By David Kerr
Pope Benedict XVI told the German parliament Sept. 22 that the country’s Nazi past highlights the dangers of power divorced from an objective morality rooted in the natural law.
“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,” he told the parliament, which is called the Bundestag.
The Pope described the Nazi regime as “a highly organized band of robbers,” which was “capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.”
The Pope was addressing the German parliament on the first day of his state visit. The speech was boycotted by some left-wing parliamentarians but, on the whole, the Pope found himself looking out upon a packed chamber.
Threatened protests in the surrounding streets also failed to materialize with police estimating “several thousand” demonstrators in the capital’s Potsdamer Platz, far fewer than organizers had predicted.
The Pope addressed the parliament as a “fellow-countryman who for all his life has been conscious of close links to his origins, and has followed the affairs of his native Germany with keen interest.”
The purpose of his 30-minute address, he said, was to provide “some thoughts on the foundations of a free state of law.”
The model of a good politician, he said, was King Solomon who upon accession to the throne asked not for success, wealth, long-life nor the destruction of his enemies but “for a listening heart so that he may govern God’s people, and discern between good and evil.”
This choice highlights that “politics must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace,” said the Pope.
These fundamental principles cannot simply be determined by a show of hands, he said, noting 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 said that “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, Christianity points to “nature and reason” as the true sources of law and to the “harmony of objective and subjective reason,” presupposing both to be rooted in “the creative reason of God.”
The Pope said the assumptions of “natural law” have been uprooted in the past century by the philosophy of “positivism” which asserts that the only authentic knowledge is that which is based on sense, experience and positive verification.
“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,” observed the Pope.
While not entirely dismissing positivism, the Pope said that it was insufficient as a sole guide to ethics. He noted, “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.”
Pope Benedict pictured life in a culture dominated by positivism as akin to living in “a concrete bunker with no windows,” one in which “we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world.”
Now, he said, was the time that “the windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.”
He suggested that rise of the green movement in Germany since the 1970s has been an example of a political movement which has moved thinking beyond the simply positivist ideas but added it was now time to develop “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. Man does not create himself,” said the Pope, suggesting that “the objective reason that manifests itself in nature” points toward “a creative reason, a Creator Spirit.”
It was this “conviction that there is a Creator God” that gave rise to the idea of inalienable human rights in the first place, he said.
“Our cultural memory is shaped by these rational insights. To ignore it or dismiss it as a thing of the past would be to dismember our culture totally and to rob it of its completeness.”
He concluded by saying that politicians should, like Solomon, as for a “listening heart” that would allow them to “discern between good and evil, and thus to establish true law, to serve justice and peace.”
Pope Benedict was met with a standing ovation after he completed his remarks.