They stood in a line that stretched at least a mile, sometimes 30 abreast. Huddled in blankets in the evening cold, and gratefully accepting bottled water from priests patrolling the line during the hot daylight hours, the mourners -- who wanted one last glimpse of Pope John Paul II -- waited patiently for as long as 12 hours. The funeral of this modern pope has become the greatest Christian pilgrimage of all time. Accordingly, images out of Rome this week give the impression of a still-vibrant European Christianity.
And yet, this outpouring, fattened by the presence of 2 million Poles, is somewhat misleading. For while believers have not disappeared (particularly in the newly free countries of Eastern Europe), they have become a distinct minority in a continent that is decidedly post-Christian.
George Weigel, the theologian who produced John Paul II's masterful authorized biography "Witness to Hope," has a new slender volume out that addresses Europe's sickness of the soul. In "The Cube and the Cathedral," Weigel begins with a series of questions that limn the problem:
What accounts for disturbing currents of irrationality in contemporary European politics? Why did one of every five Germans (and one third of those under 30) believe that the United States was responsible for 9-11, while some 300,000 French men and women made a best-seller out of 'The Appalling Fraud,' in which author Thierry Meyssan argued that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed by the U.S. military. ... Why is European productivity dwindling? ... Why does Sweden have a considerably higher level of its population living below the poverty line ... than the United States? ... Above all ... why is Europe committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself in what British historian Niall Ferguson calls the 'greatest sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death of the 14th century'? What 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?
The new European Constitution contains some 70,000 words. But nowhere is there a reference to Christianity or to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Europe's commitment to human rights, according to the document, arose from classical antiquity and from the Enlightenment. Fifteen hundred years of Christian influence were airbrushed out. When a phrase acknowledging Europe's Christian patrimony was suggested (by a Jewish scholar, actually), the French and others vehemently objected.
Across Western Europe, churches stand empty on Sunday mornings (though in Poland and other Eastern European nations this is not the case). And among the intellectual elites, Christian commitment is regarded as an embarrassment -- as even perhaps a disqualifying trait for high office. (There are echoes of this attitude in the United States, as well. Last year, Senate Democrats blocked the confirmation of Judge William Pryor due to his "deeply held religious views." Pryor is a practicing Catholic.)
Culture, Weigel argues, determines civilization. Without its distinctly Christian history, Europe would not be what it is. To cite just one example, Weigel recalls the 11th century "investiture" controversy between Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. The pope won, and the victory established an important principle that would have profound consequences for the development of what would later be called "civil society." The principle established was that the state "would not occupy every inch of social space."
Nor is it possible to conceive of the great figures of European history apart from their Christianity. Weigel lists dozens of names and reminds the reader that these emblematic Europeans were all influenced by, often completely imbued with, their faith -- much to the continent's good. Benedict, Bernini, Becket, Bach, Bacon, Calvin, Cromwell, Dante, Dostoevsky, Gutenberg, Michelangelo, Milton, More, Wesley and Wilberforce, among many others. Weigel acknowledges Christianity's sins and errors, but wonders whether atheistic humanists recognize theirs.
Europe today is a society adrift, untethered to the source of its greatness. It is, to use the great Jewish American writer Will Herberg's formulation, "a cut flower culture." And just as Europeans are losing the elemental desire to preserve their civilization, Muslim immigrants stand ready to vindicate the loss of 1683. It is not inconceivable that European civilization -- post-Christian, politically correct and too weary to take its own side in a quarrel (to paraphrase Robert Frost) -- may yet deliver to the Muslim world a delayed victory.