Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: That Which Holds the World Together – The Pre-political Moral Foundations of a Free State

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Historical developments are moving more and more quickly in today’s world, and I believe that two factors in particular typify this acceleration of a process that began only slowly in the past. First, we have the formation of a global community in which the individual political, economic, and cultural powers become increasingly dependent on one another, touching and intersecting each other in their various existential spheres. Secondly, we have the development of human possibilities, of the power to make and to destroy, that poses the question of legal and ethical controls on power in a way that goes far beyond anything to which we have yet been accustomed. This lends great urgency to the question of how cultures that encounter one another can find ethical bases to guide their relationship along the right path, thus permitting them to build up a common structure that tames power and imposes a legally responsible order on the exercise of power.

The fact that Hans Küng’s proposal of a “world ethos” interests so many people shows at any rate that this question has in fact been posed; and this remains a valid point, even if one agrees with Robert Spaemann’s acute critique of this project.1 This is because we must add a third factor to the two mentioned above. In the process of encounter and mutual penetration of cultures, ethical certainties that had hitherto provided solid foundations have largely disintegrated. The question of what the good is (especially in the given context of our world) and of why one must do the good even when this entails harm to one’s own self—this fundamental question goes generally unanswered.

It seems to me obvious that science as such cannot give birth to such an ethos. In other words, a renewed ethical consciousness does not come about as the product of academic debates. On the other hand, it is equally indisputable that the fundamental transformation of the understanding of the world and of man that has come about thanks to the growth in scientific knowledge has played a major role in the collapse of the old moral certainties. And this means that science does have a responsibility vis-à-vis man qua man. In particular, it is the responsibility of philosophy to accompany critically the development of the individual academic disciplines, shedding a critical light on premature conclusions and apparent “certainties” about what man is, whence he comes, and what the goal of his existence is. To make the same point in different words: philosophy must sift the non-scientific element out of the scientific results with which it is often entangled, thus keeping open our awareness of the totality and of the broader dimensions of the reality of human existence—for science can never show us more than partial aspects of this existence.

  1. Power and law

It is the specific task of politics to apply the criterion of the law to power, thereby structuring the use of power in a meaningful manner. It is not the law of the stronger, but the strength of the law that must hold sway. Power as structured by law, and at the service of the law, is the antithesis of violence, which is a lawless power that opposes the law. This is why it is important for every society to overcome any suspicion that is cast on the law and its regulations, for it is only in this way that arbitrariness can be excluded and freedom can be experienced as a freedom shared in common with others. Freedom without law is anarchy and, hence, the destruction of freedom. Suspicion of the law, revolt against the law, will always arise when law itself appears to be, no longer the expression of a justice that is at the service of all, but rather the product of arbitrariness and legislative arrogance on the part of those who have power.

This is why the task of applying the criterion of the law to power leads to a further question: How does law come into being, and what must be the characteristics of law if it is to be the vehicle of justice rather than the privilege of those who have the power to make the law? It is, on the one hand, the question of the genesis of the law, but, on the other hand, the question of its own inherent criteria. The problem that law must be, not the instrument of the power of a few, but the expression of the common interest of all, seems—at first sight—to have been resolved through the instruments whereby a democratic will is formed in society, since all collaborate in the genesis of the law. This means that it is everyone’s law; it can and must be respected, precisely because it is everyone’s law. And as a sheer matter of fact, the guarantee of a shared collaboration in the elaboration of the law and in the just administration of power is the basic argument that speaks in favor of democracy as the most appropriate form of political order.

And yet it seems to me that one question remains unanswered. Since total consensus among men is very hard to achieve, the process of forming a democratic will relies necessarily either on an act of delegation or else on a majority decision; depending on the importance of the question at issue, the proportion of the majority that is required may differ. But majorities, too, can be blind or unjust, as history teaches us very plainly. When a majority (even if it is an utterly preponderant majority) oppresses a religious or a racial minority by means of unjust laws, can we still speak in this instance of justice or, indeed, of law? In other words, the majority principle always leaves open the question of the ethical foundations of the law. This is the question of whether there is something that can never become law but always remains injustice; or, to reverse this formulation, whether there is something that is of its very nature inalienably law, something that is antecedent to every majority decision and must be respected by all such decisions.

The modern period has formulated a number of such normative elements in the various declarations of human rights and has withdrawn these from subjection to the vagaries of majorities. It is of course possible for the contemporary consciousness to be content with the inherent obviousness of these values. But even such a self-limitation of the act of questioning has a philosophical character! There are then, let us say, self-subsistent values that flow from the essence of what it is to be a man, and are therefore inviolable: no other man can infringe them. We will have to return later to the question of the extent to which this idea can be sustained, above all because the obviousness of these values is by no means acknowledged in every culture. Islam has defined its own catalogue of human rights, which differs from the Western catalogue. And if my information is correct, although it is true that today’s China is defined by a cultural form, namely Marxism, that arose in the West, it is asking whether “human rights” are merely a typically Western invention—and one that must be looked at critically.

  1. New forms of power and new questions about how these are to be mastered

When we are speaking of the relationship between power and law and about the sources of law, we must also look more closely at the phenomenon of power itself. I do not propose to try to define the essence of “power” as such. Instead, I should like to sketch the challenges that emerge from the new forms of power that have developed in the last fifty years.

The first phase of the period after the Second World War was dominated by fear of the new destructive power that the invention of the atomic bomb had placed in the hands of men. Man suddenly realized that he was capable of destroying both himself and his planet. This prompted the question: What political mechanisms are necessary in order to prevent this destruction? How can such mechanisms be discovered and made effective? How can we mobilize the ethical energies that give birth to political forms of this kind and make them work? Then, for a long period, it was the competition between the opposing power blocs, and the fear that the destruction of the other side would lead to one’s own destruction, that preserved us de facto from the terrors of a nuclear war. The mutual limitation of power and the fear for one’s own survival proved powerful enough to save the world.

By now, however, we are afraid, not so much of a large-scale war, as of the omnipresent terror that can make itself felt and can strike anywhere. We now see that mankind does not need a large-scale war in order to make the world uninhabitable. The anonymous powers of terror, which can be present anywhere, are strong enough to pursue everyone into the sphere of everyday life. And all the time, there is the specter of criminal elements gaining access to weapons of mass destruction and unleashing chaos in the world, independent of the established political structures. This has shifted the question about law and ethos. We now ask what are the sources on which terror draws. How can we succeed in eliminating, from within, this new sickness of mankind? It is shocking to see here that, at least in part, terror offers a moral legitimation for its actions. Bin Laden’s messages portray terror as the response of the powerless and oppressed peoples to the arrogance of the mighty and as the righteous punishment for their arrogance and for their blasphemous high-handedness and cruelty. Clearly, for people in certain social and political situations, such motivations are persuasive. In part, terrorist actions are portrayed as the defense of religious tradition against the godlessness of Western society.

At this point, another question arises, to which we must return later. If one of the sources of terrorism is religious fanaticism—and this is in fact the case—is then religion a healing and saving force? Or is it not rather an archaic and dangerous force that builds up false universalisms, thereby leading to intolerance and acts of terrorism? Must not religion, therefore, be placed under the guardianship of reason, and its boundaries carefully marked off? This, of course, prompts yet another question: Who can do this? And how does one do it? But the general question remains: Ought we to consider the gradual abolishment of religion, the overcoming of religion, to be necessary progress on the part of mankind, so that it may find the path to freedom and to universal tolerance? Or is this view mistaken?

In the meantime, yet another form of power has taken center stage. At first glance, it appears to be wholly beneficial and entirely praiseworthy. In reality, however, it can become a new kind of threat to man. Man is now capable of making human beings, of producing them in test tubes (so to speak). Man becomes a product, and this entails a total alteration of man’s relationship to his own self. He is no longer a gift of nature or of the Creator God; he is his own product. Man has descended into the very wellsprings of power, to the sources of his own existence. The temptation to construct the “right” man at long last, the temptation to experiment with human beings, the temptation to see them as rubbish to be discarded—all this is no mere fantasy of moralists opposed to “progress”.

If we have noted the urgent question of whether religion is truly a positive force, so we must now doubt the reliability of reason. For in the last analysis, even the atomic bomb is a product of reason; in the last analysis, the breeding and selection of human beings is something thought up by reason. Does this then mean that it is reason that ought to be placed under guardianship? But by whom or by what? Or should perhaps religion and reason restrict each other and remind each other where their limits are, thereby encouraging a positive path? Once again, we are confronted with the question how—in a global society with its mechanisms of power and its uncontrolled forces and its varying views of what constitutes law and morality—an effective ethical conviction can be found with sufficient motivation and vigor to answer the challenges I have outlined here and to help us meet these tests.

  1. Presuppositions of the law: Law – nature – reason

Our first step is to look at historical situations comparable to our own, insofar as there is anything genuinely comparable. In any case, it is worth taking a very brief glance at ancient Greece, which also experienced an Enlightenment in which a divinely based law lost its obviousness, and it became necessary to look for deeper justifications of the law. This led to the idea that in the face of a positive law that can in reality be injustice, there must be a law that derives from the nature, from the very being, of man himself. And this law must be discovered, so that it can act as a corrective to the positive law.

Closer to our own times, we have the double rupture of the European consciousness that occurred at the beginning of the modern period and made necessary a new fundamental reflection on both the contents and the source of law. First, we have the exodus from the boundaries of the European world, the Christian world, that happened when America was discovered. Now, Europeans encountered peoples who did not belong to the Christian structures of faith and law, which had hitherto been the source of law for everyone and which had given this structure its form. There was no legal fellowship with these peoples. But did this mean that they were outside the law, as some asserted at that time (and as was frequently the case in practice)? Or is there a law that transcends all legal systems, a law that is binding on men qua men in their mutual relationships and that tells them what to do? In this situation, Francisco de Vitoria developed the already-existing idea of the ius gentium, the “law of the nations”; the word gentes also carries the association of “pagans”, “non-Christians”. This designates that law which is antecedent to the Christian legal form and is charged with ordering the right relations among all peoples.

The second rupture in the Christian world took place within Christianity itself through the division in faith that led to the disintegration of the one fellowship of Christians into a number of distinct fellowships, some of which were directly hostile to each other. Once again, it was necessary to elaborate a law, or at least a legal minimum, antecedent to dogma; the sources of this law then had to lie, no longer in faith, but in nature and in human reason. Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, and others developed the idea of the natural law, which transcends the confessional borders of faith by establishing reason as the instrument whereby law can be posited in common.

The natural law has remained (especially in the Catholic Church) the key issue in dialogues with the secular society and with other communities of faith in order to appeal to the reason we share in common and to seek the basis for a consensus about the ethical principles of law in a secular, pluralistic society. Unfortunately, this instrument has become blunt. Accordingly, I do not intend to appeal to it for support in this conversation. The idea of the natural law presupposed a concept of nature in which nature and reason overlap, since nature itself is rational. With the victory of the theory of evolution, this view of nature has capsized: nowadays, we think that nature as such is not rational, even if there is rational behavior in nature. This is the diagnosis that is presented to us, and there seem to be few voices today that are raised to contradict it.2 This means that, of the various dimensions of the concept of nature on which the earlier concept of the natural law was based, only one remains. Ulpian summed this up in the early third century after Christ in the well known words: “Ius naturae est, quod natura omnia animalia docet.”3 But this is not an adequate answer to our question, since we are interested, not in that which concerns all the animalia, but in those specifically human tasks that the reason of man has created and that cannot be resolved without the reason.

One final element of the natural law that claimed (at least in the modern period) that it was ultimately a rational law has remained, namely, human rights. These are incomprehensible without the presupposition that man qua man, thanks simply to his membership in the species “man”, is the subject of rights and that his being bears within itself values and norms that must be discovered—but not invented. Today, we ought perhaps to amplify the doctrine of human rights with a doctrine of human obligations and of human limitations. This could help us to grasp anew the relevance of the question of whether there might exist a rationality of nature and, hence, a rational law for man and for his existence in the world. And this dialogue would necessarily be intercultural today, both in its structure and in its interpretation. For Christians, this dialogue would speak of the creation and the Creator. In the Indian world, this would correspond to the concept of Dharma, the inner law that regulates all Being; in the Chinese tradition, it would correspond to the idea of the structures ordained by heaven.

  1. The intercultural dimension and its consequences

Before I attempt to draw conclusions, I should like to widen the perspective I have indicated up to this point. If we are to discuss the basic questions of human existence today, the intercultural dimension seems to me absolutely essential—for such a discussion cannot be carried on exclusively either within the Christian realm or within the Western rational tradition. Both of these regard themselves as universal, and they may perhaps be universal de iure. De facto, however, they are obliged to acknowledge that they are accepted only by parts of mankind, and that they are comprehensible only in parts of mankind—although the number of competitors is of course much smaller than an initial glance might suggest.

The most important point in this context is that there no longer exists any uniformity within the individual cultural spheres, since they are all marked by profound tensions within their own cultural tradition. This is very obvious in the West. Although the secular culture is largely dominated by the strict rationality of which Jürgen Habermas has given us an impressive picture, a rationality that understands itself to be the element that binds people together, the Christian understanding of reality continues to be a powerful force. The closeness and the tension between these two poles varies: sometimes they are willing to learn from each other, but sometimes they reject each other to a greater or lesser degree.

The Islamic cultural sphere, too, is marked by similar tensions. There is a broad spectrum between the fanatical absolutism of a Bin Laden and attitudes that are open to a tolerant rationality. The third great cultural sphere, that of India—or, more precisely, the cultural spheres of Hinduism and Buddhism—is likewise marked by similar tensions, although these take a less dramatic form (at least to our eyes). These cultures, too, experience the confrontation with the claims of Western rationality and the questions posed by the Christian faith, since both Western rationality and the Christian faith are present there; they assimilate one or the other in various ways, while still trying to preserve their own identity. We can round off the picture by mentioning the tribal cultures of Africa and the tribal cultures of Latin America that have been summoned to new life by various Christian theologies of liberation. In many ways, these seem to call Western rationality into question; and this means that they also call into question the universal claim of Christian revelation.

What are the consequences of all this? The first point, I believe, is that although the two great cultures of the West, that is, the culture of the Christian faith and that of secular rationality, are an important contributory factor (each in its own way) throughout the world and in all cultures, nevertheless they are de facto not universal. This means that the question put by Jürgen Habermas’ colleague in Teheran seems to me not devoid of significance—namely, the question of whether a comparative study of cultures and the sociology of religion suggest that European secularization is an exceptional development and one that needs to be corrected. I would not necessarily reduce this question to the mood of Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Levi Strauss, that is, to a situation in which Europeans have grown weary of rationality.

At any rate, it is a fact that our secular rationality may seem very obvious to our reason, which has been formed in the West; but qua rationality, it comes up against its limitations when it attempts to demonstrate itself. The proof for it is in reality linked to specific cultural contexts, and it must acknowledge that it cannot as such be reproduced in the whole of mankind. This also means that it cannot be completely operative in the whole of mankind. In other words, the rational or ethical or religious formula that would embrace the whole world and unite all persons does not exist; or, at least, it is unattainable at the present moment. This is why the so-called “world ethos” remains an abstraction.

  1. Conclusions

What, then, ought we to do? With regard to the practical consequences, I am in broad agreement with Jürgen Habermas’ remarks about a postsecular society, about the willingness to learn from each other, and about self-limitation on both sides. At the end of my lecture, I should like to summarize my own view in two theses.

  1. We have seen that there exist pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a “controlling organ”. Religion must continually allow itself to be purified and structured by reason; and this was the view of the Church Fathers, too.4 However, we have also seen in the course of our reflections that there are also pathologies of reason, although mankind in general is not as conscious of this fact today. There is a hubris of reason that is no less dangerous. Indeed, bearing in mind its potential effects, it poses an even greater threat—it suffices here to think of the atomic bomb or of man as a “product”. This is why reason, too, must be warned to keep within its proper limits, and it must learn a willingness to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind. If it cuts itself completely adrift and rejects this willingness to learn, this relatedness, reason becomes destructive.

Kurt Hübner has recently formulated a similar demand. He writes that such a thesis does not entail a “return to faith”; rather, it means “that we free ourselves from the blindness typical of our age, that is, the idea that faith has nothing more to say to contemporary man because it contradicts his humanistic idea of reason, Enlightenment, and freedom”. Accordingly, I would speak of a necessary relatedness between reason and faith and between reason and religion, which are called to purify and help one another. They need each other, and they must acknowledge this mutual need.

  1. This basic principle must take on concrete form in practice in the intercultural context of the present day. There can be no doubt that the two main partners in this mutual relatedness are the Christian faith and Western secular rationality; one can and must affirm this, without thereby succumbing to a false Eurocentrism. These two determine the situation of the world to an extent not matched by another cultural force; but this does not mean that one could dismiss the other cultures as a kind of quantité négligeable. For a Western hubris of that kind, there would be a high price to pay—and, indeed, we are already paying a part of it. It is important that both great components of the Western culture learn to listen and to accept a genuine relatedness to these other cultures, too. It is important to include the other cultures in the attempt at a polyphonic relatedness, in which they themselves are receptive to the essential complementarity of reason and faith, so that a universal process of purifications (in the plural!) can proceed. Ultimately, the essential values and norms that are in some way known or sensed by all men will take on a new brightness in such a process, so that that which holds the world together can once again become an effective force in mankind.


1 R. Spaemann, “Weltethos als ‘Projekt’ ”, Merkur, no. 570/571 (1996): 893-904.

2 This philosophy of evolution, which still remains dominant despite corrections on individual points, is most consistently and impressively expressed by J. Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (New York, 1971). On the distinction between the de facto results of the investigations of the natural sciences and the philosophy that accompanies these, R. Junker and S. Scherer, eds., Evolution: Ein kritisches Lehrbuch, 4th ed. (Giessen, 1998), is helpful. On the debate with the philosophy that accompanies the theory of evolution, see my Glaube—Wahrheit—Toleranz (Freiburg im Breisgau, 2003), pp. 131-47 (English trans.: Truth and Tolerance: Christianity and World Religions [San Francisco, 2004]).

3 “The law of nature is that which nature teaches all sentient beings”—On the three dimensions of the medieval natural law (the dynamism of Being as a whole; the orientation of that nature which is common to men and animals [Ulpian]; and the specific orientation of the rational nature of man), see the information in the article by P. Delhaye, “Naturrecht”, in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 2nd ed., vol. 7, cols. 821-25. The concept of natural law found at the beginning of the Decretum Gratiani is noteworthy: “Humanum genus duobus regitur, naturali videlicet iure, et moribus. Ius naturale est, quod in lege et Evangelio continetur, quo quisque iubetur, alii facere, quod sibi vult fieri, et prohibetur, alii inferre, quod sibi nolit fieri” (The human race is governed by two things, namely, the natural law and customs. The natural law is that which is contained in the law and in the gospel, whereby each one is commanded to do to another what he wishes to be done to himself and is forbidden to inflict on another what he does not wish to be done to himself).

4 I have attempted to set this out in greater detail in my book Glaube—Wahrheit—Toleranz (see n. 2 above). See also M. Fiedrowicz, Apologie im frühen Christentum, 2nd ed. (Paderborn, 2001).


კომენტარის დატოვება

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  შეცვლა )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  შეცვლა )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  შეცვლა )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  შეცვლა )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.