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Michael Sievernich SJ {*}

European Guiding Culture


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 6/2011, P. et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


In the repeatedly erupting controversy over the "dominant culture" in Germany, some people orientate towards rationality, legal order, basic values, religious heritage and plead against this background for the recognition of compatible cultural and religious diversity. Others, however, follow the meanwhile faded idea of multiculturalism but they interlink the imperative recognition with the ostensible claim for equal validity and with the hidden agenda of an ideologically promoted secularization, because religion as a pre-modern phenomenon was obsolete. On which cultural and religious foundations, which up to the present day support and orient Europe and Germany, is the claim to be a "guiding culture" based?

Regarding the European cultural area, science and law, ethics and religion belong to the decisive shaping powers of a multilingual, multicultural Europe, which is nevertheless pressing ahead with its unity - symbolized by the place names Athens, Rome and Jerusalem. Without the science of Greece, the knowledge-based culture of Europe, whose rationality applies also to ethics and religion, would hardly have emerged. Against this background, from the encounter of Christian erudition with Greek, Hebrew and Arabic science could arise the brilliant medieval idea of the university in the Latin West. It was the place of the seven "liberal arts" in the linguistic and mathematical fields of knowledge, upon which the three leading disciplines of theology, jurisprudence and medicine were based. As far as the transfer of knowledge is concerned, Thomas Aquinas would have been unable to write his "Summa Theologiae" without the Greek philosophy (Aristotle) imparted by the Arabic science. But without the work of translation by the multilingual Syrian scholars of Christian faith, the Arab world would not have learnt from the ancient philosophy, mathematics and medicine.

Roman law and the further developments of law, which were already codified in the late antiquity in collections as the "Corpus Juris Civilis", brought - together with national legal cultures and developments of ecclesiastical law - a legal constitution into the European guiding culture, including the long-struggled-for distinction between state and religion. In the early modern period, in the context of the mission, there emerged the ideas of human rights (Bartolomé de Las Casas OP) and international law as jus inter gentes (Francisco de Vitoria OP), which were later formulated in the Enlightenment. In the light of the experience that a legal system can be perverted systematically into the source of injustice, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany transcends the sphere of law, when the preamble explicitly refers to the "responsibility before God and man" and so to the responsorial nature of law.


The biblical Decalogue formulates a responsorial ethics. It responds to God's liberating action (from slavery) with freedom rules, whose content can be counted on the fingers of both hands: The recognition of the transcendence of God preserves the Creation, and thus the human substance, by the commandments of respect for others, their lives, their relationships, their property and their claim to truth. This ethics, which is summarized and mutually substantiated in the commandment to love God, neighbor and oneself, belongs - together with the ubiquitous golden rule: "Treat others as you would like people to treat you." (Lk 6:31) - to the ethical core of the European guiding culture.

The Christian faith spread like a wildfire among all social classes first in the Roman Empire, and in the course of a millennium it put down roots among all the peoples of Europe - whether among Celts, Germans and Slavs. This was largely owed to the monasteries, which covered the continent like a starry canopy and radiated as centers of business, education and spirituality. The compassion for the weak and the suffering, which became proverbial in the biblical image of the "Good Samaritan" (Lk 10:25-37) and practical in the church's concern for body and soul, has shaped the cultural memory of Europe as well as the connection between Faith and Justice. Without loss of their languages and cultural characteristics, the European nations found in Christianity their moral and spiritual unity, which exists today in religious pluralism and has long since become global.

The European guiding culture is an intercultural synthesis of science and law, ethics and religion. Here, a special shaping power must be attached to the Jewish and Christian heritage, because it constitutes the universalistic core of the European culture, which lays emphasis on human dignity and equality of all human beings - since they are created in God's likeness. The linguistic and cultural "translatability" of Christianity opens a global communications community that does not only tolerate all the bright colors of the cultures but also sees the difference of languages, cultures, ethics, religions as a richness: it calls on us to live together and to be committed to dialogue.

If Europe wants to remain fit for the future, then it will "cultivate" - over and above economic success and scientific achievement - the own guiding culture, especially its ethical and religious core. Already a century ago, the Protestant philosopher Ernst Troeltsch said that man would not endure the mere practical and earthly affairs but "rather oblige science to uncover or release again the source of all strength, i.e. religion." Those who know the constitutive elements of the European guiding culture know thus the rights and obligations of all members of the community and the principles by which in late modernity the relationship to cultural and religious minorities must be formed integratively.


    {*} The Jesuit Michael Sievernich (born in 1945) teaches as Professor of Pastoral Theology at the University of Mainz and as an honorary professor at St Georgen, Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt. He is adviser of the Commission X (Universal Church) of the German Bishops' Conference. Numerous publications on questions of theology, pastoral care and universal church.


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