Europe Needs Christianity, Says Jacques Le Goff

Interview with a Leading Historian

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PARIS, FEB. 21, 2002 (ZENIT.org-Avvenire).- Europe cannot be understood without Christianity, says one of its major historians.



Jacques Le Goff (born in Toulon, 1924) was for many years the research director at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales of Paris. He is the author of leading works on medieval history, such as "Reasoned Dictionary of the Medieval West" ("Dictionnaire raisonné de l´Occident Médiéval"), 1999.

March 1 will mark the opening of the European Convention, a forum of discussion that eventually may lead to a new plan for continental integration. Communities of believers, for the time being, have not been explicitly invited.

Q: To live under the same roof means to share many things. What characteristics unite the European countries?

Le Goff: Christianity is the principal ideological foundation of Europe. There have, of course, been other elements that have contributed to the creation of the European idea and that Christianity has often made its own. I refer to Greek thought, especially the critical spirit, the importance given to ethics, to democracy. I refer to Roman law, which is one of the founding elements of Europe.

Sadly, Christianity was unable to overcome the already existing divisions within the Roman Empire and especially between East and West. The differences of language and then of government were accentuated with the move of the capital to Constantinople, and the division between Latin and Greek-Orthodox Christianity did no more than highlight it. And this is one of the current problems: In order to make Europe, it is necessary to finally overcome this opposition.

Q: The nations that form part of Europe, on what law are they based?

Le Goff: Europe begins to appear in the fourth century, with the fusion of the peoples of the Empire and the barbarian peoples, thanks to Christianity. The legal structure was founded on Roman law, common law. Canon law also was of fundamental importance in the Middle Ages.

The fact that the Church reserved for itself jurisdiction in certain sectors, such as marriage, represented in a certain period an element of undeniable progress. An example: In 1215, the 4th Lateran Council exacted a woman´s consent for a marriage to be valid -- an element that undoubtedly favored feminine dignity and established virtual parity between man and woman.

Also, in relation to money, Europe has a "personality," which comes to it, precisely, from the Church, which has always reserved the right of jurisdiction and judgment on commercial treaties such as interest-bearing loans. I think this is the reason why there is still in Europe today a capitalism that is different from the American [system], and is particularly concerned with issues of an ethical and moral order. Once, former President François Mitterrand said that his mistrust of capitalism was probably due to his Catholic formation.

Q: Despite the efforts of the founding fathers of the new Europe -- Christian politicians such as Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi, Robert Schumann -- today an ideal of secular democracy prevails.

Le Goff: It´s true. Europe must make its different heritages compatible and functional, especially the Christian and secular, which come to it, to a degree, from the Renaissance and to a great extent from the Enlightenment. Europe has been able to progress in the economic, scientific and technical fields, as well as in the moral and political, because the Church has left space for laicism.

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar´s" -- it is the most beautiful gift that Christ gave to Christians. Let us look closely at what happens in theocratic countries where there is no separation between state and church. There must be liberty for both. We have experienced conflicts and difficulties in Europe, but in the end we have arrived at a system that works; and this is the principal element of its success.

Q: Should the Europe of tomorrow be a federation of states or a great community in which regional needs can be expressed?

Le Goff: This is a serious problem of organization of space. Europe is very fortunate. It has notable demographic and economic means at its disposal in a relatively reduced space, but well located, gifted with great geographic diversity which has made possible the development of a great cultural diversity: a unique case in the world, which must be preserved.

Uniformity cannot be an ideal. Sadly, the Brussels Commission has often sinned precisely in this respect. Already in the 13th century, Salimbene of Parma observed in his Chronicle that Dominican monasteries were divided between beer and wine monasteries. These are cultural differences that must be respected.

I do not understand why some oppose the nations to Europe. In reality, they are not at all antagonistic, because in fact they were born together. This is why I think that the nations are the most solid and absolutely necessary basis for the creation of European unity.

Naturally, they need to be open nations -- I would say free of nationalism and prepared to delegate a part of their sovereignty.

Q: We have begun to make Europe by starting with money. Surveys say that citizens are happy but disappointed by the fact that the euro is losing in value with respect to the dollar. What do you think?

Le Goff: In history, a certain number of interesting projects generating progress have failed because they did not find the necessary financial support. That the making of a united Europe began with the economic base, I think, gives confidence.

If medieval economy did not work very well, if capitalism with its positive aspects imposed itself very late, it is due to the fact that the medieval world did not know how to give itself an adequate monetary instrument. All minted coins and also the most important, such as the florin of Florence and the ducat of Venice, had quite limited circulation.

In sum, the medieval economy lacked the euro. The stock markets, which express financial judgments on our currency, are inspired by an ultraliberal and American model. This is why the euro loses in relation to the dollar.

Q: What can be done?

Le Goff: It is European citizens who must arm themselves with courage and impose their cultural, social and economic model, which among other things, stands for respect of social conquests. The Church, which has asked forgiveness for many errors of the past, has often shown itself indifferent to the interests of workers.

Without having to go to Porto Alegre [site of the World Social Forum], it should show its courage today and make its voice heard; it should become another center of social progress. It would be capital for Europe and would represent a formidable plan.