Why We Should Call Ourselves Christian

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Europe’s effort to integrate itself around an economic instrument, a common currency, rather than around a belief or an idea, appears to be imploding. Political dysfunction and cultural distraction are the order of the day in the United States.   Both sides of the Atlantic seem adrift, lurching from one short-term reaction to another in the face of baffling events. What’s going on?

Marcello Pera, a philosopher and former president of the Italian Senate, helps us understand the longer view behind these complexities in his new book, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christian: The Religious Roots of Free Societies. Pera describes himself as a non-believer, so his book may surprise some readers. More surprising still may be the book’s extraordinary Foreword by none other than Pope Benedict XVI, who characterizes this work as “of great significance at this moment in the history of Europe and the world.” 

Benedict, who collaborated with Pera on an earlier volume, Without Roots, before becoming pope, writes of his hope that this book “will be helpful in giving the political debate on transitory questions that depth without which we cannot hope to overcome the challenges of our particular historical moment.” Pera does precisely that.

Pera is by trade a philosopher of science, and in addition to his senatorial duties he now teaches at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He begins with a short lesson on vocabulary, distinguishing between “liberalism” as it is understood in the contemporary American context – leftist, large government-oriented – and in Europe where it means almost the opposite – supporting free markets, cherishing individual liberty, viewing a large state as an adversary. Pera is himself liberal in the latter sense, the sense understood by the American founders. 

He also distinguishes between two meanings of the word “secular.” The traditional sense was fully compatible with, indeed dependent on, Christian teaching. That secularism recognizes the rightful “division between Caesar and God, throne and altar, the City of Man and the City of God.” But today’s radical secularism “views religion as an obstacle to coexistence, science, technology, progress, and human well-being.” 

Pera compares the dangers of the current moment to those of the Nazi era in Europe:

From the viewpoint of both Judaism and Christianity man is created in God’s image and likeness. In my opinion, this is the religious source of the concepts of personhood and human dignity, the foundation of the liberal view that man has primacy over society and the state, and the basis for the doctrine of natural, fundamental, individual rights. It is not by chance that when Nazi Europe turned anti-Christian, it also became anti-Semitic. The fact that Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, turned anti-Semitic many times over the centuries cannot hide the fact that the two faiths are, or may be considered, twin brothers with respect to the conceptual foundations of liberalism.

The book is structured around three fundamental questions that give titles to its chapters:  Liberalism, the Secular Equation, and the Question of Christianity; Europe, Christianity, and the Question of Identity; and Relativism, Fundamentalism, and the Question of Morals. In all three cases, Pera describes the disastrous consequences of failing to understand the Judeo-Christian basis of the proper, traditionally Western, answers to these questions.

         Marcello Pera (r.) and a friend

Some will object that this consequentialist approach misses the heart of faith. But Pera is alert to the dangers of “an ethics of consequences” (as well as the weaknesses of “civil religion”), and he is clear that it is Judeo-Christian principles, prudentially applied in practical situations, that move him. Moreover, his project is to help a broad audience – not just philosophers and theologians, and not just believers – understand our current condition. It’s no wonder that the pope sees this as such a valuable service. 

If the kind of understanding that this book promotes were to spread, one could imagine a slow walk towards a society where Christian principles are re-embraced and where, as Josef Pieper once wrote, we might “point to a reawakening of the sense of worship” and divinely-inspired public life – festival and celebration – that is at the core of what Western culture once was.

Interestingly, Pera notes the particular problem that “people turn today to the ‘experts’ as they once did to fortune-tellers, our blind trust verging on credulity. They are the consultants, confessors, masters, guides, and apostles of humanity who have come to replace parents, priests, philosophers. Today we are in precisely the situation of having someone decide for us on all important issues.” He echoes here the warning of President Dwight Eisenhower, who in his famous farewell speech warned not just of a powerful military-industrial complex but, in the rarely cited other half of that talk, worried about our turning governance over to a scientific-technical elite that would threaten authentic self-rule.

Pera leaves open the question of how we are to move forward to Western societies that grasp their Judeo-Christian sources. But he knows well that the author of his Foreword has the plan, in the new evangelization that Benedict and John Paul II have called for. That program may not seem to answer the questions that rattle the markets and occupy talk shows. But it is the only plan based on real hope and on the truths of our history. Marcello Pera’s book is essential reading for all – priests, laity, philosophers of the classroom and the kitchen table – who want to understand how we got to where we are, and what is needed to recover our moorings.

Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.