Friday, 23 September 2011

Benedict XVI: A Pope for Europe

The invitation extended to Pope Benedict XVI to address members of the Houses of Parliament and other representatives of public life in Westminster Hall during his visit to Britain last year has a very close parallel in the invitation extended to the Holy Father by the President of the Bundestag during his current visit to Germany. And the content of the addresses delivered by Pope Benedict on the two occasions can be very appropriately placed alongside each other, each discussing in a different cultural context and from a different perspective the encounter between Christian faith and contemporary political and social culture in Europe. The full text of the Bundestag speech can be found here, and the full text of the Westminster Hall speech can be found here.

The common hinge on which both addresses turn is that of how we can today find out what is true and right. This in Westminster Hall:
The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.
And this before the Bundestag:
To serve right and to fight against the dominion of wrong is and remains the fundamental task of the politician. At a moment in history when man has acquired previously inconceivable power, this task takes on a particular urgency. Man can destroy the world. He can manipulate himself. He can, so to speak, make human beings and he can deny them their humanity. How do we recognize what is right? How can we discern between good and evil, between what is truly right and what may appear right?
In both addresses, Pope Benedict refers to the limit of the "majority" as a determination of what is right and what is wrong. In Westminster Hall:
If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy.
And before the Bundestag:
For most of the matters that need to be regulated by law, the support of the majority can serve as a sufficient criterion. Yet it is evident that for the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough...
The way in which both addresses consider the relationship between religious faith and political and legislative life is also very interesting. On the one hand there is an argument for a rightful autonomy of the political and legislative life of a nation from the demands of religious belief, and on the other hand there is a call for an appropriate participation of religion in the public realm. In Westminster Hall this was expressed in terms of the role of religion in the purification of reason to help inform the discovery of objective moral principles in political life. Before the Bundestag it was expressed in a historical account of how Christianity, rather than proposing a religiously revealed law for adoption by the state, instead pointed in the direction of nature and reason as the basis for the formulation of law. The significance of this insight today cannot be underestimated, facing as it does at one and the same time towards the secularising intent of Europe (which would deny nature) and towards the international growth of the influence of Islam (which, with Sharia law, would deny reason). It also has an important implication for the integrist tendencies of traditionalist movements in the Catholic Church.

Towards the end of his address before the Bundestag, Pope Benedict made an interesting reference to the emergence of the ecological movement in Germany during the 1970's.
Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives. In saying this, I am clearly not promoting any particular political party – nothing could be further from my mind. If something is wrong in our relationship with reality, then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture. Allow me to dwell a little longer on this point. The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.
At the time of the Conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, there was talk of an "African Pope" or of a "South American" Pope. Instead, we were given a "Pope for Europe", and these two addresses show just how much Pope Benedict lives up to that title.

POSTSCRIPT: There is a wonderful courtesy contained in both of these addresses, a courtesy that could also be seen as an "omission" from both of them.This courtesy can also be seen as Pope Benedict actually practising what he preaches. It would be a ready extension of his remarks about an "ecology of man" to go on to condemn legalised abortion, but Pope Benedict limits himself to suggesting the direction that reason might take. It is then for those in public office, not for Benedict himself, to take this "purification of reason" and see it through to its consequences in legislation.

No comments: