Editor’s note: On January 12, 2022, Cardinal Gerhard Müller was interviewed by Lothar C. Rilinger for kath.net. That interview was translated for CWR by Frank Nitsche-Robinson and is published here in full.
In the summer of 2021, the European Parliament passed the Matic Report by a large majority – albeit against the votes of the Conservative and Christian Democrat groups – according to which, among other things, the killing of unborn life, which is trivially referred to as abortion, must be understood as a human right. Thus, the original human right to life of every person, which is the basis of our legal systems, is to be changed into a human right to killing. This vote reveals a paradigm shift that is supposed to turn the ethical basis of our societies and nations upside down. This paradigm shift reveals a different rationale for human rights in each case and thus also a different view of the person per se. While the Christian view of man assumes a natural unity of body and spirit, the atheistic-evolutionist view splits man into a dualism of body and spirit. In this splitting the fight against nature as the basis of the conception of man manifests itself. The Christian-based foundation is to be replaced by a man-made one.
According to the Christian view, every person, whether born or unborn, is entitled to human rights as intrinsic rights, whereas through the dualism of body and spirit, human rights are assigned only to the spirit. The body itself is degraded to a thing or – if it has not yet been born – to a “heap of cells” or “pregnancy tissue” which may be freely disposed of. The Christian conception of man assumes the equality of all persons under natural law – irrespective of the state in which the person is – whereas according to the atheistic-evolutionist conception of man only the existing spirit indicates equality. This atheistic-evolutionist theory therefore has consequences for our human rights system. We have spoken with the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, about this different view and about the consequences resulting from it.
Lothar C. Rilinger: Are human rights derived from natural law and thus – as Pope Benedict XVI put it – to be understood as “innate rights”?
Cardinal Müller: The Christian faith is a response of the people who accept God’s self-revelation in the salvation history of Israel and finally in his Son Jesus Christ with their entire mind and free will (cf. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei verbum 5). Connected with this is also the conviction that the same God, in creating the world out of nothing – that is, He is Creator and not merely demiurge – fashioned each individually existing person in His image and likeness.
We speak of persons as individuals and not merely of the abstract “man”, in the collective singular of “mankind.”
Each individual person, by virtue of being human, has an indestructible dignity which unites him with all other persons in the common human nature in their spiritual-bodily constitution.
This also implies the equality of all persons and their right to be treated with human dignity. The Stoic philosopher Seneca (1st century AD) already pointed this out in a fascinating way in a letter to his friend Lucilius on the treatment of slaves. To the objection that slaves are only slaves after all, he replies: “But still human beings, companions, friends of humble status, […] but still your fellow slaves, for you must remember that the free and the unfree are equally subject to the power of fate.” (Letter 47). Seneca overcomes the contrast between masters and slaves in terms of natural law-philosophy with the reference to equality in being human, while his contemporary Paul eliminates the difference theologically with the reference to the same God, Creator and Judge and Christ the Redeemer of all people (cf. Gal 3:28; Col 4:1; 1 Tim 2:5, etc.).
In contrast to the early modern absolutist and later even – with increasing clarity – totalitarian exaggerations of state power, the declarations of human and civil rights, as in the USA in 1776, in Poland and France in 1789, and of the United Nations in 1948 and in Germany in 1949, recognized and acknowledged the indisposable and indivisible rights of man, given at birth, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as independent of the arbitrary power of the powerful. Because these rights belong to man from birth, they belong to his “nature”. For nature comes from the Latin nasci, which means: to be born. What is meant, however, is not merely the point in time of birth in contrast to the emergence of life from paternal procreation and in being conceived and carried to term in the womb of the mother, but the absolute beginning of individual humanity, which can also be verified empirically, with the fertilization of the ovum up to bodily death.
Rilinger: Can you explain for what reason natural law has been essentially rejected since the Enlightenment?
Card. Müller: In the West, it was the philosophy of modern times that emphasized the natural rights of every person in contradiction to the arbitrariness of princes who interfered by force with the freedom of religion and conscience of their subjects. By invoking the principle cuius regio, eius religio (whose the rule, his the religion), the rulers determined the religion / confession that could solely be practiced publicly on their territory. The fundamentally new realization, however, is that every person is a free citizen and, in his or her conscience of truth and the principles of ethics, is responsible not to political authority but directly to God, that is, to a transcendent authority. The authorities, i.e. the government, must confine themselves to organizing and guaranteeing the earthly common good. The state is there for the people and not the people for the state. The political powers must not sacrifice people for a so-called reason of state, such as: dynastic interests; expansion of the dominion; hegemony of one’s own nation; enrichment of the upper class through exploitation of serfs, slaves and wage workers without rights; the globalization of technology and monopolization of capital; the creation of the New Humanity through world revolution and striving for world power, etc.
What the meaning of life is, how it is philosophically justified, on which moral principles individual and community life is built, whether we may hope for an eternal salvation after this earthly life – all these questions cannot and must not be answered by the state, if it does not want to become totalitarian.
And it is precisely a democratically legitimized constitutional state that must admit that the citizens have not transferred any philosophical and religious competence to it and, in principle, cannot do so even if they wanted to.
The “Note of the Holy See to the German Reich Government” of 1934 remains valid in the face of the always and everywhere lurking temptations of the powerful to totalitarian thinking: A distinction must be made between the necessary obedience of every citizen to all legitimate orders of the state in his subject area and the presumptuous encroachments into other subject areas in which the state has no competence. Accordingly, the opinion is wrong that “the totality of the citizens of the state is also subject to the state in the totality of what their personal, family, spiritual and supernatural life involves, or – what would be even more wrong – to the state alone and primarily.” (Walther Hofer, ed., National Socialism. Documents 1933-1945, Frankfurt a. M. 1963; 152).
The decision of a state authority, whether administrative, judicial, or legislative, to declare the killing of a person by other persons to be a given and enforceable right delegitimizes these instances and exposes the totalitarian disposition of their agitators. Behind the facade of beautiful emancipation propaganda hides the pure will to power based on the social Darwinist principle: the law is on the side of the strongest, and morality is what benefits the people or self-interest.
Rilinger: Natural law is rejected as a special Catholic doctrine. Even the churches and ecclesial communities of the Reformation do not explain the justification of human rights by natural law, but – as the former chairman of the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD), Wolfgang Huber, put it – by a social ethics that is founded on the idea that believers are capable of their own ethical judgment from the point of view of self-responsible freedom. Is there a danger in this justification of social ethics that ethics is then not based on fundamental criteria, but on the genius temporis [genius of the time], which is oriented towards the mainstream?
Card. Müller: The Church as the community of the salvation of the world in Christ is founded on divine right. Religious freedom vis-à-vis all earthly authorities is based in the nature of moral conscience (cf. Vatican II, Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis humanae 1f).
Catholic theology as a reflection on the salvation-historical self-revelation in Christ does not have its own doctrine of the natural law, but takes it from philosophical anthropology and only represents it with greater competence. For the term “nature” does not refer to the flora and fauna of our planet, the biologically given or the sociologically factual in contrast to culture as a human work. What it means is the essence of the law that is founded in the moral principle, and the realization of justice to which every person is entitled. The principle and order of this law are recognized in reason as the principle that good is to be done and evil is to be avoided.
It was a revelation-theological conviction of the reformers in the 16th century that through original and inherited sin the “nature” of man was corrupted in total and that the grace of justification and forgiveness of sins is granted to him by faith alone without his own co-action. From this results the reluctance of the evangelical theology towards the so-called natural law.
But here the term “nature” is determined in the binomial “nature-grace” and from the contrast of “spirit-nature” – i.e. the formal self-determination in autonomous freedom against the constraints of natural causality to which our body is subjected – as later in the conflict of idealism and materialism. But it is by no means denied that reason is capable of scientific knowledge and state regulatory action. Thus, it is precisely in Protestant states that the system of natural sciences and of the civil non-confessionalist state emerges.
The foundation of human rights on the spiritual-moral nature of the bodily-socially constituted person is in no opposition to the action of the person in self-responsible freedom. For human “nature” in this context is not the complex of animal instincts, which would first have to be “ennobled” by the spiritual-personal subject. What it means is being human in its bodily, social, historical constitution, which is always the basis, source and horizon of its realization in personal individuality.
Rilinger: Contrary to the Christian view, human rights are now also to be justified positivistically. In order to develop human rights in this way, man is to be split up into the dualism of spirit and body according to the theory of evolution, whereby the body is still assigned to the animal realm, while only the spirit distinguishes the body from the animal, i.e. from the thing, and elevates man to the bearer of human rights. Is it therefore justified that man is divided, as it were, into two parts – into the human, supra-material spirit and the animal, material body, with the result that the bearing of rights is exclusively linked to the spirit?
Card. Müller: Apart from the ethical dualism of the old Manichaeans, the anthropological dualism has determined the occidental philosophy since René Descartes – however with questionable and often disastrous consequences. But this happened against the intention of this philosopher, who in the 16th century initiated the turn towards the philosophy of consciousness and subject. He wanted to save the intrinsic reality of the spiritual in the face of the incipient mechanistic worldview, which had the tendency to reduce man to a machine. In this way, he also believed that he could hold on to man’s openness to God, the creator of the material and spiritual world. The truth of the spiritual-emotional unity of man, on the other hand, lies beyond or on this side of the two extremes of materialism (empiricism and positivism) or idealism (rationalism). These philosophical systems either reduce the human spirit to an epiphenomenon of matter or they minimize the material corporeality of man to a state mode of man’s self-thinking that grasps itself – in its nature as in the other of itself.
Rilinger: What is behind the idea to dissolve the unity of body and spirit conceived by Christianity and therefore to assume a dualism in which spirit and body are separated?
Card. Müller: Already Aristotle in his writing “On the Soul” emphasized to his teacher Plato that the soul as the intellectual and vegetative life principle of man is not in the body like a driver on his chariot or a prisoner in a dungeon, but like the essence-giving form, through which the spirit-bodily composite becomes the individually concrete man.
A concretely existing human soul, therefore, cannot be in a wrong body, be it in an animal body or the body of a person of the opposite sex. My body therefore, with all its integral parts, does not belong to me in the same way the wetsuit I bought is my property or fits my body size.
My body, that is me. Whoever damages my body with bad intention hurts me in my inner-soul as well as in my outer bodily being.
The biblical view of man is compatible with this view, which corresponds to experience and is based on reason. The whole man, both in his connection with the substance of the earth and its fertility as well as his ability to think, speak and pray is a creature of God and ultimately called to sonship with God in Jesus Christ and to friendship with God in the spirit of the Father and the Son.
Rilinger: Is the transformation of the image of man meant to fulfill Friedrich Nietzsche’s demand for the revaluation of all values, in order to create an image of man that finds its justification detached from God?
Card. Müller: Whether our current politicians are able to deal critically with Nietzsche remains to be seen. As an intellectual background I would rather guess a psychoanalytic Marxism of social engineers who, with regard to the environment, want to get behind the return-to-nature culture in the sense of Rousseau, and whose idea of the new man, with regard to the human environment, is a bio-technical mixed product – all a cheap blend of neo-Marxist social analysis, emancipation rhetoric and gender ideology.
However, since there is no human as such, but there are only individuals to whom being human is assigned, there is a tendency towards a division of society into those who shape and those who are shaped, those who determine and those who are determined.
Opposite the few individuals of the ruling class is the mass of the ruled that is to be educated and cared for. For this reason, too, the world population must be radically reduced, not to preserve the resources for all, but for the ruling class. This ranges from the disastrous one-child policy of the Chinese communists to the alarmism of the Club of Rome and the denial of development aid to poor countries unless they accept abortion as a woman’s right. The broad masses, however, feel happy and emancipated because they share the goals of the dominant class and know themselves to be precautiously protected by it. George Orwell expressed this mutual dependency with the slogan: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
Ultimately, according to the title of a book by Yuval Noah Harari, it is about Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, New York 2017), about the man who is his own god creating himself, but who does not get beyond the demiurge. However, we do not contrast this with a conservative view of man with the motto that everything should remain as it is or become again as it once was. But the man of the Christian future understands himself first as a “new creation in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). We are aware of the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (Max Horkheimer / Theodor W. Adorno) and acknowledge “The Malaise of Modernity” (Charles Taylor). But as Christians we think and act in the direction of a “modernity with a human face”, a new synthesis of humanism and faith in the God of Trinitarian love. The subject of this supernatural faith and worldly action is the Church. She confesses: “Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny.” (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes 10).
Rilinger: You have stated that, according to the ruling class, the world’s population must be reduced so that natural resources do not become too scarce for those in power. How is this reduction to be enacted?
Card. Müller: We recognize the principle of responsible parenthood. Children are not a burden, but a gift from God, entrusted to parents for faithful love and good upbringing. In view of all spiritual and material circumstances, it is up to the spouses to decide in conscience how many children they want to have – also in the context of the growth of the world population (cf., Vatican II, Gaudium et spes 50; 87). The killing of children as a means to this end – after birth, as was still possible for the ancient Romans, for example, or before birth – is to be morally rejected immediately. “Any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction” is in contrast to the inviolable dignity of every human life (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 27).
Rilinger: The Christian concept of man is based on the idea that God as Creator has brought the world into existence. Is the atheistic-evolutionist concept of man not only intended to assign man a new position in the world, but also at the same time to prove that there is no God?
Card. Müller: The enactors of this program assume this as if it were an absolutely certain fact. Karl Marx even considered atheism as negation of God to be obsolete, because the negation would somehow still preserve the memory of its meaning. A people that is past the misery of the social conditions no longer needs religion as opium and as its expression and for the protest against it (cf. Werner Post, Kritik der Religion bei Karl Marx, i.e. Karl Marx’ Critique of Religion, Munich 1969).
Let us now turn to the theories on the biological evolution of living beings and on the genesis of the temporal-spatial universe. They do not in themselves contradict the belief in God as their creator and sustainer. On the other hand, they also do not prove the unreasonable belief (!) of the atheists that the totality of the contingent being could have the principle of its existence in nothingness instead of being. The empirical sciences investigate and describe the structural and processual assignment of the existing elements of the totality of the contingent being. The confession of God as the essence-giving originator of everything that exists not out of necessity is based on the self-revelation of God as origin and goal of man who searches for Him, along with the world supporting and surrounding him. In principle, this insight “has been clearly perceived” even without faith in supernatural revelation (Rom 1:20).
Rilinger: Does the granting of human rights then depend on whether the person corresponds to the utilitarian guidelines, so that only people who are useful for society have a right to life?
Card. Müller: Certainly, in order to earn our living, in order to provide an infrastructure, in the legal order of the community, we humans must also proceed purposefully, that is, we must proceed with the use (usus) of our means. But the boundary to the inhumane is crossed when people use beings of their own kind, i.e. their brothers and sisters in human nature, as means to an end, instead of respecting them as persons in their dignity and freedom (Immanuel Kant). Man is a person, not a thing; a he and a she, but not an it. Things we use for our benefit. People we love in order to grow beyond ourselves and to be united with them in a communion like marriage, family, friendship, church membership, friendship with God.
Rilinger: If the allocation of the human rights depends exclusively on the presence of the spirit, the floodgates are opened to deny the human right to life also to mentally handicapped, demented or ill people. Even Bishop Clemens Graf v. Galen, subsequently Cardinal, saw this danger when he opposed the euthanasia laws in the Third Reich – the laws that declared “life unworthy of living” as not worthy of protection in order to be able to kill these people formally in accordance with the law. Do you see the danger that the splitting of the person into body and spirit could lead to the legalization of active euthanasia and to the decriminalization of killing on demand?
Card. Müller: Behind the euthanasia movements from the various political-ideological orientations is ultimately, without doubt, the negation of God in the biblical sense as Creator and Redeemer of mankind. On the background of a nihilistic sense of existence, life has meaning only if the state of mind and body guarantee a life full of pleasure and as free from suffering as possible. “Taking one’s own life” can then become a right and “not being a burden to others” can become a duty, if the connection between suffering and loving is denied or if selfless being for others is suspected as a mere illusion of higher happiness.
Rilinger: By recourse to the spirit as a basis for granting human rights, there is the possibility that an ideological political elite decides which person has a spirit and which does not. Can you imagine man determining to whom human rights may be granted?
Card. Müller: Certain groups claim this right of decision-making for themselves. Their criterion is their own ideal of man as a ruler, super-billionaire, beauty queen, research genius, global entrepreneur, etc.
By “elite”, if one wishes to use the word, I mean those people who, because of their special opportunities and outstanding abilities, are prepared to serve all the more the entirety of the people for whom God has given them a responsibility and for which he will demand an account from them at the Last Judgment. Whoever grants himself the right to deny or ascribe the value of life to his fellow man is not only blind and stupid in the face of the human condition that can make him himself a “nursing case” at the next moment, but from the Christian and humanistic point of view he is nothing more than a common criminal, of whom we have seen so many raging in the last century.
Rilinger: According to the Christian view, human rights are thought to be intrinsic to man. Can you imagine that human rights are arbitrarily expanded in order to thereby render individual political ideas more compelling?
Card. Müller: Either human rights are intrinsic, and then, with sufficient philosophical understanding and historical experience, they can be recognized more and more clearly and in a more differentiated way. Or they are granted and denied positivistically, i.e. arbitrarily, by some self-appointed body of arbitrators. Then the boundary from justice to injustice, from reason to arbitrariness, and from the recognition of every human being as a person to the degradation to a thing is finally crossed. Man’s hope of a future life in no way deters Christians from liberation from unjust conditions and from building a more just earthly society, but gives it a motivational boost of which atheism can only dream. “By contrast, when a divine instruction and the hope of life eternal are wanting, man’s dignity is most grievously lacerated, as current events often attest; riddles of life and death, of guilt and of grief go unsolved with the frequent result that men succumb to despair. Meanwhile every man remains to himself an unsolved puzzle, however obscurely he may perceive it. […] To this questioning only God fully and most certainly provides an answer as He summons man to higher knowledge and humbler probing.” (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes 21).
Rilinger: Your Eminence, thank you!
(Editor’s note: The question about population has been clarified to reflect that it was not Cardinal Müller’s view that the world’s population must be reduced, but “according to the ruling class, the world’s population” must be reduced. We apologize for the confusion.)
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