As the smoke clears in Brussels, my mind turns to the Europe that once was. I love that continent in a way that’s hard for me, as an American, to explain.
When I studied history, I was always far more drawn to the Catholic drama of the kingdoms that grew up from the ashes of Rome than I ever was about the comparatively dull exploits of my own Protestant or deist founders. From the story of Constantine’s vision and conquest at the Milvian Bridge to the conversion of Clovis, king of the Francs, to the exploits of Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, to the decisive battle led by King Jan Sobieski against the Ottoman Turks in Vienna in 1683, Europe is steeped in symbolism and sacrament, the contrast between a deeply Catholic culture and a puritanical one ever apparent in my eyes.
When I finally had the chance to go to Europe, this was only cemented further in my mind. I spent five awe-struck months there, staggering down cobblestone streets in the crisp Austrian air; wandering the back alleys of Prague, Krakow, and Budapest; feeling the deep roots beneath the remnants of the empires of Rome and of the Hapsburgs; marveling at the Alps in Zurich; inspired by the pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostella; humbled by the little parish of the Cure d’Ars; made small within the cavernous majesty of of St. Peter’s Basilica. Each day was a new opportunity to pick up on some reverberation of history. I wanted pinch myself and, would often say out loud, “I’m in Europe. I’m in Europe.” There I was, standing in a land carved out by the giants of history. Even the building I called home during my stay was, at over 700 years old, three times as ancient as the country I called home.
Throughout my journeys, I was reminded of what once was: the roadside Marian shrines, the holy day processions through bucolic towns, the pilgrimage routes, the soaring spires of cathedrals, the vast monasteries, the tombs of saints in every town. Though of far smaller stature, perhaps the most moving reality was that that every tiny village had not a Baptist church, as they do back home, but some wondrous little shelter for the Blessed Sacrament — and the Holy Mass that made Him present there. While it’s true that much of what I witnessed in my travels was already vestigial nearly two decades ago, that faint and fading echo of a more fervent and faithful time was at least something.
Hilaire Belloc gave us the truth of Europe when he wrote:
A Catholic as he reads that story does not grope at it from without, he understands it from within. He cannot understand it altogether because he is a finite being; but he is also that which he has to understand. The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.
The Catholic brings to history (when I say “history” in these pages I mean the history of Christendom) self-knowledge. As a man in the confessional accuses himself of what he knows to be true and what other people cannot judge, so a Catholic, talking of the united European civilization, when he blames it, blames it for motives and for acts which are his own. He himself could have done those things in person. He is not relatively right in his blame, he is absolutely right. As a man can testify to his own motive so can the Catholic testify to unjust, irrelevant, or ignorant conceptions of the European story; for he knows why and how it proceeded. Others, not Catholic, look upon the story of Europe externally as strangers. They have to deal with something which presents itself to them partially and disconnectedly, by its phenomena alone: he sees it all from its centre in its essence, and together.
I say again, renewing the terms, The Church is Europe: and Europe is The Church.
His thesis, argued again and again throughout his works, was undergirded by his own dawning realization, even at the outset of the 20th Century, that he was seeing the Faith — and thus Europe — totter to its fall. In 1929, Belloc changed roles, transitioning from historian to prophet:
There remains, apart from the old Paganism of Asia and Africa, another indirect supporter of Neo-Paganism: a supporter which indeed hates all Paganism but hates the Catholic Church much more: a factor of whose now increasing importance the masses of Europe are not as yet aware: I mean the Mahommedan religion: Islam.
For centuries the struggle between Islam and the Catholic Church continued. It had varying fortunes, but for something like a thousand years the issue still remained doubtful. It was not till nearly the year 1700 (the great conquests of Islam having begun long before 700) that Christian culture seemed—for a time—to be definitely the master.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Mahommedan world fell under a kind of palsy. It could not catch up with our rapidly advancing physical science. Its shipping and armament and all means of communication and administration went backwards while ours advanced. At last, by the end of the nineteenth century, more than nine-tenths of the Mahommedan population of the world, from India and the Pacific to the Atlantic, had fallen under the Government of nominally Christian nations, especially of England and France.
On this account our generation came to think of Islam as something naturally subject to ourselves. We no longer regarded it as a rival to our own culture, we thought of its religion as a sort of fossilized thing about which we need not trouble.
That was almost certainly a mistake. We shall almost certainly have to reckon with Islam in the near future. Perhaps if we lose our Faith it will rise.
And lose our Faith we did. Europe did. In so doing, it lost its identity, leaving it open for possession by whatever ideology had the tenacity and wherewithal to seize it from within.
As Pat Buchanan commented in 2013:
By 1938, Belloc concluded Christian Europe was done:
“The bad work begun at the Reformation is bearing its final fruit in the dissolution of our ancient doctrines — the very structure of society is dissolving.” He was right. Europe is the dying continent.
And looking back at the history of the Old Continent, we see the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s insight: When men cease to believe in God, they do not then believe in nothing, they will believe in anything.
Consider the idols to which European Man has burnt incense since losing his faith: Darwinism, Marxism, Bolshevism, fascism, Nazism, now globalism — the idea of a secular paradise where mankind’s needs are met by the state and people spend their lives consuming cultural and material goods until the time comes for the painless exit.
Wednesday, even as Europe has said goodbye to Rome, Rome began to say goodbye to Europe, where the fastest growing faith is manifest in the mosques rising from Moscow to Madrid.
Try this maxim on for size: Islam is Europe, and Europe is Islam.
It’s an ugly feeling, letting those words roll off my fingers. And yet, this is what we see. As the latest Islamic attacks on the ruins of European civilization unfurl across the newswires (today it’s Belgium; if you read this in a month, it could be some other once-great nation), it is hard to deny that knowledge, deep in our bones, that we are watching the final death throes of a civilization. Piece by piece. Bomb by bomb. Massacre by massacre. They are not killing so many people that Europe cannot survive the onslaught, but they are assassinating what little cultural memory yet remains of what Europe once was. Secular arrogance and the complacent comforts of prosperity are being eroded; in their place is an ever-present anxiety; waiting to resolve at the report of a gun or the explosion of a bomb into the icy grip of fear. In the absence of an ideology that provides real answers to such intractable problems, a vacuum has arisen. It cannot stand. It will be filled with something.
I’ve said before and I’ll say again: there are only two sane reactions to what is happening now.
The first is a return to the Catholic Faith. The same Faith that enlivened Europe, patronized the arts, built great Cathedrals, created the University, preserved ancient culture, populated the continent (and later America besides), gave birth to all that we now know as Western Civilization, and won countless souls for Christ. It was no accident that this same Faith held the various and brutal attempts at Islamic invasion of Europe at bay for over a thousand years — both with the force of arms, and with a system of belief that gave people something to truly live and die for.
The second is barren, godless extremism. Fascism of some stripe or other, or perhaps some form of chaotic, tribal anarchism. A turn towards not just prudent border security, but violent xenophobia. Hard nationalism. Riots. Vigilantes. Militias. Pogroms. Blood in the streets.
Kill or be killed.
There is a third option, but it is certainly not a sane one: continued acquiescence. To snivel and cower and dare not risk offense and to continue the death spiral of the new gnosticism, putting on a show of political correctness and liberal high-mindedness, opening borders and turning off the lights — for ecology’s sake — regardless of how much that increases the likelihood of systematic rape.
This option, still seen by many as the “enlightened” view, is better described as suicide by Islam.
It is, of course, the first option for which I advocate. And yet, one must be wary in advancing a return to Catholicism in a time like this. For which Catholicism will one return to? The Catholicism of those saints who, like St. Juan de Ribera, saw Islam for what it was?
As we have seen, Muhammed had neither supernatural miracles nor natural motives of reason to persuade those of his sect. As he lacked in everything, he took to bestial and barbaric means, which is the force of arms. Thus he introduced and promulgated his message with robberies, murders, and bloodshedding, destroying those who did not want to receive it, and with the same means his ministers conserve this today, until God placates his anger and destroys this pestilence from the earth.
Or the Catholicism of the present moment, as expressed in Evangelii Gaudium #253,
We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition… Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.
We need to make a choice, and then move forward. For Europe, there is great urgency. Constantine, too, was outnumbered, as he faced down the superior forces of Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. But he had been told in his vision from heaven: “In Hoc Signo Vinces” – “In this sign you will conquer.”
And so he bore the sign of the Cross and the Chi-Ro, and was victorious against the odds.
It may in fact be too late to stem what is coming for Europe — what has, in truth, already begun. But all things are possible with God. Even in the face of certain defeat, it is a far better thing to return to the standard of the cross than to cower in the throes of nihilism, or to turn to the vicious bestiality of the godless.
Dear Europe, you must — must — recover your Catholic identity; you must return to the faith now, before it is too late.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.