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On Reading the Pope (part two) | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 20, 2006

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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.
The revelation of Christ is consequently the fundamental normative starting point for theology. Theology must always be exercised in the Church and for the Church, the Body of Christ, and thus also in fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition. The theologian‘s work, therefore, must take place in communion with the living voice of the Church, that is, with the living Magisterium of the Church and under her authority. To consider theology a private affair of the theologian is to underestimate its very nature (OR, 14 December 2005).
The starting point of theology is not what we know with our own powers, but the fact and content of what is revealed and handed down to us. Granted this revelation that has its own content, we begin to think what it means in more detailed terms but under the guidance of the Church, which is responsible for its integrity.


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 See’s 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 states–which 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.
If religious freedom were to be considered an expression of the human inability to discover the truth and thus become a canonization of relativism, then this social and historical necessity is raised inappropriately to the metaphysical level and thus stripped of its true meaning. Consequently, it cannot be accepted by those who believe that the human person is capable of knowing the truth about God and, on the basis of the inner dignity of the truth, is bound to this knowledge. It is quite different, on the other hand, to perceive religious freedom as a need that derives from human coexistence, or indeed, as an intrinsic consequence of the truth that cannot be externally imposed but that the person must adopt only through the process of conviction (OR, 4 January 2006).
This theme of the intolerance in a democracy based in theoretic skepticism was already spelled out by John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. In the above passage, the Pope indicates that the grounding of political religious freedom is not doctrine, which must be pursued in dialogue and freedom of discussion, but in the nature of a person to inquire freely what this truth is.


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
false concepts of marriage and the family that do not respect God’s original plan. In this regard, people have actually reached the point of suggesting new forms of marriage, some unknown to popular cultures in that its specific nature is altered. ... New models are being proposed that dispute this fundamental right (to marriage). As a result, the elimination of embryos or their arbitrary use in the name of scientific progress, which fails to recognize it own limits, and to accept all the moral principles that make it possible to safeguard the dignity fo the person, becomes a threat to the human being who is reduced to an object or a mere instrument." (OR, 14 December 2005).
The limits of science are established by what the family is, what the child is, not by what science might bring about in changing the human corpus.

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 God’s 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:
The idea in our Psalm that God already sees the entire future of that embryo, still an ‘unformed substance,’ is extremely powerful. The days which that creature will live and fill with deeds throughout his earthly existence are already written in the Lord’s Book of Life. Thus, once again, the transcendent greatness of divine knowledge emerges, embracing not only humanity’s past and present but also the span, still hidden, of the future. However, the greatness of this little unborn human creature, formed by God’s hands and surrounded by his love, also appears a biblical tribute to the human being from the first moment of his existence (OR, 4 January 2006).

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.


In his homily for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Pope did a great service by frankly addressing the issue of original sin and the questions: What protection we have against it? How it is related to redemption? He presents a kind of philosophic meditation that must go through the minds of those who reject this teaching, the effect of which it to make man himself responsible for everything. This reflection is presented as a re-enactment of the psychology of the Fall, wherein Adam and Eve were tempted to reject God’s command. They claimed for themselves the power to decide what is good and what is evil. "The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbors the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside: in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom" (OR, 14 December 2005). Human freedom is thus presented as requiring the rejection of God.

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 God’s level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts." What is the opposite of relying on one’s 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."

God’s love is not from the outside, "but the intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure that is engraved within him and makes him the image of god, hence, a free creature. If we live in opposition to love and against the truth — in opposition to God — they we destroy one another and the world. Then we do not find life but act in the interests of death" (OR, 14 December 2005). Clearly, we see that the fundamental contrast is between what it means to love another and to make everything depend on our own power, between the freedom "bind ourselves," as Chesterton called it, and the freedom to make everything depend on ourselves, the diabolic temptation.

Now this description of human nature that the Pope draws from his reflection on the account of the Fall in Genesis, on the occasion of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, is not simply something that happened in the past. "We have to say that with this narrative is described not only the history of the beginning but the history of all times, and that we all carry within us a drop of the poison of that way of thinking illustrated by the images of the Book of Genesis." The poison that is dropped is that of the will to be our own creators of the distinction between good and evil.

Benedict is, as we saw earlier, excellent on the issue of evil. The subject is again treated in this context from another angle. We like to think, he explains, that

a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one‘s own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.
The fact is that it is repeated sins that are boring and virtue the great adventure. And when we do "put our freedom to the test" and become "fully ourselves" in opposition to God, we end up with only ourselves, the most boring of all positions.

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:
In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that Mephistopheles — the tempter — is right when he says he is the power ‘that always wants evil and always does good’ (J. W. Von Goethe, Faust, I, 3). We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing perhaps even necessary. If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us, we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, surer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them" (OR, 14 December 2005).
Socrates said that the greatest disorder of soul was to do evil and to be praised as if it were the greatest good. Mephistopheles probably can "want evil" but "always do good" because God can in fact find good in the being in whom evil actions occur and bring that good out. The Pope’s phrase is powerful — "evil is always poisonous" in itself, but it cannot defeat what is good. But this defeat of evil no doubt involves that the just suffer the evil that is poison. As Socrates also said, "it is better to suffer evil than to do it."


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 the face of the advance of hedonism, the courageous witness of chastity is asked of you as the expression of a heart that knows the beauty and price of God’s love. In the face of the thirst for money that widely prevails today, your sober life, ready to serve the neediest, is a reminder that God is the true treasure that does not perish. Before the individualism and relativism that induce people to be a rule unto themselves, your fraternal life, which can be coordinated and is thus capable of obedience, confirms that you place your fulfilment in God (OR, 21 December 2005).
Hedonism, individualism, relativism — the desire to be rules unto ourselves — are temptation even to religious, perhaps especially to them. The Pope shows that he understands what we are up against.


In Pope’s 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 questions–Why 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 II’s 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 II’s 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 it–this is how he (John Paul II) says it–is God’s 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 Christ’s 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 parishes–something 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.

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!


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