THE CUBE AND THE CATHEDRAL: EUROPE, AMERICA, AND POLITICS WITHOUT GOD. By George Weigel. Basic Books (2005), $23
In the closing months of his pontificate, John Paul II turned repeatedly to the “Europe question.” He insisted that a failure to mention the common Christian heritage in the drafting of the E.U. constitution would tear apart the very cultural fabric that made Europe possible in the first place. In his final book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II offered his most penetrating exposition of the terrible risk Europe would run should it choose to ignore the essential Christian dimensions of its religious, civic, and cultural history.
George Weigel has dedicated years of study to the life and thought of the late John Paul II. So it is hardly coincidental that Weigel’s latest book, The Cube and the Cathedral (Basic Books, 2005), released just two days after the pope’s passing, parallels the themes embraced by John Paul II in Memory and Identity.
The title of the book refers to the stark architectural contrast between the La Grande Arche de la Défense and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The cathedral reveals the subtle intricacy and richness of Catholic social thinking, while the cube was erected to celebrate the humanitarian ideals embraced by French revolutionaries and extolled in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The idea represented by the latter, argues Weigel, may be as vacuous as the space within it.
While some are heaving a sigh of despair that Europe simply forgot its Christian roots somewhere along the way, Weigel demonstrates that apathy alone cannot explain the empty churches, plummeting birthrates, and defunct welfare programs on the European continent. Nor is it a matter of Europe deciding that God isn’t so important, after all, for public life. Rather, it is the overt and occasionally militant attitude that Christianity is actually harmful to political stability and social progress. Europe is not suffering so much from amnesia as from a severe case of, in the words of Joseph Weiler, “Christophobia”. Those who campaigned against the inclusion of any reference to Christianity in the E.U. constitution boldly asserted: “not only can there be politics without God, there must be politics without God.”
Weigel believes that European Christophobia rests on a gross oversimplification of history in three stages: “expansion” during the rise of the Roman Empire, “contraction” as that empire struggled to ward off barbaric invasions, and “absorption” as church and state melded into one during the Carolingian period. Many mistakenly believe that, in the years that followed, the Church dictatorially governed both ecclesial and civil affairs. The truth is that the Church often found herself in the position of defending her right to conduct spiritual affairs free from the pressures of secular rulers. The vivid image of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow for days at Canossa in search of a pardon from Pope Gregory VII too easily blots out the image of the same pope dying in Salerno after having been banished by the same Henry IV. The investiture controversy underlying these events stimulated the thinking that led to the Western ideal of “a limited state in a free society.”
But the book does not leave the reader without a sense of hope. Numerous lay ecclesial movements are burgeoning in Europe. Weigel makes specific mention of Focolare, Opus Dei, the Sant’Egidio Community, the Emmanuel Community, and Regnum Christi. The effectiveness of movements like these – an effectiveness that baffles secular political pundits and media mongrels – simply proves that John Paul II was right: culture does matter. It is the fabric supporting any free and just society, and it is a force with the power to topple oppressive and unjust regimes. But without a memory to pass it on, it is bankrupt.
The only minor lacuna in Weigel’s analysis is his insufficient attention to other historical events that may have contributed to the current Christophobia: the ravages of the Thirty Years War, for example, or the botched attempts in 1960s’ France at a “fusion of the Christian impulse with secular and political action”, in the words of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Events such as these convinced many Europeans that Christianity and politics are mutually exclusive, and may have had a more direct impact on most citizens than did Ockham’s nominalistic turn.
Although the Holy Spirit deserves the ultimate credit for the selection of a pope, the prospect of electing a European who himself has demonstrated a keen understanding of the issues confronting Europe must have influenced the deliberations of the College of Cardinals at the recent conclave. Barely two weeks before he ascended the throne of Peter, Cardinal Ratzinger maintained that the culture of today’s Europe “constitutes the most radical contradiction, not only of Christianity, but also of the religious and moral traditions of all humanity.” It is a contradiction, Weigel argues, that could have fatal consequences.
Fr. Daniel Gallagher
Sacred Heart Major Seminary