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Religion Is Not the Enemy

A remarkable agnostic, Maarcello Pera, explains why.

By From the February 2012 issue

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Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Societies
By Marcello Pera
(Encounter Books, 224 pages, $23.95)

You were taught that pious platitude that you can't judge a book by its cover. But the truth is that usually you can. This one, for instance, looked easy. You read the title: Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians. You saw that the preface is written by Pope Benedict XVI. You could already guess what you would find on the inside pages. And you would be wrong.

The author, Marcello Pera, is not an evangelist or theologian but a seasoned politician: the former president of the Italian Senate. He is not a devout Catholic but an agnostic, a secularist. A philosophy professor before and after his political career, he studied Karl Popper and defends the traditions of European liberalism, which have historically been at odds with the public stands of the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless Pera has made common cause with the Pope because he is convinced that Europe cannot survive as a free and democratic society without recognizing its cultural roots in Christianity. The history of Europe is inextricably entwined with the history of Catholicism, he argues, and to love Europe means to admire the Catholic faith. The Church is not without flaws, he concedes:

But in the end, how can we fail to see that without the Catholic Church, Europe would have disappeared not once but countless times, and the West would have lost its civilization.…How can we fail to realize that when other institutions, parties, movements, or systems—political, philosophical, juridical, economics—are in error, they simply cease to attract adherents or they disappear, but when the church errs, its very errors exalt the grandeur of its message, the noncontingent value of its words, and the spiritual reality to which it bears witness?

During the long debate over the framing of a constitution for the European Union, the Vatican—under first John Paul II, then Benedict XVI—implored the leaders of Europe to recognize the Christian heritage of the continent explicitly. This was necessary, the Pontiffs argued, not for the sake of the Church but for the sake of historical accuracy. When the foundational document finally appeared, with only a vague passing mention of religion, the Vatican protested that a fraud had been committed: Europe's present leadership had renounced Europe's past history.

Pope John Paul II, in particular, explained that the need to cite Europe's Christian patrimony could be justified on purely secular terms. It was the Christian intellectual tradition that begot Europe's respect for human rights and for the rule of law, he observed; it was the Christian tradition that gave rise to the universities and inspired the artists of Europe for centuries. The nations of Europe have very little in common, actually, apart from their shared experience of Christendom.

Because of their disparate interests and their well-established tendency to quarrel among themselves, Pope John Paul insisted, the nations of Europe could not form a stable union unless it was based on some fundamental principles. The Christian moral tradition furnishes such a stable foundation, he pointed out; economic interests do not. The late Pontiff warned that a European Union based on nothing more permanent than shifting economic interests would soon collapse. Less than a decade later, his prediction may already be coming true.

Marcello Pera makes a similar argument for appreciation of the Christian tradition. Anyone who values rational public discourse should notice how it progressed in Europe under the aegis of the Church, he says. Science blossomed in Christendom, and even the Enlightenment must be recognized as a reaction to Christian thought. Pera finds it indisputable that "the collision between Christianity and liberalism, between the Church and modernity produced a fertile outcome for both sides."

From the time of St. Augustine, Christian Europe understood the separate roles of Church and state, the City of God and the City of Man. Although there were border violations aplenty over the centuries, when normal relations were restored, political and religious leaders agreed on certain fundamental points: that religious freedom should be upheld, that the church should not be a tool of the regime; that individuals should be treated with dignity whatever their beliefs. These three basic principles, Pera notes, are diametrically opposed to the instincts of both authoritarian government and religious fundamentalism. They are the guarantees of European democracy.

Unfortunately, Pera writes, the secularism of post-Enlightenment Europe—the secularism of Locke and Kant, which sought to preserve the instruments of government from usurpation by clerics—has been replaced in our time by a more militant form that sees religion itself as an enemy. European intellectuals have fled from the Christian tradition, claiming a fear of fundamentalism—when it is that very Christian tradition that provides their best defense against fundamentalism.

Moreover, while European leaders have been building up needless defenses against the nonexistent threat of Christian fundamentalism, they have exposed their societies to the very real threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Having decided that all religious faith is dangerous, Europe's elites have no way to counteract the influence of a faith that is foreign to European traditions and hostile to European interests. Pera laments: "The bitter truth is that the West is afraid of Islam because it is afraid of religion, and of its own religion first of all."

There is an old chestnut in politics: "You can't beat somebody with nobody." If you don't have a candidate in the race you will lose, regardless of your opponent's weakness. In Europe today, Islamic culture is making steady inroads because European culture is too weak or too complacent to offer any resistance. "If Europe is not a melting pot but only a container," reasons Pera, "this is because it does not have enough energy to melt down and fuse its contents." (Readers in the United States, the pre-eminent melting pot, should take note. When the siren calls of "diversity" render us deaf to any appeal to a common heritage, chaos is just around the corner.)

Anemic secularism cannot withstand the onslaught of militant Islam, Pera tells his readers. Unless Europe can draw some nourishment from its Christian roots, the civilization once known as Christendom is living through its twilight years.

An afterthought: Marcello Pera now teaches political philosophy at the Pontifical Lateran University: a proud son of the Enlightenment at the Vatican's most prestigious academic institution. His presence there—and his loyalty to the European liberal tradition, which is so different from its impoverished American cousin—testify to the breadth and depth of Europe's intellectual traditions, even as his book warns of their demise.

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About the Author

Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News (cwnews.com) and the author of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture (Encounter).