It took 455 years to pry the papacy out of Italian hands. Now, after 26 years of a pope from Eastern Europe, the church that is withering in Europe is flourishing in the Southern Hemisphere. There materialism and consumerism are less powerful -- but people passionately desire the affluence that makes materialism and consumerism possible.
Europe itself is withering. The day of John Paul II's funeral, the European Union's statistics agency reported that the decline of birthrates means that within five years deaths will exceed births in the EU. By 2013, Italy's population will begin to decline; the next year, Germany's will begin to decline. After 2010, Europe's population growth will be entirely from immigration. By 2025, not even immigration will prevent declining fertility from accelerating what one historian calls the largest ``sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death of the 14th century.''
In his new book ``The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God,'' George Weigel, biographer of John Paul II, argues that Europe's ``demographic suicide'' will cause its welfare states to buckle and is creating a ``vacuum into which Islamic immigrants are flowing.'' Since 1970, the 20 million legal Islamic immigrants equal the combined populations of Ireland, Denmark and Belgium.
``What," Weigel asks, ``is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense, by creating a next generation?" His diagnosis is that Europe's deepening anemia is a consequence of living on what he considers the thin gruel of secular humanism that excludes transcendent reference points for cultural and political life. Such reference points are, he thinks, prerequisites for freedom understood as ``the capacity to choose wisely and act well as a matter of habit."
Perhaps. But Weigel also argues that Europe's crisis of civilizational morale was catalyzed by World War I. So Europe's retreat from religion might reflect a reasonable weariness and wariness born of four centuries of religious wars and convulsions wrought by the political religions of fascism and communism.
Weigel doubts that it is possible to ``sustain a democratic political community absent the transcendent moral reference points for ordering public life that Christianity offers the political community." Absent a reconversion of the continent, Europeans, who -- like many Americans -- find the injection of transcendence into politics frightening, are going to find out whether Weigel is right.