Paris: The Aftermath

In Paris, the dead continue to be buried, the police continue to track down leads and hunt down terrorist cells, and the politicians and the intellectuals search for answers, better to say, search for the right questions, in confronting religiously inspired terrorism.

Regrettably, that discussion has spread to the U.S. where it has attained simultaneously, and unsurprisingly, an ideological coarseness and fact-free arguments. The two do tend to go hand-in-hand. Donald Trump not only wants to prevent the admittance of Syrian refugees, a stance taken by many GOP governors, but he has suggested we need to think about closing mosques here in the U.S. Trump continues to demonstrate that a person can be very smart about business and very stupid about everything else.

Several Catholic leaders have cut through the nonsense. In a statement issued yesterday, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley said:

Public officials face very difficult challenges in an obviously dangerous world today.  But proposals to simply exclude Syrian refugees as such lack the balance and humanitarian perspective needed at this time.  For many months now we have watched Syrian individuals and families – Muslim and Christian alike – be driven from their homes and homeland and set adrift in a chaotic world, unprepared to provide for their safety or honor their humanity.  The barbaric attacks in Paris, which demand a strong response and require policies that best prevent a possible recurrence, should not be used to efface the memory of Syrians and others from the Middle East and Africa who are desperately in need of shelter, support and safety.

+O’Malley rightfully acknowledges the need for “a strong response” to terrorism, but correctly recognizes that the refugees are also victims of the terrorist violence in Syria, and that our biblical obligation to care for the stranger is not abrogated by the perils of terrorism. Indeed, it is worth noting that the terrorists in Paris were not refugees so the joining of the two issues reflects nothing but a deep seated fear of the other, being egged on by those who see political profit in fear.

The issues for France are infinitely more complex. Unsurprisingly, American Catholic neo-cons, who enjoy taking swipes at Europe, are having a field day. I am tired of people beating up on Europe: As far as I have been able to tell, its countries are decent societies, filled with decent people, with good values, and it is only the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals, who have their panties all twisted by the simplistic “cube vs. cathedral” analysis of George Weigel, or Samuel Gregg’s fawning over Charles de Gaulle. Neither man contends with the historical complexity of the relationship between Church and European culture, a complexity that was ably demonstrated in the case of France by Anne-Marie and Jean Mauduit in their 1984 book France contre la France, detailing the personalities and the policies that characterized the separation of Church and State in the first decade of the twentieth century. To be clear, some of the Catholics at that time were monsters, and while I am no supporter of the laic laws of 1901-1905, I am also no fan of those French Catholics who sent Dreyfus to Devil’s Island or who resisted Pope Leo XIII’s efforts to rally – ralliement - the Church in France to the Third Republic. And, it can’t be said often enough that the mono-cultural “Christian Europe” is an historical fiction and, as a proposal for the future, the idea possesses a leveling effect that may not alarm them, but it alarms plenty of others, and not without reason. Ferdinand Brunetiere, who wrote powerful, thoughtful essays at La Revue des deux Mondes in the early twentieth century, were he still alive, would have foreseen the facile quality of the neo-conservative analysis, just as he predicted the rise of totalitarianism as a consequence of the diminishment of civil society facilitated by the laic laws.

If the right stupidly embraces a monocultural model, the left has been similarly inalert to the limits of their project for a multicultural society. A proper object of liberalism is the multicultural individual, and only consequently and derivatively, a multicultural society. The Bloc des gauches that Emile Combes led from 1902-1905 certainly was not aiming to create multicultural individuals in its school policy, as demonstrated my Mona Ozouf in her 1982 book L’Ecole, L’Eglise et la Republique, 1871-1914. (Ozouf also showed, contra the American neo-cons, that the fight over the schools, which was such a key part of the Third Republic’s anti-Church agenda, was not only about ideas but about the relative and competing power of social groups. As Pope Francis says, reality is more important than ideas.) One fears that the bland materialism that defines so much of the cultures on both sides of the Atlantic is the only actual contemporary proposal for cultural unity, and it not only comes with all the evils attendant upon modern capitalism, but, like all materialist projects, it fails to satisfy the yearnings of the human heart. It is the “fraternite” in “liberte, egalite et fraternite” that needs to be rekindled and founded on a humanism that is at once capable of supporting Christian humanism and secular humanism. Blessings upon the thinkers and artists who can fashion such a humanism. At the level of symbol, Olivier Latry, the organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, made his contribution last weekend, performing variations on La Marseillaise during the offertory at Mass, something that would have been unthinkable throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

France must face the limits of its laic culture, as noted French journalist Antoine de Tarle argued this week in Les Gracques. Not with coarse neo-conservative critiques of modernity. Not with reactionary invocations of “Christian Europe” that de Gaulle once voiced. As Pope Francis pointed out in his speech at Independence Hall, religious freedom impels us to interreligious dialogue. I do not know if Cardinal Vingt-Trois of Paris had read the Holy Father’s speech in Philadelphia, but he touched a similar chord in an interview with La Croix over the weekend:

The radical question posed by these attacks perpetrated in the name of God is the question of which God we believe in. No matter what our religions or spiritual traditions are, we have to confront this question: do we believe in a God who wants the death of man, or in a God who wants man to live? Can we imagine serving God by hate and physical or verbal violence? The idea that the authenticity of faith is demonstrated by rejecting a category of human beings is an aberration one must always guard against. In this time of troubled consciences, clearly affirming the unity of the human family rooted in the faith in the Creator is no doubt the best witness we can give.

These are words that came from an eminent Catholic, but they could have been spoken by a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu. +Vingt-Trois did not call for a return to “Christian Europe.” But, his questions are religious questions, and the laic culture must learn to wrestle with such questions or else the radical jihadis will continue to offer their grim, inhumane answer without a religious response.

Back in the States, Robert Christian, editor of Millennial, penned a thoughtful essay this week that proposes a proper calculation of values in discussing the challenges of security and the moral obligations we must honor towards refugees if we are to be true to our own national identity, to say nothing of our obligations as Christians. He writes:

ISIS presents a real and grave threat to international and American security, in addition to the genocidal violence and totalitarianism they inflict on the people of Syria and Iraq. And they will try to infiltrate Western countries, including the United States, and engage in terrorism. But the right response is not to abandon Christian and American ideals. The right response is not to surrender to Islamophobia and treat all Muslims as likely terrorists, including toddlers.

This fearmongering may please xenophobic voters. Politicians might find greater support by stirring up fear. But real leaders do not play politics with national security or games with the lives of the most vulnerable. The United States has an extremely rigorous process for admitting refugees. The track record on those who have been admitted is stellar. Turning our backs on legitimate refugees is not a sensible way to protect Americans from terrorism.

We Americans are better than fear-mongering. We Catholics are better than fear-mongering. The issues that stalked the Third Republic remain relevant in all Western societies, and the answers we seek will only be found if we remain true to our values and our identity. America is not a “Christian nation,” although it has often been a nation of mostly Christians and is so today. How odd that those who peddle in fear think that the best way to become – or as they would have it, return to being – a Christian nation or a Christian Europe is by throwing our Christian values overboard in a fit of panic. On this issue, Catholics in France and in the U.S. should follow the lead of Cardinals Vingt-Trois and O’Malley: Yes, there are legitimate and importance security concerns but those concerns do not trump (how appropriate that verb is here) our identity as Christians called to follow the model of the Good Samaritan and to abide by the law of Moses, Exodus 22:21: “And you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


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