The optimism as regards the victory of the European element, which Arnold Toynbee was still able to uphold at the beginning of the sixties, looks strangely outdated today. “Of the 28 cultures we have identified…18 are dead and nine out of the ten remainingin fact all except our ownshow that they are already mortally wounded.” Who would still repeat these words today? And in general, what is our culture, what’s left of it? Is the civilization of technique and commerce spread victoriously throughout the world actually European culture? Or was this not perhaps rather born, in a post-European way, from the end of the ancient European cultures? I see here a paradoxical synchrony.
The victory of the techno-secular post-European world; with the universalization of its model of life and of its way of thinking, is linked throughout the world, but especially in the strictly non-European worlds of Asia and Africa, to the impression that Europe’s world of values, its culture and its faith, that on which its identity is based, has reached the end and has actually already left the stage, that now the hour of other worlds’ values has arrived, of pre-Colombian America, of Islam, of Asian mysticism.
Europe, precisely in this its hour of maximum success, seems to have become empty inside, paralyzed in a certain sense by a crisis in its circulatory system, a crisis that puts its life at risk, resorting, as it were, to transplants that cannot but eliminate its identity. To this interior failure of its fundamental spiritual powers corresponds the fact that, even ethnically, Europe appears to be on the way out.
There is a strange lack of desire for a future. Children, who are the future, are seen as a threat for the present; the idea is that they take something away from our life. They are not felt as a hope, but rather as a limitation of the present. We are forced to make comparisons with the Roman Empire at the time of its decline: it still worked as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already living off those who would dissolve it, since it had no more vital energy.
With this point we have reached the problems of the present day. As regards the possible future of Europe, there are two opposite diagnoses. On one hand there is the thesis of Oswald Spengler, who believed he could define a kind of natural law for the great cultural expressions: there is a moment of birth, the gradual growth, the flourishing of a culture, then the on-come of weariness, old age and death. Spengler embroiders his thesis impressively, with documentation taken from the history of cultures, in which this law of natural evolution can be discerned.
His thesis was that the West had reached its final epoch, which is moving inexorably towards the death of this cultural continent, despite all efforts to avert it. This thesis, labelled as biologistic, found ardent opponents in the period between the two world wars, especially in Catholic circles. Arnold Toynbee, too, reacted against it in a striking way, with postulates that, of course, today find little hearing. Toynbee points out the difference between material-technical progress on one hand and real progress on the other, which he defines as spiritualization. He admits that the Westthe western worldis in crisis, and he sees the cause for this in the decline from religion to the worship of technique, of nation, of militarism. Ultimately, for him, the crisis means secularism.
So the question is: is this diagnosis correct? And if so, is it within our power to reintroduce the religious moment, in a synthesis of residual Christianity and mankind’s religious heritage? In the end, the question between Spengler and Toynbee remains open, because we cannot see into the future. But independently of that, we must face up to the task of asking ourselves what the future can guarantee us, and what is able to keep alive the interior identity of Europe through all the historical metamorphoses. Or even more simply, what promises, for today and tomorrow, too, to impart human dignity and an existence that conforms to that dignity?
Thus we are faced with the question: how are things to go ahead? In the violent turbulence of our time, is there a European identity that has a future and for which we can commit ourselves with our whole being? I am not prepared to enter into a detailed discussion on the future European Constitution. I would just like to indicate briefly the fundamental moral elements, which to my mind should not be missing.
The first element is the “unconditionality” with which human dignity and human rights must be presented as values that precede any jurisdiction on the part of the state. These basic rights are not created by the legislator, nor conferred on the citizens, “but rather exist in their own right, are always to be respected by the legislator, are given previously to him as values of a superior order.” This validity of human dignity, previous to every political action and to every political decision, refers back ultimately to the Creator: only He can establish values that are founded on the essence of man and that are intangible. That there be values that cannot be manipulated by anyone is the real, true guarantee of our freedom and of man’s greatness; Christian faith sees in this the mystery of the Creator and of the condition of the image of God that He conferred upon man.
Now, almost no one these days would directly deny the precedence of human dignity and basic human rights over all political decisions; the horrors of Nazism and its racist theories are still too recent. But in the concrete sphere of the so-called progress of medicine there are very real threats to these values: whether we think of cloning, or of the conservation of human foetuses for organ donation, or of the whole field of genetic manipulationno one can ignore the gradual erosion of human dignity that threatens us here. Added to this are the growth in the traffic of human persons, of new forms of slavery, trafficking in human organs for transplant. Good ends are always adopted in order to justify what is unjustifiable. In these sectors there are some hard and fast rules in the Charter of basic human rights we can be happy with, but on some important points it is still too vague. And it is precisely here that we jeopardize the seriousness of the principle at stake.
The second point in which the European identity appears is marriage and the family. Monogamous marriage, as the basic structure of the relationship between man and woman and, at the same time, as the cell of the formation of the state community, is derived from biblical faith. This has given Western Europe as well as Eastern Europe, its own particular face and its own particular humanity, precisely because the form of fidelity and self-denial set out here had always to be conquered, over and over again, with much effort and suffering. Europe would no longer be Europe if this fundamental cell of its social structure were to disappear or be essentially changed.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights speaks of the right to marriage, but does not express any specific protection for marriageeither juridical or moralnor give it a more precise definition. And we all know how threatened marriage and the family are at presenton one hand by eroding their indissolubility through easier forms of divorce, and on the other hand by means of a new and more and more widespread lifestyle, the cohabitation of man and woman without the juridical form of marriage.
In stark contrast to all this is the request for communion of life between homosexuals, who paradoxically now demand a juridical form having the same value as marriage. This tendency marks a departure from the system of mankind’s moral history, which, notwithstanding all the diverse juridical forms of marriage, always recognized that marriage is, in its essence, the particular communion of man and woman that is open to children and thus to the family.
This is not a question of discrimination, but rather the question of what the human person is, as man and woman, and of how the togetherness of man and woman can be given a juridical form. If on one hand their togetherness is more and more detached from juridical forms, and on the other hand, homosexual union is seen more and more as having the same value as marriage, then we are before a dissolution of man’s image that can have only extremely grave consequences.
My last point is the religious question. I do not want to enter into the complex discussions of recent years, but to focus on only one aspect that is fundamental for all cultures: respect for what the other holds sacred, and in particular respect for the sacred in the highest sense, for God, something that we can legitimately suppose to find even in one who is not disposed to believe in God. Wherever this respect is denied, something essential in a society is lost. In our present-day society, thank God, whoever dishonours the faith of Israel, its image of God or its great personalities, is fined.
Whoever scorns the Koran and the basic convictions of Islam is fined, too. Instead, with regard to Christ and to what is sacred for Christians, freedom of opinion seems to be the supreme good, and to limit this would seem to threaten or even destroy tolerance and freedom in general. Freedom of opinion, though, finds its limit in this, that it cannot destroy the honour and the dignity of the other; it is not freedom to lie or to destroy human rights.
The West reveals here a hatred of itself, which is strange and can be only considered pathological; the West is laudably trying to open itself, full of understanding, to external values, but it no longer loves itself; in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure.
By Joseph RatzingerMay 14, 2004