Two periodicals that I read regularly have just published special anniversary issues. National Catholic Reporter has come out with a special issue to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, has a special issue devoted to another fiftieth anniversary, that one of a series of events culminating in the arrest of its then editor, Rudolf Augstein, on a charge of treason. The two topics seem quite unrelated. Readers of this blog will have discovered my idiosyncratic tendency to see connections where other people don’t. Here is another case in point.
Most everyone agrees that Vatican II, which met from 1962 to 1965, was an important event affecting the internal workings of the Roman Catholic Church and its relation to the outside world. Catholic progressives and conservatives have different assessments. Many in the former group think that the Council did not go far enough in meeting the challenges of the present age (the adaptation called aggiornamento), and that since then the Papacy has pulled back from what were then hailed as reforms. Conversely, many conservatives feel that the Council went too far in its accommodations, and that Rome should rein in the reformers even more than it has. Both groups, as well as Catholics in the middle and non-Catholic observers, agree that what happened was important. In document after document the Council formulated new approaches to a long list of topics, from liturgy (the text of the Mass changed from Latin to the diversity of vernacular languages) to ecumenicity (the Church entering into respectful dialogue with non-Catholics of every description). If one adds these up, they amount to a formidable change of direction in the Church’s attitude toward modernity, which had previously been resisted with stubborn determination. This resistance reached a certain high point when Pope Pius IX convoked the First Vatican Council in 1869 which, in defiance of modernity, solemnly proclaimed the doctrines of Papal Infallibility and of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. At the onset of Vatican II a Protestant theologian was asked what he expected to happen; he replied: “They will not ask for the minutes of the last meeting.” They certainly did not.
Two documents of Vatican II had very important consequences for the role of the Church in the wider world. Dignitatis Humanae (“Human Dignity”) endorsed human rights as they had been understood since the Enlightenment (though of course that derivation was not explicitly acknowledged), including (most important) freedom of religion. What is more, these rights were theologically legitimated as rooted in the divinely created dignity of man, as indicated in the title of the document. Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”), promulgated on the day the Council ended, redefined the attitude of the Church toward the political order. While the word “democracy” was not used, the document rejected all forms of dictatorial rule and affirmed the freedom of people to choose their type of government. The Church never admits openly that any significant changes have occurred; it always pretends that each change is simply a richer amplification of earlier positions. But the political contexts of the two Councils make the degree of change very clear. Vatican I met while the troops engaged in unifying Italy, a project of modern nation-building, occupied Rome, ended the sovereignty of the Papal States, and had Pope Pius IX announce that he was a prisoner in the Vatican. Contrast this with the address of Pope Paul VI before the General Assembly of the United Nations, where he solemnly affirmed, to general applause, the positions of Dignitatis Humanae. Since then the Catholic Church has been a major factor in democratization and the advocacy of human rights, with dramatic effects in eastern Europe, Latin America and the Philippines.
There is a monument in Rome to the Bersaglieri, the Italian elite troops that occupied the Eternal City. The monument consists of a soldier of this elite force, with his distinctive plumed hat, shown running in an assault. (The Bersaglieri never march, always run, even in parade.) It was once pointed out to me that this figure is positioned so as to face away from the Vatican, his behind pointing at it (in a sort of ideological “full monty”). One might say that at the United Nations this figure of militant modernity turned around and saluted (at least for a moment – Paul VI did not give a lecture on, say, Catholic sexual ethics).
The so-called Spiegel affair also began in 1962, when the magazine published leaked information about discussions within the defense ministry of the Federal Republic, whose military was then only a few years old and had now been integrated into NATO. The affair coincided with the Cuban missile crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union came closer to nuclear war than ever before. The Spiegel story told of a secret NATO war game, which was based on a scenario of atomic war in central Europe that would cost fifteen million lives in western Germany. Franz-Joseph Strauss, the defense minister in the Bonn government, was reported to have called the new military as “being of limited defense capability” (“Bedingt abwehrbereit”, the title of the story) and to have concluded that only atomic weapons could stop a Soviet invasion. Rudolf Augstein believed that NATO should build up its conventional military in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war. Thus the issue was of existential importance for Germany, which justified the publication of secret government papers (a rough American parallel is the famous publication of the “Pentagon Papers”). Strauss was enraged. He commissioned an analysis of the Spiegel story which concluded that the latter was guilty of betraying forty-one state secrets. What followed were formal charges of treason. The police raided the offices of the magazine, confiscating materials. Augstein and others on the editorial staff were arrested; Augstein remained in prison for one hundred and three days. In some way the affair was a personal duel between Strauss and Augstein. The Federal Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, backed his defense minister, calling the magazine “an abyss of treason” (“ein Abgrund des Landesverrat”). If it was a duel, Augstein clearly won. By early 1963 all charges were dropped. On the contrary Strauss was accused of abuse of authority; no charges were pressed against him either.
As with Vatican II, German progressives and conservatives have had different assessments of this episode. The former group saw it as a battle for freedom of the press against a government with authoritarian tendencies, supposedly embodied in Franz-Joseph Strauss. Augstein was widely seen as a hero of democracy and freedom of speech (incidentally, he was never a man of the Left, rather a liberal in the European sense of the term). Conservatives have been less admiring. The Spiegel special issue, not surprisingly, shares the heroic perspective. In a regular issue of the magazine, the affair is described as “when the Germans learned to love their democracy”. This probably exaggerates the importance of the episode. But it certainly shows that democracy had by then been robustly institutionalized in western Germany, both in law and in the culture. The Federal Republic was more Catholic before the unification with largely Protestant east Germany. Catholic influences were strong, especially but not only in the camp of Christian Democracy. Thus the synchronicity of the democratization of Germany and the shift in Rome’s attitude to democracy is not coincidental. Short of truly cataclysmic events it is hard to imagine that either could be reversed.
In recent years there has been a widespread debate in Europe, mainly triggered by the increasing presence of Islam, as to what are its core values. Democracy and human rights, including especially freedom of religion and freedom of speech, have been prominent in the debate over “European values”. Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who died in year 10 of the Common Era, was famously asked whether one could state the meaning of Torah while standing on one leg. He replied yes, then formulated the first version of the Golden Rule, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another”. (Jesus quoted Hillel, as recorded in Mathew 7 and Luke 6 – but there are no footnotes in the New Testament.) Hillel added: “This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary”. A couple of years ago I participated in a conference in Berlin on the question of “European values” – which of course are no longer just European, but are global values of liberal democracy. I referred to the Hillel anecdote, then suggested that one could also state the meaning of “European values” while standing on one leg. One could simply quote the first sentence of Article 1 of the constitution of the Federal Republic: “The dignity of man is inviolable” (“Die Wuerde des Menschen ist unantastbar”). The rest indeed is commentary, but this is what it is all about.
It is possible to have the electoral mechanisms of democracy without these core values. Democratically elected governments can be lynch mobs. There is a very important difference between democratism, definable as a blind faith in the machinery of elections, and liberal democracy, animated by the aforementioned values and equipped with institutions to protect them. It is also important to understand that these values are not just theoretical propositions, but the result of lived experience. Of course there are elaborate theories about the values of liberal democracy. But these theories are grounded in actual human experience, including the experience of people who are not theorists (the great majority) and perhaps have never read a book. At the core of this experience is a perception of man as, precisely, the bearer of an inviolable dignity. Put differently, anthropology precedes ethics.
One of my favorite examples of this is from American literature, in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: Huck is sailing on the Mississippi when an escaped slave climbs aboard his raft. Huck is a child of the Old South, socialized in its ethics, which tells him that he ought to return the slave to his rightful owner. He cannot bring himself to do this. Why? Huck has not been the target of abolitionist propaganda, has not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin let alone any philosophical treatise on the rights of man. Rather, he suddenly perceives his passenger as a human being with intrinsic dignity and the right to be free. This is what in classical Greek drama was called an anagnorisis, a “recognition scene”. This is not a theory, but an experience. It can be mediated by theory and legitimated by theory after the fact. But the experience is primal.
Where does it come from? Christians tend to think that it comes from the Judaeo-Christian tradition and that it cannot be divorced from it. The first notion is partially correct, the second is false. Yes, that religious tradition has been one of its sources in the history of European civilization, though not the only one. There was also Greek politics and philosophy, Roman law and, most directly, the semi- or post-Christian sensibility and thought of the Enlightenment. There are some parallels of this in south- and east-Asian civilizations, certainly also in Islam. But it is only in Europe that the idea and the experience of the intrinsic dignity of every human individual was first codified in law and in political institutions. The legitimations are important, thus the endorsement of liberal democracy by the Roman Catholic Church has had empirically real consequences. But, whatever its history, the discovery of intrinsic human dignity is not limited to Europe or its geographical extensions. It is now universally available. It was thus available, even in a rudimentary articulation, to the students who put up a replica of the Statue of Liberty in the center of Beijing and to the Tunisian street peddler who immolated himself because he felt that his dignity had been violated. Agnostics and atheists are clearly capable of the same perception.
I think that we experience the aforementioned anagnorisis most powerfully when we are confronted by gross violations of human dignity. Both in the case of Dignitatis Humanae and of the first article of the German constitution there is the shadow of the unspeakable violations of human dignity by the Nazis. I doubt if either case would have occurred, then and in this form, had it not been for the memory of those horrors. The institutions of liberal democracy are the best bet that such horrors will not recur.