Strong Voices from Europe

Watching international sports and athletic competitions, you notice quite often that one participant or the other will make the sign of the cross before or after a particularly challenging  episode. Or that they wear a religious medal or a small crucifix. Inevitably, those who do so are South Americans or East Europeans, sometimes Spaniards or Italians, hardly ever the French, Germans, or English. Such an observation is grist to the mill for those who are convinced that Western Europe is lost to Christianity or, at best, a place for evangelization, as even Benedict XVI is anxiously inclined to believe.

I am among the few who stubbornly hang on to the conviction that the situation is not as desperate as it seems. The map of Western Christianity is motley and complex, with islands of hope. Though few are aware of it, a rich flow of publications and other works of high quality and deep goodness welcomes us during our visits to the Old Continent.

In evidence: just two or three recent titles.

Matthias Matussek, Das katholische Abenteuer. Eine Provokation. The “Catholic adventure” of this “provocation” jumped immediately to the top of Germany’s best-seller lists. Not surprisingly. Matussek is a youngish and aggressive reporter, who writes in a colloquial and dynamic style, and does not pull his punches.

When he’s being sarcastic, he resembles Anne Coulter. Yet he can also show himself sincerely moved, for instance, in the reminiscences of his Catholic childhood – the joyful, pious, playful days spent in a household of five brothers among the Catholic minority in Hamburg. He can also write soaring, triumphant pages dedicated to John Paul the Great. Or emotional portraits of church life in Sao Paulo, Brazil, or Baptist Harlem.

As might be expected of someone who worked for the arch-leftist weekly Der Spiegel, Matussek is not particularly conservative (Berlusconi is his favorite whipping boy when he deals with the seven deadly sins in contemporary societies). But he ruthlessly attacks those who propose to turn the Catholic tradition into a variant of Protestantism. His book is lively, disorderly, built with heterogeneous materials, studded with humorous anecdotes and lines of lyrical verse.

Nevertheless a coherent argument emerges from this inspired chaos, one that is close to the thought of Chesterton. Matussek has the audacity to claim that being religious, being Christian, being Catholic, is a great pleasure, a source of vitality and fun, and not being any of these things seriously impoverishes anybody’s human substance. For Matussek, to be a Catholic is to be an adventurer, and he defends ancient truths in a “mod” or “metro” kind of idiom.

Matussek often quotes, with due approval and respect, a more sober and earnest author, the novelist Martin Mosebach. The  latter is a substantial, award-winning writer.  I read with pleasure and profit – and recommend – two of his fictional works, the long family novel Ruppertshain and the short, punchy, Der Mond und das Madchen (“The moon and the girl”). Mosebach has also written The Heresy of Formlessness, a courageous and unrelenting skewering of flat contemporary liturgies in favor of Tridentine modes of worship. He especially values and beautifully describes the practices of the Benedictine monks of Fontgombault Abbey in France. The indispensable Ignatius Press promptly translated the book, but it has had less resonance in America so far than it deserves. 

If Matussek provokes, Denis Tillinac tries to reconcile. His temperate style seems rooted in a generous affection for God, nature, and culture, and displays no touch of anger or fear. Dictionnaire amoureux du catholicisme (“A lover’s dictionary of Catholic culture”) is the most recent of several books of apologetics by him – and just one of several dozen of his books to come out from prestigious French publishers such as Gallimard, Laffont, Flammarion, and others.

His books (novels, essays, political polemics, you name it) have won half a dozen prizes. Tillinac himself has directed  publishing houses, think tanks, journals, and political campaigns. That he is unknown in America is a true shame. The Dictionnaire amoureux is an alphabetical lexicon with 112 or so entries from Pascal, St Thomas More, and Don Quixote. It deals with relics, humility, sin, and the cartoon figure Tintin, among many other subjects. Tillinac takes us on a leisurely, amiable, and tranquil walk among the beauties and tenderness of a classical, fully rounded, self-contained, and modestly self-confident Catholic mode of existence.

He is quite comfortable with Catholicism’s past and convinced of its durability. In an age when Catholics seem beset on every side, Tillinac is not anxious. Rather, he seems secure and content, seeking to help us understand why true benevolence and tenderness grow only out of objective beauty and worth. For him, our civilization rests safely on the “Rock” that he trusts and loves.

Would Tillinac’s “dictionary” be successful with American readers? It’s difficult to say. But the books mentioned here,  a brief selection among many more titles, provide hope that the Catholic spirit is still alive in diverse forms – even in allegedly secular Europe.

Virgil Nemoianu is William J. Byron Distinguished Professor of Literature and Ordinary Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.