A Reflection on European Unity : The EU and the Memory of Christendom

Alexander Rosenthal Pubul

As the UK tries to assess what it means to be British following the potential take-over of Islamic extremists in some inner-city schools and in the wake of rising support for protest parties across the European Union, Alexander Rosenthal Pubul, Senior Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University considers the one common heritage that unites all EU member states – the Christian tradition. Alastair Campbell the former Labour spin-doctor once famously said “We don’t do God”. Yet, as Rosenthal Pubul points out, just as it would be foolish to deny the influence of Hinduism on India or Islam on the Middle East the erasure of Europe’s Christian heritage would be a complete denial of what shaped – and continues to shape – modern-day European values.

If one were to judge the state of the European project by the snapshot of the recent EU parliamentary election one might quip that the only thing that seems to unite Europeans these days is scepticism of a united Europe! Across the continent highly nationalist, Euroskeptical parties posted record gains and outright victories. Supporters of the EU have a justifiable fear of resurgent nationalism and tribal xenophobia. However there is a reality which cannot be ignored. The project of European unity has focused too much on institutions and not enough on culture. Many understand deeply and intuitively the national bonds of common language, common homeland, common customs and common history. These are things that make England, France, Italy or Spain what they are but what makes Europe what it is? Is there a generic “European”? Or is it all an empty abstraction?

History in fact provides us with a clear answer. As British historian Christopher Dawson wrote:

“For Europe is not a political creation. It is a society of peoples who shared the same faith and the same moral values. The European nations are parts of a wider spiritual society, and it is only by studying the nature of the whole, that we can understand the functions of the parts.”( Christopher Dawson. Understanding Europe)

Europe in short is a historic-cultural reality – one which emerges from the idea of Christendom. It is true of course that the term “Europe”(Gr. Ευρωπη) as a geographic designator goes back at least to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus and Hecataeus of Miletus. It is also true that the pre-Christian civilizations – above all the classical Greek and Roman – contributed enormously to Europe’s intellectual, artistic, and political inheritance. But it was Christianity which forged the disparate tribes of Europe – the Latin Spaniard, the Irish Celt, the Teutonic Scandinavian, the Hungarian Magyar – into one community united by a common faith in Jesus Christ. The medieval unity of European Christendom is the historical matrix from which the separate nation-states arose.

This long memory of Christendom was dear to the principal founding fathers of the European Union – Konrad Adenauer, chancellor of post-war Germany, Robert Schumman prime minister of France, Alcide di Gasperi prime minister of Italy. Behind the unimaginable destruction wrought by two fratricidal world wars they intuited a forgetfulness of Europe’s Christian roots. This manifested in a tribal nationalism which trumped any sense of obligation to the Europe as a whole. Furthermore, totalitarian ideologies with their denial of Christian charity and human dignity led to the inhumanity of war and genocide. The EU’s founders did not believe returning to medieval Christendom was possible or desirable. But they did believe a renewal of Christian values in a way fully compatible with modern democracy and personal freedoms could be a great force for healing the self-inflicted wounds of a battered continent. As Robert Schumann stated:

“We are called to bethink ourselves of the Christian basics of Europe by forming a democratic model of governance which through reconciliation develops into a ‘community of peoples’ in freedom, equality, solidarity and peace which is deeply rooted in Christian basic values.”

Yet in recent years the EU seems to suffer from self-induced amnesia in this regard. In 2003 the first draft constitution of the EU included no mention of Christianity in its preamble – much to the chagrin of many EU member states and the Vatican. After years of vigorous debate the final draft of the Treaty of Lisbon contained only the generic statement about Europe’s “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance…”. When Italy’s candidate Rocco Buttiglione was rejected as an EU commissioner due apparently to his orthodox Catholic beliefs, many began to wonder if the message was “practicing Christians need not apply.” Efforts to force member states like Italy to remove the Catholic crucifix from public school buildings failed before the European Court of Human Rights – but the effort itself seemed like an aggressive campaign to erase evidence of Europe’s Christian heritage from public view.

The real issue perhaps is the metastasis of a one sided and ideological narrative that emerged first during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. This historical narrative sees Christianity as a retrograde force of intolerance, superstition and ignorance that long held back the march of progress. But there are also positive elements to the Christian inheritance of Europe which even the fair minded non-Christian can acknowledge.

  • First Christianity has placed a unique emphasis on human dignity. Consider for example the words of the fourth century Saint Gregory of Nyssa

“Oh man, scorn not what is admirable in you…consider your royal dignity! The heavens have not been made in God’s image as you have, nor the moon, nor the sun, nor anything in creation…behold of all that exists there is nothing that can contain your greatness.”(St. Gregory of Nyssa In Cantica 2, quoted by Henri de Lubac in The Drama of Atheistic Humanism)

Intelligibly, it was in Christian Europe where the doctrine of universal human rights was first formulated by figures like the Dominican theologian Francisco de Vitoria at Salamanca in the 16th century. The idea of human dignity and the human rights which flow from it remain central to European aspirations and values today.

  • Secondly there is the ethics of universal charity extending to solidarity with the poor, oppressed and suffering whom Christ. As even critics of Christianity like Friedrich Nietzsche noted most civilizations glorified the master morality of the strong conqueror and viewed the weak with contempt. It was the Jews and Christians who made concern for the weak central – a value system which bore fruit in the countless hospitals, orphanages, poor houses, and other centers of charity which European Christians established.
  • Third is the Christian distinction between the spiritual and temporal. The distinction of church and state has been a central dynamic of Western history limiting in principle the competence of the state over matters of conscience and that of religion over secular politics.
  • Fourth is the sanction Christianity gave to intellectual life. In the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas taught that God gave man two lights to know truth – the natural light of reason and the supernatural light of faith. Since both are gifts of God there cannot be any ultimate contradiction between them – veritate fidei non contrariatur veritas rationisthe truth of reason is not contrary to the truth of faith.” Human reason therefore must be cultivated through the arts and sciences. Unsurprisingly, the University was a product of the medieval church and many of Europe’s great universities – Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg, Louvain, Salamanca, Padua –were founded under Christian auspices
  • Finally there is the Christian patronage of the arts and concern for beauty. Christianity sees in the sensible beauty of nature and art a reflection of divine beauty, and in the artist a reflection of the divine creativity. As one of Europe’s greatest Christian artists Michelangelo noted:

“…every good painting is noble and devout of itself, for it is nothing more than a copy of the perfections of God and reminiscence of His own painting.”(Michelangelo. Quoted by A. McNicholl “Art” (New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 1)

The aesthetic fecundity of Christian inspiration can be seen in the majesty of the Gothic Cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame, the Pieta or Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew, and countless other masterpieces which fill Europe’s churches, museums and concert halls.

The claim is often made that for the EU to recognize the special historical role of Christianity in forming European culture would send a message of exclusion toward non-Christians. This argument however is problematic. All of the world’s known civilizations have roots in some sacred tradition. Would it not be foolish to deny the central influence of Hinduism on India or Islam on the Middle East? As Pope Benedict pointed out devout adherents of other religions generally are threatened more by the materialistic values of radical secularism which contradict all spiritual traditions, than by Christianity which shares many spiritual and moral values with the other great faiths.

Furthermore one need not be a Christian to affirm the influence of Christianity on Europe, any more than one needs to be Greek to affirm the Hellenic influence. If the goal is to promote a sense of common European unity and identity which can withstand the centrifugal forces of nationalism, does it make any sense to reject a main pillar of European unity and identity?


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