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Analysis: Benedict XVI’s unpublished letter—God is key to understanding human rights

The final question, for Benedict XVI, is always God. Can a state be built without God? And how much can the state involve itself in the lives of its citizens?

Benedict XVI looks out toward the mountains from an Alpine meadow near Les Combes in northern Italy July 14, 2005, in this file photo. (CNS photo from Vatican)

Vatican City, May 14, 2018 / 11:54 am (CNA).- The Ratiznger Schuelerkreis, a circle of former students of Joseph Ratzinger who meet annually, will gather this year to discuss the themes: “Church and State, Church and Society.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI selected the topic, as he does for the group every year.

This topic is intimately connected to the content of a recently published book, and above all to a letter – previously unpublished – contained in that book.

The book is “Liberare la libertà. Fede e Politica nel Terzo Millennio” (Freeing Freedom: Faith and Politics in the Third Millennium). It was curated by professors Pierluca Azzaro and Carlos Granados, as the second of a series of 7 books of Joseph Ratzinger’s selected texts addressing the main themes of the pontificate. [Editor’s note: An English-language edition of the book will be published later this year by Ignatius Press.]

Including excerpts from the second book of his “Jesus of Nazareth” series, a dialogue Benedict XVI had with the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, a speech delivered at Westminster Hall in London and one delivered at the Bundestag in Germany, among other things, the book provides a wide overview of Joseph Ratzinger’s political thought.

The final question, for Benedict XVI, is always God. Can a state be built without God? And how much can the state involve itself in the lives of its citizens?

The text, rather than being philosophical, is quite pragmatic. It deals with universal rights like the right to freedom of conscience, along with more general reflections on the idea of personal freedom.

The unpublished letter from Benedict XVI contained in the book provides a response to those questions, since it reaffirms “the centrality of the question of God.”

The letter was a response to a 2014 book by Italian philosopher and politician Marcello Pera, entitled “Diritti umani e cristianesimo. La Chiesa alla prova della modernità” (“Human Rights and Christianity: The Church in modernity”).

Benedict XVI’s letter makes immediately clear its point: despite the fact that Pope St. John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris was significant for the use of human rights language in magisterial texts, “the issue of human rights has practically acquired a place of great importance in the post-conciliar Magisterium and theology only with John Paul II,” Benedict XVI writes.

According to Benedict XVI, John Paul II’s emphasis on human rights was “the consequence of practical existence,” because, he wrote “in the idea of human rights is the concrete weapon capable of limiting the totalitarian character of the state,” offering room “for the freedom necessary not only for thinking of the individual person, but also, and above all, for the faith of Christian and for the rights of the Church.”

Human rights, then, were considered “the rational force” that could contrast “the all-encompassing presumption, ideological and practical, of the state founded on Marxism.” An understanding of human rights could limit any absolutist claim by the state, even one founded on the basis of a religious justification. Benedict wrote that this understanding was part of the contribution of John Paul II.

Christians have always demanded freedom of faith, in a state – the Roman state – that “knew religious tolerance, but that affirmed an ultimate identification between state and divine authority to which Christians could not consent,” the pope emeritus wrote.

This is how the question of God erupts into history.

Christian faith, Benedict  XVI noted, “necessarily included a fundamental limitation to the authority of the state, because of the rights and duties of the individual conscience”.

Although the idea of human rights “was not formulated this way,” it is not unjustified to Benedict XVI “to define the duty of man’s obedience to God as a right, with respect to the state,” and so it is logical that St. John Paul II’s “should see human rights as preceding any state authority,”

Benedict XVI further said that man, made in the image of God, is a subject and not only an object of rights. Both of these statements are consistent with the philosopher Immanuel Kant description of man as an end and not as a means.

Kant’s quote is not by chance, as Kant is the philosopher who inspired ideas central to the Enlightenment. Most of contemporary secular thought is rooted in Kant’s thought, but Benedict XVI’s letter showed that even Kant is to some extent in debt to Christian philosophy.

From a historical perspective, the notion of human rights was born out of Christianity, Benedict argued.

The discovery of America led to a question: as the people of the New World were not baptized, did they have rights or not? Ultimately, that they were made in image of God was understood as the basis from which they derived rights. It became clear that as children of God, unbaptized people “were already subjects of rights and therefore could claim respect for their humanity,” Benedict XVI noted.

Speaking of that conclusion, Benedict wrote that: “It seems to me that ‘human rights’ have been recognized here, which precede the acceptance of the Christian faith and of any state power whatsoever.”

In addition, Benedict XVI explained, the first Christians had a particular attitude toward Roman state. Because they were the first to believe in a universal religion, unbounded by national or ethnic identity, the “essence of religion is redefined” by Christianity.

The great commission, Benedict wrote, “does not mean immediately demanding a change in the structure of individual societies,” but it rather demands “that all societies be given the possibility to welcome his message and live in accordance with it.”

Benedict XVI wrote that religion is not a “ritual and observance that ultimately guarantees the identity of the state,” but it is instead “recognition, and precisely recognition of the truth,” since the spirit of man “has been created for the truth.”

The pope emeritus underscored that “this connection between religion and truth includes a right to freedom that can licitly be considered as being in profound continuity with the authentic core of the doctrine of human rights, as John Paul II evidently did.”

Benedict XVI also warned of the danger in vision that sees the “natural order” of society as “a complete totality in itself and does not need the Gospel.”

For all of those reasons, Benedict XVI said that “everything rests on the concept of God,” because “ If God is, if there is a creator, then also being can speak of it and show the human being what he wants. If not, then ethos is ultimately reduced to the pragmatic.”

Hence, Benedict XVI concluded that “the idea of ​​human rights ultimately retains its solidity only if it is anchored to faith in God the creator. It is from here that it receives the definition of its limitation and at the same time its justification.”

“The concept of God,” Benedict XVI noted “includes the fundamental concept of man as a subject of law and thereby justifies and at the same time establishes the limits of the conception of human rights.”

In the end, the question of God is strictly connected with the issue of truth.

Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, Prefect of the Pontifical Household and Benedict XVI’s personal secretary, noted May 11 that Benedict XVI’s political approach “coincides with the most important theological notion to him already as young priest: the truth.”

“Seeking truth, and struggling for it, has been the fil rouge of life of Joseph Ratzinger and Benedict XVI, since he is convinced of this: that truth cannot be possessed; one can only approach truth, since, according to the faith of Christians and in accordance with our understanding of truth, the truth has become a person in Jesus Christ, in which God has shown his face.”

God becomes, therefore, central to every political question, even when God is denied.

In the book’s foreword, Pope Francis wrote that a state would be “false and anti-Christian” if it understood itself to be “the ‘whole’ of human hopes and possibilities.” Such a totalitarian and tyrannic lie, he wrote becomes “demonic and tyrannic.”

Pope Francis elaborated: “on these basis, on St. John Paul II’s side, (Ratzinger) elaborates and propose a Christian vision of human rights able to question, on both practical and theoretical levels, the totalitarian claim of the Marxist state and of the atheistic theology on which it was founded.”

In the end, there cannot be any state without God, because no institution can hold without truth: this is the lesson of Benedict XVI’s political vision.

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About Andrea Gagliarducci, Catholic News Agency 51 Articles
Andrea Gagliarducci is Vatican analyst for Catholic News Agency.


  1. The tension between the rights of the state and the person is at least historically perennial. “The concept of God includes man as a subject of law and thereby justifies and at the same time establishes the limits of the conception of human rights” (Benedict XVI). That is if liberty is confined to the practice of faith inhibiting those sans faith. If a state refers to reality rather than ideal [the historical reality wherein Benedict formulates his vision] it includes subjects who perceive rights that to some degree reject Christian morality. If the expression of those rights do not abrogate justice. Aquinas for example presumed human or civil law as beneficial within a Christian society permitting behavior such as prostitution as a kind of necessary evil. Theocracies in New England’s Colonies enforced religious practice and harshly penalized its abrogation. Britain countermanded with the Royal Charter and Common Law that traditionally recognized certain civil freedoms as well as religious practice. We’ve tried a Christian state during Christendom ruled by monarchs presumed with divine authority. Perhaps not essentially different from the Roman state with a divinely empowered emperor. It would seem the Natural Law premise known by all and referenced by Christ “Do unto others” is the universal standard for determining Human rights. Christianity recognizes reasoned conscience [con scientia to act with knowledge] as a measure of liberty inclusive of the right to dissent. So does natural law in context of common law. Although sin is often the result it does not impede dissent. The rule [inclusive of conscience] is the truth of Christ. Yet even there its promulgation was and is in tandem with free will. Judgment for abrogation of that Rule is reserved another Day. Judgment Day.

    • Addendum: I wish to add to my comment that Natural Law is insufficient insofar as its limits since Man as alluded by Benedict XVI is ultimately understood in relation to God. As is Justice. Sanctity of human life is a revealed truth.

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