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Human dignity is not a matter of majority vote

In his historic address in the German Bundestag on 22 September 2011, Pope Benedict XVI reminded his audience that state authority is bound by laws that are not at its command.


by Professor Karl-Heinz Menke

Portrait Professor Dr. Karl-Heinz Menke

Pope Benedict hails from Germany and remembers the National Socialists’ regime of terror. He was barely sixteen when he was forced to enlist shortly before the end of the war. He knows from personal experience that in the 20th century – not in the distant past – and in the heart of Europe – not just anywhere – a democratically legitimised chancellor enacted the Nuremberg race laws; perhaps an extreme example, but by no means the only recent example of legislation that decreed injustice to be right and therefore not only admitted, but demanded resistance. In short, state authority is bound by laws that are not at its command.

Blick auf den vollen Saal und zum Rednerpult bei der Rede von Papst Benedikt im Deutschen Bundestag.

No lazy compromises: the truth would rather go to the cross than assert itself through violence

But what are these laws? Who determines their content? And who can compel whom, and to what? Pope Benedict knows that separating spiritual from political authority and binding the law of truth to the rights of individuals in accordance with the Gospel – as in the turning point of Constantine – has not been sustained. In his earlier publications, he speaks of lazy compromises and undesirable developments burdened with guilt. As desirable as unity in truth may be, for the sake of Christ it must not be forced in any way. The love that Christians profess to be “the truth” would rather be ridiculed, whipped and crucified than assert itself through violence.

The Church defends the individual’s right to freedom

In his Freiburg address, Pope Benedict stated that “history comes to the aid of the Church here through the various periods of secularization, which have contributed significantly to her purification and inner reform”. The French Enlightenment may have been intolerant and shaped by violence, but it freed the Church from its ingratiation with the era of absolutism and forced it to align the relationship between truth and freedom, between faith and reason, with the Gospel. Not because others had civilised Christianity, but because the Church’s loyalty to Christ forced it to defend the individual’s right to freedom.

The Christianity of the earliest centuries turned against the polytheist systems, the political institutions and ruling powers. It aligned itself not with the might of the powerful, but with Socrates, who forced the powerful to look into the mirror of reason.

Papst Benedikt XVI. bei seiner Berliner Rede. Im Hintergrund sieht man Angela Merkel sitzend.

What the mirror of reason reveals

In his Bundestag address, Pope Benedict emphasises that every politician, no matter their world view, must base their actions not on something divine or revealed by a divine entity, but on that which the Greek philosophers called human reason. Socrates, Plato and the Christian Fathers agreed that the reality also described as “nature” is not a mishmash of facts, but something that has always been ordered. This prescribed order is the reason that lies within things.

In this context, Pope Benedict recalls the concept of “natural law”. As he emphasises, this concept should no longer be confused with certain rules and laws, even by Catholic theologians. Instead, this concept reminds us that something is not right just because a parliamentary majority has determined it to be so.

Human rights: merely a temporary construction of limited validity?

German politicians see it as their duty to refer Chinese politicians to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Equally, the response is often that values differ between Chinese and European society. Many European politicians have no way of countering this argument because, just like their Chinese counterparts, they assume that values and value systems are temporary constructions of limited validity.

Consequently, if there is not an order to which all those blessed with reason have always been referred, then the human rights set down in the United Nations charter are little more than a factual agreement with which a society such as China can – but does not have to – affiliate itself. If the dignity of every single human being anchored in the German Basic Law of 1949 – be they born or unborn, black or white, disabled or not – is to be an unconditional dignity, then the preamble to each constitution must list basic rights that cannot be altered by any parliamentary majority.

Papst Benedikt XVI spricht vor dem Deutschen Bundestag. Die Politiker hören aufmerksam zu.

Pope Benedict is very aware that for many contemporaries, the concept of “natural law” is like a red rag to a bull. Nevertheless, he uses it to substantiate the all-too-abstract reference to laws that are never at a legislator’s command.

Pope Benedict explains that natural law does not replace positive law; in fact, it is dependent upon it. Without legal positivism, there would be no legal security. Conversely, positive law also depends on natural law. Otherwise, there is a danger that the question of meaning and truth could become subject to the democratic majority principle.

Pope Benedict is very aware that for many contemporaries, the concept of “natural law” is like a red rag to a bull. Nevertheless, he uses it to substantiate the all-too-abstract reference to laws that are never at a legislator’s command. This is namely not about some laws or other, but about the reason encoded in nature, the role to be recognised of each individual’s conscience and of every community.

The listening heart and the question of truth

Pope Benedict explains the concept of conscience using the biblical image of the listening heart that King Solomon requested from God. The listening heart can embrace or neglect the truth to which it is referred. Talk of the potentially errant conscience assumes a distinction between the “truth in itself” (the truth of the creator) and the “truth for me” (the truth of the individual conscience). Or, to put it another way, if there is no “truth in itself” (no “reason of nature”), then there is no possibility of distinguishing between right and wrong questions of conscience.

Papst Benedikt am Ende seiner berühmten Berliner Rede vor dem Deutschen Bundestag.

If human dignity is contingent on plausibilities or consensus, then it is not unconditional.

Critics of the Bundestag speech have speculated that Pope Benedict wants to divest the democratic decision-making process of the normalisation of natural law. But nothing in his Bundestag speech justifies such an insinuation. He merely states that there are limits to the state’s power to create norms; and that these limits will presumably only be retained for as long as a sufficient number of citizens believe in the Creator, who inscribed his Word upon Creation. Clearly, Kant’s categorical imperative and consensus achieved through discourse cannot prevent constitutional courts from subjecting the unconditional (human dignity) to certain conditions (in the first three months of pregnancy; with regard to a person in a coma or an embryonic state; to obtain life-saving medication, etc.). If human dignity is contingent on plausibilities or consensus, then it is not unconditional.

Ideological neutrality, democratic rules and the matter of God

Pope Benedict does not question the ideological neutrality of the modern state, nor does he question the binding of legislation to the rules of democracy. However, he also recalls the dependence of legislation on the meaning of the individual and the whole, something which no state can create. “The culture of Europe”, he explains, “arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe”. Therefore, mentioning God in the preamble to an ideologically neutral democracy is not a relic of the unity between religion and politics, but an expression of the fact that human dignity is not founded on definitions or democratic majorities.

Portrait Professor Dr. Karl-Heinz Menke

Until his retirement, Professor Karl-Heinz Menke held the Chair for Dogmatics and Theological Propaedeutics at the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Bonn. He is a member of the International Theological Commission of the Vatican. In 2017 he was awarded the Joseph Ratzinger Prize.