Europa, Quo Vadis? – Part II
The Pope points out that one such modern ideology is liberation theology which in Latin America ended up substituting the Christian idea of redemption. The relation of personal responsibility to sin and redemption was shifted to the relation between social structures and redemption. The approach is now not that of conversion of the heart but that of social engineering: the redesigning of the social order in order to eliminate evil from the world.
The Redeemer himself is looked upon as a sort of Superman fighting for justice democracy and the Western way of life. Redemption becomes a secular political process. This is the myth of secular redemption, of politics that misguidedly promises what it cannot deliver: spiritual renewal and redemption and elimination of evil and injustice from the world. Dostoyevsky gave voice to that myth with his novel The Devils.
After tracing the history of the very idea of Europe and its relation to Islam beginning with St. Benedict and Charlemagne, the Pope’s book then deals with the traditional Christian basis that made Europe and which seems now to be fleeing, thus condemning Europe to an inevitable decline. It is paradoxical that while its economic successes have spread world-wide via modern science and economics, they seem to have left the European mind with little sense of its own meaning. Traditional Christianity is now opposed by older Asian and African religious traditions which are becoming increasingly attractive to a spiritless people who have forgotten their own religious tradition grounding the dignity of each individual in divine creation.
What seems to have replaced this tradition is Machiavelli’s “ragion di Stato,” or a real politik based on rational cold reason and on purely economic, political and military considerations. This reason considers the religious view a purely mythological view of the world. God becomes a private affair to be taken care on Sunday and not to be dragged in public life or in the formation of values. Often those who do worship on Sunday are branded as bigots. A soccer game on Sunday is seen as of more value. Some have gone as far as considering soccer games the cement that is needed to unify disparate European cultures and races.
It is no wonder that to Africa and Asia, Europe appears empty of worthy values. To quote the Pope: “Europe, in this very hour of its maximum success, seems to have become empty from within, paralyzed in a certain sense by a crisis of its circular system, a crisis that puts at risk its very life…There is a certain strange lack of will for the future of Europe. Its children, which are the future, come to be seen as a threat to the present…They do not come to be felt as a hope, but rather as a limit of the present.”
The Pope speculates that in order not to disappear, Europe must rediscover its religious roots and with them the “unconditional status of human dignity and human rights” independent of any civil jurisdiction. But the words “value” and “rights” ought not be conceived in the voluntarist mode given them by modern philosophy. Those values and rights are inalienable, not created by any legislature, not even democratically conferred by the citizens to themselves. They are part of a natural law that even non Christians like Cicero and Marcus Aurelius well understood. They are part of a superior order, rooted in God and not to be manipulated by anyone. Abuses such as genetic manipulation, cloning, commercialization of human organs, the recycling of corpses are mentioned. These actions “justify what is not able to be justified.”
Another insight of these reflections is that of the West’s excessive criticism and hatred of itself (examined in this page in the article on Bin Laden). This is found paradoxical in a multicultural Europe that is open to all traditional cultures. The Pope identifies this lack of appreciation for one’s own culture in the loss of the sense of the sacred and the transcendent which is integral part of the Judeo-Christian ethos. Thus Europe has become a total stranger to itself, to what made it what it was and what is.
So, while rejecting what is worst (things such as imperialisms of all kinds, and colonialism and nationalism), Europe needs to recuperate what is best in its heritage: service to the whole of humanity. For Europe to be Europe, it must recover the “what” which is at its origins and which founded it. It must re-examine with a critical eye its multi-cultural alternatives. Returning to revitalized pre-Christian pagan cults and life-styles will hardly provide the cure for modern nihilism. That would mean seeing Christianity as an external imposition and pave the way for a return of the European gods; or the rejection of political absolutism such Communism in the name of a Nietzschean transcendence of rationality; another pseudo-solution.
In the future we may well expect Benedict XVI to continue asking “Quo vadis. Europa,” and to urge it to “nosce te ipsum,” i.e., know thyself. For the moment, as we search for self-knowledge and a proper answer to those existential questions, it may prove beneficial for all Europeans, with or without faith, to ponder those reflections on the plight of Western civilization and on the spirit of the times by a European Pope who knows both phenomena quite well.