Culture & Ideas Ideas

Eurozone crisis: A new war of religion

7 September 2012
Corriere della Sera Milan

Just like a European summit. Martin Luther before The Diet Of Worms. Photogravure by E. Delperee, 1894.

Just like a European summit. Martin Luther before The Diet Of Worms. Photogravure by E. Delperee, 1894.

The opposition between ”virtuous” Northern countries and the “prodigal” South is looking increasingly like the historical fracture between Protestantism and Catholicism, notes an Italian columnist and Vatican expert.

Perhaps you don’t know it: in northern Europe many people think that the "spread", the difference between the interest rate for the soverign debt of his own "virtuous" country and the rate for those countries in a sorry state to the south, is the fruit of a Catholic sin. In German the word “Schuld”, for debt, also means ‘fault’. This semantic nuance reflects profound cultural differences and helps to better understand the distrust – or prejudice – of some nations of northern Europe towards countries considered members of a blithe "Club Med".

The spread between Spanish and Italian bonds on the one hand and German bonds on the other leads in the end to assumptions of implied ethical superiority, far more discriminatory than the budgets of the states in question, throwing us back – indeed, one almost fears to say it – to values that intertwine culture and religion and injecting ancient poisons into the tired veins of Europe. In fact, a taboo has been broken, bringing to the front of the stage ghosts of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, of European wars fought in the shadow of God. This aspect of the controversy has hardly been mentioned in recent months. Yet it crops up repeatedly, while the euro has begun to evoke not wealth and stability but unemployment, poverty and decline.

The anti-Italian and anti-Mediterranean rhetoric, and the rhetoric flying back against the Germans, unconsciously nourishes stereotypes that are both cultural and religious – stereotypes of ancient “truths" buried in the memory of the Old Continent that it would be best not to exhume, under penalty of wrecking the difficult compromise between the European nations that has kept the social and political peace for decades. The present uncertainty, however, is bringing those stereotypes to the surface in the minds of those pushing for new isolationisms in the illusory conviction that, alone, one can save oneself more assuredly than in a crowd.

“Fiscal sins”

It is this desire for solitude that is being entertained by certain circles in the part of Germany that declares itself Lutheran, and in countries with Protestant majorities such as the Netherlands, Finland and other Nordic countries – prompting Stephan Richter, director of The Globalist, a site that analyses global trends in the era of globalisation, to put forward the hypothesis that if the sixteenth-century German theologian Martin Luther could have been present at Maastricht in 1992 when the foundations of the monetary union were laid, he would have “nixed” the candidacy of the Mediterranean countries. Richter goes on to imagine that Luther would have declared that “no unreformed Catholic countries” that had not gone through the Protestant Reformation could enter the euro.

Richter is a Catholic commentator, and most importantly, he is German. According to his theory, “an excess of Catholicism has distorted the fiscal health of nations, even today in the twenty-first century." The current bitterness of northern Europe towards the "other Europe" thus lies in the failure to uphold the "law of Luther," the violation of which has brought about our ills. If, in contrast, his imaginary exhortations had been heard correctly, "the euro would be more cohesive, and the European economy in far less trouble."

In brief: to size up the capability of a nation to join the single currency, it is not its finances that have to be vetted, but its religious chromosomes – that would have been easier. The premise is very simple: the so-called Pigs, an acronym formed from the first letters of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, which with the double ‘i’ in ‘Piigs’ also takes in Italy, are – apart from Greece, which is Greek Orthodox – all countries with a Roman Catholic majority.

The novelty is that this label has lately been taking on a significance that is not only economic, linked to a crisis of financial capitalism exported from the United States, but that is also tied to a judgement, to a definitive condemnation of a culture, a way of governing, and – again – of a religion. At the origin of the "fault" of indebted nations there would seem to lie those nations’ inability to emancipate themselves from Catholicism: a lifestyle that is more than a faith, that helped move on from the purchase of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins to an excessive tolerance when it comes to “fiscal sins".

Currently the controversy is driving some economists, mainly Spaniards, to trace the origins of capitalism in order to refute its Protestant backgrounds and advance, in contrast, the dynamism of capitalism in Catholic Spain precisely at the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

The geo-religion of “bond spread”

The backwards-looking tussle over the noble birth of capitalism in one or the other churches, however, merely confirms the ambiguity of an operation that could well herald a rupture, and not a reconciliation, in Europe. For the average German, rolling out the European Financial Stability Fund for erring states would be an unacceptable concession to the “culture of sin" and of the omnipresent debt in a Catholic Europe considered incorrigible.

Without taking this background into account, it is difficult to grasp the apparent failure to communicate among the European ruling classes, and the attempt of some political and economic circles to make use of it for their own purposes.

It seems that, caught up in the train of the crisis on the financial markets, there is an attempt afoot to stir up a conflict between Catholics and Lutherans using the controversy over aid as a casus belli. For some, the conflict can be explained by a shift of the European Union axis towards the north and the east – and so, following the enlargement of the Union, by the growing influence of the Protestant nations. It is no coincidence that today we say that Finland is at the heart of the European Union, while Italy is at the periphery. This is one of many consequences of the end of the Cold War.

Following a European community that forged its unity along a central-southern axis of Germany, France and Italy, there is now a community that the German nation has established hegemony over and that at times seems to be cultivating the revenge of the Protestant traditions and of the East against the German Catholics and their enthusiasm for Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel comes from East Germany and is the daughter of a Protestant pastor, while the new President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, is himself a former Lutheran pastor.

In its Lutheran version, though, the geo-religion of "bond spread" has been forced up against some political and geographical realities. If debt is also a sin to be atoned for, a sin whose absolution can rightly no longer be bought, excommunications and the so-called geo-economic and geo-religious supremacy threaten to re-awake demons that may well set Europe back – not a few years, but decades: to the darkest decades of the past century.