On Reading the Pope (part two) | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 20, 2006
The Pope often talks of what we mean by "theological method." Is a theologian an independent operator, setting down his own terms, insights, and presuppositions? What sort of a discipline is this theology that the medievals called the "queen" of the sciences? "Theology can only result from obedience to the impulse of truth and from love that desires to be ever better acquainted with the one it loves, in this case God himself, whose goodness we recognize in the act of faith" (OR, 14 December 2005). God made Himself known both through creation and through redemption.
To the new ambassador to the Holy See from Tanzania, the Pope, explaining the reason why the Church addresses social and political issues, said, "the Holy Sees diplomatic role is distinguished from others in the international community in that it is marked by its dedication to serving the advancement of individual and society though the affirmation of the values of peace, solidarity, justice and liberty." The papal diplomatic corps is but one of the instruments that is useful to the Church in carrying out its own mission. The Church has a good idea what political rule ought to entail. "Genuine democracies require that self-interest and efforts to reinforce positions of dominance be resisted, so that every citizen will enjoy the rights to choose leaders through free and transparent multiparty elections. Respect for human dignity demands that public administration at any level national, regional, community is oriented toward the service of its citizens, who in turn make a valuable contribution to the nation as true partners in governance." (OR 14 December 2005). Government is to serve its citizens; the citizens contribute their own talents.
To the new ambassador from Denmark, the Pope recalled the Christian roots of Europe itself: "Indeed, the principles that have shaped Western civilization flow from the underlying vision of the world that the Christian faith proclaims. It is essential to remember that their binding nature is predicated not on mere consensus but on divine revelation." The very culture of Europe already contains customs and marks of what revelation has added to reason. The Pope speaks clearly: "The defense of life from conception to natural death, for example, and the stability of marriage and family life are goods that must be safeguarded in every society, however vocal the forces that may seek to undermine them. They form part of the objective moral order and can never be discarded without gravely endangering the common good." (OR, 21 December 2005).
In the December 22 address to the Roman Curia, the Pope gave a summary of the efforts to properly relate religion to civil society. Surprisingly, he concluded that "People came to realize that the American Revolution was offering a model of a modern State that differed from the theological model with radical tendencies that had emerged during the second phase of the French Revolution" (OR, 4 January 2006). The Church and state have different purposes, but they need not be hostile to one another in principle.
The Pope is quite concerned that religious freedom not only be practiced and permitted legally, but that it is understood correctly. He can identify those modern political states that prohibit or severely restrict religious freedom. He knows there are Catholic martyrs almost daily in some part of the world. He knows that what he says may make it worse for some of his flock in intolerant and oppressive stateswhich he usually hesitates to mention by name. To avoid justifying such states, "it was necessary to give a new definition to the relationship between the Church and the modern State that would make room impartially for citizens of various religions and ideologies, merely assuming responsibility for an orderly and tolerant coexistence, among them and for the freedom to practice their own religion." This coexistence did not imply agreement of doctrine or practice, but it did focus on the person and his own responsibilities to know the truth in freedom.
But if this coexistence is based on dogmatic skepticism, on the belief that truth could not be known, it was no longer religious freedom as the Pope understands it.
The Pope often (as we saw in his remarks to the Ambassador from Denmark) touches on the family and threats to it. To Latin American bishops meeting in Rome, he stated that there are
In case anyone has any doubts about where Benedict stands on life issues, we read: "Everyone must be helped to become aware of the intrinsic evil of the crime of abortion. In attacking human life in its very first stages, it is also an aggression against society itself. Politicians and legislators, therefore, as servants of the common good, are duty bound to defend the fundamental rights of life, the fruit of Gods love" (OR, 14 December 2005). This passage makes interesting reading in the light of the Roberts and Alito hearings before the U.S. Senate.
But the Pope gives an even more profound reason why we must respect each human life from the moment of its conception. In his General Audience for December 28, 2005, the Pope cites Gregory the Great. Commenting next on Psalm 139, he observes:
Notice that Benedict is here commenting on a Psalm,
an Old Testament document, as if to reaffirm that papal authority extends
to all revelation. Moreover, the embryo is known by science. No science
would today say that it is an "unformed substance," since from
the very beginning it is already organized in a certain specific manner.
The Pope indicates that for each human life begun, there is a particular
providence, even over those who are slaughtered in their wombs, as well
as over the lives of those who slaughter them.
What seems to bother modern man, the Pope suspects,
is the fear of "dependence." "Man does not want to receive
his existence and the fullness of his life from God. He himself wants
to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to
make himself a god, raising himself to Gods level, and to overcome
death and darkness with his own efforts." What is the opposite of
relying on ones own efforts? Man, the Pope continues, "does
not want to rely on love that to him seems untrustworthy, he relies solely
on his own knowledge since it confers power upon him. Rather than on love,
he sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life
autonomously in hand."
C. S. Lewis said somewhere that the greatest evil is to call what is good evil and what is evil good. Benedict, recalling his knowledge of German literature, arrives at a similar view:
The Pope tells the religious who serve in Rome to be faithful to the "charism" of their foundation. Evil is not the only force in the world. Religious life is marked "by this thirst for God: Quaerere Deum.... Through the Gospel human relationships can also change; that love is not a utopia but indeed the secret for building a more fraternal world. ...." God does call us and we do seek Him. We are not utopians but remain aware of our weakness. New weapons exist against evil, which the Pope continues to see arrayed to face the ideological evils of our time:
In Popes Christmas Message, he remarks: "Yet without the light of Christ, the light of reason is not sufficient to enlighten humanity and the world." (OR, 4 January 2006). The Catholic Church is not opposed to reason; indeed it exalts it, but it also is aware of its limits. It realizes these limits more especially because it realizes that the depths of reason are discovered more under the stimulus of revelation than by science or human reflection, however legitimate and valuable these are. On the crucial questionsWhy do I exist? What is my destiny? Why is there suffering?we reach the limits of reason very rapidly and are left to wonder whether anything more is available to us and from whence it comes.
The annual speech to Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, to conclude, is an overarching review by the Pope of recent events. Here Benedict speaks of John Paul IIs death, of the synod on Eucharist, of the anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II, and of his own election to the papacy. But first he returns to the question of the power of evil, something that seems particularly to concern him, as we have seen. This time, he does so in light of John Paul IIs last book, Memory and Identity. ("No pope has left such a quantity of texts to bequeath to us.") What limits evil? "The power that imposes a limit on evil is Divine Mercy." (OR, 4 January 2006). Clearly, Benedict thinks that John Paul II has touched on the ultimate answer to any question of evil. Evil is not the ultimate power. God will forgive what can be forgiven, what seeks to be forgiven. "What limits the force of evil, the power, in brief, which overcomes itthis is how he (John Paul II) says itis Gods suffering, the suffering of the Son of God on the Cross." Not only with Sophocles does man learn by suffering, but he is redeemed precisely by Christs suffering which is the answer to our use of freedom to make our own laws and our own world.
Benedict finally proceeds briefly to resolve a number of confusions that have arisen in recent years. The first is the notion that somehow or other there is an absolute separation between the Mass and the adoration of Christ outside of Mass, in the Eucharist. This is how Benedict dispatches this issue: "It is moving for me to see how everywhere in the Church the joy of the Eucharistic adoration is reawakening and being fruitful. In the period of liturgical reform, Mass and adoration outside it were often seen as in opposition to one another; it was thought that the Eucharistic Bread had not been given to us to be contemplated, but to be eaten, as a widespread objection claimed at that time " One of the remarkable things, something Benedict obviously refers to, is the quiet, almost spontaneous rise of perpetual adoration and other forms of worship in parishessomething that almost always transforms these parishes. In many churches, doors were locked and no one could visit the Blessed Sacrament, which was often hidden away and not placed prominently for the quiet visit. Benediction disappeared. No one was left alone in churches. Masses were often more like fraternal meetings.
"The development of the Eucharistic adoration, as it took shape during the Middle ages," Benedict went to the heart of the problem, "was the most consistent consequence of the Eucharistic mystery itself: only in adoration can profound and true acceptance develop. And it is precisely t his personal act of encounter with the Lord that develops the social mission which is contained in the Eucharist and desires to break down barriers, not only the barriers between the Lord and us, but also and above all those that separate us from one another." No contradiction existed between Mass and adoration. Indeed, the fruit of the Mass needed personal reflection and prayer even for the very social and fraternal relations to come about that should exist among us. All action ultimately depends on this internal understanding of what we are and what the Lord is.
The next question that the Pope brought up with startling frankness was: What went wrong with Vatican II? "Why was the implementation of the Council, in large part of the Church, thus far been so difficult?" he asked. We have had to wait too long for this answer. Two contrary interpretations are proposed. The one proposed a discontinuity between the pre- and post-Vatican II churches while the other only proposed reform or renewal. "The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless." The Council thus did not say what it intended to say; what it intended to say, in this theory, was to be brought out by "the spirit" of Vatican II.
Thus, "the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in those compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts. ... In a word, it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question of how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim." But who was to approve this change, this new spirit so that it would become officially operative in the Church? No one this Pope ever heard of. "The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life, and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself." This comment goes back to what Benedict said about theology in general. It did not constitute what the Church was, but received it.
The Church, from Apostolic times to just before Vatican II, was the exact same Church that followed Vatican II. Nothing essential had changed. "The Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, journeying through time...." The modern world had its own problems. And as Tracey Rowland has shown in her Culture and the Thomist Tradition, modern culture was by no means "neutral." Simply "conforming" to it could be a formula for disaster. Many customs could be against natural law or revelation. Similarly the Pope continued: "Those who expected that with the fundamental yes to the modern era all tensions would be dispelled and that the openness towards the world accordingly achieved would transform everything into pure harmony, had under estimated the inner tensions as well as the contradictions inherent in the modern epoch." Even modernity has its tensions and contradictions, as most people understand on observing it.
Human nature remains both good and fallen in every era so that we should never expect a formula for utopia. Many advocates of the "spirit of Vatican II" "had underestimated that perilous frailty of human nature which has been a threat to human progress in all the periods of history and in every historical constellation. These dangers, with the new possibilities and new power of man over matter and over himself, did not disappear but instead acquired anew dimensions: a look at the present day shows this clearly." Man is both frail and powerful, perhaps more so today, perhaps more so both at the same time.
Such are but a few of the topics touched by Benedict XVI in recent months. In his rather quiet way, he has shown himself to be both friendly and carefully accurate and scholarly. Almost always in his homilies or addresses or letters or audiences there is something very human, something very profound, something addressed to the needs of the Church. No one in public life has the scholarly and intellectual credentials of this Pope. But he is pope now, not just scholar. Scholars usually do not have to pass judgments on finances, administration, personnel, as well as the thousand human things that a Pope, unlike almost any other leader, has to deal with.
This Pope is well worth keeping up with. Already we can see that he is on a daily basis as productive as the great John Paul II. Already we can see a great theological mind at work explaining to us what revelation means in our world.
Part One of "On Reading the Pope" (January 19, 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.
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