by Armin Schwibach

No era prior has been as facile, as superficial, in the vision it has formulated about man's nature and destiny, as our own. This is all the more remarkable in that our era knows so little about what man really is.

Modernity in the West has brought us a devotion to boredom, a consumerism of the available. The human spirit rambles in the labyrinth of the universe. The labyrinth becomes an end in itself.

This is our predicament: the modern world has become incapable even of asking St. Thoma’ question: “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) not to mention incapable of hearing the answer of the Lord: “I am the way, the truth and the light” (John 14:6).

The world no longer understands either the question or the answer. And this is the true measure of our crisis.

The dominant philosophy of our time has argued the impossibility of every absolute truth, of every god, of every foundation for human nature which withdraws that nature from the contingent process of becoming. In short, the dominant world view of our age is a thorough-going relativism, without any absolutes.

Out of a relativism with regard to the nature and behavior of human beings ? with regard to what is “right” and what is “wrong” ? comes a more general relativism about the nature and structure of reality itself. A world with no absolutes, with no fixed point outside of space and time, with no God, is a world without any horizon outside of itself. It is a thoroughly “secular” world.

And this is the world we now inhabit, not only in the West, but throughout the world, in the early 21st century.

Secularism, secular relativism: this the great challenge of our time. Pope Benedict said this in a meeting with the young from the diocese of Rome on April 6, 2006. Secularism means “a type of living, in which the world is presented ‘si Deus non daretur’, as if God does not exist,” he said.

Secularism is a condition of being in which transcendence, God, and religious life are banned into the privacy of emotional sentiments and can no longer be experienced, accepted and lived as an objective, true reality. In a secularized world, religious language is emptied of its content, for everything which points beyond the secular, beyond “this age,” is no longer real.

This is why it is so difficult to be at once part of the modern world, and a believer. This is the root of our crisis of faith.

Science and technology have taken over the outer authority and left the person alone. In this isolated loneliness, different “lifestyles” face each other, with none of them being more “right” than any other. All is relative. And what is the final result of this worldview, the dominant world-view of our age? In the end, it is a view of things which proves unlivable, leading to a loss of all meaning, and so to despair.

In this world ? our world ? the presence of God becomes a limitation of one's freedom, instead of defining the nature of true freedom in a personal experience and encounter with Him.

What our forefathers in faith saw and taught as the intellectual-spiritual-material unity of mankind, under God, is, step by step, being reduced to its ever-changing, always unreliable, “relative” individual aspects.

Benedict XVI observes: “The contemporary world is marked by the process of secularization. Through complex cultural and social events, the modern world has not only claimed a just autonomy for science and the organization of society, but it has all too often also obliterated the link between temporal realities and their Creator, even to the point of neglecting to safeguard the transcendent dignity of human beings and a respect for human life itself.”

And now, the paradox. This secular world view, this way of living “as if there were no God,” no transcendent “truth” of any type, as it grows ever more radical, no longer satisfies men.

Benedict has noted this. And this has led him to say that there is hope, even in this perilous situation of a world that seems to have abandoned God. Because, if this world no longer satisfies human beings, it suggests that “perhaps new spaces are opening up for a profitable dialogue with society and not only with the faithful, especially on important themes such as those relating to life.”

Why is there this individual and social discomfort with radical secularism? Because the Christian tradition has deeply formed the occident. In peoples with a long Christian tradition, says the Pope, there are still seeds of a humanism which the arguments of nihilistic philosophy have not yet reached. Indeed, these seeds tend to germinate more vigorously, the more serious the challenges become.

Thus, the time of crisis becomes a time of a potential return to a contemplation of the personal roots of our lives.

These roots have a double nature for every Christian: in the natural law, and in faith; and these two are in harmony. The faithful are well aware, says Benedict XVI, “that the Gospel is in an intrinsic harmony with the values engraved in human nature. Thus, God's image is deeply impressed in the soul of the human being, the voice of whose conscience it is far from easy to silence.”

Here, Benedict XVI lays down an anthropological- theological argument which can help us move toward recovery of faith and authentic human life.

From the concept of man as an image of God there follows a conviction of the inalienable dignity of his being. This has been formulated in our codes of human rights.

The Church, says the Pope, “proclaims and proposes this truth (of man's dignity) not only with the authority of the Gospel, but also with the power that derives from reason. This is precisely why she feels duty bound to appeal to every person of good will in the certainty that the acceptance of these truths cannot but benefit individuals and society.”

There are two main types of secular states which have emerged in the West: the European type and the American type. European secularism is rooted in the tradition of the French Revolution and of French Republican thought. It establishes itself politically in a “strong state” which defines the content and structure of public life in its legislation. But the democratic and constitutional order which emerges as the structure for this state requires no ethical or religious preconditions. The sphere of religion, faith and God is radically divided from the public sphere. These states are radically secular.

The second model is the result of the American Revolution and the constitutional history of the United States. The fundamental American concept consists in the fact that the individual rights of the citizen limit the power of the state. The basis of public authority is the natural recognition that “something” precedes the state. The divine belongs to a pre-state sphere, though this “divine” is not defined as a specific faith.

Both the European and American models share a basic principle ? that the state's constitution is not conditioned by unalterable ethical or religious principles. This brings to the fore a question: can ethical and religious principles take up a dialogue with the public constitutional order of these modern secular states?

In this context, it may be useful to take a brief diversion. Every human game takes place within the framework of a set of rules. The absence of rules makes the game impossible. Children know this particularly well: killjoys are those who don't accept the existing and accepted rules of the others and hence ruin the game. Killjoys simply want to eliminate the rules of the game. On the other hand, the defender of the playing community tries to ensure the health of the principles and improve the game's rules.

Benedict XVI believes there is a legitimate place for a “healthy secularism” as an essential element of the “global game.” Benedict has said that temporal realities may be governed according to temporal norms, if this does not exclude those ethical references that are ultimately founded in religion. In other words, “the autonomy of the temporal sphere does not exclude close harmony with the superior and complex requirements that derive from an integral vision of man and his eternal destiny.”

The Pope has again and again formulated the wish that the reflections of secular legislators always “integrate the dignity and basic rights of man. These values must precede every jurisdiction. These basic rights are not created by the legislator but are written into the nature of man. Hence, they must be traced back to the Creator.”

If secular thought and action contradicts the religious nature and transcendent dignity of man, or even opposes it in a hostile way, secular thought has failed in its mission.

In other words, a modern democracy faces certain limits on its authority to legislate, even if a majority agree and vote to take a certain course. Democracy is only true if it bases itself on pre-democratic principles.

Paragraphs 68 to 77 of John Paul II’s encyclical Evangeliurn Vitae of 1995 are the source of some of Benedict XVI’s thought. Starting from the “present-day attacks on human life,” Pope John Paul 11 saw the attempts to legitimate those attacks as indefensible. “In the democratic culture of our time it is commonly held that the legal system of any society should limit itself to taking account of and accepting the convictions of the majority. It should therefore be based solely upon what the majority itself considers moral and actually practices” (Nr. 69).

This conviction over time led to a radical division between private and public morality, insofar as an objective access is being denied to the ethical basics in favor of individual freedom. The consequence? What Pope Benedict bemoans: ethical relativism.

This ethical relativism is falsely viewed as a tolerant element of democratic states and as a denial of authoritarianism. The emerging problem consists in the fact that in this way democracy assumes a dimension which it is not entitled to have. Democracy becomes a “myth” making it “a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality” (Nr. 70).

Democracy must justify itself. Democracy as such is not moral. John Paul 11 clearly says: its jurisdiction must be in conformity to the moral law just “like every other form of human behavior.” The value of democracy comes and goes with the values it embraces: “The basis of these values cannot be provisional and changeable ‘majority’ opinions, but only the acknowledgment of an objective moral law which, as the ‘natural law’ written in the human heart, is the obligatory point of reference for civil law itself” (Nr.70).

Truth and freedom are indivisibly related to each other: truth makes us free. Freedom lets the truth be recognized: “If, as a result of a tragic obscuring of the collective conscience, an attitude of skepticism were to succeed in bringing into question even the fundamental principles of the moral law, the democratic system itself would be shaken in its foundations, and would be reduced to a mere mechanism for regulating different and opposing interests on a purely empirical basis” (Nr. 70).

In this respect, both Popes are defenders of democracy in the true sense, which they see as endangered by an ever-more dominant relativism. John Paul and Benedict speak with one voice: the dignity of man and his existential reference to the transcendent must be the substantial criteria of all legislation. The state cannot enact laws under purely pragmatic or relativistic circumstances which contradict, menace or even destroy human dignity. For Benedict XVI, the liberty of the secular state and hence the liberty of all citizens does not consist in a free game of all possibilities. Such a liberty becomes a dangerous ideology.

In this sense, Benedict XVI proves himself to be the great mediator, a man of great openness towards civil society, which should be integrated into the life of the Church. In this “Benedictine vision,” the Church does not act against the civilliberty of the state. The Church attempts to defend in the secular state the truth that freedom does not lie within an unjustified, liberal-democratic absolution of oneself or undifferentiated “majorities” but finds its sense only as a type of freedom shared before the claims of the absolute. Via this freedom, the truth becomes evident, and only through this truth can freedom long endure.

Armin Schwibach
 is a German theologian in Rome.

 ¢éÍÁÙŨҡ : Inside the Vatican, May 2006, pp. 38-40.

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