In his sermon for the Feast of Pentecost last month, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI offered the following reflection: “We see daily events which appear to suggest that people are becoming more aggressive and more unsociable; it seems to be too demanding to try to understand each other, and we prefer to be closed up in our own ‘I,’ in our own interests.”
Any society that reaches such a state should be made to carry a health and safety warning. The wellbeing of its inhabitants is in peril.
The wondrous dignity of every human being lies in the fact that man has been created, as Genesis puts it, in the image of God. We know from the Gospel that the life of God is anything but self-centred. Within the Trinity there is a continuous outpouring of self between three Persons, an eternal communication of knowledge and love between Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The expansiveness of this love is expressed in God’s will to create man, a knowing and loving creature, and in His call to man to participate in the mystery of His own life.
The image of God lies chiefly in our mind and in our will, in our capacity to discern the truth and to unite ourselves with the good. It is this divine imprint that makes every innocent human life sacred to God and inviolable at every stage from conception to death. We live this likeness to God to the full by living in communion with Him. This is made possible by the grace that is poured into us in Baptism, a ‘Trinitarian event’ that elevates us into the very life of the Godhead. We are also called to live in communion with our neighbour, honouring the image of God that is emblazoned on his soul. This communion with God and man is the character of personal existence. It demands that we always treat a fellow human being as an ‘I’ and never as an ‘it’.
In his writings and discourses, the Holy Father has often acknowledged the influence on his own intellectual development of the Italian/German priest and theologian Romano Guardini. From 1923 to 1939 Father Guardini taught Philosophy of Religion in Berlin, until his disdain for Nazi ideology led to his resignation from teaching. After the war he resurfaced in academia and filled the chair of ‘Christian Worldview’ at Munich in 1948. He was friendly with the fathers of the Munich Oratory, and was buried in their cemetery after his death in 1968.
Guardini’s own worldview was richly seasoned by experience. The first part of his career took place amid the moral and economic collapse of Weimar Republic Berlin. This gave way to the totalitarianism of the Third Reich, which in turn was succeeded by efforts to build a democratic society (at least in West Germany) imbued with Christian principles.
It was against this background of upheaval and contrast that Father Guardini developed his theology of personal existence. The situation that he observed in Berlin during the 1920s bore parallels to the state of affairs decried by the Pope in his recent Pentecost sermon. Guardini identified a culture of hedonistic individualism in the Weimar Republic that was destructive of society and of its individual members.
On Whitsun, the Holy Father used the image of the Tower of Babel in Genesis to illustrate what he believes is happening today. “Babel is the description of a kingdom in which men have so much power that they think that they no longer need a distant God and that they are strong enough to build a way to Heaven by themselves … to put themselves in God’s place,” said the Pope. However, “While men were working to build the tower, suddenly they realized they were working against each other. While they tried to be like God, they ran the risk of no longer even being men, because they lost a fundamental element of being human persons: the capacity to agree, to understand and to work together.”
The illusion of self-sufficiency is always dangerous. According to Guardini, in Weimar Germany this illusion was ultimately so unfulfilling of man’s need for personal existence that it inevitably caused revulsion towards the status quo and facilitated a swing to tyranny. Men had “declared themselves to be lords of their own lives and also lords of life in general,” argued Guardini, “until they grew tired of this burden. But instead of returning to their authentic selves directed towards God they abandoned themselves. That is, they renounced God … and gave themselves over to totalitarian rule.” In other words, an overemphasis on personal autonomy had so alienated people from the notion of living in relation to God, and to their fellow men as persons rather than as objects, that it made them easy prey to the dictator’s rhetoric and opened the way to the crimes of the Third Reich.
Undeterred by his distaste for the Weimar Republic, Father Guardini was always convinced that democracy provided the best environment for the human person to flourish. What he had in mind was a Christian democracy that honours the sovereignty of Almighty God and respects such absolute and objective moral principles as the sanctity of human life. According to Guardini, a democracy governed by Christian principles is the most effective model of government for nurturing the common good through the exercise of responsible personal freedom.
Towards the end of his life, however, Father Guardini witnessed Christian democracy giving way to a liberal democracy in which moral relativism had the upper hand. A form of personal autonomy was reasserting itself that could only be inimical to the common good. Fashion, fluctuating opinion and mood were taking the place of God’s law as a basis for making life and death decisions. Meanwhile, the major denominations were indulging themselves in the self-absorption of an identity-crisis of their own, which made the Christian voice sound increasingly irrelevant to a modern world that was hungry for ‘authenticity’; and so the contagion of secularism galloped ahead without much effective opposition at an institutional level. The sanctity and inviolability of each and every innocent human life, which is a fundamental foundation of any civilized society, was no longer taken as a given.
Surveying the rise of what Cardinal Ratzinger would later identify as the ‘dictatorship of relativism’, Father Guardini declared in 1964, with the weary voice of one who had seen it all before: “Liberalism was the father of Nazism, and will be again in one form or another.”
The Church has never bound Herself to upholding any particular form of government. Most of us today probably value the liberties that come with living in a democratic society. If the insights of Romano Guardini and Pope Benedict XVI are right, however, it would be foolhardy to take the freedoms we currently enjoy for granted. When man behaves without regard for the common good, as enshrined in the laws that have been revealed to us by the Creator, then we are heading into deep trouble.
It would seem that the danger is present. It would also seem that Catholics have an indispensible role to play in any solution. For Guardini, genuine personal existence can ultimately only be lived within the Church. It is through the Church that access to the ‘social life’ of the Blessed Trinity is made a reality. We go to God the Father through the Son, and we encounter God the Son within the Church; a Church that was launched as a Catholic – truly universal – concern with the outpouring of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost Sunday.
In his Whitsun sermon, the Pope reminded us that the Holy Ghost is the Spirit of unity and truth, “The Spirit Who leads us to the whole truth Who is Jesus Himself,” and “Who makes us capable of listening to each other and working together” for the building of the Kingdom: “And thus it becomes clear why Babel is Babel and Pentecost is Pentecost. Where men want to make themselves God, they can only oppose each other. Where they place themselves in the Lord’s truth instead, they open up to the action of the Spirit, who sustains and unites them.”
As the tentacles of secularism tighten their grip, it becomes a temptation for Catholics to avoid going into public life altogether. A promising new graduate cannot look forward to a rocketing career in politics if he remains true to the Faith. A lucrative job in the private sector probably looks more attractive. The trouble with this is that it contributes to the isolationism and fragmentation of an already fragile society. We should thank God for the handful of backbench MPs who ensure that the pro-Life voice is still heard in Parliament. Without their courage and patience the debate would already be dead, and the cause lost definitively. If the ‘common good’ is to have any hope of flourishing, then the Catholic contribution in the public forum is indispensible. The world needs the Gospel, and we must be prepared to engage with the world with a boldness that is always tempered with charity and humility.
Are the aggression and the unsociability identified by the Pope this last Whitsun not signs of incipient fatigue – a fatigue that, according to Father Guardini, is the inevitable malaise of a society glutted with its own self-absorption? If so, then it is surely time for a change.
We have a choice. It could be that this change will only come about after a collapse of civilization as we know it. Perhaps it will take a new reign of soul-destroying totalitarianism to bring us to our senses. On the other hand, we could always say ‘Yes’ to God now, and rise to the challenge. This ‘Yes’ will involve self-sacrifice; but suffering in the cause of justice is a way of imitating that selfless outpouring of love that characterizes the life of the Blessed Trinity. It is a means of living personal existence to the full in this fallen world. And anyway, these inconveniences all fall into their proper perspective when we remind ourselves that this life is very short compared with an eternity participating in the glory of the Blessed Trinity as promised to those who give a positive answer to the call to discipleship.
To readers who are rattled because they think the Provost’s Letter has become indigestible with stodge (probably the fruit of a post 1960s Roman theological formation), it can be said that the formula for a safe society need not be complicated. It can be whittled down to two very simple principles: 1) Almighty God is Sovereign, and every one of his human creatures bears the image of God in his own soul. 2) Honour that divine image in ourselves and respect it in our neighbour and, with God’s grace, we shall not go far wrong.
Fr Julian Large