Crisis – and Opportunity?

The Vatican hosted a rather melancholy event last week: the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which set the Old World on the rocky path to today’s European Union. In one way, that the event took place at the Vatican suggests that, even among European elites, Christianity is still not entirely dead. But in another, it underscores just how confused the European project is now.

One of the arguments EU supporters often make in its defense, despite manifest problems, is that Europe has, over seven decades now, enjoyed the longest period of peace in its modern history (Cold War and the Balkans aside). That’s no small matter and, along with economic growth and social solidarity, deserves a place in the overall reckoning.

But so must Europe’s steep slide into atheism and indifference; Europe’s de-population bomb (the one that actually exploded, with deaths now outnumbering births, despite high fertility among immigrants); Islamic terrorism; and – over and above them all – the institutional crises both in individual nations and the EU as a whole, which have now produced Brexit and related secessionist impulses in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Eastern Europe.

Pope Francis addressed twenty-seven leaders of the EU member nations at the event on Friday and challenged them to “blaze a path to a new European humanism.” What he had in mind – a model broadly shared by predecessors such as Jacques Maritain, Konrad Adenauer, St. John Paul II, our recently departed friend Michael Novak, and many others (including your humble scribe) – is a Christian, theocentric humanism, as opposed to the anthropocentric humanism, which in its various forms (liberal democratic, socialist, Marxist) has come to dominate societies in Europe and America.

Pope Francis didn’t hit that chord forte, perhaps because he calculated that it would seem sectarian and out of place at a “secular” event. But he made a point of quoting Alcide de Gasperi, one of Europe’s Founding Fathers, “at the origin of European civilization there is Christianity.” Francis added, “without which the Western values of dignity, freedom and justice would prove largely incomprehensible.”

The Sack of Rome by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1890 [Musée Paul Valéry, Sète, France]

We Americans believe – or used to – basically the same thing, because unless we’ve been endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights, it’s difficult to see whence human rights and dignity come. Without the Biblical God, they’re a residue from our religious heritage, which cannot long survive that heritage’s disappearance from the public square.

Many of us who would like to preserve democracies open to a reasonable pluralism know that the old model is now in bewildering crisis. (Item: the joint statement of the 27 European states for the anniversary is long on bureaucratic projects; only near the very end does it acknowledge the need to pay attention to the discontents of the people.)

Francis noted that moments of crisis also present opportunities – for new growth, for creative responses to novel situations, for greater “discernment.” True, in its way, and the kind of thing that one says on such an occasion.

But not so inspiring as it might sound because, for whatever reasons, in the modern world, the theocentric humanism project has repeatedly failed. Christian democracy worked against Nazism and Communism; it’s been mostly impotent for a half-century and more in liberal democracies.

Archbishop Chaput, Rod Dreher, R. R. Reno, and our own Anthony Esolen and Mary Eberstadt – in their several ways – have grappled with the fact that a militant secularism has arrogated to itself a total authority over human life, while the sacred has progressively weakened.

The older Christian Democrats who founded the European project spoke of parties “of Christian inspiration” and initiatives in the secular press, civil society, culture, that would also be guided, indirectly, by a Christian vision. But that seems far too weak a brew today.

If there were as substantial a body of influential Christian thought and feeling in Europe (or America), it might have a chance of working. The reality, however, is that very few developed societies today have such a religious reservoir on which to draw. And what has taken its place is actively hostile to the older Christian personalism – even to simple distinctions like male and female.

The French political philosopher Pierre Manent (a Catholic) made a heroic effort last year in his book Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge to show how one part of the modern problem – the confrontation between Western and Islamic values – might be resolved. The West must discern (to use the pope’s term) what it can and cannot live with in its Islamic citizens; and France’s Islamic communities must accept that they live in a nation that still has what Manent called Christian “notes.”

A sincere and sober effort, except that the West is no longer Christian in any substantial sense. Even many Westerners now would resist the idea that governments and societies should operate, in however indirect a fashion, within a framework marked by Christian “notes.” Our universities, media, arts – even some nominally Christian bodies – would label any such suggestion outrageous, probably even “Fascist.”

It would be difficult to say whether the failures of Europe – and increasingly America and other developed democracies – are failures in practice or theory.

Did leaders, secular and religious, just not do their jobs after World War II? Did they rebuild the physical infrastructure and neglect deeper moral and spiritual foundations?

Or has the old balance of sacred and secular, of separation of Church and States (if not of religion and politics) become unmanageable in postmodern conditions of radically conflicting pluralisms?

We cannot abandon hope, of course. The new anti-humanism is an artificial monstrosity and could collapse unexpectedly, as the Soviet Union did, out of its sheer frustrating of human nature.

In the meantime, we have to be clear about the nature and extent of the challenge. A healthier “new humanism” is devoutly to be wished, but is not likely to come into being, unless we also find our way to a renewed theism.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.