The West and its Christian roots
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What’s wrong with the West?

Is the West in decline because it has lost touch with its Christian roots?
Robert P. George and William L. Saunders | 16 February 2011

The following is a chapter by Robert P. George and William L. Saunders from Exiting a Dead End Road: a GPS for Christians in Public Discourse, a new book published by Kairos Publications in Vienna, and edited by Gudrun and Martin Kugler. The book can be ordered here

The West has faced many challenges in the past, many turning points, from the Asiatic invasions of the Dark Ages to the dark ages of Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin. And it faces one now -- the eclipse of its historical Christian identity.

In the past, when armies of aggression threatened our society, those threats were met with nerve and with steel. We pray God that steel will never be necessary again, but certainly it will require nerves of steel -- steely determination -- to meet what may be the greatest threat Christianity has faced in its history.

The threat is this: at just the moment when many Christians have lost self-confidence, ideologically doctrinaire secularists have launched a determined attack on all public vestiges of Christianity. They have chosen their moment well, but their attack need not succeed. If Christians will regain the confidence that comes from their Creed, they can arrest the assault being waged in the cause of secularist ideology. Courage was required in the past; it is required again.

Christians are well-equipped for this battle. Christianity enables man to use twin tools in engaging the world and its problems -- reason and faith. Other than the specially revealed truths of faith, all truths are accessible to unaided reason, and, thus, to all people of good will. When Christian citizens contend over issues of importance in the public square, they should be confident that they bring not a narrow sectarianism but an understanding based upon principles of reason -- natural justice, natural law -- in the interest of the common good.

The problem

To begin with, “the West” is not synonomous with Christianity. There have been great civilizations of the East in which Christriantiy played a vibrant part, remnants of which survive today in places like Syria, India and Ethiopia.

However, as writers such as Hilaire Belloc noted, Christianity achieved a synthesis with culture in the West, particularly in Europe, that is probably unmatched elsewhere. In fact, it may be said that Christianity, properly understood, is the synthesis of the intellectual and moral traditions of the Greeks with the moral and spiritual traditions of the Hebrews. Given birth during the Roman Empire, Christianity stamped its imprint as that Empire grew, matured, disintegrated and fell. The eastern part of that Empire was eventually submerged under Islam, and Christianity concentrated in western Europe.

As Pope Benedict XVI said at Regensburg in September 2006: “The inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance [for] world history... Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity... finally took its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: the convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.”

Western Europe, of course, sent its sons and daughters to America, many of whom were Protestants. There they established a society built upon the ethical monotheistic belief that “all men are created equal... endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Now societies on both sides of the Atlantic are under assault from an aggressive form of secularist ideology and seem to be teetering. Let us look at a few examples.

On November 3, 2009, the European Court of Human Rights announced its decision in Lautsi v Italy (30814/06 Eur. Ct. H.R.). The Court held that the crucifix -- the symbol of the suffering Christ -- could not be displayed in public school classrooms in Italy without subjecting the state to monetary damages for parents who complain. The decision provoked an uproar across the political spectrum in Italy, and has been appealed to the Grand Chamber. Many commentators noted that even Italian atheists supported the display of the crucifix, and concluded it had become “merely” a cultural symbol.

There is much to be remarked concerning this case, and though we will say more about it below, we do not have space to plumb its depths. However, we would note a few things about it.

First, the “institution” by which Christian symbols are being banished is a court. The role of the courts as agents serving a secularist elite that condemns Judaeo-Christian ethical principles will be addressed below. Further, on this general issue, note that there is a divide between popular and elite opinion on this matter. While we will say more on this too, we note that the theoretical basis of democracy is popular rule -- that, after all, is the point of counting votes. Further, the case in support of permitting cultural expressions of religious belief is strengthened when the votes of a majority in the present are combined with “the votes of the dead” (ie, those who, as G.K. Chesterton reminded us, created the very institutions and practices in the past that are under attack in the present).

However, we pause to spend a moment on the suggestion that the widespread Italian protest against the Court’s ruling was unimportant because it was “merely” cultural.

Christianity is by its nature culture-shaping; remove its symbols and the culture will lose its shape. While those Christians who are lapsed or relaxed in the practice of their faith may not realize it, those who oppose Chrisitanity are not content with the fact that many Christians are unconcerned whether Christianity has a role in public. Rather, these secularists seek what the great American Christian leader, Fr Richard John Neuhaus, called the “naked public square”. That is, they seek to “cleanse” (from their perspective) the public square of all references to Christianity, Judaism, or revealed religion of any type. An example from the United States is the effort to remove displays of the Ten Commandments from public spaces. The irony that this is pursuant to jurisprudence from a Supreme Court that itself sits in a chamber where the Ten Commandments is part of a ceiling frieze is lost on many.

A similar example from Europe concerns the text of the new Lisbon Treaty. It fails to mention Christianity, speaking instead vaguely of “inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe”. Granting the important contributions made, for example, by Greek philosophy and by Enlightenment ideas to the development of the full understanding of the concept of the human person, it is simply an historical fact that it is in Judaism and Christianity that the “indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity” (EU Charter) find their root. Judaism and Christianity teach that each and every human being, regardless of how weak, or poor, or despised, is made in the very image and likeness of the divine Creator and Ruler of the universe.

Hence, it was understood that all human beings are robed in immeasurable dignity. And, in the specifically Christian witness, it is God’s own example of selfless sacrifice that has inspired believers in turn to sacrifice for others -- the greatest humanitarian enterprises of Western history, from the hospital to the hospice to the orphanage to the Missionaries of Charity, spring from this “imitation of Christ”. To ignore that fact is to embrace cultural amnesia.

Christians in the West often believe neutral principles such as “the rule of law” will guarantee their just rights. However, given the vehemence of ideological secularism, that belief is naïve. Note, for example, a recent case decided by the United States Supreme Court.

In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (130 S.Ct. 2971), on June 28, the last day of its 2010 term, the Supreme Court ruled that the US constitutional guarantee of freedom for an organization to choose its officers and members, and which applies to every other group on a college campus, does not apply to evangelical Christians. Why? Because the evangelical Christian group did not permit persons who, in violation of biblical moral teaching, choose to engage in homosexual conduct to become officers and members. That, stripped of the Court’s rhetoric, is the meaning of the decision. (A fuller discussion of this case by one of us can be found at www.thecatholicthing.com) This can be easily understood when one realizes the Court refused to apply legal precedent from the tumultuous 1960s which protected radical leftist student organizations (highly unpopular at the time) to the evangelical Christian group (highly unpopular now). The neutral legal principles that should have applied equally to each group did not.

The right to freedom of association, highly prized in all articulations of human rights, simply falls by the wayside in a contemporary courtroom if that right is asserted against the preferences of those who enjoy hegemony in universities and the dominant intellectual culture today. And no group is more highly out of favour on campus than evangelical Christians. Why is that? Evangelical Christians will not bend to the zeitgeist. They assert their understanding of Christianity in the face of a largely consumerist, materialist culture.
Their understanding of what Christianity requires of them is not limited to faith (dogma, doctrine), but extends to morals. (This is, of course, the same for faithful Catholics. See, eg, Lumen Gentium 25.) And morals are the one thing on which the dominant culture cannot yield, organized as it is around a commitment to individual freedom to pursue sexual adventure as one wishes.
Reference to another recent American case should make this clear.

That case is Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 2010 (US Dist. LEXIS 78816). Decided August 6, 2010 and now on appeal to a higher court, the decision overturned a ballot initiative, popularly referred to as “Prop 8”. Under the law of the state of California, voters may amend the state constitution (which was, of course, originally adopted by the people, that is, the citizens) by ballot initiative. With Prop 8, the citizens of a very liberal state did just that -– they defined “marriage” for purposes of state law as “between one man and one woman.” This common sense view, supported by natural reason and reflected in human rights documents, and supported by social science research, was declared by the federal court to be utterly lacking in reason. The court declared that “gays” were harmed by these views, which it branded “religious”. (“The evidence shows conclusively that moral and religious views form the only basis for a belief that same-sex couples are different from opposite-sex couples.”) In other words, for this court, and it is quite representative of the opinion of Western elites on all matters sexual, any opposing view is “religious,” and hence “irrational.” Thus, such a view can be dismissed as unworthy of legal respect.

Let us be clear: the drive to legitimate practices deemed, not just by Christians, as deviant throughout human history has led to a cultural confrontation with organized, traditional (observant) Christianity. Institutionally, it is Christianity that is by far the most significant opponent to this “liberationist” agenda.

And that agenda’s fiercest proponents will use any tactic, including the subversion of “the rule of law” and “democracy” itself, to advance their agenda and to defeat their opponents. This last aspect cannot be overemphasized –- they mean to break Christianity if they can, for it has a spiritual and moral world view that they cannot accept or even tolerate. In other words, from the point of view of the most aggressive of the contemporary secularists, this is “the moral equivalent of war.” And one thing that is wrong with the West is that while traditional Christians are dominant in terms of numbers of persons, they are quiescent, lulled to sleep by a luxurious materialism (available only to emperors and kings in the past) and by beguiling rhetoric about “human rights” and “fairness”, in the service of causes (secularism and materialism) that, in the end, will undermine those very concepts.

The causes

Neither desires nor preferences are rights. To have a “right” means to have a claim upon another that the other is obligated to grant. No one, however, is obligated to grant the desires of another simply because the other desires it.
This basic misunderstanding of rights and desires lies behind many of the conflicts over “rights” in our societies today. However, the distinction was well understood in the West until quite recently, as we can see from an examination of the West’s fundamental human rights documents, adopted in the middle of the last century.

For instance, while it is sometimes claimed that marriage cannot be “limited” to “opposite sex” couples, and that to do so is “discriminatory” and violates “basic human rights,” a look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (hereafter, the “Universal Declaration” or the “Declaration”), the lodestar of human rights in the West, reveals the opposite is true.
Article 16 deals with “the right to marry.” That right is guaranteed to “men and women of full age.” And no limitation on this right may be based on “race, nationality, or religion”. But that clearly means that the right can be limited on other bases. Thus, note that on one of the most contentious issues of modern politics -– same sex marriage –- there is little within human rights standards on which to base such a purported “right”. Similarly, “homosexual rights” are sometimes claimed to be so important that the state can require religious organizations to honor them in their teaching.

This has recently been asserted by the Spanish government and is, to some degree, reflected in the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religion in Public Schools. It must be noted that this claim is at variance with human rights standards. Unlike, for example, homosexual rights or abortion, religious freedom is an enumerated right within the basic human rights documents. See, for example, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration. Further, it is such an important right that it is one of the very few which cannot be limited even during wartime.

See Article 4-2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (hereafter, the “Covenant”). Finally, the logic of Article 18 of both the Declaration and the Covenant indicate it could only possibly be limited if it is in conflict with another enumerated right, which neither abortion nor homosexual conduct is. (For instance, under Section 3 of Article 18 of the Covenant, “fundamental rights” logically must be ones mentioned in the Covenant, i.e. since they are fundamental, they would by necessity be mentioned in a document setting forth fundamental rights.) Thus, there is little ground to contend that religion or religious teaching must conform itself to the dictates of new conceptions of “human rights.”

Note that Lautsi, discussed above, misunderstands a similar provision in the European Convention on Human Rights. Lautsi proposes that since freedom to manifest one’s religion is subject to “such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” (Convention, article 9-2), religion must yield to “democratic values” which it defines as “pluralism,” and essentially, as “secularism”. However, 9-2, which differs from article 18-3 of the Covenant basically by the addition of the words “in a democratic society,” cannot mean that. If it did, the exception would destroy the rule; that is, religious freedom would not be “fundamental” at all, but would be subject to whatever laws were passed in a democracy.)

Importantly, the same principle is operative when it comes to education. Parents have a right to direct the religious and moral education of their children “in conformity with their own convictions.” See Article 18 of the Covenant. (In Lautsi, the court held that the rights of minority parents and children meant that the crucifix could not be displayed, relying on a similar provision to article 18. However, this is clearly a misreading of that requirement. The important thing is that there be no coercion. {See 18-2 of the Covenant: “no one shall be subject to coercion... ” Also compare Dignitatis Humanae below.} So long as minority children are able to attend other schools, at state expense, that comport with their parents’ beliefs, or the state undertakes other measures to eliminate coercion, there is nothing wrong with the state having crucifixes in classrooms.

In other words, a secularist solution is not required... The examples could be multiplied, but the basic point is clear. Human rights standards protect, inter alia, marriage, education and religious freedom are generally in accordance with traditional understandings. The burden is squarely upon those who wish to assert other, conflicting rights to justify them. They may not do so by simply claiming them to be “human rights.” As Aristotle taught us, the law itself is a teacher. Laws do not determine behavior, but they play a crucial role in shaping it. Thus, in order to advance purported rights such as abortion and same sex marriage, proponents need to change the law. However, here they run into a problem -– as we have seen in the United States regarding marriage, most people oppose such things. Thus, while they can certainly sometimes advance such things by democratic means, proponents have increasingly resorted to unelected and electoral unaccountable judges to do their bidding. Ignoring the Biblical parable of the perils of pouring new wine into old wineskins, they allege “new” or “evolving” understandings of established rights (such as equality and fair process). In case after case (some noted above), we have seen this in the United States. The most infamous example is Roe v. Wade (1973) under which the Supreme Court invented a right to abortion under a “privacy right” nowhere mentioned in our Constitution.

Europe seems poised to suffer a similar fate. While the European Convention on Human Rights is designed to leave social issues to the member states of the Council of Europe under the “margin of appreciation,” the European Court of Human Rights seems to be edging into expanding rights to abortion and same sex relationships [under Tysiac v Poland (2007) and Schalk & Kopf v. Austria (2010) respectively] despite the lack of any language on these subjects in the Convention. (Furthermore, ABC v Ireland, challenging Ireland’s pro-life constitution, is currently pending before that Court).

Whatever the specifics, the point is this: fundamental institutions of democracy –- courts -– are being harnessed in an effort to advance social policies many, if not most, citizens oppose. Fundamental aspects of democracy, such as “the rule of law” (ie, an impartial judiciary; equality before the law of all citizens), are at risk.

Tactically, these proponents need an enemy, and the common, convenient enemy is “religion” (as we saw above, for example with the Prop 8 case). The reason is that they see “Christian morality” as the problem. As noted, they are mistaken to see it as exclusively “Christian,” for it is the common heritage of mankind, accessible to reason. Still they are determined to root out “god” from modern life.

(In America, secularists have gone so far as to “air-brush” historical events to remove references to “under God.” See, for example, the American Constitution Society’s misrepresentation of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous address at the Gettysburg battlefield during the American Civil War, as recounted by one of us at www.firstthings.com) In a sense this is all a continuation of the long struggle of Christianity with modernity, a struggle carried on by every pope since Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum.

It has never been a struggle against modernity as such, though it must be admitted that sometimes the Church’s actions and pronouncements have given this impression. Rather, it has been a struggle against inaccurate, harmful ideas, ideas that are false, about the human person and harmful to the common good. One of the most insidious is the confusion about the meaning of “conscience.” Once understood as the responsibility of the individual before God, it became the individual’s right to do as he wished, subject to no authority beyond his own preferences. As we saw above, this is sadly mistaken and has no relation to true “human rights”. The Church clarified the matter in Gaudium et spes 43, where it pointed out that one had an obligation to inform one’s conscience before exercising it.

Gaudium et spes was of course one of the documents of the Church’s most comprehensive engagement with modernity, Vatican Ecumenical Council II, which sifted through modernity’s ideas and trends, affirmed what was true, opposed what was false. That Council gave us, inter alia, the great declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

Dignitatis Humanae was a ringing call against coercion in religion. At the same time, and less remarked upon, it was an insistence upon the freedom of the Church to evangelize. Though often interpreted to the contrary, it was resolutely against indifferentism in religion; rather, it called upon men to seek the truth. It also insisted upon the right to manifest one’s religious beliefs. In this, it opposed those individuals and institutions who demand that religion be privatized.

But in insisting upon the right to manifest belief, it was in line with the foundational human rights documents -– see, e.g., article 18 of the Declaration: “Everyone has the right..., in public and in private, to manifest his religion”.

Thus, we see that Catholic teaching is firmly aligned with human rights doctrine. Why? Because both are true. Thus, Catholics in the West should be inspired to more firmly grasp the sure teaching of the Church, confident that it does not contradict reason; rather it reinforces it.

Yet, one cause of the West’s problems is that many ordinary Catholics do not understand this. They have failed to read the documents of Vatican II, and many others have failed to heed them. One thing is certain: through its Declaration on the Laity and otherwise, Vatican II demanded an end to clericalism. In doing so it reaffirmed the vocation of the laity, and made a clear, proper separation between the lay and clerical roles. Absorbing this has not been easy for laity or clergy. The laity must take up their tools and work “in the world”. But they do so inspired by the teaching of the Church, and the exhortations of her priests and bishops. The role of the clergy is to announce what the Magisterium proclaims firmly and often, while leaving it to the laity to discern, through prudence, how best to implement those principles in ordinary political life.

Catholics should be aware the Magisterium has not been reticent; it has provided clear guidance on the moral principles. To use again the example of marriage, the Church has made it clear that nothing other than a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman can licitly be recognized as “marriage”. (John Paul II, Letter to Families (1994).) Further, non-marital relationships of whatever type “must not be placed on the same level as marriage duly contracted.” (The Holy See, Charter of the Rights of the Family, Article 1-c (Oct. 22, 1983). Further, Catholics may not ignore important public issues such as the protection to be accorded marriage. For example, “families should be the first to take steps to see that the laws and institutions of the State not only do not offend, but support and positively defend the rights and duties of the family. Along these lines, families should grow in awareness of being ‘protagonists’ of what is known as ‘family politics’ and assume responsibility for transforming society.” (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (1981).)

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, and William L. Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life, a lawyer, and columnist.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | Catholicism, Christianity, Europe, religion
Copyright © William L. Saunders and Robert P. George . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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