The French novelist's vision chimes, in some ways, with Benedict XVI's analysis of individualism and consumerism

Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, is set in a France of the near future in which a Muslim is elected president, in a Europe which has reached such a state of “putrid decomposition” that it cannot save itself. It is a shocking vision of where we might all be heading. The book is especially disturbing for Catholics, because it implies that Catholicism, for all that its young adherents have “open, friendly faces”, is no longer vital enough to offer an alternative to Islam. The once great religion that powered 1,000 years of high civilisation during the Middle Ages is, in Houellebecq’s vision, enfeebled.

Far from embodying an alternative to Islam, most Catholics will probably be absorbed willingly into it.

Submission’s middle-aged protagonist, François, is an academic specialising in Joris-Karl Huysmans, the 19th-century novelist who rejected religion in early life but came back to it later and became a Benedictine oblate. François, like Huysmans, wants to escape his “boring, predictable life” – but instead of Catholicism chooses Islam, as if it is the
only option.

A wise friend of François, Tanneur, worked in intelligence and has now retired to the village of Martel, named after Charles Martel, the man Gibbon called “the hero of the age” for defeating the Moors at the Battle of Poitier in 732 and saving the whole of Christendom from Islam. Tanneur tells François to go and visit the shrine of the Black Madonna at Rocamadour, where dozens of medieval monarchs and saints climbed the steps to the sanctuary on their knees begging for their sins to be forgiven.

So François goes to see the statue of the Virgin and Child and, sure enough, in the figure of Jesus gets a glimpse of the force of medieval Christianity: “This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. His serenity and the impression he gave of spiritual power – of tangible energy – were almost terrifying.” Nor is that all: the longer he sits entranced in front of the Virgin, the more he feels his “individuality” is “dissolving”.

It reminds me of Benedict XVI. Disturbed by the Marxist revolutionary fervour of 1968, in particular the student protests he witnessed when teaching at Tübingen university, he moved to a more conservative position in which he looked approvingly to the Middle Ages as the era of Christian self-confidence, before the Enlightenment tried to separate reason from faith with disastrous consequences. He felt that underlying the students’ aggressive behaviour was a totalitarian impulse, or, as he explained, “an instrumentalisation by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal, and cruel. That experience made it clear to me that the abuse of the faith had to be resisted precisely if one wanted to uphold the will of the Council… I did see how real tyranny was exercised, even in brutal forms. Anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity.”

Benedict XVI’s analysis shares striking similarities with Houellebecq’s.

Both reject the rampant individualism, and moral relativism, of the “soixante-huitards”. Both believe that what ultimately results from extreme self-centredness is violence. Sexual narcissists, for example, the heirs to the Marquis de Sade – pure materialists, who have abandoned all moral restraints and totally severed the connection between sex and love – will seek ever more sadistic pleasures. “In a sense,” says Houellebecq in his earlier novel Atomised, “the serial killers of the 1990s were the spiritual children of the hippies of the 1960s.”

One of the (many) differences between Houellebecq and Benedict XVI, however, is that the novelist only diagnoses the disease; he does not offer a cure. This is the job of the Church and its teachers, bishops and so on, a job at least as pressing as talking about climate change. In 2012 Pope Benedict told the Vatican’s Justice and Peace council that we ought to “dethrone the modern idols” of individualism, materialistic consumerism and technocracy. Replace them with “fraternity and gratuitousness”, he said, and “solidaristic love”. That sounds rather technical but it’s simple really; he means “love one another; even as I have loved you” (John 13:34). In this, Jesus’s new commandment, Pope Benedict says, “lies the secret of every fully human and peaceful social life, as well as the renewal of politics and of national and world institutions”.

Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (28/8/15).

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