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From the July/August, 2007 issue of Touchstone

 

Prodigal Continent by Robert Hart

Prodigal Continent

Without Roots
by Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera
Perseus Books Group, 2006
(135 pages, $22.00, hardcover)

reviewed by Robert Hart

We know the story of the Prodigal Son, and its message of repentance and forgiveness. The opening of the story focuses on the beginning of his fall, the waste of his inheritance, by which he is known forever. Prodigality in this case was about extravagance, and the satisfaction of lusts.

It seems that another kind of prodigality can take hold of people, just as wasteful and disrespectful of a father’s labor. It is the throwing away of a valuable inheritance in return for nothing at all, as if it were, itself, spent on the husks that the swine did eat rather than on something alluring. This kind of prodigality is the waste and ruin of modern Europe.

Without Roots is a public conversation between Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the year before his elevation to the papacy) and Marcello Pera, president of the Italian Senate. On May 12, 2004, Pera addressed the Lateranese Pontifical University, and the next day Ratzinger addressed the Italian Senate.

These talks coincided so well that the president was moved to write to the cardinal, who replied. These two talks and two letters are the substance of this book.

Relativistically Correct

In the opening chapter, the talk by Pera, we hear the voice of a prophet rather than of a politician (secularist though he claims to be), arguing that Europe has abandoned a culture centered on the faith of Christianity and urging Europe to turn back from the twin problems that he diagnoses as (in his own terms) Relativism and Political Correctness.

Relativism—whether that of contextualists, deconstructionists, or theologians (all of whom he criticizes)—makes Europe weak and vulnerable to a long-established enemy, a reinvigorated and radical Islam that seeks to conquer the West partly by the use of terrorism and partly by replacing the current population with its own children. The latter is a task that Europeans make all the easier by refusing to have children, not even enough to replace the current generation.

Because Relativists cannot take a stand, Relativism expresses itself through a Political Correctness that makes it impossible to compare ideas and argue for the superiority of one’s own. Relativistic Europeans cannot, for example, weigh democracy against sharia. Today, he writes,

the West is paralyzed twice over. It is paralyzed because it does not believe there are good reasons to say that it is better than Islam. And it is paralyzed because it believes that, if such reasons exist, then the West would have to fight Islam.

Pera sees this assumption that we would have to fight Islam not in terms of a defensive war against terrorists, but as the notion inherent in Political Correctness that a belief in the superiority of one’s ideology must lead to conflict with others. The West has lost the idea that we can believe one way to be right and another to be wrong without taking up arms.

By rejecting a culture that had believed in objective truth, it has lost the concept of rational, but peaceful, argument.

Western Despiritualization

In his talk, Cardinal Ratzinger (as he was then known) takes up the subject of Europe itself, beginning with a reminder that Europe is really a cultural reality rather than a geographical one. He traces the major developments of European history, emphasizing Christianity as the very center and life-spring of European culture, but speaking of the current condition of Europe as one of decline.

In examining this decline, he takes special note of the conflicting theories of Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, siding with Toynbee. Spengler “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.” Toynbee, in contrast,

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.

Tracing how Europe has declined in modern times, Ratzinger writes, speaking specifically about Communism: “The greatest catastrophe . . . was not economic. It was the starvation of souls and the destruction of the moral conscience.” After Marxism failed, the social and economic problems it addressed so poorly live on. But, he cautions, the modern West has a problem deeper yet, even without Communism.

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 consider as a real danger—above and beyond the decline predicted by Spengler.

He argues that the hope for any future at all rests with Christians. Using Toynbee’s phrase “creative minorities,” he argues that it is Christians who represent the one vital “creative minority” that offers hope for a way out of complete decline: the restoration of Europe’s spiritual foundation. So, he concludes his talk:

Here we must agree with Toynbee that the fate of a society always depends on its creative minorities. Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority, and help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to thereby place itself at the service of all humankind.

The Christian Hope

Both men, the cardinal and the secularist, see the faith of Christianity as offering both the foundation and the hope for any future Europe may have, and see the need to put an end to Relativism. Both see the decline of Europe as a defeat before the radical elements of Islam that would replace western civilization and the democracy that has evolved within it with sharia.

In their letters, the two discuss the differences between Europe and the United States in great detail. They also discuss the role of the Church, specifically the Catholic Church, in ethical philosophy and political decisions, with Ratzinger disagreeing with Pera’s idea that one united Christian Church must be created and that it would provide the answers that Europe needs. In the process, he provides the clearest argument possible for why the law must protect the lives of children in the womb.


Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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