Religion in Public Life

Published September 6, 2007

On September 6-7, EPPC Senior Fellow George Weigel participated in the seventeenth international Economic Forum in Krynica, Poland. Sometimes described as the “Polish Davos,” trhe Krynica conference brings together more than two thousand political, business, and cultural leaders from central Europe, eastern Europe, and the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus region and central Asia. On September 6, Weigel was a member of a panel on “Religion in Public Life,” along with Nicholas Lobkowicz, emeritus professor of philosophy and former president of the Universities of Munich and Eichstaett; Marcello Pera, professor of philosophy at the University of Pisa and member of the Italian Senate; and Father Maciej Zieba, OP, newly-named director of the European Solidarity Center in Gdansk.


Some of the sharper questions posed by our topic come into clearer focus when we remember the European Constitutional Treaty debate of 2003-2004 .

That debate, I suggest, was about the past, as well as the present and the future.

In terms of the past: the adamant refusal of some parties and governments to acknowledge any Christian contribution to 21st century Europe’s commitments to human rights, the rule of law, civility, tolerance, and other positive facets of the contemporary democratic project was meant to suggest that the freedom-project in Europe only began with the Enlightenment — thus the freedom-project in Europe is to be understood as a development-against Christianity.

In terms of the present: the refusal to concede any culture-shaping role to Christianity was intended to create a European “naked public square,” in which not only religious convictions but religiously-informed moral convictions would be ruled out-of-bounds.

In terms of the future: the denial of any role to Christian ideas in shaping democratic European political life reflected a conviction that the world is inevitably becoming more “secular;” that is, “modernization” inevitably involves a dramatic decline in religious conviction and a parallel reduction of religious influence in public life.

All of these claims are false, in one degree or another.

While it is true that the contemporary forms of democratic political life are reflections of Enlightenment political theory, the culture necessary to create and sustain those forms has much deeper civilizational roots. Democracy is not a machine that can run by itself, as the late Pope John Paul II taught in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. It takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make democratic self-governance work so that the net result is human flourishing.

Where do European man first learn his dignity? Where did European man learn that religious authority and political authority, the sacerdotium and the regnum, should be distinct? Where did European man learn that the people have a right to be consulted in matters that effect them, and that a politics of consent is morally superior to a politics of coercion? Where did European man learn that princes and kings, too, are subject to the law, including the moral law? Where did European man learn to live a vibrant social pluralism? European man first learned all of this in the school of Christian culture. To refuse to acknowledge this is to perform a kind of lobotomy on historical memory.

As for a “naked public square,” well, that’s a very dangerous place for everyone. Democracies stand or fall in part on the question of whether they can give an account of their convictions. Why should we be civil, tolerant, committed to argument rather than civil war? Why is persuasion better than coercion? Why should religious authority and political authority be kept distinct? Those are perennial questions for any democracy. They are urgent questions in today’s Europe, in which a substantial immigrant population from the Islamic world carries into the European public square a very different idea of what “public life” should be — and can back that proposal with very weighty warrants.

If religiously-informed moral argument is ruled-out-of-bounds in the E.U. of the 21st century, on the grounds that all moral claims are relative (that is, mere matters of opinion), then Europe will have lost the capacity to defend itself at the most fundamental level of self-defense: it will have lost the ability to “give an account” of its deepest political convictions.

As for the future: the world is becoming more intensely religious, not less. The question is not whether modernization necessarily leads to secularization; it clearly does not. The real question is how modern democratic society creates the necessary public space for people of many religious convictions — and no religious convictions — to interact rationally, rather than through the passions, including violent passions.

Doing that means, among many other things, that Europe must recover its faith in reason, its conviction that there are moral truths that we can know by a disciplined reflection on the world and on ourselves. The “natural law” that is composed of those moral truths then becomes a kind of grammar, a set of rules-of-engagement, that permits real debate to take place amidst social plurality. This was Pope Benedict XVI’s proposal at Regensburg a year ago: that we should learn, once again, to have faith in reason so that we can reason together.

It is a proposal Europe — and Europe’s child, America — decline at their mortal peril.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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