May 9, 2006
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) and Marcello Pera, trans. by Michael F. Moore, foreword by George Weigel (Basic Books, New York, 2006)
Western secular liberalism is still talking, as Socrates talked for a while after he had downed the fatal cup of hemlock. But there is no feeling in its extremities and its bowels are gone. An inexorable, creeping sepsis will soon still its heart. The only difference is that Socrates knew he was dying; secular liberalism can not read the signs.
Secularism’s invincible ignorance is not limited to the lunatic left. Even the most perceptive secular conservatives fail to see the real issues raised by the confrontation between the West and the Islamic ummah. For example, an online post by National Review columnist Victor Davis Hanson numbers among the weaknesses of the “Islamofascists” (i.e., Muslims) their “homophobia” and their resistance to “gender equality.” While I generally admire Hanson’s critiques of our social and military policies, I cannot believe that sodomy and radical feminism are banners around which to rally Western Civilization. The West would be far stronger with straighter sex and more mothers at home raising more children. But secularists, no matter how conservative they are, can not quite see clearly on this issue.
The reason for their lack of clarity here is that secularists, whether conservative or liberal, generally hold to the “liberationist” view of history and, from the liberationist point of view, the main thing that the West has liberated itself from is the Catholic Faith. This leads them automatically to accept the Reformation as a good thing, to celebrate the French Revolution as a mostly good thing, and to greet the rise of Progressivism as a sort of good thing. Not until the end of the twentieth century did the secularists start to suspect that something had gone awry, and then only after those two sides of the Progressive coin, Fascism and Communism, combined to murder more than a hundred million people. Now, “conservative” secularists on both sides of the Atlantic think they have identified the problem. The problem is relativism.
Without Roots: The West, Relativism and Islam, addresses the problems of relativism. The book contains the text of two addresses and two letters. The addresses were coincidentally given on successive days in May 2004. One was given by Marcello Pera, a professor of philosophy and president of the Italian Senate, and the other by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI. The addresses were strikingly similar in subject matter, a similarity that led the two men to exchange the included letters.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s address, entitled The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, traces the spiritual history of Europe from its roots in the twin Christian empires of Rome and Byzantium, through their respective northward retreats to continental Europe and Russia in the face of Muslim expansion, and to their ultimate secularization in the wake of the French Revolution. The French Revolution, according to the Cardinal, provided Europe with a new “spiritual framework” that isolated God within the “domain of sentiment, not of reason,” excluded Him from the “public sphere,” shattered “the ancient idea of Empire” and substituted the secular nation-states of Europe. Each of these secular states “considered itself the depository of a universal mission,” which led them to compete across the globe for colonies and culminated in the world wars of the twentieth century.
But Europe, “despite its enduring political and economic power, seems to be on the road to decline and fall.” Citing the historian Arnold Toynbee, the Cardinal ascribes Europe’s decline to its “abandonment of religion for the cult of technology, nationalism, and militarism,” that is, for the cult of “secularism.” Toynbee had suggested that the remedy was to reintroduce the “heritage of Western Christianity” through the “energy of creative minorities and exceptional individuals.”
Exploring whether such a “reintroduction” is possible, the Cardinal describes the differing views of church/state relations prevailing in the modern Latin and Germanic nations and in the United States. He mentions three challenges facing Europe – that of human dignity in the face of modern biotechnology; that of the definition of marriage and our understanding of the human person; and finally that of Christianity in the face of “multiculturalism” and Western “self-hatred.” He concludes:
This is not exactly the stuff of St. Augustine’s City of God, written in response to the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410 A.D., a threat to Western civilization at least as severe as that faced by Europe today. But it is better than the secularist Professor Pera’s suggestion contained in his Letter to Joseph Ratzinger:
Professor Pera’s main essay, Relativism, Christianity and the West, contains several very good observations, such as his critiques of European “political correctness,” of the “relativism of the theologians,” of Vatican II’s notion of “dialogue.” But on the main issue, he misses the point.
Putting aside the comic-opera dimension of his suggestion that the Europeans construct a civil religion out of some form of non-denominational Christianity, there is the more serious objection that only relativists could participate in such a process. The professor seems to want the Europeans to imitate the civil religion of the United States, much as they imitated our vast national economic union by creating the Common Market and our political union by creating the E.U. But what passes for civil religion in the U.S. is what Cardinal Ratzinger describes as a “Protestant Christian consensus that is not defined in denominational terms, but rather in association with the country’s sense of a special religious mission toward the rest of the world.”
In other words, the Americans – including the Americanized Catholics who form the country’s largest single religious denomination – actually believe this stuff! They are not relativists; they are not choosing a convenient version of truth. They have not adopted their consensus because they think it useful or prudent or profitable or necessary to avoid the pitfalls of relativism. They have adopted the view that God has “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” because they believe it is true. They believe it so true that they are willing to fight for it, to live for it, to die for it, to kill for it. Americans who do not believe in this truth are not part of the American consensus; not surprisingly, they are trying to Europeanize America.
Europe cannot find a belief in anything until it believes that something is true. The Islamists do not envy Europe’s wealth; they mock Europe’s unbelief. They know that the God in Whom Europe fails to believe will deliver all of Europe – its wealth, its territory, its people – into their hands. The only truly “creative” thing a Christian minority can do for Europe is to give it that Truth in which Europeans, including Professor Pera, can actually believe.