Published August 10, 2011
The Catholic Difference
World Youth Day 2011, to be held in Madrid from August 16-21, will be an important moment in Pope Benedict XVI’s campaign to remind Europe of its Christian roots and to call Europe to a nobler understanding of democracy. As the Holy Father demonstrated in an address in Zagreb, Croatia, in early June, the two parts of that campaign—the recovery of Christian roots and the deepening of 21st century Europe’s idea of democracy—go together.
In remarks to Croatia’s religious, political, business, and cultural leaders in Zagreb’s National Theater, the Pope refined into six digestible propositions the case he has been making about religion-and-society ever since his election to the papacy in 2005:
1. Religious conviction is not something outside society; it is part of society’s inner core: “Religion is not a separate area marked off from society…[but] a natural element within society, constantly recalling the vertical dimension: attentive listening to God as the condition for seeking the common good, for seeking justice and reconciliation in the truth.”
2. The human element in religion is imperfect and flawed; there is no shame in admitting this, for reason can help refine religious passion: “Religions need always to be purified according to their true essence in order to correspond to their true mission.”
3. Ancient religions should welcome the political achievements of modernity while calling modernity to open its windows and doors to a world of transcendent truth and love: “…the great achievements of the modern age—the recognition and guarantee of freedom of conscience, of human rights, of the freedom of science and hence of a free society—should be confirmed and developed while keeping reason and freedom open to their transcendent foundation, so as to ensure that these achievements are not undone…The quality of social and civil life and the quality of democracy depend in large measure on this critical point—conscience, on the way it is understood and the way it is informed.”
4. “Conscience” is not a matter of determining what I want to do and then doing it; “conscience” is my search for truths that can be known to be true and then binding myself to those truths, which stand in judgment on me and on society: “If, in keeping with the prevailing modern idea, conscience is reduced to the subjective field to which religion and morality have been banished, then the crisis of the West has no remedy and Europe is destined to collapse upon itself. If, on the other hand, conscience is rediscovered as the place in which to listen to truth and good, the place of responsibility before God and before fellow human beings—in other words, the bulwark against all forms of tyranny—then there is hope for the future.”
5. Europe detached from its Christian roots will wither and die, for, in the name of a dessicated secularism, it will have cut itself off from one of the sources of its cultural vitality: “I am grateful to [those who remind us] of the Christian roots of many of the cultural and academic institutions of this country, as indeed all over the European Continent. We need to be reminded of these origins, not least for the sake of historical truth, and it is important that we understand these roots properly, so that they can feed the present day, too.”
6. The Church does not seek a direct role in politics; the Church forms the people who can shape the culture that makes democratic self-governance work: “It is by forming consciences that the Church makes her most specific and valuable contribution to society. It is a contribution that begins in the family and is strongly reinforced in the parish, where…[we] learn to deepen [our] knowledge of the sacred Scriptures, the ‘great codex’ of European culture …”
These six points, while obviously contested, are also considered, well, obvious by many, many Americans. That’s not the case in Europe, where Benedict XVI’s social doctrine is regarded as wildly counter-cultural—even as it offers Europe what may be its last chance. I hope someone is listening.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.