Benedict XVI’s Election Made the Old New Again

Interview With Adviser to Germany’s Chancellor

ROME, JULY 27, 2007 (Zenit.org).- When age-old religious issues were making headlines with the Benedict XVI’s election, many were confronted with something new, especially in eastern Germany, said an adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In this interview with ZENIT, Andrea Schneider discusses what Benedict XVI’s election to the pontificate has meant for Germany, Catholic social teaching and the role it plays in her life. 

Schneider recently spoke in Rome at a conference “The Foundations of the Free Society,” hosted by the Michigan-based Acton Institute.

The event was the last of a series of conferences commemorating Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical “Centesimus Annus.” 

Q: How has the situation of Catholics changed in Germany after the election of Benedict XVI? 

Schneider: I think what happened after John Paul II died and Benedict XVI was elected was that religion came to the forefront, it became a subject to be discussed openly. It was discussed by Catholics in their parishes before, but not at the workplace. 

These themes were all of a sudden making headlines in newspapers, and we could discuss it openly with our neighbors. We were no longer outsiders. 

So it made people recall topics which had been long forgotten or which they tried to erase from their lives. Hence, many people were confronted with something new, especially in the eastern part of Germany. 

When Benedict XVI was elected, people in Germany felt, whether they were Catholics, Protestants or atheists, that something is happening, and that if we are all parts of this, then there is something that we have to do ourselves and that this is wonderful. I think that in the long run this election will make an impact. 

We discuss religion more and I think this is what we Catholics and Protestants have to do to talk about our faith, to keep discussing such topics and challenge our neighbors. 

Q: Looking to your lecture at the Acton Institute event “Law, Human Rights, and the Free Society,” what struck you as the basic insights of “Centesimus Annus”? 

Schneider: First of all, what matters most is to understand the nature of man that God gave him a dignity that cannot be abolished by any system or by any rule of law. 

In order to understand history, social developments or economy, we really need to know what the nature of man is. 

Once we know this, we can then ask ourselves which economic and social system is best suited for man. We then have to have a realistic view of the person and the systems that are congenial to his nature. 

John Paul II highlighted the different aspects of freedom, like the freedom for economic initiative, and wrote how important it is for humans to unfold their talents in the market, to get involved in personal relationships, to cooperate and also to compete. 

Another insight is about the good side of the market mechanism, that is, we all can benefit from it because it covers our needs. 

It doesn’t do it because, like in a command system, someone tells us what our needs are, but the other way around. This happens when people tell producers, our neighbors, what they need, and they get involved in productivity. 

Also the right to private property is something which John Paul II highlighted very strongly, that is, how much humans have a need to do something valuable, to create something, to possess something that they can care for. 

These are just a few of the many insights in the encyclical.

Q: Are there recognizable elements in the social market economy that can derive from the Church’s social teachings? 

Schneider: Definitely. The whole concept of the person, the theme that we have a realistic view of the ambiguous person: In other words, that people are good but they also can tend toward evil. 

It also depends on institutions, emphasizing some things as important and what can be brought out of people. This is something that has been the core of the foundations of the market economy, the real analysis of what it means to be human. 

Secondly, the principles to apply to a just society are those of subsidiarity and of solidarity, which had already been developed in the social doctrine and had been incorporated into the concept of social market economy. 

There were a lot of things, like economy, which is important but is just one aspect of life. There are also other aspects. 

The economy should not be superior, but it should be a servant to mankind, as one of the founding fathers of the United States put it. 

The market should be balanced with the elements of solidarity and taking care of the poor and the needy. 

This type of thinking toward ideals, from my perspective, is grounded in and inspired by the Church’s social teachings but also drew a lot from it. 

Q: What are the errors of the welfare system? 

Schneider: First of all, the role of the state is exaggerated. If you take the principle of subsidiarity seriously, then we should leave to individuals, to families, to the neighborhood what they can do for themselves. 

If the state steps in very often thinking it can do it more effectively, it is not necessarily going to be cheaper or better if it does it for a couple of communities. 

And many things have been solved by the state that really should be the genuine competences of families. I think we really need safety nets in any social market economy or free market economy. But how do we decide on them? 

We have to be really sensitive in defining what a good safety net is, one that does not take away the dignity of the person and does not deconstruct the person just to be a needy recipient of welfare. 

For example, in welfare reforms very often the state simply gives transfer payments to the unemployed, so that they can survive. But we leave them there. 

Sometimes we put them through a kind of retraining program, so that they have an opportunity to learn a new job. But then sometimes these people cannot find a new job with the new competences they’ve learned 

The real problem of the welfare state is that most of the time it offers merely money, although much more is needed to solve the problem. 

Q: In times of crisis of the capitalist system, what is the significance of “Centesimus Annus?” 

Schneider: John Paul II pointed out a lot of dangers of the capitalist system, like consumerism or that individuals, workers, employees and employers don’t take up their responsibilities or there is a confusion over who should take up which responsibility between individuals and state. 

So, he really outlined the nature of these problems and believed that, first of all, there is a misunderstanding about the nature of man. 

I was really amazed when I read it how much he foresaw the developments that we now see today. 

Q: What is the message of “Centesimus Annus” for politicians and economists? 

Schneider: To look at the nature of human beings first, before we design institutions to bring the best out of man and to help unfold his dignity and the gifts he was given. 

Take labor laws for example: this applies to how we can design institutions to help people find jobs, so as not to be trapped in transfer payment programs. 

Q: What role does your faith play in your work? 

Schneider: It is the most important basis of my work and of my life for sure. And “Centesimus Annus” gave me a lot of inspiration, insight and understanding. 

A lot of what I understand now, I did not learn in my economics studies. Many things I learned by doing youth work, for example, by speaking to young people in my parish or at the youth programs. 

I did this by finding out what their needs are, and their wants. They feel insecure, they are afraid but they are also enthusiastic about the future, which is really an important motivation for my work. 

When working on subjects like unemployment, health care reform or whatever, I need sound principles to apply to my thinking. It is not evident what the right social or economic order is. What does a good economic system mean? 

Principles like subsidiarity and solidarity help me to analyze problems, to apply principles and the value system that my faith offers me. 

Personally, it is strengthening; it is good to know I am not alone.

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