Catholic World News

In powerful address to German lawmakers, Pope warns of 'cultureless' Europe

September 22, 2011

Pope Benedict XVI gave a powerful defense of the natural-law tradition, and an equally powerful critique of moral relativism, in an address to lawmakers during the first day of his visit to Germany.

In his September 22 speech to the Bundestag, the Holy Father said that the Nazi regime illustrated how a government that does not recognize objective standards of justice can become a nightmare regime.

"Without justice, what else is the state but a great band of robbers?" the Pope asked, citing the words of St. Augustine. He continued:

We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty specter. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the state became an instrument for destroying right--a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.

At the opening of his address, the Pope said that he wanted to offer "some thoughts on the foundations of a free state of law." His remarks drew a loud standing ovation from the appreciative members of the Bundestag. About 50 members had boycotted the papal address.

The work of a politician, the Pope said, cannot be aimed simply at a successful career. He reminded his audience of the example of King Solomon, who asked God for the gift of wisdom in judgment. “Through this story,” the Pope said, “the Bible wants to tell us what should ultimately matter for a politician. His fundamental criterion and the motivation for his work as a politician must not be success, and certainly not material gain. Politics must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace.”

Justice, the Pontiff continued, cannot always be ensure by a demographic vote:

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 Pope observed that this point is illustrated by our admiration for the resistance movements that fought against the tyranny of the Nazi regime and other inhumane governments, “thereby thereby doing a great service to justice and to humanity as a whole. For these people, it was indisputably evident that the law in force was actually unlawful.”

Pope Benedict went on to explain the Church’s support for the natural-law tradition: a tradition that also has roots in Greek philosophy. He said:

Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed body of law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law.

The tradition of government based on the fundamental principles of natural law has been the basic foundation for the legal system of Germany and other European nations, the Pope said. However, that tradition is now imperiled:

The idea of natural law is today viewed as a specifically Catholic doctrine, not worth bringing into the discussion in a non-Catholic environment, so that one feels almost ashamed even to mention the term.

In the absence of natural-law reasoning, the Pope observed, politicians find it impossible to discern clear and objective standards of justice. Consequently, he said, there is a widespread perception “that an unbridgeable gulf exists between ‘is’ and ‘ought.’” Positivism, with its insistence that reason cannot bridge the gap between facts and values, undermines the tradition on which society is built.

The Pope warned tbe German lawmakers:

Where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity. I say this with Europe specifically in mind…. with the result 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.


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  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Oct. 01, 2011 6:39 PM ET USA

    The Holy Father's analogy of the ecology of nature to the ecology of the nature of man is a brilliant insight into the objective basis for the universal moral principles of freedom, equality and dignity derived from the natural law and discerned by human reason which is the foundation of law and justice. The arrogant current positivist thinking dismisses man's cultural heritage by denying the wisdom and insights, the values and faith of its forebears,the foundation of western civilization.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 22, 2011 8:09 PM ET USA

    That is a magnificent address. What a tremendous Holy Father we have. Truth is beautiful! How withered those who refused to attend must feel.