Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Europe in a Crisis of Cultures

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict)

  • Print this page
  • Email this page
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Bookmark and Share

Extract from the conference held on April 1, 2005, at the Monastery of St. Scholastica, Subiaco, Italy. The entire text will be published by Cantagalli Editore, Italy.

We live in a moment of great danger and of great opportunity for man and for the world, a moment which also is one of great responsibility for all of us. During the past century, the possibilities open to man and his dominion over matter have increased to a truly unthinkable degree. His power of destruction has reached such dimensions that it at times makes one shudder. In this regard, one immediately thinks of the threat of terrorism, this new war without borders and without fronts. The fear that it can soon utilize nuclear and biologic arms is not unfounded and has brought it about that, within free States, one must have recourse to systems of security similar to those which first existed only in totalitarian states; even though there remains the feeling that all these precautions in reality cannot ever be enough, since it is neither possible nor desirable to control everything on the globe.

Less visible, but no less disquieting, are the possibilities of self-manipulation which man has acquired. He has sounded out the recesses of being, deciphered the components of the human being, and now is capable, or so they say, to "construct" himself by himself, so that he will no longer come into this world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action -- a product which therefore can also be selected according to the exigencies set by ourselves. Thus, on this man there no longer shines the splendor of his being, the image of God, which is what confers upon him his dignity and his inviolability, but only the power of human abilities. He is no longer anything but the image of man -- but of what man?

To this problem is added the great problems of the planet: the inequality in the distribution of the goods of the earth, the growth of poverty, indeed of impoverishment, the exploitation of the earth and of its resources, famine, sicknesses that threaten the entire world, the conflict of cultures. All this shows that the growth of the possibilities open to us does not correspond to an equivalent growth in our moral energy. The moral force has not grown together with the development of science.

Indeed, it has rather diminished, because the mentality of technology confines morality in the subjective sphere, while we have need in fact of a public morality -- a morality which knows how to respond to the threats which weigh down the existence of us all. The true, most grave danger of the present moment is found precisely in this disequilibrium between technological possibilities and moral energy. The security, of which we have need as a presupposition of our liberty and of our dignity, cannot in the last analysis come about in technological systems of control, but, in a word, can arise only from the moral force of man. Where this is lacking or is insufficient, the power which man has will always be transformed more and more into a power for destruction.

It's true that today there exists a new moralism whose key terms are justice, peace, and conservation of creation -- words that recall to us essential moral values of which we truly have a need. But this moralism remains vague and slippery, almost inevitably so, in the sphere of party-politics. Such a moralism is before all else a pretense for others, and too little a personal duty of our daily life. In fact, what does "justice" signify? Who defines it? Of what utility is peace? In recent decades we have seen amply enough in our streets and in our piazzas how pacifism can deviate toward a destructive anarchism and toward terrorism. The political moralism of the 70's, whose roots have not yet died, was a moralism which succeeded to fascinate even those youth filled with idealism. But it was a moralism with the wrong address, inasmuch as it was deprived of serene reasoning and because, in the last analysis, it put a utopian political order above the dignity of the individual man, showing itself capable of arriving, in the name of its grand objectives, to devalue man. Political moralism, as we have seen and as we still experience, does not only fail to open the path to regeneration, but blocks it. The same is true, consequently, of a christianity and of a theology which reduces the core of the message of Jesus, the "Kingdom of God", to "values of the Kingdom", identifying these values with the great terms of the order of political moralism, and proclaiming them, at the same time, as the synthesis of religions; thus forgetting, however, God, notwithstanding that He Himself is the proper subject and the cause of the Kingdom of God. In His place, there remains great words (and values) which are capable of any type of misuse.

This brief look at the situation of the world brings us to reflect upon the present situation of Christendom, and hence also upon the foundations of Europe . . . If Christendom, on one hand, has found its own, most efficacious expression in Europe, one needs to say, on the other hand, that in Europe there has developed a culture which constitutes itself in the most radical manner not only as the contradiction of Christendom, but of the religious and moral traditions of humanity. From this, one understands that Europe is truly and actually undertaking a "driver's test" from which one understands the radicality of the tensions which our continent must confront. But here there emerges also and above all else the responsibility which we Europeans must assume in this historic moment: in the internal debate regarding the definition of Europe, within the new political form, one is not playing at some nostalgically regarded action of history, but rather a great responsibility for today's humanity. ...

The true contrariety which characterizes the world of today is not that among diverse religious cultures, but that between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on the one hand, and the great religious cultures on the other. If there arrives a conflict of cultures, it will not be through a conflict of the great religions -- forever one against the others, but, in the end, which have always known how to live one with the other -- but it will be through the conflict between this radical emancipation of man and the great historic cultures. Thus, even the refusal of a reference to God is not an expression of tolerance which wants to protect non-theistic religious and the dignity of atheists and agnostics, but rather is an expression of a conscience which would want to see God definitively cancelled out of the public life of man and chained in the subjective ambit of the residues of past cultures. The relativism, which constitutes this point of departure, has become such a dogmatism that it believes itself in possession of the definitive understanding of reason, and that it has the right to consider all other viewpoints as a stage in this history of man which has been superseded and which can be thus reinterpreted. In reality, we have a radical need to survive and not to lose the vision of God, if we want human dignity not to disappear.

Is this a simplistic refutation of humanism and of modernity? Absolutely not. Christendom from the beginning understood itself as the religion of the Logos, as the Religion according to reason. It did not single out its precursors among the other religions, but in that philosophical enlightenment which has cleared the street of traditions to set out on a search for the Truth and for the Good, for the One God who is above all other gods. Inasmuch as is the religion of the persecuted, inasmuch as it is a universal religion, beyond the limits of diverse States and peoples, it has denied to the State the right to consider religion as a part of government control, affirming as it does the liberty of the faith. It has always defined men, all men without distinction, as creatures of God and images of God, proclaiming in terms of principle, nay rather within limits intransgressible by the social order of local cultures, man's dignity. In this sense, the Enlightenment is of a Christian origin and was born, not by chance, properly and exclusively in the ambit of Christian faith. It is there where Christendom, against its nature, had become, unfortunately, the tradition and religion of the State. Notwithstanding, though philosophy, inasmuch as it seeks rationality, has always been supported by Christendom, the voice of reason has been overly domesticated. The history and merit of the Enlightenment was to repropose these original values of Christendom and give back to reason its proper voice. The Second Vatican Council, in its constitution on the Church in the contemporary world, has made manifest in a new way this profound correspondence between Christendom and the Enlightenment, seeking to arrive, as it did, at a true conciliation between the Church and modernity, a correspondence which is the great patrimony to be safeguard on both sides.

With all this, it is necessary that both sides reflect upon themselves and be ready to correct themselves. Christendom must always remember that it is the Religion of the Logos. It is faith in the Creator-spirit -- in the Spirit-creator, from whom comes all that is real. This very thing ought to be today its philosophic force, inasmuch as the problem is either that the world comes forth from the irrational, and that reason is therefore naught but an "after-product", even a dangerous one, of its development, or that the world comes forth from reason, and consequently this is its criterion and its goal. Christian faith leans towards this second thesis, being that, from a purely philosophical point of view, the first thesis has been considered today by so many as the only "rational" and modern one. But it is a reason which cascades from irrationality, and which is itself, in its last end, an irrational one -- which is not a solution to our problems. Only creative reason, and that which in the crucified God has been manifested as Love, can truly show us the way.

In the dialogue so necessary between secularists and Catholics, we Christians ought to be very attentive to return the faithful to this fundamental guide: to live a faith that comes forth from the Logos, from creative Reason, and which is therefore also open to all which is truly reasonable. But on this point, I would, inasmuch as I am a believer, make a proposal to the secularists. In the epoch of the Enlightenment, there was an attempt at understanding and defining essential moral norms that would have been valid etsi Deus non daretur, even in the case that God had not existed. In opposition to the confessions and in the crisis incumbent in the image of God, there was the attempt to hold essential moral values apart from the contradictions, and to seek for them a support that would have rendered them independent from the manifold divisions and uncertainties of the various philosophies and confessions.

Thus there was the desire to secure the foundations of community life and, more general still, of the foundations of humanity. In that epoch, it seemed possible, inasmuch as the great convictions created at their foundation by Christendom for the most part still stood and seemed undeniable. But it is no longer so. The search for such a reassuring certainty which can remain uncontested despite all the differences has failed. Not even the struggle, however glorious, of Kant was capable of creating the necessary shared certainty. Kant had denied that God can be cognizable in the ambit of pure reason, but at the same time he represented God, liberty, and immortality as postulates of practical reason, without which, coherently, for him no moral action was possible. Does not the situation of the world today make us think again that he was right? I would say so with other words: the attempt, taken to the extreme, to put together human affairs, doing so completely without God, leads us always more and more to the edge of the abyss -- to the total isolation of man. We must, then, turn the axioms of the Enlightenment thinkers on their heads and say: even if one does not succeed to find an acceptable way to God, he ought, nevertheless, to seek to live and to direct his life veluti si Deus daretur, as if God existed. This is the counsel that Paschal had already given his non-believing friends; and it is the counsel which we would give even today to our friends who do not believe. In this way, no one will come to be limited in his freedom, but all of our affairs will find a support and a criterion of which they so urgently need.

That which we need above all in this moment of history are men who, by means of an illumined and lived faith, render God credible in this world. The negative testimony of Christians who spoke of God and lived against Him has obscured the image of God and has opened the gate to unbelief. We need men who hold their gaze directly towards God, learning from Him what it truly means to be human. We need men whose intellect is illuminated by the light of God and who open their hearts to Him, in a manner that their intellect can speak to the intellects of others, and their heart can open the hearts of others. Only by means of men who have been touched by God, can God make a return among men.

Read this article on the Seattle Catholic website (new window will open).

Posted: 23-May-05

Copyright 2001-2019 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Copyright 2001-2019 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

Article link: