Benedict XVI to the German Parliament
Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI gave a very interesting speech to the members of the German Parliament, choosing as his theme “The Listening Heart: Reflections on the Foundations of Law.” His title was taken from the words of Solomon in reply to God’s invitation to make a request as he began his reign. Solomon asked for “a listening heart so that he may govern God’s people, and discern between good and evil” (cf. 1 Kg 3:9). And the Pope’s purpose, it seems, was to press on the legislators some of the ultimate questions presupposed by their work:
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? Even now, Solomon’s request remains the decisive issue facing politicians and politics today.
Majority rule is not a sufficient criterion, he went on: “everyone in a position of responsibility must personally seek out the criteria to be followed when framing laws,” a task more difficult than ever today, not least of all in democracies:
In terms of the underlying anthropological issues, what is right and may be given the force of law is in no way simply self-evident today. The question of how to recognize what is truly right and thus to serve justice when framing laws has never been simple, and today in view of the vast extent of our knowledge and our capacity, it has become still harder.
Christianity, he says, never tried to derive a juridical order directly from revelation but looked to “nature and reason as the true sources of law–and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God.” From this derives “the juridical culture of the West” and its articulation and defense of human rights. The Pauline association of law written on hearts and conscience (Solomon’s “listening heart”) led to a notion of natural law that was once a common consciousness but in the last half-century has come to be widely dismissed as simply “a specifically Catholic doctrine” of no special worth in the larger debate. The Pope traces this to a positivist, merely functional understanding of nature from which no “ought” can be derived. And this is echoed in a positivist notion of reason as the only scientific one, with ethics and religion assigned to the real of the merely subjective.
Pope Benedict acknowledges that positivism “is a most important dimension of human knowledge and capacity that we may in no way dispense with,” but maintains that it cannot yield “a sufficient culture corresponding to the full breadth of the human condition.” And he fears that the result is that “Europe vis-à-vis other world cultures is left in a state of culturelessness and at the same time extremist and radical movements emerge to fill the vacuum.” Then, in a move that may prove politically controversial, he adduces the ecological movement as an example of listening to nature and to its demands. “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.” But if now the importance of ecology is commonly acknowledged, the Pope proposes that
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.
That, of course, is Europe’s cultural heritage:
The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions. Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness. The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe. In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.
Among the things I find interesting about the Pope’s speech is that it does not take on the controversial issues of the day nor offer advice or give orders to Catholic politicians, but rather asks the legislators to reflect on and take responsibility for their own criteria for determining what is right and what is wrong. A defender of positivism changed his mind late in life (“I find it comforting,” the Pope said in an aside, “that rational thought is evidently still possible at the age of 84!”) but still maintained that to find norms in nature would presuppose a Creator God, whose will had entered into nature” and that “any attempt to discuss the truth of this belief is utterly futile.” To which Benedict replies: “Is it really? – I find myself asking. Is it really pointless to wonder whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason, a Creator Spiritus?” And he leaves them with that challenge.
For myself I think that a key question is what the Pope calls an “ecology of man,” that man has a nature that he must respect and cannot manipulate. There is a tension is between two successive statements of his: “Man is not merely self-creating [selbst machende] freedom,” and “Man does not create himself [Der Mensch macht sich nicht selbst].” The adverb of the first sentence does not appear in the second. There is, after all, a sense in which human beings do make themselves, and this necessary, unavoidable task of self-making, self-constituting, is precisely what characterizes the nature that God has created. That we cannot reasonably and responsibly ignore crucial elements of the beings that we are is, I think, the Pope’s point, and I think it needs stressing, but all the work lies in trying to determine which of the laws of nature yield precepts of the natural law. I think the Pope passes over this question.