Hans-Gert Pöttering on Papal Lenten Message

“Solidarity Is Not Abstract, It Has to Be Concrete”

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 4, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is the address given today by Hans-Gert Pöttering, retired president of the European Parliament and president of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, at the press conference that presented Benedict XVI’s message for Lent.

The Pope’s message has as its theme: “The Justice of God Has Been Manifested Through Faith in Jesus Christ.” Lent begins Feb. 17.

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It is good that through the message of the Holy Father the Church illuminates for us the spiritual context of the Lenten Season. For us Christians, the reasons for and the mission of the Lenten Season are encompassed in this impressive theological interpretation: to work in union with our Creator on our responsibility in the world. I as a Politician can in no way even attempt to be as profound as the Holy Father when He talks about the religious vision of justice. In all modesty I would, however, like to comply with the request made of me to reflect with you on several political implications of the Christian lesson of justice.

The topic is as old as philosophising about politics itself is. And it is more relevant than ever before in our contemporary world of globalisation and the encounter between cultures and religions. In political philosophy, one likes to start with a retrospective on the two central figures of the Antiquity, Plato and Aristotle. Already in their works, we find aspects of the understanding of justice that the Holy Father has called the internal and the external understanding of human justice. Plato regarded justice as an unchangeable, transcendent idea of which the soul of the singular human being is a part of. Aristotle underlined that justice is not only an inner virtue but always also has to be seen with regard to others. The political reflections that we name today “corrective justice” and “distributive justice” correspond to this idea of intersubjectivity. The father of our church Thomas Aquinas also has a considerable share in this interpretation of the idea of justice. The Holy Father has indicated that a secularly radicalised form of the idea of distributive justice that is decoupled from faith in God becomes ideological. As a politician, I would like to add: We have experienced in collapsed socialism where this thinking can lead to.

Hence, it is of importance also for a political consideration of justice to keep the balance between the idea of justice that slumbers in the soul of every human being and the material reality that can always only be thought of in relation to others, towards our fellow men and towards the system we live in.

We have experienced again and again in the past two centuries in Europe and in other parts of the world to what extent this balance can get mixed up. Freedom and equality have continuously been placed in opposition to each other since the French Revolution inscribed these two postulates on its flag. However, in the course of the struggle towards freedom and equality, the third idea written on the flags of the French Revolution has been neglected: fraternity. Politically, we speak of “solidarity”. Theologically, we have always spoken of charity. In these words – charity, solidarity, fraternity – lie the key to a true understanding of the responsibility of Christians in the world – an understanding, that is appropriate to our time of globalization. Solidarity or charity implies the responsibility to defend and protect the universal dignity of any human being anywhere in the world under any circumstances.

If we want to preserve freedom and if we want to increase justice, then we have to place the value of fraternity or solidarity at the centre of our political thinking. In the European Union, we have achieved a unique political wonder in the spirit of solidarity, that hardly anybody would have considered possible at the end of the Second World War. With the reunification of Europe after the end of the Cold War, we have proven ourselves with the principle of solidarity evident between the states and the peoples of the old and the new European Union. Lately, the joint measures taken to combat the financial crisis have shown that a common way of thinking and a joint policy are possible in the European Union.

Nevertheless, the power of solidarity has rather faded inside Europe since reunification. Regarding our relations with the other peoples of the earth, especially with the poorest among them, the idea of solidarity is at best in the fledging stages. Whereas Europe and the world have already invested unimaginable sums for the fight against the financial crisis, the implementation of charity leaves much to be desired, especially in the fight against hunger in the world. The determination with which Europe and the world have reacted to the financial crisis shows that international cooperation can overcome huge challenges. A similar firmness is equally necessary in the fight against worldwide poverty. Europe and the international community have a moral obligation to take further responsibility. 2010 as the “European year for combating poverty and social exclusion” offers the ideal framework for a stronger and effective dedication of the European Union to do more for the poorest of the planet.

It is exactly here that politics has to adopt the Lenten Message of the Holy Father: we need again a European spirit of solidarity. And, more than ever, we need a European spirit of solidarity with all peoples and cultures of this one world. Those are the two most important social-ethical tasks that the European Union faces. This is not only about the provision of material means, although this is so important. In the first place, however, this is about a spiritual renewal that the European Union has to bring about: This is about approaching the tasks that we face in the spirit of solidarity and that we seize the possibilities that we possess in a comparatively rich and privileged Europe so that justice becomes a reality for as many people as possible. Where justice is experienced, the value of freedom is equally strengthened.

“Development is the new name for peace”, that is how Pope Paul VI formulated it in 1967 in his Enzyklika „Populorum progressio”. Today, I believe, we have to go a step further and say “solidarity is the new name for peace”. In formulating this we bring freedom and equality again into a proper balance with solidarity. This is how the struggle for justice finds its deepest ethical root, the root of fraternity and, formulated in a Christian way, of charity. In this sense, I understand the purpose of the Holy Father and his interpretation of the 2010 Lenten Message in the spirit of justice.

Solidarity is not abstract, it has to be concrete. Today, we realise that rich countries are getting always richer and poor countries are getting always poorer. Two billion people live with less than 1.5 US-Dollars per day. It is not to be expected – as much as this would be desirable – that the rich countries will rapidly increase their development aid. Therefore, we also have to try new ways. The project “UNITAID” that is closely affiliated to the World Health Organisation of the United Nations aims at fighting HIV, Malaria, Tuberculosis and other illnesses in 93 of the poorest countries. A big part of the funding is raised by a small extra fee on airline tickets. Thanks to an extra charge of one or two US-Dollars per ticket, it was possible to collect a total amount of 1.5 billion US-Dollars in the participating 15 countries during the last three years and three months.

I would like to propose to extend this initiative to all countries and all airlines. Airline passengers can afford to pay this minor increase of the ticket price. With additional billions we could help ease the misery in the world.

On the other hand, I am deeply convinced that the task of global solidarity is not only a material concern. Justice and peace, redistribution and recognition will only exist between the peoples and states of this world if we act in solidarity and in brotherhood also in our dialogue on faith and the basis of our culture. In doing so, we will also talk about the understanding of justice that is inherent to the different cultures and religions. The Hebrew letter of Sedaqah, of which the Holy Father has spoken in his Lenten Message, also includes – if I understood correctly – the idea of fidelity towards one’s community. This old Jewish idea can help us to rethink our sense of mutual obligations and about the right balance of rights and obligations. In Islam, the notion of justice is naturally derived from the Koran. Secular Europe will also experience, in the course of the interreligious and intercultural dialogue, that the notion of justice in other cultures is self-evidently influenced by religion. To a certain extent, this has also been the case with the Christian influence on the notion of justice and – by the way – also on the notion of freedom and solidarity. In many cases, we have forgotten the connection between religious justification and political ideas. It will do us good to rediscover the treasures of this tradition – also through intercultural and interreligious dialogue. This has nothing to do with fundamentalism, but a lot to do with the timeless pertinence of our own roots. Where the update of our cultural and religious roots succeeds, we will be able to make good policy with Christian responsibility – also in a mainly secular European Union.

Mutual respect in the intercultural dialogue does not mean to close one’s eyes before insurmountable contrasts. However, we will only be able to stop fanaticism in the world of the 21st century if we deprive fanaticists, who want to change the world through violence, of the spiritual grounds on which they can manipulate many people of good will. We therefore need a sincere dialogue of solidarity between Christians and Muslims, between Christians and Jews. We need it between the privileged living in prosperity and material freedom and those living on the margins of the social and cultural existence that are excluded from economic growth and technological opportunities. We have to forge the idea of solidarity into a political project that invites us to have dialogue across the many barriers which separate our world today. Only solidarity can lead the way towards more freedom and justice for more and more people throughout the world.

Policy that acts out of the Christian understanding of the human being should never decrease ambition. The Holy Father has pointed us towards two essential conclusions of the Christian understanding of justice: To give up self-sufficiency and to accept our mission with humbleness. This is the compass for any policy that is committed to Christian responsibility – not only in the Lenten Season 2010 but far beyond in this 21st century with the huge tasks of shaping globalisation which lie ahead.

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