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POPE/ Finnis (Notre Dame) Reason will get us out of this bunker

John Finnis analyzes Pope Benedict XVI’s speech in front of the German Parliament, where he challenged politicians and the current trend of positivist thinking.

The Pope in Germany   (photo ANSA) The Pope in Germany (photo ANSA)

The Pope, in Germany, in front of the German Parliament, addressed his countrymen but he was also speaking to the whole world. He warned the politicians who were listening to him about the seduction of power, at all levels, reminding them that power disconnected from right easily turns to violence. In examining the sources of the laws of Western civilization, he described how Christianity is the only religion among the great religions that did not impose laws from revelation, but which has always thought of nature and reason as the cornerstones. He then talked about how positivistic thinking has depleted reason and eliminated transcendence from the list of possible explanations of reality. Ilsussidiario.net asked John Finnis to comment on the Pope’s address.

The Pope quoted St. Augustine, who wrote: “Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”.   How does this risk still involve the politicians of our days?
The Pope locates this in several contexts.  Immediately after the quotation, he goes on to speak of the Nazi seizure of power and use of power to crush law and right inside and outside Germany, and in the end to threaten the whole world. But just before the quotation he was speaking about a wider, more permanent, less spectacular but real and harmful risk: the seduction of success – political success – at the expense of right, success through falsification of what is right and destruction (on whatever scale) of justice. This temptation is one that concerns all politicians of all times. And then, if we put Augustine’s comment back into its context in book 4 of De Civitate Dei, we find the saint putting his finger on the precise source of the pervasive corruption of politics: cupiditas, covetousness. This can be a matter (to take Augustine’s immediate illustrations) of money, territory, sadism, sex, or simply power for its own sake. If we seek evidence of this in our own days, we need only look around us.

For the Pope, “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”. Is this possible in a democratic State, where the majority has the power, or not?
It is far from evident and far from certain that, in modern democratic states, the majority has the power. Indeed, there is a strong case for saying that in our democracies, the majority is substantially powerless. To say that is very far from saying that the right to vote and to speak freely on political matters is pointless – it is not! But be all that as it may, it is obvious that those in a position of responsibility must personally seek out the true criteria of right and wrong. Just insofar as voters are in a position of responsibility, not only when they vote but also when they speak to journalists or pollsters or to each other, so they too must personally seek out these true criteria. Otherwise, whether the majority “has the power” or not, the law and government of the state will surely become corrupt.