Rocco Buttiglione, the recently rejected Italian nominee for the European Commission was in Washington last week for whatever is the opposite of a victory lap. He was rejected from the Commission for his Catholic beliefs on abortion and homosexual marriage. The traditional defense of the believer who applies for office—that he will uphold the laws, even those that contravene his faith—proved insufficient.
While in town, Buttiglione visited the offices of the Weekly Standard for a conversation with the staff, so I was lucky enough to meet and hear him out. (As a matter of fact, it was like Bring-Your-European-Intellectual-to-Work Day at the Standard offices. I didn’t see him, but later, Bernard Henri Levy also stopped by—with entourage.)
A sociologist and philosopher, Buttiglione is the author of the major work on the philosophical thought of Karol Wotja, the current pope, Pope John Paul II. I highly recommend Christopher Caldwell’s article on the Buttiglione affair and the EU’s showdown with Catholicism.
Anyway, here are some of my notes and thoughts on Buttiglione’s stimulating comments.
He opened by contrasting what he described as the two main democratic traditions vying for dominance in Europe. One, the liberal tradition is rooted in respect for the dignity of the individual. The other is fascist, "not liberal, but in the end totalitarian." Fascism Buttiglione described as the "consequence of the most modern ideas of liberalism"—what one might call a triumph of subjectivism and the absence of those overarching beliefs that distinguish and humanize the other democratic tradition.
As he spoke, I thought maybe I was listening to a sophisticated, European version of Jonah Goldberg, whose coming book sounds rather like it is founded on the same idea (modern liberalism=facism).
Buttiglione said he doesn’t believe in homosexual rights because, he asked, how can homosexuality have rights. Only human beings can have rights. But his own position of non-discrimination of homosexuals, he said, is inadequate by the standards of the EU’s governing class. Yet, he pointed out, popular sentiment in Italy and Germany supports his position on these issues and opposes the EU’s.
For me the most striking aspect of his conversation concerned the Church and falling birthrates in Europe. The modern European state is not just explicitly anti-Catholic in its positions on aboriton and homosexuality, according to Buttiglione; it is structurally anti-Catholic. You cannot, he said, have a flourishing church where the state claims over 50 percent of your income. People cannot, under such conditions, afford to—and they are not in the habit of—supporting religion. This Buttiglione called "a connection between tax caps and religious freedom."
But Buttiglione is optimistic and believes a correction may be in the works, though it’s many years off. This correction would lead to rising birthrates and a return to religiosity. Europe—said this man from Italy which has the lowest birthrate in the world according a late ‘90s UN report—was "fifteen to twenty years behind the United States."
This is radical stuff. American and European political thought sometimes does but mostly does not see America as the definition of what’s modern. If you were to check most social science textbooks for a definition of modernization, you’d learn about a spectrum of political and cultural development with poor tribal, religious African dictatorships at one end and the secular Scandinavian welfare state at the other. Political liberalization, secularization, and the coming of the non-traditional family all seem to go hand in hand in the broad strokes of contemporary social science.
Buttiglione was saying that it’s America instead that is modern. And that is why Europe reacted so hysterically to Bush’s victory—because to them it meant the modern might also be religious. That the modern might coexist comfortably—even necessarily if it’s not to be undermined by Islamic fundamentalism—with religiosity and Western tradition.
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