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Pope Benedict XVI and the Essential Worldwide Mission | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 27, 2007 | Part 1 | Part 2
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."  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
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
"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).  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.
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
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
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:
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
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:
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
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
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.
 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.
 Benedict XVI, "Heavenly
Gaze, Earthly Life," L'Osservatore Romano, English, August 8, 2007.
 Benedict XVI, L'Osservatore
Romano, English, May 23, 2007.
 Benedict XVI, Meeting
with Italian Clergy," July 24, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano, English, August 13, 2007.
 Benedict XVI, Meeting
with Brazilian Bishops, May 11, 2007, L'Osservatore Romano, May 16, 2007.
 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.
 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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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
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
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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