It's not right to characterize a people by their elected representatives. Who among us would advise our visitors that the Canadian character is what one witnesses, say, in the House of Commons during Question Period?
So the fact that many members of the German federal parliament (Bundestag) boycotted Pope Benedict's speech in that chamber last week ought not be held against the German people.
But it should be noted for what it says about the German political culture. That so many — perhaps as many as 100 members from the Green, Left and Social Democratic opposition parties — could be so rude and so closed-minded is a discouraging sign that all is not well in the heart of Europe.
Remember that last year in Great Britain, Queen Elizabeth extended a most gracious welcome to the pope, and the entire assembled ranks of British political life — including all former living prime ministers — did Benedict the honour of welcoming him to the Palace of Westminster.
Or a few years back, when President George W. Bush gave an extraordinarily warm and festive welcome at the White House, and even gave a formal dinner for the pope, despite the fact that popes don't attend such dinners. So the cool reception from a significant part of the German parliament is certainly not the normal courtesy the pope is usually shown.
Alexander Süssmair of the socialist Left party told Der Spiegel he "cannot even imagine what the democratic Federal Republic of Germany could learn from the representative of an absolute monarchy."
Süssmair's imagination is rather limited in several ways. First, in that he thinks of the supreme pastor of the universal Church in a strictly political category — that of a monarch. Of the several roles that the pope has, his civil status as sovereign of the Vatican City State is the most recent (less than 90 years) and least important.
But Süssmair's imagination is more severely crippled still, for he cannot imagine that one of the world's most learned men, speaking out of a tradition of humane reflection far older than the German people themselves, might have something useful to say. Rarely has the arrogance of politics been so clearly on display.
Which was a shame, because Benedict delivered one of the great addresses of a pontificate already marked by innovative use of the magisterial lecture.
The pope came to argue that if the only path to truth is that of scientific observation and rational reflection on that data, entire vast fields of human wisdom are excluded from our common life — literature, drama, history, philosophy and, above all, ethics. That crippled understanding of human knowledge is called "positivism."
"Anything that is not verifiable or falsifiable, according to this understanding, does not belong to the realm of reason strictly understood," the pope said. "Hence ethics and religion must be assigned to the subjective field, and they remain extraneous to the realm of reason in the strict sense of the word.
"Where positivist reason dominates the field to the exclusion of all else — and that is broadly the case in our public mindset — then the classical sources of knowledge for ethics and law are excluded. This is a dramatic situation which affects everyone, and on which a public debate is necessary. Indeed, an essential goal of this address is to issue an urgent invitation to launch one."
Whether Pope Benedict will find interlocutors for this debate remains to be seen. Yet the debate is "urgent" because the stakes are high.
"Where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity.
"I say this with Europe specifically in mind, where there are concerted efforts to recognize only positivism as a common culture and a common basis for lawmaking, reducing all the other insights and values of our culture to the level of subculture, with the result that Europe vis-à-vis other world cultures is left in a state of culturelessness and at the same time extremist and radical movements emerge to fill the vacuum.
"In its self-proclaimed exclusivity, the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God's wide world. . . .
"The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this."
Benedict came from afar to the Bundestag to invite those who legislate there to expand their vision to that wider world. He found at least some there so committed to living in the bunker that even the open debate of the Bundestag was too much.
Fr. Raymond de Souza - firstname.lastname@example.org