Just two decades ago the last dominantly Christian country of Western Europe, Ireland is now the first country ever to enshrine same-sex marriage by popular vote (into a constitution dedicated to the Trinity, no less).
This legal change reflects a cultural change: As “the church’s moral authority was flagging,” the New York Times summarizes,
the Irish were finding a new identity within the European Union. They share the euro, and are more willing to take advantage of low-cost airfares for weekend jaunts to the Continent and beyond, broadening an outlook that for their parents and grandparents had been molded by the church and Britain.
The medieval Church united much of Europe under a single language, religion, and university system. Today, the European Union (EU) functions similarly in pursuing a United States of Europe.
In conversation, a friend studying history at Oxford said to me that this shift reflects the larger “homogenization of culture.” The expanding markets, euro, free movement of peoples, and general directives from Brussels erase differences of member states. I replied by explaining how French philosopher Pierre Manent elucidates this EU quest for unity.
Specifically, Manent argues that the modern nation-state attempts to mediate among three archetypes of political body—city, empire, and church.
The city begins with Greek city-states. Each city is an intimate community with unique identity and exclusive membership. To be Athenian, Spartan, or Roman (before Caesar) implied a specific god(s), regime, ancestry, and place. Its political form, Manent writes in The Metamorphosis of the City, was “always the order of a given concrete community” and “the active operation of a common thing.” It pursued intimacy through direct civic participation.
Though originally a city, the republican city of Rome metamorphosized with Julius Caesar into the Roman Empire. While “Athens submitted to Philip of Macedon while retaining its form as a city,” Manent writes elsewhere, “Rome, on the contrary, underwent a complete transformation as a political form; from a city it became an empire.” This transition reached its terminus when citizenship expanded to all free males in conquered territories. Universality replaced locality as the peaceful and inclusive empire replaced the intimate and exclusive city.
A republican citizen shared in the common thing by partaking in government. Empire terminated the republican freedom of self-government by introducing the magistrate to mediate between citizen and emperor. When Aristotle said a citizen must be able to govern and be governed, he wrote about a citizen of the city before there was even a conception of empire. But in an empire, the magistrate does not have to be governed (like the citizen is governed) in order to govern. Likewise, the citizen does not have to govern in order to be governed. This separation provides a security from the dangers of governance. In this respect the Roman Empire, Manent writes, “surrendered the freedom of the city but promised unity and peace.” Rome was reorganized into the first empire and with the city, republican liberty died.
Afterwards, empire and city compete. The modern nation-state mediates them by providing citizenship to all inhabitants (the state functioning as empire) while presuming a prior shared cultural, ethnic, or religious unity (the nation functioning as city). Rather than directly participating in government, citizens may participate in social institutions mediating between individual and state (civil society functioning as the public thing of the city).
This effort is already tedious since each nation-state variously desires imperial unity. For example, a historic trend of France is its “vision” as “a new Roman Empire,” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes, which “explains the French self-definition of identity as relating to language, culture and laws (as with ancient Rome).”
The EU undermines mediation by ever-increasing the member states it has, the general economic directives it issues, the mass immigration it enables, and the single currency it maintains. It transforms nation-state identities and powers into magisterial cogs of a transnational bureaucracy. As a citizen of Rome no longer belonged to a city but to an empire, a citizen in Europe no longer belongs to a particular nation in Europe but to the European Union. Expanding EU borders internally and externally transforms what it means to be European.
Consider the infamous EU “rights inflation”: its Courts of Justice and Human Rights often override national and local laws and customs due to newly invented universal rights. Manent argues that the EU ‘human rights’ project “is animated by a hatred of bodies,” Peter Lawler and Ronald Reinsch observe. They continue, “Relational beings with bodies find their homes, their security, their personal significance, and truthful self-understandings through participation in strong, stable institutions.” There is a universal need for the particular place, the city. Yet the EU rejects this need by usurping the city and its institutions.
One then understands the New York Times’ summary. The Irish referendum represented repudiating inherited national culture (e.g. Irish Catholicism) and deconstructing a mediating institution (e.g. conjugal marriage) in favor of “new identity within the European Union.” The referendum was a vote in favor of empire over city. “So this is how liberty dies — with thunderous applause,” Star Wars’ Senator Padme remarks when the republic reorganizes into the empire. The Irish referendum shows the liberty of the Irish city dies with thunderous applause.
Ironically, the EU incrementally pursues excessive unity due to the church. Church, Manent writes, “seeks to gather all men in a new communion, more intimate than the closest-knit city, more extended than the vastest empire.” By seeking this universal intimacy in mystical union (among sojourners on pilgrimage to Heaven), the church creates discord for both city and empire.
The discord for city is that church membership ignores concrete particulars like ethnicity. When the church enters the city, loyalty to universal truth supplants loyalty to local ethnicity.
The discord for empire is that this mystical unity creates an invisible divide among citizens who will be saved and citizens who will be damned. According to Augustine, any pagan may be predestined though presently unaware. Concurrently, not everyone will be saved—those publicly attending church may later apostatize. Therefore, the line between those salvifically included and excluded is unseen, which invisibly divides the empire. The church makes complete visible unity impossible.
The nation-state answers these two discords. Nations are culturally distinct, political unity is shared adherence to a constitutional order or common political system, and religious belief is private. But because the invisible divide undermines imperial unity, Manent writes, “Europe has been in search of the unification of human life in order to overcome the division induced by Christianity.” The EU Empire attempts to overcome the division between the cities of man and God.
However, the EU replacing the church faces pushback. Gobry notes in France, “A mass protest movement against the Socialist government’s same-sex marriage bill put a million people on the streets – and has paved the way for a youth-driven Catholic revival.” Such examples suggest EU homogenization seeds its destruction.Here, my Oxford friend suggested, Manent discerns the EU fall despite thunderous applause in Ireland.