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Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam


It is up to the readers to decide whether our intention to examine and reflect on the great issues of our time, including the West, Europe, Christianity, Islam, war, and bioethical questions has achieved its goal. Whether our concerns can be addressed. And whether our suggestions deserve to be pursued.

The following is an excerpt from the chapter, "The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow".
It was originally an address given by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Italian Senate on May 13, 2004.


We must now consider the process by which this history of past centuries was transmitted to new worlds. The two halves of ancient pre-modern Europe had essentially known only one next-door neighbor, with whom it had to negotiate as a matter of life and death: namely, the Islamic world. It was only a question of time before Europe would expand toward America and in part toward Asia, continents that were lacking in great cultural protagonists. Still later, Europe would begin to make further incursions into these two continents, Africa and Asia, which it had previously dealt with only marginally, and which it would seek to transform into European franchises, into colonies.

If colonization could be considered a success, it is in the sense that contemporary Asia and Africa can also pursue the ideal of a world shaped by technology and prosperity. Yet there, too, the ancient religious traditions are undergoing a crisis, and secular thinking has made inroads and begun to dominate public life.

These processes have also produced the opposite effect: Islam has been reborn, in part because of the new material wealth acquired by the Islamic countries, but mainly because of people's conviction that Islam can provide a valid spiritual foundation to their lives. Such a foundation seems to have eluded old Europe, which, despite its enduring political and economic power, seems to be on the road to decline and fall.

By contrast to Europe's denial of its religious and moral foundations, Asia's great religious traditions especially the mystical component expressed in Buddhism have been elevated as spiritual powers. The optimism in European culture that Arnold Toynbee could still voice in the early fifties sounds strangely antiquated today: "We are faced by the fact that, of the twenty-one civilizations that have been born alive and have proceeded to grow, thirteen are dead and buried; that seven of the remaining eight are apparently in decline; and that the eighth, which is our own, may also have passed its zenith." Who would repeat these same words today? Above all, what is European culture, and what has remained of it? Is European culture perhaps nothing more than the technology and trade civilization that has marched triumphantly across the planet? Or is it instead a post-European culture born on the ruins of the ancient European cultures?

t the hour of its greatest success, Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life, subjecting it to transplants that erase its identity. At the same time as its sustaining spiritual forces have collapsed, a growing decline in its ethnicity is also taking place.

There is a paradoxical synchrony in these developments. The victory of the post-European technosecular world and the universalization of its lifestyle and thinking have spread the impression especially in the non-European countries of Asia and Africa that Europe's value system, culture, and faith in other words, the very foundations of its identity have reached the end of the road, and have indeed already departed from the scene. From this perspective, the time has apparently arrived to affirm the value systems of other worlds, such as pre-Colombian America, Islam, or Asian mysticism.

At the hour of its greatest success, Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life, subjecting it to transplants that erase its identity. At the same time as its sustaining spiritual forces have collapsed, a growing decline in its ethnicity is also taking place.

Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as if they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen as a liability rather than as a source of hope. There is a clear comparison between today's situation and the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already subsisting on models that were destined to fail. Its vital energy had been depleted.

Now let us turn to the problems of the present. There are two opposing diagnoses on the possible future of Europe. On the one hand, there is the thesis of Oswald Spengler, who believed that he had identified a natural law for the great moments in cultural history: first came the birth of a culture, then its gradual rise, flourishing, slow decline, aging, and death. Spengler argued his thesis with ample documentation, culled from the history of cultures that demonstrated the law of the natural life cycle. His thesis was that the West would come to an end, and that it was rushing heedlessly toward its demise, despite every effort to stop it. Europe could of course bequeath its gifts to a new emerging culture following the example set by previous cultures during their decline but as a historical subject its life cycle had effectively ended.

Spengler's "biologistic" thesis attracted fierce opponents during the period between the two wars, especially in Catholic circles. Arnold Toynbee reserved harsh words for it, in arguments too readily ignored today. Toynbee emphasized the difference between technological-material progress and true progress, which he defined as spiritualization. He recognized that the Western world was indeed undergoing a crisis, which he attributed to the abandonment of religion for the cult of technology, nationalism, and militarism. For him this crisis had a name: secularism.

If you know the cause of an illness, you can also find a cure: the religious heritage in all its forms had to be reintroduced, especially the "heritage of Western Christianity." Rather than a biologistic vision, he offers a voluntaristic one focused on the energy of creative minorities and exceptional individuals.

This leads us to the question of whether Toynbee's diagnosis is correct. If it is, then we must ask whether it is in our power to reintroduce the religious dimension through a synthesis of residual Christianity and the religious heritage of humankind. The Spengler-Toynbee debate remains open because we cannot see into the future. Nevertheless it is our duty to ask which factors will guarantee the future and which have allowed the inner identity of Europe to survive throughout its metamorphoses in history. To put it more simply, what can still promise, today and tomorrow, to offer human dignity to life?

To find an answer we must once again survey the present situation and its historical roots. We had gone as far as the French Revolution and the nineteenth century. Since that time, two new European models have developed. In the Latin nations the secular model has prevailed. A sharp distinction is made between the state and the religious bodies, deeming the latter to fall under the private sphere. The state denies that it has a religious foundation and affirms that it is based on reason and rational knowledge. Since reason is inherently fragile, however, these secular systems have proved to be weak, becoming easy targets for dictatorships. They survive only because elements of the old moral conscience have persevered, even without the earlier foundations, enabling the existence of a basic moral consensus.

In the Germanic world, the liberal Protestant model of church and state has prevailed. An enlightened and essentially moral Christian religion has some forms of worship that are supported by the state. This relationship guarantees a moral consensus and a broad religious foundation to which individual non-state religions must adapt. This model has long guaranteed state and social cohesion in Great Britain, the Scandinavian states, and once upon a time also in Prussian-dominated Germany. In Germany, however, the collapse of Prussian State Christianity left a vacuum that would later provide fertile soil for a dictatorship. Today state churches throughout the world are characterized by their fatigue. Moral force the foundation on which to build does not emanate from either the religious bodies subservient to the state nor from the state itself.

Situated between the two models is the one adopted by the United States of America. Built on the foundations created by the free churches, it adopts a rigid dogma of separation between church and state. Above and beyond the single denominations, it is characterized by a Protestant Christian consensus that is not defined in denominational terms, but rather in association with the country's sense of a special religious mission toward the rest of the world. The religious sphere thus acquires a significant weight in public affairs and emerges as a prepolitical and supra-political force with the potential to have a decisive impact on political life. Of course, one cannot hide the fact that in the United States, also, the Christian heritage is falling apart at an incessant pace, while at the same time the rapid increase in the Hispanic population and the presence of religious traditions from all over the world have altered the picture.

Perhaps here we should also observe that the United States is involved to a large extent in promoting Protestantism in Latin America and hence in the breakup of the Catholic Church through the work of free church formations. It does so out of the conviction that the Catholic Church is incapable of guaranteeing a stable political and economic system, since it is considered an unreliable educator of nations. The underlying expectation is that the free churches model, instead, will be able to create a moral consensus and to form a democratic public will that are similar to those of the United States.

To further complicate the picture, we have to acknowledge that the Catholic Church today represents the largest single religious community in the United States, while American Catholics have incorporated the traditions of the free church regarding the relationship between the Church and politics, believing that a Church that is separate from the state better guarantees the moral foundation of the country. Hence the promotion of the democratic ideal is seen as a moral duty that is in profound compliance with the faith. In this position we can rightly see a continuation, adapted to the times, of the model of Pope Gelasius described earlier.

This scientific façade hides a dogmatic intolerance that views the spirit as produced by matter, and morals as produced by circumstances. According to its dictates, morals should be defined and practiced on the basis of society's purposes, and everything is deemed moral that helps to usher in the final state of happiness.

Let us return to the situation in Europe. In the nineteenth century, the two models that I described above were joined by a third, socialism, which quickly split into two different branches, one totalitarian and the other democratic. Democratic socialism managed to fit within the two existing models as a welcome counterweight to the radical liberal positions, which it developed and corrected. It also managed to appeal to various religious denominations. In England it became the political party of the Catholics, who had never felt at home among either the Protestant conservatives or the liberals. In Wilhelmine Germany, too, Catholic groups felt closer to democratic socialism than to the rigidly Prussian and Protestant conservative forces. In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine, and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.

The totalitarian model, by contrast, was associated with a rigidly materialistic, atheistic philosophy of history: it saw history deterministically, as a road of progress that passes first through a religious and then through a liberal phase to arrive at an absolute, ultimate society in which religion is surpassed as a relic of the past and collective happiness is guaranteed by the workings of material conditions.

This scientific façade hides a dogmatic intolerance that views the spirit as produced by matter, and morals as produced by circumstances. According to its dictates, morals should be defined and practiced on the basis of society's purposes, and everything is deemed moral that helps to usher in the final state of happiness. This dogmatism completely subverts the values that built Europe. It also breaks with the entire moral tradition of humankind by rejecting the existence of values independent of the goals of material progress. Depending on circumstance, anything can become legitimate and even necessary; anything can become moral in the new sense of the term. Even humankind itself can be treated as an instrument, since the individual does not matter, only the future, the cruel deity adjudicating over one and all.

The communist systems collapsed under the weight of their own fallacious economic dogmatism. Commentators have nevertheless ignored all too readily the role in this demise played by the communists' contempt for human rights and their subjugation of morals to the demands of the system and the promises of the future. The greatest catastrophe encountered by such systems was not economic. It was the starvation of souls and the destruction of the moral conscience.

The essential problem of our times, for Europe and for the world, is that although the fallacy of the communist economy has been recognized so much so that former communists have unhesitatingly become economic liberals the moral and religious question that it used to address has been almost totally repressed. The unresolved issue of Marxism lives on: the crumbling of man's original uncertainties about God, himself, and the universe. The decline of a moral conscience grounded in absolute values is still our problem today. Left untreated, it could lead to the self-destruction of the European conscience, which we must begin to consider as a real danger above and beyond the decline predicted by Spengler.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Joseph Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI & Marcello Pera. "The Universalization of European Culture and the Ensuing Crisis." In Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 64-74.

Excerpt from Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam by Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI & Marcello Pera, used by permission of Basic Books 0-465-00634-5 © 2006.

The Author

Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has co-authored Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam and written The End of Time?: The Provocation of Talking about God, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, Salt of the Earth: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church at the End of the Millennium, God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, The Spirit of the Liturgy, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Introduction to Christianity, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, Behold the Pierced One, and God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life.

Copyright © 2006 Joseph Ratzinger & Marcello Pera

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