Translation by Will Deatherage, Executive Director
The following essay was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2004, a few years before he was elected to the papacy as Pope Benedict XVI. While I admit that my experience in translating German is quite limited, I am not aware of many accessible translations of this text online, and I found Ratzinger’s ideas quite insightful to the Western world’s current identity crisis. Portions of this essay were included in Europe and its Discontents, which can be found here on First Things.
Why Does the West Hate Itself? A New Translation
Western culture shows signs of decay. When it loses its religiosity, it also loses its self-respect. The current culture war holds an unsettling mirror to the West because it exposes its spiritual failure.
For centuries, Europe knew only one counterpart with that it had to deal with: Islam. Both North and South America were Europeanized. Europe attempted to branch out, to colonize, Asia and Africa. These attempts were partially successful, insofar as Asia and Africa took on the ideals of a world controlled by technology and prosperity in which secular ideas increasingly determine public life.
But it also shows a sobering opposite effect: the renaissance of Islam does not come through merely the material might of Islamic countries; its expansion is also explained, therefore, by the fact that it can offer its followers a spiritual basis, and it is precisely this that old Europe appears to have lost. Therefore, the latter, despite its political and economic weight, is seen as doomed.
Even the great religious traditions of Asia, particularly those mystical components expressed in Buddhism, rise to spiritual might against a Europe whose religiosity and morality has fallen. The optimism of Arnold Toynbee in the early 1960s regarding Europeanism, today appears completely outdated: “Of the 28 cultures we have found […] 18 are dead, and in 9 out of 10 that remain – that is, all but ours – there are already noticeable signs of imminent decline.” Who would still hold such a view today? For what defines the remnants of our culture? Is the European culture perhaps the civilization of technology and commerce that successfully spread over the entire globe? Did this not arise first in a post-European phase, after the decline of ancient European cultures? Here appears a paradox: With the worldwide spread of the post-European technical and secular way of life and thinking also came the prevalence of the ancients, particularly in the cultures of Africa and Asia, without the roots that provided a foundation for Europe’s values, culture, and beliefs; now is the age of value systems from other cultures: the pre-Columbian America, Islam, and the mystical Asia.
Europe appears to be hollowed out at the height of its success. In a sense, its circulatory system has collapsed, and this life-threatening situation is averted through transplants, which, however, destroy its identity. In addition to this internal dwindling of supporting spiritual forces, Europe is also ethnically on its way to decline.
In a strange way, confidence in the future has been lost. Children, though they are our future, are seen as a threat to the present, as a restriction on our quality of life. In them one does not see the bearers of hope, but a burden for the present. The comparison with the falling Roman empire is obvious: its framework still functioned, as it was still living from those who would cause its collapse while it had forfeited its vitality.
With this, we arrive at the problem of this age. There are two opposing prognoses for the future of Europe. On the one hand, Oswald Spengler represents the view that he can determine a natural law for great cultures: They arise, develop themselves, blossom, spread themselves out, begin to age, and, finally, fall. Spengler vividly underpins his thesis with sources from cultural history that illustrate this law of natural decay. In his opinion, the West has reached its end stage and is steered unstoppably to its cultural decline, despite all attempts to rescue it. Europe can indeed save its leaders in a newly emerging culture, as has already occurred with other cultures that perished, but its days as an independent subject are nonetheless numbered.
This thesis, which one can describe as biologistic, was passionately contradicted, particularly by Catholic circles in the time between world wars; Arnold Toynbee was vehemently opposed, albeit with arguments that would not be popular today. Toynbee points out the difference between technical material progress on the one hand and actual progress on the other, which he describes spiritual. He holds the opinion that the crisis of the western world is traced back to the fact that religion has been repressed by a cult of technology, nation, and military. For him, the crisis has a name: secularism.
If one knows the cause of the crisis, then they can also find a way out of it: Religion must, again, play a greater role. In Spengler’s opinion, the religious heritage of all cultures, in particular of that “which has remained from Western Christianity, belongs to this effort.” One examines the situation from biological perspectives; the other puts the will, the force of creative minorities and extraordinary personalities, at its focal point.
The question arises: Is this diagnosis accurate? And if so, is it possible that religion will be revived through a synthesis of the “holdovers” of Christianity and the collective religious heritage of humanity? Ultimately, the answer remains open between Spengler and Toynbee, as we cannot see into the future. But regardless of this we must ask ourselves on which foundation the future can be secured and the inner identity of Europe be preserved through all historical metamorphoses. Or simply put: How can we preserve human dignity today and tomorrow and make a life of dignity possible?
We find an answer if we see today’s times in the mirror of its historical roots. We remained imprisoned in the French Revolution and the Nineteenth Century. In this time, two new European models were created. In the Roman countries the secular model: the State is strictly separated from the religious bodies, which are assigned to the private sector. The state itself rejects religious fundamentals and is built on reason and intuition. Reason, however, is a weak quality, and, therefore, these systems are powerless and easy prey for dictators; they could only still exist because of the old moral awareness that was still partially there, even if it had been robbed of its former fundamentals, and only then was a fundamental, moral consensus still possible. On the other hand, in the Germanic world there are different models of church-state relations from liberal Protestantism, in which the enlightened Christian religion as a moral authority (even if religious practice is secured by the state) ensures a moral consensus and a broad religious base in which the individual non-state religions co-exist. This model ensured the cohesion of church and state for a long time in Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, and especially in Prussian Germany. In Germany, however, the decline of the Prussian State created a vacuum that gave way to the emergence of a dictatorship. Today state churches worldwide are in a state of decline: religious bodies that are derived from the state no longer emanate any moral force, and the state itself cannot generate any moral force. On the other hand, it must presuppose and rely on them.
Between the two models lies the United States of America, which on the one hand grew from the principles of free Churches and dogma of strict separation between Church and State, but which, on the other hand, is generally shaped by a Protestant non-denominational consensus, which is contrary to the rest of the world, and was accompanied by a pronounced zeal for religious missionary work and thus gave religion an important public weight. As a pre-political and supra-political force for political life, religion can be crucially important. Certainly, one must also take into account that the downfall of Christian culture in the United States is unstoppable, while the proportion of the Hispanic population is growing rapidly, and the existence of religious traditions across the world changes the picture. Perhaps at this point it should also be mentioned that the United States’s massive Protestantization of Latin America, with the help of free Churches, is promoting the downfall of the Catholic Church, just because of it is convicted that the Catholic Church is not in a position to create a stable political or economic order and cannot guarantee educational influence across various nations. The model of free churches, on the other hand, allows a moral consensus and the formation of the public will, as is characteristic of the United States.
Yet what complicates the whole thing is the fact, which Catholics must concede, that the Catholic Church is the largest religious community in the United States today and that this community clearly professes its Catholic identity in its beliefs, but that Catholics, as far as Church-state relationships are concerned, have adopted the tradition of the free churches in the sense that a church that is not connected to the state is better able to guarantee the spread of the democratic ideal, which seems like a moral duty that is deeply in accord with faith. In such an attitude, one can rightly see the continued – adapted to the zeitgeist – of the above-mentioned model advocated by Pope Gelasius.
But let us again return to Europe. In the Nineteenth Century, a third model joined the two aforementioned ones: Socialism, which soon split into two different groups: totalitarian and democratic socialism. Democratic socialism, since its emergence, inserted itself in the two existing models and formed a healthy counterweight to the liberal-radical standpoint, and, moreover, enriched and corrected them. Socialism formed, moreover, a non-denominational moment: In England, the Catholic group could neither feel at home in the Protestant-conservative nor in the liberal environment. Also, in Wilhelmine Germany the Catholic center could feel closer to democratic socialism than to the strictly Prussian-Protestant conservative forces. In many respects, democratic socialism has been and is close to Catholic social doctrine; In any case it has made a considerable contribution to the formation of social consciousness.
The totalitarian model, on the other hand, associates itself with a strict materialistic and atheistic philosophy of history: history is seen deterministically as a process of progress, which goes through a religious and liberal phase before finally attaining an absolute and final form in which religion, as a relic of the past, is overcome and, a well-functioning material foundation ensures the happiness of all. The apparent scientific nature hides an intolerant dogmatism: the spiritual is a product of matter, and morality is the product of cultures and must be defined and practiced according to the goals of society. Everything used to achieve the “good end” is moral. What follows is a total reversal of values that formed the cornerstones of Europe. Furthermore, there is a break in the entirety of humankind’s moral and ethical tradition. There are no more values that could be detached from progressive thinking; everything is permitted and even necessary, everything is – in a new sense of the term – moral. Also humans can become instruments. It is not the individual that counts but now the future, which becomes a terrible deity who consumes everything and everyone, that does.
The communist system primarily failed because of its false economic dogmatics. But it is all too glad to overlook the fact that it basically failed because of its own disregard for human rights because of morality’s subordination to the system’s needs and its promises for the future. The actual catastrophe is not economic. It consists much more in a hardening of souls, in the destruction of moral consciousness. In my opinion, an essential problem of our time, both across Europe and internationally, is that the downfall’s economic causes are never questioned and that the old communists have gone over to the liberal economy without batting an eyelid; the moral, ethical, and religious problems, on the other hand, which were actually at issue, are nearly completely pushed aside. Thus, the problem which Marxists left behind exists today: the downfall of mankind’s spiritual primeval certainty regarding God, himself, and the universe. The decline of consciousness of immovable moral values is still a problem today and can lead to the self-destruction of European consciousness. That is a danger that we, independent of Spengler’s vision of doom, must regard as real.
What is next?
And, so, we are confronted with the question: what is next? In the violent upheavals that are shaking our time, is there a prospect of a European identity that includes the body and soul? At this point, I will not discuss the details of the future European constitution. I would like to just briefly consider some basic moral principles that I should not neglect.
A first element is the “unconditional existence” of human dignity and human rights as the basic pillars of any state legislation. These basic values are neither created by the legislator nor awarded by their citizens, “but exist by right per se, must be respected by the legislator from the beginning, [and] are in themselves given by a higher order.” The validity of human dignity stands above any political action and any political decision. It refers ultimately only to the Creator. Only the Creator can establish values that are based on the human being that are inviolable. The fact that there are values that are immovable is the actual guarantee for our freedom and human greatness. It is precisely in this that the Christian faith sees the mystery of the Creator and the image of God that He gave to humans.
Today, almost no one denies the dignity of humans anymore, and fundamental human rights stand above any political decision. The atrocities of national socialism and its racial theory are still fresh in our memory. But in the specific field of so-called medical progress, these values are overshadowed by very real threats. Man thinks only about cloning, the conservation of fetuses for purposes of progress and organ donation, and the whole field of genetic engineering: No one recognizes the creeping loss of human dignity that threatens us in this area. Additionally, human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and organ trafficking for transplants are growing. And to justify what cannot be justified, a laudable goal is always given. There are some fixed principles in the Charter of Fundamental Rights to be pleased about. But it remains too vague on important points, while the seriousness of its principles is at stake. In summary, one can see that the notion of human dignity and worth, of freedom, equality, and solidarity with democracy and the state, implies an image of humankind, a moral option, and the notion of law – values that all in all are not self-evident but which represent fundamental factors for Europe’s identity – can also be guaranteed in their concrete consequences and can certainly be defended through the constant renewal of moral-ethical consciousness.
A second point that embodies the identity of Europe is about marriage and the family. Monogamous marriage as the basic principle of the relationship between man and woman, as well as the primordial cell of national structure, originated on the basis of biblical faith. It has shaped the image of both Western and Eastern Europe and has given them its special character and humanity because the form of faith and renunciation, on which it is based, must be conquered again and again, which is accompanied with much effort and suffering. Europe would no longer be Europe if this root of its social structure would disappear or fundamentally change. The Charter of Fundamental Rights speaks about the right on marriage, but it did not offer concrete legal or moral protections for it and does not elaborate on the subject. And still, we are conscious about how threatened marriage and the family are, on the one hand through the abolition of marriage’s indissolubility, which makes divorce easier, and on the other hand through new, steadily spreading behavioral patterns, in which communities of men and women live without marriage certificates. This is strongly contradicted by the demands of homosexual partners, who paradoxically now demand that a legalized form of cohabitation should have the same legal status as marriage. This tendency shows that we are moving way from a complex moral history of humankind, which, despite legal differences in marriage, always consciously kept that the essence of marriage is the community of a man and a woman that is open for children to build the family. This is not a question of discrimination, rather it concerns the question about what it means to be human as a man or woman and how the union of men and women can be brought together in a legal form. If this community, on the one hand, is constantly eroded as a legal entity, and if, on the other hand, homosexual partnerships are given the same legal status as marriage, then we are faced with the disintegration of what we understand as “man.” This phenomenon can have extremely serious consequences for us.
The Basic Religious Question
The last point that I would like to address is the question of religion. I will not tie in the complex discussion of last year, rather I would like to speak to all Western situations: respect for what is sacred to the other, especially what is sacred in a higher sense or awe of God, something that one also finds across peoples who do not believe in God. In a society in which this respect is violated, something essential is lost. In today’s society, one is, thank God, punished for dishonoring the Jewish faith, its image of God, and its great symbols. Those who mock the Quran and beliefs of Islam are also punished. If, on the other hand, what is sacred to Christians is violated, then freedom of expression appears as the highest good, and a restriction in this context amounts to a threat or even the destruction of tolerance and freedom in general. Here, however, the freedom of expression reaches its limits. It must not be that one destroys the honor and dignity of the other; freedom of expression is not the freedom to lie or destroy human rights.
The West suffers from a strange self-hatred that one can only describe as a pathological; although the West tends to be laudably open to other values, it no longer tolerates its own. Of its own history it sees only that which is reprehensible and destructive, and it is not in the position to recognize what is great and pure.
Europe needs, in order to survive, a new – certainly critical and humble – self-understanding. The multicultural society, which is consistently and emphatically strengthened and promoted, sometimes means abandoning and denying what is one’s own, an escape from one’s identity.
But multicultural societies cannot exist without a commonality, without landmarks of their origins. They cannot exist without respect for what is sacred. It is essential that they respect what is sacred to others. But we can only create this if that which is sacred – God – is not foreign to us. Naturally, we must know and learn about what is sacred to others. But now it is our duty, before the other and for the other, that we respect what is sacred, to nourish and show the face of the God who appeared to us, a God of compassion for the poor and weak, for the stranger; a God, who is so human that he became human, a suffering human, who suffers with us, and in doing so gives our pain dignity and hope.
If we do not do this, we are not only denying the identity of Europe, but we are failing to serve our neighbors, a right they are entitled to. For the cultures of the world, the absolute secular environment which the West has fostered is a deeply strange phenomenon. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. Thus, the multicultural society calls on us again to introspection.
We do not know how things will develop in Europe in the future. The Charter of Fundamental Rights can be a first step, a sign that Europe is, again, consciously seeking its soul. Toynbee is right here that the fate of a society always depends on creative minorities. Faithful Christians should see themselves as such a creative minority and help Europe regain the best of its heritage to serve all of humanity.