Europe's Apostasy; Mother Knows Best

Where Europe (and America?) Are Heading

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ROME, SEPT. 9, 2011 ( As an art historian, I am keenly aware of the debt Western painting and sculpture have to Christianity. Without the incarnation of Jesus Christ, there would be no Last Supper by Leonardo, no Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and no St. Teresa in Ecstasy by Bernini — to take just three immediate examples.

Western civilization, however, owes much more to Christianity than our best artistic tradition, as important as this is. In fact, its very identity rests on the event of God-made-Man.

Marcello Pera, president of the Italian Senate and coauthor with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of «Without Roots,» confronted the thorny problem of Europe’s Christian foundations in his 2008 book: «Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies.»

This month Senator Pera’s book will finally be released in English translation by Encounter books, bringing this well-written and illuminating book to a wider audience.

In a Europe that likes to call itself «post-religious,» Pera observes that «public spaces must be as aseptic as hospital operating rooms.» Religion is for the home, not the town square. Citing France’s 2004 head-scarf ban, the refusal to reference Europe’s Christian roots in the European Constitution and the recent attempt to ban crucifixes in public spaces in Italy, Pera makes a cogent and frightening case of a Europe intolerant of religion, especially its own. Furthermore, the senator claims that the West has lost its sense of self-worth leading it into profound moral crises.

The book begins with some working translations from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Many American readers will be grateful for his clear definition of liberals and liberalism in European terms versus U.S. terms. It turns out they have practically opposite meanings in Europe and America.

The European idea of liberalism seeks freedom from government interference — which many Americans would term conservatism. In a continent where government control has ranged from the padre padrone (father and master) to totalitarian regimes, there is much to fear in allowing the government excessive control.

Pera points out however, that the freedom claimed by European liberals as a right derives from the conviction of an inherent dignity in the human person. What are the grounds for such an idea? It turns out that the European belief in human dignity is rooted in faith in the incarnation of the Son of God and the resulting value of the human being made in God’s image and likeness. The Judeo-Christian history of Europe is part of its DNA, even when unacknowledged.

Pera also offers a helpful thumbnail sketch of the history of liberal thought, starting with Plato’s long-sighted observation of how easily liberty becomes license.

A Christian current runs through all European civilizations, fertilizing their soil, and feeding their recognition of human rights. Damming off that current, argues Pera, will cause the civilization to collapse.

While Senator Pera is frequently referred to as an atheist in Anglophone media, this is not an accurate portrayal of his religious beliefs. Pera is what the Italians call «laico,» a complex notion carefully explained by Archbishop Crepaldi in a ZENIT interview in February 2011.

Pera himself draws a distinction between the Christian who accepts the history and traditions passed on by the experience of Christ versus the believer who regulates his life around Christ’s redemptive sacrifice.

Europe’s «apostasy,» as Pera unabashedly puts it, has Europe in «search of a god» but not «its own God.» This denial of its own identity has brought Europe to a crisis point. The European Union still has no constitution, only treaties, since no one seems to be able to define Europe beyond the interests of trade and commerce. The decline of morals in response to its emphasis on liberty understood as license undermines the stability of Europe, while its inactivity (and often rationalizing) in the face of fundamentalist Islam, can also be traced to its apostasy.

As Europe denies its own identity, it has an increasingly difficult time entering into dialogue with other cultures. There Europe’s relativistic, anything-goes mentality translates into a policy of tolerance where nothing is forbidden except cultures or religions that have strictures governing morals.

Although Pera writes about Europe, it is clear he also has America in mind. It is commonly said that America is 20 years ahead of Europe, but in some ways, particularly concerning the consequences of deliberately excluding religion from the public square, Europe is a generation ahead of the U.S.. Looking across the Atlantic at the results of «multiculturalism» and «secularism» is like having a crystal ball to predict where the U.S. will go if the push to marginalize religion to the purely private sector succeeds.

The debate over religious freedom in the United States is mounting, but is still fairly healthy, so Pera’s book serves as a warning of the pitfalls that lie ahead for a society that attempts to do away with religion in the public square. Pera’s book harmonizes perfectly with George Weigel’s 2005 «The Cube and the Cathedral,» which makes a forceful case that the «Christophobia» that now characterizes Europe will inevitably affect America as well.

Most importantly, although the Catholic Church is universal, its historic center is in Europe and it must battle with the rising tides of hostility toward religion on a daily basis.

Readers of Pera’s book will gain a better understanding on the «domestic» concerns of the Church and the very real battleground that encroaches on its backdoor.

* * *

Over dinner

The best book I read this summer was written by my mother. I’m sure there must be a more tactful way to put that, but although I re-read the last Harry Potter, enjoyed Hemmingway’s «The Sun Also Rises» and found several others thought-provoking volumes, Mary Ann Glendon’s «The Forum and The Tower» offered me a stroll through history, highlighting the human desire to achieve great things. It also furnished me with a fascinating perspective on the modern world and as a trip down memory lane.

The book, published by Oxford University Press, examines the lives of 12 great intellectuals who were at one point called to action in the political arena. Starting with Plato and ending with Charles Malik and Eleanor Roosevelt, «The Forum and the Tower» gracefully shepherds the reader through the history of political thought. The birth and death of republics, as well as the formation of constitutions and democracies, are deftly woven amid spellbinding stories of remarkable men (and women).

Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Comparative Law at Harvard Law School, has more than an academic competence in her chosen topic. Having served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See from 2008 to 2009, she has a deeper understanding of her characters and their situations than most intellectuals. She chooses, however, to abstain from judging or second guessing her characters. She prefers rather to examine each case on its own merits, objectively summing up the strengths and weaknesses of each subject in the light of his own times.

Although the book is reminiscent of Paul Johnson’s «Intellectuals,» Glendon avoids sordid sensationalism, choosing to emphasize the positive in her characters, and while she does not hide the negative, she doesn’t allow any of her subjects’ personal failings to derail her narrative.

Of course there are some that she clearly prefers to others. In the book’s introduction Glendon declares that her two «super stars» are Cicero and Burke, and her fondness for both is evident. Her sympathetic view of Cicero, the new man from Arpinium, trying to make it in the old boys’ club, makes those who didn’t care much for the pompous Roman windb
ag (that would be me) try to give him a second chance. When she relates how this pagan philosopher’s reflections seemed to be leading him toward monotheism, the richness and complexity of the man shines forth.

Glendon’s chapter on Irishman Edmund Burke and his lifelong battle against religious prejudice in England is told as powerfully as the adventures of Aeneas or Roland. Burke’s struggles and predictions eerily presage the intolerance toward religion in our present society.

But other chapters bring the reader to little-known moments of history that nonetheless affect our lives today. Justinian, Tribonian and Irnerius took the massive, unwieldy and contradictory mass of a millennium of Roman legislation and gave it order in the fifth century. The monumental achievement, known as Justinian’s Digest, later gave rise to the legal revival in 11th-century Bologna and inspired the Napoleonic code — arguably the diminutive emperor’s greatest accomplishment. Nestled in this story however, is also a lesson on what law is for, why it was invented, how it was organized and how it is a dynamic and pedagogical presence within a society.

My personal favorite was the chapter on Rousseau, where despite the author’s personal disapproval of the man, his methods and his message, she writes with great objectivity and appreciatively points out the philosopher’s gifts and contributions. From the surprising opening line to a very intriguing theory on the fate of Rousseau’s five children, she presents Rousseau as a brilliant rogue, and gradually one sees how he could have enthralled a continent with his ideas. Glendon acknowledges Rousseau as «the father of the sound-bite, a phrase-maker par excellence,» but in this chapter she gives Rousseau a run for his money. It is beautifully crafted, the heavy and often troubling content lightened with elegant prose, and one perceives an excellent teacher through the lines.

In fact, the book grew out of her experience as a teacher, watching her many students come to law school hoping to «make a difference» in the world, but wondering how to go about doing that and fearing that entry into political life would destroy their souls. Glendon’s 12 cases illustrate that there are many ways to change the world, and sometimes the effect of one’s efforts cannot be known during one’s lifetime.

Although «The Forum and the Tower» takes the reader through 2,000 years of history, it is striking how pertinent every chapter is to the present day. The foundation of the American democratic experiment, the challenges and general disillusionments of the modern age, the astonishing project of a universal document of human rights are all carefully outlined. In an upcoming election year, this should be required reading for the informed voter, whatever party he or she may belong to.

But mostly, I loved the book because it transported me through years of my mother’s seemingly random (and vaguely eccentric) interests. I remembered standing with her almost 20 years ago under the tomb of the glossators and sending her postcards of Justinian from Ravenna. I recalled her fascination with the mistress of Rousseau and the hidden story of the woman who stood by this strange man. Max Weber has been part of my vocabulary as long as the names of my sisters, and Mom and I compared Machiavelli notes during my Renaissance research.

A lifetime of dinner conversations, idle musings and family outings come together seamlessly in this book, a delightful demonstration that mother occasionally does know best.

— — —

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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