Pope Benedict XVI
Exactly what is Europe? Very much this same question was posed anew quite explicitly by Jozef Cardinal Glemp during the work of one of the language groups at the Episcopal Synod on Europe: Where does Europe begin? Where does it end? Why, for example, isn’t Siberia part of Europe, even though it is also inhabited by Europeans whose way of thinking and living is European? Where do the borders of Europe end in the southernmost reaches of the community of Russian peoples? Where is the border in the Atlantic? Which islands are European and which aren’t? Why aren’t they European?
In encounters such as this one, it becomes perfectly clear that only in a completely secondary manner is Europe a geographical concept. Europe is a cultural and historical concept, not a continent clearly definable in geographical terms.
1. THE RISE OF EUROPE
This becomes rather evident when we make an effort to return to the origins of Europe, which ordinarily means evoking Herodotus (484-425 BC). This historian was certainly the first person to look upon Europe as a geographical concept and he defined it in the following terms: “The Persians consider Asia and the barbarians who live there as their property, while they look upon Europe and the Greek world as a separate country.”
The confines of Europe had not been adopted as such, but it is clear that the lands now constituting the core of Europe lay completely outside the visual field of this ancient historian. In fact, the formation of the Hellenic states and the Roman empire led to the formation of a continent that became the basis for later Europe, but which had completely different borders. These borders encompassed all the lands around the Mediterranean, which, as a result of factors such as cultural bonds, sea traffic, trade and a common political system, together made up a continent in the true sense of the word.
Only the triumphal advance of Islam in the 600s and the beginning of the 700s traced a border through the Mediterranean, thereby cutting it into two. As a result, everything which until then had been a single continent was now subdivided into three: Asia, Africa and Europe.
The transformation of the ancient world took place in the East at a slower pace than in the West. With Constantinople as its focal point, the Roman Empire resisted there — albeit pushed to the outskirts more and more — until the 1400s. While, by the year 700, the southern part of the Mediterranean had fallen completely outside what up to then had been considered a cultural continent, a more decisive expansion northward was underway at the same time. The limes, or what up to then had been a continental confine, disappeared, and the way was opened towards a new historical space that now embraced Gaul, Germany and Britannia as core territories, along with an increasing propensity to reach out in the direction of Scandinavia.
In the course of this process of shifting confines, the ideal continuity with the previous Mediterranean continent — geographically gauged in different terms — was guaranteed by the construction of a theology of history: in line with the book of Daniel, the Roman Empire as renewed and transformed by the Christian faith was considered the ultimate and permanent kingdom of the history of the world in general. Therefore, the peoples and states in the process of coming into existence were defined as the Sacrum Imperium Romanum (Holy Roman Empire).
The process involving this new historical and cultural identification took place as an intentional pursuit under the reign of Charlemagne. Likewise, emerging once again was the ancient name “Europe,” but with a change in meaning: this title was now used to define the kingdom of Charlemagne, while at the same time expressing an awareness of the continuity and newness with which this new set of states was projecting itself as a force projecting itself into the future. Projecting itself into the future, precisely because it saw itself as the continuation of what had thus far been the history of the world and therefore anchored in what perseveres forever. Likewise expressed in this emerging self comprehension was an awareness of definitiveness, together with an awareness of a mission to be accomplished.
It is true that the concept of “Europe” practically disappeared once again after the demise of the Carolingian reign, while the word itself retained a certain pride of place only in the language of learned persons. In ordinary language, however, it then resurfaced at the beginning of the modem age, as a form of self identification in relation to the threat represented by the Turks, while its widespread and general use brings us all the way up to the 18th century. Independently from this history of the actual word “Europe.” the consolidation of the kingdom of the Franks as the never-faded and now reborn Roman Empire, marked the decisive step towards what we now mean when we speak of Europe.
At the same time, however, we certainly must not overlook the fact that there was also a second root of Europe, a non-Western Europe. As mentioned earlier, the Roman Empire resisted in Byzantium against tempests in the forms of the migration of peoples and the Islamic invasion. Moreover, Byzantium considered itself to be the true Rome because this was where the empire had never passed away. As a result. the “east” continued to advance claims against the other half of the empire. the western half. Now, this eastern Roman empire also expanded northward into the heartland of the Slavic world and created its own world, a Greek-Roman world distinct from the Latin Europe of the West because of a different liturgy, a different ecclesiastical constitution, a different culture and the abandonment of Latin as the common language learned by all.
Certainly the elements that could have made these two worlds a single one, a single and common continent, were more than sufficient. First, there was the common heritage of the Bible and the early Church, which, in both worlds, related beyond itself to an origin now outside Europe, in Palestine. Then there was the common idea of “Empire,” the common and basic comprehension of the Church, and hence a sharing of the fundamental ideas of rule of law and juridical instruments. Lastly among these elements, I would venture to mention monasticism, which, even in the throes of the major upheavals of history, basically remained the bearer not only of cultural continuity but, above all, of fundamental religious and moral values, ultimate orientations of man. As a pre-political and supra political force, monasticism became the wellspring of ever new and necessary rebirths.
Despite this sharing of an essential ecclesiastical heritage, there was still a profound difference between these two Europes and the importance thereof has been highlighted especially by Endre von Ivanka. In Byzantium, empire and Church were practically identified one with the other. The emperor was also the head of the Church and considered himself the representative of Christ. Much like Melchisedek, who was both king and priest (Gn 14:18), as of the 6th century, the emperor bore the official title of “king and priest.”
In the Western empire, however, the departure of the emperors from Rome &3151 begun by Constantine — enabled the autonomous position of bishop of Rome to develop as the successor of Peter and supreme pastor of the Church, in what had been the original capital of the empire. There was, therefore, a dualism of authority, taught already at the outset of the era of Constantine: in effect, Emperor and Pope had separate powers, and neither one of them exercised total authority. Pope Gelasius I (492-496) set forth the vision of the West in his famous letter to Emperor Anastasius and even more explicitly in his fourth treatise, where, in contrast to the Byzantine typology of Melchisedek, he stressed that the unity of authority was to be found exclusively in Christ: “Due to human weakness (pride!), He has separated the two ministries for times to come so no one may become arrogant” (c. 11).
For matters regarding eternal life, the Christian emperors needed Popes (pontifices), who, in their turn, abided by imperial orders regarding temporal affairs. In worldly matters, the Popes had to comply with the laws of the emperor enthroned by divine order, while the latter had to bow to Popes regarding divine affairs. A separation or distinction of powers was thereby introduced, which became of utmost importance for the later development of Europe. We could even say that it laid the foundations for what is specifically typical of the Western world.
Since rebellion against such delimitation was ever vivid on both sides, along with an impulse to concentrate powers and a yearning to impose power over the other side or party, this principle of separation has also become the source of infinite suffering. How this principle should be lived correctly and rendered concrete in both political and religious terms remains a fundamental issue for the Europe of both today and tomorrow.
2. THE TURNING POINT TOWARDS THE MODERN AGE
While on the basis of what has been presented thus far we may consider, on the one hand, the rise of the Carolingian empire and, on the other, the continuation of the Roman empire in Byzantium with its mission towards the Slavic peoples, as the true birth of the continent Europe, the onset of the modem age meant a turning point for both Europes, a radical change affecting both the essence of this continent and its geographical contours.
Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 and O. Hiltbrunner commented upon this event in the following laconic terms: “the last… learned men emigrated towards Italy and to the humanists of the Renaissance handed on the knowledge of the original Greek texts; but the East collapsed in the absence of culture.”
Such an affirmation may strike us as being somewhat uncouth, because the reign of the Ottoman dynasty had its culture as well. It is true, however, that this event marked the end of the Greek-Christian, European culture of Byzantium. Therefore, one of Europe’s two wings ran the risk of disappearing, but the Byzantine heritage was not dead. Moscow declared itself as the third Rome, founded its own patriarchate on the grounds of the idea of a second translatio imperii, and therefore projected itself as a new metamorphosis of the Sacrum Imperium — a form of Europe in its own right which nonetheless remained united with the West, moving closer and closer — to such an extent that Peter the Great tried to turn Russia into a western nation.
This northward shift of Byzantine Europe also meant that the continent’s confines started moving broadly eastwards. The setting of the Urals as the frontier was an extremely arbitrary decision, but the world east of that mountain range was becoming more and more like a sort of substructure of Europe, neither Asia nor Europe; basically forged by Europe as the prime subject, without any possibility of exercising its own rights as a subject and therefore a mere object bereft of any chance to be the bearer of its own history. For all intents and purposes, perhaps that defines the essence of a colonial state.
At one and the same time we witness a dual process of substantial historical significance in the West as well.
First, a large part of the Germanic world separated itself from Rome and a new, enlightened form of Christianity saw the light of day. Therefore, then running through the West was a line of separation which clearly formed a cultural limes, a border between two different ways of thinking and entertaining relations. Within the Protestant world there was also a cleavage; firstly between Lutherans and Reformed believers, who were joined by Methodists and Presbyterians, while the Anglicans tried to assume a middle of the road stance between Catholics and Evangelicals. Then there was the difference between Christianity lived under the form of a state Church, which became the characteristic in Europe, and Christianity lived in the free churches that found refuge in North America. We will return to this at a later point.
Let’s take a close look at the second event, the discovery of America, which shaped the situation during the modern age of Latin Europe. Corresponding to the eastward extension of Europe, as Russia moved closer and closer to Asia, was Europe’s radical egress from its geographical confines towards America, towards that world on the other side of the ocean. The subdivision of Europe into a Latin Catholic half and a Germanic Protestant half also crossed those waters and had an impact in that part of the planet colonized by Europe. Initially, America was also a colony, a part of an expanded Europe, but, with the upheaval of Europe brought about by the French Revolution, America took on its own stature as an independent subject. Even though marked so deeply by its European birth, from the 19th century onwards America began to assume a position of equality with Europe.
In an effort to learn more about Europe’s profound and innermost identity by looking back over its history, we have considered two fundamental turning points in that history. First, the dissolution of the old Mediterranean continent caused by the creation of the Sacrum Imperium located farther north, where, beginning with the Carolingian epoch, Europe began to be formed as a Latin-western world. Together with this there was the continuation of the old Rome at Byzantium with its expansion towards the Slavic world. As a second step in this process, we looked at the downfall of Byzantium and the subsequent shift of a part of Europe northwards and eastwards, as well as the internal division of Europe into a Germanic-Protestant world and a Latin-Catholic world. This was then followed by the leap towards America, which also felt the impact of that internal division, but ended up assuming a position as an independent subject vis-a-vis Europe.
At this point we must focus our attention on a third turning point, whose readily visible beacon was the French Revolution. It is true to say that the Sacrum Imperium was already considered close to its natural demise as a political entity, beginning with the late Middle Ages. It had become increasingly fragile also as a sound and unchallenged interpretation of history. Only now was this spiritual framework formally crumbling into pieces, however; the spiritual framework without which Europe would never have become a reality.
This was a process of considerable magnitude in terms of both politics and ideals. From the viewpoint of ideals it meant that the sacred foundation of history and the existence of a state was rejected.
History was no longer to be gauged on the basis of an idea of God which preceded it and gave it form. Statehood was looked upon in purely secular terms, based on rationality and the will of citizens.
Witnessed for absolutely the first time in history was the emergence of a completely secular or non-denominational state, which abandoned and set aside the divine warranty and divine regulation of the political element, considering such elements as belonging to a mythical vision of the world. In addition, such a state declared God Himself to be a private matter, belonging to neither the sphere of public life nor the common formation of civic volition. The latter was considered to be solely a matter of reason, with respect to which God did not appear clearly knowable.
In other words, religion and faith in God belonged to the sphere of feelings and not that of reason. God and His will ceased to have any relevance in public life.
Towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century this gave rise to a new type of schism, whose seriousness we see only now in clearer terms. There is no real name for it in German, because it spread among German-speaking peoples at a slower pace, but in the neo-Latin languages it was identified as a division between clergy and laity or laypersons. During the last two centuries this laceration penetrated into the “Latin” nations like a deep wound, while Protestant Christianity initially had an easier time in granting freedom of expression to liberal and enlightenment ideas cropping up around it, without causing any destruction to the framework of broad Christian consensus. The realistic political aspect inherent in the dissolution of the old idea of empire can be described in the following terms: the nations or states which had become identifiable as such, following the formation of unified linguistic areas, appeared as the only true bearers of history, thereby obtaining a status unheard of or impossible in the past. The explosive and dramatic gravity of what had now become an historical subject in the plural may be seen in the fact that the major European nations knew they were the stewards of a universal mission. This mission had, of necessity, to lead to conflicts among them and we were the ones who suffered the mortal impact thereof in the century which recently ended.
3. THE UNIVERSALIZATION OF THE EUROPEAN CULTURE AND ITS CRISIS
We must now consider a further process which ushered the history of recent centuries into a new world. Prior to the modem age, the old Europe with its two halves basically knew only one “next door neighbor,” with whom it had to deal in matters regarding both life and death; in other words, the world of Islam.
Then there was the turning point of the modem age with the expansion of Europe towards America and parts of Asia essentially bereft of major cultural subjects. Now coming into the picture was a movement towards two continents thus far on the outskirts of Europe’s focus of interest: Africa and Asia. Here as well, efforts were made to transform them into branches of Europe, into colonies. To a certain degree this was a successful endeavor, since both Asia and Africa now pursue the ideal of a world forged by technology and its ensuing prosperity. As a result, ancient religious traditions struggle in the throes of crisis there as well, and expressions of purely secular thinking are becoming increasingly dominant in the public arena.
Equally evident, however, is an effect to the contrary. The rebirth of Islam is connected not only with the new material wealth of the Islamic countries, but is nourished by Islam’s ability to offer sound spiritual grounds for the life of peoples, grounds which seem to have slipped out of Europe’s steady hand. Therefore, despite its lasting political and economic might, Europe is increasingly looked upon as condemned to decline and downfall.
In addition, the major religious traditions of Asia, above all its mystical component expressed in Buddhism, are emerging as spiritual powers against a Europe in the process of denying its religious and moral foundations. The optimism regarding the victory of the European factor which Arnold Toynbee was still able to sustain at the beginning of the 1960s now seems strangely outdated: “Out of 28 cultures we have been able to identify … 18 have died and 9 of the remaining 10 — actually all of them except ours — reveal that they have already suffered a death blow.”
Who would dare to repeat such words today? And, perhaps in more general terms, what is our culture? What is there left of it? Is European culture that civilization of technology and trade so victoriously widespread through the world? Or didn’t that civilization come into being in a post European world following the end of the early European cultures? What I see here is a paradoxical synchrony: with things like the victory of the technical-secular/post-European world and the globalization of its model of life and way of thinking, people all over the world, especially in the non-European worlds of Asia and Africa, have the distinct impression that the values, culture and faith of Europe — the very bases of its identity — have reached their end and exited life’s stage, while now the center stage is being taken by the value systems of other worlds, such as pre-Colombian America, Islam and Asian mysticism.
At this time, when Europe seems to have reached the pinnacle of success, it seems like it has become empty within, paralyzed by a crisis of its circulatory system, paralyzed by a crisis threatening its very survival, which is entrusted to transplants that cannot help but alter its identity.
Corresponding to this interior sapping of its constituent spiritual forces is the fact that Europe seems to be taking its leave in ethnic terms. In Europe, there is a strange shortage of future-oriented willingness. Offspring represent the future, but children are looked upon as a threat for the here and now. They take something away from our life, people say and think. Children are considered a limitation on the present and not a source of hope for the future. Necessary here is a comparison with the fading Roman empire: it continued to work as a huge historical framework, but was actually living off those who were to dissolve it, because it had no life-giving energy at all.
This brings us to current problems and issues. Regarding Europe’s possible future there were two opposing diagnoses. On one hand there was the thesis propounded by Oswald Spengler, who believed he could set a sort of natural law for the major expressions of culture: there were the moments of birth and gradual growth of a culture, its moment of full bloom, followed by its slow corpulence, ageing and death. Spengler enriched this thesis of his in a most impressive manner, using documentation drawn from the history of cultures which depicted this law of natural destiny. His thesis sustained that the West had reached its final epoch, and was hastening towards its demise, despite all the efforts to avert it. Quite naturally, Europe could hand on its gifts to a new and emerging culture, as had already transpired in previous declines of a culture, but its life span as a subject had come to an end.
Branded as “biological,” this thesis met with numerous and impassioned opponents during the period between the two world wars, especially in Catholic circles. The most impressive opponent of all was Arnold Toynbee, even though he used postulates which wouldn’t find much of an audience today. Toynbee highlighted material-technical progress on the one hand, and, on the other, real progress which he defined as “spiritualization.” He admitted the fact that the West — the western world — was in crisis and saw as the cause of that crisis the lapse from religion to the worship of technology, nationhood, military might, etc. In the final analysis, he considered the crisis to be “secularism.”
Having ascertained the cause of the crisis, he felt it was possible to suggest the cure, which meant once again introducing the religious factor. In his mind this entailed the religious heritage of all cultures, but especially “what there is left of western Christianity.”
Opposed here to the biological vision is a voluntaristic one counting on the force of creative minorities and outstanding individual personalities.
Here comes the question: is this diagnosis correct? And if it is, do we have the power and means to once again introduce the religious moment, in a synthesis of residual Christianity and the religious heritage of humankind? Basically speaking, the issue at stake between Spengler and Toynbee remains an open one, because we are unable to see into the future.
Besides that, however, it is our task to ask ourselves what may guarantee the future, what is able to continue nourishing the interior identity of Europe through all its historical metamorphoses. Or, in much simpler terms, what promises, today and tomorrow, to bestow human dignity and life in conformity with that dignity.
In order to find an answer to such queries we must once again look within our present and, at the same time, keep ever in mind its historical roots. Earlier on we had reached the point of the French Revolution and the 19th century. That was the time characterized especially by the development of two European models. Adopted in the Latin nations was the secular model, where the state was clearly distinct from religious entities, which were attributed to the private sphere. The state itself rejected any religious foundation and considered itself based solely on reason and its insights. In the face of the frailty of reason, these systems turned out to be fragile and easily fell the victim of dictatorships. Where they did survive, it was because parts of the old moral conscience continued to persevere even without the previous foundations, thereby making basic moral consensus possible. In the Germanic world, on the other hand, there were various expressions of models of liberal Protestant state churches, in which an enlightened Christian religion — essentially considered as moral life, but with forms of worship guaranteed by the public authorities — guaranteed a moral consensus and a broad-based religious foundation, to which the individual, non-state religions had to adapt. In Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries and, initially also, in Prussian-dominated Germany, this model guaranteed national and social unity for a long time. In Germany, however, the decline of Prussian state Christianity created a vacuum which became an open space that was soon occupied by a dictatorship. Nowadays, state churches have fallen the victim of sheer wear and tear everywhere. Religious entities which are derivations of the state are no longer generating any thing akin to moral force. Then again, the state itself cannot create moral force, but must presuppose it and then construct upon it.
Between these two models we have the United States of America. Formed on the basis of free churches, it began nationhood with a rigid dogma of separation between church and state. Then again, above and beyond single religious denominations, it was molded by an underlying Protestant-Christian consensus not forged in confessional terms, which was linked to a particular awareness of a religious-type mission towards the rest of the world. This bestowed special public weight upon the religious factor, which, insofar as a pre-political and supra-political force, could be a determining element for public life. Certainly, it is quite evident that in the United States, as well, the dissolution of the Christian heritage continues inexorably, while at the same time the rapid increase of the Hispanic element and the presence of religious traditions from all over the world changes the general picture.
Perhaps we should also remark that the United States is actively promoting the spread of Protestantism in Latin America, and consequently the decline of the Catholic Church as a result of inroads made by free churches. This endeavor is based on the conviction that the Catholic Church could not guarantee a stable political and economic system, thereby failing in its duty as an educator of nations. Conversely, what people expect is that the model of free churches would pave the way for a moral consensus and a democratic formation of public volition similar to those in the United States. In order to complicate the picture even more, we must admit that the Catholic Church now forms the largest religious community in the United States and is resolutely on the side of Catholic identity in its life of faith. Regarding the relationship between church and state, however, American Catholics have embraced the traditions of the free churches, in the sense that a church clearly separate from the state constitutes a better guarantee for the moral foundations of everything.
Therefore, the democratic ideal appears as a moral duty in profound alignment with the faith. There are ample grounds for interpreting such a position as an updated continuation of the aforementioned model sustained by Pope Gelasius.
Let’s return to Europe. The two models illustrated earlier were joined by a third one in the 19th century; that is to say, socialism, soon subdivided into totalitarian socialism and democratic socialism. Beginning from its point of departure, democratic socialism was able to enter the mainstream of the two existent models as a healthy counterweight to radical liberal positions, both enriching and correcting them. Here, as well, it turned out to be something above and beyond confessions: in England it was the political party of Catholics, who didn’t feel comfortable in either the Protestant-conservative camp or the liberal party. In Wilhelm’s Germany the Catholic “center” felt closer to democratic socialism than to the rigidly conservative Prussian and Protestant forces. In many ways, democratic socialism was, and is, close to the social doctrine of the Catholic Church and, in any case, did contribute quite a bit to the formation of a social conscience.
The totalitarian model of socialism, however, went hand in hand with a rigidly materialistic and atheistic philosophy of history. History, in this model, is understood deterministically as a process of progress passing through the religious phase to the liberal one, in order to reach the absolute and definitive society, where religion is transcended as a relic of the past and the correct interplay of material conditions can guarantee the happiness of all. The apparent scientific basis of this approach, however, conceals an intolerant dogmatism: spirit is produced by matter; morals are produced by circumstances and are to be both defined and practiced in keeping with the aims of society; everything which helps to foster the advent of the final and felicitous state is moral. The overturning of the values which had constructed Europe is complete here. Moreover, here is a complete rupture with respect to the overall moral tradition of humankind. No longer are there such things as values independent from the pursuits of progress. At a given moment in time, everything can be permitted and even necessary, can be “moral” in the new sense of the word. Man, as well, can become an instrument. The individual counts for nothing at all and the future becomes the one and only terrible divinity deciding every thing for everyone.
In the meantime, the Communist systems had run aground and sunk on the reefs of their false economic dogmatism. However, people all-too-readily overlook the fact that they sank, even more deeply, due to their scorn for human rights, for their subordination of morals to the requirements of the system and its promises of a glorious future. The real catastrophes they left in their wake are not economic in nature, but rather the drying up of the soul, the destruction of moral conscience. In this I see an essential problem for Europe and the world at large.
Old line Communists admit the extent of their economic failures and that’s why they’ve all become economic liberals. And yet the moral and religious issue that constitutes the very core of the problem is almost completely swept aside. Therefore, the problem left behind by Marxism is still with us in the dissolution of man’s primordial certainties about God, himself and the universe. The dissolution of the awareness of intangible moral values is once again our problem right now and could lead to the self-destruction of the European conscience. Apart from Spengler’s vision of cultural decline, we have to begin looking upon this as a real danger.
4. WHERE DO WE STAND TODAY?
This brings us face to face with the following question: how must things forge ahead? In the violent upheavals of our time is there an identity of Europe with hopes of a future? An identity for which we can commit ourselves, heart and soul? I am not prepared to delve into a detailed discussion on the future Constitution of Europe. I would just like to indicate the constituent moral elements which, in my opinion, should be included.