It is worth noting that, from the point of view of Christianity as such, it doesn’t matter that much if an existing Christian civilisation should crash and burn. That is, if the civilisational models operating in Europe and in countries founded by Europeans (the West) succumbed to the challenges facing them the faith would continue to flourish, and build new civilisational models, in Africa and Asia. Such a loss would be tragic from a human perspective because despite their many shortcomings the Western cultural experiments all possess things of great value for humanity. More seriously, to the extent that such collapses cut off Westerners from access to the Good News about Jesus Christ and to the sacraments it would be a major loss and a grave danger to the eternal well-being of millions of souls. Nonetheless, what it would not be is an existential threat to the Catholic Church.
It follows from this that no one has a religious obligation to defend an existing Christian civilisation from threats against it although they may, as members of civil society or of the armed forces, have a patriotic or cultural duty so to do. This is important to bear in mind as in the years since the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York in 2001 there has been an increasing attempt to describe the conflict between the West and Islamism as a clash of civilisations between Christianity as such and Islam as such.
Until 2001 the idea that there was such a thing as Christian civilisation at all was going out of favour. Religion was assumed to be withering away and its role in forming and nurturing the key values and institutions of the West was assiduously being written out of history as seen, for example, in the refusal of the European Union to acknowledge the historic role of Christianity when it formulated its ill-fated proposals for a European Constitution.
All that began to change when the West perceived itself as being under attack and recognised in Christianity an important bulwark in its defensive strategy. There are, I think, three distinct strands to the argument that Christian Civilisation exists and that Christians (and others) should mobilise to defend it. First, and most vocal, are those political movements often described as far-Right or hyper-nationalist who would describe themselves as intensely patriotic. Although they have revived the old Crusader battle-cry Deus Vult! (God wills it!) the folk memories they draw upon are the defensive victories won in Europe against successive waves of Muslim invaders.
In particular they recall the Battle of Poitiers in 732 when Charles Martel defeated an invasion of France by Muslim armies who had already conquered Spain. Also called to mind are a succession of Catholic victories against the Ottoman Turks some seven hundred years later, especially the Siege of Malta, the naval Battle of Lepanto and the land Battle of Vienna which between them kept Europe Christian. During this long epoch of history the series of wars fought on or about the European continent were existential matters for the Church. Defeat for Europe would have meant the destruction of Christianity and, therefore, no possibility of anything like the world we know today emerging.
The far-Right presents a highly simplified view of history and links it to a simplified view of today’s challenges. Essentially it argues that the greatest threats facing Christian civilisation now are Muslim immigration and Islamist terrorism and that these threats are merely the continuation in modern times of the threats from the past because, as they see it, Christian societies and Muslim people are radically incompatible with each other. Beneath or behind this particular anxiety lies a suspicion of all non-Western immigrants whether they are Muslims or not. That is, for them the defence of Christian civilisation segues into a concern to keep their own countries ethnically monocultural.
The second strand is that of some academics and public intellectuals. They argue that Christianity indeed is the soil from which the West has drawn up the nourishment needed to provide all its currently dominant values as well as its artistic and architectural treasures. They see this currently under threat in part from Islamism but also from ennui. By which is meant that the societies are dying from within. They do not reproduce themselves, children are increasingly rare, and in order to care for the very young and the very old (and to have new children) it is increasingly necessary for such societies to import foreigners to do just those things. It is, moreover increasingly uncommon for the middle-classes to take up military careers or for their governments to maintain large standing armies. In short, the West is unwilling to either reproduce or to defend itself and societies who do neither are not long for this world.
It doesn’t really matter much what policy proposals these academics come up with because; firstly, they can’t be transformed into concrete action for about thirty years when their students enter positions of power (when it will be too late anyway); and secondly most academics and public intellectuals are still wedded to a belief system that hates the West in general and Christianity in particular so it is their students who will most likely hold the most power for the longest foreseeable time.
The third strand consists of Christian thinkers and, above all, of the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, gave much thought to the reality of Christian civilisation. For him the greatest threat to the civilisation came not from Islam but from the godless materialism that flowed from Enlightenment thinking divorced from its Christian roots. A people whose yearning for spiritual answers to their deepest needs is answered by increasing the output of flat screen TV’s and smartphones is inevitably going to succumb to ennui. The West simply fails to recognise that humans are hardwired for spirituality and more than that it systematically seeks to exclude the spiritual from the public square and the school curriculum. And the will to live will decline when the reason to live is simply to consume. The defence of Christian civilisation is impossible, whatever external threats it may confront, if its internal value structure is radically anti-human and, indeed, with state-sanctioned abortion and euthanasia, anti-life itself.
The Ratzinger Option then is ‘be the change you want to see.’ The way to defend Christian civilisation is to be thoroughly and genuinely Christian and also wholly and entirely civilised. That is, we must conform to the values of Christ, we must be respectful and loving to our neighbours and we must value life as a gift of God from the moment of conception through to the time of natural death. Against this is the far-Right option which is, in the immortal words of Stan Jablonski, ‘let’s do it to them before they do it to us.’ Which effectively means making ourselves into the mirror image of our supposed enemies. The Islamists use violence, so will we. Religious minorities are being persecuted and driven out of some Muslim countries, let’s do the same here. Religious slogans are being used as tools for mobilising the masses in the East let’s do the same in the West. And so on.
Some, including perhaps the aforementioned academics, might advocate a pragmatic combination of the two strategies. Let the plebeians become Christian in order to sustain society against its multiple challenges just so long as the intellectual and monied elites can continue to scorn the religion and its moral values in their private lives, and let the State take some robust measures against domestic and foreign enemies.
I am not, thank God, a pragmatist. I am a Catholic. Not surprisingly, then, I will go with the Ratzinger Option. To which I would add this: In his, sometimes obscene, novel Submission the writer Michel Houellebecq has one of his characters say “..the true divinity of the Middle Ages, the beating heart of its devotion, wasn’t God the Father, wasn’t even Jesus Christ. It was the Virgin Mary..” If we focus on the word ‘devotion’ then this statement can be seen to contain a great truth. The strength of the Church comes from Christ, the strength of her members comes from the Holy Spirit. Yet it is true that Christianity, and therefore also the societies that Christians inhabit, are at their most flourishing when genuine devotion to Our Lady is widespread and deeply held. Mary in herself is the most perfect of all possible icons of how humans should relate to each particular Person of the Blessed Trinity and to the One God. When she is the focus through which we honour Him then Christian civilisation is at its strongest and most enduring.
The weapons which we must take up if we wish to defend Christian civilisation are the rosary and the pilgrimage to Lourdes or Fatima or the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A Marian Europe, a Marian America, a Marian Australasia, these are the civilisations that will endure and triumph. After the Battle of Lepanto the Blessed Virgin received the title Our Lady of Victory for a reason. What was true then is true now. We can speculate as to why Our Lord particularly wishes to receive honour and channel grace through Mary but that He does so is certain. All we can know for sure is that God wills it, Deus Vult!
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The painting is Sobieski Sending Message of Victory to the Pope by Jan Matejko