European Affairs

The Cube and the Cathedral, which should be required reading for students of the European Union, has something to offer both Europeans and Americans. It challenges Europeans to dwell on the Christian foundations of their continent’s political culture, a subject deeply uncomfortable to many in Europe. Americans, whose opinions of the present are often marred by ignorance of the past, will find themselves exposed to centuries of European history and ideas, to which they are themselves heirs.

The title of the book derives from a visit paid by the author to the Grande Arche in Paris, which represents the Cube, in the summer of 1997. This vast open square, faced with glass and marble and almost 40 stories tall, is a grandiose edifice erected by President François Mitterrand on the axis that also includes the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre. It is a monument to functionalism and modernity. Weigel’s counterpoint to the Cube is an even more famous Parisian landmark, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a grand Gothic monument to the yearning of human beings for God.

“ Which culture,” Weigel finds himself wondering, “would better protect human rights? Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy ‘unsameness’ of Notre Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?”

It is a debate that has been with us as far back as the ancient Greeks. Is man the measure of all things? Or is there a higher authority to which we are answerable for how we treat others? In some ways, this question is at the heart of the divide that today separates Europe from the United States.

In Europe, the clash over the role of Christianity in European history erupted into full view during the negotiating phase of the preamble to the proposed EU Constitution in 2003. Some countries, including Poland and Italy, wanted a reference to God in the document, as well as recognition of Europe’s Christian heritage. Many others, led by the secularist French, were opposed. In the end, the secularists carried the day.

The agreed preamble to the constitution includes what Weigel calls a grudging reference to “the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe” ­ a formulation described by a British Foreign Office official as “so bland as to be meaningless.” Although the document affirms “the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law,” it makes no reference to the Creator as the origin of these rights, as does the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The failure to acknowledge the essential role played by Christianity over more than 1,500 years in forming the West’s moral, political and democratic values is emblematic of the increasing secularization of European society in the 21st century. Nowadays, only an average three percent of Europeans attend church on Sundays, in contrast to 40 percent of Americans. In many ways, Europe has become a post-Christian society, and the discourse of religion has been banned from public life.

It is to this development that Weigel traces many of the horrors of the 20th century in Europe, the godless evils of communism and Nazism, the dehumanization of victims that made the Holocaust possible. Without religious underpinnings and restraints, the Enlightenment belief in the power of reason can take devastating turns.

To his credit, Weigel acknowledges that the Catholic Church in Europe has its own dark chapters to answer for, among them the Spanish Inquisition and the persecution of Europe’s Jews, for which Pope John Paul II led a Day of Pardon on the First Sunday of Lent in 2000.

Yet, Weigel argues, those who believe in a secular European project of integration have failed to perform any similar act of examination of the past and contrition. “Can those who are a-theos (godless)­can the people of the cube ­ grapple with the dark passages in European history caused by radically secularist understandings of the human person, human community and human destiny. . .?” In his view, they have so far failed.

Now, the European Union, of course, was conceived as an antidote to war and to the above-mentioned evils. By tying the economies of France and Germany together, so its founders believed, war on the European continent would become impossible. For 50 years, this has proven true, though the contribution of NATO and the U.S. nuclear deterrent to keeping the peace is often ignored by the proponents of a united Europe.

Today, however, the possibility of war seems too remote to be a real reason for European integration, and the heartland of Europe is languishing. The Cube and the Cathedral was published before the French and Dutch rejections of the EU Constitution, but it points to the lack of vitality evident in today’s Europe of declining birthrates, empty churches and political indifference ­ a Europe beset by a “metaphysical boredom” in a phrase borrowed from philosopher David Hart. Add to these problems the very real potential for a rise in xenophobia as a consequence of Europe’s growing Muslim population, which will be needed to swell the workforce so as to maintain the standard of living. We are looking at a pretty bleak future here.

Another aspect of European secularism, astutely perceived by Weigel, is acceptance of a Hegelian view of history. The “ever closer union” of the Treaty of Rome, is considered by supporters as inevitable, the ultimate historical synthesis.

Today, therefore, even as the constitution has been defeated in the polls by voters of two founding EU countries, legislation before the European Parliament continues to be considered on the basis of this now defunct document. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker even stated after the vote that he did not actually believe that the Dutch voters had really said “No” to the constitution, but had been motivated by other reasons. Some countries have pledged to keep the ratification process going, as if nothing has happened. This is precisely what EU skeptics mean when they talk about Europe’s democratic deficit.

But the future is not written in stone, and one of the refreshing aspects of The Cube and the Cathedral is that Weigel conjures up a number of possible scenarios for Europe’s future. One is that the European project will triumph in the end; another that Europe will degenerate into a half-baked mess of growing Islamization and differing speeds of integration. Alternatively, the continent could experience a reawakening of Christianity and find a new sense of purpose. This last possibility was certainly suggested by the huge outpouring of emotion that followed the death of Pope John Paul II, and the success of the Catholic Church in stiffening the fight against Communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Needless to say, the author finds reason for hope in these facts.

Weigel does not write from the perspective of someone who wishes to see Europe’s decline hastened, as do some American critics of European politics. Indeed, he says, if you are to understand the political culture and history of the United States, you must understand the developments in Europe from which it grew. Having spent a great deal of time in Europe over the past decade, Weigel knows that Europe presents a mixed picture and he sees the potential suggested by its nuances. One of his important achievements is to show that it is possible to engage deeply in debate about the future of Europe with civility and affection.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number VI, Issue number III in the Summer of 2005.