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Echoing Pope Benedict, Francis Challenges Europe to Build a Society Centered on Human Dignity


AP Photo/Patrick Hertzog

Greg Daly - published on 11/26/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Pontiff suggests it is time to revive Europe's Christian soul.

In a speech that echoed with the thoughts and words of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis yesterday issued a call to arms, challenging the European Union to rouse itself out of its torpor and give force to the ideals that drove the founders of the European movement.

Pope Francis began by pointing out how much has changed since Pope John Paul II addressed the European Parliament in 1988, when the Iron Curtain still divided Europe.  Despite the Cold War being long over, and the EU being well on the way to being a truly pan-European institution, “Europe seems to give the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard,” said the Pope, “feeling less and less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion.”

Nonetheless, he said, he had a message of hope and encouragement, calling on today’s European leaders “to return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent.“

That pragmatic and piecemeal approach has paid dividends, with Papal Knight John Hume declaring in his 1998 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, that “European union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution and it is the duty of everyone, particularly those who live in areas of conflict, to study how it was done and to apply its principles to their own conflict resolution.”

Rather than stressing Europe’s peace-making methods in this speech, however — he left that for a later speech at the Council of Europe — Pope Francis turned instead to what he saw as the deeper source of post-war European integration.

“At the heart of this ambitious political project ,” he said, “was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.”

Describing dignity as “the pivotal concept in the process of rebuilding which followed the Second World War,” Pope Francis called “praiseworthy” the European determination to advance the cause of human dignity through the promotion of human rights. “There are still too many situations,” he said, “in which human beings are treated as objects whose conception, configuration and utility can be programmed, and who can then be discarded when no longer useful, due to weakness, illness or old age.”

Asking what dignity there can be when people lack freedom of conscience and religion, when the rule of law is absent, when discrimination is rife, and when people are deprived of food, of shelter, and of work, Pope Francis pointed out that our “inalienable rights” can never justly be taken away. We go astray, however, if we broaden the concept of rights while forgetting the “essential and complementary concept of duty,” as though our lives as individuals can be lived “without regard for the fact that each human being is part of a social context wherein his or her rights and duties are bound up with those of others and with the common good of society itself.”

Calling for human beings to be regarded not as discrete absolutes but as “beings in relation,” he described as a scourge of modern Europe the loneliness of those who lack connections with others, whether they be the abandoned elderly, the alienated young, immigrants, and the poor. This loneliness stands juxtaposed to “certain rather selfish lifestyles, marked by an opulence which is no longer sustainable and frequently indifferent to the world around us, and especially to the poorest of the poor.“

Describing as “the inevitable consequence of a ‘throwaway culture’ and an uncontrolled consumerism,” a tendency to confuse ends and means such that technical and economic questions dominate political debate, “to the detriment of genuine concern for human beings,” he warned against the reduction of human beings to “mere cogs in a machine.” When people are treated as things, lives can be discarded with few qualms when they no longer seem useful, “as in the case of the terminally ill, the elderly who are abandoned and uncared for, and children who are killed in the womb.”

Faced with the challenge of tending to the disparate needs of individuals and peoples, Pope Francis said Europe’s parliamentarians were “called to a great mission which may at times seem an impossible one.” Nonetheless, he said, hope in the future could be restored, starting with the young, leading to “a rediscovery of that confidence needed to pursue the great ideal of a united and peaceful Europe, a Europe which is creative and resourceful, respectful of rights and conscious of its duties.”

Citing how Raphael’s Vatican fresco “The School of Athens” depicts Plato pointing to the heavens while Aristotle’s hand is directed towards the world, he said Europe’s history had been made up of an “interplay between heaven and earth,” with Europe’s people being open to the transcendent while having a concrete, pragmatic capacity to confront problems.

He could easily have illustrated this juxtaposition of the transcendent with the pragmatic by recalling, as did Pope John Paul II in 2003, how Europe’s founding fathers Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gaspari, and Robert Schuman sought to precede the negotiations that established the European Coal and Steel Community by meditating and praying together in a Benedictine monastery by the Rhine.

“The future of Europe,” Pope Francis said, “depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements.  A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul and that ‘humanistic spirit’ which it still loves and defends.”

Arguing that Christianity’s role in promoting the centrality of the human person to the European ideal is not a relic of the past but a living reality, he said it offers a way of enriching Europe without threating the independence of the Union’s institutions or the secularity of Europe’s states. “This is clear,” he said, “from the ideals which shaped Europe from the beginning, such as peace, subsidiarity and reciprocal solidarity, and a humanism centered on respect for the dignity of the human person.”

Recalling the European Union motto “United in Diversity,” Pope Francis stressed that unity should not be confused with uniformity, pointing out that each family is more truly united “when each of its members is free to be fully himself or herself. “ Confusing unity with uniformity, he said, “strikes at the vitality of the democratic system, weakening the rich, fruitful and constructive interplay of organizations and political parties.”  

Having lamented how “bureaucratic technicalities” seemed to have replaced “great ideas” in the European project, Pope Francis warned against allowing real democracy to be replaced by what he called “a new political nominalism.” One of the great challenges facing Europe’s parliamentarians, he said, was to keep democracy alive in a world besieged by such globalizing tendencies as “angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems lacking kindness, and intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom.”

In calling for the defense of democracy and a renewed emphasis on the dignity of the human person, Pope Francis seems to have been channeling not merely his predecessors but also the so-called Father of Europe, Robert Schuman, a devout Catholic who had been profoundly influenced by the writings of Jacques Maritain and Pope Leo XIII. In Pour l’Europe, his final book before his death in 1963, Schuman wrote that, “Democracy owes its existence to Christianity. It was born the day man was called to realize in his daily commitment the dignity of the human person in his individual freedom, in the respect of the rights of everyone, and in the practice of brotherly love towards all. Never, before Christ, had similar concepts been formulated.”

Schuman was hardly alone among Europe’s founders in holding such views; similar principles were expounded by, for instance, Konrad Adenauer. Adenauer’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, was founded on a platform that held that “only Christian precepts guarantee justice, order, moderation, the dignity and liberty of the individual and thus true and genuine democracy,” and saw as foundational “the lofty view that Christianity takes of human dignity, of the value of each single man.” 

Restoring hope to Europe cannot be achieved simply by acknowledging the centrality of the human person, Pope Francis stressed; it is necessary to nurture people’s gifts, supporting the environments in which talents can be formed. Education, he said, is not just about technical expertise but should “encourage the more complex process of assisting the human person to grow in his or her totality,” enabling young people “to look to the future with hope instead of disenchantment.“ The basic place of education, of course, Pope Francis identified as the family, which he described as “the fundamental cell and most precious element of any society,” saying that without a solid basis in united, fruitful, and indissoluble families, “the future ends up being built on sand, with dire social consequences.” 

Reminding those present of Europe’s often heroic role in efforts to promote the notion that we are stewards, rather than masters, of the Earth, Pope Francis pointed out that respect for the environment is not just a matter of protecting it, but of recognizing that man is a part of nature and of using the environment responsibly.  “It is intolerable,” he said with reference to the agricultural sector and in clear criticism of the excesses of the Common Agricultural Policy, “that millions of people around the world are dying of hunger while tons of food are discarded each day from our tables.”

Just as he had returned to his early rhetorical question of whether there can be true dignity for those denied food, so he returned to his related point about those denied the dignity of labor. Calling for proper working conditions that would join market flexibility with workers’ needs for stability and security, he recommended that Europe promote a society directed towards the sustaining of families and children rather than the exploitation of workers.  It is time, he said, to build a Europe” which revolves not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person, around inalienable values.“

Harking back to his famous Lampedusa speech, his first speech outside Rome, he insisted that Europe needs a united response to the question of migration. Reiterating that “we cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery,” he urged Europe’s leaders to work together to help those arriving daily on Europe’s shores, in a way that respected the dignity of the newcomers while safeguarding the cultural identity of their hosts.  Further, he said, it was necessary to take action against causes as well as effects by tackling problems in host countries.

In saying this he recalled the famous Schuman Declaration of May 9, 1950, in which Robert Schuman, then France’s Foreign Minister, first outlined the aims of the European project. European integration is often misconstrued as a purely economic enterprise, but the Schuman Declaration shows how it has always had loftier goals, being aimed from the first at serving global peace through the step by step creation of a united Europe. Schuman described one of Europe’s “essential tasks” as being “the development of the African continent.”

Under no illusions about the realities of national identities, Pope Francis stressed the importance of acknowledging one’s own character in terms of dealing with immigration, but also entering into dialogue with applicant countries to the Union and Europe’s neighbors. It is incumbent upon Europe’s parliamentarians, he said, “to protect and nurture Europe’s identity, so that its citizens can experience renewed confidence in the institutions of the Union and in its underlying project of peace and friendship.“

Recalling how 2,000 years of history link Europe and Christianity, Pope Francis said that for all the errors and conflicts in that shared history, it remained a history reflected in “the beauty of our cities, and even more in the beauty of the many works of charity and constructive cooperation throughout this continent.”

“This history, in large part, must still be written,” said Pope Francis, stating “Europe urgently needs to recover its true features in order to grow, as its founders intended, in peace and harmony, since it is not yet free of conflicts, and that the time has come “to revive and encourage a Europe of leadership, a repository of science, art, music, human values and faith as well.“

In the closing sections of his speech, Pope Francis quoted a second-century author as saying that “Christians are to the world what the soul is to the body.” In calling for the revival of Europe, and the reconnection of Europe’s body to its soul, he could as easily have quoted Schuman, who, when addressing the European Parliament on March 19, 1958, famously stated that “All the European Countries are permeated by Christian civilization. It is the soul of Europe which must be restored to it.”

It seems that yesterday Pope Francis dared us to remember why Europe matters.

Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

Pope FrancisPracticing Mercy
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