Because of the importance of this understanding of the West, I’ve decided to make my “Europe is the Empire” posts a regular feature on this site. Check out the original The West is Europe and Europe is the Empire, and the follow-up post, “Europe is the Empire”: Revisited.
Recently I came across the essay Europe and Its Discontents written by our Holy Father Benedict XVI, and published in First Things Magazine back in 2006. With the current crisis in Europe, it is imperative that Benedict’s keen understanding of the historical meaning of the West is more widely understood:
Europe is a geographic term only in a secondary sense: Europe is rather a cultural and historical concept.
Though the Modern mind sees Europe as merely a geographical entity, the truth is that Europe is a Civilization, and the heart of every civilization is moral choice. At the height of the crisis which threatened to rend Europe to fragments, one man made the moral choice to uphold and defend the Truth.
Amid this process of shifting borders, a theology of history was constructed that guaranteed ideal continuity with the earlier Mediterranean continent in its various configurations. According to this thinking, rooted in the Book of Daniel, the Roman Empire had been renewed and transformed by the Christian faith, which therefore became the last reign in the history of the world. The framework of peoples and states that emerged defined itself as the permanent Sacrum Imperium Romanum, the Holy Roman Empire.
This Sacrétemporal world order was not only essential to the unity and defense of what remained of Western Civilization, but perfected and consecrated it. In the union of the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire, Europe became the first truly Catholic and Universal Civilization, the greatest of all Civilizations. Further, Pope Benedict XVI explains the Gelasian understanding that was essential to such a unity:
Pope Gelasius I (492-496) expressed his vision of the West in a famous letter to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I, and, even more clearly in his fourth treatise, where, with reference to the Byzantine model of Melchizedek, he affirmed that the unity of powers lies exclusively in Christ: “Because of human weakness (pride!), they have separated for the times that followed the two offices, so that neither shall become proud.” On worldly matters, priests should follow the laws of the emperor installed by divine decree, while on divine matters the emperor should submit to the priest. This introduced a separation and distinction of powers that would be of vital importance to the later development of Europe, and laid the foundations for the distinguishing characteristics of the West.
The rise of the Secularism which is currently destroying the West could only come when this unity was shattered and the West fragmented, first by the Protestant and later by the French Revolution:
Although the Holy Roman Empire had been in decline since the late Middle Ages, and it had faded also as an agreed-upon interpretation of history, it was not until the French Revolution that the spiritual framework it provided—and without which Europe could not have been formed—would shatter in a formal sense. This process had a major impact on both politics and ideals. In terms of ideals, there was a rejection of the sacred foundation both of history and of the state. History was no longer measured on the basis of an idea of God that had preceded it and given it shape. The state came to be understood in purely secular terms, based on rationalism and the will of citizens.
Yet because we understand that History is indeed guided by the Hand of God, and that all things ultimately are permitted so that His Purpose may be fulfilled, we can faithfully trust that He will use our seemly insignificant works to build the foundation of the Restored Christendom, so long as we remain faithful and continue to fight for Catholic Civilization. “Wherever Western Civilization has spread, there is Europe, and wherever there is Catholic Europe, there is the Holy Roman Empire.”