[inline:03]George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., is the well-known biographer of the late Pope. In 1999 he wrote the international bestseller Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, which was widely translated. Weigel has just written a new book The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America and Politics Without God. The cathedral in the title is the Notre Dame in Paris and the cube the modern Great Arch of La Défense in the same city. The latter houses the Foundation for Human Rights, in accordance with the intention of the former French president François Mitterrand when he had the building constructed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution of 1789.
The Brussels Journal interviewed George Weigel about his new book, in which he tackles what he calls “Europe’s problem.” According to Weigel Europe is dying in the most literal sense: it is depopulating itself. Why is a continent that is richer, healthier and more secure than ever before failing to create the human future in the most elemental sense of creating successive generations? According to Weigel, a Roman Catholic theologian, Europe’s problem has to do with the loss of the cult at the heart of the culture.
Niall Ferguson writes about Weigel’s new book that it is “at once an elegy and a warning – an elegy for a venerable culture that is being effaced by a vacuous secularism, and a warning to Americans that their assumptions about a shared ‘Western civilization’ are fast becoming obsolete on the Eastern side of the Atlantic.”
An interview with George Weigel
[inline:04]Paul Belien: The title of your book – The Cube and the Cathedral – is a metaphor. Can you explain what these images stand for?
George Weigel: The book began in my mind when I was in Paris in 1997. I visited the Great Arch of la Défense, this angular, rationalistic, stunning piece of contemporary design which imagines itself to be a human rights monument. Moreover I noticed that all the guidebooks boast that all of Notre Dame – tower, spire and all – would fit inside this cube. That popped a question into my mind: what culture is better able to provide the foundations for the human rights that this monument celebrates: the culture of the cube, rationalist, sceptical, relativist, secular, or the culture that produced the “holy unsaneness” of Notre Dame?
I do not think the answer is necessarily an either/or proposition. It can be a both/and proposition as it is in the United States, as it was in Europe up until the past 40 years, until 1968 and the concerted attempt to create a Europe that is a genuinely secularized and, indeed, secularist public space.
PB: In the book, however, you move back further in time, even to the First World War, to say where things went wrong in Europe.
[inline:02]GW: I go back even further than that. I go back to the middle of the 19th century with what Henri de Lubac called “the drama of atheistic humanism.” I think you can make the case that the First World War was the first dramatic episode of the playing out in history of this utter forgetfulness of the God of the Bible and the moral reasoning that one learns in a Judeo-Christian world view.
PB: What puzzles me is why the Americans, who are originally Europeans, are not infected by this mentality? When I read the book I get the impression that the cube for you is also a metaphor of Europe, while the cathedral, or the society with God still in a prominent place, can be seen as a metaphor of America. This is strange because the cube is the more modern building and the cathedral is a mediaeval building. So you might even argue that America is a more mediaeval culture than Europe.
GW: Well, I did not intend it that way, because there are elements of the cube and the cathedral in both the United States and in Western Europe.
Why has America not gone so far on this road? Because America was not founded against biblical religion. America was founded from biblical religion. America’s experience of democracy is democracy as the product of Christian culture. However, that is changing here too. If you read The New York Times and The Washington Post, the liberal media in general, or if you listen to Senate Democrats interrogating John Roberts for the Supreme Court you know that Europe is in America. The idea that the only public space safe for democracy, the only public space capable of civility, is a thorougly secularized public space, this idea is present in the United States as well. But it is not dominant in the United States.
What has happened in Western Europe since 1968 is that secularization has been transformed from a sociological datum to an ideology. This ideology was most manifestly clear in the bizarre argument over whether the preamble to the European Constitutional Treaty should acknowledge the Christian roots of European civilization.
PB: One can also see the book as a metaphor of what is nowadays called the “red” versus the “blue” America. The “red” stands for the conservative, faith centered American culture and the “blue” is basically the more “European” America. You focus your book on Europe and you say that what happens in Europe is the logical result of secularization. The subtitle is Europe, America, and Politics Without God, so is the book also a warning for Americans?
GW: No, there are certainly cube elements largely present in the United States. Moreover, this “blue America, red America” thing is a bit tiresome after a while, particularly since the good guys have the wrong colour. “Red” America should be the Left, but that is an accident of an NBC electoral map of five years ago.
There are at least two, probably even three, justices on the Supreme Court who would like to import into the United States, via a very strange interpretation of the Constitution, the kind of secularist mindset that I think has done such damage in Europe. That is a real problem here.
On the other hand, it is not simply that America was founded differently. The United States is being replenished in a different way, in part because “red” America tends to have much larger families than “blue” America and also tends to transmit religious conjunction, and in part because the largest immigration into the United States, both legal and illegal, is Hispanic, which is to say Christian. It is confusedly diverse, but nonetheless Christian. Houston is now forty per cent Hispanic, but it is still Christian. This is not Marseille or a place which is ten to fifteen per cent Islamic.
PB: But then a title like “The Mosque and the Cathedral” might have been more topical, mightn’t it?
GW: No, because I think it is unclear whether the Eurabia hypothesis is anything more than a hypothesis. What is killing Europe right now is not the Mosque, what is killing Europe and what I believe is most manifestly shown in its demographic rates, is a secularist cast of mind. It foreshortens people’s horizons of expectations of themselves and of the future so drastically that they do not even create the future in the most elementary sense. You cannot blame that on Islam. I think you can blame that on the cast of mind that expressed itself in the Habermas-Derrida manifesto that the EU must be a political community neutral among worldviews.
First of all, this is an absurd statement. There is no room in Habermas or Derrida for a resurgence of fascism, so it is not a Europe “neutral among worldviews.” Secondly, there is a great hostility to the worldview of serious orthodox Christianity as there is to the world view of serious Aristotelianism where people believe they can get at the truth of things in a way that these guys believe is impossible. This is simply intolerance masquerading as radical tolerance.
PB: I agree there is a demographic suicide but what do you say to the argument that it is not Europe that has committed suicide, but rather the Cathedral? I mean: it is Christianity and more in particular the Catholic Church that has actually committed suicide and abandoned the Europeans to these secularist tendencies.
GW: The failure of the Church for the last 200 years in Western Europe is a very large part of this problem, a clinging to the old way of doing things, a failure to recognise arrangements compatible with a free church. I recognise that the history of church and state in Europe is far more complicated than the standard account. On the other hand, if you look at a figure like Pope Pius VII [r. 1800-1823] you will see that there was an opening to find an accommodation with the new political order that was not seized by his successors, Leo XII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI and Pius IX. Hence, you ended up with this situation of maximum confrontation between the Church and the Novus Ordo which only began to be untangled with Leo XIII [r. 1878-1903] and was only finally untangled in the Second Vatican Council [1962-1965], at which point it was about one hundred years too late. Then you had this bizarre embrace of modernity in some interpretations of Vatican II at precisely the point where modernity was about to implode in the kind of irrationalism of the late 1960s and ’70s.
PB: The phenomenon that America has not become as secularized as Europe is sometimes referred to as the “American exceptionalism.” Some might say that you owe this to the Protestant Evangelical churches, which are more fundamentalist, rather than Catholicism. If one looks at “red” America I often have the impression that what kept America sane and Christian is this fundamentalist [I use the term in its original meaning, to denote the more traditional beliefs of Christianity as opposed to modernism – pb] Protestantism rather than Catholicism.
GW: Evangelical Protestantism is a very elastic term.
PB: It is something specifically American. You do not have it in Europe.
GW: But you do have it all over Latin America and Africa and parts of Asia.
PB: That is true, and it is growing there because people are leaving the Catholic Church and are turning towards this more fundamentalist Christianity.
GW: There is a kind of revolving door there. In Latin America people tend to go into these Evangelical churches and then ten years later come out and return to Catholicism. But, anyway, we are talking about North America here. The single biggest event that created the present religious, cultural, political dynamics of the United States took place on January 21, 1973.
PB: Roe versus Wade [the Supreme Court ruling that legalised abortion].
GW: Exactly right. What did that do? It created a hitherto unimaginable alliance between Evangelical Protestants, many of whom were not sure the Catholics were Christians, and Catholics who thought that these were the people who brought you prohibition and other bizarre things, such as the Scopes trial. Suddenly these people found themselves together in the front trench of a culture war. I think what has evolved in the United States, providentially, accidentally, necessarily – I would say it is providential – is a kind of common Christian social ethic, not dissimilar to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, that has done what a hundred years of oecumenical dialogue could not do: brought Evangelical Protestants and Catholics together in a kind of cobelligerency in the culture war.
Now in the course of that, the more intellectually sophisticated part of the Evangelical world (and that is not a contradiction in terms – there are some very sophisticated people in this world) have discovered that Catholics through the natural law tradition have a method of making public arguments that cannot be accused of being sectarian and Catholics have a developed social ethic from the social doctrine of the 20th century popes that is very impressive to people who have a set of policy instincts but are not quite sure how all of this fits together into a coherent vision of the free and virtuous society. So, I think you have a circumstance in which in addition to this cobelligerency there has been a genuine crossfertilisation of ideas that has been beneficial to both parties.
PB: And to what extent is the Christian character of America just a layer on the surface? Abortion figures and divorce rates are often higher in America than in certain European countries.
GW: The divorce rates are better now than they were thirty years ago. American social welfare policy, crafted by “blue America” types, by “cube” people, did a great deal to deconstruct family life in the United States over a considerable period of time. I think there is a substantial reversal of these patterns everywhere, except among what sociologists would call the underclass in the United States, I mean the permanently out of the economic mainstream sector of society. This is a huge human tragedy. This is a part of society crying out for the kind of transformation of life that Christian faith in its Catholic or Evangelical form can bring to people.
What recently happened in New Orleans was widely exaggerated by agenda driven media. Still, the simple fact is that there were 100,000 people who were incapable of basic civic responses. The first thing that the religious community should have been saying about this is not: “Where was the government?” The first thing the religious community says is: “How have we not dented this community, how have we not converted these people?”
The reason why Evangelicalism has been successful in Latin America not only has to do with the more warm, fuzzy, emotive dimensions of that kind of Christianity and its worship, it also has to do with the fact that it changes behaviours. It pretty well changes male behaviour. When men stop drinking their salaries, stop beating their wives, start saving money, work seriously, they suddenly find: “Hey, I am in the middle class all of a sudden.” That is a powerful reinforcement to the conversions. The Catholic church did this for immigrant populations in the US for 150 years. Most of the Catholics who came to the United States were what we would today call the underclass. It was the church, Catholic education, the network of Catholic social services, all of these ordered to empowering people, to getting people to be what the Catholic church is today: essentially the largest middle class and indeed upper middle class collection of practising Catholics in the history of the church. That is what we need to rediscover in terms of the underclass in the US today.
PB: Why did you actually write the book? For an American public I guess.
GW: I wrote the book first of all because I am a transplanted European…
PB: Like all Americans.
GW: Well, not like all.
PB: Like all “red” Americans.
GW: No, I have some “red” Japanese American friends. In any event, I am a transplanted European who feels a great debt to the cultures and civilisations of Europe and wanted to ring an alarm bell. It happens that because of Witness to Hope I now have not simply an American audience but a global audience. The book will be translated in multiple European languages. French and Spanish are out. Italian, Polish and Portugese are coming.
PB: So it is also a European audience that you want to reach?
GW: Absolutely. The lecture out of which this book grew was a lecture three years ago which was called Europe’s Problem – and Ours because the problem of what Father Neuhaus 20 years ago called the “naked public square,” which is at the heart of this argument, is America’s problem too. It is harder to see here, because it has not completely captured the high culture and it has not at all captured the political culture which it manifestely has done in Europe.
PB: What do you mean by the “high culture?” The intellectuals?
PB: Many are under the impression that the weird ideas Europeans have, also on the popular level, are being transplanted from America, from American pop culture, but also from American high culture, the American liberal media and academia.
GW: We did not invent Habermas and Derrida.
PB: No, I know, but the people of the Frankfurter Schule were Europeans who were invited to teach at American universities, and then these ideas returned to Europe.
GW: The Frankfurter Schule, the post-modernist impulse which replaced the neo-marxist impulse, is pretty much a continental European invention, although it has its analogues over here, with people like Rorty.
PB: Though the universities here…
GW: Yes, but these are people talking to themselves. They do not represent America. The kids are far more conservative than the professoriat. This happens in school after school after school. I am going up to Princeton next week to give an opening lecture in a series on religion and world politics in the 21st century. The faculty will be appalled and the students will stand and applaud. Secondly, there is a whole parallel educational network in this country, as you know, that is not the Ivy League, that is not completely infested with this stuff.
I think the real difference between America and Europe is that the post-modernist melange of scepticism, moral relativism, soft nihilism, has had such an impact in Europe because it gave people an intellectual excuse for the way they had already been living anyway. That melange of debonair nihilism has less attraction in America because people in the main do not live that way here. I am sure most Europeans are not aware that in the week after Hurricane Katrina the instinctive reaction of most Americans, except for CNN, CBS etc., was not: “Where is the government?” The instinctive reaction was: “What can I do?” You had tens of billions of dollars pouring in at the Red Cross, Catholic charities, all these things, people literally getting up and going down there, people opening their homes, their schools. If we are talking about cultural disparities I think that is pretty indicative.
PB: And do you see any positive trends in Europe which might reverse this downhill road that we, Europeans, are on?
GW: Yes, a number of them.
PB: In Eastern Europe maybe.
GW: No, not necessarily. Certainly the fact that you have an intact Catholic culture in Poland, and an arguably intact Catholic culture in Slovakia, as two parts of the new European Union. Poland is going to be a real player because Poland is a larger country than Spain. But that is not all. The Italian referendum of June on reproductive technology was the first time in 30 years that the “cube” trend did not sweep the field. What is even more important is that the church there, which is deeply involved in this campaign, did not make an argument from authority. It made a real public argument, explaining why this is bad for Italian culture, Italian society, Italian democracy.
PB: That is the first time in decades that this happens.
GW: They have done that, they finally are learning something. I had three Spaniards in here yesterday who I think are reasonably encouraged by the public expression of discontent with what is perhaps now the most radical attempt to recreate the public square.
PB: Gay marriage.
GW: Well, it is all of that. It is schools, gay marriage, and so forth and so on. And you look at those million kids in Cologne last August of whom 75 per cent had to be European. You realise that 95 per cent of them have cell phones, almost a 100 per cent of them computers. This is a network. This isn’t just an incidental thing any more and the linking together of this, you know, is a potentially important thing. I also have to believe along the via negativa that episodes like the Pim Fortuyn and the Theo van Gogh assassinations, the Madrid bombings, which had a different political effect immediately but might have a different long term effect, have given people reason to rethink the kind of mush-headed multiculturalism that is one dimension of this collapse of any sense of the integrity of one’s own culture. Whether all of this is going to come to a critical mass in time to reverse the demographic realities, which I think are fundamental, I do not know.
PB: A reversal of the demographic trend will only have an impact twenty years from now.
GW: The Eurabia question aside, no-one who can read a balance sheet can deny that Europe, Western Europe, is heading for a severe fiscal crisis. There is a real possibility that this fiscal crisis will lead to a profound social crisis. This is not good news. It is certainly not good news for Europe but it is absolutely not good news either for the United States.
PB: One last question, that is a political question. The American government would like to have Turkey admitted into the European Union, while the Conservative forces in Europe are against it. What is your opinion on that?
GW: It is a non-issue, because the EU is presently constituted as finished. The French and Dutch referendums marked a dramatic turning point. The question of Turkey was not a real world question for ten years anyway, it is even less of a real world question now. The American governmental view, which has been true of both the Republican and Democratic administrations – this is not something peculiar of the present Bush administration – is that Turkey has been in the main a faithful NATO ally, the EU is the political analogue to NATO, therefore Turkey should be allowed into the EU.
My personal view is that Turkey in the EU would be the final concession that the EU is essentially a pragmatic arrangement for purposes of economics and some politics, but is in no sense the expression of a culture. As I have often said, only half-jokingly, “when the Turks change the name of their capital back to Constantinople then we can talk about this.” But I do think it is a non-issue, whatever bureaucratic wheels are grinding on in Brussels and elsewhere.
PB: This “non-issue” is at the moment the hot political item all over Europe.
GW: But that is an expression, if I may be so bold, of Europe’s terminal unseriousness. I mean, for Germans who cannot even come up with a government [this interview took place on October 6, 2005] at this point to be fretting about Turkey in the EU is simply ludicrous. In so far as the question of Turkey and the EU usefully raises the questions “What kind of Europe?” or “What is Europe?”, that is not a bad thing. But for a Europe that is careering towards fiscal and social crisis, that currently has not even an instrument of governance to manage the expansion, to be fretting about this is somewhere in the order of the bizarre it seems to me.