“In history, legal systems were almost always motivated in a religious way: what among men is just is decided on the basis of a reference to the Divinity. Contrary to other great religions, Christianity has never imposed on the State or society a revealed law, never a legal system derived from a revelation. Instead, it has referred to nature and to reason as true sources of law – it has referred to the harmony between objective and subjective reason, a harmony, however, presupposes both being the spheres founded on the creative Reason of God.”
This passage of the address given on September 22, 2011 at the Bundestag in Berlin is justly among the best known. Enclosed in it is the heart of Benedict XVI’s thought on the contribution that religion offers to the public debate and, in particular, to the construction of the legal order. Evidenced here is the originality of Christianity in relation to the other religions, an originality which often passes unobserved not only by secular commentators, but by Christians themselves: not revelation, but “reason and nature in their correlation construct the valid legal source for all,” Benedict XVI affirms a bit further on in the same address.
Similarly, on September 17, 2010 at Westminster Hall, an analogous concept was already proposed in these terms: “Catholic tradition holds that the objective norms that govern right behavior are accessible to reason, leaving out of consideration the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in the political debate is not (…) that of furnishing such norms, as if those could not be known by non-believers – even less so is IT that of proposing concrete political solutions, something which is altogether outside the competence of religion.”
With these affirmations Benedict XVI clears the field of a persistent ambiguity in contemporary culture, which has conditioned and still conditions the debate on the relation between religion and reason. The ambiguity is based on the idea that Christianity and, in particular, the Catholic Church, when intervening in public debates, appeal to a principle of “Authority” in the decision on legal and political questions. It is still the dominant opinion to hold that, in a democracy worthy of this name, it would be unacceptable to make room for the religious discourse as such, because it would be based on an Authority that would frustrate any attempt of dialogue with others.
Intervening in the democratic dialogue on the basis of authoritative dogmas, religions would violate the rule of every deliberative democracy – dialogue among the different positions – and would act as an obstacle, perverting irremediably the democratic dynamic. Feared is the dread that the religious authority could deny civil authorities the capacity of producing the legal norms: hence an incompatibility between the two sources of authority. The inevitable conclusion drawn is that “it is, in fact, the exile of any Authority from the scene of the public argumentation, the ostracism of all the faiths, which guarantees the common ground of dialogue and the reciprocal equality of all in as much as fellow citizens,” with the consequent necessity that the entire public sphere is deprived of God, so that a neutral ground of dialogue is maintained. This exile of God from the public sphere is moved by the premise that the intervention of the religious factor in the democratic dialectic is configured as a series of commands and commandments derived from a superior, eternal and indisputable will: a just Authority. However, it is difficult to imagine anything more distant from Benedict XVI’s thought.
The Christianity that he proposes does not allow the faithful to exempt themselves from toils, it does not consent to their depriving themselves of the use of reason, hiding behind a principle of authority or entrenching themselves behind religious precepts and commands. Because of the trust nourished in the possibility that the divine, as Logos, can be found in the rational search for truth, Benedict XVI does not hesitate to exact from believers that they enter into the public democratic dialogue with universal instruments accessible to all: reason and nature, in their interrelation. In this perspective, to speak of religion in the public arena is not the same, as is erroneously presumed, to introduce a fideistic principle in the democratic dialogue, nor does it imply drawing mechanically from religious precepts as source for the regulation of social, political and legal problems. The first and fundamental contribution of Benedict XVI is the appeal to the fact that the ultimate sources of law are to be searched in reason and nature, not in a command, from whoever it is. The originality of Pope Benedict’s position in regard to the presence of Christians in the public sphere is rooted in a vision of Christianity as universal religion, addressed to all, which trusts in the possibility that reason transcend the very capacities of reason, which he asserts with the words of Saint Paul: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14ff.).
Benedict XVI’s proposal resolves the problem at its root, where he affirms that the source of legal norms is not revelation, but reason and nature in their inter-relations.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein is prefect of the Pontifical Household and personal secretary to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. This is the text of a talk he gave at a conference on the theme “Papal Visits, between diplomacy and communication”, held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, June 5, 2014.[Translation from the Italian by ZENIT]