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Aula Magna of La Habana University
Monday, 25 February 2008

Culture and the fundamental ethics of human life


Rector Magnificent,
Honourable Authorities,
Your Eminence and Your Excellencies,
Illustrious Professors,
Representatives of the World of Culture,
Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends,

With gratitude for the cordial welcome that you have given me, I wish to begin this afternoon recalling two great figures impassioned for Cuba and linked to this place. The first is the Servant of God Félix Varela, father of the Cuban Nation, whose mortal remains rest here and the anniversary of whose death we are celebrating today. The second is the Servant of God John Paul II, who spoke in this same seat 10 years ago. Few have been able to delineate the figure of Fr Varela as John Paul II did in the Address he delivered in this very place. Both personages incarnated an egregious model of humanity, being known as men of peace and goodness even by those who did not share their ideals and beliefs. Both confirmed that it is not necessary to dilute one's identity to establish a fruitful and creative dialogue with all persons.

The existential adventure of Fr Varela offers us an ideal background for the theme that has been entrusted to me of culture and the fundamental ethics of human life, considering in particular Christian culture as the framework of and inspiration for ethics.

As is known, the young priest Félix Varela obtained, by winning a competition, the first Chair of Constitutions established in the College of San Carlos in 1821. It is significant how he defined his Chair in the academic inaugural address, his brilliant opening lesson: this, he said, must be called instead "the Chair of freedom, of human rights, of national security,... the font of civil virtues, the base of the great edifice of our happiness" (Inaugural Address of the Chair, 21 January 1821). That Chair offered him a better opportunity to reflect on the way to build a society, on the values that must be at the foundation of human coexistence, among which freedom - "one of the most precious gifts that the heavens have given to men", in the words of Don Quixote (II, ch. 58) - occupies first place and, next to it, the other human rights and the rectitude of their activity. The concern for the formation of young people was a constant in Fr Varela's life. He was aware that it was not the law that saved people, but their virtue on a personal level and in their public activity. In their vision of a new Cuban Nation, Varela and Fr Agustín Caballero before him and José Martí after him, reveal a Catholicism attentive to the modernization of the Country, to human rights and freedom. Lastly, they showed that Christianity and modernity are not incompatible, but converge in the defence of human dignity. And the world needs this great alliance.

José Martí, a famous Cuban, said that "to be learned is the only way to be free". This affirmation offers me now the opportunity to examine in greater detail the relationship between culture and the fundamental ethics of human life.

All people appreciate culture as an important good. However, why is culture a good? John Paul II explained it masterfully when he recalled that "education consists in fact in enabling man to become more man, to "be' more and not just to "have' more" (UNESCO Address, 2 June 1980; L'Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 23 June, n. 11, p. 10). Actually, by means of culture, the human being "refines and develops man's diverse mental and physical endowments. He strives to subdue the earth by his knowledge and his labour; he humanizes social life" (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 53). If culture is an asset, then it must be brought to all and not be a luxury reserved to some elite groups.

Culture, however, is more than the simple individual desire to acquire new knowledge. It possesses a fundamental historical and communitarian dimension and presents itself to us as a concerted effort to offer a vision that gives meaning to life, including all of its aspects. In this regard culture is always characterized by a tension that continually seeks to supersede itself in two directions: in a horizontal sense, toward other cultures, to their mutual enrichment, and in a vertical sense, toward transcendence, toward the ultimate source of truth, beauty and goodness.

We can therefore say that culture is the ethos of a people. It is the norm of behaviour and at the same time a normative ideal, even though it is not always lived and respected. In this sense, ethos and ethics are strictly linked, not only etymologically but also because culture is the result of man's praxis as well as the condition of human activity. No culture exists without reference to an ethic, nor an ethic without reference to a culture. Both either remain united or disintegrate.

Now this simple observation sets before our eyes the phenomenon of cultural diversity, one of the most characteristic traits of outrage that at times provokes a healthy change in customs and brings about the re-examination of convictions [previously] considered immutable. It can, however, also provoke a painful loss of identity, with consequences that are difficult to foresee.

For some, the diversity of culture and behavioural norms inevitably leads to affirming the existence of a common and objective moral norm. Beginning from the experience of diversity one deduces the impossibility of universally valid moral norms. Moral relativism holds that an ethical affirmation would be true only in the context of a determined culture. Therefore, there would not be convictions or principles that would be ethically better than others, and no one would have the right to say what is right and what is wrong.

The theses of cultural relativism and ethical relativism have been strengthened by the development of modern reason, a process described masterfully by Pope Benedict XVI in his lecture at the University of Regensburg. In extreme synthesis this process consists in the reduction of reason to scientific experimentation, which combines empirical verification with mathematical formulation. Then, only what can undergo experimentation and mathematical formulation would be rational.
However, the great questions of human existence, the problems of ethics and of aesthetics, metaphysics and above all the problem of God, are left out of all consideration, inasmuch as they are pre-scientific or a-scientific (cf. Address at the University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006).

Well then, this restriction of contemporary reasoning inevitably leads to subjectivism of the conscience on the ethical level. Notwithstanding the attempts of Kant to maintain universal morals after discarding metaphysics, affirming that the only rational knowledge possible is that of science, one must confine morality to the purely subjective realm: it would not be possible to speak of universally recognizable moral norms. So, "the subject then decides, on the basis of his experience, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience' becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical" (ibid., p. 7). The consequence is clear: in this way ethos and religion lose their capacity to give life to a community and become a totally personal matter.

Ethical subjectivism taken to the extreme leads to the paradoxical situation of the duty to permit immorality as morally good. Since there is no way to determine what is good and what is evil it would be necessary to conclude that every type of behaviour is equally valid. Common sense, however, rebels at this conclusion to which one necessarily arrives given the premise from which it began.

The logic of this dynamism leads to what Benedict XVI has called the dictatorship of relativism. This means that, given the impossibility of establishing common norms with universal validity for all, the only criterion that remains to determine what is right from what is wrong is the use of force, be it by vote, propaganda or arms and coersion. "We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely in one's own ego and desires" (J. Ratzinger, Missa Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice Homily, 18 April 2005). Beginning with these presuppositions it would be impossible to build or maintain social life.

There exists, however, a fundamental distinction upon whose recognition depends the subsistence of the human community itself. This distinction is the boundary between good and evil. Without this distinction there is no other alternative to the reign of the arbitrary.

Therefore, it is necessary to invert the axiom of ethical relativism and strongly postulate the existence of an order of truth that transcends personal, cultural and historical conditioning and which is perennially valid. This order is what philosophy calls the "natural law". I do not intend to tackle at this time the problems concerning this term, but only to emphasize the fact that with this expression one refers to an order prior to man which he did not give to himself, which no government has promulgated and which can only be recognized. It is the assertion that, in the face of positive rights, which can be unjust, there must be a right that proceeds from nature itself, from the very being of man. This right must be found and constitutes the remedy for positive rights.

The idea of natural rights presupposes a concept of nature that is strictly associated with reason. It presupposes the idea that nature is permeated by reason, that in it there is a logos that man, with his reason, participation and imagination of the Logos Creator, can recognize. Science itself, to which we owe the incredible progress in all fields, would be impossible without accepting a rationality in nature. Besides, if the world is a mere product of the irrational, our very freedom is, in the end, an illusion.

Thus, natural law appears as a sort transcendent "grammar" that permits dialogue between peoples, or rather, a set of individually implemented rules and of relationships in justice and solidarity between people which are inscribed in the conscience, where God's wise plan is reflected.

The Church does not intend to impose her view of things on all people as if she has exclusive moral discernment. She cannot, however, renounce her profound knowledge of humanity and society. She is an expert in humanity and respectfully wishes to offer her contribution to the creation of the human society in which we live.

On this point some theorists such as John Rawls or Jürgen Habermas have defended the necessity of the contribution of religious confessions to the public debate (cf. Benedict XVI, Address to Rome's University La Sapienza, 17 January 2008. See also J. Habermas, Vorpolitische Grundlagen des demokratischen Rechstaates? in J. Habermas-J. Ratzinger, Dialektik der Säkularisierung, 34). Ultimately, they carry out a social role, not only as elements of social integration that offer subsidiary social services to the community, but also as a source of wisdom and knowledge.

In this regard Pope John Paul II recalled that the principle of religious freedom, understood in a wider sense, is the proof of other rights: "Just as damage is done to society when religion is relegated to the private sphere, so too are society and civil institutions impoverished when legislation - in violation of religious freedom - promotes religious indifference, relativism and religious syncretism, perhaps even justifying them by means of a mistaken understanding of tolerance. On the contrary, benefit accrues to all citizens when there is appreciation of the religious traditions in which every people is rooted and with which populations generally identify themselves in a particular way" (Address to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 10 October 2003, n. 3).

One immediately senses the objection that in today's society, the Church and religious confessions should limit their own activity to the strictly personal sphere of those individuals who wish to adhere to them, but would have no place in the constitution of a social ethic. It is affirmed that the modern State must be above religions, which in many cases are not seen in a positive and balanced way.

A healthy laicity naturally makes a distinction between religion and politics, between Church and State. Believers and non-believers find the foundation of this distinction in the words of the Gospel itself, when Jesus recalls the need to give "to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mt 22: 21). This laicity cannot mean, however, that God is purely a private hypothesis and thus exclude religion and the Church from public life. The famous phrase of Hugo Grocio: etsi Deus non daretur, interpreted erroneously as the foundation of the political order "as if God would not exist", means, for followers of the doctrine of natural law of the 18th century, the need to establish principles that would be permanently valid, "even in the hypothesis in which God would not exist", rather than with permanent validity for all.

As a Christian contribution to the building of society, the then Cardinal J. Ratzinger, from the evocative context of Subiaco shortly prior to his election as Successor of St Peter, issued a proposal to the world that I wish today to recall to all of you: "The attempt, carried to the extreme, to manage human affairs completely without God leads us ever closer to the edge of the abyss, toward the total elimination of man. We must then invert the illuminist's axiom and say: whoever is unable to find a way to accept God must nonetheless seek to live and direct his life veluti si Deus daretur, as if God exists. This is the advice that Pascal already gave to his non-believing friends; it is the advice that we would also like to give today to our friends who do not believe. In this way no one is limited in his freedom, but everything can find a support and a criterion which it urgently needs" (cf. J. Ratzinger, L'Europa nella crisi delle culture, Subiaco, 1 April 2005, Siena, Cantagalli, 2005).

We thus reach the end of our trajectory and reconsider the initial question. What is the contribution of Christian culture to the foundation of an ethic of human life?

The answer could be the following: presenting itself as the religion of the logos and of love, the Church offers a millenary wisdom which she places at the disposition of all peoples and all cultures, as she is convinced that a dialogue and a reciprocal enrichment is possible. In this sense, she offers society a memory and reminder of the existence of fundamental values. She presents herself, lastly, as a witness to the imperishable. Respectfully proposing her own view of man and values, she contributes to the increased humanization of society. Faith, however, does not destroy any culture; rather, it cooperates in the purification of whatever disfigures its dignity, its rights and the development of the person and all that opposes the humanization of society. If dehumanizing environments and attitudes grow within a nation, it substantially injures the ethos of that people. Faith, moreover, contributes to giving the fullness to all that is good, true and beautiful, opening man to a more elevated vision of himself and of his life in society. A life without values is equal to a culture without ethics; it is an inhuman and dehumanizing culture that inverts the scale of values and upsets the world.

Precisely because every worthwhile society is based on the principle of man's supreme value, of his responsibility before history and before his own human race, it needs a permanent reminder of lasting values that existed before it came into being and will continue to exist afterwards.

Society needs people whose lives demonstrate the existence of some fundamental and edifying values. It needs witnesses who work through their lives to remind all people of the value of the conscience, God's sanctuary within the human person, and of truth.

Christians, through outstanding men like Fr Varela and an immense multitude of daring people like him, ask nothing other than to be able to witness to this truth to their contemporaries.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, we have reflected on culture as a framework and inspiration for ethics. The question is to find concrete ways so that culture and ethics, Church and society, can collaborate to build a more human world, anchored to the great values of our history: freedom, peace, solidarity, justice and the integral development of the person, of every man and woman and of all persons.

Permit me to conclude with the final words that the Holy Father wrote for his Address to La Sapienza University of Rome, which he was not able to deliver himself for well-known reasons.

The Pope, addressing the university students of Rome, responded to the question: What can and should a Pope say at a University? We can paraphrase this question by asking ourselves: "What does Christian culture have to do with or say concerning the ethical foundations of coexistence?".
I believe the response that Benedict XVI has given maintains all of its validity for us: the Pope - the Catholic Church, Christians - could say: "Certainly, he must not seek to impose the faith upon others in an authoritarian manner, for faith can only be given in freedom.... On the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry, it is the Pope's task to safeguard sensitivity to the truth; to invite reason to set out ever anew in search of what is true and good, in search of God; to urge reason, in the course of this search, to discern the illuminating lights that have emerged during the history of the Christian faith, and thus to recognize Jesus Christ as the Light that illumines history and helps us find the path towards the future" (Address for the inauguration of the academic year at the La Sapienza University of Rome, 17 January 2008).

Thank you to all.