Germans Reconsider Religion ; Pope Benedict XVI's Challenge to Secularism Meets with Receptivity during His German Visit

Article excerpt

This is the continent where some leading thinkers are talking about a "post-Christian Europe." And this is the country of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who infamously quipped, "God is dead."

So some may be surprised at the receptivity in Germany this week to visiting Pope Benedict XVI's message: Europe needs to rethink the thesis that secularism and economic progress go hand in hand. Coincidentally, some of Europe's stalwart secularists are challenging the idea that religious reasoning inevitably retreats from the public sphere as countries modernize.

Germans themselves are modeling a growing acceptance of religion's role in shaping society:

* Head of state Angela Merkel - the daughter of a Protestant minister - this month renewed calls to include a specific reference in the EU constitution to Europe's Christian heritage.

* There are more theologians in the German parliament than in any other Western parliament, including the US Congress. And when the last government cabinet was sworn in, nearly every member - instead of the usual 50 percent - opted for the religious version of the inaugural oath, according to Karsten Voigt, coordinator of German- American relations at the foreign ministry.

* In a recent survey gauging the perceived credibility of different professions, pastors were ranked in the Top 5.

* German students must take either ethics or religion classes, though Berlin recently made ethics compulsory, and religion optional. Mr. Voigt reports that "more and more" high schoolers in the state of Brandenburg are opting for religion too.

* Church attendance is no longer declining, and in one state the number of young churchgoers is going up, says Voigt.

Approximately two thirds of the 82 million citizens are church members. About 26 million are Roman Catholics, and a similar number are Protestants.

"Germany is a place where one can imagine a rethinking of this stultifying secularism and the moral relativism" prevalent in much of northern and western Europe today, says George Weigel, an American biographer of Pope John Paul II, and the author of "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God."

"German public life has a kind of intuitive sense in the wake of WWII that you can't have a world without moral reference points, or you get you-know-what," Mr. Weigel explains.

He points to the recent shift of Juergen Habermas, one of Germany's foremost philosophers, as evidence of the potential for a rethinking of the public role of religion. A professed secularist who has spent nearly half a century arguing against religiously informed moral argument, he made some arresting statements in his 2004 essay, "A Time of Transition."

"Christianity, and nothing else," he wrote, "is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [to Christianity]. …