Address: Special Conference in Poland on the Religious Factor and the Future of Europe

Author: Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone

Address: Special Conference in Poland on the Religious Factor and the Future of Europe

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone
Secretary of State

Genuine religious freedom alone is a guarantee of peace

On Saturday morning, 15 September [2007], during his visit to Poland and on the occasion of the Seventh International Conference taking place in Krakow, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State, inaugurated the third study session of the Conference on "The Religious Factor and the Future of Europe". He spoke in the European Institute Lecture Hall at the Jagiellonian University. Mr. Lech Kaczyriski, President of Poland, was present together with other Important political figures. The following is a translation of the Cardinal's Address.

Your Eminence,
Venerable Brother Bishops,
Honourable Members of Parliament,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to inaugurate this study session dedicated to a theme of special interest, not only for the protagonists of ecclesial and political life but ultimately for every believer and for all European citizens.

I cordially greet Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, Mr. Pattering, President of the European Parliament, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, the generous institutions and ecclesial and civil figures who have worked so hard to promote and animate this Seventh International Conference. The theme: "The Religious Factor and the Future of Europe" offers you participants in the Congress who come from various nations the opportunity to reflect together on European integration and on the contribution it can make to Christian values through Catholic action.

As I wish you full success in your work, I begin my introductory report with a quick overview of Europe's current social, cultural and religious situation.

Religious factor in modern Europe

Deeply marked by two major historical events, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, the West finds itself living these years in a cultural atmosphere marked by a widespread, if often vague, quest for the sacred.

This phenomenon concerns Europe in particular. Here, the religious dimension of life, precipitated into a deep crisis by the massive anti-religious propaganda in the Eastern countries and by the advance of secularization which has affected the masses as well as the elite of the Western European nations, the religious dimension, as I was saying, is once again attracting increasingly more public interest.

Recent statistics attest to an awakening of faith in God on our Continent and also of the claim to belong to and identify with the Christian culture, even if a distinction is made between believing, belonging and behaving: in other words, between faith, denominational membership and ethical conduct.

It should immediately be noted that for some people — actually, a minority — religion takes up too much room in public life: any reference to the religious factor prompts in such individuals a rejection that is sometimes as violent, someone wrote, as a red rag to a bull at a bullfight.

Giving credit to the Catholic Church would for them be equivalent to "ghettoizing" themselves in an already obsolete institution, as it were, on its way to extinction.

Thanks to the far-reaching echoes of the mass media, the culture of secularism is dominant in Europe and some are fighting with every possible means to have religion viewed merely as a private choice, with no influence on social life.

At a closer look, however, it seems far from easy to separate the spiritual requirement from people's consciences and from common sense.

Furthermore, the secularization process is not exempt from obstacles: if, in fact, it is true that certain forms of the de-institutionalization of religion (believing without belonging) are spreading in some parts of Europe, the same is not happening elsewhere.

In the presence of such a complex phenomenon that is marking the post-modern age in which we live, it is legitimate to ask ourselves whether the end of a Europe is approaching where the Christian culture and spirituality are widespread and profound, and whether we should prepare for the triumph of secularism.

In this regard, you will also be studying at the Convention what Christian communities can do and in what spirit they should act. The recurring question is: "Ultimately, what significance and 'supplementary value' can religion — I am referring in the first place to Christianity — contribute to building Europe, today and in the future?".

Religion in Poland's recent history

I shall now pause to look at your Nation, marked by the crucial influence of Christianity and by the action of holy men and women who have shaped its culture and development. I do not intend to retrace the history of the Polish People, even if it would be very interesting. I would simply like to limit myself, dear friends, to recalling that Poland down the centuries has walked under the constant protection of the Black Madonna, drawing from her comforting presence the courage and wisdom needed to overcome difficult and sometimes even dramatic moments.

The Servant of God, beloved Pope John Paul II, for instance, dwelled emphatically on the brutality of Nazism and Communism, two forms of social oppression and religious persecution which you have experienced. If Poland suffered immensely under these two totalitarian regimes — so far apart, so different from each other and yet in certain aspects so close and similar —, conversely, it was able to experience deeply the irrepressible power of Christianity that gave coherence to its people and kept them faithful to the Gospel.

Indeed, anyone on the side of Christ withstands every attack. Anyone who loves him feels the need to love human beings and to foster respect for them and their dignity always; he loves his people, to which he feels he belongs, and learns to defend as though they were his own "family".

Your experience testifies that only by responding to the yearning for truth, justice and freedom which is in every person's heart, is it possible to construct a nation that is truly free and supportive, a custodian of the human and spiritual values, all of whose members are reconciled and united within it, a nation open to the great prospects of peace and integral progress in dialogue with other peoples. How important is the Church's action here!

In this regard, the Holy Father Benedict XVI wrote in his first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est: "A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet, the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply" (n. 28).

It is part of the Church's mission to inculcate in the faithful an inner freedom that can resist every form of oppression; to awaken and to nourish in them a love that overcomes hatred and intolerance; to educate them so that they are able, in every situation, to offer a consistent witness to the human and spiritual values that constitute every person and every people.

Inspired by the Christian principles that are quite evident in the fabric of Poland, those responsible today for your Country's Government insistently asked the European Union not to be afraid to recognize its specifically Christian patrimony.

Europe bears an indelible Christian imprint, although today more than in the past many of its inhabitants belong to other religions because of the widespread, ongoing phenomenon of immigration. Here too, I am referring to the coexistence of several religions on the "Old Continent", a fact that must be properly taken into account.

Religion, safeguard of ethics

I now return to the question I asked at the beginning: what is the "supplementary value" that Christianity can contribute to building up a people, to the realization of Europe today and in the future? The Church's teaching, set out in her social doctrine, is clear and enlightening.

While unambiguously preserving and affirming the fundamental criteria of justice, disciples of Christ strive to protect these criteria from the arbitrariness of despotic powers. Keeping alive the passion for truth and also freedom, as well as the courage to live in accordance with one's conscience, they make a qualified contribution to ensuring that the truth does not succumb. In society and in public opinion, they seek to arouse convictions that can provide firm foundations for civilization on which to build the legally constituted State and consequently, to ensure peace.

A few years ago, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI, wrote: "Whenever God and the fundamental form of human life outlined by him are removed from the common mindset and forcefully relegated to the private, merely subjective sphere, the notion of justice fades as do the foundations of peace" (Svolta per l'Europa, p. 43).

The State cannot produce any morality on its own; history is scarred by the tragedies caused by attempts to do this and God does not want them to be repeated!

Thus, religions, and in primis Christianity, must help create that common, shared ethos that is indispensable to the very life of any civil and political community.

Precisely because legality is ultimately rooted in human morality, the first condition for developing a sense of legality is the presence of a keen ethical sense, as a fundamental and indispensable dimension of the person.

To be fully human, the ethical concept must in turn respect the message that comes from the person's nature, because also inscribed in it is his "must be". Indeed, natural law is at the same time moral law. When moral law is in harmony with natural law, the activity of both the individual and the community respect human dignity and the fundamental rights of the person and can avoid all forms of exploitation that reduce the person to being a wretched slave of those who are stronger, as John Paul II wrote in the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (cf. n. 5).

"Those who are stronger", he continued, "can take a variety of names: an ideology, economic power, political and inhumane systems, scientific technocracy or the intrusiveness of the mass media" (ibid.).

Therefore, only by respecting precise conditions will the desire for justice and peace that is in every person's heart find fulfilment, and the people, from being "subjects" will be able to become true "citizens". With this in mind, the lesson of Charles Péguy, the French poet, is still timely: Democracy will either be moral or it will not be democracy.

The Church's commitment

The Church, which received from Christ the mission to evangelize all peoples, makes her own contribution to solving the many problems that the human community has to face. She is fully convinced that on the topics of justice, legality and morality, it is not only peoples' lives and peaceful coexistence that are at stake but the actual concept of the human person.

John Paul II wanted to refer to this when he said that "authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person" (Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, n. 46).

In societies like ours dominated by the imperative of change, observes Danièle Hervieu-Léger, a Belgian sociologist, in which no tradition any longer functions as a "code of meaning", that is, one imposed upon individuals and groups, the Church points with her social doctrine to a system of meanings in which the fundamental human values, rights and duties, also in their consistent historical development (let us think of citizenship rights), constitute indispensable reference points for working out rules of personal and social conduct.

Among the priorities emerging in Europe today is the need for the Church to defend and to promote, recalling an already famous phrase of Pope Benedict XVI, those non-negotiable values that are associated with human dignity. By so doing, conscience is taught the indispensable requirements of truth and hence, of justice.

This is the aim of the Church's frequent interventions to defend human life from conception to its natural end and the promotion of family founded on the indissoluble marriage of a man and a woman.

As Pope John Paul II said in Rio de Janeiro on 3 October 1997 on the occasion of the Second World Meeting of Families, today the fundamental battle for human dignity is being waged around the family and life. The constant violations perpetrated against these values make the role of the Church, often called to compensate for what is lacking in public institutions, extremely timely, necessary and demanding.

This is certainly an essential but unpopular task. Yet, the Church does not seek applause and popularity, since she knows that Christ sends her into the world not "to be served" but rather "to serve". The Church does not want "to win at any cost", but rather to "convince" or at least "to warn" the faithful and all people of good will about the risk that the human being takes on in distancing himself or herself from God.

The history of the last century and all the events in recent months prompt us to reflect on what kind of society human beings build when they claim to attain happiness on their own, independently of God. On various occasions and very frequently, they return to insisting on so-called modern "values", on individual rights and on the overall vision of society which contrasts with the ethical, moral and spiritual principles that have given life to Europe's 1,000-year-old history and tradition, making it a "beacon of civilization" in the world.

Precisely to put people on guard against the real risk that Europe runs today of failing in its special vocation in the concert of nations, the Catholic Church intervenes, making herself the "voice" of those who do not intend to surrender to the deceptive flattery of ethical relativism and practical and materialistic atheism, which considers man the absolute architect of his own destiny.

The constant reference in today's political agenda to modern "rights" and their importance, often forces Pastors to intervene in this area.

It is not by way of a hobby or because of a mindset closed to a modern outlook that Pastors of the Church often intervene on recurring moral issues in Europe's legislative agenda. Rather, they are motivated by the awareness of their grave duty to defend the dignity and ultimately the good of the person and of society from manipulation, which can easily be presented as liberation.

Acting in this way, members of the Church, and especially of the hierarchy, become more and more aware of the importance of their mission. They do not fight battles as the rearguard but on the frontline; essential ethical battles to support the lay faithful involved in social and political areas.

This is not, therefore, undue interference by the Church in a province not her own; it is assistance offered to Christians so that they may develop a conscience that is upright and enlightened, and for this very reason is freer and more responsible.

Christians involved in politics

I now ask myself what should be the concrete commitment of Christians in the political arena in Europe today? Can a Christian be satisfied with stating the ideal and affirming the general principles or must he enter into history and deal with it in its complexity, encouraging all possible achievements of Gospel and human values in an organic and coherent framework of freedom and justice?

It is beyond any doubt that since he is a citizen and a full member of a people and a nation, the Christian must make himself the "travelling companion" of those working to make the common good possible.

In particular, every member of the lay faithful is himself responsible for building the human city with the contribution of his professionalism, witness and commitment to participation, thereby helping to bring into being an appropriate legislation and then to set an example by loyally abiding by it.

In the current cultural debate on the construction of the European Union, it is necessary to be clear that there are "thresholds" of respect for human dignity — the thresholds of the above-mentioned "non-negotiable values" — beneath which one cannot and must not go. Should this happen, a Christian involved in politics or anyone who puts human dignity at the centre of his political and social activity would be bound not to support measures harmful to human dignity in order to avoid effectively imposing them on it.

In democratic regimes it is right to respect different positions; however, to make one's own or to support choices and decisions irreconcilable with human nature is a sign of weakness and a counter-witness to the actual dignity of the person. Europe is the "homeland" of values and it would make no sense today to see it relinquish its rich spiritual heritage which has marked its 1,000 year-old history and enabled it to forge these values.

In politics it is often necessary to opt for the practical path instead of the best one; yet, courage is required in order not to set out on every path merely because it is theoretically possible.

The great Pontiff John Paul II, so attached to the city of Krakow, noted that the value of democracy stands or falls with the values it embodies and promotes; on the basis of these values there can be no temporary or changeable "majority" opinions, but only the recognition of an objective moral law which, as a "natural law" engraved on the human heart, is precisely a normative reference for civil law itself (cf. Evangelium Vitae, n. 70).

I would therefore like to express the Holy See's appreciation for what the Polish Government declared at the last European Summit, as reported in the mass media, to safeguard Poland's public morals and norms from possible interpretations of certain provisions in the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union which would violate the non-negotiable values mentioned above.

Multiculturalism and religious plurality

Before concluding, I cannot refrain from emphasizing that today's social context in Europe is marked by many different peoples and cultures: this is a phenomenon that will presumably continue to become increasingly pronounced. With globalization, in fact, the world has become a "village" where people increasingly tend to amalgamate.

Now, it should not be forgotten that the encounter becomes a confrontation when it threatens the fundamental principles of the host's identity, affecting the ethical and juridical foundations of the ordering of the State.

The culture of immigrants should undoubtedly be appreciated, but at the same time, local peoples should not be obliged to relinquish their own identity. In this regard too, the Church's social doctrine offers useful suggestions. Indeed, it invites believers to find inspiration in the Most Holy Trinity, the supreme mystery of Christianity, a mystery of unity and communion. By allowing themselves to be transformed by Trinitarian love, Christians learn to be the builders of a society in which difference and diversity do not lead to divisions and confusion but find harmony in understanding and solidarity.

Taking up what I have already had the opportunity to note, it is useful to reaffirm that religion cannot be confined to the private sphere but must play its own specific and important role in society. It is worth highlighting that it is precisely the non-European cultures, already consistently represented in Europe, which help render obsolete the concept of private religious freedom that was long cultivated by a certain secularized culture.

For Islam and other religions significantly present today on our Continent, religion is an essentially public event. Moreover, every authentic religious tradition desires to show its identity rather than to hide or camouflage it.

Therefore, if Europe wishes to be healthily secular, it has no other option than to accept the patrimony of spirituality and humanism of every religion while at the same time rejecting anything in it that does not conform with human dignity.

How strange a contradictory attitude appears, supported by some today, which demands the visibility of the symbols and practices of minority religions but seeks to abolish and conceal the symbols and practices of Christianity, the traditional religion of the majority.

Genuine religious freedom alone is a guarantee of peace and a premise of development in solidarity; this is the only way in which it will be possible to avoid the feared conflict between civilizations, by weakening the unfruitful logic of violent confrontation through dialogue.


I would like to conclude by stressing how deeply in tune Christianity is with certain more salient characteristics of contemporary man. Only think of the importance attributed today to "desires" and "freedom".

On several occasions in presenting his Gospel, Jesus stressed the desire for meaning and perfection and not the desire for freedom. Could not today's European civilization, marked by desires that are often confused and dissolute and by a spasmodic quest for freedom, find in Christ the deepest and most satisfying answer to its expectations?

Europe cannot of course be compared with Christianity, nor can Christianity be reduced to Europe, but it is indisputable that Christianity'' is no merely one "ingredient" in the European "cocktail". How, therefore, coup this Continent abandon Christianity like an estranged travelling companion. How could Europe betray the values forged by Christianity without the risk of: falling into a dramatic crisis like that of. someone who rejects his reasons for living and hoping?

Christianity is not first and foremost a collection of truths to believe and norms to obey: it is a Person, Jesus Christ!, Meeting him and becoming his friend is what marks our identity as Christians. We ask to be able to offer to our contemporaries, freely and simply, this proposal of meaning, of total self-fulfilment: and of civilization.

Christ alone, John Paul II liked to repeat, truly knows man's heart. Jesus is, the true friend, the Redeemer of man!

It is to be hoped that modern man: may also be able to recognize him and draw from him the appropriate consequences, both for his personal life and for the life of communities and peoples.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 October 2007, page 6

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