The following is adapted from a paper delivered at the first international Jean-Marie Lustiger symposium, held at the College des Bernardins in Paris on February 11, 2010.

In June 2003, Pope John Paul II published his last notable contribution to the Catholic Church’s reflection on the culture of political modernity, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa . Twelve years had passed since the path breaking encyclical Centesimus Annus , which had imaginatively and boldly inserted the universal Church into the debate over the shape of the post-Cold War world by insisting that both democratic political communities and free economies required a vibrant public moral culture, formed by the truths about man and society that can be known by reason, if democracy and the market were to result in genuine human flourishing. Viewed as an update of Centesimus Annus , Ecclesia in Europa can be read as a papal report card on how well, or how poorly, a newly united Europe was living its first period of uncontested peace and freedom since 1914.

The report card gave Europe mixed grades.

Amidst understandable satisfaction that freedom had triumphed over tyranny and that the artificial division of post-war Europe had ended, John Paul nonetheless was deeply concerned that the new Europe was suffering from spiritual malaise”from an “existential fragmentation” that was evident in “grave uncertainties at the levels of culture, anthropology, ethics, and spirituality.” At what ought to have been a time of cultural renewal, Europeans seemed dubious about the worth of their civilizational accomplishment, guilt-ridden about the past, and confused about the relationship of the true, the good, and the beautiful to twenty-first century life. Those characteristics of the European cast of mind displayed themselves in numerous ways, but the most striking was Europe’s failure to create the future in the most elemental sense, by creating successor generations. And while Europe’s demographic winter was undoubtedly the result of a complex of causes, something was clearly awry in the realm of the human spirit when an entire continent”wealthier, healthier, and more secure than ever before”was depopulating itself, not because of war, natural disaster, or plague, but by its own will. The Pope summed up his concerns by suggesting that the “most urgent matter Europe faces, in both East and West, is a growing need for hope, a hope that will enable us to give meaning to life and history and to continue on our way together.”

What was perhaps most striking about Ecclesia in Europa , however, was the biblical framework John Paul II chose for his analysis of twenty-first century European public life: the Book of Revelation, originally addressed to the “seven churches” of what we call Asia Minor. At the time of St. John’s visions, all of these churches were living, if struggling, Christian communities; in 2003, six were titular sees in the Annuario Pontificio , and only one, Smyrna, was home to a bishop, although the name of his archdiocesan see had changed to Izmir. Such “framing” biblical reference points in a papal document are not accidental; they are intended to send a message. And if one part of John Paul II’s message in Ecclesia in Europa was to lift up the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21:2 as a horizon of aspiration for our building the earthly City and a symbol of reassurance that God’s purposes will ultimately be vindicated, then the parallel message was a warning: Twenty-first century Europe was at risk of duplicating the unhappy fate of the classical world in which the “seven churches” of the Book of Revelation had taken root. There is nothing given about civilizational vitality and continuity, John Paul II seemed to be suggesting. The civilization of the West”the product of a fruitful encounter among Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, biblical religion, Greek reason, and Roman law”was a gift to the present from the past. But in order to be able to pass that gift to future generations of Europeans, the Europe of the twenty-first century had to take more secure possession of its moral-cultural heritage”not least by challenging certain secularist shibboleths and rediscovering how much of that heritage was the by-product of the leaven of the Gospel.

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, whose thinking about European civilization in its origins and in its contemporary struggles closely paralleled that of John Paul II, was keenly aware of how much what we call “the West””Europe, and Europe transplanted into the western hemisphere and other parts of the globe”owed to Christianity. Europe’s unity as a common civilizational enterprise was not, in Lustiger’s view, the “result of a political framework;” rather, the “basic [European] mold” was created by the meeting of “Judaeo-Christian tradition with Greek and Latin civilization.” Moreover, that “mold” had proven so liberating that it had had a universal impact. Thus in a 1984 interview in La Croix , Lustiger argued that Christianity had given Europe, and then, through Europe, the entire world, four of the cultural building blocks of modernity: science as the product of rational inquiry; the exploration of the planet and what Lustiger described as the drawing up of an “inventory of the human race;” the notion that the fundamental requisite of a just society was the rule of law “at the service of the common good of human beings and [of] their dignity as persons;” and the idea of “development,” rooted in the biblical conviction that history can be a march towards greater justice and equity in human affairs.

Lustiger also anticipated another of John Paul II’s concerns in Ecclesia in Europa : that if the “great values which amply inspired European culture” were “willfully separated from the Gospel,” the result was likely to be “any number of aberrations.” In that same La Croix interview, given almost two decades before Ecclesia in Europa , Lustiger spoke of “the idols of the European nations as Christian ideas gone mad; they are reason taken to excess, the manipulation of communications, and the use of the state against the community.” Even so prescient an analyst as Jean-Marie Lustiger might not, however, have foreseen the ways in which a Christian idea gone mad”the idea of tolerance, lifted up by the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae ”would, within a generation, lead to the “dictatorship of relativism” of which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned at the Mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice on April 18, 2005.

Both John Paul II and Jean-Marie Lustiger were acutely aware of the burden of guilt that shaped much of post-war European culture, and which continues to distort the continent’s interior life today. In a 1981 address to the religious and political leadership of West Germany and to the diplomatic corps in Bonn, Lustiger spoke of an “evil spirit which broods over Europe and its past . . . the guilt which comes from achieving brilliant success at the cost of the very principles which have made such a success possible.” Here, Lustiger had in mind “the proclamation of freedom [which] became the will to dominate . . . the pursuit of equality [which] produced slavery,” and “the affirmation of brotherhood [which] became the origin of bloody struggles and of hopeless divisions.” Now, Lustiger said, “as if exhausted by violence, Europe is hardly capable of transmitting life to new generations; poor, wounded Europe is causing the springs of life to run dry. The fruitfulness of love is under attack and the fruits of love are being aborted.” Twenty-two years later, in Ecclesia in Europa , John Paul II wrote poignantly of the soul-withering effects of a European guilt that could not be expiated, because the notion of “sin” had been displaced: “One of the roots of the hopelessness that assails many people today is found in their inability to see themselves as sinners and to allow themselves to be forgiven, an inability often resulting from the isolation of those who, by living as if God did not exist, have no one from whom they can seek forgiveness.”

The displacement of the God of the Bible in the name of human liberation, a phenomenon brilliantly analyzed by Henri de Lubac in The Drama of Atheist Humanism , has thus had precisely the opposite effects than those promised by the thinkers whose work shaped twenty-first century Europe’s post-Christian culture. Rather than liberation from the alleged burdens of God-consciousness, there is an unexpiated and, in principle, unexpiatable, burden of guilt. Rather than tolerance, there is, on the one hand, increasing nervousness about “difference,” and, on the other, the imposition of moral relativism by coercive state power. Rather than international leadership, there is international impotence. Rather than civil responsibility, there is ever-expanding governmental bureaucracy. And at just the moment when Europeans can be reasonably confident that their children will not be cannon fodder, children are increasingly hard to find. Those who cannot see the connections between these phenomena and the aggressive secularism of European high culture are, at this stage of the game, willfully blind. If wise and experienced non-believers like Marcello Pera and Giuliano Ferrara can understand the linkages here, there is no excuse for Christians not to do the same.

Which brings us to a question famously posed by Lenin: “What, then is to be done?”

As I understand it, Cardinal Lustiger’s pastoral strategy was one which began from the premise that the Church could no longer be (and in fact ought not be) a Church of power: either the power of the ancien régime , or the power to be found in an alliance with an ascendant European Left (as some proposed in the wake of the Council). Rather, the Church should re-evangelize France, not through the mediation of politics, but through the conversion of culture. This magnificent Collège des Bernardins is one physical embodiment, in stone, glass, and wood”and, more importantly, in the exercise of the intellect and the enrichment of the human spirit that takes place within these walls”of that strategy, which is, again, closely analogous to the “culture-first” strategy by which John Paul II in Centesimus Annus proposed to save free societies from the madnesses of their virtues. A similar concern for the conversion of culture was evident in Pope Benedict XVI’s address here in September 2008, which concluded with the Holy Father’s reminder that “what gave Europe’s culture its foundation”the search for God and the readiness to listen to him”remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”

There is a tactical question that shapes the strategic analysis here: and that is the question of whether it is possible to engage with the culture of post-modernity seriously, given that culture’s epistemological skepticism, moral relativism, and metaphysical nihilism. In his January 2004 debate with Jürgen Habermas on the moral-cultural foundations of the newly-expanded European Union, Joseph Ratzinger demonstrated how it is possible to make at least some progress beyond the confusions engendered by post-modernism on the question of whether Europe can in fact be “neutral between worldviews,” as Habermas and Jacques Derrida had earlier proposed. But bringing a man of Habermas’s intelligence to concede the necessity of a more solid moral-cultural foundation for democracy than he had once imagined desirable is one thing; converting a culture stewed in the juices of nihilism is another.

For that, as Rémi Brague has suggested, is Europe’s”and the entire West’s”real problem: nihilism. Thus the twenty-first century, Brague has proposed, will be the century of “being-and-nothingness,” as the twentieth century (dominated by the claims of totalitarian ideology) was the century of “good-and-evil,” and the nineteenth century (shaped by the social question and the demise of traditional society) was the century of “true-and-false.”

If nihilism is indeed the core problem of Europe (and by extension, the entire West) today, that casts the strategy of converting culture in a new light”as does the new aggression in public life demonstrated by the European, Canadian, and American exponents of what the Orthodox Jewish legal scholar J. H. H. Weiler has called “Christophobia,” itself another by-product of post-modern nihilism. Thus permit me to make several suggestions for refining the “culture-first” strategy of Jean-Marie Lustiger and John Paul II.

(1) Intolerance in the name of “tolerance” must be named for what it is and publicly condemned. To deny religiously-informed moral argument a place in the European public square is intolerant and anti-democratic. To identify the truths of biblical morality with bigotry and intolerance is a distortion of moral truth and an intolerant, uncivil act, which must be named as such. To imagine that any state, or the European Union, has the authority to redefine marriage, a human institution that antedates the state ontologically as well as historically, is to open the door to what John Paul II called, in Centesimus Annus , a “thinly disguised totalitarianism””and this, too, must be said, publicly. All of this will require European Christians”and especially European intellectuals and political leaders”to overcome what often seems to be a deeply-engrained and internalized sense of marginalization within contemporary society.

(2) We must speak openly, as well, about the empirically demonstrable and deplorable effects of the sexual revolution on individuals and society, while calling our contemporaries to a new appreciation of the dignity and nobility of human love. In John Paul II’s Theology of the Body , believers and unbelievers alike have a more compelling account of our human embodiedness as male and female, and the reciprocity and fruitfulness “built into” that embodiedness and differentiation, than theories of human sexuality that reduce sexual differentiation to a question of plumbing and human love to another sporting activity. Young people, deeply wounded by a culture of promiscuity that tells them simultaneously that they must be sexually active and that sex could kill them, are yearning for the truth about love, as the remarkable impact of the Theology of the Body on American university campuses and in marriage-preparation programs demonstrates. This weapon in the conversion of culture ought to be fully and unapologetically deployed: and if that requires making the public claim that the Catholic Church understands human sexuality better than the prophets of sexual liberation, then so be it.

(3) The reduction of Christian history to the Crusades, the European wars of religion, Galileo’s trial, and the Inquisition must be publicly challenged, for these “black legends” feed nihilism and put obstacles in the way of the conversion of culture”even as they reinforce the guilt that distorts twenty-first century European culture. Contemporary scholarship has deepened our understanding of the Crusades as a legitimate, if often mismanaged and brutal, response to Islamic aggression, even as it has demonstrated that such horrors as the Thirty Years War were far more about politics than about the fine points of the theology of justification. As for the Inquisition, the Church has repented, publicly, of this and other unsavory alliances with state power; when will the European Left apologize for communism, which killed more men and women in a slow week than the Inquisition did in centuries? As for science, absent Christianity and its convictions about a world imprinted with the divine reason through the Logos, it would almost certainly have not developed as it did in Europe (or anywhere else). I raise these matters of historical record, not to score debating points, but to suggest that part of the challenge we face today is to recognize, with John Paul II and Cardinal Lustiger, that Europe (and indeed the entire West) is suffering from a false story about itself, and about the relationship of biblical religion to its formation and its history.

(4) The Catholic Church, while enriching its interior life through a deepened encounter with the sources of its faith in the Bible, the Fathers, and the sacraments ( ressourcement ), and while developing ever more winsome ways to make the Church’s proposal to a post-Christian Europe ( aggiornamento ), must also join forces with men and women of conscience who may not be believers, in order to challenge publicly the ever-more-ominous dictatorship of relativism of which Cardinal Ratzinger warned. The Church’s engagement with European culture and politics, in other words, must be less diffident, less defensive, and more assertive”not in the sense of aggression, but of truth-telling “in and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Finally, having offered you some unsolicited advice, let me suggest why all of this is important for the rest of the West, which is Europe exported.

Because nineteenth century American coalmines lacked proper ventilation, miners brought with them, deep down into the earth, a canary in a cage. When the canary began to wobble, it was a sign that the air was becoming toxic. If the canary toppled over and died, the air had become insufficient to support life and it was time to get out of the mine shaft.

Europe, which created “the West,” is the West’s canary-in-the-mine-shaft: the test of whether the ambient atmosphere of post-modernity, which is most advanced here on the continent, is becoming too toxic to sustain human life and genuine culture. The acids of post-modern nihilism have eaten into the cultural foundations of all of our societies; little that I have described here, in terms of the public effects of post-modern nihilism, could not be found in the United States; it can certainly be found in Canada. Yet the United States, for all its flaws and confusions, has not become a post-Christian society, and a place for religiously-informed moral argument remains reasonably secure in the American public square. That, I am convinced, is because of the efforts of those who, while seeking to convert the culture, have not hesitated to confront the culture and to organize politically so that the instruments of law do not reinforce the temptations of nihilism. We have not always succeeded, not at all. But we are fighting.

I commend that more combative stance to you, who stand watch over the societies that gave birth to my own, in contesting for the causes we share. You will not find Americans lacking as allies in the twenty-first century, as you did not find us lacking as allies in the century just past.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author of fifteen books, including the international best seller, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II.

Articles by George Weigel

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