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Is Europe Dying? By: George Weigel
Foreign Policy Research Institute | Tuesday, June 07, 2005

America's "Europe  problem" and  Europe's "America  problem" have been staple topics of transatlantic debate for the past several years.  Political leaders,  media commentators,  and businessmen usually  discuss  those  problems  in  terms  of policy differences:  differences over prosecuting the war on terrorism, differences  over the  role of the United Nations in world affairs, differences over the Kyoto Protocol on the global  environment,  differences  over  Iraq.  The policy differences are  real. Attempts to understand  them  in political,  strategic,   and  economic   terms  alone   will ultimately fail,  however, because  such explanations do not reach deeply  enough into  the human texture of contemporary Europe.

To put the matter directly: Europe, and especially western Europe, is in the midst  of  a  crisis  of  civilizational morale. The most dramatic manifestation of  that crisis is not to  be  found  in  Europe's  fondness  for  governmental bureaucracy or  its devotion  to fiscally  shaky health care schemes and  pension plans,  in  Europe's  lagging  economic productivity or  in  the  appeasement  mentality  that  some European leaders  display toward Islamist terrorism. No, the most  dramatic   manifestation   of   Europe's   crisis   of civilizational morale  is the  brute  fact  that  Europe  is depopulating itself.

Europe's  below-replacement-level  birthrates  have  created situations  that  would  have  been  unimaginable  when  the 1940s and  early 1950s.  By the  middle of  this century, if present fertility  patterns  continue,  60  percent  of  the Italian  people  will  have  no  personal  experience  of  a brother, a  sister, an  aunt,  an  uncle,  or  a  cousin;[1] Germany will  lose the  equivalent of  the population of the former East  Germany; and Spain's population will decline by almost one-quarter.  Europe is depopulating itself at a rate unseen since  the Black  Death of the fourteenth century.[2] And one  result of  that is  a Europe  that is  increasingly "senescent" (as  British historian  Niall Ferguson  has  put it).[3]


When an  entire continent,  healthier, wealthier,  and  more secure than ever before, fails to create the human future in the   most    elemental   sense-by    creating   the    next generation-something very  serious is  afoot. I can think of no better description for that "something" than to call it a crisis of  civilizational morale.  Understanding its origins is important  in itself, and important for Americans because some of  the acids  that have eaten away at European culture over the  past two  centuries are  at  work  in  the  United States, and indeed throughout the democratic world.




Getting at  the roots  of Europe's  crisis of civilizational morale requires  us to  think about "history" in a different way. Europeans  and Americans  usually think of "history" as the  product   of  politics  (the  struggle  for  power)  or economics (the  production of  wealth).  The  first  way  of thinking is  a by-product  of  the  French  Revolution;  the second is one of the exhaust fumes of Marxism. Both "history as politics" and "history as economics" take a partial truth and try,  unsuccessfully, to  turn it  into a  comprehensive truth. Understanding Europe's current situation, and what it means for  America, requires  us to  look at  history  in  a different way, through cultural lenses.


Europe began  the twentieth century with bright expectations of new and unprecedented scientific, cultural, and political achievements. Yet within fifty years, Europe, the undisputed center of  world civilization  in 1900,  produced two  world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War that threatened global holocaust, oceans of blood, mountains of corpses, the Gulag, and  Auschwitz. What  happened? And,  perhaps more to the point,  why had  what happened  happened? Political  and economic analyses do not offer satisfactory answers to those urgent questions.  Cultural-which is  to say spiritual, even theological-answers might help.


Take, for  example, the  proposal made  by a  French Jesuit, Henri de  Lubac, during  World War  II. De Lubac argued that Europe's torments in the 1940s were the "real world" results of defective  ideas, which  he summarized  under the  rubric "atheistic humanism"-the  deliberate rejection of the God of the Bible  in the  name of authentic human liberation. This, de Lubac suggested, was something entirely new. Biblical man had perceived his relationship to the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus  as a  liberation: liberation  from the terrors of gods who  demanded extortionate  sacrifice, liberation  from the  whims  of  gods  who  played  games  with  human  lives (remember the  Iliad and  the Odyssey),  liberation from the vagaries of  Fate. The God of  the Bible was different. And because biblical  man believed  that he could have access to the one  true God  through prayer  and worship,  he believed that he  could bend  history in  a human  direction. Indeed, biblical man believed that he was obliged to work toward the humanization of  the world.  One of  European civilization's deepest and most distinctive cultural characteristics is the conviction that  life is  not  just  one  damn  thing  after another; Europe  learned that  from its  faith in the God of the Bible.


The  proponents  of  nineteenth-century  European  atheistic humanism turned  this inside  out  and  upside  down.  Human freedom, they argued, could not coexist with the God of Jews and  Christians.  Human  greatness  required  rejecting  the biblical  God,   according  to  such  avatars  of  atheistic humanism as  Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche.  And here, Father de Lubac argued, were ideas with  consequences-lethal consequences,  as it  turned out. For  when you  marry modern  technology to the ideas of atheistic humanism, what you get are the great mid-twentieth century tyrannies-communism,  fascism, Nazism.  Let loose in history, Father  de Lubac  concluded,  those  tyrannies  had taught a  bitter lesson:  "It is  not true,  as is sometimes said, that  man cannot  organize the world without God. What is true  is that,  without God,  he  can  only  organize  it against man."[4]  Atheistic humanism ultramundane  humanism, if you will-is inevitably inhuman humanism.


The first  lethal explosion  of what  Henri de  Lubac  would later call  "the drama  of atheistic humanism" was World War I.  For   whatever  else   it  was,  the  "Great  War"  was, ultimately,  the  product  of  a  crisis  of  civilizational morality, a  failure of  moral reason  in a culture that had given the  world the  very concept  of "moral  reason." That crisis of  moral reason  led to the crisis of civilizational morale that  is much  with us,  and especially  with Europe, today.


This crisis  has only  become fully visible since the end ofthe Cold  War. Its effects were first masked by the illusory peace between World War I and World War II; then by the rise of totalitarianism  and the  Great Depression;  then by  the Second World  War itself;  then by the Cold War. It was only after  1991,  when  the  seventy-seven-year-long  political-military crisis that began in 1914 had ended, that the long-term effects  of  Europe's  "rage  of  self-mutilation"  (as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn  called it) could come to the surface of history  and be seen for what they were-and for what they are. Europe  is  experiencing  a  crisis  of  civilizational morale today because of what happened in Europe ninety years ago. That  crisis could  not be  seen in  its full and grave dimensions then  (although the  German general  Helmuth  von Moltke, one of the chief instigators of the slaughter, wrote in late  July 1914 that the coming war would "annihilate the civilization of  almost the  whole of  Europe for decades to come"[5]). The damage done to the fabric of European culture and civilization  in the  Great War  could  only  been  seen clearly when  the Great  War's political  effects  had  been cleared from the board in 1991.




Contemporary European  culture is not bedeviled by atheistic humanism in its most raw forms; the Second World War and the Cold War  settled that.  Europe today  is profoundly shaped, however, by  a kinder,  gentler cousin,  what  the  Canadian philosopher   Charles    Taylor   has    termed   "exclusive humanism"[6]: a set of ideas that, in the name of democracy, human rights,  tolerance, and  civility,  demands  that  all transcendent religious or spiritual reference points must be kept out  of European public life-especially the life of the newly expanded  European Union.  This conviction  led to two recent episodes  that tell us a lot about Europe's crisis of civilizational  morale   and   where   that   crisis   leads politically.


The first  episode involved  the drafting  of  the  European Union's new  constitution-or, to  be technically  precise, a new European  constitutional treaty.  This process set off a raucous argument  over whether  the constitution's  preamble should acknowledge  Christianity as  a  source  of  European civilization and  of contemporary  Europe's  commitments  to human rights  and democracy.  The debate was sometimes silly and  not   infrequently  bitter.   Partisans   of   European secularism argued  that mentioning  Christianity as a source of European  democracy would  "exclude" Jews,  Muslims,  and those of  no religious  faith from the new Europe; yet these same partisans insisted on underscoring the Enlightenment as the principal  source of contemporary European civilization, which would  seem to  "exclude" all  those-including  avant-garde European "postmodernists"-who think that Enlightenment rationalism got it wrong.


The debate  was  finally  resolved  in  favor  of  exclusive humanism: a  treaty of  some 70,000  words (ten times longer than the  U.S. Constitution!)  could not  find room  for one word, "Christianity." Yet while following this debate, I had the gnawing  sense that  the real argument was not about the past but  about the  future-would religiously informed moral argument have  a place in the newly expanded European public square?


A disturbingly  negative answer  to that  question came four months after  the final  Euro-constitution  negotiation.  In October 2004,  Rocco Buttiglione,  a  distinguished  Italian philosopher and minister for European affairs in the Italian government, was  chosen by  the incoming  president  of  the European Commission,  Portugal's Jos,  Manuel Dur_o Barroso, to be  commissioner of  justice. Professor  Buttiglione, who would  have   been  considered  an  adornment  of  any  sane government since  Cato the  Elder, was  then subjected  to a nasty inquisition  by the  justice committee of the European

Parliament.  His  convictions  concerning  the  morality  of homosexual acts  and the  nature of  marriage were deemed by Euro-parliamentarians to  disqualify him  from holding  high office  on  the  European  Commission-despite  Buttiglione's clear distinction  in his  testimony  between  what  he,  an intellectually sophisticated  Catholic, regarded  as immoral behavior and what the law regarded as criminal behavior, and despite his sworn commitment, substantiated by a lifetime of work, to uphold and defend the civil rights of all. This did not satisfy  many members  of the  European Parliament,  who evidently agreed  with one of their number in his claim that Buttiglione's  moral  convictions-not  any  actions  he  had undertaken,   and    would   likely   undertake,   but   his convictions-were "in direct contradiction of European law."


Buttiglione described  this to  a British  newspaper as  the "new  totalitarianism,"   which   is   not,   I   fear,   an exaggeration. That  this new totalitarianism flies under the flag of "tolerance" only makes matters worse. But where does it come from?


One of  the most  perceptive commentators  on  the  European constitutional debate was neither a European nor a Christian but an  Orthodox Jew  born in  South Africa-J. H. H. Weiler, professor of  international law  and director  of  the  Jean Monnet Center  at New  York University.  Weiler argued  that European "Christophobia"-a  more pungent  term than Taylor's "exclusive humanism"-was  the root of the refusal of so many Europeans to  acknowledge what  Weiler regarded  as obvious: that Christian  ideas and  values were  one of the principal sources   of   European   civilization   and   of   Europe's contemporary commitment  to human rights and democracy. This deliberate historical amnesia, Weiler  suggested,  was  not only ignorant;  it was  constitutionally disabling.  For in addition to  defining the  relationship between citizens and the state,  and the  relations among the various branches of government, constitutions  are  the  repository,  the  safe-deposit box,  of the  ideas, values, and symbols that make a society what  it is.  Constitutions embody, Weiler proposed, the "ethos"  and the  "telos," the  cultural foundations and moral aspirations,  of a  political community.  To cut those aspirations out of the process of "constituting" Europe was to do grave damage to the entire project.[7]


Whether that  happens remains to be seen, as it is not clear that the  European constitutional treaty will be ratified by E.U. member  states. But  what is  unhappily clear  at  this juncture is  that Europe  has produced  a constitution  that denies the  vision of  three of  its most prominent founding fathers-Konrad  Adenauer,  Alcide  de  Gasperi,  and  Robert Schuman, serious  Christians to a man, all of them convinced that the  integrated and  free Europe they sought was, in no small part, a project of Christian civilization.[8] Europe's contemporary crisis of civilizational morale thus comes into sharper focus: Europe's statesmen-or, at the least, too many of them-are  denying  the  very  roots  from  which  today's "Europe" was  born. Is  there any  example in  history of  a successful political  project that is so contemptuous of its own cultural  and spiritual foundations? If so, I am unaware of it.




The demographics  are unmistakable:  Europe  is  dying.  The wasting  disease  that  has  beset  this  once  greatest  of civilizations is  not physical,  however. It is a disease in the  realm   of  the   human  spirit.  David  Hart,  another theological analyst  of contemporary  history, calls  it the disease of  "metaphysical boredom"-boredom with the mystery, passion, and  adventure of  life itself.  Europe, in  Hart's image, is boring itself to death.


And in  the process, it is allowing radicalized twenty-first century  Muslims-who  think  of  their  forebears'  military defeats at  Poitiers in  732, Lepanto in 1571, and Vienna in

1683 (as  well as  their expulsion  from Spain  in 1492), as temporary reversals  en route  to Islam's  final triumph  in Europe-to imagine  that the  day of  victory is not far off. Not because  Europe will  be conquered  by an  invading army marching under  the Prophet's  banners, but  because Europe, having depopulated  itself out  of  boredom  and  culturally disarmed itself  in the process, will have handed the future over to  those Islamic  immigrants who will create what some scholars call "Eurabia"-the European continent as a cultural and political  extension of  the Arab-Islamic  world. Should that happen,  the irony  would be unmistakable: the drama of atheistic humanism,  emptying Europe of its soul, would have played  itself   out  in   the  triumph   of  a   thoroughly nonhumanistic  theism.   Europe's  contemporary   crisis  of civilizational morale would reach its bitter conclusion when Notre-Dame becomes  Hagia Sophia  on the Seine-another great Christian church  become an  Islamic museum. At which point, we may  be sure, the human rights proclaimed by those narrow secularists  who   insist   that   a   culture's   spiritual aspirations have nothing to do with its politics would be in the gravest danger.


It need  not  happen:  there  are  signs  of  spiritual  and cultural renewal  in Europe,  especially among young people; the  Buttiglione   affair  raised   alarms  about   the  new intolerance that masquerades in the name of "tolerance;" the brutal murder of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh by a middle- class Moroccan-Dutch  has  reminded  Europeans  that  "roots causes"  do  not  really  explain  Islamist  terrorism.  The question on this side of the Atlantic, though, is why should Americans care  about the  European future?  I can  think of three very good reasons.


The first  involves pietas,  an ancient  Roman  virtue  that teaches us  reverence  and  gratitude  for  those  on  whose shoulders we stand.


A lot  of what  has crossed the Atlantic in the past several centuries has been improved in the process, from the English language to  the  forms  of  constitutional  democracy.  Yet pietas demands  that Americans  remember  where  those  good things came from. A United States indifferent to the fate of Europe  is   a  United  States  indifferent  to  its  roots. Americans learned  about the  dignity of  the human  person, about  limited  and  constitutional  government,  about  the principle of  consent, and  about the transcendent standards of justice  to which  the state is accountable in the school of freedom  called "Europe." Americans should remember that, with pietas.  We have  seen what  historical  amnesia  about civilizational roots has done to Europe. Americans ought not want that to happen in the United States.


The second  reason we  can and  must care has to do with the threat to  American security  posed by  Europe's demographic meltdown.    Demographic     vacuums    do     not    remain unfilled-especially when  the demographic vacuum in question is a  continent possessed of immense economic resources. One can already  see  the  effects  of  Europe's  self-inflicted depopulation in the tensions experienced in France, Germany, and elsewhere  by rising  tides of  immigration  from  North Africa, Turkey,  and other parts of the Islamic world. Since 1970, which  is not  all that  long  ago,  some  20  million (legal) Islamic  immigrants- the  equivalent of  three  E.U. countries, Ireland,  Belgium, and  Denmark-have  settled  in Europe. And  while, in  the most  optimistic  of  scenarios, these  immigrants   may  become   good  European  democrats, practicing civility  and tolerance, there is another and far grimmer alternative,  as I  have suggested  above.  Europe's current   demographic    trendlines,   coupled    with   the radicalization of  Islam that  seems to  be a  by-product of some  Muslims'   encounter  with  contemporary,  secularized Europe, could eventually produce a twenty-second century, or even  late   twenty-first   century,   Europe   increasingly influenced by,  and  perhaps  even  dominated  by,  militant Islamic  populations,   convinced  that  their  long-delayed triumph in the European heartland is at hand.


Is a  European future  dominated by an appeasement mentality toward radical  Islamism in the best interests of the United States? That  seems very  unlikely. Neither is a Europe that is a  breeding ground  for Islamic radicalism; remember that the experience  of life  in  Hamburg  was  decisive  in  the evolution of  both Mohammed  Atta, leader of the 9/11 "death pilots," and of the pilot of the "fourth plane" of that grim day, the  plane forced down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania-the one intended to hit the Capitol or the White House.


The third reason why the "Europe problem" is ours as well as theirs has  to do with the future of the democratic project, in the  United States  and indeed  throughout the world. The strange debate  over  the  mere  mention  of  Christianity's contributions  to  European  civilization  in  the  proposed European constitution  was especially disturbing because the amnesiacs  who   wanted  to   rewrite  European  history  by airbrushing Christianity  from the  picture were doing so in service to  a thin, proceduralist idea of democracy. To deny that Christianity  had anything  to do with the evolution of free, law-governed, and prosperous European societies is, to repeat, more  than a  question of falsifying the past; it is also a  matter of creating a future in which moral truth has no role  in  governance,  in  the  determination  of  public policy, in  understandings of justice, and in the definition of that freedom which democracy is intended to embody.


Were these  ideas to  prevail in  Europe, that  would be bad news for  Europe; but  it would  also be  bad news  for  the United States,  for their triumph would inevitably reinforce similar tendencies  in our  own high culture, and ultimately in our  law. The judicial redefinition of "freedom" as sheer personal willfulness,  manifest in  the 2003  Supreme  Court decision, Lawrence  v. Texas,  was buttressed  by  citations from European  courts.  And  what  would  it  mean  for  the democratic project  around the  world  if  the  notion  that democracy has  nothing to  do with  moral truth  is exported from western  Europe to  central and  eastern Europe via the expanded European Union, and thence to other new democracies around the world?


So Americans should, and must, care. We sever ourselves from our civilizational  roots if  we ignore  Europe in  a fit of aggravation or pique. Our security will be further imperiled in a  post-9/11 world  if Europe's  demographics continue to give advantage  to the dynamism of radical Islamism in world politics.  The   American  democratic   experiment  will  be weakened  if   Europe's  legal   definition  of  freedom  as willfulness reinforces similar tendencies here in the United States-and so will the democratic project in the world.


EDITOR'S NOTE:   In  2000, Weigel delivered FPRI's Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs, speaking on Pope John Paul II and the Dynamics of History."  His lecture is posted on our website at: www.fpri.org/ww/0106.200004.weigel.popehistory.html


For a  complete listing  of FPRI's  Templeton  Lectures  and links to them (1996-2004), visit: www.fpri.org/education/templetonlecture.html


The 2005  Templeton Lecture  on Religion  and World  Affairs will be  delivered on  September 20  by David  Rosen, former Chief Rabbi  of  Ireland  and  Director  of  Inter-religious Affairs, American Jewish Committee, Israel.


Of  related   interest  on   our  website  is  "Religion  in Diplomatic History,"  by Walter  A.  McDougall,  FPRI  Wire, March 1998: www.fpri.org/fpriwire/0603.199803.mcdougall.religionindiplomatichistory.html




[1] Nicholas  Eberstadt, "What  If It's  a World  Population Implosion? Speculations  about  Global  De-population,"  The Global Reproductive  Health Forum (Harvard University, 1998; available at



[2] Niall  Ferguson, "Eurabia?"  New  York  Times  Magazine, April 4, 2004.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Henri  de Lubac,  The Drama  of  Atheist  Humanism  (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 14.


[5] David  Fromkin, Europe's  Last Summer:  Who Started  the Great War in 1914? (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 224.


[6] Charles  Taylor, Sources  of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).


[7]  J.  H.  H.  Weiler,  Un  Europa  cristiana:  Un  saggio esplorativo (Milan: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 2003).


[8] See  Robert  Wendelin  Keyserlingk,  Fathers  of  Europe (Montreal: Palm Publishers, 1972).

A Roman Catholic theologian, George Weigel is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His book "Witness to Hope" The Biography of John Paul II" was published to international acclaim in 1999 in English, French, Italian, and Spanish.

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