The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God
by George Weigel
202pp | Basic Books, 2005 | ISBN 0465092667 | US$23 rrp.
This book was written before the French and the Dutch voted decisively against the proposed new European Union constitution. However, these plebiscites are, in their own way, a significant coda to it. Ordinary people – as opposed to the remote and arrogant mandarin elite in Brussels – feel a profound unease at the way Europe is changing. What began as a small, economic fraternity, the Common Market, designed to end old enmities in a new spirit of cooperation, has, over the decades, turned into a projected “superstate” where the ancient certainties of national life and identity will have altered irrevocably and in which the vox populi is neither heard nor consulted. No wonder that in these two recent referendums the proposed constitution has been rejected.
George Weigel, author of an acclaimed biography of the late John Paul II, looks at Europe from a wider and more spiritual perspective than the man in the street or the boulevard, but his book is the other deeper side to the same coin. It is subtitled “Europe, America, and Politics without God” and its springboard is the question that ordinary European Christians have frequently raised, only to be treated with lofty disdain by their masters: Why did those who drafted the new European Union constitution, including the former French president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who had overall control of the project, refuse to include any mention in its preamble of the vital role Christianity has played in the moral and cultural formation of Europe, even though Pope John Paul II drew their attention to this omission in no uncertain terms and pleaded with them to remedy it?
Weigel is an American but has strong academic links to Krakow, and his work is an exploration of the sinister implications behind this question. The images of the “cube” and the “cathedral” refer to a colossal cube-shaped edifice – La Grande Arche de la Defense – erected by the late president Mitterand of France, and to the cathedral of Notre Dame, one of the wonders of Gothic architecture in the Middle Ages. Apparently the cathedral, with its noble profusion of soaring spires and flying buttresses, could be fitted neatly inside the cube, which gives some idea of the latter’s monstrous size.
For Weigel, these images symbolize the current malaise of Europe: 2,000 years of Christian spiritual and cultural vitality, begun by the blood of the martyrs, capable of raising glorious houses of God (it is said that aristocrats worked side by side with peasants and artisans in the construction of Chartres cathedral) and influenced by saints such as Benedict, founder of monasticism, and Thomas Aquinas, who harnessed classical learning to Christian theology, seem to be fast eroding through a deliberate rejection of faith and family. Faith is perceived as a private, though not always harmless, pastime that must not be allowed to enter the political arena – as Tony Blair’s former press officer, Alistair Campbell, stated, “We don’t do God” – and traditional family life is swiftly disappearing in a demographic death. Niall Ferguson, an Oxford and Harvard historian, is quoted by Weigel as saying that the current drastic fall in population in Europe is “the greatest sustained reduction in the European population since the Black Death”.
Following the theologian Henri de Lubac, Weigel locates the roots of the “Christophobia” of European intellectuals in the 21st century to the Enlightenment and its 19th century progeny. The Great War was a watershed, preparing the way for the murderous ideologies of Nazism and Communism. Today, Europe is dying from “hopelessness”.
What can the Church offer in this “crisis of civilisational morale”? For Weigel, who believes that Eastern Europe, in particular Poland, which retained its patriotic and Christian identity despite centuries of persecution from its powerful neighbours, still has a spiritual vitality that Western Europe has lost, Christianity can propose “a vision of the free and virtuous society”, where freedom is seen as “freedom for excellence” rather than the false, secular concept of freedom as “indifference”, with its values-free, fake “tolerance”. As those who challenge it have learnt to their cost, tolerance without God speedily leads to intolerance, as the refusal to allow a Christian reference in the draft European constitution demonstrates.
In his Apostolic Exhortation of 2003, Ecclesia in Europa, Pope John Paul II stated, “Europe needs a religious dimension”; she must “reclaim her Christian spiritual and moral patrimony”. Why, asks Weigel, should Americans care about what happens in Europe, and why is Europe’s crisis important for the US? He gives three reasons. The first is “pietas”, i.e. respect for the historical roots of the US; otherwise the same historical amnesia of Europe could cross the Atlantic. The second is US security; the demographic vacuum in Europe will be filled – and since 1970 this has included 20 million legal Islamic immigrants, for whom their nationality is their Muslim faith. Most Muslims are peaceable and law-abiding — yet two of the 9/11 pilots were middle-class, educated young men who had lived for some years in Hamburg. The third concerns the preservation of an uncorrupted democratic process. Here Weigel quotes the historian of culture, Christopher Dawson: “A thoroughly secularised democracy, constitutionally and politically disabled from bringing transcendent moral truths to bear in its public life, is self-destructive.” What happens in European politics affects America; what happens in America affects the world.
In this pessimistic analysis, does the author offer any signs of hope? He believes that a stronger spiritual life informs the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe, not yet enveloped in the suffocating, secular embrace of the Western bloc. For instance, in Krakow the principal Sunday morning activity still is going to Mass, which is not true in Western European cities any more.
Weigel also has hope in the youth of Europe, referring to the millions who flock to the World Youth Days. One might add that young people were prominent among those mourning the death of John Paul II – and articulate in their rejection of the draft constitution in the Dutch and French referendums. There are also the new movements in the Church. Will these, coupled with the leadership and vision of a new Pope, Benedict XVI, be enough to halt and reverse the decay of once-Christian Europe so that the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is not slowly transformed into “Hagia Sophia on the Seine?”
This book of only 202 pages raises questions that concern us and our children’s future. Will we sleepwalk towards oblivion, or will we rouse ourselves to a spiritual reawakening before it is too late? To those who think his analysis is too gloomy, Weigel cites North Africa, once a thriving centre of Christian life and activity but by the seventh century too weak to withstand the Muslim advance. Buy this book, read it and pass it to your friends.
Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.