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What is the true definition of Europe? Where does it begin, and where does it end? Why, for example, is Siberia not considered part of Europe, even though many Europeans live there, and it has a European style of thinking and living? To the south of the community of Russian peoples, where do the borders of Europe disappear? Which Atlantic islands are European and which are not? Europe is a geographic term only in a secondary sense: Europe is rather a cultural and historical concept.

Experts on the origins of Europe traditionally refer back to Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.), the first known writer to designate Europe as a geographic concept: “The Persians consider something of their property to be Asia and the barbarian peoples who live there, while they maintain that Europe and the Greek world are a separate country.”

Though the lands at the heart of today’s Europe were completely outside of the visual field of the ancient historian, the formation of the Hellenistic states and the Roman Empire led to the establishment of a “continent” that would be the basis for the later Europe. As a whole, the lands facing the Mediterranean came to form a true continent by virtue of their cultural ties, trade routes, and common political system. It was not until the advance of Islam in the seventh and early eighth centuries that a border would be drawn across the Mediterranean, subdividing what had been a single continent into three: Asia, Africa, and Europe.

In the East the ancient world was transformed more slowly than in the West. Shifting its capital to Constantinople, the Roman Empire would resist in the East until the fifteenth century, although it was pushed further and further to the margins. During the same period, the southern Mediterranean region found itself cut off completely from what had been a cultural continent for centuries, while Europe grew steadily northward. The ancient continental border that the Romans called limes disappeared. A new historical space opened up whose heartland encompassed Gaul, Germany, and Britannia, and whose northern reach expanded more and more toward Scandinavia.

Amid this process of shifting borders, a theology of history was constructed that guaranteed ideal continuity with the earlier Mediterranean continent in its various configurations. According to this thinking, rooted in the Book of Daniel, the Roman Empire had been renewed and transformed by the Christian faith, which therefore became the last reign in the history of the world. The framework of peoples and states that emerged defined itself as the permanent Sacrum Imperium Romanum, the Holy Roman Empire.

The process of forming a new historical and cultural identity took place in a fully conscious manner under the reign of Charlemagne, when the ancient name of Europe returned to circulation with a new meaning. It was now used to define the kingdom of Charlemagne and to express an awareness of both the continuity and the novelty of this new aggregate of states, which presented itself as a force that would be propelled into the future—into the future, because it saw itself as a continuation of a world history that until then had been mired in an unchanging situation. This emerging sense of self-consciousness expressed an awareness of finality and of mission.

With the end of the Carolingian reign, however, the concept of Europe almost disappeared, surviving only in erudite usage. The term did not become popular currency again until the beginning of the modern era—as a means of self-identification, in response to the Turkish threat—and was asserted more generally in the eighteenth century. Apart from the history of the name, the decisive step toward Europe as we understand it today was when the Frankish kingdom constituted itself as the heir to the Roman Empire.

In Byzantium (which considered itself the true Rome), the Roman Empire had withstood the upheaval of migrations and the Islamic invasion. The Eastern Roman Empire continued to advance claims on the Empire’s Western half. It extended as far north as the Slavic world and created its own Greco-Roman world that distinguished itself from the Latin Europe of the West by introducing variants in the liturgy and in the ecclesiastical constitution, adopting a different script, and renouncing the use of Latin as the common language.

The two worlds also had enough unifying elements, however, to be considered a single continent. First of all, both the East and the West were the heirs to the Bible and to the ancient Church, which in both worlds refer beyond themselves to an origin that lies outside today’s Europe, namely in Palestine. Secondly, both shared the idea of the Roman Empire and of the essential nature of the Church, and therefore of law and legal instruments. The last factor I would mention is monasticism, which throughout the great upheavals of history continued to be the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of the ultimate guidance of humankind. As a pre-political and supra-political force, monasticism was also the bringer of ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.

Alongside the common ecclesiastical inheritance of the two Europes, however, a profound difference remained. In Byzantium, Empire and Church were virtually identified in each other. The emperor was also the head of the Church. He considered himself a representative of Christ and—following the Biblical example of Melchizedek, who was king and priest at the same time (Genesis 14:18)—he bore the official title, “king and priest,” from the sixth century on. Once the Emperor Constantine had left Rome, the autonomous position of bishop of Rome—as successor to Peter and supreme pastor of the Church—could be transplanted to the ancient capital of the Empire, where a duality of powers had been established at the beginning of the Age of Constantine. Neither the emperor nor the pope was absolute; each had separate powers.

Pope Gelasius I (492-496) expressed his vision of the West in a famous letter to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I, and, even more clearly in his fourth treatise, where, with reference to the Byzantine model of Melchizedek, he affirmed that the unity of powers lies exclusively in Christ: “Because of human weakness (pride!), they have separated for the times that followed the two offices, so that neither shall become proud.” On worldly matters, priests should follow the laws of the emperor installed by divine decree, while on divine matters the emperor should submit to the priest. This introduced a separation and distinction of powers that would be of vital importance to the later development of Europe, and laid the foundations for the distinguishing characteristics of the West.

Despite these restrictions, both sides continued to be driven to seek absolute power and to impose their power on the other, making the principle of separation also the source of endless strife. How this principle should be lived properly and how it should be concretized politically and religiously continue to be a fundamental issue in present and future Europe.

The European continent was born from the rise of the Carolingian Empire and the shift of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, with its mission toward the Slavic peoples. If we accept this premise, the beginning of the modern era marked a watershed, a radical change, for the two Europes in both the essence of the continent and its geographic outlines.

In 1453 Constantinople was conquered by the Turks. The historian Otto Hiltbrunner describes the event laconically: “The last . . . learned men emigrated . . . to Italy and passed on their knowledge of the original Greek texts to the Renaissance humanists; but the East was overcome by the absence of culture.” This may be an overstatement, since the reign of the Osmanli dynasty had its own culture, too. The European, Greco-Christian culture of Byzantium, however, did indeed come to an end.

There was a risk that one of the two branches of Europe would disappear, but the Byzantine heritage did not die: Moscow declared itself to be the third Rome, and founded its patriarchate on the principle of a second translatio imperii or transplanting of the Empire. Russia thus presented itself as a new metamorphosis of the Holy Roman Empire, as a distinct form of Europe, which nevertheless remained tied to the West and was increasingly oriented toward it, even to the point that Peter the Great sought to turn Russia into a Western country.

This northward expansion of Byzantine Europe meant that the continent’s borders also began to extend toward the East. While the choice of the Urals as the border may have been exceedingly arbitrary, the world to the east of the Urals became a kind of substructure of Europe, neither Asian nor European, that was substantially forged by the European subject at the same time as it was excluded from having subject status itself. It became the object rather than the architect of its own history, not unlike a colonial state.

At the beginning of the modern era, two events took place that were at the base of non-Western, Byzantine Europe: the break-up of ancient Byzantium and of its historical continuity with the Roman Empire; and the establishment of a second Europe, with a new capital in Moscow, whose borders extended eastward, and of a type of pre-colonial structure in Siberia.

During the same period, two events of major historical significance also took place in the West. The first is that most of the Germanic world broke away from Rome. The rise of a new, “enlightened” form of Christianity drew a separation line through the “West” that clearly marked not just a geographical but also a cultural limes: a border between two different ways of thinking and relating. Within the Protestant world, there was also a rupture between Lutherans and the Reformed churches. At the same time, the Church of England tried to steer a middle course between Catholics and Protestants. These divisions were later amplified by the difference between Christianity as a form of state religion, which came to be identified with Europe, and the free churches, which would find their home in North America.

The eastward expansion of Europe, through the progressive expansion of Russia into Asia, corresponded to a radical westward expansion of Europe to a world given the name “America” on the other side of the ocean. The subdivision of Europe into a Catholic half and a Protestant half came to be reflected in the part of the new world occupied by Europe. At first America was perceived as an outpost of Europe, a colony. In the wake of the French Revolution and the upheaval it sparked in Europe, however, America took on the characteristics of a subject. From the nineteenth century on, although America had been shaped by its European birth, it became an independent subject in its dealings with Europe.

Although the Holy Roman Empire had been in decline since the late Middle Ages, and it had faded also as an agreed-upon interpretation of history, it was not until the French Revolution that the spiritual framework it provided—and without which Europe could not have been formed—would shatter in a formal sense. This process had a major impact on both politics and ideals. In terms of ideals, there was a rejection of the sacred foundation both of history and of the state. History was no longer measured on the basis of an idea of God that had preceded it and given it shape. The state came to be understood in purely secular terms, based on rationalism and the will of citizens.

The secular state arose for the first time, abandoning and excluding any divine guarantee or legitimation of the political element as a mythological vision of the world and declaring that God is a private question that does not belong to the public sphere or to the democratic formation of the public will. Public life was now considered the realm of reason alone, which had no place for a seemingly unknowable God. From this perspective, religion and faith in God belonged to the realm of sentiment, not of reason. God and His will therefore ceased to be relevant to public life.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a new schism thus developed, the gravity of which we are only now grasping. There is no word for this schism in German, because in Germany it emerged very slowly. The romance languages, by contrast, define it as a division between Christians and “lay” people. Over the past two centuries, a deep rift has opened between the two groups in the Latin nations. Protestant Christianity, by contrast, was initially able to accommodate liberal enlightenment ideas without jeopardizing the framework of a broad Christian consensus. The ancient idea of empire was shattered by the formation of nation states—defined by their distinctive linguistic spheres—which proved to be the true bearers of history and of unprecedented power. In the place of empire there was a plural historical subject, the great European nations, whose drama was that each considered itself the depository of a universal mission, creating potential conflicts whose fatal impact we have experienced so painfully in the century that has just elapsed.

The two halves of ancient premodern Europe had essentially known only one next-door neighbor, with whom they had to negotiate as a matter of life and death: the Islamic world. It was only a question of time before they would expand toward America and in part toward Asia, continents that were lacking in great cultural protagonists. Still later, Europe would begin to make incursions into two continents, Africa and Asia, that it had previously dealt with only marginally, and that it would seek to transform into European colonial franchises.

If colonization could be considered a success, it is in the sense that contemporary Asia and Africa can also pursue the ideal of a world shaped by technology and prosperity. Yet there, too, the ancient religious traditions are undergoing a crisis and secular thinking has made inroads and begun to dominate public life. Yet these processes have also produced the opposite effect: Islam has been reborn, in part because of the new material wealth acquired by the Islamic countries, but mainly because of people’s conviction that Islam could provide a valid spiritual foundation to their lives. Such a foundation seems to have eluded old Europe, which, despite its enduring political and economic power, seems to be on the road to decline and fall.

By contrast to Europe’s denial of its religious and moral foundations, Asia’s great religious traditions, especially the mystical component expressed in Buddhism, have been elevated as spiritual powers. The optimism in European culture that Arnold Toynbee could still voice in the early 1960s sounds strangely antiquated today. “Of the twenty-eight cultures that we have identified . . . eighteen are dead and nine of the ten left—i.e., all except our own—already appear to be mortally wounded.” Who would repeat these same words today? Above all, what is our culture, and what has remained of it? Is European culture perhaps nothing more than the technology and trade civilization that has marched triumphantly across the planet? Or is it instead a post-European culture born on the ruins of the ancient European cultures?

There is a paradoxical synchrony in these developments. The victory of the post-European techno-secular world and the universalization of its lifestyle and thinking have spread the impression (especially in Asia and Africa) that Europe’s value system, culture, and faith—in other words, the very foundations of its identity—have reached the end of the road and have indeed already disappeared. From this perspective, the time has come for the affirmation of value systems of other worlds, such as pre-Colombian America, Islam, or Asian mysticism.

At the hour of its greatest success, Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life, subjecting it to transplants that erase its identity. At the same time as its sustaining spiritual forces have collapsed, a growing decline in its ethnicity is also taking place.

Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as though they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen—at least by some people—as a liability rather than as a source of hope. Here it is obligatory to compare today’s situation with the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice its vital energy had been depleted.

Which brings us to the problems of the present. There are two opposing diagnoses of the possible future of Europe. On the one hand, there is the thesis of Oswald Spengler, who believed that he had identified a natural law for the great moments in cultural history: First comes the birth of a culture, then its gradual rise, flourishing, slow decline, aging, and death. Spengler argued his thesis with examples culled from the history of cultures demonstrating the law of the natural life cycle. His thesis was that the West would come to an end, and that it was rushing heedlessly toward its demise, despite every effort to stop it. Europe could of course bequeath its gifts to a new emerging culture—following the example set by previous cultures during their decline—but as a historical subject its life cycle had effectively ended.

Spengler’s “biologistic” thesis attracted fierce opponents during the period between the two wars, especially in Catholic circles. Arnold Toynbee reserved harsh words for it, in arguments too readily ignored today. Toynbee emphasized the difference between technological-material progress and true progress, which he defined as spiritualization. He recognized that the Western world was indeed undergoing a crisis, which he attributed to the abandonment of religion for the cult of technology, nationalism, and militarism. For him this crisis had a name: secularism. If you know the cause of an illness, you can also find a cure: The religious heritage in all its forms had to be reintroduced, especially the “heritage of Western Christianity.” Rather than a biologistic vision, he offered a voluntaristic one focused on the energy of creative minorities and exceptional individuals.

Which leads us to the question of whether Toynbee’s diagnosis is correct. If it is, then we must ask whether it is in our power to reintroduce the religious dimension through a synthesis of what remains of Christianity and the religious heritage of humankind. Which factors will guarantee the future, and which have allowed the inner identity of Europe to survive throughout its metamorphoses in history? To put it more simply, what can still promise, today and tomorrow, to offer human dignity to life?

Since the French Revolution, two new European models have developed. In the Latin nations the lay model has prevailed. They sharply distinguish the state from religious bodies, deeming them to fall under the private sphere. The state denies that it has a religious foundation and affirms that it is based on reason and rational knowledge. Since reason is inherently fragile, however, these lay systems have proved to be weak, becoming easy prey for dictatorships. They survive only because elements of the old moral conscience have persevered, even without the earlier foundations, making it possible for a basic moral consensus to exist.

In the Germanic world, the liberal Protestant model of church and state has prevailed. According to this model, an enlightened Christian religion—conceived of as essentially moral and involving state-supported forms of worship—guarantees a moral consensus and a broad religious foundation to which the single non-state religions must conform. This model has long guaranteed state and social cohesion in Great Britain, the Scandinavian states, and once upon a time also in Prussian-dominated Germany. In Germany, however, the collapse of Prussian state Christianity left a vacuum that would later provide fertile terrain for the dictatorship. Today state churches throughout the world are marked by fatigue. Moral force—the foundation on which to build—does not emanate from the religious bodies dependent on the state or from the state itself.

Situated between the two models is the model of the United States of America. Formed on the basis of free churches, it adopts a separation between church and state. Above and beyond the single denominations, it is characterized by a Protestant Christian consensus that is not defined in denominational terms but rather in association with its sense of a special religious mission toward the rest of the world. The religious sphere thus acquires a significant weight in public affairs and emerges as a pre-political and supra-political force with the potential to have a decisive impact on political life. One can of course not hide the fact that in the United States, too, the Christian heritage is decaying at an incessant pace, while at the same time the rapid increase in the Hispanic population and the presence of religious traditions from all over the world have changed the picture.

To complicate the picture, we have to acknowledge that the Catholic Church today represents the largest single religious community in the United States, while American Catholics have absorbed the free-church traditions on the relation between the Church and politics, believing that a Church that is separate from the state better guarantees the moral foundation as a whole. Hence the promotion of the democratic ideal is seen as a moral duty that is in profound compliance with the faith. In this position we can rightly see a continuation, adapted to the times, of the model of Pope Gelasius described earlier.

But in Europe, in the nineteenth century, the two models were joined by a third, socialism, which quickly split into two different branches, one totalitarian and the other democratic. Democratic socialism managed to fit within the two existing models as a welcome counterweight to the radical liberal positions, which it developed and corrected. It also managed to appeal to various denominations. In England it became the political party of the Catholics, who had never felt at home among either the Protestant conservatives or the liberals. In Wilhelmine Germany, too, Catholic groups felt closer to democratic socialism than to the rigidly Prussian and Protestant conservative forces. In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.

The totalitarian model, by contrast, was associated with a rigidly materialistic, atheistic philosophy of history: It saw history deterministically, as a road of progress that passes first through the religious and then through the liberal phase to arrive at an absolute, ultimate society in which religion is surpassed as a relic of the past and collective happiness is guaranteed by the workings of material conditions.

This scientific façade hides an intolerant dogmatism that views the spirit as produced by matter and morals as produced by circumstances. According to its dictates, morals should be defined and practiced on the basis of society’s purposes, and everything is moral that helps to usher in the final state of happiness. This dogmatism completely subverts the values that built Europe. It also breaks with the entire moral tradition of humankind by rejecting the existence of values independent of the goals of material progress. Depending on circumstance, anything can become legitimate and even necessary; anything can become moral in the new sense of the term. Even humankind itself can be treated as an instrument, since the individual does not matter, only the future, the cruel deity adjudicating over one and all.

The Communist systems collapsed under the weight of their own fallacious economic dogmatism. Commentators have nevertheless ignored all too readily the role played by the Communists’ contempt for human rights and their subordination of morals to the demands of the system and the promise of a future. The greatest catastrophe encountered by such systems was not economic. It was the starvation of souls and the destruction of the moral conscience.

The essential problem of our times, for Europe and for the world, is that although the fallacy of the Communist economy has been recognized, its moral and religious fallacy has not been addressed. The unresolved issue of Marxism lives on: the crumbling of man’s original uncertainties about God, himself, and the universe. The decline of a moral conscience grounded in absolute values is still our problem, and left untreated, it can lead to the self-destruction of the European conscience, which we must begin to consider as a real danger—above and beyond the decline predicted by Spengler.

Amid the major upheavals of our day, is there a European identity that has a future and to which we can commit whole-heartedly?

A first element is the unconditionality with which human rights and human dignity should be presented as values that take precedence over any state jurisdiction. Fundamental rights are neither created by the lawmaker nor granted to the citizen. The value of human dignity, which takes precedence over all political action and all political decision-making, refers to the Creator: Only He can establish values that are grounded in the essence of humankind and are inviolable. The existence of values that cannot be modified by anyone is the true guarantee of our freedom and human greatness. In this fact, the Christian faith sees the mystery of the Creator and the condition of man, who was made in God’s image.

Today almost no one would openly deny the primacy of human dignity and basic human rights over any political decision. The horrors of Nazism and its racist doctrine are still too fresh in memory. But in the sphere of medicine and technology today, there are real threats to these values. If one considers cloning, the storing of human fetuses for research purposes and organ harvesting, and the whole field of genetic manipulation, no one can fail to have noticed the slow erosion of human dignity that threatens us. The situation is only made worse by the increased trafficking in human beings, new forms of slavery, and trafficking in human organs for the sake of transplants. To justify such unjustifiable means, “good ends” are cited repeatedly.

A second element that characterizes European identity is marriage and the family. Monogamous marriage—both as a fundamental structure for the relation between men and women and as the nucleus for the formation of the state community—was forged in the biblical faith. It gave its special physiognomy and its special humanity to Europe, both in the West and in the East, precisely because the form of fidelity and the sacrifice that it entails must always be regained through great efforts and suffering.

Europe would no longer be Europe if this fundamental nucleus of its social edifice were to vanish or be changed in an essential way. We all know how much marriage and the family are in jeopardy. Their integrity has been undermined by the easier forms of divorce at the same time as there has been a spread in the practice of cohabitation between men and women without the legal form of marriage. Paradoxically, homosexuals are now demanding that their unions be granted a legal form that is more or less equivalent to marriage. Such a development would fall outside the whole moral history of humanity that, whatever the diverse legal forms, has never lost sight of the fact that marriage is essentially the special communion of man and woman, which opens itself to children and thus to family.

The question this raises is not of discrimination but of what constitutes the human person as a man or as a woman, and which union should receive a legal form. If the union between man and woman has strayed further and further from legal forms, and if homosexual unions are perceived more and more as enjoying the same standing as marriage, then we are truly facing a dissolution of the image of humankind bearing consequences that can only be extremely grave.

The last element of the European identity is religion. I do not wish to enter into the complex discussion of recent years, but to highlight one issue that is fundamental to all cultures: respect for that which another group holds sacred, especially respect for the sacred in the highest sense, for God, which one can reasonably expect to find even among those who are not willing to believe in God. When this respect is violated in a society, something essential is lost. In European society today, thank goodness, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great figures must pay a fine. The same holds true for anyone who dishonors the Koran and the convictions of Islam. But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good.

This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure. What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive.

Multiculturalism, which is so passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own things. Multiculturalism teaches us to approach the sacred things of others with respect, but we can do this only if we ourselves are not estranged from the sacred, from God. With regard to others, it is our duty to cultivate within ourselves respect for the sacred and to show the face of the revealed God—the God who has compassion for the poor and the weak, for widows and orphans, for the foreigner; the God who is so human that he himself became man, a man who suffered, and who by his suffering with us gave dignity and hope to our pain.

Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the identity of Europe. We will also fail in providing a service to others to which they are entitled. To the other cultures of the world, there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. Multiculturalism itself thus demands that we return once again to ourselves.

We do not know what the future of Europe will be. Here we must agree with Toynbee, that the fate of a society always depends on its creative minorities. Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority, helping Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and thereby to place itself at the service of all humankind.

Benedict XVI is pope of the Catholic Church. This essay will appear in his volume Without Roots, from Basic Books, this February.