On Reading the Pope (part one) | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 19, 2006
Already in reading the remarkable amount of material the present Holy Father writes each week, it is clear, as in the case of his predecessor, that it is a full time job just to keep up with him. The public responsibilities of a pope both to be present for and to speak to an amazing variety of differing people from all over the world requires himin both short talks or letters, in weekly exhortations and audiences, and in a variety of other forato explain to us how he understands our faith and its foundations. Regularly, the Pope speaks to members of the diplomatic corps, as to heads of state or high officials, to a constant stream of bishops and curial staff, to visitors, to conferences, to members of other religions, to athletes, actors, and philosophers, to the small, the great, and the ordinary.
Obviously, the Pope has a staff, a schedule, and a thought-out agenda, for he also has his own ideas about what needs to be said. The Church needs to be ruled, governed. His position allows him to say what no one else in the world will tells us. Yet he must be prudent and careful. In these days, the wrong word might cause St. Peters to be blown up. Fanatics, as they are called, seem to spare nothing and no one. Many audiences regularly occur. People will hear him differently, some with sympathy, some with hostility, some with curiosity, some with doubts, some with faith, some with questions.
Benedict XVI, in his weekly audiences, continuing the reflections on the Psalms that John Paul II began, always manages to cite one of the Fathers of the Church, or sometimes a more obscure bishop or theologian. For example, in his comments on Psalm 136 (OR, 16 Nov 2005), Benedict recalls St. Basil the Great. Interest in the Fathers, of course, was one of Benedicts many scholarly interests. But it is also a reminder that, in the intellectual and religious world, we do not just have the Bible and modern thought. We also have tradition. That is, we must be aware that Christians have been constantly thinking and writing about this revelation given to us throughout the history of the Church. The same core of revelation is explained in every century.
"I find the words of this fourth-century Father (Basil) surprisingly up to date," Benedict tells us, "when he says:
The Pope is ever sensitive to the effect such teachings of atheism or scientific disorder have on our souls, especially the young. To a group of Mexican bishops, he said that the young "find themselves facing a society marked by growing cultural and religious pluralism. Furthermore, sometimes very lonely and bewildered, they come up against currents of thought which hold that men and women, without the need for God and even opposed to God, achieve fulfillment through technological, political and economic power" (OR, 21 September 2005). Again and again, the Pope will meet this skeptical position head on. It simply will do not do what it claims.
In his audience at Castel Gandolfo for that same week, on Psalm 132, the Pope cites the fifth-century priest, Hesychius of Jerusalem. But he first tells us of the importance of temples and, a pari, churches, following the example of David in the Old Testament to build God a dwelling place.
Implicitly, the Pope underscores a form of polity that recognizes, as part of its own dignity, and therefore a guidance to its youth, the presence of such temples in its midst. The state by itself does not "worship" God, as it is not itself a physical, substantial being, but it must provide a place, a space for those who can. Technical, political, and economic power are not enough to satisfy the human heart, yet, to recall what he told the Mexican bishops about youth, they need to see through the currents of thought that cut man off from God.
The Pope often turns to the subject of what the Church is. It is first listening to what is revealed. This is the starting point, the only starting point of the theological enterprise. On occasion of the 40th anniversary of Vatican IIs document on divine revelation, the Pope recalled that
This was a theme that the then Cardinal Ratzinger
touched on in his Spirit of the Liturgythat the preacher
is not there to tell us what he thinks or concocts about spiritual things,
but what the Gospel says.
On his first Christmas as Pope, Benedict had many nice things to say about its traditions. At the Angelus on December 11, commenting on Christmas preparations, the Pope said, "following a beautiful and firmly-rooted tradition, many families set up their Crib immediately after the Feast of the Immaculate conception, as if to relive with Mary those days full of trepidation that preceded the birth of Jesus. Putting up the Crib at home can be a simple but effective way of preserving faith, to pass it on to ones children" (OR, 14 December 2005)
At Midnight Mass in St. Peters, the Pope continued, "Along with the Christmas tree that our Austrian friends have also brought us this year a small flame lit in Bethlehem, as if to say that the true mystery of Christmas is the inner brightness radiating from this Child." (OR, 4 January 2006). And at the General Audience December 21, 2005, he added, "As we prepare to celebrate the Saviours Birth joyfully in our families and our Ecclesial Communities, while a certain modern, consumerist culture tends to do away with the Christian symbols of the celebration of Christmas, may it be everyones task to grasp the value of the Christmas traditions that was part of the patrimony of our faith and our culture, in order to pass them an to the young generation." (OR, 4 January 2006).
How does one deal with the temptations and problems presented to us in modern culture? Writing to the First National Day of Young Catholics in the Netherlands, Benedict observes: "How easy it is to be content with superficial pleasures that daily life offers us; how easy it is to live only for oneself, apparently enjoying life! But sooner or later we realize that this is not true happiness, because true happiness is much deeper, we find it only in Jesus. ..." What to do about it? "The recitation of the Rosary can help you learn the art of prayer with Marys simplicity and depth. ...Take care to grow in the knowledge of the faith in order to be its authentic witnesses. Dedicate yourselves to understanding Catholic doctrine ever better even if at times in looking at it with the eyes of the world it may seem a difficult message to accept, in it is the answer that satisfies your basic questions" (OR, 14 December 2005). Notice that the Pope proposes awareness of the problem, of our reaction to it, the need both of prayer and intellectual understanding.
The Pope is clearly very aware of the high level of intelligence demanded within the Church. The Catholic Church is definitely a thing of intellect. To members of the International Theological Commission, the Pope pointed to a number of perplexing issues that need attention. He recalled something related to Dominus Jesus, namely "The fate of children who die without Baptism in the context of the universal salvific will of God, of the one mediation of Jesus Christ and, of the sacramentality of the Church" (OR, 14 December 2005). This is part of the more general discussion of the relation of all non-baptized to salvation and its specific relation to the Church as its primary locus. It is of interest how calmly the Church can identify problems, state their dimensions, and propose the limits within which the solution must be found, taking all issues into consideration.
In the same consideration, the Pope turns to another important issue. One of the great problems in modern social thought has been the great confusion over "natural" or "human rights." This is an unfortunate term in many ways. In its current usage, it is usually a product, not of classic or medieval, but of modern political philosophy. In its modern form, it has a specific meaning, usually from Hobbes, namely that a "right" is a power to do whatever we want. For its basis, it presupposes nothing but the will of the one who demands it.
As the Church documents themselves often use this same phrase "natural rights," nothing but confusion has resulted when "rights" are declared to be the foundation of Catholic social thought. Many immediately assume that the Church is using and accepting the modern meaning when it uses the modern words. Thus, abortion and homosexuality are called "rights" in modern usage, but are violation of natural law or right in Church usage. In fact, the modern understanding of the term "natural rights" undermines what this term is intended to mean in Church thinking.
The Pope, obviously aware of what is at stake, addresses this problem. First, he says, we can understand "the natural moral law" only if we see that rights "are rooted in the persons nature and as such, derive from the will of God the Creator." That is, they are not rooted in ones freedom to choose what ever he has the power to dothe modern conception of rights. "Even before any positive law by a State, these (natural) laws are universal, inviolable, and inalienable, and must therefore be recognized as such by all, and especially by the civil authorities who are called to promote them and guarantee respect for them" (OR, 14 December 2005). Notice the special emphasis always put on the intelligence and conscience of legislators and judges.
Thus, the roots of "rights" are not in the simple will of the legislators who propose positive laws as the contents of rights. Behind all laws are objective standards, not subjective wills. "Even if the concept of human nature seems to have been lost to contemporary culture, the fact remains that human rights cannot be understood without presupposing the values and norms, which are to be rediscovered and reaffirmed and not invented or subjectively or arbitrarily imposed, are innate in the human being."
Benedict knows that such a view of the ontological basis of rights is rejected in much of modern legal and political thought. But he insists in challenging this same thought on the basis of reason. "The dialogue with the secular world is of great importance: it must appear clearly that the denial of the ontological foundation of the essential values of human life inevitably ends in positivism and makes law dependent on the currents of thought that predominate in a society, thereby corrupting law and making it an instrument of power instead of subordinating power to law" (OR, 14 December 2005). That this subordinating of law to power is a pretty good description of what has happened in most political jurisdictions goes without saying.
Part Two of "On Reading the Pope" (January 20, 2006).
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Archives of IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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.
Read more of his essays on his website.
Visit 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!
Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531
Ignatius Press | P.O. Box 1339 | Ft. Collins, CO 80522
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:
Copyright © 2016 by Ignatius Press
IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius