Monday, October 02, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI: "what can rightly be called Europe"

Europa in a Fresco at Pompeii
Contemporary with Ovid
(Image from Wikipedia)

In a nod to some of my critics during the recent controversy over the brusque words from Emperor Manuel II Paleologus in the Pope's Regensburg lecture, I acknowledged that the Pope touched on more than the issue of God's nature, and I quoted this passage:

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history -- it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.
Tariq Ramadan honed in on the implications of this phrase "what can rightly be called Europe," and he had a point even if he missed the Pope's more central theme about God's rational nature.

The Pope, a man of many interests, is also a systematic thinker, so when he touches on a point, it undoubtedly has more than a superficial connection to his main theme. In looking into the matter of "Europe" more closely, I've discovered that the Pope has recently published a book with Marcello Pera titled Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam. In this book, we find the Pope's article, "The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," which first appeared in the form of a lecture given in May 2004 as an address by the then Cardinal Ratzinger to the Italian Senate on the spiritual state of the West.

This published form seems to have been revised, for an earlier printing of the lecture appears in the June-July 2004 issue of the Catholic magazine Inside the Vatican. A subscription is required, but the lecture has been reprinted on the website Catholic Culture as "Europe: Its Spiritual Foundation: Yesterday, Today and in the Future."

In determining "what can rightly be called Europe," Ratzinger notes that "Europe is a cultural and historical concept, not a continent clearly definable in geographical terms," and he discusses the rise of a European consciousness partly as a reaction to Islamic expansion. The Roman Empire, he implies, was not Europe, but it -- along with the Hellenic states -- "led to the formation of a continent that became the basis for later Europe." To become Europe, however, the Empire would have to alter its borders. Or have them altered:

[T]he triumphal advance of Islam in the 600s and the beginning of the 700s traced a border through the Mediterranean, thereby cutting it into two. As a result, everything which until then had been a single continent was now subdivided into three: Asia, Africa and Europe.
And thus helped found Europe. Thanks for that. Anyway, Islam as "The Other" also played a role in the emergence of European consciousness -- as Ratzinger perhaps implies in touching on the Carolingian Empire but explicitly notes with reference to the Turkish threat to Europe in the early Modern period:

The process involving this new historical and cultural identification took place as an intentional pursuit under the reign of Charlemagne. Likewise, emerging once again was the ancient name "Europe," but with a change in meaning: this title was now used to define the kingdom of Charlemagne, while at the same time expressing an awareness of the continuity and newness with which this new set of states was projecting itself as a force ... into the future. Projecting itself into the future, precisely because it saw itself as the continuation of what had thus far been the history of the world and therefore anchored in what perseveres forever. Likewise expressed in this emerging self comprehension was an awareness of definitiveness, together with an awareness of a mission to be accomplished.

It is true that the concept of "Europe" practically disappeared once again after the demise of the Carolingian reign, while the word itself retained a certain pride of place only in the language of learned persons. In ordinary language, however, it then resurfaced at the beginning of the modem age, as a form of self identification in relation to the threat represented by the Turks, while its widespread and general use brings us all the way up to the 18th century. Independently from this history of the actual word "Europe." [T]he consolidation of the kingdom of the Franks as the never-faded and now reborn Roman Empire, marked the decisive step towards what we now mean when we speak of Europe.
By the expression "now reborn Roman Empire," I presume that Ratzinger means the European Union -- thereby supplying grist for the mills of eschatological conspiracy theories being regularly ground out by the occasional Protestant fundamentalist (but that's another matter).

As for Islam, despite its 'helpful' role in defining Europe by restricting Christendom, Ratzinger has some kind words for it, conceding that it has proven itself successful in a way now failing Europe:

The rebirth of Islam is connected not only with the new material wealth of the Islamic countries, but is nourished by Islam's ability to offer sound spiritual grounds for the life of peoples, grounds which seem to have slipped out of Europe's steady hand. Therefore, despite its lasting political and economic might, Europe is increasingly looked upon as condemned to decline and downfall.

I'd like to hear more from Ratzinger about these "sound spiritual grounds" that Islam offers. Presumably, he means moderate Islam's day-to-day moral code, which he considers contemporary Europe to be lacking.

Between Ratzinger's positive reference to Islam's "sound spiritual grounds" and Pope Benedict XVI's concerns about Islam's concept of a "capricious God" lies a broad expanse waiting to be filled in with the Vatican's official words.

But perhaps the Pope should pass a rough draft by me first ... just to be safe?

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At 11:04 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

A nitpick: Pope Benedict is making a very arguable statement when he says of "Europe" that "this title was now used to define the kingdom of Charlemagne." Carolingian poets did refer to Charlemagne as the "father of Europe" (pater Europae) and "beacon of Europe" (pharus Europae), but neither was a "title" in any legal or political sense. Rather, these designations were used by court poets whose works were highly imitative of Roman models, and I wouldn't necessarily take that literary fad as evidence that Charlemagne, his counselors, or his subjects even briefly saw themselves as "Europeans."

For what it's worth, I don't agree that "the now reborn Roman Empire" refers to the European Union; I think Benedict's "now" clumsily refers to the era of Charlemagne. After Charlemagne's imperial coronation, part of his title was "emperor governing the Roman Empire," and shortly thereafter his seal on Italian documents read Renovatio Romani imperii. Here, I think, Benedict is right to see Charlemagne's coronation as a decisive step toward "Europe," if what he means by that is the idea that various tribes and nations began to see themselves as part of a larger, discrete political and cultural entity, regardless of what they actually called it.

I hope you'll continue your close reading of Benedict's speech. It's a fun series of posts.

At 11:40 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Regardless of whether or not the Pope passes his rough drafts by you, I hope by now he has ordered his German to English translators to check in with you first.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeff, I think that you're right and that I misread Benedict's phrase "the now reborn Roman Empire."

Incidently, by "arguable statement," do you mean "debatable statement"?

Anyway, thanks for the details ... and by the way, Jeff, are you a historian or a creative writer? You seem to be both.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, the Pope will have to reward me generously with treasures laid up in Swiss bank accounts if he requests my services.

But he'll avoid triggering WWIII, which surely accounts for something...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:52 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

HJH - Yes, I suppose I did mean that it was a "debatable" statement. (Clarity goes out the window when one sleeps too listtle.) I was just trying to say that even though the pope was right about the big picture, the specific example he used to support his argument was a bit shaky.

I wouldn't call myself a historian, no. I've just spent far more time with books about Charlemagne than is prudent!

At 9:04 AM, Blogger Michael B said...

John Rosenthal's review of Tariq Ramadan.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael B., thanks for the link.

I've long had suspicions about Tariq Ramadan's real views, and I've been waiting for the smoking gun. The link that you've provided comes quite close to the incriminating evidence -- and the links on that blog would probably prove damning.

Thanks again.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:51 PM, Blogger Michael B said...

That was a ref. from his previous blog site, his newer one is here, though it presently has some broken links. Rosenthal has sound command of several disciplines and seemingly of a couple of languages or more, beyond english. Not inerrant, but always cogent, compelling, penetrating and lucid, always well grounded without tipping the scales into any type of cynicism or other ungrounded interests.

At 1:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I had noticed the new blog site. I ought to add Rosenthal to my blogroll ... which I need to update anyway. I don't suppose that you have a blog.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:57 AM, Blogger Michael B said...


At 7:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

None? How unfortunate.

Anyway, Michael B., thanks for the link to John Rosenthal's website(s). I've since blogged about this.

Jeffery Hodges

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