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Ratzinger sees European culture in decline May 14, 2004

In a powerful speech delivered to a conference on European identity, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke of a severe "decline" in European culture. The German cardinal also lamented that the European "charter of fundamental rights" defines marriage in vague terms, and predicted that the recognition of same-sex unions would lead to "a dissolution of the image of man, with extremely grave consequences."

Cardinal Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke on May 13 to a conference organized by the president of the Italian Senate. Delivering a grim assessment of Europe's spiritual condition, he concentrated his most serious remarks on the condition of marriage and family life.

The European charter of rights mentions the right to marry, the cardinal observed, "but it does not provide any protection for marriage-- either juridical or moral-- not offer a more precise definition." Those omissions are critical, he added, because "we all know that at this point marriage and the family are threatened."

Today, Cardinal Ratzinger continued, homosexual activists seek legal recognition for their own unions, and any such recognition "will have to correspond, more or less, to marriage." But when the state gives the same legal recognition to same-sex unions, the cardinal said, society will break from "the moral history of mankind," which has always given exclusive recognition to "the particular communion of a man and a woman which is open to children and thus to the family."

The recognition of marriage, Cardinal Ratzinger stressed, is "not a matter of discrimination, but rather a recognition of what the human person is," insofar as men and women are made for each other and for family life. Regarding the broader question of European identity, the cardinal said that the society today suffers from "the dissolution of man's primordial certainties about God, about himself and the world-- the dissolution of conscience and of intangible moral principles." He argued that this "self-destruction of the European consciousness" constitutes a grave problem for contemporary society. The evidence of this self-destruction is apparent in the fact that Europe today is "more open to values that are foreign than to its own principles," Cardinal Ratzinger argued. He said that Europe today shuns anyone who dishonors the Jewish or Islamic faiths; but when a offense against Christianity occurs, "freedom of thought seems to be accepted as the supreme good."

Cardinal Ratzinger saw this tendency as a sign the "self-hatred of the West," which he described as "something pathological." Europe today, he said, is intent on gaining an understanding of the principles on which other civilizations are based, while ignoring its own. He said that "multiculturalism, which is so constantly and passionately encouraged and supported, sometimes amounts to an abandonment and disavowal of what is our own."

The rise of Islam in recent years, the cardinal said, is partly the result of the new wealth of the Arabic world, but also partly due to the fact that Islam offers "a valid spiritual basis for people's lives." In that respect the vigor of the Islamic faith contrasts with the decline of Christian culture in Europe. Similarly, he said, the interest in Asian religious traditions reflects a failure of Europeans to grasp their own spiritual heritage.

At the conclusion of his sobering speech, Cardinal Ratzinger said that faithful Christians should "recognize themselves as a creative minority" in today's Europe. The task before such Christians, he said, is to work for a revival of Europe's true Christian culture, "so that Europe regains the best of her identity, and puts herself in the service of all mankind."