Europe: A Tree without Roots

Pope invites Europe to move beyond the “pathological hate” for its own, true identity, and to appreciate the splendor of its full heritage.
by Stephen Dardis, LC | Source:
Parading the same broad trunk and populated boughs as her oak-tree cousins, the River Oak offers a paradox bound for tragedy. As the name indicates, the tree thrives alongside lakes and rivers, but consequently lacks the deep roots and sturdy soil necessary to maintain her upper glory. For Pope Benedict, the future of Europe—and perhaps Western society as a whole—offers a similarly paradox. Uprooting her cultural splendors from their traditional Christian soil, today’s Europe seeks anchor in more up-to-date convictions—top soil ill-disposed to bear the weight of such glory.

For the Roman Pontiff, grasping the true identity of Europe is not about looking at a world map or reviewing the system of trade agreements intertwining the European peoples. “Europe” denotes a culture and a way of life; its bonds are cultural and historical more than geographic. (Is water the only thing separating Turkey from Greece?) It is the fruit of millennia of maturity. Beginning with the Greek philosophers and their progress beyond ancient mythologies towards the love for Truth, it encountered the Jewish cult of the One True God and incorporated the wisdom of the Ten Commandments. It integrated the political and legal systems of the Romans, with their ideals of justice, honor, and integrity.

Ultimately, the dawn of Christianity, with its revealed understanding of God and man, brought about an unprecedented fusion between otherwise diverse cultural, historical, and religious backgrounds, which is now Europe. For centuries, like a young oak proffering her treasures for nature’s benefit, she exported her heritage and her Christian Faith throughout the world. Although today one may read of even barbaric crimes committed by individuals in the colonial era, this Christian culture as a whole brought about the end of widespread barbarism characteristic of pagan antiquity. (Lest it be forgotten, one reads about religious human sacrifice only in Ancient History class, not in the news.) With its unique background, Europe stood strong upon its reverence for the transcendent values of justice, integrity, virtue, and the surpassing dignity of the human person—the image of God. Christendom spawned the first universities, taught a respect for men in all social classes, and transmitted the Gospel message of salvation to all nations. She has truly been a beneficent oak in world history, and the rest of the world is thankful for it.

Nevertheless, like another woman in the garden, the more “modern” Europe has questioned and doubted her heritage and the convictions therein. In the “Age of Reason,” Europe reached for the tree of knowledge, and abandoned in distrust the Faith that had so adorned her. With Martin Luther and philosophers of modernity, she declared Faith “a private thing,” and God a resource attainable by “faith alone.” It wasn’t long before this subjective approach to God led to a no less subjective attitude toward all truth. Closing its horizons to the transcendent, modern Europe thought itself mature in constructing a life built entirely upon scientific convictions. Thence came the exaggerated, absolute separation between Church and State, religion and politics, still aggressively felt today.

Europe now markets a different export: an earthly happiness—a promise which has never been kept—and the benefits of “first world” technology and its fleeting luxuries. Above all, she promises “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” but without recourse to the Christian context which alone maintains such magnificent values. It is a society of “tolerance,” but unfettered by the bonds of Church, God, or truth—unhinged, as Nietzsche aptly predicted, from its own sun.

It was a farce to think that the same great oak could support its glorious edifice without roots. In giving up the rule of God, Europe is instead opting for the “dictatorship of relativism.” The ensuing moral corrosion is the logical conclusion to ideologies without objective truths and “politics without God.” What makes something right or good? How far can “tolerance” be tolerated? (And which abuses of freedom should be considered “intolerable”? Needn’t Tolerance bow before some independent Truth?) And who is to say which race or religion will be permitted or which will be “exterminated”? Hitler would have flourished on modernity’s “mature” foundations. (On the contrary, the moving words of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” overtly biblical and invoking God’s divine justice, might have fallen upon politically offended ears.)

Its Christian convictions provided the West with the foundation to oppose such evils of the past, with men offering the ultimate sacrifice because they believed in the “ultimate” good and the true meaning of life. The lack of such moral convictions in the next generations leaves the future—to say the least—uncertain. Rapidly advancing technology offers great hope for those years ahead; but extricated from any fixed moral compass, Western progression could become lamentable regression.

The rich European traditions were sown within the discovery and development of perennial truths; when the context of those traditions is eradicated, their practice shortly follows. In her tolerance-based politics of reason without God, the River oak is rocked by every ideology. Despite its surface-glamour, it will inevitably crumble under a weight its roots cannot maintain.

For the Pope, every person has the natural right to the pursuit of happiness, but due to the rational and revealed fact of who and what a person is. Each must be free individually to build his life and choices around his personal convictions—but happiness will only follow insofar as these convictions are true. In short, the Pope defends this inalienable right because his religion and philosophical reasoning convince him of the objective truths of human nature and dignity. Yet socially, where the common good of the whole inevitably entails even sacrifice from its individual parts, only this Christian understanding of Man and God can provide an adequate, rational foundation for a just society. The absolutism of tolerance and freedom can give no reason for one to be generous toward the needs of the whole—unless he sees them as brothers in his human family.

Communism’s utopia project failed as the State absorbed the free individual. Yet capitalism, too, with its respect for the individual, shows that its own fairness requires some deeper source for its members’ obedience to justice. The Pope is inviting Europe to move beyond the “pathological hate” for its own, true identity, and to appreciate the splendor of her full heritage. She has to make a decision; the oak cannot stand without its roots, and how great will be its fall beneath so many ideological storms! The Church calls on Europe, and all of Western society, to set their edifice upon stable and lasting foundations. “And the rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew against it; but the house did not fall; it was built on solid rock” (Mt 7:24-25).

Brother Stephen Dardis, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.

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