The Abolition of Man

An interview with the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Truth and subjectivism. Church and tolerance. West and Islam. Science and future. A viewpoint on basic issues of our times

You once wrote that “faith has not disappeared, but has migrated into the realm of the subjective.” According to the Church, what are the consequences of contemporary relativism?
Since the Enlightenment, faith is no longer a mission that unites the world, as it was in the Middle Ages. Science has codified a new perception of reality: only what can be demonstrated in a laboratory is considered to be objectively well-founded. All the rest–God, morality, eternal life–is transferred to the realm of subjectivity. To hold that there is a truth accessible to all in the religious sphere would imply also a certain amount of intolerance. Relativism becomes the virtue of democracy.

And yet, according to the Church, does the Christian faith have an objective content?
Certainly. And this cultural context generates our greatest difficulty in announcing the Gospel. But the limits of subjectivism can be made evident: if we accept relativism completely, in religion but also in matters of morality, this leads to the destruction of society. By increasing rationalism more and more, reason itself is destroyed and anarchy established: when each person constitutes an island of incommunicability, the basic rules of coexistence fall apart. If it is the majority that sets the moral rules, then tomorrow a majority can impose opposite rules to those that were valid yesterday. We have lived even the experience of totalitarianism, in which those in power establish the moral rules by their authority. Thus, relativism ends up in anarchy or totalitarianism.

Does the Church still consider herself to be missionary?
Yes. I would say once again missionary. Today, the word mission is not always correctly understood, because one thinks of the destruction of ancient cultures by the West. The historical reality, however, is different: we know that the Christian missionaries–in Africa, in Asia, but also in Latin America–were often the real defenders of human dignity. These missionaries saved a part of the ancient cultures by transcribing the indigenous languages and compiling dictionaries and grammar books. They helped to bring about that great revolution which was the encounter between Europe and these peoples, integrating the traditions that converged with the Christian faith. Certain current problems of Africa derive from the fact that, with Western rationalism, we have destroyed the ancient moral values without offering anything in return. And, given that we have imported the technology, what is left is weapons and the war of everyone against everyone else. In short, it is Christian mission that can defend the edification of modern societies, maintaining their ties with their own roots.

The Church declares that she is against intolerance. But isn’t she a victim herself of intolerance?
Certainly. There have been, on one hand, the totalitarian philosophies, even if currently Marxism is in crisis. On the other, agnostic rationalism is not as pacific as it might seem. Some consider the Church to be the last bulwark of intolerance, but in order to combat this intolerance, they become intolerant. And this intolerance can turn into violence.

In the contestations against the Church, questions about sexuality and free moral choice come up quite frequently. Why is there this lack of understanding between the modern world and the Church?
Here we arrive at an individualistic view of man. Our era glorifies the body and its pleasures, it exalts sexual freedom but considers that this pertains more to the sphere of biology than to psychology. A subtle separation is made between the biological, the bodily–factors that supposedly elude spiritual responsibility since they are part of the order of nature–and the human being as such. From the moment when sexuality is seen as a purely biological phenomenon, a sexual morality no longer has any meaning.

Contemporary culture is the culture of absolute freedom, according to which man must “fulfill himself.” Thus, there does not exist a human nature that defines good and evil. This view is opposed to the tradition of the Church, but also to all the conceptions which say that a certain line of behavior, the very meaning of our being, is inscribed in our nature.

The Church speaks of natural law, of natural morals. On the contrary, if all we are is products of evolution, we are free to define ourselves. There is then, as Sartre said, a freedom in the sense that “I am not defined”: in my situation, I must invent what man is. Whereas in the Christian view, man’s existence–man’s and woman’s–is the bearer of an idea of the Creator, a Creator who has a plan for the world, which expresses incarnate ideas in the reality of the world. And the relationship of fidelity between a man and a woman reveals a destination of one for the other, in a profound unity of body and spirit, to which the future generations are linked. The elevation of physical reactions to the level of realities lived in respect of the person is the difficult, but great and beautiful, path of Christian morality on sexuality.

The European Union’s Charter of Basic Rights, adopted last year, refused to make reference to the “religious heritage” of Europe. What do you think of this interpretation of secularism?
We must define secularism properly. For me, a positive notion of secularism exists in the sense that Christianity, a new phenomenon in history, has posited the difference, recognizing the distinction between religion and the state.

This distinction between the kingdom of God and that of Caesar is the source of the concept of freedom that has developed in Europe and in the West. It implies that religion gives man a vision for all of life, not only for the spiritual realm. But the religious institution is not totalitarian–it is limited by the state, and the state cannot take everything in hand, as it in turn is limited by freedom of religion. The state is not everything, and the Church, in this world, is not everything. Taken in this sense, secularism is profoundly Christian. The hostility of the Nazis toward Christianity, especially Catholicism, was based on the idea that the state is everything.

But if secularism wants to mean that there is no room for God in public life, then this is a grave error. Political institutions and religious institutions possess their own particular spheres. Nonetheless, the fundamental values of faith must be manifested publicly, not through the institutional strength of the Church, but through the force of their inner truth. If secularism intends to exclude religion, it effects a mutilation of the human being.

Is the confrontation between the Western world and the Muslim world a clash of civilizations?
Islam does not exist as one solid bloc. There is no Magisterium of Islam, nor a centralized Islamic constitution. The Koran furnishes certain common referents for the Islamic world. But it gives rise to different interpretations, and Islam becomes concrete within very diverse cultural contexts, from Indonesia to India, from the Middle East to Africa. Therefore, the Islamic world is not a bloc and it does not erase national temperaments: there are countries with an Islamic majority which are extremely tolerant and others that exclude Christianity to a greater or lesser degree.

Today, Islam is massively present in Europe. And there seems to be emerging a certain amount of blame on the part of those who feel that the West has lost its moral conscience. For example, whenever marriage and homosexuality are considered equivalent, whenever atheism is transformed into a right to blasphemy, especially in art, these facts are horrible for Muslims. Hence, the widespread impression, in the Islamic world, that Christianity is dying, that the West is falling into decadence, and the feeling that Islam alone brings the light of faith and morality. Some Muslims see in this an unbridgeable opposition between the Western world–and its moral and religious relativism–and the Islamic world. To speak of a confrontation of cultures is sometimes correct: in the rebuke of the West we find the consequences of the past, when Islam was subjected to the domination of the European countries. We can thus reach the point of terrible extremes of fanaticism. This is one of the faces of Islam; it is not all of Islam. There are also Muslims who seek a peaceful dialogue with Christians. Consequently, it is important to judge the various aspects of a situation which is worrisome for all sides.

Last year, Cardinal Biffi, Archbishop of Bologna, aroused debate by declaring that Muslim immigration raises problems…
Cardinal Biffi’s reflection was more subtle. He pointed out that there is currently in act a migration of peoples, but it is clear that every government, even the most open-minded, cannot accept all immigrants indefinitely. Thus, it is necessary to distinguish between those who are allowed to come in and the others. According to what criteria? This was Cardinal Biffi’s question. Starting from the moment when some choices are inevitable, we must accept first of all–in view of the civil peace of our European societies–the groups that can be most easily integrated, the ones closest to our culture. If a cultural incompatibility, a lack of understanding, manifests itself, all of society is torn apart by it. And this is not helpful to anyone, not even to the Muslim immigrants. Defining the criteria that enable the unity of a country and foster its social peace is in everybody’s interest.

The modern world lived in the worship of progress and reason. After two world wars, the Gulags, Auschwitz, and terrorism, do the notions of progress and reason still make sense?
I have always been skeptical of the concept of progress. There is, of course, a progress in the amount of knowledge, in science and technology. But this progress does not necessarily bring about a progress in moral values, nor in our ability to put to good use the power granted by knowledge. On the contrary, power can be a factor of destruction. I have always been contrary to the Utopian spirit, to faith in a perfect society–conceiving of a perfect society once and for all means excluding the freedom of every day. It is certainly true that reason and morality are fragile, that a society can always autodestruct. We must hope in the presence of sufficient moral strength that is capable of contrasting evil.

The sale of organs, genetic manipulation, cloning… Is it necessary to place limits on medical and scientific research?
For modern man, the idea of placing limits on research sounds like blasphemy. However, an intrinsic limit exists, and this is human dignity. Progress obtained at the price of the violation of human dignity is unacceptable. If research attacks man, it is a deviation of science. Even if we protest that this or that research will open possibilities for the future, we must say no when man is at stake. The comparison is a bit strong, but I would like to recall that already once before someone has carried out medical experiments on persons who were held to be inferior. Where will the logic that consists in treating a fetus or an embryo as a thing lead?

What does the Church expect from young people?
That young people do not have in them the prejudices of the 1968 generation, which drove a great number of people–even men of the Church–away from the faith. We expect young people to start over with a new vitality, an openness to discovering in Christ a God who is truth and love.

What will be the great tasks of the next pontificate?
It is not up to me to establish its program! And too, the world changes rapidly; what seemed imperative yesterday does not have the same importance today. It seems to me that the most urgent problems, for the Church, come from what we have just said. How do we deal with the situation created by a Western world that itself is full of doubt, that no longer acknowledges a rational foundation in a common faith; a world that is thus abandoned to subjectivism and relativism? And then there are Islam and also Buddhism, the two great challenges for the Western world. It is necessary to set up a dialogue with them, to find a way of understanding each other without losing sight of the great light that comes to us from the figure of Jesus Christ.

(© Le Figaro Magazine/Volpe. Interview given to Jean Sévillia)