Ethics & Public Policy Center

Beyond the "Clash of Civilizations"

Published in The Catholic Difference on May 24, 2001



One of the most intriguing proposals for thinking about the post-Cold War world is Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s suggestion that global politics in the twenty-first century will be channeled along cultural, not national, fault-lines.

Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” hypothesis is a bold attempt to get international relations theorists and politicians to think outside the box of nation-states and to recognize the tremendous impact that different cultures have on shaping the human future. Power, Huntington suggests, is not just military or economic. Cultures—different civilizational configurations—create forms of power that are as important in world affairs today as the traditional “interests” of nation-states, which have dominated world politics since the seventeenth century. And where different cultures abut each other, the argument goes, conflicts are inevitable.

According to Professor Huntington, one such civilizational fault-line runs through Europe, between the culture formed by the Latin Christian West and the culture formed by the Orthodox Christian East. Evidence of the kind of conflict that can result from this particular meeting of West and East can be found, for example, in the Balkans today. On this analysis, the war over Kosovo was a kind of preview of coming distractions.

As he has made clear for almost twenty-three years, most recently during his historic May pilgrimage to Greece, Pope John Paul II has a different reading of the relationship between the civilization shaped by Latin-rite Christianity and the civilization shaped by Orthodoxy. Even as the Cold War was winding down in the late 1980s, John Paul was speaking of a new Europe, one that could breathe again with both its lungs. Despite the divisiveness of the second millennium of Christian history, the Latin Christian West and the Orthodox East are two expressions of a common Christian civilization, the Pope argues. They need one another for each to be what it ought to be. They need one another for the new evangelization to take root in Europe. And Europe needs both if Europe is to be itself in the third millennium.

In the weeks preceding the Holy Father’s arrival in Athens, it seemed as if Samuel Huntington’s reading of the situation was closer to the truth of the current situation that John Paul’s. Orthodox priests denounced the Pope as the “arch-heretic,” the “two-horned grotesque monster of Rome.” Yet once John Paul II arrived in Greece the situation changed, dramatically. The Pope’s self-evident respect for the civilization of the Orthodox East, his burning desire to pray together with the Orthodox, and his frank acknowledgment of the sins that the Christian West had committed against the Christian East over the centuries created a new opening for ecumenical dialogue, and thus a new opening toward reconciliation.

It would be going much too far to suggest that the animosities certain Orthodox leaders have nurtured against the “two-horned monster” were dispelled in forty-eight hours. Beyond those animosities, there are serious theological issues to be addressed and resolved before Rome and its sister Churches of the East can share, once again, the common bread and the common cup of the Lord’s Supper.

But John Paul II may well have laid the groundwork for a renewed East-West ecumenism in which Catholics and Orthodox begin from a new premise—that working together to challenge the moral relativism, skepticism, and nihilism of the global MTV culture is of the essence of the new evangelization. As one columnist nicely put it, perhaps the Orthodox can now begin to see that the new Babylon is not Rome but Hollywood and the shopping mall. Re-evangelizing Europe together in the face of that challenge, it may be suggested, will make it easier to solve outstanding theological questions between East and West, like the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the “procession” of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of Christian marriage.

A “clash of civilizations” or a “Europe that breathes again with both its lungs?” A lot of the history of the twenty-first century—and most particularly the future of Russia, which can only pull out of its catastrophic social and economic nose-dive by closer cooperation with the West—will depend on whether Samuel Huntington or Karol Wojtyla is the more acute student of European cultural history.

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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