Europe's rejection of its Christian inheritance
WHY WE SHOULD CALL OURSELVES CHRISTIANS
by Marcello Pera
(Encounter Books, 2011, 220pp, hardback, $35.00, ISBN: 978-1-59403-564-7. Available from Freedom Publishing)
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 civilisation, 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 co-author with the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Without Roots [also available from Freedom Publishing, $27.90], 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 book has now been published in an English translation by Encounter Books.
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 would be grateful for his clear definition of liberals and liberalism in European terms versus US 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 licence.
A Christian current runs through all European civilisations, fertilising their soil, and feeding their recognition of human rights. Damming off that current, argues Pera, will cause the civilisation 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 (secular or lay) a complex notion carefully explained by Archbishop Crepaldi in an 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 licence undermines the stability of Europe, while its inactivity (and often rationalising) 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 (and other Western countries) 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 US. Looking across the Atlantic at the results of "multiculturalism" and "secularism" is like having a crystal ball to predict where the US will go if the push to marginalise 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 harmonises perfectly with George Weigel's 2005 The Cube and the Cathedral, which makes a forceful case that the "Christophobia" that now characterises Europe will inevitably affect America as well.
Most importantly, although the Catholic Church is universal, its historic centre is in Europe and it must battle with the rising tides of hostility towards 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.
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and the University of St Thomas' Catholic Studies program. With acknowledgement to Zenit News Agency.