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The Spiritual Malaise That Haunts Europe

Continent faces a grim future if it turns its back on its religious roots.

May 01, 2005|George Weigel | George Weigel is the author of "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God" (Basic Books 2005) and "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II" (HarperCollins, 2005).

America's "Europe problem" and Europe's "America problem" have been debated for years. The debate is usually framed in terms of policy differences: over prosecuting the war on terrorism; over the United Nations' role in world affairs; over the Kyoto Protocol on the global environment; over Iraq. The differences are real. But attempts to understand them in political, strategic and/or economic terms alone will ultimately fail because such explanations don't reflect the human texture of contemporary Europe.

Europe, and especially Western Europe, is suffering from a crisis of civilizational morale. The most dramatic manifestations are not Europe's fondness for governmental bureaucracy or its devotion to fiscally shaky healthcare schemes and pension plans, its lagging productivity or the appeasement mentality that some leaders display toward Islamist terrorism. No, the most dramatic manifestation 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 European Common Market was being created in the 1950s. As recent demographic studies show, by the middle of the 21st century, 60% of Italians will have no personal experience of a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle or a cousin; 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 in numbers greater than at any time since the Black Death of the 14th century. 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 serious is afoot.

Some analysts have tried to explain this extraordinary phenomenon economically (the cost of children), others sociologically (changing social attitudes), still others ideologically (the rise of feminism). Each explanation contains an important grain of truth. But I am convinced that Europe's demographic meltdown is best analyzed in the realm of the human spirit, and that it is directly related to European high culture's abandonment of biblical religion.

Getting at the roots of this crisis of civilizational morale means thinking about "history" differently. Europeans and Americans usually think of history as the product of politics (the struggle for power) or economics (the production of wealth). Both lines of thinking take a partial truth and try, unsuccessfully, to turn it into a comprehensive truth. Understanding Europe's current situation requires us to look at history through cultural lenses.

Europe began the 20th century confidently expecting unprecedented scientific, cultural and political achievements. Yet within 50 years, Europe produced two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War that threatened global destruction, mountains of corpses, the gulag and Auschwitz. What happened? And why? Political and economic analyses don't offer satisfactory answers. Cultural -- which is to say spiritual -- answers might do a better job.

When the European Union was debating its new constitutional treaty in 2003 and 2004, why were so many European intellectuals and political leaders determined to prevent any acknowledgment of Christianity as one of the roots of contemporary Europe's commitment to human rights and democracy? Because, over the last 150 years or so, the makers of European culture and politics have convinced themselves that, to be modern and free, Europe must jettison its Judeo-Christian heritage: that part of its culture formed by faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

A free European public square, Europeans have convinced themselves, must be radically secular. That is why the 70,000-word European constitution awaiting ratification could not find room within it for one word -- "Christianity" -- in describing the sources of European civilization. That is why the French government -- the embodiment of secularism in public life -- was attacked for flying the flag at half-staff in honor of John Paul II. That is why Europeans can only debate grave issues in biotechnology in utilitarian terms; "will it work?" completely trumps "is it right?" European high culture's conviction that to be adult, mature and free is to be radically secular has led to a vast and withering spiritual boredom -- a drastic shrinkage in personal and social aspiration.

That spiritual boredom, I suggest, is why Europeans seem content to leave all hard political decisions to courts and bureaucracies, as they seem content to leave most questions of international security to the U.N. That spiritual boredom is why Europe is depopulating itself. Europe, bored, asks only to be left alone with its pleasures.

But the cost of spiritual boredom is very high. Demographic vacuums don't stay vacuums; they get filled -- in Europe's case, by Islamic immigrants, some of whom become radicalized in the process. Europe's effort to create a tolerant, civil, democratic civilization by cutting itself off from one of that civilization's sources -- Jewish and Christian convictions about the dignity of the person -- is likely to fail. If Europe rejects what Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday called its "unrenounceable Christian roots," the results are likely to be grim for those committed to decency, human rights and democracy.

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