German Blog Review: Is Religion above Democracy?

Asking about the costs a papal visit would cause has been a leitmotif during Pope Benedict XVI‘s visit to Spain in August, and has remained one during his visit to Germany now. What is true is that such a visit does cause costs. But then, every state visit does.

Benedict XVI spoke to the Bundestag on Thursday. There has been an argument about that, too. The Bundestag was being abused by the Vatican and those who had invited the Pope to speak there, writes Almabu, a German blogger, and

protestants, atheists, muslims, and others – who are Germany’s majority, will experience this with astonishment (Protestanten, Atheisten, Moslems und Andere – die zusammen die Mehrheit in Deutschland bilden – werden es mit Befremden erleben…).

I’m a protestant, and an unbelieving one at that – a christian only by denomination. The influence of both the catholic, and the protestant churches, goes to far in my view, given that Germany defines itself as a secular state. The state collects a church tax on the churches’ behalf. Professors of theology can’t teach at German universities without permission from either of the two official churches.  Hans Küng and Uta Ranke-Heinemann were banned from teaching catholic theology – not by their universities, or by a court decision, but by the Vatican.

But that doesn’t seem to be the current protesters’ main concern. Child abuse in religious – and especially catholic – organizations are a topic. Papal opposition to “gay marriage” is, too. So is the Pope’s conservative attitude towards “unity among christians”, or ecumenism. But then, catholicism and protestantism are two  different concepts after all.

Maybe I’d be opposed to the Pope’s visit if I were a believing christian, and especially if I were catholic. Maybe. I know catholics who are struggling to make their voices heard within their church, and who argue that the catholic church needed to become more democratic, or at least more presbyterian (if that’s the accurate nomenclature).

So, talk may be cheap. I’m not catholic. But I’m a citizen of this republic, and I see no problem with the Pope speaking to the Bundestag. He spoke to Parliament as a fellow German, but above all, he stated his concept of the foundations of a free state of law (die Grundlagen des freiheitlichen Rechtsstaats). He may be dead-wrong, but he has earned himself the position to speak, through a long life of ardent and productive research and thought. As long as he doesn’t exceed the constitutional limits, why should his speech to the Bundestag be a problem? He wasn’t legislating – he was presenting his views.

Would he like to legislate, instead of elected lawmakers? Who can tell? I can’t. What I can tell is that I’m sometimes listening when the Pope speaks – for my information, not for guidance. I do believe that he is a man of great knowledge, even if not necessarily a man of wisdom. He’s dogmatic. Dogmatism may limit, but doesn’t seem to bar thought – much of what theologians write is actually very carefully thought.

The Pope, in his speech to the Bundestag, was aware that he wasn’t talking to a merely christian parliament. “How do we recognize what is right?”, he asked (rhetorically), and answered his own question:

In history, systems of law have almost always been based on religion: decisions regarding what was to be lawful among men were taken with reference to the divinity. Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed body of law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law – and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God.


For the development of law and for the development of humanity, it was highly significant that Christian theologians aligned themselves against the religious law associated with polytheism and on the side of philosophy, and that they acknowledged reason and nature in their interrelation as the universally valid source of law. This step had already been taken by Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans, when he said: “When Gentiles who have not the Law [the Torah of Israel] do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves … they show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness …” (Rom 2:14f.).

But while most of the matters that need to be regulated by law, the support of the majority can serve as a sufficient criterion, it was evident that for the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough: everyone in a position of responsibility must personally seek out the criteria to be followed when framing laws.

Natural law, which helped to understand what is right or wrong, is no specifically catholic concept, according to the Pope.

But probably, there had been attempts to incorporate natural law into Christianity. It would be surprising if the Pope didn’t think of natural law as something within catholic teachings – the latter of which would supersede all other teachings, in his view.

Maybe it’s that suspicion (it’s certainly a suspicion I do feel myself) which drives oppostion against the papal visit to Germany in general, and his opportunity to speak to our elected representatives in particular.

But it makes no difference, as long as the law prevails. Besides, there would only be few people in this country, given our history, who would doubt that under certain circumstances, the state and its law must be opposed, not supported.

If or when such a situation would arise will be judged differently by different people. The Pope‘s criteria may not be my criteria. But when reading what he said as a cardinal, in 1996, about relativism, it seems to strike a chord here:

A system of freedom ought to be essentially a system of positions that are connected with one another because they are relative as well as being dependent on historical situations open to new developments. Therefore, a liberal society would be a relativist society: Only with that condition could it continue to be free and open to the future.

In the area of politics, this concept is considerably right. There is no one correct political opinion. What is relative—the building up of liberally ordained coexistence between people—cannot be something absolute. Thinking in this way was precisely the error of Marxism and the political theologies.

However, with total relativism, everything in the political area cannot be achieved either. There are injustices that will never turn into just things (such as, for example, killing an innocent person, denying an individual or groups the right to their dignity or to life corresponding to that dignity) while, on the other hand, there are just things that can never be unjust.

Indeed, writes Alan Posener, a British-German blogger,

democracy is, if you like, the “dictatorship of relativism”. Those who stand up for democracy advocates that every opinion may be voiced, and that all kinds of [political] parties strive for state power. No hate speech is allowed, no calls for violence, but basically, everything else is permitted. What is not permitted is to put an end to this relativism, the abolition of the rules of democratic practice. A party with the declared goal to bar other parties’ access to power or to ban free expression of opinion must not stand for election, not even if – and especially not if – they have a majority behind them. What democrats do not want is a dictatorship of truth – no matter if that is a minority’s or a majority’s truth.

But that’s what Benedict wants.*)

Is it? Posener quotes several very unpleasant – if quoted correctly – lines from the Pope, spoken in 2004, when the Pope was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I’m not sure, however, if Ratzinger, in 2004, really said that the West needed to ask itself if “European secularization wasn’t an exception which needed correction” (“ob die „europäische Säkularisierung ein Sonderweg sei, der einer Korrektur bedürfe” – that’s how Posener quotes him). According to Massimo Rosati, in Ritual and the Sacred, 2009, it was actually Jürgen Habermas, in a debate with the Pope, who

reminded us how, seen from Tehran, secularization in Europe, if compared with other socio-cultural contexts, appears an exception in need of correction.

Ratzinger however

had emphasized, on the one hand, how secularized Europe cannot reasonably think of herself as a model for other countries, how her particularistic self-representation cannot aspire to being an exemplary value, and, on the other hand, how this self-representation is not truly authentic even with reference to European history and culture [footnotes omitted].

Thomas Assheuer, a correspondent of German weekly Die Zeit, who listened to Habermas’ and Ratzinger’s debate in 2004, couldn’t tell if Ratzinger had claimed, for religion, the role of an usher which would supersede democracy, or one as a corrective. The Pope is trying to influence the public – the German public, the Italian public, the global public. But so is every Confucius Institute. The issue is if either of them wants to impose dictatorship upon Germany. (If either the Confucius Institutes, or the religious organizations, should play a role in our educational system, would be a different question.)

If the Pope is indeed as dangerous as he is portrayed to be by many of his opponents, blogposts like Posener’s (and many other critics) won’t cut. For sure, this is a country where the Pope’s views can be read, quoted from, and be challenged.

But before he can be challenged (or even quoted, for that matter), he must be read. Closely.



*) Tatsächlich ist die Demokratie, wenn man so will, die Diktatur des Relativismus. Wer für die Demokratie eintritt, setzt sich dafür ein, dass jede Meinung geäußert werden darf und dass sich alle möglichen Parteien um die Macht im Staat streiten. Man darf keine Hassreden schwingen und nicht zu Gewalt aufrufen, aber sonst ist so ziemlich alles erlaubt. Was nicht erlaubt ist, das ist die Beendigung dieses Relativismus, die Aufhebung der Spielregeln der Demokratie. Eine Partei, die das erklärte Ziel hat, den anderen Parteien den Zugang zur Macht zu verbieten oder die freie Meinungsäußerung zu unterbinden, darf nicht kandidieren, selbst wenn – ja gerade wenn – die Mehrheit hinter ihr steht. Was Demokraten nicht wollen, ist die Diktatur der Wahrheit. Egal ob das die Wahrheit einer Minderheit oder die einer Mehrheit ist.

Die will aber Benedikt.



» The Art of Happiness, December 9, 2008


4 Responses to “German Blog Review: Is Religion above Democracy?”

  1. I simply refuse to recognise your nuanced argument when it comes to organised religion esp in relation to Catholicism (or Islam for that matter) for a number of social, gender orientation and related issues. So I suppose I am a member of the secular absolutists. Anyway, it is good to be on the right side of history for once.

    As for Confucius Centers, most unis simply put up with them as a means of providing free language training in these straigthened economic times.


  2. Anyway, if Ratzinger wants to make pronouncements to parliaments, he should turn up in a business suit like any other advocate. Put someone in a few colourful vestments and they acquire some sort of undeserved mystique and their words take on a false gravitas plus a whiff of insence.

    Iconography designed for the credulous.

    Disclosure. I was a catholic alter boy when the empty spectacle was spoken in Latin.

    It was a short step from there to marxism…..smiley


  3. if Ratzinger wants to make pronouncements to parliaments, he should turn up in a business suit like any other advocate.
    I’m not sure if Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh has spoken to the U.S. Congress yet, KT, but if he has, you can be sure that he kept his headscarf on. If he should speak to the Bundestag, he’ll keep wearing it, too – which is just reasonable.

    Disclosure. I was a catholic alter boy when the empty spectacle was spoken in Latin.
    The alternative would be the state making sure that negative freedom of religion applies from day one of a human life, to keep a child’s life free from god-fearing fear. But you can see the problem with such a concept, too, can’t you?

    Btw, my argument wasn’t nuanced. It was a try to be more specific than other critics. To paint him as a powerful obscurantist who plans to overthrow the secular state is fine with me – but those who do that should provide evidence.

    Oh, and the Confucius Institutes? Many German politicians, in national and local politics, just put up with the churches because they run welfare missions where the state would have to run them otherwise.



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