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Reviewed by Daniel Gallagher

Continental Christophobia Cubed

Europe's rejection of its Christian heritage.

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.

The book does not leave the reader without a sense of hope. More than advancing his own personal plan for revitalization, Weigel exposes points of light that are already shining. Numerous lay ecclesial movements and religiously inspired free associations are burgeoning in Europe. Weigel makes specific mention of Focolare, Opus Dei, the Sant'Egidio Community, the Emmanuel Community, and Regnum Christi. The effectiveness of movements like these—an effectiveness that baffles secular political pundits—simply proves that John Paul II was right: culture matters. Culture is the underlying fabric that supports a just and free society. Culture also holds the potential of toppling regimes that aim to trample justice and freedom underfoot. Any culture, however, is bankrupt without a memory to sustain it. And that is precisely what Europeans have jeopardized by failing to include, among the 70,000 words that make up the EU constitution, the one word which, more than any other, expresses the key to their civilization.

The only minor lacuna in Weigel's analysis is his insufficient attention to other historical events that may well have contributed to the current Christophobia. I have in mind, for example, the ravages of the Thirty Years' War—a brutal and devastating conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century—and the botched attempts in 1960s' France at a "fusion of the Christian impulse with secular and political action," in the words of the then–Cardinal Ratzinger. Events such as these convinced many Europeans that Christianity and politics are mutually exclusive, and may have had a more direct impact on common folk than did Ockham's nominalistic turn. A consideration of such events, however, would in no way weaken Weigel's argument; indeed, they would strengthen it all the more. This is a most important book.

Although the Holy Spirit deserves the ultimate credit for the selection of a pope, the prospect of electing a European who himself has demonstrated a keen understanding of the issues confronting Europe must have influenced the deliberations of the College of Cardinals. Barely two weeks before he ascended the throne of Peter, Cardinal Ratzinger maintained that the culture of today's Europe "constitutes the most radical contradiction, not only of Christianity, but also of the religious and moral traditions of all humanity." And it is a contradiction, Weigel argues, that could have fatal consequences.

Daniel Gallagher is assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

Related Elsewhere:

The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

More information is available from Basic Books.

For book lovers, our 2005 CT book awards are available online, along with our book awards for 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, and 1997, as well as our Books of the Twentieth Century. For other coverage or reviews, see our Books archive and the weekly Books & Culture Corner.

CT's full coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election and analysis of Benedict XVI is collected on our website.

Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:

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A Grief Observed | Exploring the valley of the shadow in two literary lives. (June 13, 2005)
The Mind and Soul of Combat | Perhaps war really is hell. (June 07, 2005)
The Universal Language | If Latin died in our mouths, we'd just stop talking. (May 24, 2005)
At Home in the Dark | The first new book of poems in almost twenty years from Rod Jellema. (May 17, 2005)
"Taken Up in Glory" | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 10, 2005)
Making Believe | Bedtime stories for grown–ups. (May 03, 2005)
Looking for God on the Holy Mountain | A journey to Mount Athos. (Apr. 25, 2005)
The Words of the Word | Two sharply contrasting perspectives on Bible translation. (April 19, 2005)
Divine Comedies | A report on Baylor's Art & Soul conference, version 2005. (April 12, 2005)
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