We publish here the splendid speech delivered by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, on the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Benedict of Nursia as Patron Saint of Europe, which took place Saturday, October 25 in the saint’s hometown, present-day Norcia in central Italy. The theme of his speech was “The Church’s Contribution to Europe’s Future”.
Ever since the process for European unification was begun — launched by the great pro-European Catholics Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schumann — the Christian roots of Europe have been evoked at conferences, in publications and other arenas. A Europe whose spiritual and cultural identity, developed over these past two millennia, traces its origins from an inheritance guaranteed by the names Athens, Jerusalem and Rome. Mecca and Medina won’t be discussed in the present context.
But we won’t be focusing on this today. Rather, we look towards the future, and we ask: what contribution can be given by the Catholic Church — which passed this inheritance down to us, and continues to do so today — to shape the Europe of the future, so that it can become more humane and worthy of man’s dignity, and therefore a Europe that corresponds to the Creator’s will?
Besides this, we mustn’t forget that the Church not only announces the Gospel of Jesus Christ: it has always been seen, too, as the custodian of our natural spiritual heritage, of all that is true, good and beautiful. Grace implies nature. This means that, even before announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church’s contribution to Europe’s future consists of restoring, so to say, the natural basis of human life and of human society.
TODAY’S SOCIAL REALITY
To realize that this restoration is of vital necessity, it is enough for us to look — even superficially — at today’s social reality. It is showing signs of drying up, morally, at unimaginable levels.
Let me cite some examples.
The life and health of Europe’s citizens are put in jeopardy through the production and distribution of food that has gone bad. Contractors use poor-quality materials, increasing the risk that buildings may collapse. Economic operators make ill-considered speculations, creating chaos in financial markets. Children are kidnapped, mutilated and murdered, so their organs can be sold on the international market. Special financial interest groups can be found behind dubious biotechnological research. To these we can add the decades-long scandal of abortion, and the related and expanding scandal of euthanasia. And here I will stop.
By now, all of these issues form part of our daily life, meaning that they are less noticed than previously. They are signs of decay and deterioration in humanity and culture — a return to barbarianism — of almost unthinkable proportions. We are faced with a worrisome question: is it possible to use such a foundation to build a Europe worth living in? A Europe we can wish to pass on to future generations?
NATURAL MORAL LAW
The Church’s hour, the hour of Catholics, has arrived. First and foremost there exists moral law, of which the Catholic Church considers itself, and proves itself, always to have been the primary player. Of course, natural moral law isn’t only Catholic: it is not a law that exists only for Catholics. This is why papal pronouncements on ethics are made “to all people of good will,” since its norms and principles don’t stem only from Biblical revelation, but also from the essence of man, the world and nature. It is in this sense that we speak also of natural law. Opposed to this concept, naturally we find the lively protests of the legal positivist school, which wants to recognize as law only that which has been declared so by a legitimate legislative authority, of whatever type.
But this approach opens the door to an uncontrollable relativism of law, whose consequences cannot help but make the same theory collapse on itself.
The legal positivists’ dilemma becomes evident if we look at the example of the Nuremberg trials. There is no doubt that the violent National Socialist regime came to power through legal channels. The constitutional institutions that it created, therefore, were also legislatively legitimate. This means that the laws that regime created, which prohibited so-called mixed marriages, ordered forced sterilizations of people with presumed genetic problems and the murder of mentally disabled people, and many other laws, were, according to legal positivism, simply applications of the law.
Does it follow that it was right to bring to trial and punish the people who had applied those laws? Or were they only innocent victims of the revenge of the winning powers? To sum it up, legal positivism leads society astray, and results in chaos.
What remains is natural moral law, which is the result of metaphysical order that dwells in all of creation, and can be acknowledged through reason. It is what the Church has proclaimed since its origins, and it has been developed and explained by philosophy and scholarly theology: it is the only solid base for individual and social moral life.
It is obvious that, when the Church proclaims this moral law, it finds strong opposition on behalf of diverging philosophical systems of the modern era, and there is no reason to believe that this will change in the future.
We must remember, though, that, human nature is unchanging in time and space, so if individual and social life must function, mankind’s morality must point itself towards principles and rules that also pass through time and space, as resulting from the nature-person of man.
In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II observes that “only by obedience to universal moral norms does man find full confirmation of his personal uniqueness and the possibility of authentic moral growth (…) These norms, in fact, represent the unshakable foundation and solid guarantee of a just and peaceful human coexistence, and hence of genuine democracy” (no. 96).
“In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence, both on the national and international levels” (no. 97).
This is a matter of a set of principles and norms that — it is good to repeat — existed well before any legislation, since it is rooted in the order of being itself. To pass the test of justice, any legislation must gauge itself against these principles. Graziano once affirmed, “Ius autem dictum, quia iustum est” or “Law is what is just,” not the opposite: “Justice is what is law.”
If the first contribution the Church can make is the reference to the fundamental importance of natural law for Europe’s future, the second one is to get society to understand what truth means for that society.
The mere mention of this term raises a storm of objections, and we accept this with serenity. Pontius Pilate found many successors, both in ancient times and more recent ones. And there is no end to the list of definitions of the truth.
Still, the philosophical “currents” of thought — we can’t really refer to them as actual systems — that have spread especially since the late 17th century, must accept that the question be posed to them: what social, cultural and political fruits have been brought about by their having forgotten the truth?
Above all, there are utilitarians such as Thomas Hobbes, John Stewart Mill, and Auguste Conte, for whom the deciding criterion in human action is its usefulness, or rather success. A classical example of applied utilitarianism is the high priest Caiaphas, who, among other things, justifies Jesus’ death sentence saying that it is better for one man to die instead of the whole nation being destroyed. Whether the accusations are true or false has no importance for the utilitarian philosopher.
Then there is pragmatism — typical of the America of the 19th century — that teaches that truth doesn’t have a precise meaning, but it is only the result of a type of thought that is useful when dealing with practical matters. The criterion for truth is feasibility. We are reminded here of Pontius Pilate, who creates peace and order in Jerusalem, frees the crowd’s idol, Barabbas, and has Jesus crucified. He didn’t pose the question of the definition of truth, either.
Even more radical is relativism, which announces, with emphasis, that absolute, complete truth — and therefore generally valid moral norms — don’t exist, nor can they exist, because every recognition depends on individual or social-cultural circumstances, which are constantly changing. Whoever affirms to have recognized the truth is subjected to judgment, condemnation and harsh intolerance by the relativists, who, however, in carrying their relativism to extremes, render it absurd.
It isn’t too far off the mark to state that the causes of the great catastrophes of the 20th century, much as the current phenomena of decline stated earlier, can be found, prevalently, in this highly diffused mentality for which truth isn’t relevant.
And so it is vital to emphasize the rediscovery of the importance of truth for our thoughts and actions. The deciding question we need to pose must not be “Why should I do that?” or “Is it feasible?” but rather “Is it true?” “Does it correspond to the truth?” Asking these questions, if only in ecclesiastical circles, would mean making a primary contribution to what Benedict XVI defined as “liberation from forms of the mundane” and which Pope Francis demands.
The answer presupposes, necessarily, the existence and awareness of a truth that transcends the subjective. Without this, communication among people or communities is impossible. Without this, we arrive at the “atomizing” of society, in which the single “atoms,” the people, are next to one another or against one another: this can only produce Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all” (“bellum omnium contra omnes”) and cause a man to be “a wolf to his fellow man” (“homo homini lupus”).
The above-mentioned schools of thought, utilitarianism and pragmatism, must not be rejected only on the basis of their devastating practical consequences, but they must be considered unsustainable above all for their internal contradictions. The truth of reason, which no one doubts, would be absurd if it weren’t for the existence and the recognizable nature of the truth. What would we need reason for? Only to demonstrate that truth doesn’t exist? Without truth, reason is inconsistent, and therefore useless.
In a similar way, the fact that eyes and ears exist points to the existence of forms and colors, or sounds and noise, if we don’t want to consider eyes and ears as useless whimsies of evolution.
Analogously, even relativism brings itself towards the absurd. If everyone has his or her own individual truth, it is inevitable for many of these truths to contradict one another, to clash. But since within relativism there doesn’t exist an absolute criterion for true and false, or rather good and evil, the consequence can only be total paralysis and chaos. Relativism, as a school of thought, proves itself to be wrong for other reasons as well.
There does exist, however, the direct experience of truth, which can be confirmed by reality. The truth of a medical theory can be confirmed when we apply it and healing occurs. Another example: if it is possible, with physical and mathematical calculations, for astronauts to land in a specific quadrant of the Moon, this is only because the laws of physics on which the endeavor is based, and the calculations made with those laws, are true. To be able to touch, first-hand, the correspondence between reality and intellect (“adaequatio intellectus et rei”), in cases such as these, is an extraordinary intellectual experience!
Regardless of the fact that neither human reason nor the universe can be explained by themselves (but only as part of created reality), the most surprising thing in all of this is the perfect harmony, the intertwining, the reciprocal reference of thought and being, truth and reality. This however refers us unavoidably to an application that stands above, and embraces, all thought and being, and that is the Creator Spiritus.
THE TRANSCENDENCE OF GOD
If up to now we have spoken of the fundamental importance of rediscovering natural moral law and truth, for the future of Europe and the world, the reference just made to the Creator of the world and of man brings the topic around to the quintessential theme, and that is “God.” Just as human life can’t succeed if not for natural moral law and being rooted in truth, so the existence of the world and of man cannot be conceived without God. This is a matter of making today’s and tomorrow’s European society aware of its fundamental transcendental point of reference.
An individual or a society that doesn’t recognize, or willingly negates, this essential relationship with the transcendental, cuts itself off from the decisive dimension of human existence. On principle, this equals a renunciation of all that is true, good, beautiful and healthy: this fact is evident if we take into consideration that the font of all that is finitely true, good, beautiful and healthy is the infinite and eternal Creator of every being. In essence, the decisive contribution the Church can make for the future of Europe consists of keeping open access to the transcendental.
THE METHOD: “HUMANUM”
At this point, one may be surprised that I have described the contribution the Church can make to the future of Europe, but I haven’t dedicated one single word to the Christian faith, revelation or the Gospel, while the new evangelization of our Continent remains one of the Church’s basic, great preoccupations.
But I haven’t been remiss. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the “Court of the Gentiles,” referring to the space in front of the Temple in Jerusalem where even non-Jews could enter.
Indeed, before the Church announces the Gospel, it sees itself as an advocate for mankind, for “humanum.” This is why it considers one of its tasks that of repairing the foundations of humanity.
The Church navigates in a pre-religious space, and that is why it can enter into dialogue with any interlocutor who isn’t prejudiced and who is open to rational debate. In such an anode as this, the prerequisites can be created for announcing and accepting the Gospel. As it seeks to bring society’s conscience back to natural moral law, the importance of truth and reference to God in the world and in man, the Church prepares to sow the seeds of the Gospel over the parched terrain that has been poisoned by the ideologies of the 20th century.
THE FORCE OF REASON
It is now time to ask, though, whether such an effort is destined for success. It is certain that the influence held by the Church on a society that sees itself as secular is determined first of all by the number of faithful and their social and political weight. The Church has only the influence and power that society concedes. Parenthetically, this however also means that the negative phenomena in Europe’s more recent history were not born through the activation of Christian principles, but rather through the estrangement from them. It is right to remember, too, that today’s and tomorrow’s politicians, unlike those of the late 19th century and the period following World War II, do not have a political arm available to them, as the Christian parties of the past did. Moreover, the media, which determines public opinion, with ever rarer exceptions finds itself in hands that certainly are not disposed to help the Church’s mission.
So what chances do the Church and Catholics have to contribute, in the ways mentioned above, to Europe’s future?
The only thing left to them is the strength of argumentation, of reasoning. And this reasoning, apart from all the rest, is mainly a utopian matter: what could this Europe be like, what type of society could be born, what culture could be created, if the Europe of tomorrow were to use, as a model for its ever-more unified continent, the Magna Carta of Catholic understanding of mankind and the world? It would imply natural law in its classical application, the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the Sermon on the Mount of the New: these would form the basis for gauging both private and social life. There is no doubt that such a society would be much more humane than one in which the power of the stronger elements facilitates unbridled individual selfishness, where the weakest have no possibilities, and where money, power and pleasure are considered life’s highest goals.
If, on the other hand, the Constitution were assigned to regulating the defense of the person, the responsibility of the individual for the whole, respect towards the creator and the created, and the dignity of marriage and the family, then certainly paradise on earth wouldn’t follow. Still, on this basis, despite the fragility of earthly accomplishments, a society could be born that would be far more humane compared to the one we live in today. Might it be similar to Kant’s utopia of “perpetual peace”? As Marx’s utopia of a society without classes, utopias deploy their own strength, which, in Marx’s case, is a destructive one. So why shouldn’t the utopia of a Christian Europe also give proof of its modeling, constructive dynamic?
In the meantime, Europe can look back on a century of catastrophes, born as consequences of National Socialist and Marxist ideologies whose error was finally shown to the world in such a despotic manner. In today’s tragic social-economic situation, one asks whether this Europe, shaken by the economic crisis, might not want to let its curiosity and courage get the best of it and dare to try the “Catholic experiment.”
This question is an appeal to all people who, by way of their preparation and social position, may be able to influence the formation of that part of public conscience that, at the least, doesn’t close itself off to the Christian message. This means that every one of us, in our own sphere, needs to sustain this goal with awareness and tenacity.
Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, Ph.D., a respected historian, is President Emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences. Brandmüller was born in 1929 in Ansbach, Germany.