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'A prophetic mission for human unity' - Cardinal Müller on faith and dignity

Cardinal Gerhard Müller. Credit: Matthew Cashore/University of Notre Dame.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave a lecture last month at the University of Notre Dame, on the subject of “The Popes as Guardians of Human Dignity.” The lecture considered how Catholics might advance and defend an authentic Christian anthropology in a secularized world.

The cardinal sat down with The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy to talk about happiness, human rights, and the real dignity of every person.

Camosy: Your Eminence, you gave a reflection on “The Popes as Guardians of Human Dignity” at Notre Dame last month.

What did you hope to convey in that lecture?

The occasion was the presentation of my book “The Pope: His Mission and his Task.”

Everyone knows the supernatural mission of the Church is to proclaim Christ as the Son of the living God and the universal Redeemer of humanity from sin and death. But she also has a prophetic mission for human unity and the peace and freedom of the human family (as articulated in the documents of Vatican Council II).

This is the natural bonum commune. People of different religions and worldviews can - as reason and historical experience prove - only cooperate peacefully and prosperously if they recognize the dignity and rights of each individual human being. The basis of these are the commandments of God, which are inscribed in the heart of every human being — i.e. in the knowledge of the intellect and the freedom of the will.

Conscience distinguishes truth from falsehood, as well as the good from the evil actions of each person. The center of the person is his freedom in the religious act and in moral decisions.

Since Pope Leo XIII with his social doctrine, popes from St. John XXIII and St. Paul VI to St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI to Francis, have been committed to world peace, social justice, interreligious dialogue, fraternity of all people, and the inalienable right to life from conception to natural death.

On the one hand, your remarks suggest that our secularized cultures have put the concept of human dignity at risk. On the other hand, you refer to the natural moral law in support of our Catholic anthropological vision.

Do you think, Your Eminence, that our attempts to reach our secularized cultures with secular resources in support of human dignity largely been a failure? And, if so, to what do you attribute that failure?

Basic principles of Catholic theology are that:

  • grace presupposes nature
  • that grace repairs the damage to the faculties of reason and freedom caused by Adam's sin
  • that grace perfects human beings in gracious communion with God.

There were philosophical justifications of morality based on reason even before Christianity and outside the special salvation history of Israel. We could refer to the “Nicomachean Ethics” of Aristotle, and the contributions of the Stoics (like Seneca) who reminded humanity of natural happiness.

Immanuel Kant  founded an autonomous ethics in the “Critique of Practical Reason” without a direct foundation in God's commandments, but still upheld God as a necessary postulate and ideal of reason.

The problem of the so-called secularization does not consist directly in the foundation of an ethics without the explicit appeal to supernatural revelation, in the Jewish and Christian sense.

What fundamentally challenges Christian theology is its denial of the existence of a human nature at all!

Constructivism explains human beings as the product of psychological and sociological processes and accidental conditions. The soul is not a substance but a bundle of associations (Hume), the human species is an accident of evolution (Darwin), the individual is a result of social conditions (Marx), or behavior is an appearance of the unconscious on the surface of consciousness (Freud).

After the concept of the mental-bodily nature of man, by which and in which the person is constituted and unfolds, is deconstructed in this way, one can then reassemble the human person according to individual or social agendas (the right of the strongest, a classless society, the pleasure principle) and thus create the “new man.” Metaphysically speaking, we are dealing here with a radical nihilism that denies that every human being participates in God.

The Christian insistence on personal dignity is misunderstood as a conservative or reactionary insistence on a “pre-scientific” world view, or as a defense of outdated social relations (between entrepreneurs and workers, husband and wife, parents and children, clergy and laity in the church, etc.) guided by the interest of domination, or also as a repressive and puritan morality (Nietzsche).

My experience in secular academic and public bioethics suggests that the more we capitulate to those who insist that religious people and institutions must translate their beliefs into a foreign, secularized, ethical language the more those who hold power wonder why religious thinkers should be part of public and academic discussions at all.

Theologians, though we were the first academic bioethicists, are now almost totally marginalized from the centers of power in our own field. Furthermore, Catholic health care institutions are now in the crosshairs of a hostile US administration.

Does this suggest that the Church must have a more robust focus on our explicitly theological basis for human dignity?  Even, and perhaps especially, in our public work?

The reference to the natural moral law, i.e. founded in reason, which teaches us to do good and to avoid evil, must make it plausible to every person that a materialistic paradise on earth without and against God is necessarily doomed to failure.

Those who brush aside the disaster of the total domination of people in the name of emancipation and progress in the 19th and 20th centuries as “exceptional” accidents of history, cannot be helped by natural reason or by reference to supernatural revelation. Speculative and practical reason are on our side. We must not allow ourselves to be pushed into a supranaturalism and disconnect revelation from the natural world, nor be seduced by immanentist naturalism (i.e. self-creation and self-redemption).

Religion is very much a matter of personal conscience, but it is not a “private matter.”

We have to participate in societal discourse with confidence and must never surrender these rights. For the world is God's creation and not the product of social engineers.

“Laicism” hardly ever means religious neutrality of the state, but most often the silencing of religion in the public sphere. It is a form of totalitarianism disguised as liberal, nationalist or communist.

Finally, I'd like to ask you about the dignity of a specific population: human beings suffering from later-stage dementia. We've seen in many Western countries how this population was treated during the pandemic.

Peter Singer and other philosophers have rightly pointed out that if we reject the personhood of prenatal children and human beings in a so-called 'vegetative state', then human beings with dementia who no longer have our rationality and self-awareness should also not be considered persons like us.

Especially as this population doubles over the next twenty years, and massive pressure is put on health care resources, I worry that this will be the next human population to fall out of the circle of equal protection of the law. How should the Church respond to the coming dementia crisis?

There is also a dementia of philosophical reason. A good example is the reduction of the concept of person. Instead of understanding a person as an individual existence of a mental, physical and social nature endowed with reason and will (regardless of how well these capacities are developed), Singer reduces the person to one dimension.

Moreover, the Singer criterion is impracticable, because it inevitably leads into the barbarism of humans deciding about the right to life of their equals. We can scrap our car after a long time of use because it is “our product.” But man carries the right to life and spiritual-bodily integrity in himself.

Recognizing this truth is the difference between humanity and inhumanity.

Whoever makes human dignity dependent on the gradual realization of some arbitrarily chosen characteristics, loses the ability to denounce both racist ideologies or capitalist-socialist ideologies, which evaluate humans according to their usefulness for society. Once one takes such a step, one has entered the world of a deviant anti-humanism.

Nobody denies that the increase of the average life expectancy produces the side effects of old-age diseases. But just as the brutal killing of unborn people is not a solution to the increase of the world population, the murder of people suffering from dementia is also not a “final solution.” After all, we should remember that it was the mass murderers of the 20th century who passed off their crimes against humanity as a final solution to alleged problems!

As Catholics and Christians we have to stand up against the divisive ideologues of “race and class warfare” with their rhetoric of elimination and confront them with the insight reason and  faith gave us, namely that all human beings are called to a respectful, peaceful coexistence.

We Christians do not ruthlessly suppress other voices, but want to insert into the discourse the voice of reason made flesh, Jesus Christ. Only God guarantees the harmonious end of every human life according to his plans, in the concert of his triune love, which permeates creation.  As Christians we are called to give witness - importune et opportune.