Without Roots

Europe, Relativism, Christianity, Islam


By Joseph Ratzinger

By Marcello Pera

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On May 12, 2004, Pope Benedict XVI – then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger-addressed the Italian Senate on the state of the West; the very same day, Joseph Pera, President of the Italian Senate, spoke before the Lateran College of the Papal University. Together they called upon the West to confront the spiritual, cultural, and political malaise that have afflicted it in the earliest years of the 21st century. In the months that ensued, before Cardinal Ratzinger’s election to the papacy, they developed their ideas into the eloquent dialogue that is Without Roots – a book that quickly became an Italian bestseller and is even more timely today than ever. With Europe shaken by the war in Iraq, terrorism, security, Israel, relations with the U.S., immigration, and the rejection of the EU constitution in both France and the Netherlands, the issue of European identity has profound implications for the rest of the world. Bringing together their unique vantage points as leaders of Church and State, Pope Benedict XVI and Pera challenge us to imagine what can be the future of a civilization that has abandoned its history for a relativist secularism. They call on the West to embrace a spiritual rather than political renewal-and to accept the moral beliefs that alone can help us to make sense of changes in technology, economics, and society. Pope Benedict XVI joins the President of the Italian Senate to offer a provocative critique of the spiritual, cultural, and political crisis afflicting the West.


Praise for Without Roots

“A sweeping analysis of the fundamental problem facing Europe, and an equally sweeping outline of the solution.”

National Review Online

“Ratzinger’s discussion of the continent’s religious and secular history is provocative, and his high regard for the American tradition of separation of church and state may also come as a surprise.”


“[N]o answer can be achieved if the roots of the debate are not fleshed out, and no answer will be of use to Western civilization without some steadfast statesmen who are willing to take up the responsibility of defending those roots—which may involve resorting to arms. That a pontiff and a leading Italian statesmen would jointly offer such sentiments may be a beneficial, if tardy, step in attacking Europe’s sordid flirtation with politically correct platitudes.”

Weekly Standard

“A small, potent book... An engrossing, enlightening, extremely timely discussion.”


“These polemicists are feisty thinkers... Sure to spark controversy, their manifesto is required reading for any student of comparative religion or Vatican politics... Sharp intellect in service of moral vision.”

Kirkus Reviews

“A fascinating book.”

Charlotte Observer

“It has a quality of inviting the reader to join in the arguments, not accepting the ideas of pope and professor as dogma, but inviting scrutiny, beginning a search.... The Cardinal has a gift of making some opaque ideas—the kind that don’t get debated too often in the marketplace, but should—transparently accessible. As he ranges though history, his comparisons of Europe and the United States alone justify reading this little book.”

Embassy Magazine


WHAT DRIVES HISTORY? Politics? Economics? Some combination of politics and economics? Or should we look elsewhere to find the engine of history—to the realm of the human spirit, perhaps? Might it be that culture—what men and women honor, cherish, and worship—is the most dynamic element in human affairs, at least over the long haul?

What is a civilization? Can we understand “European civilization,” for example, simply by looking at its artifacts—what Europe “makes,” technologically, agriculturally, and aesthetically? Or is that merely “civilization” on the surface? Might the sources of the civilization we call “Europe” be found in a distinctive encounter with, and a distinctive idea of, the sacred?

Indeed, is it possible to imagine anything properly called “civilization” that lacks a sense of the sacred?

These are some of the large questions explored in great intellectual depth in this small book, the result of a dialogue between Professor Marcello Pera, a philosopher and politician, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—at the time of their exchange, the Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now Pope Benedict XVI. Without Roots was a stimulating exploration of the current state and future prospects of Europe when it was first published in Italy in 2004. Now, with Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as the 264th successor of St. Peter, Without Roots takes on a new life, as a window into the mind of a pope who was elected, in part, because of his long experience with, and profound understanding of, the current crisis of European civilization.

“Cris is” is an overused word these days, but in the present circumstances of Europe it is, unfortunately, appropriate. Europe, Joseph Ratzinger writes, has become hollowed out from within, paralyzed in its culture and its public life by a “failure of its circulatory system.” And the results of that hollowing-out are most evident in the unprecedented way in which Europe is depopulating itself. Generation after generation of below-replacement-level birthrates have created a demographic vacuum which, like all other vacuums in nature, is not remaining unfilled: the vacuum is being filled by transplanted populations whose presence in Europe is a challenge to Europe’s identity, and could become a threat to European democracy.

What is happening when an entire continent, healthier, wealthier, and more secure than ever before, fails to create the human future in the most elemental sense—by creating future generations? There are obvious sociological and economic factors affecting Europe’s demographic decline; might there be spiritual factors at play, too? Could Europe’s disinclination to create the future have something to do with an apostasy toward the past—toward the spiritual roots of European civilization? And could that apostasy eventually threaten Europe’s commitments to human rights, to equality before the law, to tolerance and civility among peoples of diverse convictions? Is it possible to sustain public commitments to those public goods on purely utilitarian grounds—because civility and tolerance “work better”? How can we speak of, and defend, “universal human rights” in a cultural climate in which the very idea of “truth” is under sustained assault?

These are some of the questions implied by the dialogue between Cardinal Ratzinger and Professor Pera—and these are some of the questions that Pope Benedict XVI will likely be raising during his pontificate. The questions are of urgent importance on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The American “culture war” is, in fact, an ongoing debate—and a continuing political struggle—between those who believe that human beings can, however inadequately, grasp the truth of how we ought to live together, and those for whom any notion of transcendent “truth” involves an unacceptable “imposition” of someone’s “values” on someone else. Europe’s exponents of a thoroughly secularized public space have their counterparts in the United States (and, it seems, have seized the cultural and political initiative in Canada). Thus, the issues explored so carefully by Cardinal Ratzinger and Professor Pera have everything to do with the future of North American democratic culture, as well as with the future of Europe.

George Weigel


THIS BOOK WAS BORN from a personal encounter. After the lecture that I gave at the Pontifical Lateran University on May 12, 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger gave his own lecture the next day in the Capital Room of the Italian Senate. This juxtaposition of the two speeches was purely by chance. As we discovered immediately after reading each other’s talks and in the private meetings that followed, however, there was nothing casual about the often complete coincidence—arrived at independently and from very different perspectives—that we found in our concerns about the spiritual, cultural, and political situation of the West, and particularly of Europe today, and also about the causes of the situation and the primarily cultural remedies that could improve it.

Hence was born the idea for this book. It brings together the two lectures—my own in a revised and longer version than the brief text I delivered at the Pontifical Lateran University—with the addition of a direct exchange of letters between us in which each tries to understand the other’s reasons, clarify his own, and compare them with those of a broader public.

It is up to the readers to decide whether our intention—to examine and reflect on the great issues of our time, including the West, Europe, Christianity, Islam, war, and bioethical questions—has achieved its goal. Whether our concerns can be addressed. And whether our suggestions deserve to be pursued.

We hope that these pages will help to pierce the curtain of reticence and timidity that impedes discussion of our destiny today. The only thing worse than living without roots is struggling to get by without a future.




Relativism, Christianity, and the West


A Symptom

At the beginning of his famous essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber raised the following question: “A product of modern European civilization, studying any problem of universal history, is bound to ask himself to what combination of circumstances the fact should be attributed that in Western civilization, and in Western civilization only, cultural phenomena have appeared which (as we like to think) lie in a line of development having universal significance and value.”1

Weber was speaking in particular about “the most fateful force in our modern life, capitalism,” but the same question might be asked of quite a few institutions not included on his list. Modern science, for example, is a Western invention that has a universal value. So, too, are liberalism, separation of civil society and state or church and state, the rule of law, the welfare state, democracy, as well as the “universal” conventions, declarations, and bills of rights. These and other institutions originate in and are characteristic of the West, particularly Western Europe. They belong to specific periods of Western history, have spread and imposed themselves in other parts of the world, and claim to have universal value.

The explanations that have been offered for these unique phenomena diverge, sometimes markedly. I will not enter into the merits of the solutions, although I feel obliged to mention that no serious attempt to account for these great moments in history has ignored the contribution of Christianity—direct or indirect, causal or concomitant, determinant or auxiliary, supportive or critical—thereby confirming that Christianity has been the greatest force in Western history. Instead I wish to focus on a new and paradoxical fact.

While the explanations have varied widely, the basic validity of the question has always been upheld. Today, by contrast, exactly one hundred years after the publication of Weber’s essay, the question itself is the first thing to be questioned, criticized, and ultimately refuted. The thinking that currently prevails in the West regarding the universal features of the West is that none of them has universal value. According to the proponents of these ideas, the universality of Western institutions is an illusion, because in reality they are only one particularity among many, with a dignity equal to that of others, and without any intrinsic value superior to that of others. Consequently to recommend these institutions as universal would be a gesture of intellectual arrogance or an attempt at cultural hegemony, imposed by arms, politics, economics, or propaganda. Moreover it only goes to follow that seeking to export these same institutions to cultures or traditions that are different from our own would be an act of imperialism.

Samuel Huntington summarized this widespread Western trend in his celebrated book, more reviled than read, on the clash of civilizations. He summarizes his political thesis as follows: “In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”2

One case in point is the question of “exporting” democracy. This issue has been the subject of extensive debate in relation to the second Iraq war and the “Greater Middle East” initiative launched by the President of the United States, George W. Bush. Opponents of these two initiatives have argued that democracy should not be exported. They do so not because the social, economic, legal, and institutional conditions of the countries affected are still backward, which would make the entire operation premature. Not because the institutions typical of democracy—the vote, equality, laws, parliaments, courts, and so forth—inevitably undergo sometimes profound modifications when they are grafted to different cultures (from England to India, for example, or from France to Algeria), which would make the operation unilateral. Instead they argue that exporting democracy would amount to imposing one form of life on other equally legitimate, worthy, respectable forms of life, which would make the operation violent.

One particularly revealing symptom shows the extent to which this mixture of timidity, prudence, convenience, reluctance, and fear has penetrated the fiber of the West. I refer to the form of self-censorship and self-repression that goes by the name of political correctness. “P.C.” is the newspeak that the West uses nowadays to imply, allude to, or insinuate rather than to affirm or maintain.

We read and hear this newspeak every day. According to its dictates, everything can be compared and evaluated within the confines of Western culture—be it Coca-Cola with Chianti, Gaudν with Le Corbusier, Darwinism with intelligent design—and many comparisons can be made between aspects of Western culture and their counterparts in other cultures, such as hospitality, social customs, individual behavior, clothing, and so forth. Yet should one attempt to place in a hierarchical order these cultures or civilizations—such as the ones that Max Weber described in the past and Samuel Huntington describes in the present—or to simply organize them according to a scale of preferences, from better to worse, out pop self-censorship, prohibitions, and linguistic restraints. Consequently, as one can easily document in today’s newspeak, whenever a culture lacks or flatly rejects our institutions, we are not allowed to say that our own culture is better or simply preferable. The only thing that politeness allows us to say is that cultures and civilizations are different.

To me this form of linguistic re-education is unacceptable. I reject it on moral grounds, which are the ultimate reason for refuting an intellectual position.3 To justify this rejection, I will outline my argument in the following manner.

First, by way of introduction, I will refer to a concrete application of newspeak: our relationship with Islam. Then I will move from the political symptom to the cultural cause, and attempt to refute this cause—relativism—in the two philosophical embodiments of relativism that the West has served up for many years now. Finally I will examine three practical consequences of this philosophy: the negative influence of post-conciliar relativism on Christian theology, which helps to explain the current weakness of the Church and the failure to obtain recognition of the Christian roots of Europe in the new (and now defunct) European Constitutional Treaty; the malaise of Europe, a rich continent that is unsure of its identity and its future and powerless to solve the resulting problems; and finally, the West’s boredom with its own principles and values, at the very moment in which it has been targeted by a deadly war declared and conducted by Islamic fundamentalism.


On Sale
Mar 9, 2007
Page Count
176 pages
Basic Books

Joseph Ratzinger

About the Author

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the late Pope John Paul II, and has long been regarded as one of the most profound Catholic theological and spiritual writers of our times. His numerous books include God and the World, Introduction to Christianity, Salt of the Earth, and The Spirit of Liturgy.

Marcello Pera, a professor of the philosophy of science at the University of Pisa, is also President of the Italian Senate. He lives in Italy.

Learn more about this author