"A Requirement of Intellectual Honesty": On Benedict and
the German Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | December 20, 2006
"A Requirement of Intellectual Honesty": On Benedict and
the German Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | December 20, 2006
"Faithfulness to the Depositum fidei as presented by the Church's Magisterium is the
premise par excellence for
serious research and teaching. This faithfulness is also a
requirement of intellectual honesty for
anyone to whom the Church entrusts an academic teaching role." -- Benedict XVI
to German Bishops, November 10, 2006.
"Let us return, therefore, to the subject of 'God'. The words
of St. Ignatius spring mind: 'The Christian is not the result of persuasion,
but of power' ('Epistula ad Romanos' 3,
3). We should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of
multiple, minor details, but rather, should always keep our eyes in the first
place on the greatness of Christianity." -- Benedict XVI to Swiss Bishops,
November 9, 2006.
Nietzsche, who in some
sense brought modernity to a close by exposing its own inner incoherence, is
always interesting to read. Pope Ratzinger, good German scholar that he is,
will cite him rather often. A sense of poignancy hovers over the reading of
Nietzsche. We sense the disappointment that he felt over Christians themselves
who, in his strict view, do not, as he thought, really believe what the faith
holds to be true. This practical disbelief in the truth of Christianity,
however, is increasingly prevalent in Western societies over a century after
The only alternative open to him, in Nietzsche's own mind,
was the famous "will to power." This much-pondered principle was in fact a
license to construct our own world, to declare our freedom precisely by
rejecting all previous explications, particularly those stemming from Plato and
Christianity, from natural law or faith. We should, Nietzsche thought, have the
"courage" of our mind, something, alas, only a few have. He insisted that
everyone, including himself, be "intellectually honest" and accept the
consequences of no truth. This "courage" to be honest meant that we should live
as if, whether true or not, God were dead. We should bravely take the
consequences. Truth simply did not exist. We should create and live by our own
definitions of man, of what we want him to be. We should not be bothered or
weakened by small things like virtue or right or doctrine.
Of course, Nietzsche was overly strict and sanguine in what
he expected of Christians. If they were not exactly like Christ, then it
followed, he thought, that Christ was a failure. He had no followers. Imperfect
Christians were hypocrites. Nietzsche seems not to have read that Christ came
to save sinners, even recalcitrant ones. This too-high standard would expect
all Christians after Christ to be simply perfect. Perhaps Nietzsche maintained
this high standard as a justification for his own theories of a world solely
dependent on the will of his new man.
Nonetheless, Nietzsche's agenda or inspiration, in many
forms, can be found at the roots of much of modern culture, particularly
academic culture. We live with a dogmatic relativism that empowers us, so it is
claimed, to depend on neither nature nor grace, on nothing but our own willed
social and personal constructs, whatever they are. In the end, in this cosmos,
we find nothing but ourselves, a thought not a few find consoling. Our
"dignity," it is said, is to live accordingly. This living our own formulated
truth is what "intellectual honesty" meant to Nietzsche.
In a November 18, 2006, address
to a second group of German bishops, Benedict XVI spoke about marriage. His
words repeat an oft-heard theme of this Pope about the prevalence and
insufficiency of the secularism that we find about us. This is a secularism
that often is said to be the result of Nietzsche's declaration of the emptiness
of philosophy. "Today, the order of marriage, as established in creation and of
which the Bible tells us expressly in the narration of creation (Genesis,
2:24), is gradually being obscured," the Pope commented in a passage that
recalls the heritage of Nietzsche. "To the extent that man seeks in new ways to
build for himself the world as a whole, thereby ever more perceptibly
endangering its foundations, he also loses his vision of the order of creation
with regard to his own life. He considers he can define himself as he pleases
by virtue of an inane freedom." That is a strong phrase, an "inane freedom." It
no doubt means the same sort of freedom implied in Nietzsche's "will to power,"
not a freedom that confronts and accepts the truth, but a freedom that creates
whatever truth it wants. One truth is thus as good and as evident as another,
so long as we have the courage to embrace and enforce it.
In his November 9, 2006, address
to the Swiss Bishops, Benedict touched a similar point. "The other part of
morality, often received controversially by politics, concerns life," Benedict
One aspect of it is the commitment
to life from conception to death, that is, its defense against abortion,
against euthanasia, against manipulation and man's self-authorization in order to
dispose of life. People often seek to justify these interventions with the
seemingly great purpose of thereby serving the future generations, and it even
appears moral to take human life into one's own hands and manipulate it.
However . . . the knowledge also exists that human life is a gift that demands our
respect and love from the very first to its very last moments, also for the
suffering, the disabled and the weak
Here we have a classic papal reiteration of the dignity of
One point that might be especially noted about this passage
is its reminder that all attacks on human being and dignity are made in the
name of some greater good. Here, all these destructive practices or human
interventions are justified because, it is claimed, they serve future
generations. This was a theme dear to Marxists. The actual good of one person,
one group, is thus sacrificed to some future goal about whose actual coming to
be we know nothing. The end justifies the means. Human lives are not taken to
be themselves ends but mere means to some idea of the future.
The Pope's address to the Swiss bishops, looking at it in
more detail, begins with an apology that he did not have time to make a
thorough preparation for his presentation. With some amusement, Benedict
recalls that "when I used to go to Germany in the 1980's and '90's, I was asked
to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned
the ordination of women, contraception, abortion, and other such constantly
recurring problems." No reporter, in other words, was interested in the "two
specific themes" that Benedict wanted to talk to the Swiss bishops about,
namely, "God" and "the greatness of Christianity." Unless we have these latter
straight, it is very difficult to talk of the former persistent questions.
Once drawn into such controversial topics that the reporters
thought was the only "news" they could find in religion, Church teachers then
appear to be merely "moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions and
not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith." The "true greatness of the
faith" is what concerns this Pope. Augustine, Benedict recalls, taught the two
sides of Christianity: God is Logos and
God is Agape. God is reason, and
God is love. In a magnificent, almost lyrical passage, Benedict continues: "God
is 'Spiritus Creator', he is Logos; he is reason. And this is why our faith is
something that has to do with reason, can be passed on through reason and has
no cause to hide from reason, not even from the reason of our age. But
precisely this eternal, immeasurable reason is not merely a mathematics of the
universe and, far less, of some first cause that withdrew after producing the
Big Bang." God comprehends both mathematics and the Big Bang, if it indeed happened.
He would be the same if extended matter, the basis of mathematics, or the
universe did not exist in the first place. This is not to denigrate either
mathematics or the Big Bang. Both deal with reason, but only to place them in
the right order of understanding.
Faith is not opposed to reason. Reason is a means for the
passing on of the faith itself. Faith seeks intelligence and, to use a word the
Pope employs elsewhere, "heals" it when necessary, heals it to be itself as all
healing is intended to do We do not hide from reason or science, quite the
opposite. This is the boldest of Christian affirmations. We are not Deists who
maintain that whatever began the whole magnificent process of creation
subsequently turned it loose as if it was of no more concern to it.
Not a few of the American founding fathers were in fact
upholders of Deism, a theory that at least recognized the need for an origin of
things. The traditional Deist image was one of a clock, not a Big Bang.
Benedict has merely brought the position up to date. Creation is not a denial
of providence. Providence is not a denial of freedom either in God or in the
cosmos, after its own order of being. Providence is not a declaration that God
has nothing to do with the world. Rather it acknowledges that the world really
exists with real contingency and freedom within it according to the respective
orders found within the cosmos.
The great mystery of the Godhead in our regard is the
Incarnation, a doctrine that often causes even more perplexity than the
Trinity. God, the Pope said, was able to renounce His "immensity" to take on
"flesh." This point is Paul's idea that God empties himself out to become Man.
Here is the basis for the "true greatness" of the Christian's "conception of
God." God is not "a philosophical hypothesis." He is not something that, as the
Pope puts it in a happy phrase, "perhaps exists." We know Him, He knows us,
with a knowledge that increases in our conversation with Him in prayer and
Christianity is not best conceived as a "morality," though
obviously how we live is a consequence of what we understand about God and
ourselves. Christianity should be "understood as a gift to which we are given
the love that sustains us and provides us with the strength we need to be able
to lose our own life." But this love is something that also must go out from
us. We are first loved. But this means that we are also to go out to what is
loveable. This going out was the concern of the last part of Benedict's
encyclical Deus Caritas Est. The whole
uniqueness of Christian revelation is that God in fact is concerned with the
world and likewise with what we are to be.
In his November 10, 2006, address
to the first group of German bishops, the Pope wanted them to "take a look at
the situation of the Church in our country." The scene is not always happy.
"Many have succumbed to discouragement and resignation, attitudes that stand in
the way of witnessing to Christ's liberating and saving Gospel." But not a few,
particularly the young, want to know what the Christians have to say about the
highest and most important things. "We Christians must not fear spiritual
confrontation with a society whose ostentatious intellectual superiority
conceals its perplexity before the final existential question." Benedict is
going to leave nothing unexamined, to recall Socrates. What appears to be
arrogance and intellectual superiority may well be bravado and a failure really
to face the "final existential questions": What is life? What is death? Who am
I? What is the meaning of evil? What is our destiny?
Christian answers have a specific origin-- from the Gospel
of the Logos made man. Others,
particularly the Muslims in Germany, Benedict affirms--and he puts it
delicately--"have a right to receive our humble and sound testimony in favour
of Jesus Christ." If Islam considers the Trinity and the Incarnation blasphemy,
we do not and are not to be deterred from affirming these truths of God. Inter-religious
dialogue and relations with other philosophies and religions do not mean
avoiding talk about what is fundamental. Otherwise the highest things have no
place within our culture. We do not deny what we hold to be true on the grounds
that we need not affirm what we hold when asked.
The Pope proceeded to a number of practical items. In
Catholic schools and adult formation, the Pope continued, "the central content
of the faith and the Christian view of life are not (to be) glossed over to
give precedence to current issues of marginal problems." About Mass, he
remarked, "delivering the homily during Holy Mass is a task bound to the
ordained ministry; when sufficient priests and deacons are present, it is their
task to distribute Holy Communion."
What about the question the reporters asked? Does the Church
have its own structure? Can it do with itself whatever it wants? That is, are
those offices within it merely readily reformable legal or political appointments?
Are all tasks found in the Church interchangeable? The Pope's response, echoing
Dominus Jesus, is quite clear: We cannot
discuss questions connected to this (ecclesial structure) in the light of
personal convenience alone, for here it is a question of the truth of faith;
that is to say, "the sacramental and hierarchical structure that Jesus Christ
desired for his Church. Since this is based on his will, just as the delegation
of apostles relies on his mandate, these matters are exempt from human
intervention. The Sacrament of Orders alone authorizes those who receive it to
speak and act in persona Christi.
It is this, dear confreres, that must be inculcated ever anew with great
patience and wisdom and the necessary conclusions drawn." Benedict leaves us to
draw the conclusions. This is the definitive answer to the reporters at his
visits to Germany in the 1980s and 1990s.
In conclusion, I want to recall again the striking phrase
that was cited in title of these comments, the notion of the "intellectual
honesty" that is "required" of us in matters of reason and faith. What is
"intellectual honesty?" I will admit that a formal heretic can be
"intellectually" honest and still be a heretic. Sincerity is not, as such, a
criterion of truth. There is no reason in principle to think that a Hitler or a
Stalin was not sincere in his convictions. That is, in part, why both were so
dangerous. But it is not good to be a sincere heretic or tyrant.
The attractiveness of "intellectual honesty" is that the
person we deal with tells us what he really holds. Nietzsche's problem with
Christianity originated in his sense that those who claimed to be believers
really did not hold what they were supposed to believe. Whenever something
comes between that to which a man interiorly testifies and what he is heard in
public to proclaim, there is a distinct possibility that what he holds is
alienated from what he says he holds. Nothing can be more dangerous to both
faith and reason than doubt about what a man really holds. Nothing could be
more dangerous to the faith since such a barrier breaks the link between soul
and soul on which both faith and friendship exist. This doubt about the
integrity of human interchange arises the minute that a man has to place
something between himself and his hearer.
The Pope admonishes us to think within the confines of the
body of faith, something we are free to do. That is, once someone thinks within
the scope of the Creed, he thinks in a way that is different, but no less true.
Intellectual honesty means that we know that he thinks within the limits of
faith--limits what make him, in fact, much more open to all of reality.
Intellectual honesty means that the hearer and the speaker understand one
another, and that no barrier of dishonesty or hiddenness stands between them.
No doubt, people can lie and dissimulate. We cannot bear our
souls to just anyone. Yet, philosophy exists in conversation. I suspect
conversion also exists in conversation, which is the reason why the Pope
insisted on the freedom and courage to state that for which we stand be it
before the secularist or the Muslim. Recently, I saw an article of some
theological professor who argued that if we are ever to get along with the
Muslims, we need to downplay the two central doctrines of Christianity, the
Trinity and the Incarnation, so that we can better get along. No doubt, if we
cease to be Christian, if we cease to affirm the truth, including especially
the truth that guides us from revelation, everyone will find us easier to get
along with. We will have gained tolerance at the price of what we are to hold.
The Holy Father does not take this naive path. The essence
of politics, in one sense, is to make provision for the most fundamental of
human rights and duties, the freedom of religion, the freedom to speak honestly
and without fear of the highest things. This freedom allows us, in any society,
to speak of the God that is. Societies that
do not permit this freedom--and they are surprisingly many in our time--are
hardly human. We are often innocent enough not to know or admit how difficult
it is in various political entities of our era to speak honestly of "God" and
the "greatness of Christianity." Intellectual honesty tells us to learn and
point out the restrictions that prevent any adequate and free presentation of
what the faith is about, on its relation to reason. It also teaches us to be
sure, when we speak, that what we hold is rooted in the faith that is Logos, the faith that can be passed on through reason.
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Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy
at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent book is
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006).
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!