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Re-Christianising Europe against Islam and relativism

By Domenico Pacitti

Senza radici: Europa, relativismo, cristianesimo, islam [Without Roots: Europe, Relativism, Christianity, Islam] by Marcello Pera & Joseph Ratzinger. Published 2004 (2nd edition 2005) by Arnaldo Mondadori, Milan, 134 pages, €7.70, ISBN 88 04 54474 0.

The authors are worried about a spiritual and cultural malady in the West which has led to the omission of specific references to Christian roots in the EU Constitution Preamble. A discourse by each and an exchange of letters together provide diagnoses and suggested remedies.

Marcello Pera is president of the Italian Senate, a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party and a recently retired professor of philosophy of science at the University of Pisa who rejects the incursion of relativist theories within his subject. His political and academic interests turn out to be linked by the defence of absolute power and an intolerance of submissiveness due to relativism.

Pera warns that there is a war in course against the West which should not be misinterpreted as acts of terrorism by a few fanatics and that Europeans do not understand this because paralysis due to endemic relativism has adversely affected their mentality.

According to Pera, contextualists, deconstructionists and theological relativists have paralysed Europeans by destroying their belief in absolute values: Ludwig Wittgenstein has reconstrued meaning as use, Jacques Derrida has eliminated extratextual reality, while John Hick is among theologians who have tried to revise traditional Christology fundamentals.

Suitable references to Christian roots would have been a first step towards recovering absolute values, says Pera, a self-described culturally Christian non-believer who complains of anti-Christian prejudices in Europe. He suggests that Europe should now adopt a civil religion based on Christianity since all good-living people share roughly the same moral principles.

Unaffected by relativism, Pera sees no problem either in expressing his evaluative judgement that Western culture is flatly superior to Islamic or even in arranging these and other cultures in a hierarchical scale of preferences “from best to worst”. Backing up his position with an ingenuously hamfisted application of the is/ought distinction in moral philosophy (the West, he says, has made "the colossal error" of deriving ought from is), Pera wonders why this should occasion “self-censorship, prohibition and linguistic handcuffs”.

Pera is especially enthusiastic about exporting Western institutions and values to other countries and cannot understand those who label this “premature, unilateral and violent” or “an act of intellectual arrogance or cultural hegemony through the use of force, arms, politics, economics or propaganda”.

Pera's reasoning requires little comment beyond the observation that believers and non-believers alike could well find themselves thanking God that the EU is there to restrain him.

Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s powerful Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a leading theologian before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, forms the other half of this interesting new alliance for the restoration of absolute values to Europe.

Ratzinger shares Pera’s concerns over relativism, which he condemns as “a new enlightenment” and a “dictatorship” which has cancelled certainty and replaced it with egoism and desire. But he proceeds more subtly, inducing the reader to perceive Europe’s “deep identity” and spiritual development within a historical summary.

Identifying Europe as a cultural concept, Ratzinger traces its origins through Herodotus to Mediterranean countries linked culturally, politically and economically until Islam produced the first important split in the “continent” in the 7th century.

He maps further splits and developments through the Carolingian era and the fall of Byzantium to the French revolution which marked the final collapse of a spiritual framework “without which Europe could not have been formed”. For the first time ever the state is understood in purely secular terms and founded upon the rationality of its citizens, while the sense of divine mission is lost.

Nowhere does Ratzinger mention the immense harm caused by the Roman Catholic Church through history, for example by the cruel stranglehold which it exerted on people’s lives in 18th-century France at dechristianisation or by the perverse and enduring corruption of the mentality of an entire nation and its institutions, as in the case of Italy.

Nor does he ever betray the slightest emotion. Ratzinger advances steadily and inscrutably through history like a Panzer crossing enemy terrain, unflinchingly recording his Church’s losses and gradual collapse.

Ratzinger sketches three models which arose following the French revolution: mainly Latin countries where religion and state are held distinct; Germanic countries with a liberal Protestant state; and the special case of the United States. There, he says, a rigid dogma of separation built on a Christian-Protestant consensus is linked to the deep sense of a worldwide religious mission and there it may be more clearly perceived than in Europe that the nation’s religious and moral bases come from Christianity.

Our present problem in Europe, says Ratzinger, is a decline of moral conscience based on inviolable values which could lead to the self-destruction of the European conscience. He cites the rising success of Islam, which is able to offer a valid spiritual basis lacking in Europe. And now, to make matters worse, Europe is denying its religious and moral foundations.

Christianity, Ratzinger admits, is crumbling and failing to reach people: it demands a way of life which places excessive limits on freedom and is seen as having been superseded by science and out of step with the modern age. This, he says, is partly the Church’s own fault for having wasted too much time debating details. Indicatively, this partial fault is as much as Ratzinger is prepared to blame on the Church.

Regarding future prospects, Ratzinger reflects on Oswald Spengler’s theory of the rise and fall of cultures and civilisations as they move cyclically and inexorably from birth to maturity and death, comparing Arnold Toynbee’s idea that real progress is in terms of “spiritualisation”. But he avoids expressing final judgements, just as he expressly precludes any discussion of US politics and the concept of a just war from his account on the grounds that he is a theologian.

In reply to Pera’s civil religion proposal, Ratzinger draws on Toynbee’s “creative minorities” principle in order to encourage Christians with the necessary conviction, vitality and persuasive force to move in that direction. But he dismisses the idea that this could be accomplished by means of an elected commission and raises the problem of the Roman Catholic universality principle being incompatible with a state Church system.

The Church, Ratzinger concludes, must now address key questions on the nature of Revelation and its role in human history. It must discuss with philosophers and scientists whether matter can create reason, whether pure chance can produce meaning and whether reason, freedom and goodness may not already be part of the principles that compose reality.

One still pictures Ratzinger as Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff’s Inquisitor, overconcerned with absolute power and about as far from the people as from Christ, surveying the world’s poor and underprivileged through the lead squares of the Vatican’s lattice windows. It is not revelation but revolution that is needed.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on November 21 2005.