Two recent events have, in different ways, called to mind an influential yet deeply problematic strand of thinking – the equation of the church with a civilizational strand sometimes described as Western civilization, sometimes expanded to include “Judeo-Christian civilization” to avoid the appearance of Christian chauvinism. The first of these events, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s letter concerning the sexual abuse crisis, described a civilizational decline of morals beginning in the 1960s that bore terrible fruit in the sexual abuse crisis. The second, the terrible fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris that damaged but, thankfully, did not destroy that great edifice inspired a number of Internet “hot takes” ruminating on the confluence of the cathedral’s fire with civilizational decline. Both of these perspectives, I would like to argue, overdramatize and yet undersell the challenge of the present moment, and both play into dangerous political narratives.
Pope Benedict’s letter situates the sexual abuse crisis within a broader narrative of excess and decline beginning in the 1960s. The details he uses are sometimes lurid, such as pandemonium on airplanes resulting from the showing of sexually explicit films, but they point to a civilizational uprooting that bore bad fruit in the crisis, and the damage it has wrought to the church. Much has been said about this letter, rightly pointing out Benedict’s own blind spots on this set of issues, but the concern about civilizational decline and particularly Christianity’s deep connections to Western civilization more broadly, have been through-lines of Ratzinger’s work going back at least to the 1980s. Most famously, in his Regensburg lecture that became better known for its discussion of Islam, Benedict argued that Christianity is tied up inextricably with Greek philosophical concepts so that attempting to adapt it to another philosophical apparatus – such as Indian or other Eastern philosophies – is a fool’s (or a heretic’s) errand. This worldview has influenced other decisions and positions, such as support for the exclusion of Turkey from the European Union.
Less than a week after the release of Benedict’s letter, the fire that broke out at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris inspired its own slew of commentaries – pro and con – about the church as an icon of “Western Civilization.” Many of these takes, in my opinion, were overwrought, both in terms of policing grief (for example, pointing out the religious significance of the church to those commenting on its art – as if these two were really separable) and in terms of putting metaphorical weight on the disaster. The focus on “Western Civilization,” however, follows a trajectory laid out by the “alt-right” – led by Stephen Bannon – of weaponizing Christianity for secular cultural ends in ways redolent of Charles Maurras and Action Française a century ago. On this reading, traditional Christianity – including Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and various forms of Protestantism – provides grist for resistance and bigotry against Islam, immigration and various real and perceived ills of late Western modernity. While seemingly a protest against the excesses and decadence of a secularized West, the “Catholicism without Christianity” of such an approach is, in fact, a product of that very secularization.
As the title of this forum indicates, the Church, particularly in the “Western” world of Europe and North America, is in need of rebuilding because of largely self-inflicted wounds. The cultural and artistic treasury built up by the Church in Europe is certainly an important part of that task, reminding us of the Church – and indeed of humanity – at its best. At the same time, however, they must not become an idol. Even as we embrace the repository of our heritage, we cannot mistake it for the ultimate good but rather as a pointer toward the Gospel values that inspired its authors. We must also be attentive to new stirrings of the Spirit and culture in places whose voices (including many Christian voices) have been stifled or forgotten by Western hegemony.
The Church has given much to, and received much from, Western Civilization. But one of the lessons from that intellectual heritage is also its very openness, derived precisely from the focus of the Greeks on questioning and inquiry, and the openness of Second Temple Jews and early Christians to engagement with Greek philosophies. It is our task to continue modelling that openness, avoiding the dichotomy of, on the one hand, reducing our beliefs to supposedly universal ethical concepts as some tried in the 20th century or, on the other hand, raging against secularization and styling ourselves as victims (an insult to real victims such as those died in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday). The church cannot be any one civilization or philosophy, but a pilgrim people seeking to live the Kingdom in whatever land and with whatever philosophy they have available to them.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.