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Apropos of the debate over a European constitution, it should be remembered that Europe did not arise as an agglomeration of nations. On the contrary, Europe existed before any of its constituent nations, and the unified Europe of Church and Empire created the nations along with their languages and cultures. As individual nations, Europe’s constituent countries will die on the vine.
That, sadly, is the way things are headed. Europe’s leaders on Thursday announced another tilt at a European constitution, after the rejection of a first draft in French and Dutch referenda in 2005. The prospect of an all-powerful entity in Brussels, less accountable to voters than national governments, continues to provoke sufficient revulsion that the European summit eschewed the word “constitution” in favor of the euphemism “institutional settlement.”
Pope Benedict XVI raised hackles by insisting that the European constitution make reference to the Christian heritage of the continent, not only among European secularists, especially the government of France, but also of course in Turkey, a Muslim country that aspires to European Community (EC) membership. In fact, Benedict could have put the matter even more forcefully. There is no reason for Europeans to adopt a secular constitution. Absent the Christian mission that created Europe, the destinies will diverge of the European peoples, to the extent that no common policy will be perceived as fair and just.
Hilaire Belloc’s famous quip – “Europe is the faith, the faith is Europe” – was precisely correct. Europe came into being before a single Frenchmen or German was born, at the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman emperor in AD 800. Voltaire was only partly correct – the Holy Roman Empire was neither Roman nor an empire, but it was holy. European monarchs donned the robes of ancient Rome like small children playing dress-up, and the power of their emperors was more symbolic than real. But the unifying concept of Christendom is what made it possible to create nations out of the detritus of Rome and the rabble of invading barbarians.
Why do European nations exist in opposition to Europe? That fact, I believe, is not a measure of Europe’s political maturity but rather of its decadence. The German language in its modern form was born at the court of Emperor Charles IV at Prague, when Teutonic grammar was standardized on the Latin mold. Dante Latinized his local Tuscan dialect to create an “eloquent vulgate.” The Catholic monarchs imposed the Castilian language on the fractious Iberian tribes, without complete success, as the survival of philological relics such as Catalan and Galician makes clear.
Why is there a Germany, and not merely a Brandenburg, Bavaria, Franconia, Swabia and Hanseatic League? Why is there a Spain, and not merely a Navarra, Andalusia and Castile? It is because European languages and European literature made possible a common discourse within the great national divisions. Europe’s common faith and the institutions that supported it created this common culture as an expedient for worship and administration. Europe is the faith, for the faith gave birth to Europe.
Under Church and Empire the nations owed fealty to a higher power by virtue of the authority of faith. Its common language was Latin, and its ultimate authority was pope rather than emperor. The empire was weak, but it was holy, as a series of German emperors discovered when they attempted to substitute their own secular power for the ultimate authority of faith. Henry IV stood bareheaded in the snow for three days waiting for Pope Gregory VII to reverse his excommunication in 1077; the Staufen dynasty came to a terrible end after its prolonged war with the papacy in the second half of the 13th century. Without the faith, Europe’s civil society could not exist, and a challenger to the authority of faith, no matter how powerful, ultimately must fail.
Nationalism as an antipode to Empire did not effervesce from the rising bourgeoisie, or develop out of Protestantism. It was the invention of Cardinal Richelieu during the reign of Louis XIII. As I have reported elsewhere,  Richelieu for the first time proposed that the welfare of Christendom could be represented in a single European nation, whose particular interests thus defined the interests of the Christian world. In that spirit Richelieu kept the Thirty Years’ War raging until half the population of central Europe was dead.
Europe’s nationalism of the 19th century was a response to France, specifically to Richelieu’s successor Napoleon Bonaparte. One can trace the roots of nationalism to Romantic interest in the songs and stories of the European peoples, to Johann Herder and Johann Fichte and so forth – but it should be remembered that the “Romantics” took their name from Rome. Their object was to renew the medieval Church. When Napoleon invaded the rest of Europe with a mass popular army, the other nations of Europe responded by creating mass armies. German nationalism was born at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, when all Germany stood on the same field for the first time since the Thirty Years’ War – but this time on grounds of sovereignty, not religion.
Ethnically defined nationalism led Europe into World Wars I and II, from which it has not recovered, and from whose wounds it yet might die. Europe’s secular nationalism stands in contrast to popular sovereignty on a Christian foundation in the United States – but it was not just “the people,” but what Abraham Lincoln called an “almost-chosen people” that made this possible.
For reasons I have detailed elsewhere, I believe that the European concept of universal empire was doomed to failure.  But I have certain sympathy for those who defended it against Richelieu’s alternative. European is a tragedy in which all the protagonists deserve a measure of sympathy, for they are all too human – in this respect I have a sympathy for the human predicament of Muslims, as well. In Hamlet or Wallenstein, one does not hiss at the villain and cheer at the hero, but rather tries to strike the right balance of empathy and detachment. I have no sympathy for Richelieu, but rather a grudging admiration. His long duel with his Spanish counterpart, the Count-Duke of Olivares, was the ultimate exercise in cunning applied to modern statesmanship.
As secular entities, the nations of Europe will go their separate ways to perdition. As their demographics shift, they will fall one by one to Muslim majorities.
Even as a practical matter in the relative short term, a European government cannot work. Consider a simple example: Only 15% of Germany’s population is at the age of household formation, and real housing prices have fallen by 2% during the past 10 years. By contrast, 23% of Ireland’s population is at the age of household formation, and real home prices have risen by about 15% in the past 10 years, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD shows that there is a trend line across its member states between these two variables. Demographics are significant for home prices, although other factors are important. Now, suppose the EC should consider subsidies to families with young children to purchase homes. In effect it will tax Germans to support Irishmen. Or suppose it should consider a wealth tax to support pensions – in that case it would tax the capital gains on the homes of Irishmen to support Germans.
The US constitution must deal with such regional problems continuously, but they are easily solved through free movement of people through the country. Even with mobility of labor it is much harder for a German to become an Irishman than for a Hoosier to become a Tar Heel (ie, move from Indiana to North Carolina).
To recapture Europe means re-creating the faith. It is hard to imagine that the Roman Catholic Church might reemerge as Europe’s defining institution. The European Church is enervated. But I do not think that is the end of the matter. As I argued last month, Russia has become the frontier between Europe and the Islamic world and, unlike Europe, is not prepared to dissolve quietly into the ummah.  Pope Benedict’s recent pilgrimage to Turkey, it must be remembered, only incidentally dealt with Catholic relations with Islam; first of all it was a gesture to Orthodoxy in the form of a visit to the former Byzantium, its spiritual home.
Franz Rosenzweig, that most Jewish connoisseur of Christianity, believed that the Church of Peter (Rome) and the Church of Paul (Protestantism) would yield place to the Church of John (Orthodoxy) – that the churches of works and faith would be transcended by the church of love. If Europe has a future, it lies in an ecumenical alliance of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and at least some elements of Anglicanism.
For the time being, Europe’s constitution will be stillborn. But Europe is not yet dead. Russia is the place to watch, and the quiet conversation of Catholicism is the still, small voice to listen for.
1. The sacred heart of darkness, Asia Times Online, February 11, 2003.
2. Why Europe chooses extinction, ATol, April 8, 2003, and The Laach Maria monster, ATol, June 1, 2005.
3. Russia’s hudna with the Muslim world, ATol, February 21.