produce in Europe, within four decades, two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War threatening global catastrophe, oceans of blood, mountains of corpses, Auschwitz and the Gulag? What happened? Why?

Over the course of twelve years of research and teaching in east central Europe, I’ve been impressed by what might be called the Slavic view of history. You can find it in a great thinker who lived in the borderland between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Vladimir Soloviev, with his religious and moral challenge to the fashionable nihilism and materialism of the late 19th century. You can find it in the novelists, poets, and playwrights of Polish Romanticism — Henryk Sienkiewicz, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz S»owacki, Cyprian Kamil Norwid — who broke decisively with the Jacobin conviction that “revolution” meant a complete rupture with the past, insisting by contrast that genuine “revolution” meant the recovery of lost spiritual and moral values. You can find it in Karol Wojty»a, later John Paul II, and in such intellectual leaders of the anti-communist resistance in east central Europe as Václav Havel and Václav Benda, who all believed that “living in the truth” could change what seemed unchangeable in history.

The common thread running through these disparate thinkers is the conviction that the deepest currents of “history” are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic. In this way of thinking, “history” is not simply the by-product of the contest for power in the world — although power plays an important role in history. And “history” is certainly not the exhaust fumes produced by the means of production. 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 by the expressions they give to that in language, literature, and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.

Poland is one embodiment of this way of thinking, which Poles believe has been vindicated empirically by their own modern history. In 1795, with the Third Polish Partition, the great powers of the region — Russia, Prussia, Austria-Hungary — completed the vivisection of a political community whose origins went back to the last years of the first millennium of Christian history; thus for one hundred twenty-three years, from 1795 to 1918, the Polish state was erased from Europe. Yet during that century and a quarter in which you could not find “Poland” on any map of Europe — a time in which the Russians and Prussians, in particular, made strenuous efforts to eradicate the idea of “Poland” — the Polish nation survived. Indeed, the Polish nation survived with such vigor that it could give birth to a new Polish state in 1918. And despite the fact that the Polish state was beset for fifty years by the plagues of Nazism and communism, the Polish nation proved strong enough to give a new birth to freedom in east central Europe in the Revolution of 1989.

How did this happen? How did Poland survive? Poland survived — better, Poland prevailed — because of culture: a culture formed by a distinctive language (Slavic, yet written in a Latin alphabet and thus oriented to the West as well as the East); by a unique literature, which helped keep alive the memory and idea of “Poland;” and by the intensity of its Catholic faith. Poles know in their bones that culture is what drives history over the long haul.

To call this a “Slavic view of history” reflects the principal location of this body of thought over the past two hundred years or so. In fact, though, it is really a classically Christian way of thinking about history, whose roots can be traced back at least as far as St. Augustine and The City of God. In the English-speaking world of the 20th century, the most distinguished exponent of this culture-driven view of history was Christopher Dawson. As Dawson once put it in one of the most cited passages from his voluminous body of work, St. Paul’s passage from Troy in Asia Minor to Philippi on the European mainland did more to shape the future of European culture and European history than anything recorded by the great historians of his day — because it took place “underneath the surface” of history, such that those who even noticed that an itinerant rabbi from Tarsus had come to Europe and was preaching another king than Caesar couldn’t grasp the significance of what was being said.

In any case, it is the Slavs who have been the most powerful exponents of this “culture-first” understanding of the dynamics of the world’s story in our time. One such Slavic reader of the signs of the times, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, brought this optic on history to bear on the questions that concern us in his 1983 Templeton Prize Lecture. Parsing the horrors of the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn found a historical pivot — perhaps better, a historical trapgate — in the First World War:





“The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I , and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. That war…took place when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them…Only the loss of that higher intuition which comes from God could have allowed the West to accept calmly, after World War I, the protracted agony of Russia as she was being torn apart by a band of cannibals…The West did not perceive that this was in fact the beginning of a lengthy process that spells disaster for the whole world.”


As the 20th century gave way to the 21st , the “disaster” Solzhenitsyn foresaw had been avoided, at least in the form of nuclear holocaust. But that does not diminish the salience of Solzhenitsyn’s chief point — that 1914-1918 marked the beginning of a civilizational crisis in Europe, and perhaps especially in western Europe, whose effects are much with us today. Indeed, in trying to get a satisfactory answer to several of the questions I raised above, including the meta-question of Europe’s demographic self-destruction, I can think of no better answer than the one suggested by Solzhenitsyn’s analysis: these phenomena are the expression of a profound and longstanding crisis of civilizational morale.

It should not be surprising that this crisis of civilizational morale has only become visible since the end of the Cold War. Its effects were first masked by the illusory peace that marked the inter-war period; then by the rise of totalitarianism and the Great Depression; then by World War II; and then by the Cold War. It was only after 1991, when the political and military crises that began in 1914 had ended, that the long-term effects of Europe’s “rage of self-mutilation” could come to the surface of history and be seen for what they were — and for what they are.

Solzhenitsyn’s insight suggests that a theologically informed analysis of history may in fact shed more light on what imagines itself to be the “real world” than most political realists manage to do. Another Christian analyst of the dynamics of modern European history fills out Solzhenitsyn’s indictment and helps us get answers to the “European problem” that cut more deeply than the political.

Writing during the Occupation of a France that had fallen supinely before the Wehrmacht just months before, Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac (who would later become one of the intellectual architects of the Second Vatican Council) proposed that the civilizational crisis in which Europe found itself during World War II was the product of what he called “atheistic humanism” — the deliberate rejection of the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, in the name of authentic human liberation. What biblical man had perceived as a liberation from the whims of the gods or Fate — the self-revelation in history of the one God who was neither a willful tyrant nor a remote abstraction — atheistic humanism perceived as bondage. Human greatness required rejecting the biblical God, according to atheistic humanism.

This, de Lubac suggested, was something new. This was not the atheism of skeptical individuals looking to discomfort the neighbors or to impress the faculty tenure committee. This was atheistic humanism, atheism with a developed ideology and a program for re-making the world. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can have lethal consequences. At the heart of the darkness inside the great mid-20th century tyrannies, Father de Lubac discerned the lethal effects of the marriage between atheistic humanism and modern technology. He summed up the results of this misbegotten union in these terms: “It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man.” That is what the tyrannies of the 20th century had proven — that ultramundane humanism is inevitably inhuman humanism.

I wonder, though, if we cannot push Father de Lubac’s analysis backwards and forwards, historically. De Lubac makes a powerful case that the mid-20th century tyrannies, communism and Nazism, were expressions of an atheistic humanism that took its cues from the positivism of Comte, the subjectivism of Feuerbach, the materialism of Marx, and the radical willfulness of Nietszche. But hadn’t the worm gotten into the European civilizational apple earlier than Lenin and Hitler? Perhaps the most complete expression of the material effects of atheistic humanism had to wait until Treblinka and Perm Camp 36. But don’t we come to a deeper reading of the civilizational trapgate that was 1914-1918 by applying a similar analytic lens? Can we explain why Europe fell into Solzhenitsyn’s “rage of self-mutilation” without recognizing, as the great Russian writer put it, that men had forgotten God? Doesn’t de Lubac’s suggestion that that forgetting was in the name of a false concept of human liberation help us understand why the forgetting was so powerful and so complete?

If we read “history” from beneath the surface of history, de Lubac’s analysis of the drama of atheistic humanism helps flesh out Solzhenitsyn’s identification of 1914-1918 as the moment when European civilization went into crisis. I would also suggest that de Lubac’s analysis sheds light on post-Cold War Europe. Here, too, beneath the surface of post-Cold War history, we can find residues of the drama of atheistic humanism. Yes, the most grotesque institutional expressions of atheistic humanism were defeated in World War II and the Cold War. But certain intellectual, spiritual, and moral residues remained, again “underneath the surface” of history. Can we explain European post-modernism without atheistic humanism — without, to repeat, Comte’s positivism, Feuerbach’s subjectivism, Marx’s materialism, and Nietzsche’s will-to-power? I doubt it. The incoherent ramblings of a Jacques Derrida on 9/11 are not the product of Jacques Derrida alone. The depoliticization of Europe lamented by Pierre Manent is not the product of the Brussels bureaucracy alone — and neither are the “presentism” and contempt for tradition decried by Remí Brague.

The “European problem” is not, in other words, a product of the 20th century alone — although the crisis of European civilizational morale accelerated exponentially during the Great War when, as Pierre Manent writes, “self-sacrifice gave way to self-mutilation and the frenzied love of death.” No, the roots of the “European problem” that thoughtful Europeans and many Americans experience today go back to the 19th century, to the drama of atheistic humanism and the related triumph of secularization in western Europe. For that process of secularization had profound public consequences: it meant the collapse of a transcendent horizon of moral judgment in European public life and the triumph of what Manent call the “self-adoration” and “fateful hubris” that led to the Great War and its progeny.

As New School sociologist José Casanova has put it, secularization became “a self-fulfilling prophecy in Europe…a taken-for-granted belief shared not only by sociologists but by a majority of the population.” Why European Christianity was particularly vulnerable to the siren-song of atheistic humanism raises another, deeper set of questions that are beyond the scope of this lecture and that deserves extensive and serious study. But even absent definitive answers to those questions, the proximate cultural roots of today’s “European problem” can be identified with some clarity.

European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular. That conviction has had crucial, indeed lethal, consequences for European public life and European culture; indeed, that conviction and its public consequences are at the root of Europe’s contemporary crisis of civilizational morale. That crisis of civilizational morale, in turn, helps explain why European man is deliberately forgetting his history. That crisis of civilizational morale helps us understand why European man is abandoning the hard work and high adventure of democratic politics, seeming to prefer the false domestic security of bureaucracy and the false international security of the U.N. system. That crisis of civilizational morale is why European man is failing to create the human future of Europe.

Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Christopher Dawson took exception to the suggestion that modern European civilization was “pagan.” Paganism was rife with religious sentiment, Dawson recalled; what was going on in mid-20th century Europe was something different. True, many men and women had ceased to belong to the Church; but rather than belonging to something else, rather than adhering to another community of transcendent allegiance, they now belonged nowhere. This “spiritual no man’s land,” as Dawson characterized it, was inherently unstable and ultimately self-destructive. Or, as the usually gentle Dawson put it in an especially fierce passage, “…a secular society that has no end beyond its own satisfaction is a monstrosity — a cancerous growth which will ultimately destroy itself.” One wonders what Christopher Dawson would say today.

The next question for Americans, however, is — so what? Or, to phrase it differently, why should we care? If Europe is in civilizational crisis, what effect does that have on us, beyond occasional aggravations at the Security Council? Let Europe continue to slide into a condition of powerlessness, eating its seed corn as it goes. What has any of that to do with us?

A lot, I suggest. Which means that their “European problem” is also ours.


Aside from the enormous economic and other practical complications that an exhausted and imploding Europe will cause for the United States, and leaving aside for the moment those aggravations at the Security Council, let me suggest three reasons why Americans should care. The first reason involves pietas, an ancient European, which is to say Roman, virtue that teaches us both reverence and gratitude for those on whose shoulders we stand.

I am prepared to argue that very little that has crossed the Atlantic in the past several centuries hasn’t been improved in the process: from the English language itself to the forms of constitutional democracy to “rounders” (transformed by Americans into God’s game, baseball). By the same token, pietas demands that I remember where all those good things came from in their original forms. A United States indifferent to the fate of Europe is a United States indifferent to its roots. Yes, Americans have developed a new form of European civilization. But that American civilization has long understood itself to be in continuity with the civilization of the West that we associate, in its origins, with Europe — with the unique civilizational accomplishment that emerged from the interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Americans learned about the dignity of the human person, about limited and constitutional government, about the principle of consent, and about the transcendent standards of justice to which the state is accountable in the school of political culture that we call “Europe.” We should remember that, with pietas. We have seen what historical amnesia about cultural and civilizational roots has done to Europe. We do not want that to happen here.

The second reason we can and must care has to do with the medium- and long-term threat to American security posed by Europe’s demographic meltdown. Demographic vacuums do not remain unfilled — especially when the demographic vacuum in question is a continent possessed of immense economic resources. One can see the effects of Europe’s self-inflicted de-population in the tensions experienced in France, Germany, and elsewhere by rising tides of immigration from North Africa, Turkey, and other parts of the Islamic world. And while it may be the case, in the most optimistic of scenarios, that these immigrants will become good European democrats, practicing civility and tolerance and defending the religious freedom of others, there is another and far grimmer alternative. Europe’s curren

This article was originally published on EPPC Online

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