A visit to the "Cube" and the clichéd observation that the cathedral of Notre Dame would fit comfortably inside it, inspired George Weigel to ask: "Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy?", a question which he addresses in his book "The Cube and the Cathedral." He looks at various odd features of the current cultural climate in Europe. Among them, he raises the failure of Europeans after 1989 to condemn communism as a moral and political monstrosity, instead allowing only the politically correct and anodyne observation that it "didn't work"; he questions Europe's retreat from democracy into the bureaucracy of Brussels, and the routine defamation of Christianity which is allowed in a way that would not be tolerated against other world faiths. He concludes the chapter setting out these and other questions by asking:
'Above all, and most urgently of all, why is Europe committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself in what British historian Niall Ferguson calls he greatest "sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death of the 14th century?"'Weigel discusses in depth the ferocious opposition to any mention of Christianity in the European constitutional treaty. There is, of course, a positive mention of the "enlightenment" in the treaty; this prompts the observation,
'... if the mere mention of a Christian contribution to European civilisation "excludes" Jews, Muslims and non-believers, why doesn't the celebration of the Enlightenment "exclude" Aristotelians, Thomists, and indeed postmodernists who think Immanuel Kant and other exponents of enlightenment rationalism got it wrong?'In the section "Two Ideas of Freedom", there is a lucid comparison between St Thomas's notion of freedom as the capacity to choose wisely and act well (Weigel chooses the phrase "freedom for excellence" to summarise this); and freedom as a neutral faculty of choice. Weigel rightly traces this to the destructive influence of William of Ockham and the denial of universals, through to Nietzsche's "will to power" and its expression in the horrors of the twentieth century, not least through the carnage of the Great War.
Pope John Paul's Ecclesia in Europa is a document that I have not yet read. Weigel has shamed me into the resolution to read it and pay careful attention to it as an analysis of Europe's current cultural malaise.
The book was written in 2005. Some parts seem to hang ominously in the light of present circumstances. I was troubled by Weigel's remarks about Poland:
No one knows what will happen in Poland when John Paul II is no longer on the scene, reminding his countrymen of who they are and from whence they came. On the other hand, the vitality of Polish Catholicism - a vitality mirrored, if not quite so exuberantly, in some other central and eastern European countries - could reenergize the often somnambulant local churches of western Europe.It seems to me that this is still a nail-biting contest. The Catholicism of Poland could well "do an Ireland", either by sending highly effective and loyal missionaries across the western world, or by reproducing the Irish Church's more recent implosion.
The book often echoes the concerns of Cardinal Ratzinger about the "dictatorship of relativism". Although quite short at well under 200 pages, there are plenty of pithy observations to keep you entertained and just enough contentious assertions to keep you on your guard.