At this time of the year, walking from my apartment to the University, shop-windows would usually be all decked in Christmas finery. But instead, what I find are closing-down sales, “for rent” signs and locales completely boarded up. It has been like this for the past couple of years that it feels like the new normal. Living in Spain, where growth has been flat and unemployment sky-rocketing, nothing different could be expected. But what do we do now?
That’s when I remembered Benedict XVI’s address to the Bundestag last September. I have been discussing it with some friends, yet it never occurred to me until then that it could contain both a diagnosis and a remedy for the malaise that afflicts Europe. How could the Pope’s speech present Europe with a roadmap to recovery?
A “listening heart” for politicians
In the recent general elections in Spain, nothing weighed heavier in voters’ choices than the perceived ability of candidates to get the economy up and running. That’s what we want our politicians to deliver: wealth and prosperity, period. As for the rest, we could very well take care ourselves. Only a few cast their vote on the basis of the candidate’s “listening heart”, the ability to “discern between good and evil” (cf. 1 Kg 3:9), so this issue never really arises in campaigns. Yet, as Benedict suggests, this is “what should ultimately matter for a politician. His fundamental criterion and motivation […] must not be success, and certainly not material gain. Politics must be a striving for justice…”
Not to be misunderstood, the Pope explains that material success is necessary, because otherwise, there would be “no opportunity for effective political action at all. Yet success is subordinated to the criterion of justice, to the will to do what is right, and to the understanding of what is right.” Certainly, there is nothing quite as dangerous as political success without justice, power without law. In that case, as St. Augustine remarked, nothing would distinguish the State from a band of robbers, or worse, from an instrument of destruction that could threaten the whole world, as the German experience with Nazism has shown. “To serve right and to fight against the dominion of wrong is and remains the fundamental task of the politician,” Benedict unequivocally asserts.
Democracy alone is insufficient
Having been brought into power in Germany through a democratic process, the Nazi regime itself is proof 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”. Although in most matters subject to law — as in a state’s decision to form part of the European Union or to adopt the euro, for instance — majority rule is enough to provide legitimacy, this does not always apply. Instead, when unjust laws put basic human rights under threat, such as the right of parents to educate their children, citizens have a duty to struggle and resist.
In modern liberal democracies, it may be fairly simple to acknowledge that the State and, by extension, its laws are not always right — hence the possibility of challenging the State and bringing it to court, whenever it becomes too much of a nuisance. But, what is to keep such conflicts between citizens and the State from becoming mere contests of money, power or influence? Is there anything else in our disputes beyond conflicts of self-interest? Granted that “what is right and may be given the force of law is in no way simply self-evident today”, could we still claim that something in itself is right and just? On what grounds?
Not religion, but nature and reason
Surprisingly, Benedict does not posit religion, not even Christianity, as a source of law for society and the State. Instead, he puts forward the interrelation of reason and nature as the basis of a universal “natural law”, in keeping with the teachings not only of the Stoïcs, Romans and medieval Schoolmen, but also of some legal scholars of the Enlightenment, all of whom influenced the “Founding Fathers” of the Declaration of Human Rights and the drafters of the German Basic Law. Behind this is the conviction that reason itself is capable of discovering in nature the principles of its proper functioning, even without the help of religion and revelation. Not that religion and revelation are useless; they aid reason in discerning the laws of nature, although in principle, reason alone can also do this by itself. Thus, reason acts as the moral conscience, “Solomon’s listening heart […] that is open to the language of being.”
How “natural law” got de-natured
It is quite unfortunate that the very idea of “natural law” has been all but lost, confined almost exclusively within Catholic circles. This is due to the widespread rejection of the so-called “naturalistic fallacy”, according to which “an ‘ought’ [a duty or obligation] can never follow from an ‘is’ [a statement of fact], because the two are situated on completely different planes.” The problem, however, is that this inference itself is based on a reductive and therefore false concept of nature: a purely positivist understanding which sees nature as merely “an aggregate of objective data linked together in terms of cause and effect” — as we find, for example, in the legal philosopher Hans Kelsen.
Positivism also views reason as limited to the realm of empirical science, to what is verifiable or falsifiable, while everything else, such as ethics and religion, is exiled to the realm of feelings and sentiments. “This is a dramatic situation which affects everyone, and on which a public debate is necessary,” Benedict observes. Furthermore, he establishes as the “essential goal” of his address the “urgent invitation” to launch such a public and political debate on these matters.
Europe and the ecological awakening
The positivist view of nature and reason is incorrect not in what it affirms, thanks to which we have scaled such heights of achievement in the sciences, but in what it denies. “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.” Nowhere is this more evident than in present-day Europe, where positivism has been installed as the de facto common culture and grounds for legislation. At the same time, gravely disappointed with the results of integration, not least in the economic sphere, Europeans increasingly turn their backs on this culture of “culturelessness” and embrace extremist and radical ideologies. Thus, we have shut ourselves from the light and the air of God’s wide world and set ourselves on course to a slow death by suffocation, to follow Benedict’s metaphor.
Since a few decades back, however, there have been signs of an awakening, especially among the young, in the face of all this irrationality. The Pope has sensed it in the extraordinary appeal of the ecological movement in Germany. It rests on the realization that nature “is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives.”
Benedict agrees, but challenges the green movement by pointing out that there is also an “ecology of man”: “Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. […] [H]e is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is […] In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”
Human beings, therefore, no less than the world that surrounds them, are subject to laws and norms that do not come from their own will. Where, then, do these principles originate? In response to Kelsen, Benedict asks, “Is it really pointless to wonder whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason, a Creator Spiritus?”
Only after this question is seriously considered can Europe embark on a moral renewal, in many ways much more urgent than mere economic recovery. We ought to remember that Europe was born at the crossroads “between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome —from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law.” From this cross-fertilization have issued “[t]he conviction that there is a Creator God [that] gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions.” Together, they form the cornerstone of law that today, more than ever, ought to be defended.
To sum up: after a careful reading of Benedict XVI’s speech at the German parliament, here are some guidelines for the renewal of Europe:
* We should not choose our political leaders solely on their promises to bring us material well-being, but above all, for their moral rectitude or “listening heart”.
* Democracy has to abide by certain principles exempt from the majority rule in order to function properly.
* These universal principles pertain to “natural law”: they are conclusions that human reason draws from an attentive study of nature.
Europe will recover only to the extent that it reconciles itself with its “natural law” tradition and abandons the tyranny of positivism. In this regard, the ecological movement has already shown the way.
Alejo José G. Sison is a philosophy professor who specializes in Business Ethics at the University of Navarre. He is also president of the European Business Ethics Network (EBEN).