The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God
Basic Books, 2005
208 pp., $23.00
Reviewed by Daniel Gallagher
Continental Christophobia Cubed
Even before Benedict XVI was elected to succeed John Paul II as chief shepherd of the universal church, the world had set a dizzying agenda for him. He would have to engage young people, address issues of ecclesial organization, commit himself to ecumenism, and confront the challenges of globalization. In the minds of several astute observers, however, few of these could surpass a more fundamental issue: Europe.
John Paul II turned his attention to Europe repeatedly in the closing months of his pontificate. To neglect any mention of the common Christian heritage that binds European nations, insisted the pontiff, would be to tear apart the very cultural fabric that made Europe possible in the first place. In his final book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II offered arguably his most penetrating exposition of the terrible risk Europe would run should it choose to ignore the essential Christian dimensions of its religious, civic, and cultural history.
George Weigel has dedicated years of study to the life and thought of the late John Paul II. So it is hardly coincidental that Weigel's latest book, The Cube and the Cathedral, which was released just two days after the pope's passing, parallels the themes embraced by John Paul II in Memory and Identity. But whereas the pope, in keeping with his pastoral responsibilities as Vicar of Christ, rightly maintained a prudential level of restraint in his arguments, Weigel, in keeping with his distinctively lay vocation, has no need to guard his chips or hold back his cards.
The title of the book refers to the stark architectural contrast between two Parisian monuments: La Grande Arche de la Dé;fense and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Even a cursory glance at these structures reveals two polarized visions of the relationship between faith and culture. The cathedral embodies the subtle intricacy and richness of Catholic social thinking, while the cube was erected to celebrate the humanitarian ideals embraced by French revolutionaries and extolled in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The potential of the agenda it strives to represent, argues Weigel, may be as vacuous as the space contained within it.
While some are heaving a sigh of despair that Europe simply forgot its Christian roots somewhere along the way, Weigel demonstrates that apathy alone is not the cause of empty churches, plummeting birthrates, and defunct welfare programs on the European continent. Nor is it a matter of Europe deciding that God isn't so important, after all, for public life. Rather, it is the overt and occasionally militant attitude that Christianity is actually harmful to political stability and social progress. Europe is not suffering so much from amnesia as from a severe case of what Joseph Weiler calls "Christophobia." Those who campaigned against the inclusion of any reference to Christianity in the EU constitution stood on the following platform: "not only can there be politics without God, there must be politics without God." Weigel points out that the sinking morale across Europe suggests "that the winners of the European constitutional debate are seriously mistaken."
Whether the constitution will be accepted in something like its present form is now uncertain, given the reverses in France and the Netherlands. But whatever the eventual fate of this document, it is clear that the attitudes informing it run very deep in the European consciousness. Weigel believes that European Christophobia rests on a gross misunderstanding of history. Those who resist every attempt to allow the principles of Christian social teaching to inform public discourse have been inculcated with an oversimplified story in three chapters: "expansion" during the rise of the Roman Empire, "contraction" as that empire struggled to ward off, and finally succumbed to, barbaric invasions, and "absorption" as church and state melded into one during the Carolingian period. Many mistakenly believe that, in the years that followed, the Church governed both ecclesial and civil affairs with a heavy hand. The truth is that the Church often found herself in the position of needing to defend her right to conduct spiritual affairs free from the pressures of secular rulers. The vivid image of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow for days at Canossa in search of a pardon from Pope Gregory VII too easily blots out the image of the same pope dying in Salerno after having been banished by the same Henry IV. The investiture controversy underlying these events stimulated the thinking that led to the Western ideal of "a limited state in a free society." Weigel contrasts this development with the course of events in the East, where the so–called "harmony" of emperor and church was in practice a severe subordination of patriarch to emperor. Weigel suggests that this is precisely the context in which the ongoing resistance to democratic reform in the East needs to be understood today.