Two Forgotten Communities of the EU Cultural Identity

European liberty is founded on the antithesis of the secular world and
transcendence, science and faith, material technology and religion.”

–Karl Jaspers

There is little doubt that Europe finds itself at a paradoxical turning point. The rejection of the proposed Constitution is a mere symptom of a deeper malaise. Europe’s institutions have so far failed to generate what every political community needs in order to survive and grow: a feeling of belonging that goes beyond a, by now, parochial nationalism and the acknowledgment of a common purpose. This is another way of saying that it is not clear to the outside observer why Europeans wish to be together and what their shared vision and purpose might be.

The proposed Constitution reads like the language of accountants and bureaucrats rather than that of political visionaries and founding fathers that comprehend what is beautiful and what is ugly, what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. Now the very word “constitution” has been abandoned and we are back to a mere banal treaty. And here, in my view, is the crux of the challenge, for a vision is not born overnight. Community values and bonds evolve over a long period of common historical and mythological experiences which lends to such an experience the appearance of having evolved naturally and organically. In other words, only a vision can show the path to a collective identity which European unification urgently requires.

This short preamble leads to this crucial question: are there previous examples in European modern history of community building at a continental level from which Europe could draw for inspiration? I see two such periods of community building:

1) Medieval Christianity culminating in the 13th century with a community united around a common faith, with Rome as its unifying power center. It should not be forgotten that St. Peter’s successors as Roman pontiffs oversaw a network of Church-run universities, which educated cultural elites in one universal language (Latin) and a common curriculum. Even the churches had a common gothic or Romanesque style with a common calendar and liturgy. Aside from purely religious or confessional considerations, it cannot be denied that this medieval Christianity was by its very nature European.

2) The “Republic of Letters,” otherwise known as Christian Humanism, lasting from Petrarca and Erasmus till the Enlightenment. As vernacular languages displaced Latin, religious discourse gave way to observation and analysis with an unlimited faith of sort in reason and scientific progress. The word Renaissance literally means re-birth. What was reborn was Greco-Roman civilization, but it was not as a slavish imitation; rather it was as a synthesis with Christianity. A communication network was set up which allowed rapid dissemination of ideas and a common humanistic spirit; those ties were reinforced by travel so that it was natural for a Montesquieu to utter statements such as “Europe is just one nation made up of many.”

May those two communities function as key reference points for a genuine European identity? At first sight those two communities’ goals seem to be divergent: one belongs to the sacred and the other to the secular. They have at times been at loggerhead with each other beginning with the struggle for investitures in the medieval period. Many in the modern world consider them antithetical and mutually exclusive; a sort of contradictory essence of the European spirit. Yet, I’d like to suggest that the only hope for a genuine European cultural identity is the affirmation of both medieval Christianity as a community of faith and the modern era’s community of reason. A Thomas Aquinas, who saw no contradiction between faith and reason, could well indicate the way to harmonization of the two. He, like Giambattista Vico (who is widely considered the culmination of Italian Humanism), held that imagination and the poetical are integral parts of reason.

By that standard the preamble to the proposed, and failed, European Constitution is utterly inadequate. Initially the drafting Convention refused to even mention the Judeo-Christian heritage of Europe in the preamble and cited only the Enlightenment tradition. At the convention’s opening ceremony, the chairman of the Convention Valerie Giscard D’Estaing merely paid homage to the Greek pagan goddess Europa. Thus a thousand years of European heritage were effectively bracketed.

While a compromise was eventually devised that mentions a European spiritual heritage, its language and its message is weak and obscure. It was not too surprising for me, and I predicted a year ahead, that such a kind of bureaucratic Constitution would be unable to bring the EU closer to its citizens. It failed to speak to them on why Europeans should have came together in the first place, why they are staying together and what exactly they want to do together. In other words, it failed to speak about Europe as an idea and provide a noble vision for all the people of Europe. As the poet W.B. Yeats aptly put it: “the center does not hold.” Where is the centripetal center to be found? I propose that it revolves around the central place that European civilization has given to the dignity of the human person since mixing barbarian customs with Christianity.

There is an anthropocentric vision carried on by that initial experiment which consists in the Christian traditional message that man is made in the image of God and that the Son of God sacrificed himself for Man. The Renaissance and Enlightenment tradition has this message too in a secular form when it declares that Man is the measure of all things and is therefore vested with great dignity and inalienable human rights. It cannot be stressed enough that the concept of inalienable human rights did not exist either in Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome. Those two civilizations had exalted concepts of freedom but no radical transcendent opening toward the other. This unique concept is in fact derivative of Christianity, despite Voltaire’s or Rousseau’s anti-religious stances. Thomas Jefferson would not have been able to devise it on his own by mere reason. It is here that I see the greatest silver-lining. When those two foundations of European thought are seen as having a common origin, and man, and his inherent dignity and its inalienable rights, are placed in the center with no one excluded (as it was unfortunately done during the religious wars), then, and only then it becomes possible to bridge the gulf between secularism and religion in Europe and create a more authentically European ideological basis for the EU Constitution while retaining both freedom of religions and the separation of Church and State; a basis this which is pluralistic and diverse. Human rights must define the very image of Europe, they should be its emblem, the ideological benchmark for Europe’s internal politics in harmony with the UN international declaration on the same.

To return to the above mentioned silver-lining, Article 37 of the proposed EU Constitution together with article 10 of Europe’s Charter of Fundamental Rights are sufficient in themselves in defining the Church-State system that ought to govern the European Union. In those two articles religious freedom is given prominence. Here again this freedom is based on the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of the individual conscience. Another important principle established by Article 37 is that of a “dialogue” to be maintained between the Union and Europe’s religious communities whether Christian or not.

The implication here is clear: separation of Church, Synagogue, Mosque and State does not mean mutual ignorance reducing dialogue to caricature. The common good will benefit much more from a frank and transparent dialogue than by the Union turning a deaf ear to religion, as many continue to vociferously advocate. That can be achieved once the borders between religion and politics are clearly defined. Laicitè never meant that the Churches or the Synagogue or the Mosque be isolated in some kind of political limbo. One item needing improvement in the proposed Constitution, which is not even mentioned, is that of equal treatment of religious communities. It seems to me that if equality is not protected then religious freedom is also endangered. Moreover, clear distinction need to be made between what constitutes the secular and what constitutes the spiritual. Only when those distinctions are clear can we understand that European civilization arises from a wonderful synthesis of religious and humanistic values.

This relationship in Europe’s cultural identity has unfortunately been obscured by a long process of secularization and almost irrational, I would dare say bigoted, unfriendliness toward religion in general, and is hardly discernible any longer. One can only trust that after the rejection by the people of the present proposed constitution, those briefly outlined suggestions will at least be accorded a serious debate before proceeding with any future drafting.

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