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PARIS (Reuters) - Pope Benedict has reaped praise before his visit to his German homeland next month from one of the last people one would expect -- the sharp-tongued leader of the former communists from old East Germany.
Gregor Gysi, parliamentary leader for a small party in the German Bundestag called The Left, thanked the conservative pontiff Thursday for consistently preaching that a modern society must have moral norms in order to function properly.
"It won't work without the concept of the good," he wrote in the weekly Christ und Welt. "But modern science can't tell us what is good. Its concepts focus on empirical experience. Ideas such as morality play no role there."
Despite his reputation as a staunch conservative, Gysi wrote, Benedict turns out to be a modern theologian who says societies need both religious traditions and rational arguments to forge the moral consensus they need to operate.
"The pope says neither can do this alone," he wrote, referring to one of the pope's trademark teachings. "That a pope says that about religion is not necessarily something one could have expected."
The Bavarian-born pontiff, now 84, will address parliament in Berlin, meet Protestants in Erfurt in eastern Germany and meet young Catholics in Freiburg in the southwest during his state visit to Germany on September 22-25.
The praise from Gysi, who enjoys strong support among former members of the atheist communist party that ruled East Germany until 1990, echoed an earlier reassessment of former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger by Germany's best-known left-wing philosopher.
In a 2004 debate with Ratzinger, Juergen Habermas, now 82, agreed that religion created a foundation on which a democratic legal system could be built. Although no longer religious, modern secular societies still needed these moral values.
Gysi noted with approval that Benedict has said religions without reason can lead to fanaticism, while rational thinking without faith can lead to excessive pride and intolerance.
"One must simply recognize that cultural traditions, including religion, are resources" that transmit social norms, he wrote. "There seems to be something prior to and outside of the law that can act as a benchmark for it."
"In our world full of tension, this insight is the best justification for tolerance in a democratic state," Gysi said. "We don't have to follow this or that norm, but we must appreciate that there are norms, and some of them are good."
Gysi, 63, was a reformist lawyer in the final years of former East Germany. He comes from a secular Jewish family and his father Klaus Gysi was culture minister and state secretary for religious affairs under the communists.