Pope: The Meaning of Being Human Is Under Assault in Western Societies

In his annual year-end address to Vatican officials, the Holy Father warns against a false understanding of freedom and a manipulation of human nature.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has said Western societies are threatening the family to its foundations through a false understanding of freedom and a manipulation of human nature, thereby calling into question the very meaning of what it means to be truly human.

In a lengthy discourse to Roman Curia officials Dec. 21, during a traditional address in which the Holy Father exchanges Christmas greetings and reflects on the passing year, the Holy Father said that, although the family “is still strong and vibrant today,” there is “no denying the crisis that threatens it to its foundations — especially in the Western world.”

The Pope said the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in October highlighted that the challenges facing the family “are manifold,” in particular an inability to make a commitment. This, he said, is an “increasingly widespread” phenomenon that results from a “false understanding of freedom and self-realization, as well as the desire to escape suffering.”

“[It] means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his ‘I’ ultimately for himself, without really rising above it,” the Pope explained. “Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity.”

The Pope added that by repudiating that commitment, “the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child — essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.”


Rabbi Bernham’s Insights

Benedict XVI then referred to the chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, who, he said, has shown through extensive study that the attack on the traditional family “goes much deeper.”  

“While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being — of what being human really means — is being called into question,” the Pope noted.

The new philosophy of sexuality being put forward under the term “gender” is one in which sex is no longer “a given element of nature,” he said, but, instead, a “social role that we choose for ourselves.” But this “anthropological revolution,” the Pope continued, is obviously a “profound falsehood.”

Today, the Pope said, the biblical account of God creating people as male and female is now disputed and is no longer seen to apply. “What applies now is this: It was not God who created them male and female,” he said. “Now we decide for ourselves,” and man and woman as created realities no longer exist.

“Man calls his nature into question,” the Pope continued. “The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned.”

Today, the concepts of man and woman as complementary versions of what it means to be human “are disputed,” the Pope said, making the family no longer “a reality established by creation.” Likewise, he added, children have lost their dignity. The child is “an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain.”

He reminded that when God himself is denied, “ultimately, man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being.” Defense of the family is about man himself, the Pope asserted, “and it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.”


Interreligious Dialogue

The Holy Father then discussed the true nature and effectiveness of interreligious dialogue in the context of the New Evangelization. He explained that, although dialogue aims at a better mutual understanding rather than conversion, “the search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth.”

“It would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth,” the Pope went on. “Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth.” And yet, the Pope argued, Christians can afford to be supremely confident to dialogue without fear of losing their Christian identity because “we do not possess the truth; the truth possesses us.”

“Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand,” he explained, “and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge. Being inwardly held by the hand of Christ makes us free and keeps us safe: free — because if we are held by him, we can enter openly and fearlessly into any dialogue; safe — because he does not let go of us, unless we cut ourselves off from him. At one with him, we stand in the light of truth.”

In a further reflection on the New Evangelization, the Pope said proclamation of the Gospel “is effective in situations where man is listening in readiness for God to draw near, where man is inwardly searching and thus on the way towards the Lord.”

The Pope also made a point of recalling “unforgettable encounters with the power of faith” during his trip to Mexico and Cuba in March, the “great Meeting of Families” in Milan over the summer and his trip to Lebanon in September.

At the end of this year, the Pope concluded, “We pray to the Lord that the Church, despite all her shortcomings, may be increasingly recognizable as his dwelling place.”


Urgent Issues

In his weekly editorial for Octava Dies, a weekly Vatican television program, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Pope’s words to Curia officials at Christmas “are always among the most personal and carefully crafted by the Holy Father throughout the year” and cover issues that the Pope considers “most urgent.”

He said the Pope’s reference to Rabbi Bernheim shows that his positions are “not dependent on the peculiar teachings of the Church, [but] rooted in reason and available to the great tradition that is common to Jews and Christians alike.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.