The Contribution of the Churches to a New Humanism in Europe
Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Reverend Fathers, Distinguished Colleagues,
While it is an honour for me to address you, I find the task assigned to me very daunting. Who am I to sum up the contribution our Churches could make to imbuing Europe with a new humanism? How could any one person do this? I have agreed to say a little on this subject, in the belief that the context of our meeting is a quiet but eloquent sign of hope for Europe. It is a paradox that those who speak loudest often have little to say, while those who have much to say speak calmly and quietly, and are not heard by a culture that is more familiar with the relentless beat of loud music in the home, loud machinery in the workplace, loud traffic on the road. Our voice is often not heard by the crowds, but if we continue to speak calmly, with humility but with genuine conviction and love for our Church and our continent, people will hear. At least we here have the luxury of relative peace, and I believe that will help us to reflect more deeply and productively on all we hear from each other. Allow me to quote the Apostle after whom I was named: “It is good for us to be here” (Mt 17,4 etc.).
However, there is a limit to what I can usefully say, in the sense that I am from the North West of Europe, and speak only from my own experience of the Church in the Western, Latin Catholic tradition. So my very Western view is of its very nature incomplete, but that is so for all of us, and what each of us has to say can, perhaps, be completed by others here...
The years I spent teaching in our provincial seminary in the North East of England allowed me to discover a part of my country that I had not visited. Occasionally I would get into the car and explore. Once I came over the top of a hill and looked down on a sight that made me both happy and sad at the same time. I saw before me an ancient settlement that had clearly once been a monastery built in a valley. Roads came to it from all directions, and there were many old buildings built alongside the actual monastery. It had once been the heart of a mediaeval community. I stopped and went into the main building, which is now a hotel.
What made me sad was my reflection that the Reformation had destroyed the ancient community by taking its heart away. People had built houses next to the monastery because there was medical help and all sorts of facilities were available to them. The monasteries were “nationalised” during the reign of King Henry VIII and later, and their properties handed over to faithful subjects, effectively “privatising” all the services the monastic communities had been able to provide. So the ordinary people no longer had access to the facilities that the monasteries had offered previously. Although the Reformation is generally portrayed in our history books as a step forward, it suddenly became clear to me that day that the civilising influence of the monasteries was wiped out and not replaced at all for a long time.
What made me happy was that I could glimpse the effect monasticism had had, even on very remote communities in Europe. Here I was, very near Hadrian’s Wall, the northernmost border of the Roman Empire, looking at the remains of a very well-organised microcosm of society. At the centre of the organisation of that society’s life was the way the monks lived, not only as individual monks but also, naturally, as monastic communities, which spread, equally naturally, to the society around the monasteries. The shape of the day, the week, the month and the year was governed not only by agriculture but also by the Christian religion. Whether the people who draft constitutional documents in Brussels like to admit it or not, it is a fact that social life in mediaeval Western Europe, at least, was moulded by Christian monasteries. At the heart of European civilisation was a sustained and ordered effort to live according to the demands of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The code that gave this form of life a structure was the monks’ rule of life, and the most influential of these rules, in most of Western Europe, was the Rule of Saint Benedict.
What could the Rule of Saint Benedict be saying to us as we meet here in these days? In many Benedictine communities, certain sections of the Rule are read on the same days each year, in such a way that every member of the community hears the rule three times a year. The reading of the Rule begins on 1st January, 2nd May and 1st September, so in these days the communities that continue this tradition will be listening to the prologue. Today’s reading is a rather long one, beginning with the Psalmist’s question to God, “Lord, who shall be admitted to your tent and dwell on your holy mountain?” (Ps 14, 1). Benedict urges his brethren to listen to the Lord’s answer, so that they, too, may find the way to God’s tent: “He who walks without fault; he who acts with justice and speaks the truth from his heart; he who does not slander with his tongue; he who does no wrong to his brother, who casts no slur on his neighbour” (verses 2-3). People of this kind know that it is through no merit of their own that they are able to live this life - all this comes about in them through God. As Saint Paul says, “it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Cor 15,10). And he also said, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (2 Cor 10,17). This section of the Rule closes with the Lord’s description of the house built not on sand but on a solid rock foundation, by the wise person “who hears these words of mine and does them” (Mt 7,24).
If our contemporaries were to ask how best to live their lives, Benedict’s advice would not be out of place. On the one hand, it is often said that people lack a clear moral orientation or an ethical compass; on the other, many are slow to take the advice of their elders or of the traditions built into their culture - even people who claim to have faith in God and belong to His Church. But even people with no religious leanings could accept these signposts to a good life: a just life without fault, based on truthfulness and utter respect for their brothers and sisters. Even if they are not sure they are capable of living such a life, Benedict insists, with Saint Paul, that a little humble realism will show them that they can do it, with a little help from God. Is this not the first step in the process of recovery in all so-called “twelve-step” therapies, accepted by believers and unbelievers alike? I wonder if Saint Benedict had the smile of a wise uncle or father on his lips, as he wrote the final paragraph - “you would do well to listen to this advice” seems to be what he means. The tone of his words is gentle, but he has a very clear message which it is not hard to understand. And those who heard it would have recognised all the quotations instantly. There is a difference from the majority of our contemporaries, but perhaps the style is what is important for us. Benedict certainly had a good understanding of human nature, and of what is needed for a community to survive and even to thrive. What we can take from this, I think, is to recognise today as much as in times past that people need guidance, whether or not they recognise that fact, and that the best way of capturing their attention is to speak to them firmly but gently. Clarity with charity.
There is a very positive assessment of the contribution Benedict and his Rule made to the moral life in Europe in a book published in 1981 by a recent convert from Marxism. In After Virtue (London [Duckworth] 1981), Alasdair MacIntyre starts with an imaginary situation where the natural sciences have broken down, because a series of natural disasters have been blamed on scientists and people have turned against them. It would leave what we now take for granted in scientific language as a set of propositions that were no longer axiomatic but could be accepted or rejected in a situation of grave disorder. His hypothesis is “that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science is in the imaginary world which I described” (p. 2). In effect, what MacIntyre takes as his point of departure is that, for many people, whether they know it or not, we live “after virtue”. Anything even vaguely resembling objectively binding morality means nothing to most people. Sadly, this is not an imaginatively constructed fictitious world, but the one where we all live. It is important to see that MacIntyre had come to realise that, while “Marxist socialism is at its core deeply optimistic” (p. 262), Trotsky, in later life, had concluded that “the Soviet Union was not socialist and that the theory which was to have illuminated the path to human liberation had in fact led into darkness” (loc. cit.). According to MacIntyre, while Lukacs had to resort to the ideal proletarian, and Lenin to the ideal revolutionary - which Stalin saw incarnate in Stakhanov, the superhuman parallel to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch - “one of the most admirable aspects of Trotsky’s cold resolution was his refusal of all such fantasies” (loc. cit.). This may help understand the title of the last chapter of After Virtue: “Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky and St. Benedict”.
The final paragraph of MacIntyre’s book has become famous, but it is a wonderful piece of rhetoric, and I hope you will not mind me reading it to you:- “It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead - often not recognising fully what they were doing - was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another - doubtless very different - St. Benedict” (p. 263).
Another St. Benedict! I have no idea whether it is what was in MacIntyre’s mind, but we do now have another Benedict; it is not for me to say who is and who is not a saint, but Pope Benedict XVI certainly shares MacIntyre’s concern for “forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained”. We certainly have a leader in the Catholic Church who speaks with clarity and charity, as we can see in his first Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est. There he challenges something central to Nietzsche’s vision of the Christian religion: according to him, “Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice. Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a foretaste of the Divine?” (§ 3, Cf. Jenseits von Gut und Bose, IV, 168). Pope Benedict cannot accept this; for him, the purity, growth and maturity and renunciation involved in real love neither “reject“ nor “poison“ eros; rather, “they heal it and restore its true grandeur” (§ 5), in contrast to the all-too common reduction of eros to a commodity called “sex”, something that has become commercially quantifiable and reduced to the level of a possession rather than a “vital expression of our whole being” (loc. cit.). In contrast to such a lamentable caricature of love, “Christian faith... has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility” (loc. cit.). The Encyclical describes “The practice of Love by the Church as a Community of Love”. It articulates the many ways the Church can and does work for the dignity of every person created by God. “Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave” (§ 18). Pope Benedict clearly wants to make it clear that the most important fact in Christianity is God’s love for us, and also that our response can never be simply benevolence towards others, with no reference to God. Contemplation is an essential part of our response, a contemplation of how enormous the love of God the Father is (Cf. the reference in §7 to Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule), and a contemplation of Jesus Christ, who is the incarnation of God’s love (Cf. §§ 12-15). But an equally essential element is the love of our neighbour that almost comes naturally. There is a real challenge here, but I think it is put across in a way that would not discourage people by demanding too much - and the only criticism is an expression of regret that contemporary society can so easily underestimate the beauty of the human person. That is underlined by the fact that the Encyclical ends with a list of saints, human beings enabled by God - just as Saint Benedict said in the Prologue to his Rule in today’s reading - to do His will, above all the Mother of God herself. This is a high view of humanity, not a pessimistic one. It is a vision worth sharing, but how?
Saint Benedict wrote his Rule for monks, who were to put it into practice both as individuals and as communities. In the first of two documents on the theology of liberation published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the point is made clearly that structures can bear no moral responsibility: “Structures, whether they are good or bad, are the result of man’s actions and so are consequences more than causes”; the emphasis is clearly on personal responsibility. “It is only by making an appeal to the ‘moral potential’ of the person and to the constant need for interior conversion, that social change will be brought about which will be truly in the service of man”. The Marxist-inspired “inversion of morality and structures is steeped in a materialist anthropology which is incompatible with the dignity of mankind” (Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Libertatis Nuntius. Instruction on certain aspects of the “theology of liberation”, 6th August 1984, §§ 15, 32, 33). The way to share the vision in which we believe ought to be addressed primarily to persons, individuals. If they are in the forefront of any message or programme, that will automatically make the message more “personal” and accessible. Besides, it is probably true that personal conversion and an appeal for social change are not quite an “either/or”, but the sense of the 1986 document is that the prime beneficiary of pastoral teaching and action is not a group but a single person. I think it is always worth remembering that when, as Churches, we consider getting involved on the political scene. There is no way we can keep silent on so many issues, but the style of our approach is crucial. Is it inspired by a desire to manipulate structures, or is the kind of patient love Father Abbot has for the monks in his care what moves us? Curiously, if we view things sub specie aeternitatis, we have plenty of time. Another difference between Christianity and Marxism, and many other theories of revolution, is that we do not put off respect for the person until after the revolution, or after the achievement of the perfect society. Jesus Christ asked us simply to “love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn 15,12). He never said we should wait until the time was right. It was a simple command, and the best response is just to get on with it. Now. That seems clear.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Dt 30,19). These were the words of a man about to die after leading the people of Israel through the desert for many years. There is a certain poignant urgency about the choice Moses put before the people before leaving the plains of Moab and going up Mount Nebo to glimpse the land the people would enter without him. There are many issues where the Churches can guide the people of Europe to go the right way towards life. Whether they listen is beyond our control, but if someone could say when we are dead and gone that we were faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that we were fearless preachers who taught with clarity and charity, I think we could rest in peace.
Vienna, May 3-5, 2006