Addressing the European Union recently (25 Nov.), Pope Francis again riveted the attention of our Western World by stressing his concern for the future, while simultaneously offering key solutions to our continuing problems. The first Pope invited to speak to the twenty-eight member Parliament since Saint John Paul II stood at the same podium twenty-five years ago, he cited John Paul’s hope that the opportunity had not elapsed in an effort to “reach the full dimensions that geography, and even more, history, have given Europe.”
Nonetheless, the world itself, Francis stressed, has become more complicated and mutable; ironically, through new global dynamics, it has become less “Eurocentric.” Moreover – in words and phrases so unmistakably characteristic of our present Roman Pontiff – Europe today “seems to give the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and, even at times, suspicion.”
Despite Europe’s current situation – its apparent doldrums and a rather grey outlook as to vitality and growth – the Holy Father’s speech was basically a message of hope. As a Christian humanist, moreover, he emphasized – as John Paul the Great repeatedly did – the mystery of man in his plea for solutions. More specifically, Pope Francis pointed to two words about the human person: “dignity” and “transcendent.”
First, Europe must return to acknowledging and safeguarding the dignity of each and every human being as unique, precious and unrepeatable. Awareness of the person, created by God in his image and redeemed by him, remains the essential, perennial reason for human rights, such as life, liberty and (as the U.S. Declaration of Independence affirms) the pursuit of happiness.
Correctly understanding this premiss, so magnificently formed by Christianity’s reflections dating from ancient Greek and Roman sources, and elaborated upon by Celtic, Germanic and Slavic refinements, is crucial to Europe’s paths forward. Specifically, the correct concept of human dignity ensures the protection of human rights. Human beings should never be “programmed” or “discarded” as “no longer useful, due to weakness, illness or old age” – in the Pope’s words.
Here the Holy Father again echoed John Paul the Great in asking “what kind of dignity is there without the possibility of expressing one’s thought or professing one’s faith?” Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are sure guardians of human dignity. (Indeed, religious liberty is the anchor of freedom of speech.)
As for the adjective “transcendent,” as referring to the human being, Pope Francis reminded the European Parliament that a person is not merely a “monad,” an “absolute” individual unconcerned with other “monads.” Such a false view has led to separating human rights from human duties. Rights and duties go together; they are “harmoniously ordered to the greater good.” Otherwise, rights can be assessed as limitless and hence occasion conflicts and even violence. And, of course, they can also trigger extreme selfishness, alienation, economic distress and, in a word, the reduction of human beings to mere numbers whose worth is measured primarily in terms of utilitarian advantages.
Concluding his presentation, Pope Francis recalled Raphael’s celebrated “School of Athens,” a fresco in the Vatican. Plato points “upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky…” Aristotle, however, the Philosopher, as St. Thomas Aquinas called him, “holds his hand out before him, toward the viewer, toward the world, concrete reality.” Europe’s future, the Pope predicts, “depends on the vital connection between these two elements.” A Europe no longer “open to the transcendent dimensions of life is a Europe which risks losing its own soul.”