Europe’s Problem or Ours?
George Weigels provocative article, Europes Problem”and Ours (February) was interesting to me for two reasons. First, in the late 1950s, I served as Christopher Dawsons teaching assistant in the Harvard Divinity School, where he held the Stillman Chair in Roman Catholic Studies. He taught me about the importance of culture, a lesson Ive never forgotten. Mr. Weigel very nicely captures Dawsons thought. Second, my work in bioethics has brought me to Eastern Europe (particularly the Czech Republic) for close to fifteen years, so I have seen with my own eyes much of what Mr. Weigel describes.
Yet I do wish that Mr. Weigel had a greater sense of the mystery, even perversity, of history, both Europes and our own. Let me begin with his question and lament: Why is Europe committing demographic suicide? Demographically speaking, it is not just Europe that is doing so, but every developed country. The United States has a birthrate of 2.1 children per woman, just at the replacement level. But demographers attribute that high figure to the impact of immigrants, who have much higher birthrates than those already here. If those newcomers are left out, the U.S. is committing demographic suicide along with everyone else. But it is to our credit that we take immigrants in a generous way, and they may keep us going.
Catholics”and those who believe in the power of underlying cultures”might well be disturbed by the fact that the European countries with the lowest birthrates are historically Catholic. Spain and Italy have birthrates of 1.2, next to the very bottom in Europe, followed closely by the Slovak Republic and Poland (both at 1.3). By contrast, some of the most secular countries do much better (at least comparatively): Great Britain, 1.6; France, 1.9; and Sweden, 1.5. Most provocatively, three of the most secular European countries”Denmark, France, and Norway”are among the few that have actually reversed the fertility decline over the past twenty years.
I cannot provide any full explanation of what all of this means, but my own guess is that secularization has little to do with it. The fact is that children have a different meaning in advanced technological societies (where they are costly and harder to raise) than in earlier agricultural societies (where children were necessary for family survival and childhood mortality rates were high). I know many devout, conservative Catholic families, but it is rare to find many that have more than two children.
A word about the Czech Republic. That country has the lowest birthrate in Europe, 1.1. I have asked my friends there to explain why. Ive received no good answers beyond a vague complaint about the economic burden of children. The Czech Republic has moved in just over a decade from communism to a full-hearted embrace of the market. The fact that the Czech Republic also has the highest number of average working hours a year no doubt makes a difference as well (1,980, in contrast to 1,815 in the U.S. and 1,581 in Sweden). Women are expected to work a long day outside the home and then at night to become mother, wife, cook, laundress, and house cleaner. In those circumstances even one child can seem a heavy burden.
For all the faults that Mr. Weigel perceives in Europe, is it such a bad thing that those secularized Europeans have held fast to the old Catholic value of solidarity, guaranteeing good health care and welfare programs to every citizen based simply on their human dignity (even when it hurts their market competitiveness)? Or that murder and divorce rates are radically lower throughout the continent than in the more religious U.S.? Or that the Czechs, for all of their problems, seem to me to do a better job of raising their children than we do, and maintaining much stronger family cohesiveness and intergenerational bonds?
A final, speculative question: What exactly is the relationship between Americas world-class religiosity and its international power? It was Tocqueville who noted that Americans were obsessed in the early nineteenth century with religion and money. That seems still true. But Tocqueville did not say that Americas success or strength as a nation could be traced to its religiosity. Nor did Christopher Dawson, so far as I can recall. Could it not be that it is our love of money that explains our national strength, and that our religiosity is just a gloss on our materialism?
Even Christopher Dawson, nostalgic to the core, would have conceded that many, if not most, of the historically strong religious cultures were monarchical, antidemocratic, and repressive of just about anything we would now take to be essential to human rights and dignity. Need we be surprised that they came to have a bad name? And can we be edified by the fact that some Islamic countries are the only ones still hanging on to a strong religious culture, at whatever the human cost? The old cultural role models are dead and gone and the contemporary ones are not fit for emulation. I dont think Dawson ever saw a way out of this problem, and I dont think Mr. Weigel has seen one either.
Director of International Program
The Hastings Center
Garrison, New York
George Weigels article brought to light an important historical reality. He noted that fully explaining European hostility to its Catholic Christian heritage would require a careful probing of the Catholic Churchs identification with those political forces most resistant to the democratic project in late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Mr. Weigel is right that the choices made by the Catholic Church deserve examination”specifically, the close collaboration of the Church with Catholic rulers who attempted to quell the development of parliamentary governance. Yet the Churchs (tacit) advocacy of bloodshed instead of debate, oppression instead of freedom, began long before the late eighteenth century.
I hope that Mr. Weigel will support (or better, conduct) a thorough examination of how it was that the Catholic Church identified with such fierce resistance to the democratic project. One wonders, also, what the God of heaven and earth might be up to when a Catholic scholar of Mr. Weigels stature hopes for something like a Great Awakening, a rebirth of life-transforming and culture-forming Christian conviction, especially Catholic conviction. Perhaps birth, instead of rebirth, should be the term correctly applied to the Catholic conviction regarding the democratic project. Mr. Weigel is right, however, to hope for the Holy Spirit to move Europe as a whole toward Christ, because the likely alternatives look to be bloody.
W. T. Hinds
George Weigel traces Western Europes exclusive secularism to a different experience than ours during the last century, thereby posing a threat to democracy everywhere.
I believe that Mr. Weigel misses the larger point. There is also an American problem. I believe the American problem and the European problem reinforce and feed off each other, and are part of a larger problem of religious apathy that marks the sophisticated scientific and technological societies that developed in the United States and Western Europe during the last century. Expressed as exclusive secularism in the open European revolt against God, the problem is also expressed in business as usual American indifference to the importance of God and Gods wisdom in the development of foreign policy.
Mr. Weigel ends his piece by writing that these difficult first years of the twenty-first century have taught us the importance of reading world politics in new ways. But I believe his article argues in old ways. Can we expect, for example, that American embassies in Europe, in the exercise of public diplomacy, can ever be up to the task of systematically engaging in a war of ideas with the European media, European universities and research institutes, and European voluntary organizations”all those places where European opinion is molded? American embassies have thus far failed in the task, according to Mr. Weigel, but does that failure surprise him?
Mr. Weigel writes that Europe needs a rebirth of life-transforming and culture-forming Christian conviction, especially Catholic conviction. Perhaps his trans-Atlantic initiatives would be served by challenging the Catholic Church in Europe and America to organize colleges, universities, distinguished faculty, and qualified members of the laity in the launching of a generously funded intellectual and spiritual offensive against misguided atheism in the United States and Western Europe.
As a lifelong Catholic, I have discovered over the years many ways to characterize the indispensability of Gods wisdom in human affairs, among them the use of language and metaphors with which atheists can identify. I believe that success in this war of ideas begins with such language and metaphors.
I didnt know whether to laugh or cry at reading George Weigels old fashioned integrist Catholic explanation for what has gone wrong with Europe. Of course it is that Europe has abandoned the faith of its fathers! And the only place in Europe where the faith still matters is the Slavic East, especially Poland.
This not only sounds like Catho-lic propaganda of the Christopher Dawson variety; it is also Polish propaganda. The alleged understanding of Poles that culture and faith mean more than politics and power is absurd. Poland was not liberated from Nazi domination by faith and culture; it was liberated by Bolshevik troops. Slavic spirituality has always been an excuse for backwardness and a justification for savagery.
Ever since Joseph de Maistre and Pius IX, Europeans have been told that all would be well if they would just return to the faith of their fathers. Arrogant nonsense.
Emeritus Professor of History
University of California, Riverside
To be persuaded by George Weigels argument one must first buy into the idea that Europe is having a civilizational morale crisis, as he puts it. He doesnt give any evidence of such a crisis. If anything, Europe seems to be evolving beyond its aggressive, colonial tendencies of the past into a more socially and economically progressive entity that relies less and less on the nation-state. It is the United States that continues to become more spiritually, morally, and economically bankrupt, even though religion outwardly plays a larger role in our society than in much of Europe.
Mr. Weigel suggests that we should assume that Europe is in crisis because 80 to 90 percent of its population was and is strongly opposed to the war in Iraq. What this opposition proves is that the population of Europe has a strong sense of morality and justice; aggressive military action against the people of another nation that has not attacked yours is immoral and unjust. The Bush administrations transparent and ever-shifting reasons for invading Iraq are now unraveling. It is becoming more and more evident that this administration was determined to invade Iraq from its beginning and was searching for any pretext to do so. This reminds one of how Hitler was fixated on invading Poland and felt he didnt need any credible justification.
Mr. Weigel claims that history is driven, over the long haul, by culture”by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good, and by the expressions they give to those convictions. If this is true then America is the society that is in trouble, not Europe. Look at our TV-fed, mall-driven, materialistic, Hollywood-defined culture. Look at what Americans honor and cherish and worship: their cars, their clothes, their things. It doesnt show a high level of spiritual or moral sophistication to be outraged by the exposure of Janet Jacksons breast. Where is the moral outrage at the killing and maiming of thousands of men, women, and children in Iraq in a preemptive war to destroy weapons of mass destruction that didnt exist? What good does it do to believe in God or to go to church if you dont stand up against moral injustices like these?
Nyack, New York
George Weigels learned article is full of foreboding for the future of Europe, which he believes is threatened by the rise of atheistic humanism and an influx of Muslim immigrants. But what he really objects to is Europes failure to follow the Bush administrations lead on any number of foreign policy issues, and Europes preference for using soft power in conflict resolution rather than military hard power.
For that I do not fault the Europeans, who can forget neither the carnage of World War I nor the devastation of so many of their great cities in World War II. Americans, with the exception of the South in our Civil War, have never experienced such devastation.
Mr. Weigel makes much of what he sees as atheistic humanism in Europe, and he calls for a revitalization of Europes Christian roots. But I would remind him that many of Europes longest and bloodiest wars were fought over religion”when the contenders on both sides were Christian.
Mr. Weigels fears of the tides of immigration from North Africa, Turkey, and other parts of the Islamic world to Europe reminds me of American fears over the waves of unwashed immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean to our shores at the close of the nineteenth century. They brought changes to the United States, but they also revitalized our society with their energies and talents, as do our more recent Hispanic immigrants today.
Just as Judaism gave birth to Christianity, and both of them to Islam, it is entirely possible that the new meeting of Islam and Europe will result in a stronger and more vigorous Europe and will mitigate the European problem that Mr. Weigel so gloomily predicts.
George Weigel replies:
Europes Problem”and Ours was a kind of reconnaissance mission, probing whether a different way of reading history might shed some light on Europes past as well as on its present circumstances (and ours). I certainly dont pretend to have all the answers to what seems, to more than a few Europeans, to be their current crisis. But as the conventional political explanations of the situation seemed unsatisfactory, I thought it useful to widen the analytical lens a bit by taking the cultural roots of history more seriously than academic historians typically do. So I welcome a robust debate about what I found in the course of my reconnaissance, in the conviction that that kind of debate yields more fruitful intelligence.
Daniel Callahans thoughtful letter raises questions that I continue to ponder myself, including the question of why the Catholic Church has so strikingly failed to teach so many of its people that children are to be welcomed as a gift rather than considered primarily as an economic burden. Mr. Callahan is surely right that dramatic changes in European society and the European economy over the past several hundred years bear on the question of Europes dramatically changed family structures and its catastrophically low birth rates. But I am surprised that a former colleague of Christopher Dawson should so easily dismiss the emergence of an exclusivist secularism as one part of the causal mix. If ideas have consequences, then the flattening of the horizon of human possibility and responsibility that exclusivist secularism inculcates surely has something to do with a continent-wide failure to create the human future in the most elemental sense. As for finding a way out of this problem, let me suggest that Mr. Callahan take (another?) look at Pope John Paul IIs 2003 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa , which might provide a starting point for a useful discussion.
I trust that W. T. Hinds will permit the suggestion that he have a look at Christopher Dawson on the Christian roots of the public culture that eventually gave birth to European democracy. The story of the Catholic Churchs resistance to certain forms of European democracy in the early modern period is reasonably well known. What is less well known is the story of the persecution of the Church by emerging European democracies, which continued (in the case of France) into the early twentieth century. And what has been largely forgotten is what the Catholic Church taught European man over a millennium of history: that the sovereignty of God qualifies all worldly sovereignties; that consent is crucial to just governance; that there is an inherent sense of justice in the people; and that states are accountable to moral truths that transcend them. These ideas (all of which are under pressure in twenty-first-century Europe) were crucial in the emergence of free societies in Europe, irrespective of the role played by the early modern popes. Well not get to the historical roots of Europes current malaise by reading the past through the cracked lenses of the Whig theory of history.
Robert Kelleher and I are agreed that, as the title of my article indicated, Europes problem is also ours, if in a different form.
As for Norman Ravitch, its sad to think that a history professor is so ignorant of the roots of the revolution of 1989 in east-central Europe. Were he minimally familiar with that dramatic story, he would not, I hope, indulge himself quite so freely in hoary ethnic and religious stereotyping of the sort that identifies Slavic spirituality exclusively with backwardness and a justification for savagery.
It would be interesting to put John Gromada in contact with the numerous Europeans who have thanked me for my description of their situation and my diagnosis of its cultural roots. These colleagues are quite persuaded that Western Europe is suffering through a crisis of civilizational morale, and that the sources of the crisis are to be found in culture. I have no case to make for the junk that American popular culture often exports abroad; but if Mr. Gromada would watch German television for a few nights, I think hed find that things are just as bad in Europe as they are in the United States, and arguably worse. I dont know where Mr. Gromada learned about the killing and maiming of thousands of men, women, and children in Iraq by U.S. forces; but while he is seeking more accurate information about the remarkably light civilian casualties in March and April 2003”a direct result of the way in which the United States chose to wage war”he might contemplate the tens of thousands of Iraqi corpses that have been unearthed from mass graves since the Saddam Hussein regime (which put those people in those graves) fell. Then he might, I hope, think again about the meaning of moral injustice.
I dont quite know how Yale Richmond knows what I really object to about the current state of Europe, but it rather strains credulity to suggest, as he seems to do, that French, German, and Russian objections to U.S. policy in Iraq had to do with a more refined moral sensibility. As for the old canard that Europes bloodiest wars were the wars of religion, no serious student of the carnage of the twentieth century can credit that. The European wars of religion were a disgrace; to compare them in lethality with the First and Second World Wars is, quite literally, incredible.
None of my correspondents could have anticipated the events of mid-March in Spain, in which the electorate seemed to truckle to terrorist blackmail by voting out the party of former Prime Minister José María Aznar, which had supported the U.S. position on Iraq. Such appeasement strikes me as a perfect, and chilling, example of precisely what I meant in my essay by a crisis of civilizational morale.
In his article, The Enemies of Religious Liberty (February), James Hitchcock may have misinterpreted the essence of the dissenting opinion of Justice William O. Douglas in Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972).
Justice Douglas did not give carte blanche approval to the right of all children under all circumstances to disagree with, and to defy, the religious guidance of their parents. He proposed this formula: Where the child is mature enough to express potentially conflicting desires, it would be an invasion of the childs rights to permit such an imposition without canvassing his views. The Courts opinion expressly disclaimed any intention to rule on the issue of a childs right to pursue his or her own religious orientation.
I note the failure by Professor Hitchcock to present supporting citations for his attribution to Justice Douglas of the view that 90 percent of people were not even fit to be parents. Prof. Hitchcock also failed to present any citations of statutes or of judicial precedents to support his claim that, for Justice Douglas, it is an open question whether parents possess the right to raise their children in a particular religion. I submit that it is well-established law that parents possess a nearly absolute right to imbue their children with the doctrines and practices of their religion.
Benjamin D. Sherman
Saddle Brook, New Jersey
James Hitchcock replies:
In the Yoder case, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice Byron D. White, both of whom wrote majority opinions, agreed that if Amish children wanted to attend a public high school contrary to their parents wishes, the childrens desires were relevant. The justices noted, however, that the state of Wisconsin presented no evidence of such a desire on the part of the children. Thus Justice Douglas dissent was based on an unproven supposition.
In his dissent Justice Douglas did not merely hold that if adolescent children expressed a desire to pursue opportunities in the larger world they had a right to do so, but also that the state had an obligation to insure that such a possibility was not foreclosed: If a parent keeps his child out of school beyond the grade school, then the child will be forever barred from an entry into the new and amazing world of diversity that we have today, a principle which seems to require that Amish children be made to attend high school even if they do not wish to, since at some future time they might change their minds.
As Chief Justice Burger noted, academic experts on the Amish way of life, whose testimony was not contradicted in court, thought that to send Amish children to a public high school would undermine their way of life. This was apparently irrelevant to Justice Douglas, who was thoroughly convinced that religion is an individual experience. This is precisely the issue in much present-day discussion of religion in society. Such a definition virtually excludes religion from any significant social influence.
Justice Douglas claim that 90 percent of people are unfit to be parents can be found in his book Go East Young Man .
Reading Noah Millmans True Fictions of Fatherhood (February) inspired some serious thinking about my own family. Telling my younger brother that he was adopted had the power to hurt him when we were growing up (and later on to amuse him) only because we both accepted, as Mr. Millman does, that there is no more essential tie than that of blood. But working in the blood-centered culture of Latin America has given me a different idea of blood. Latin American men will almost never adopt a child outside of their extended family. And they are greatly suspicious of other men who do. The tragedy is that almost half a million children die in Latin America every year under the age of five, while the number of adoptions is minuscule.
I now have a deeper understanding of my Christian heritage. By being baptized into Christ and receiving his body and blood in the Eucharist, it no longer matters what our biological blood is, because we are actual or potential brothers and sisters through the blood of Christ.
Saint Anne Adoption Centre
Noah Millman replies:
I cant disagree that true civilization depends on the extension of trust beyond the bounds of family and clan. Nonetheless, I note that Kenneth Plotnik does not look to the state to establish his blood-brotherhood with all humanity but to the actions of his God. That is, I think, entirely fitting, and entirely in keeping with the spirit of my own piece.
The Monotheists by F. E. Peters and Edward T. Oakes review of it (February) unfortunately affirm the thesis that no revelation can trump another, for to do so would be to step outside the circle of the elect recipients of that revelation, exactly what revelation forbids. What happened to truth?
Fortunately, thousands of Jews risked being outcast by converting to Christianity at the Pentecost, while many others have done so ever since. They experienced first- or secondhand the reality of the person of Jesus Christ, Gods supreme revelation to humanity. It was not one mans dream in a cave. The story of Jesus comes through many authors who were with him or knew people who were. The witnesses to Jesus include the martyrs who knew him. Nobody gives up his life for someone he knows is a fraud.
Jesus is a person who not only taught in front of thousands, but showed the world how to live. His teachings of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are revered by many in all three religions. He was not just compassionate but, as Thomas Cahill says, he was compassion. His miracles were never for self-aggrandizement but for the sake of others. His wisdom is astounding as he parries the priests and Sadducees. In contrast, Mohammed never claimed to perform a miracle, was married over ten times, and led an army.
In a word, faith that is not grounded in objective reality is a dream.
Willam J. Downey
Manhasset, New York
Edward T. Oakes replies:
William J. Downey apparently thinks that when I say No revelation can trump another, I have thereby lapsed into postmodern relativism. But my point was a formal one: If someone is first convinced that one particular revelation is true and then converts to a different monotheistic religion, he is doing precisely what his original revelation forbids. That happens, of course”St. Paul being perhaps the most famous example. But Paul converted to Christ not because he surveyed the claims of the early Christian community in Jerusalem over against the claims of a nascent rabbinic Judaism but because he was vouchsafed a further revelation. Nor does the presence of martyrs in the Christian churches afford the clinching answer, for Jewish rabbis have been martyred throughout history with the confession God is One on their lips, and Shiite Muslims make a veritable cult of martyrdom, to an extreme that makes Mel Gibson look anodyne. I must stress, however, that these points, easily verified by history (and F. E. Peters book is entirely phenomenological in approach), do not concede the standard relativistic and typically American conclusion that its all the same God anyway. Blaise Pascal could offer a most vigorous defense of Christianity over against both Judaism and Islam, but he was never so naïve as to think that mere rational argument or ethical comparison would do the trick.
Eric Miller makes some important points in Alone in the Academy (February), his MacIntyre-inspired lament about the modern university. Among the most important points is that a university which elevates a deracinated liberalism to the status of doctrine will be unable to provide anything that could justly be called a liberal education.
However, I would quarrel with his claim that such liberalism is expressive of an essentially jaded and socially dispirited institution. What he calls the dominant liberal standpoint of the university seems to me to be rather one instance of the communitarian purpose he wishes it to have. Mr. Millers liberal opponents agree with him, I think, that the universities ought to provide a collective moral goal; they disagree about the content of that goal.
To be sure, Mr. Miller does write eloquently of the need for openness and wonder in a university education. But a harmony or synthesis of communitarian purpose and theoretical openness is what many of his liberal counterparts are after, too, and what they have failed repeatedly to deliver. That they adopt a more cynical pose nowadays is only to be expected.
A more modest yet potentially more invigorating hope might be that our universities strive, not to edify or regenerate the community, but to educate the people (or some or many of the people) who compose it. Among other things, this would allow us to draw back from anxious talk about the university and its social purpose and speak in a less fraught way about the various colleges and universities and their various educational programs. On what other terms could a Christian university thrive today?
Andrew J. Bove
Department of Political Science
Eric Miller replies:
Andrew J. Bove assumes a distinction between education and edifying a community that, if applied, would actually diminish each. How can community-building be achieved absent a common educational vision and experience for its members? And how can education, in its fullest sense, take place, if it is not in service to the larger community of which the institution is a part? That the university may now be unable to fulfill these ends is precisely the point. What we need, in short, is not the diminishment of our aspirations for universities but rather universities better constituted to fulfill them.
I have just read with respect and regret Last Time by James Nuechterlein (February). I suppose I could be described as a mostly left-of-center Catholic, albeit imperfectly left and imperfectly Catholic. I have a craving for discussion of the topics that have occupied this publication for the years of Mr. Nuechterleins service. Almost without exception, I have found grist for examining and challenging my presuppositions in a reasoned way. For those of us for whom the important questions matter, Mr. Nuechterleins efforts at answers, and his editorial care with the answers offered by others, were always enlightening, even when they did not produce agreement. Thanks for the witness, as well as for your example of careful thinking.
School of Law
Loyola University of Chicago
In Februarys While Were At It, Richard John Neuhaus argued that Muslims worship the same God that Christians worship, although Muslims identify God as Allah. This conclusion would not seem to agree with a review of the relevant portions of the Koran.
A review of the Koran shows that Allah has attributes inconsistent with the Christian God. To summarize, Allah has no son, Allah is not a member of the Trinity, and Allah is not Jesus. These three conclusions contradict the nature of God revealed in Scripture. Where does that leave us? We have two possible options. Either Allah”as defined by the Koran”is not God or the Bible misrepresents God. The latter position seems untenable, given that the Bible is the inspired word of God and God cannot lie.
If we edit out the offensive passages from the Koran in an effort to make Allah consistent with God, then we would seem to be guilty of arrogance in claiming that we understand Islam better than Muslims. Moreover, we would fall into the same relativistic error that First Things so has ably noted about certain portions of the Church in America today. In that case, we would be changing foundational documents and doctrines to meet the fashions of the moment. Finally, even if we could disregard the Koran, we are still left with the difficult problem of convincing Muslims that they have misunderstood Islam”and Allah”for the past 1,400 years.
Disrgarding these passages also requires that we not take Islam”as defined by the Koran”seriously. If we wish to understand Islam, then we should note the core claims made in Islam. A failure to note and appreciate these claims risks serious misperceptions about the nature of Islam and Allah.
As Christians, we may not know what Allah is or even if he exists, but we can know that he is not God.
Again, there is only one God. The Arabic word for God is Allah. Arabic Christians, as well as Muslims, pray to Allah. Christians believe that Muslims are profoundly wrong in their understanding of the one God (or Allah) to whom we both pray. And yes, it is a difficult but inescapable challenge to convince Muslims that they misunderstand the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, and Mohammed. As some scholars contend, Islam may best be understood as a Christian heresy, and was so understood by many Christians in the seventh and eighth centuries. But that is a story for another time.