If the late Pope John Paul II was known for his literary, especially poetical, bend of mind, his successor Benedict XVI (the former Cardinal Josef Ratzinger) is generally recognised as theologian. Thus a discussion in which Benedict tackles some of the crucial issues of modern Europe promises to be of special interest. This is even more so when the discussion comes in the form of an epistolary dialogue between the Pope and Marcello Pera, a leading Italian politician and a self-acknowledged atheist.
The book under review here contains the correspondence between Benedict and Pera plus one essay by each. There is also an introduction by Pera and a preface by George Weigel, a leading American theologian.
The entire exercise is prompted by a thinly disguised fear that what the authors label “The European Civilisation” may be moribund.
This fear manifests itself in three concerns.
The first is that most European nations are no longer producing enough children to maintain their demographic balance. In fact, if projections are right, several European nations, notably Germany, Italy and Spain might simply cease to exist before the end of the current century. In some other instances the existing nations may end up as minorities within their own country.
“What is happening when an entire continent, healthier and wealthier, and more secure than before fails to create the human future in the most elemental sense- by creating future generations?”
The second concern is that the place left vacant by new generations of native Europeans is being filled by Muslim immigrants, especially from Africa and the Arab world, and their offspring. Pera is especially horrified at the thought of Europe, his dear old Europe, one day becoming part of the Dar al-Islam.
Finally, there is the concern that Europe might no longer have the stomach, not to say the moral courage, to fight for anything- not even its own freedom.
But what is to be done?
Not surprisingly, Benedict urges the Europeans to revive their ancestral Christian beliefs. He admits that a majority of Europeans are no longer Christian except by family tradition. So he pins his hopes on what the British historian Arnold Toynbee described as “creative minorities”, small groups of citizens who, at any given time, intervene to save a civilization from decline and death.
Pera, being a non-believer, is keen to be part of those “creative minorities” but on his own terms. He is not interested in Christianity as a religion but as a cultural and moral context within which Europe should define its identity against Islam, which he sees as the quintessential “other” in a competition for setting the agenda for the future of the old continent.
Pera lambastes people like Jacques Derrida, the late French deconstructionist, and Jurgen Habermas, the currently fashionable German philosopher for sapping Europe’s will to fight for its values. And, yet, he ends up offering something very similar to Habermas’s so-called “civic patriotism” in which loyalty to certain political and social values replaces loyalty to the motherland and the flag. The difference is that Pera sees “Christian values”, which he never defines, as the backbone of his pan-European patriotism.
While it is both proper, even necessary, to air such concerns, the reader cannot help feeling that Benedict and Pera may well be overstating their case.
To start with no one knows how the current demographic trends in Europe will look like in a generation or so. The example of Malthusian theory is always there as a warning to rash extrapolations in relation to demography. There is also no reason to believe that the offspring of the Arab and African immigrants to Europe will continue to feel, think, believe and act as their fathers did.
It is also naïve to believe that European culture and civilisation is something that could be fixed once and for all. Europe is, in act, a synthesis of countless influences from ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, the Middle East and Africa. The very Christianity which Benedict and Pera see as the core of the European civilisation is, in fact, an “imported” religion. When it comes to rich and complex cultures, such as the European one, any quest for a mythical purity is naïve and could, if pushed to the extremes, become dangerous.
The parts of the book that deal with Islam clearly show that neither of the authors has done the minimum of homework needed for a serious discussion. They make no distinction between Islam as an existential reality, in the shape of the Arab and African immigrants, mostly poor and insecure, that the average European experiences on a day-to-day basis, and Islam as a religion and a civilisation with many layers of complexity.
Pera says that the fact that millions of Muslims have immigrated to Europe shows the superiority of the European civilisation and Christian culture to Islam. It is true that 90 per cent of the world’s refugees are Muslims. It is also true that many, perhaps up to a quarter, flee to Europe.
But Muslims who immigrate to Europe do so for reasons that have little or nothing to do either with faith or with culture. At one end of the spectrum Muslims come to Europe in search of economic opportunities that do not exist in their homelands. At another end Muslim middle classes, professionals and intellectuals, flee their homeland because they dislike despotic and corrupt governments.
Pera’s theory could be used against him. Millions of Christian and Hindu Asians are present in the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries as guest workers. Does their presence mean that Islam is superior to Christianity and Hinduism? Or should we simply note that they have come in search of jobs and better wages?
Playing this kind of game would not help the discussion.
History is never written in advance. Who knows whether or not countries that now produce immigrants may not one day become recipients of immigrants?
Imagine a democratic and prosperous North Africa, for example. Would anyone want to leave its sunny shores for the dark and damp climes of northern Europe?
The authors make another dangerous assumption. They claim that Islam favours despotism because its ideal ruler is the “King-Priest”. Anyone familiar with Islam, as it has developed over the past 15 centuries, would know that this not the case. The “king-priest” model, known in Greek as Melchizedek, was developed in the Christian Byzantine, or “Eastern Rome”, Empire after Emperor Constantine converted to the faith. It was in Western Christianity alone that “rendering unto God what is due to God, and unto Caesar what is due to Caesar” emerged as the dominant political philosophy of the church.
On closer examination, the common assumption that Islam makes no distinction between religion and politics may not appear as solid as it seems to most. Such a separation has always existed de facto in Islam. The difference is that, in Islam, a separation is distinguished from a caesura.
It is also t rue that, in many cases in Islam, interpretation has been solidified into dogma. But aren’t there similar instances in Christianity- indeed in all other religions?
What is at issue is not to either banish faith from politics or to deny the very existence of a distinct political space. In politics, the central issue remains that of freedom.
Over two centuries ago, the French politician Alexis de Tocqueville put is most succinctly: “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.”