What will become of Europe? This question must occur to every thoughtful and informed observer of world affairs. One of the most prominent European nations, the United Kingdom, has left the European Union. A successful Brexit raises the possibility that other nations will wish to depart as well. Suddenly the viability of Europe as a politically integrated whole, the dream and the life work of two or three generations of European statesmen, is in doubt.
The question of Europe’s fate points to the deeper question of Europe’s identity. When we ask “what will become of Europe?” we cannot help but wonder “what is Europe?” What, in other words, does Europe stand for? What does it aspire to be? These questions arise because, as Joseph Ratzinger observes, Europe is properly understood not merely as a geographical concept but as a cultural and historical one. Europe, he notes, has always thought of itself as having some universal mission, as having something precious to offer the world. Perhaps, then, Europe cannot remain united politically because its various peoples no longer agree on what it means to be European.
These questions—about what Europe is and what it should be—are addressed by Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in Western Culture: Today and Tomorrow. One could hardly hope for a more judicious guide in such an inquiry. Ratzinger’s treatment of these issues is not and does not claim to be systematic. The book is based on various invited talks that he gave over the years as a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, one cannot read his meditations without an awareness of being in the presence of a learned, penetrating, sober, and earnest mind. His judgments here are unsurprising in some ways, surprising in others, and in every case thoughtful, provocative (in the best sense), and worthy of serious consideration.
It is surely not surprising that Ratzinger thinks that contemporary Europe has lost its way. Europe wishes to achieve respect for human rights, for human dignity, for the rule of law in the service of the common good. According to Ratzinger, these moral commitments depend on a belief in the intelligibility of the universe, which in turn depends on a belief in God as the intelligible and loving cause of the universe—the creator of a reasonable order that tends toward man’s good. Europe, however, has lost this understanding of the cosmos, which once supported its ethical aspirations. As Ratzinger astutely notes, European elites have recognized the economic failure of Marxism without perceiving its moral and philosophic failings. Nobody wants to return to a state-planned economy. But today’s proponents of European enlightenment (so-called) share “with Marxism the evolutionary idea of a universe brought forth by an irrational event” and accordingly unable to provide any “ethical direction” for human beings. For too many European intellectuals, the world of meaning and justice must be created by human beings. Ratzinger, in contrast, contends that a just public order depends on a morality that precedes politics. If the moral order is merely created by human beings, the majority (or whoever is most powerful in society) is left free to impose whatever policies it chooses on the weak.
This diagnosis is similar to that offered by Ratzinger’s great predecessor in the papacy, John Paul II. It is unsurprising that it would be held as well by John Paul II’s most trusted collaborator. Ratzinger will probably surprise at least some readers, however, with the remedy that he recommends.
Influenced by superficial journalism and cultural commentary, the contemporary West’s intellectual landscape is stalked by a caricature of Ratzinger as almost the ideal form of the reactionary Catholic prelate. His arguments in Western Culture utterly belie this parody of the man and the thinker. Ratzinger does not want to turn the clock back to the Middle Ages. He seeks no restoration of the Medieval Church’s dominance of political and social life. He instead emphasizes the secular and limited character of the state as it is understood even by Christianity. For Ratzinger, the state can be said to have a divine basis in the sense that God expects Christians (and all people) to obey the just commands of the established authorities. But the state does not have a sacred mission. Its aim is not the salvation of souls or the imposition of the Christian faith on society but the establishment of peace and a just moral order. Ratzinger supports this view by referring to the earliest and most authoritative Christian sources, such as the first apostles and Jesus himself, who advised their followers to obey the political authorities, even though the then-existing state, the Roman Empire, was certainly not a Christian one.
If Ratzinger thinks that modern Europe has lost its way, but he does not seek a return to Medieval Christendom, then to what does he recommend that Europe return? Ratzinger harks back to an earlier (but not very distant) stage of European history, a time in which European liberalism understood politics largely in secular terms, but nevertheless understood itself—understood Europe—to be a manifestation of Christian culture. According to Ratzinger, the leading statesmen responsible for rebuilding a just peace in the aftermath of the Second World War—men like Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, and Alcide De Gasperi—were guided by the moral demands that they had learned from the “Christian faith.” In seeking to move beyond the ideological insanity that had devastated Europe, they sought to establish not a Christian “denominational State” but rather a “State informed by” the “ethical reasoning” that Christian faith supports—a moral reason that rises above mere calculation of consequences and recognizes the dignity and rights of human beings as human beings. Ratzinger well remembers what most contemporary readers have forgotten or never knew: that the leading western statesmen of that time understood and publicly characterized the Second World War as a struggle to preserve “Christian civilization.”
Looked at in this way, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ratzinger—a man of modern but conservative sensibilities—would call for a return to the political and cultural arrangements that prevailed in his youth and young manhood. Nevertheless, one cannot reasonably dismiss his argument as mere nostalgia. After all, as Ratzinger points out, and as anyone can see, there are signs that contemporary Europe is in trouble, signs that the contemporary European self-understanding is unsustainable.
Preserving European Culture
Leaving aside the question of whether Europe can maintain itself as a legal and political unit, one might also wonder whether it even possesses the ability to preserve and transmit itself as a culture. Europe, Ratzinger observes, “seems to have become hollowed out” even in the “hour of its greatest success.” Europeans no longer want to have enough children to sustain the life of their own nations over time. This unwillingness perhaps results from their declining belief in God and hence in the goodness of creation. All things being equal, parents are more likely to welcome into existence children that they believe are the gift of a benevolent God than children they believe are mere products of chance and necessity. Parents are more likely to have the moral confidence to call new lives into existence if they believe those lives are entering into a realm of being and goodness governed by a benevolent God than if they believe the universe is purely the product of forces that are indifferent to human life. In any case, surely a culture that is reluctant to generate children is a culture that cannot long survive.
No doubt the defenders of contemporary Europe will respond that the cultural transmission does not necessarily depend on biological reproduction. Europe can transmit its values to new arrivals, to immigrants who will carry on the European project after the ethnic Europeans have disappeared. This is indeed possible, but it would seem to require a moral and cultural self-confidence that contemporary Europe lacks. Europeans, Ratzinger observes, have turned away from belief in God because they view God as a limit on individual freedom. Belief in God, however, dominated much of Europe’s history. Therefore, contemporary Europeans have to view their own past as one of oppression. Hence the “self-hatred in the Western world that is strange and that can be considered pathological.” This is a culture that “no longer loves itself,” about which one can wonder whether it even “wants to survive.” How can such a culture transmit to newcomers a heritage that it despises?
Again, the defender of contemporary Europe might reply that this is all beside the point. Contemporary Europe does not want to preserve and transmit its ancient moral and cultural heritage. It only wants to transmit its modern values—that is, a secular, rationalistic, universal conception of human rights divorced from any particular religious inheritance. Here, Ratzinger suggests, contemporary Europeans are deceiving themselves. Purely secular rationality, he observes, seems obvious to westerners because it was developed in the West. It is “linked to specific cultural contexts” and “cannot as such be reproduced in the whole of mankind.” A purely secular rationalism—reason uninformed by inherited religious beliefs—is alien to most peoples, and there is little reason to think that they will embrace it simply by taking up residence in Europe.
Contemporary Europeans seem to believe that these problems will be overcome by progress. Belief in progress is the contemporary European’s substitute for belief in God. Ratzinger’s meditations, however, point to the ways in which this confidence in progress is untethered from reality and even incoherent. It is detached from reality because, as Ratzinger reminds us, human nature “starts over from the beginning in every human being.” The next generation does not necessarily acquire more just and humane beliefs and habits than its predecessor. The kind of moral progress that Europeans expect would require attention to and transmission of the historic, Christian roots of belief in human dignity in the West, an undertaking to which today’s European is indifferent or hostile. The European’s belief in progress is incoherent because there is no reason to think that reliable progress would arise in a universe that is fundamentally governed by no intelligent and benevolent principle.
At present, Europe is attempting a remarkable experiment. It is trying to maintain and even increase its political unity while at the same time neglecting and even disdaining the historic basis of its cultural and moral unity. Brexit may be just the first example of the problems that such an experiment is likely to encounter. In such doubtful circumstances, it would be reasonable to seek advice from voices Europe is accustomed to ignoring and perhaps even despising. A troubled Europe could do worse than to begin its necessary self-examination by listening to the voice of Joseph Ratzinger. Such listening, Ratzinger reminds his readers, does not require submission to the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church, only a respectful and sympathetic engagement with the moral and religious history that made Europe in the first place.