Arguably one of the most memorable lines in Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate (charity in truth) is that “a humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism.”
The tendency in today’s society to emancipate itself from God’s laws by denying his existence is a concern Benedict XVI has repeatedly expressed, even before he was elected Pope. He believes such an atheistic worldview is leading societies down a path that increasingly disrespects the dignity of all human life, whether it be in the form of abortion, euthanasia, or the destruction of human embryos in the name of science.
On Aug. 9, he returned again to the theme in front of a large crowd that had gathered to see him at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo near Rome. Referring to the examples of saints and martyrs, he said they showed through their actions the difference between “atheistic humanism and Christian humanism, between holiness and nihilism.”
The Pope drew particular attention to two Catholic saints: Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest, and Edith Stein, a Jew who became a Catholic nun. Both of them were martyred at Auschwitz — a camp that, he said, showed in stark terms the hellishness of a place that denies the existence of God. It was “an extreme symbol of evil,” the Pope said, “of the hell that comes to earth when man forgets God and when he is replaced, usurping from him the right to decide what is good and what is evil, to give life and take life.”
But the Pope warned this phenomenon isn’t confined to the Nazi death camp, nor is it a relic of the last century, but is an ever growing menace in today’s world. "On the one hand, there are philosophies and ideologies, but also on an increasing scale, ways of thinking and acting that extol the freedom of man as the only principle, as an alternative to God, and thus transform man into a god, whose system of behaviour is of an arbitrary nature,”
Benedict XVI explained, “On the other hand, we note the saints who, practicing the gospel of love, make reason of their hope, show the true face of God who is love, and at the same time, the true face of man, created in the image and likeness of God.”
Benedict XVI said he believed the examples of these saints “provide a credible and comprehensive answer to the human and spiritual questions which give rise to the deep crisis of the contemporary world: charity in truth.”
Towards the end of Caritas in Veritate, the Pope spelled out these arguments in greater detail, but no less succinctly. “Without God, man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is,” he wrote. “Man cannot bring about his own progress unaided, because by himself he cannot establish an authentic humanism. Only if we are aware of our calling, as individuals and as a community, to be part of God's family as his sons and daughters, will we be able to generate a new vision and muster new energy in the service of a truly integral humanism.”
He added: “The greatest service to development, then, is a Christian humanism that enkindles charity and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God. Openness to God makes us open towards our brothers and sisters and towards an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity.”
However, ideological rejection of God and an atheism of indifference, oblivious to the creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, “constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today,” he said.
“A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism. Only a humanism open to the absolute can guide us in the promotion and building of forms of social and civic life — structures, institutions, culture and ethos — without exposing us to the risk of becoming ensnared by the fashions of the moment.”
But the Pope doesn’t believe in imposing this view on others; to do so would contradict the essence of Christian humanism. Rather he takes an approach in keeping with his scholarly background: by appealing to reason. In his book “Without Roots”, published when he was a cardinal in 2004, Benedict wrote of his hope that debating the rationality of the church’s arguments could help “close the gap between secular ethics and religious ethics and found an ethics of reason that goes beyond such distinctions.”
It’s yet to be seen whether Western societies, particularly European ones, have ears to hear these arguments, or if they will increasingly prefer to continue along a destructive path that denies God’s existence.
But one thing’s for sure: Benedict XVI isn’t going to leave this issue anytime soon.
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