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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." [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.

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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