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Pope Benedict XVI Among the Germans

September 29, 2011


It is with a particular fascination that I’ve been following the speeches that Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) has been delivering in his native Germany. We can certainly hear Herr Doktor Professor Ratzinger in the distinctively academic rhetoric of the addresses, but we also hear the voice of a pastor, uttering a cri de coeur to his wandering flock. In his first speech on the tarmac in Berlin, upon being welcomed by the officials of the German government, Benedict XVI specified that his main purpose was not to foster diplomatic relations between the German nation and the Vatican City State—as welcome as that would be—but rather to speak of God. 

This might appear a commonplace—a Pope talking about God—but Benedict uttered those words in what is generally acknowledged to be the most secularized area on the planet, a cultural region marked by a sort of forgetfulness of God, a setting aside of ultimate reality, a complacent resting in the goods and joys of the empirically verifiable world. Sociologists have suggested that the European culture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is the very first one ever to have embraced a predominantly secularist ideology—and nowhere is this secularism more apparent and more deeply rooted than in northern Germany. There are many reasons for this—anger at the Church, disagreement over particular moral positions that the Church has taken, a newly aggressive atheism, etc.—but I believe the principle cause is spiritual crisis prompted by the two terrible wars of the last century, fought largely on European soil and resulting in the deaths of tens of millions. Something in the European soul—especially the German soul—just broke in the twentieth century, and the damage has not yet been repaired. And so the Vicar of Christ has indeed come to his homeland as a kind of missionary.

It is especially instructive to read the Pope’s address before the German Reichstag under this missionary rubric. Benedict reminded the lawmakers and political leaders of Germany that the Catholic Church never derived a concrete program of law from the data of revelation, as did many other religions, most notably Islam (think of Sharia law). Instead, Catholicism relied on philosophical principles articulated by ancient Greek philosophy and on the practical wisdom inherent in the Roman legal tradition. This allowed for a richly independent flourishing of political traditions and practices within the Christian cultural ambit. Though Popes, emperors and kings certainly clashed in the course of the centuries, the Catholic tradition, at its best, never pushed toward theocracy; rather, it recognized the legitimate authority of the state and the freedom legislators needed to do their practical work. In a word, the Pope was saying to the German lawmakers, you should have no fear that the Church would seek to intervene in your work in a fussy, imperious manner. 

However, he also reminded his hearers that all law rests finally upon certain fundamental moral principles that are not themselves the proper subject of debate and deliberation. The positive law—the concrete statutes formulated by cities and states—nests within the natural moral law, which in turn nests within the eternal law of God. When that set of relationships is ignored, positive law degenerates into pure subjectivism and relativism—and finally into an expression of the will of the most powerful within the society. To concretize this point, he argued that the human rights so revered by the political theorists of the 18th century and so respected by the secularist political establishment of the West today are the moral absolutes upon which all legislative deliberation is properly founded. And he pressed the case: those rights are themselves grounded in the existence of God, for it is only a Creator who can guarantee the equality and dignity of each individual. A healthy democracy, accordingly, must operate within this moral and spiritual framework, or it will devolve in short order into something at the very least dysfunctional or at worst tyrannical. Speaking in the very building which Adolf Hitler’s followers set on fire in order to advance the Nazi program, Pope Benedict was not reluctant to invoke the example of Hitler in order to demonstrate what happens when the state sets the moral dimension aside and arrogates to itself the prerogatives of God.

The day after his address to the Reichstag, Pope Benedict journeyed to Erfurt, the little town where Martin Luther attended university and where he was ordained to the priesthood. There, in the ancient Augustinian monastery where Luther came of age spiritually, the Pope addressed an ecumenical gathering. He spoke of Luther’s enormous passion for God and his desire to know how he stood in regard to God. It was this burning preoccupation that conduced toward the development of the Reformer’s theology of justification by grace through faith. To be sure, Pope Benedict is not altogether comfortable with the manner in which Luther articulated the dynamics of salvation—the Pope is Catholic, after all—but he wanted to draw attention to Luther’s deep and abiding interest in God and the things of God. The last thing one would ever be tempted to say about the founder of the Reformation is that he had forgotten God—and this in itself makes him, Pope Benedict thinks, an important object of meditation for the secularized Europe of the early 21st century.