“This constitution is in its way, a daughter of French thought.”—French President Jacques Chirac.
A very perceptive quote, for, in fact, the document in its essence is a direct derivative of the ideals of the “general will” as embodied in the thought of the French philosophes who formed the ideology that led to the French Revolution, an ideology that peaked in 1789! Margaret Thatcher was even more perceptive when she wrote, “During my lifetime most of the problems the world has faced have come, in one fashion or another, from mainland Europe, and the solutions from outside it”. And if you think about it, she is correct—the nihilism of World War I, Nazism, even Marxism—all have European roots.
Hopefully, as a result of the resounding defeat of the European Constitution by French and Dutch voters (even if many of the reasons for the rejection were not the right ones), reasonable heads can prevail in returning to first principles and rejecting the whole concept of a transcendent European superstate. This would be the best news for Europe, America, and the world, but I am not optimistic, for reasons that have much to do with the source of Europe’s underlying problem and the unwillingness of its elites to recognize or confront it. For the problems are not primarily economic or political, but cultural and moral, and grow out of the rejection of these first principles and the very essence of French thought to which Chirac alludes as well as, to a somewhat lesser extent, German ideas.
It is clear from all indications—economic, political, demographic, and spiritual—that Europe suffers from a severe crisis of confidence. A society that will not even reproduce itself suffers from a malaise that cannot be explained by the gross national product or unemployment numbers. For an analysis of the true underlying crisis, I suggest George Weigel’s book, The Cube and the Cathedral, in which he submits that, possibly, Europeans are at least finally beginning to ask the deeper question about their future—European unification for what? He further notes that, in this cradle of Western Christianity, the underlying constitutional debate must ultimately answer the following question: Is it possible to construct and sustain a democratic political community absent the transcendent moral reference points for ordering public life that Christianity offers the political community?
I recently wrote that it is not difficult, even for people with very little faith, to recognize a providential hand at work in the choice of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II at a critical juncture in history to help liberate Eastern Europe from totalitarianism. Is it a bigger reach to suggest that same providence at work in the selection of his successor? After all, the very name he chose, Benedict XVI, is a throwback, not so much to the last Benedict of the early 20th century, but to St. Benedict, one of the patron saints of Europe and the founder of Western monasticism, which was greatly responsible for creating what we have known as European culture. Might this mean, as some have suggested, that he will call for a revival of the Benedictine movement to restore the foundational premises of this culture? We’ll see. He will make his first big splash at World Youth Day in Germany in August. That’s not a bad place to start the campaign to save Europe from itself—again.