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What Will Become of Europe?

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.

Europe Adrift

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.

Europe 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.

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.

Reader Discussion

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on May 07, 2020 at 12:07:03 pm

Professor Holloway writes a useful shortcut to assessing the relevance for laic socialist Europe (and secular progressive America) of the cultural and political insights to be derived from the Catholic convictions of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a preternaturally wise man despite his unfortunate overvaluation of Archbishop Cardinal Bergoglio (a profound theological misjudgment given birth when Pope John Paul II elevated Bergoglio first to Archbishop and then to Cardinal.)

Because they are most germane to the American experience, I will comment briefly on just two of the several Ratzinger insights which are summarized in Holloway's book review, that of Europe's alleged lack of political self-awareness and that of the role of religion in contemporary European culture.

As to Europe's alleged lack of political self-awareness, Professor Holloway says, "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."

I would reply that western Europe today is both the ideological consequence and the cultural embodiment of the "moral and philosophic failings" of Marxism, that it is fully aware yet largely in denial of those "moral and philosophic failings" and that it seeks not to scuttle the sinking Marxist ship of state but to repair and fine tune it, to "get it right this time," to regulate its way to social perfection with dirigisme, but not a "state-planned economy."

And in the USA, while not the country so far, the American Left, its Democrat Party sponsor and their media co-conspirators are on the same page as western Europe. One can almost hear the exasperated cry from the backseat of the Democrat Party, "Are we there yet?"

My second comment addresses the cultural role of religion. Holloway says, "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...(and that) 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."

I would reply that Europe, like America, was founded on Judeo-Christianity. Their psychological identities are based on that historical fact. The Marxist-driven attempt to deny the reality of their identities and divorce themselves from their religious history, heritage, customs and traditions is culturally, politically, morally and psychologically self-destructive. A temporal order with an informal establishment, not a mere toleration, of religion is the only possible path to "the establishment of peace and a just moral order" for western Europe and for the USA.

When I was a kid we recognized that in America. Before Herr Hitler, western Europe recognized that. Hungary and Poland recognize it still.

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Paladin
on May 07, 2020 at 13:41:57 pm

“I would reply that western Europe today is both the ideological consequence and the cultural embodiment of the "moral and philosophic failings" of Marxism, that it is fully aware yet largely in denial of those "moral and philosophic failings" and that it seeks not to scuttle the sinking Marxist ship of state but to repair and fine tune it, to "get it right this time," to regulate its way to social perfection with dirigisme, but not a "state-planned economy."

True

“I would reply that Europe, like America, was founded on Judeo-Christianity. Their psychological identities are based on that historical fact. The Marxist-driven attempt to deny the reality of their identities and divorce themselves from their religious history, heritage, customs and traditions is culturally, politically, morally and psychologically self-destructive. A temporal order with an informal establishment, not a mere toleration, of religion is the only possible path to "the establishment of peace and a just moral order" for western Europe and for the USA.”

True, but only if that temporal order recognizes Divine Providence.

Perfect Love Is Not Possessive, Nor Is It Coercive, Nor Does It Serve To Manipulate For The Sake Of Self-Gratification; Love Is A Gift, Given Freely From The Heart.

No one can coerce another to Love them, which is why God, Through His Infinite Grace And Mercy, Granted us Free Will.

“To whom much has been given, much will be expected”, and thus we, who have been given The Gift Of Faith must
be willing to reflect The Love of our Christian Faith, by demonstrating how only Life-affirming and Life-sustaining Salvational Love can serve for The Common Good.

We can know through both Faith and reason, that our Judeo-Christian founding Principles, cannot remain Judeo-Christian, if we desire to render onto Caesar, what belongs to God, The Lord And Giver Of Life, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, and thus deny that God, The Most Holy, And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage.

Atheist materialism is the antithesis of Life-affirming Life-sustaining Salvational Love, because Christ Has Revealed Through His Life, His Passion, And His Death On The Cross, That No Greater Love Is There Than This- To Desire Salvation For One’s Beloved.

“When God Is denied, human Dignity disappears.” - Pope Benedict XVI

I think Pope Benedict would agree that one cannot affirm Divine Providence, if one does not go back to Genesis, when The Truine God Stated, “Let US Make man in OUR Image”, and thus The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, in Creating man, began Our Salvational History.

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Nancy
on May 07, 2020 at 13:40:40 pm

This is a classic Perennialist presentation from Joseph Ratzinger. How does the following quote respond to this well written article?

“The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order.”
― Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation

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Jack
on May 08, 2020 at 10:25:43 am

“The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order.”
― Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation

One cannot be autonomous from and in communion with Christ, simultaneously.

To reject Christianity, is to reject Christ. Thus a Christianity informed by Marx, would be more than just a contradiction in terms, for in denying The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, it would deny The Divinity Of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

In “rendering onto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God, what belongs to God”, Christ Remains The King of kings.

This side of Heaven, as long as there are those who reject The Truth Of Love, we cannot obtain “Utopia” on Earth, until that moment in Time of Christ’s return. We cannot “grow in Grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, “unspotted and blameless in Peace”, if we allow ourselves to be led astray by those who are Baptized Catholic, but deny The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, and thus disrupt the Peace in His One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, outside of which, there is no Salvation, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.
“It Is Through Christ, With Christ, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, That Holy Mother Church Exists.

Thus we can know through both Faith and reason, “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion, without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

It is possible to have Peace in Christ’s Church Through The Affirmation Of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, as The denial of the Filioque, and thus The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, is the source of all heresy.

Our Lady Of Fatima, Destroyer Of All Heresy, Who Through Your Fiat, Affirmed The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), hear our Prayers for Peace.

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Nancy
on May 08, 2020 at 13:53:05 pm

At this period of Time it is late for both Europe and The United States Of America, but not too late, to return to our Founding Judeo-Christian Principles, which serve for The Common Good.

https://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2020/05/a-confusion-about-deference.html

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Nancy
on May 11, 2020 at 19:55:48 pm

“People are also more keenly and painfully aware that a large part of the Church is in one way or another linked to those who wield economic and political power in today's world. ... Under these circumstances, can it honestly be said that the Church does not interfere in "the temporal sphere"? Is the Church fulfilling a purely religious role when by its silence or friendly relationships it lends legitimacy to a dictatorial and oppressive government?”
Gustavo Gutiérrez,
“A Theology of Liberation”, p.65.

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Jack

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