Europe’s two culture wars

George Weigel

The government of Slovakia fell in early February, when the governing coalition imploded after a fierce parliamentary debate over a report from the European Union’s “Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Human Rights.” The report took exception to a provision in a proposed treaty between Slovakia and the Holy See, in which Slovakia agreed to protect in its law the right of a doctor not to perform abortions, if doing so violated his or her conscience. The E.U.’s network of “independent” human rights experts, slavishly conventional in its political correctness, sharply criticized the Slovak conscience-clause as a violation of the “fundamental human right” to abort an unborn child, which “right” evidently trumps all other rights, fundamental or otherwise. If a new Slovak government does not kow-tow to the E.U. mandarins in Brussels, political and economic recriminations against Slovakia may follow.

Then there is the European Parliament which, this past January 18, passed a “non-binding resolution” condemning states that do not provide for homosexual “marriage” in their law as “homophobic.” The Polish bishops’ conference issued a brisk reply, thanking the Euro-parliament for rejecting “discrimination, ridicule, and violence against persons with homosexual orientation,” but insisting that the resolution also “distorts the truth rooted in the nature of the person who was created as man and as woman.” The Euro-solons’ charge of “homophobia” against those who understand marriage to mean what marriage has meant for five millennia or more “is a serious threat to marriage and family life and to the entire order of social life in Europe.” The bishops concluded by calling on the European Parliament “to abstain from activities which bear the stamp of (a) dictatorship of relativism, putting at risk the freedom of conscience of the citizens of E.U. member states.”

Will pressure from Brussels and Strasbourg on Poland and Slovakia lead to a reexamination of the Vatican’s often enthusiastic embrace of the European Union? The present E.U. project grew out of the work of three great Catholic statesmen: France’s Robert Schuman, Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer. That distinguished triumvirate understood their work on Europe’s economic and political integration as an expression of their commitment to revitalizing the Christian civilization of Europe after the catastrophe that was the first half of the twentieth century. It is very hard, however, to find traces of that Christian vision of Europe in today’s E.U. On the contrary; incidents like those I just mentioned confirm the suspicion that the E.U. bureaucracy is determined to impose lifestyle libertinism on all of Europe in the name of fundamental human rights.

The Holy See, which has notably toughened its rhetoric about jihadist Islam in recent months, might well consider a similar toughening of commentary on the E.U. The Polish bishops’ reference to a “dictatorship of relativism” was not a passing nod to a now-famous phrase used by Pope Benedict XVI just prior to his election; it was an accurate description of what the Brussels bureaucracy and the Strasbourg parliament would like to achieve in Europe. And as Belgian journalist Paul Belien has pointed out, that means that two culture wars are underway in Europe today.

The antagonists in the first are radical Muslims who detest the West and are determined to impose Islamic taboos on western culture, by violent protest and other forms of coercion if necessary. The antagonists in the second are radical secularists, motivated by what the Jewish legal scholar Joseph Weiler has called “Christophobia;” they aim to eliminate the vestiges of Europe’s Christian culture from a post-Christian E.U. by demanding “gay marriage” in the name of equality, by restricting free speech in the name of civility, and by abrogating core aspects of religious freedom in the name of tolerance. The adjective “Orwellian” may not translate well into other European languages. But it’s the proper description of the inversion of values that’s afoot in the second of Europe’s culture wars.

And that might well compel a re-examination of the Vatican’s strategy toward Europe, in which the E.U. is imagined as a kind of platform for Europe’s re-evangelization.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.