Versailles, Yalta, secularism & the pope

CARDINAL GEORGE RESPONDS

Commonweal’s piece by William D. Wood misrepresents what I said at the University of Chicago on April 30 (“Back to Christendom,” June 17). Mr. Wood places my words in a political context that isn’t mine and wasn’t referenced in what I said. A few examples will illustrate Wood’s caricature of my remarks.

Wood identifies me with President George W. Bush’s comments on the Yalta treaty, remarks I haven’t heard or read. The Yalta treaty was seen by Pope John Paul II and many in Eastern Europe as an agreement that bought peace for the West at the cost of Eastern Europe’s freedom. It doesn’t follow that this was the consequence intended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the time. Agreements have unintended consequences. John Paul II often said publicly that the consequences of the Yalta agreement had to be undone, and he lived to see them undone. Does that make him a 1952 Republican?

Wood has me implying “that the problem of secularization is best solved by making the political order itself less secular.” I neither implied that nor believe it. Except in officially atheistic states, secularization is a cultural phenomenon. In a free state with limited government, cultural tendencies work themselves out without becoming political. Where government institutions control all areas of human experience, both personal freedom and religious freedom are threatened and a political solution becomes necessary to restore them. In other words, “solving” the challenge of secularization shouldn’t involve the political order when the political order is limited to the properly political. The history of the last two centuries, however, has shown the political trying to absorb the religious more often than vice versa.

Wood distorts my perhaps too elliptical comments about Versailles and the end of the First World War. President Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into the war by characterizing it to the American people as a crusade for democracy, a “war to end all wars.” No matter what Wilson intended, the end of the war left Central and Eastern Europe destabilized and its people prey to various forms of totalitarianism. Benedict XV wanted to achieve a negotiated peace that might have made a more ordered, peaceful development of national self-determination possible. He was distrusted on all sides and his peace plan rejected.

One can note this without asserting that the destruction of the last remnants of a desiccated Christendom, the loss of meaning and the secularization of society could be “solved” by an imaginary restoration of any former political system. In other words, decrying the results of Versailles doesn’t imply a desire to restore a pre-World War I order. Just as Yalta has been undone without restoring a pre-World War II order, Versailles is now being undone without bringing Europe back to 1913. The states that came out of the 1919 treaty-Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the Middle Eastern states carved out of the Ottoman Empire with names all too familiar-are now gone or destabilized, but the empires that spawned them are also gone and no one wants them restored. I said nothing about “the forces of darkness” or “secular governments driven by the wanton pursuit of democracy...arrayed against the forces of light.” A new Europe is now being organized politically, economically, and culturally. In a new situation, the challenge is to find a social and political order that will protect human dignity and foster religious freedom. I believe Pope Benedict XVI wants to help create such an order, because it promises a stable peace.

Wood says: “Like Pope Benedict XVI, George believes that contemporary democratic societies are awash in relativism. Indeed, George seems to believe that secularism is the same thing as relativism.” I can’t speak for the pope, but I don’t believe that at all. I didn’t “conflate secularism with relativism.” In fact, I didn’t mention relativism. There is no necessary logical connection between secularism and relativism, anymore than there is a necessary logical connection between freedom and relativism. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover moral relativism in Communist China. Closer to home, atheist Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy claims that democratic secularism is possible only with her brand of moral absolutism. Wood elaborates these points because doctoral students know these things; but so do others, and Wood should refrain from putting thoughts in the minds and words in the mouths of imaginary opponents in order to score rhetorical points.

That my few remarks didn’t imply in any way “a nostalgia for Christendom” was well enough understood by others at a conference dedicated to exploring what philosophy can learn from tradition. The papacy is a two-thousand-year-old institution that has undergone numerous changes and still persists because, Catholics believe, it is an actor not just in human history but in salvation history. It will undergo more changes in the future, as various social orders and states, even our own, come and go. Speaking to the change of popes, I intended only to comment on how a man like Benedict XVI, who has written on the theology of history and who shares Pope John Paul’s conviction that personal freedom is in danger when it is played off against moral truths, might want to position the church at this historic turning point in the Western Europe he loves so well.

The pope doesn’t believe that “contemporary democratic societies” must be “secular” in the sense of antireligious, whether officially or unofficially. Commonweal didn’t use to believe that either. Nor do I. I do believe, however, that the political and legal processes of even democratic states can be used to suppress human freedom and that this suppression is made easier by the weakening of a religious ethos in the culture and by the erosion of moral standards predicated on an eternal destiny for all human beings. That belief becomes, in Wood’s piece, a conviction that secularism be opposed by the use of political force. That’s not what I said or implied at the University of Chicago.

Cardinal Francis George, OMI

Chicago, Ill.

MISREADING HISTORY

It is disturbing that Cardinal Francis George apparently failed to understand the crucial part the Yalta conference played in ending World War II. Yes, Stalin gained an enormous concession when Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill accepted de-facto Soviet control over Eastern Europe; but still ahead was the Allied military campaign to defeat Japan, which was expected to cost a million U.S. casualties. Obtaining the pledge of Soviet participation in the Pacific War was assistance no responsible negotiator could in conscience ignore at the time.

Edwin H. Rutkowski

Vestal, N.Y.

CHRISTIANITY & SECULARISM

William D. Wood claims that Cardinal Francis George’s remarks at a Chicago conference on “What Can Philosophers Learn from the Tradition?” show that George thinks the political order should be made less secular, and that this amounts to a plea for the recovery of Christendom. Wood doesn’t like any of this, and especially not the idea that the “church needs Christendom in order to flourish.”

Well, I don’t like that last conclusion, and I don’t think anything Cardinal George said at the conference suggests that he does either. I’m accurately quoted in Wood’s piece as saying so: I was at the conference and am one of the founders of the Lumen Christi Institute that organized it. Still, I don’t think Wood’s misconstrual of the cardinal’s remarks is malicious. Rather, it’s prompted by a theoretical confusion that runs deep and is distressingly common, and instead of defending or explaining the cardinal, I’d like to address that confusion.

Wood confuses a desire to make the governing institutions of Europe less secular with a desire to make them explicitly Christian. Suppose, instead, that what making the governing institutions of Europe less secular really means is making them more just, more capable of and interested in defending the weakest and most vulnerable, less interested in bloodshed and the reduction of the human to an instrument of production and consumption. The saeculum (whence “secular”) stands as synecdoche in Christian thought for the field of blood and exploitation and suffering and death that is human history without Christ (I commend to Wood a close reading of Augustine’s City of God for an ancient depiction of this-one utterly relevant to today). The European history that Cardinal George referred to is a recent version of the secular at play, and the play is, as always, soaked from beginning to end in the blood of the innocent. Does Wood not want to have less of this-less secularism, that is? Would he not oppose, as John Paul II did and as Benedict XVI is doing and as Cardinal George consistently does, laws and actions that make possible or require the gulag, the concentration camp, the slaughter of infants in the womb, the sexual objectification of and concomitant violence against women, the sweated labor of the poor, the needless death by famine of millions, the imperialistic adventures of the new empire, the genocides of Rwanda and Dafur?

To think that the saeculum can correct itself, as Wood appears to, is culpable blindess. It cannot. It never has. The witness of the church against its follies and violence is essential, and that is what Cardinal George was providing. Does that witness involve advocating the return of the Holy Roman Empire? Not for Catholics. To see why not, I commend a close reading of Dignitatis humanae, Gaudium et spes, and Lumen gentium. Does it require advocating that the civil law be less secular? Yes, of course. Anything less is formal cooperation with evil.

Paul J. Griffiths

Chicago, Ill.

BENEDICT, THEN & NOW

I too was at the Lumen Christi colloquium starring (in more than one sense of the word) that Orion-like constellation of Alasdair MacIntyre, Jean-Luc Marion, and Charles Taylor, with a response by Cardinal George. My memory of the event differs almost completely from William D. Wood’s account. In the course of speaking about the recent papal election (from which he had returned only two days earlier), the cardinal spoke of the symbolism behind the new pope’s choice of the name Benedict, which the pope himself said was meant to refer both to the founder of the Benedictine order and to Pope Benedict XV. As everyone now knows, the name was chosen by the new pope to symbolize the need to re-evangelize Europe. St. Benedict of Nursia was obviously more successful in evangelizing Europe than was Benedict XV (although only after centuries of gestation); and that, I thought, was the point of the cardinal’s reflections. The Western powers-and this is a matter of historical record-brushed aside Benedict XV’s plea for a just peace. It is also a matter of agreed-upon history that the Treaty of Versailles contributed to World War II, which in its wake led to the hegemony of the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe, as ratified by the Allies at Yalta.

I took the cardinal to mean by these hardly controversial historical observations that Europe is bound to pay a price now, as it did in 1919, when it ignores the witness and admonitions of either Benedict XV then or Benedict XVI now. To the best of my memory, the cardinal made no mention of the glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; he issued no plea to return to some putative “Christendom” once instantiated in the Holy Roman Empire; and he certainly never called on secular Europe to submit its diplomatic rows to the binding arbitration of the Vatican. All of these scenarios are but the nightmares of Wood’s imagination, not the considered opinions of the cardinal archbishop of Chicago.

But even if my memory fails, at least everyone can surely agree in calling Wood’s judgment, if not his memory, into question when he says, “Sometimes, I think, the church even needs to get out of the way and let the gospel present itself as surpassingly beautiful and worthy of love.” If that means that the gospel can, and indeed should, be proclaimed without the church, then Wood needs to exorcize not only his nightmares but also his dreams. To me, thinking the gospel can be preached without the church is like designing a water-purification plant that “purifies” the water by removing all its oxygen.

Edward T. Oakes, SJ

Mundelein, Ill.

THE AUTHOR REPLIES:

Cardinal George claims that I misrepresented his remarks at the April 30 Lumen Christi conference. Edward T. Oakes questions my memory. And Paul J. Griffiths believes that I am gripped by a deep theoretical confusion. The simple truth is that I wrote what I wrote because Cardinal George said what he said: I found his remarks at the conference-a public forum-quite troubling, and so I reported them and disagreed with them.

I am confident that I quoted George accurately and in context because I have the entirety of his remarks on tape. I interpreted his words according to their plainest sense. I also took care to cite an opposing viewpoint, that of Paul J. Griffiths, who said that my interpretation was off the mark. In short, George may legitimately claim that what he said at the conference does not reflect his considered views, but he cannot claim that I misrepresented his remarks or treated him unfairly.

Cardinal George set his own remarks in a political context. He linked the spiritual and cultural phenomenon of secularization in Europe both to specific political events of the twentieth century and to the decisions-not unintended consequences-of political leaders that he named. He chose to say that the secularization of Europe “really began in earnest” with, of all things, the Treaty of Versailles. He also chose to say that with Versailles, “the last remnants of Christendom were destroyed” (the full quotation is below). Twice, he described the pastoral program of Benedict XVI in terms of a desire to undo the Treaty of Versailles. He also condemned the Yalta conference and discussed the birth of the European Union. George’s remarks were not only political but strikingly so, precisely because I did not expect remarks of this kind when he began to elaborate the ways in which Benedict XVI will “attend in particular ways to the secularization of Western Europe.”

In any event, I am happy to learn that I was so wrong about George’s interpretation of Yalta and Versailles. At the Lumen Christi conference, George said that with the Treaty of Yalta, “Stalin and Churchill and Roosevelt divided the world between slave and free and handed peoples over to the slavery of communism.” This strongly worded criticism came directly after similar charges directed at Woodrow Wilson. I certainly did not realize that these sharp remarks merely expressed the bland truism that, as George now writes, “agreements have unintended consequences.”

I am happier still to learn that George does not conflate secularism and relativism. In fact, George says that he didn’t mention relativism at all. It is true that he did not say the word “relativism”-and I didn’t say that he did-but at the conference, he did say, for example, that Benedict XVI would “bring forward a theory similar to what John Paul II did with communism, and what he started to do with Western secularism in his last years, saying that you can’t deliver a stable society if, in order to protect personal freedom, you sacrifice objective truth and particularly moral truth. It’s a fault line and it will destabilize our societies and bring them down...as certainly as the fault line in communism effected its demise.” I thought that this reference to sacrificing “objective truth and particularly moral truth” was a straightforward reference to relativism. (It’s practically the dictionary definition of the word.) Since this criticism of societies that sacrifice objective truth was, without distinction, also directed at “Western secularism,” I said that George conflated the two. I still think that my interpretation of these remarks is justified.

Moreover, eleven days before the Lumen Christi conference, Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, famously criticized modern society for “building a dictatorship of relativism” (these remarks had been touched on earlier in the conference), and since George was discussing the pastoral program of Benedict, I naturally interpreted George’s criticism of societies that sacrifice objective truth against the backdrop of Benedict’s well-known critique. Should I not have? Of course I agree with the statement in George’s letter that there is no logical connection between secularism and relativism. That’s exactly what I said in my article. I emphasized the point because I genuinely think that confusing the two is unhelpful to the church.

I am happiest of all to learn that George feels no nostalgia for Christendom. Apparently, I interpreted too literally his statement that Benedict XVI is going to “bring us back to the Treaty of Versailles when the secularization of Europe really began in earnest and the last remnants of Christendom were destroyed.” In his talk, Cardinal George moved directly from this reference to Christendom to the claim (cited above) that societies that embrace Western secularism and deny objective moral truth will collapse. I therefore took him to mean that societies remain politically stable only when they embrace an explicitly Christian conception of moral truth. Frankly, as a result of the context of his speech-which advocated a papal role in making treaties and guiding the birth of the European Union-I took George to mean that societies remain politically stable only when they embrace an explicitly papal conception of moral truth. And all this-bringing the political order and its laws into ever greater concord with the Christian moral law-ends in a form of Christendom. “Christendom” is a perennial temptation for the church, and I’m sincerely glad that George repudiates it, but I don’t think that my interpretation of his talk was unreasonable.

My response to Cardinal George suffices as a response to Edward Oakes. But it is worth pointing out that his letter actually confirms my interpretation of the specific political context of George’s remarks. After all, Oakes himself apparently thought that George presented what amounts to a straightforward, causal story: Benedict XV, but not the Western powers, wanted “a just peace” in 1919; the fact that they ignored Benedict XV contributed to the outbreak of World War II, which led to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, which the Western powers then “ratified” at Yalta. Similarly, according to Oakes, George meant to say that Europe will pay a price today-just as it did in 1919-if it ignores the counsel of the current Pope Benedict. Whatever one makes of all this, it is a thoroughly political narrative. And surely it is fair to say, as I did, that it is odd to encounter this kind of black-and-white politically charged history in the middle of a talk about Benedict XVI’s desire to re-evangelize Europe.

I will say, though, that I agree with Oakes about the particular sentence of mine that he criticizes at the end of his letter. It’s a bad sentence. At best, it reads like an empty rhetorical flourish; at worst, like a silly bit of kumbayah-pseudo-theology. Here is what I should have said: It is all too easy to dwell on abstract questions about the authority and temporal influence of the church at the expense of the concrete practices of selfless Christian love, but it is selfless Christian love that is inherently compelling. I didn’t intend to deny the importance of the church’s explicit witness, preaching, and sacraments. Just to be clear, let me also say that I do not intend this revised version as a criticism of Cardinal George.

For his part, Griffiths charges that I misinterpreted George because I failed to see that making the governing institutions of Europe less secular can simply mean making them more just. If that is all George meant, then I agree with him heartily. By now it should be clear why that is not what I took him to mean. Finally, on the question of whether the political order-cum-saeculum can correct itself, I would be interested to know exactly where Professor Griffiths and I diverge. I don’t think that we are as far apart as he apparently does, but I also don’t think that I implied anything at all about the matter in what I wrote. I criticized the specific words of Cardinal George and then expressed my general hope that the church will eschew coercive tactics, engage its critics, and sincerely try to show them the beauty of the gospel.

William D. Wood

A COMPELLING NARRATIVE

I read with interest William D. Wood’s report on the remarks made by Cardinal George at the University of Chicago because I was also present at the talk and had a similar “take” on it.

As Wood’s piece accurately reports, Cardinal George provided a short political history of twentieth-century Europe, recounting in quick succession the disastrous consequences of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War and the Yalta conference at the close of the Second. The rhetorical effect of the cardinal’s narrative was quite striking, and, as I listened to this skilled communicator, this effect on the listener seemed intentional. Efforts by leaders of Western democracies to create a peace following the great World Wars without the guidance of the Catholic popes inexorably led to the great evils of the twentieth century: the totalitarian Nazi Germany and the enslavement of the peoples of Eastern Europe under the communism of the Soviet Union. In the cardinal’s narrative, President Wilson, and the leaders of France and Italy, failed to heed the council of Benedict XV, and it took John Paul II half a century to undo the effects of the Yalta conference wrought by the hands of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.

Was it not really the intention of Cardinal George for the audience to draw the conclusions that his narrative seemed to imply? Perhaps he meant only to apply St. Augustine’s classic political theology in the City of God, which holds that no true peace or justice exists in the “city of man” but only the false shadow of peace, an unstable absence of conflict. However, whether or not Cardinal George actually intended to advocate a return to some form of a “politically reconstituted Christendom,” as Wood suggests, what I found most troubling and mystifying was the apparent negation of the significant human accomplishments of the secular leaders of Western democracies. In this narrative of their failures, there was a conspicuous absence of any mention of the great achievements of Western democracies in preserving and spreading democracy and freedom in twentieth-century Europe.

Michael A. Johnson

Chicago, Ill.

Published in the 2005-07-15 issue: 
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