The Parable of Prodigal Europe

Celebrating its 50th anniversary in March, the European Union held a party for itself in Berlin. “Europafest” featured among other activities “clubbing”;”100 DJs performing in 35 night clubs,” from “Hungarian techno to Luxembourg hip-hop,” reported the press. But the raucousness of the music couldn’t conceal the emptiness of the event.

The hollower the drum, the louder the noise it gives off. By straining to display at its anniversary an underlying culture, the European Union only reminded the world of its lack of one. The European Union remains a “Common Market” without a common philosophy of any coherence.

The secular press acknowledged the “aura of gloom” hanging over the anniversary, noting that it occasioned more confusion than celebration among the European public. In a Washington Post column titled “Europe’s Birthday Blahs,” writer Anne Applebaum reported that a “cross-continental 50 th-anniversary poll found that 56 percent of Europeans believe that ‘the European Union does not represent ordinary people,'” and only 25 percent of Europeans think “life has improved” since the European Union’s inception.

Such polls contain a hint of good news: that the elite’s secularist super-state leaves Europeans cold and ready for alternatives. Europe’s experiment against God is failing and a growing number of Europeans realize it.

Separated from its ancestral house of Christianity, secular Europe has behaved like the Prodigal Son, squandering its inheritance “on a life of dissipation” (Luke 15:11-32). And it now faces a “severe famine,” which takes the form of chronic cultural confusion and a fast approaching demographic crisis. As “dire need” awakened the Prodigal Son to reality, so social implosion may return Europeans to their “senses.”

Why, they may ask themselves, should we let our culture die under secularism when the substance of Europe’s Christian patrimony could bring it back to health? The European Union was intended to build upon this patrimony, not replace it (see story on page 26).

“Either Europe will return to the faith, or she will perish,” wrote Hilaire Belloc. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of Europe’s crisis in similar terms. It is moving “down a road that could lead to its disappearance from history,” he warned in a March 24 th speech in Rome before European cardinals, bishops, and politicians.

While the European Union issued a fatuous declaration about Europe as an “idea, a hope for freedom and understanding,” the Pope drew attention to the “dangerous individualism” that renders such talk meaningless. ” Is it not a cause for surprise that today’s Europe, while striving to position itself as a community of values, seems more often to contest the idea that there are universal and absolute values?” he said.

Europe, he said, is gravitating toward a “remarkable form of apostasy,” which entails not only a repudiation of God but of its own glorious past and tradition of reason. This “self-apostasy” explains Europe’s inability to form an identity and has exposed it to deadly ideologies.

As the Pope points out in Values In A Time Of Upheaval, Europe can’t escape these fundamental questions. Either Europe chooses to recover its historic cultural identity or it will receive a new identity from its enemies.

“Its life seems threatened by a crisis of circulation, and it almost seems to need a transfusion of blood—but that would destroy its own identity,” he wrote. He draws a parallel to the “Roman Empire in the days of its decline: it continued to function as a huge historical framework, but its own existential vigor was dead, and it already lived thanks only to those who in fact wanted to destroy it.”

If ordinary Europeans can’t grasp the “Idea of Europe,” that’s because there isn’t one anymore. If they don’t know what “values” the European Union represents, that’s because it has stripped away a divine basis for them.

The European elite’s modern rationalism, severed from the continent’s Christian roots, has proven irrational, and its much-touted pragmatism has proven impractical. Under this thinking, the common good has inevitably become, as the Pope puts it, a “shared ill,” since the good of man is never pursued in light of the intentions of the God who determined it.

” A community that constructs itself without respect for the authentic dignity of the human person, forgetting that every person is created in the image of God, ends up by not being good for anyone,” said the Pope in his March speech in Rome.

He continued: “This is why it appears increasingly more indispensable that Europe should guard itself against that pragmatic attitude, widespread today, which systematically justifies compromise on essential human values, as if the acceptance of a presumably lesser evil were inevitable. Such pragmatism, which is presented as balanced and realistic, is not that way deep down, precisely because it denies the dimension of values and ideas that is inherent in human nature.”

Pope John Paul II once asked France: “Eldest daughter of the Church, what have you done with your baptism?” Pope Benedict now asks the same question of all Europe. Until it answers that question—until Europe revives the traditions that made it great—its “Europafests” of fatted calf will resemble nothing more than dancing on a grave.

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