Pope Benedict XVI and the Essential Worldwide Mission | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 27, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.comPope Benedict XVI and the Essential Worldwide Mission | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 27, 2007


"The Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure of administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women, as the Savior of the world, basing herself--in carrying out her proper apostolate--on the power of God." -- Benedict XVI, Letter to the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China, #4. [1]

"We are given a premonitory sign that allows us a fleeting glimpse of the Kingdom of the Saints, where we too at the end of our earthly life will be able to share in Christ's glory, which will be complete, total and definitive. The whole universe will then be transfigured and the divine plan of salvation will be at last fulfilled." -- Benedict XVI, Angelus, Castel Gandolfo, August 5, 2007. [2]

"The Church as such is not involved in politics--we respect secularism--but offers the condition in which a healthy political system can develop, together with the consequent solution for social problems." -- Benedict XVI, On-Board Papal Interview Prior to Landing in Brazil, May 9, 2007. [3]


In the Holy Father's recent trip to Brazil, as well as in his Letter to the Chinese Catholic Church, he again indicated, as he has done previously, his understanding of what the Church is about in this world and its relation to the "Kingdom of God." In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI made clear that this "kingdom" is Christ Himself, who did, as a fact, dwell, incarnate, in this world, all the while remaining properly God, the Word. The pope is a very careful and provocative thinker. But he is also a man of action after the manner in which a pope is given to act—namely, by fostering the mission of the Church in the world, usually called "evangelization."

If political or intellectual problems with nations, religions, or scholars are encountered, Benedict XVI seeks peacefully but directly to understand and state the issue. If possible, he engages whoever is willing (and even those who are not) in an effort to clarify and improve a situation. Often this endeavor is called "dialogue," but that is not always the best word for what the pope has in mind. He looks for more than talk or exchange, though that is a beginning. He realizes that not every one with fundamental differences with Catholic teaching will enter such an endeavor When this latter is the case, he seeks grounds and approaches that will not let the necessity of resolving the issue pass without forceful public attention. In the interview on the way to Brazil, the pope realistically stated: "In every corner of the earth there are very many people who do not want to listen to what the Church says. We hope that at least they hear her; then they can also disagree, but it is important that at least they hear her in order to respond.... Moreover, we cannot forget that Our Lord did not manage to make everyone listen to him, either." These are wise, realistic words.

As I have written elsewhere, it can be said that at least some Catholics are found all over the world, in every organized nation. The fact is, however, that the Church is largely confined geographically in modern times to the limits of the old Roman Empire, after the conquests of Islam, with Europe's colonial extensions in the Americas, Australia, and Africa. With the exception of the Philippines, Asia is only minimally Catholic.

Islam covers the vast stretch of North Africa, the Middle East, all the way to the borders of China and the Hindu part of India. The Indonesian Islands are the world's most populated Muslim areas. As it shows its own aggressive dynamism, this whole Muslim world—to which the pope pays increasing attention—is pretty much a mysteriously closed political/religious world island. Little real encounter with it occurs. Yet, there can be no doubt that Benedict has thought deeply on the steps to be taken to address each of these often closed and different worlds of Islam, China, India, and the Buddhist nations. The Roman Church is actively thinking about what its presence means on a world scale in the light of its mandate to go forth to all nations.

While he was in Brazil, the pope met with some 450 Brazilian bishops, plus the later meeting, also in Brazil, of all the Latin American and Caribbean bishops' conferences. Clearly, Latin America is the most "Catholic" of the continents. Benedict called it "the Continent of Hope." He added, to the reporters, "I am not an expert, but I am convinced that it is here (Latin America) at least in part--and a fundamental part--that the future of the Catholic Church is being decided." Latin America has a "culture" of Catholicism stretching back four hundred years. In some sense, it is a model.

On the other hand, we wonder constantly, concerning the Chinese bishops, about their freedom and independence from state interference. Much is unknown about their real lives. This issue of religious liberty and state power is a principal theme of the Letter to the Chinese Catholics. In this letter, the pope seeks to do everything that he reasonably and prudently can to stimulate at least some minimal and meaningful exchange with official China. He is willing to make many concessions provided they do not compromise the integrity of his own office and purpose.

In China, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, except for those who pre-date Marxist rule, is appointed by the Ministry of Religion. Some of these state-appointed bishops have sought and received subsequent Vatican authorization, but not all have. This system reminds us of nothing so much as the famous Gallican controversies of the French Church in early modern times over the appointment of bishops. One of the major efforts of the Church since the time of Gregory VIII, as Harold Berman has shown in his magisterial Law and Revolution, has been to obtain the freedom of the Church to control and define its own affairs.

This freedom of religion, which John Paul II called the most fundamental of human rights, necessarily includes the appointment of its own bishops. Of course, many concordats with the Holy See and modern states do provide for some form of state influence in the appointment of bishops, itself a distant heritage of the medieval investiture controversies. Often, the state recommends three candidates from which the Church chooses one. The justification for tolerating this procedure is usually the claim that a bishop also has influence on secular affairs, which he does. This tradition gives the pope some leeway and precedent in dealing with the current situation in China.


But in line with his Regensburg Lecture, what I want to indicate here (using Benedict's Letter to the Chinese Catholics and the addresses in Brazil) is to indicate both the transcendent and trans-political aspects of the pope's continuing effort to make Catholicism present and understood for what it is in parts of the world in which it is hampered or excluded. This world includes more and more modern political relativism and secularism. Taken together these groups constitute about four-fifths of the world's population. The Holy Father recognizes quite clearly that each religion's basic teaching needs to be understood, as well as, in the case of China, each political ideology. Further, the natural limits of political entities, as well as their purpose, need to be understood and stated.

Thus, as I cited above, Benedict clearly repeats settled Christian teaching to the Chinese, namely, that the Church's mission is not to change the "administration" of the State. This statement probably surprises the Chinese who tend only to think in terms of exclusive state hegemony over all affairs of human life, and who think everyone else does the same. The Holy Father's approach recalls the argument of Robert Kraynak in his book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy. There, he rightly pointed out that often, in both the past and present, the Church has to deal with existing civil societies, many of which have less than perfect forms, but which are nonetheless viable and effective. This is little else than a careful application of Aristotle's treatise on the differing regimes and how to handle them.

Just because a political society or religion is absolutist, closed, or even totalitarian and persecuting, this has never meant, in the eyes of the Church, that the people of that society do not have a transcendent destiny. Nor does it mean that they have no need to know the teachings and means of redemption, whatever else they hold. The salvation of souls is in principle independent of political form. People are saved in the worst regimes, and lost in the best. Politics, however legitimate, is not the primary concern of the Church. When politics is the main purpose of the Church (or appears to be in any given section of the Church), we can be sure the real work of the Church is not being accomplished.

Yet, if we read many of the modern social documents of the Church, they do display a distinct tendency to affirm some form of "democracy" or "republic" as the best human political form. The Church does not claim direct competence over political things, but its own interest in reason can indicate, as Aristotle said, some forms are better than others. In the case of China, this "democratic" preference presents a dilemma. Either we have an equivocation that says that what they actually have in China is "democratic," when it clearly isn't, or we affirm that China is already a good form of rule, notwithstanding what we have heard. Whatever its theoretic form, the Chinese state is apparently here to stay. It must be dealt with as it is. Hopefully, on the basis of mutually agreed principles, it can, without losing face, grant a more reasonable relation to the Church than it has displayed in the past half century.


While he was on vacation in the Italian Alps, at Auronzo di Cadore, Benedict spent an evening with the local clergy. He invited questions, to which he gave his reflections. A priest, by the name of Father Mauro, wanted to know how priests are to do their essential tasks when they are burdened with so many diverse technical duties. The pope amusingly replied, "I am somewhat familiar with this problem." In his response, the pope spoke of establishing priorities, of the importance of preaching. "What do we preach? We proclaim the Kingdom of God," Benedict affirmed. "But the Kingdom of God is not a distant utopia in a better world which may be achieved in 50 years time, or who knows when. The Kingdom of God is God himself.... Proclaiming the Kingdom of God means speaking of God today, making present God's words, the Gospel which is God's presence and, of course, making present the God who made himself present in the Holy Eucharist." [4]

I cite this remarkable passage in the context of what I want to say about the pope's overall thinking about making the essence of Christianity present in the whole world. The issue is not some distant this-worldly political utopia that may or may not come about in fifty years. The issue is making God present in any society, however it is configured. How to accomplish this presence is what stands behind all of the Holy Father's thinking about the nations and the religions of this world. John Paul II's Memory & Identity was concerned with much the same issue.

Benedict said to the Chinese, in effect, that we are not here to change your administration, even though we would like you to lighten up on us. Let us be what we are. Implicit in that approach, of course, is something the Chinese administration could not fail to notice, namely that its jurisdiction, like that of any other political organization, is intrinsically limited to its own competence. It does not extend to absolutely everything. This is but another instance of "render to Caesar what are Caesar's but to God the things that are God's," a theme the pope specifically takes up in this Letter.

The history of politics since that New Testament affirmation has been a working out in practice of what these limits might entail. Any authority that would claim a power to impose its own limits on what the Church should and could do in its own right is, of course, making a claim to be itself an all-powerful "deity." What the Holy Father affirms by contrast is that the "power of God," not humanly organized power, is the basis of his addressing himself to all the nations. And as the pope mentioned in the second introductory passage cited above, there is "a divine plan" and it is being fulfilled among existing nations and peoples.


"We Bishops have come together," Benedict told the Brazilian hierarchy, "to manifest this general truth, since we are directly bound to Christ, the Good Shepherd. The mission entrusted to us as teachers of the faith consists in recalling, in the words of the Apostle of the Gentiles, that our Saviour 'desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Tim 2:4). This, and nothing else, is the purpose of the Church: the salvation of individual souls" (#2) [5] This purpose needs to be made manifest no matter what the temporal form of political power. It is directly concerned with a transcendent purpose, because each person has such a destiny beyond politics. No political institution can change this ultimate purpose--though it can, to some degree, hinder its effective implementation. The Church never forgets that being persecuted is also a way that God accomplishes his ultimate purpose. In this sense, leaders of the world do not stand outside of divine judgment.

Because of the positive relation between faith and reason, Benedict sees a harmony between his own primary mission and the condition of the nations. "Wherever God and his will are unknown, wherever faith in Jesus Christ and in his sacramental presence is lacking, the essential element for the solution of pressing social and political problems is also missing." As he often does, he recalls in the same remarks to the Brazilian bishops his own remark in Deus Caritas Est (#1): "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." We do not concoct Christianity by ourselves, nor does our opting for it make it so. It is an encounter with an actually existing Person whose very presence in the world, not of our own bidding, indicates how we should live.

We can obtain some idea of that working relation of revelation and culture--that is, of a way of life that includes revelation--from what Benedict says about the history of Latin America. He notes that all peoples seek God in their own way. Often they take deviant paths as in the case of the Aztec's human sacrifice religion. The encounter of natural law and other religions is often met at such a point: the need to correct something for everyone's benefit. "Yet what did the acceptance of the Christian faith mean for the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean?" the pope asks. "For them, it meant knowing and welcoming Christ, the unknown God whom their ancestors were seeking, without realizing it, in their rich religious traditions. Christ is the Saviour for whom they were silently longing." [6] This understanding is behind Benedict's thinking on the religious and ideological situation of modern nations, which themselves have often kept some sense of the transcendent. Indeed, in the Regensburg Lecture, the pope specifically noted that this search for God assumed by the religions made Western forms of secularism seem cut off from the highest human things.

A culture is a way of life based on a certain understanding of God, man, and the cosmos. Historically, many cultures are possible. Their variety, as such, is an indication of human freedom in selecting the variety of good ways in which it can respond to human circumstances in time and place. Cultures should not so closed that they are unable to complete what they lack or to correct what is objectively wrong about them. This is how Benedict put the issue to the Brazilian bishops: "Authentic cultures are not closed in upon themselves, nor are they set in stone at a particular point in history, but they are open, or better still, they are seeking an encounter with other cultures, hoping to reach universality through encounter and dialogue with other ways of life" (#1). It is this view that enables Christian missionary efforts to respect differing ways, yet see in them ways that are not complete. Revelation in this sense is designed as a healing or a completion of efforts to find God that have everywhere already begun in the nations. Revelation occurs with this background of searching.

"Ultimately, it is only the truth that can bring unity, and the proof of that is love. That is why Christ, being in truth the incarnate Logos, 'love to the end,' is not alien to any culture, nor to any person," the pope continued his reflection. "On the contrary, the response that he seeks in the heart of cultures is what gives them their ultimate identity, uniting humanity and at the same time respecting the wealth of diversity, opening people everywhere to growth in genuine humanity....The Word of God, in becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, also became history and culture" (#1). Again the central questions are who and what is Christ. Once understood as the Son of God, his presence in one existing culture can be directed to all the others.

The pope has provided here an avenue to the heart of every culture in its own authentic and honest search for the truth—an avenue that it must be open enough to recognize a culture's own incompleteness. The Word also becoming "history and culture" literally means that no existing society is complete without incorporating into itself the central truth that God has become man. "Only God can know God, only his Son who is God from God, true God, knows him....God is the foundational reality, not a God who is merely imagined or hypothetical, but God with a human face he is God-with-us, the God who loves even to the Cross" (#3). The God who is in the world, the Incarnate Word, the Son, is here on God's terms, but for us. This is why the Cross is always mentioned. God's ways are not our ways, the ways we would save the world if we could, which we cannot.

The pope is aware of the increasing influence of various sects in Latin America as well as the presence of ideologies circled around liberation theology, issues he has dealt with in earlier discussions (#3). There are some who think that the solution to all modern problems in Latin America is to return to the primitive, pre-Christian situation. Of this latter view, the pope remarks: "The Utopia of going back to breathe life into the pre-Columbian religions, separating them from Christ and from the universal Church, would not be a step forward: indeed, it would be a retreat towards a state in history anchored in the past" (#1). As the pope shows in dealing with contemporary Europe, it is possible for a people or continent to reject the already historical incorporation of Christianity within its culture and ways of life. This rejection is usually pictured as a "counter-utopia," but as Chesterton said, forgetting that Christianity exists in a civilization usually means bringing back the old heresies and ways of pagan life that had already failed.


Turning from Brazil to China, the pope's concern there is not the reinvigoration of a culture that already contains a widely practiced Christian presence. In China, he needs rather to find an opening in a culture that conceives itself closed and already complete in its own order. Nothing superior, it is said, can be conceived or arrive from the outside,. This view must be modified, no doubt, by the strange relation of ancient Chinese culture to Marxism, an essentially Western ideology. As in the case of Islam, so in the case of China, the pope seeks a way to engage each through natural reasoning about what is good and appropriate for man. Until this approach is established (something earlier missionaries to China also tried to do), it will be difficult to indicate to China that it lacks anything.

"The Church has very much at heart the values and objectives which are of primary importance also to modern China: solidarity, peace, social justice, the wise management of the phenomenon of globalization," the pope wrote (#3). [7] He thus recognizes the good that is found in this ancient culture. In his vast historical learning, the pope estimates that the first millennium of the Christian era was largely dedicated to Europe, the second to the America, Africa, and Australia, while the third, he suspects, will be largely directed to Asia, with a role for Latin American yet to be seen. What the pope seeks to accomplish is a mode of confrontation that does not include war or military expansion as a basis of cultural change. Force is seen only as a necessary means of defense of freedom and justice.. What he seeks in every instance is a forum or arena in which, in the contemplative and political orders, fundamental issues can be treated.

The essential issue the Church is concerned with is the knowledge that the Son of God has in fact been in this world. "In China too the Church is called to be a witness of Christ, to look forward with hope, and—proclaiming the Gospel—to measure up to the new challenges that the Chinese People must face" (#3). Benedict's cultural thesis is that no culture can be complete without allowing this incarnational presence peacefully to confront its own understanding of itself. Every culture, to the extent that its understanding of God is incomplete, will have an incomplete understanding of man and cosmos.

"History remains indecipherable, incomprehensible," Benedict writes. "No one can read it. Perhaps (the Apostle) John's weeping before the mystery of the history so obscure expresses the Asian Church's dismay at God's silence in the face of the persecution to which they were exposed at the time" (#3). Christians have long been puzzled by the apparent imperviousness of Islam, China, India, and the Buddhist traditions to its presence. As the pope said in his Brazilian remarks, however, culture as such is open; it is or ought to be aware of its own incompletion in both the human and transcendent orders.
The pope states to the Chinese what are the basic positions of the Christian faith, what is not known except through it. These truths are not in essential conflict with any natural society which, for its part, is not complete without them. In a passage that well summarizes the two claims and their proper interrelationship, the pope wrote:

In the light of these unrenounceable (Christian) principles the solution to existing problems (in China) cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil Authorities; at the same time, though, compliance with those Authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church. The civil Authorities are well aware that the Church in her teaching invites he faithful to be good citizens, respectful and active contributors to the common good in their country, but it is likewise clear that she asks the State to guarantee to those same Catholic citizens the full exercise of their faith, with respect for authentic religious freedom (#4)

Clearly the pope seeks a reasonable way to deal with legitimate authority and to teach it, if possible, its own limits of competence. At the same time, he affirms that in principle the good of each is compatible. But when the revelational element is denied entrance to the culture, it is the culture that is incomplete. And revelation is not reaching its intended relation to the existing culture.

Though the body of Catholics the Chinese authorities "govern" is in China, it is not only there. Better stated, the local church is itself the locus of the universal Church. "In the Catholic Church which is in China, the universal Church is present, the Church of Christ, which in the Creed we acknowledge to be one, holy catholic, and apostolic, that is to say, the universal community of the Lord's disciples" (#5). The Christian revelation happened in a given time and place, within the Hebrew, Greek, and Roman worlds. But it was not solely intended for them. This was the whole point of a mission to the nations. The effort to make this understanding of God intelligible to the nations has not been easy:

The history of the Church teaches us, then, that authentic communion is not expressed without arduous efforts at reconciliation. Indeed, the purification of memory, the pardoning of wrong-doers, the forgetting of injustices suffered and the loving restoration of serenity of troubled hearts, all to be accomplished in the Name of Jesus crucified and risen , can require moving beyond personal positions or viewpoints, born of painful or difficult experiences" (#6).

Jesus did not seek to be a "political messiah," someone who would dominate by "force." Rather he came to serve and give his life for the many (#7). This constant theme of a level of reality that is not political, but also not anti-political in the best sense, is the approach Benedict takes to the Chinese.

Benedict is quite firm, however, when it comes to essentials. The faith and its content are intelligible and not to be passed off as myth or another form of everyday politics. "The requisite and courageous safeguarding of the deposit of faith and of sacraments and hierarchical communion is not of itself opposed to dialogue with the Authorities concerning those aspects of the life of the Ecclesial community that fall within the civil sphere." Benedict knows a reasonable solution exists to presumed fears, if only there is willingness to work it out. He acknowledges the state has some interest in its affairs, but not at the cost of denying what Catholicism stands for:

There would not be any particular difficulties with acceptance of the recognition granted by civil authorities on condition that this does not entail the denial of unrenounceable principles of faith and of ecclesiastical communion. In not a few particular instances, however, indeed almost always, in the process of recognition the intervention of certain bodies obliges the people involved to adopt attitudes, make gestures and undertake commitments that are contrary to the dictates of their conscience as Catholics. (#7).

The pope frankly recognizes that excessive demands have been made on the Chinese faithful by their government. He knows that neither side can be at peace unless each knows what the other is. But it is his duty as pope to state frankly when Catholics are forced to make commitments that are "contrary to the dictates of their conscience." He does this within the context of indicating his willingness to come to agreements wherever possible.

Bishops have been persecuted (#8) and structures imposed on Catholics that violate the integrity of their faith. The pope sets down his primary ecclesial concern: "The present College of Catholic Bishops in China cannot be recognized as an Episcopal Conference by the Apostolic See: the clandestine Bishops, those not recognized by the Government but in communion with the Pope, are not part of it; it includes Bishops who are still illegitimate, and it is governed by statues that contain elements incompatible with Catholic doctrine" (#8). The pope would be remiss if he did not let the Chinese Catholics know his view on this organization.

But this document is generally optimistic. It is a genuine initiative, the results of which remain to be seen. The pope then revokes the earlier restrictions thought necessary in the case of the Chinese Church. He revokes the faculties "previously granted in order to address particular pastoral necessities that emerged in truly difficult times" (#8).

Following the long-standing aspirations of generations of missionaries to China, the pope wants to see this great people and Church in the mainstream of a new culture. "The Church, always and everywhere missionary, is called to proclaim and to bear witness to the Gospel. The Church in China must also sense in her heart the missionary ardour of her Founder and Teacher" (#17). Clearly, the pope has a view of the openness of culture that includes a longing for what is yet not known and an acceptance of those human perfections that are found in one culture in a way that is different from another. His thinking of Asia in the third millennium includes a believing China.

We might, in conclusion, briefly restate the principles that Benedict XVI formulated to deal with cultures as diverse as Brazil and China. We recall the three basic premises cited in the beginning: 1) The Catholic Church does not have a mission to change the structure of the state. 2) The whole universe will be transfigured and the divine plan of salvation will at last be fulfilled. 3) The Church as such is not involved in politics. It respects the secular order. It does offer reasonable conditions in which a healthy political system can develop.

The Church is trans-political while it is in this world. It is intended to be present in all nations and cultures. Each individual as a person, however, has a transcendent destiny beyond this world. No political system can fulfill or replace this end. We are saved or lost eternally through the works and choices we make in this world in the actual historical society in which we find ourselves. The divine plan of salvation is being fulfilled here and now, as it has been since the creation and the subsequent coming of Christ. The papacy exists to keep this essential truth before the nations.


[1] Benedict XVI, "Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China," May 27, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano, English, July 18, 2007.

[2] Benedict XVI, "Heavenly Gaze, Earthly Life," L'Osservatore Romano, English, August 8, 2007.

[3] Benedict XVI, L'Osservatore Romano, English, May 23, 2007.

[4] Benedict XVI, Meeting with Italian Clergy," July 24, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano, English, August 13, 2007.

[5] Benedict XVI, Meeting with Brazilian Bishops, May 11, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano, May 16, 2007.

[6] Benedict XVI, To the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops' Conferences, May 13, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano, May 16, 2007, #1.

[7] Benedict XVI, "Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China," May 22, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano, July 18, 2007.

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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 books are The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).

Read more of his essays on his website.

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