The Papal Visit | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 8, 2008 | Ignatius InsightThe Papal Visit | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 8, 2008 | Ignatius Insight

"Revolution and utopia—the nostalgia for a perfect world—are connected; they are the concrete form of this new political, secularized messianism. The idol of the future devours the present; the idol of revolution is the adversary of reasonable political action aimed at making concrete improvement to the world." -- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Political Visions and Practical Politics." [1]

"As a theologian, I do not regard philosophy as being, ultimately, a study which we pursue for philosophy's sake. Yet...the integrity of the faith depends on rigor of philosophic thinking such that careful philosophizing is an irreplaceable part of theological work!" -- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Afterword to the English Edition of Eschatology. [2]


Several of my friends have wondered if Schall could provide tickets for them to attend events of the upcoming papal visit. My reply is that "Alas, Schall is still waiting for the call himself." Contrary to unfounded rumors, Schall does not communicate with Rome on a daily basis about high level policies. But I have read enough of the works of the present pope to be certain that he has already pretty well charted out just what he intends to say, to whom, where, why, and when.

Every papal visit, certainly since John Paul II, is a major happening in the country visited by the reigning pontiff. Often it is a world event of major and lasting significance, as were John Paul II's visits to Poland and Benedict's "Regensburg Lecture." No one quite knows what to do with a pope, of course, except to follow proper diplomatic protocol. He is a religious figure who speaks comfortably about Greek, not to mention German, philosophy to those who have either forgotten it or never knew it. Benedict, in the few years since he became pope, has talked with most major political, religious, and cultural figures in the world, as well as with diplomats, artists, sports figures, and many ordinary people.

We know that a visiting pontiff will meet with the head of state, along with leading political figures. He will visit the local and national hierarchy. He will address the priests and religious in nearby parishes, monasteries, and convents. He will greet members of the laity. Talks to and often prayers with members of other Christian churches and members of other religions will be on the agenda. I would not be surprised, depending on security as most things do, if there were not a concert of classical music presented for this pope who himself plays Mozart. I did see an article in the Washington Times about the choral music being practiced for the musically adept pope.

The pope will lecture to academic representatives and students. He will make some effort to visit "unimportant" people, the poor, and those who work for them. A number of addresses will be presented on many topics. A pope is unavoidably a very visible man. He is charged, by his office, with "strengthening" the brethren, which is usually understood to mean the bishops, who usually need it and want it. Above all, this pope explains things, if we are listening.

Hopefully, the visit will pass without security incident. Wherever he goes, there will be heavy protection. As is also the case with presidents and prime ministers, he is no longer free to wander about looking at the sights. Yet, he will see and be shown many sights that few of us will ever see. I have been a subscriber to L'Osservatore Romano, English, ever since it first came out. In each edition, we always find a charming photo of the pope with people, young, old, and in-between, visiting Rome, in an audience, or in some other occasion. The papacy is like no other office in the world. It is urbi et orbe, to the city and, through that city, the eternal city, to the world. In some sense, it is already everyone's home.

With Benedict XVI, moreover, we have a man who is undoubtedly the most learned man in public life anywhere in the world. He is easily the equal of any academic on any campus anywhere. The passage I cited in the beginning about the relation of theology to philosophy is meant to remind us that the Catholic Church is also an enterprise of intelligence, perhaps never more so than now. It knows no "unexamined" philosophies, including its own. A pope has to speak of profound things to learned people and, lest we forget, the same profound things to ordinary people.

But to everyone, he has to speak of why he, in his office, exists. The pope is technically also a "Head of State." He basically stands before the world for what is the core of revelation to our kind. He relates this revelation to those who hear it, even to those who don't or won't. Though he will speak of peace and love and justice, he will also speak, as he has been of late as in Spe Salvi, of the four last things. He talks of eternal life, of how modern thought, as a deviation from its Christian origins, seeks to accomplish the core of revelational promises by inner-worldly political or scientific means, something that is, when spelled out, impossible, impractical, and, indeed, immoral.


The pope's general reaction to America is that this nation has a fine founding in its classical writers. We are a generous people. However, somehow Americans have more recently drifted away from these founding principles. "As a first step, go back!" he will urge. He will mention the obvious relativism and secularism, which has too often replaced the central values of western civilization, including that of America and even in the Church.

"Secularization, which presents itself in cultures by imposing a world and humanity without reference to Transcendence," Benedict told the members of the Pontifical Council for Culture, "is invading every aspect of daily life and developing a mentality in which God is effectively absent, wholly or partially, from human life and awareness. This secularization is not only an external threat to believers, but has been manifest for some time in the heart of the Church herself. It profoundly distorts the Christian faith from within..." [3] The inner relation of believers-Church-nations-world to the final destiny of each human person and that of our kind to God is constantly before the pope's mind. This is, after all, why his office exists, that men may know the truth about themselves and their final destiny. Everything else has its importance relative to the final end of our being.

Ever since his address on modern religious movements in Mexico several years ago, the pope has paid attentions to cults and spiritualities that seem to prevail in a society evidently returning to pagan origins on its rejecting Christianity. Thus, he continues in the same address to the Council for Culture: "The 'death of God' proclaimed by many intellectuals in recent decades is giving way to a barren cult of the individual. In this cultural context there is a risk of drifting into spiritual atrophy and emptiness of heart, sometimes characterized by surrogate forms of religious affiliation and vague spiritualism." It has frequently been said that, unexpectedly, the aftermath of Marxism has not been a return to Christianity or to science even, but to eastern religions and "spiritualism" movements.

No doubt the pope will say something about life, about abortion, skewered views of marriage, including homosexual "marriages." These are issues about which many American politicians would like to think are "settled constitutional issues." That is, beyond criticism or intellectual discussion. In his Salt of the Earth, Joseph Ratzinger made a comment that I think is pertinent here: "Evil has power via man's freedom, whereby it creates structures for itself." [4] This is pretty much where we are. We have a protective "structure" of evil that claims immunity because we are so "settled" about it that we need not examine what it means. Even though here and in Europe, the decline of population is of major political import, we pretend not to see the connection between our future and new human beings coming into the world. We are blind to the needed reforms of our lives, families, and state that would make this renewed attention to the need of new members of our society possible.


In the beginning, I cited a comment of the Holy Father. He cited revolutionary thought that claimed to improve the world, not by grace and virtue, but by our own means alone. Over against this thought was an approach that worked for "reasonable political action aimed at making concrete improvement to the world." This latter attitude has always been the classic American view about politics at its best from the Federalist Papers on. We might reflect for a long time on this incisive passage.

What is the origin of the idea that mankind can, by itself, take control of itself and, by rejecting God, improve its world? "Adam's sin consisted precisely in the fact that he wanted to accomplish his own will and not God's," Benedict remarked at the Chrism Mass during Holy Week, 2007.

Humanity's temptation is always to want to be totally autonomous, to follow its own will alone and to maintain that only in this way will we be free, that only thanks to a similarly unlimited freedom would man be completely man. But this is precisely how we pit ourselves against the truth. Because the truth is that we must share our freedom with others can we can be free only in communion with them. [5]

This temptation to total autonomy also has political overtones. It is expressed in the view that there is no source above or beyond the will of the legislator or majority to correct anything that a given polity might propose to itself.

In an interesting address on December 9, 2006, to Catholic Lay Jurists, Benedict spelled out the proper relation of the Church and State. They do not exist essentially in terms of antagonism. When properly distinguished, their respective purposes and mutual limits compliment each other. The pope is aware that such a thing as "democratic tyranny," a notion also found in John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (#44-45), is possible. This would be a system in which the will of the people, the majority, has no limits. Indeed, Benedict thinks much of modern secularism tends in that direction.

In his address to the Catholic Jurists, Benedict recalled the medieval meaning of the word "secular." It referred to lay secular authority over against ecclesiastical authority. Both sides were Catholic, however. In modern times, secularity means "the exclusion of religion and its symbols from public life by confining them to the private sphere and to the individual conscience." Religion is reduced to the individual conscience. Religion is wholly interior and has no public significance.

"Secularity would be expressed in the total separation between the State and the Church," Benedict explained, "since the latter is in no way entitled to intervene in areas that concern the life and conduct of citizens; secularity would even entail the exclusion of religious symbols from public places designated for the proper function of the political community: offices, schools, courts, hospitals, prisons, etc." Now there is no doubt that much American legal ideology and practice in recent decades has seen as its mission to do precisely this secularist "removing" of any religious presence in any part of the public order. Such thinking involves the state conceiving itself in total control of the public order, answerable to no one but itself.

What is the common sense alternative? Vatican II, as Benedict recalls, used an almost similar phrase, "the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs" (GS, #36). Reflecting the distinction between God and Caesar from the New Testament, where this distinction originally arose, a distinction exists between the two bodies that are not necessarily hostile or exclusive. Indeed, it is the standard Catholic position that the State will not be what it should be without revelation and that the Church cannot be itself a state.

Moreover, such a thing as "healthy secularism" acknowledges "the effective autonomy of earthly realities, not indeed from the moral order but from the ecclesiastical sphere. Thus, the Church cannot point out the preferred political and social order; it is the people who must freely decide on the best and most suitable ways to organize political life." That there should be government is part of human nature. That it should be in this form or that is a matter of judgment and prudence. The Church may "prefer" one form of government as ideal. In modern times, this is usually a "democracy," but the Church is also realistic. It knows that the form of rule does not automatically guarantee moral rule.

"Any direct intervention from the Church in this (political) area would be undue interference." The Church simply does not ambition political rule, contrary to many prejudices about its purposes in this world. "Moreover, 'healthy secularism' implies that the state does not consider religion merely as an individual sentiment that may be confined to the private sphere alone." The Church has a visible and public organization with transcendent and immediate purposes to carry out. "Since religion is also organized in visible structures, as is the case with the Church, it should be recognized as a form of public community presence." The pope means here public law presence that is capable of acting in its own way, with protection from the state for its own proper purposes. This is what a common good really means.

"This (recognition) also implies," Benedict adds, "that every religious denomination (provided it is neither in opposition to the moral order nor a threat to public order) be guaranteed the free exercise of the activities of worship—spiritual, cultural, educational and charitable—of the believing community.'' This freedom is what religious liberty means, something surely well within the central American tradition. "Likewise, to refuse the Christian community and its legitimate representatives the right to speak on the moral problems that challenge all human consciences today, and especially those of legislators and jurists, is not a sign of healthy secularity." This is simply free speech that is being insisted on also for the expression of moral judgments in the public order about the human good and man's purpose.

Is this "interfering" with politics by religion? Hardly. "It is not a question of undue meddling by the Church in legislative activity that is proper and exclusive to the State," Benedict explains, "but, rather, of the affirmation and defense of the important values that give meaning to the person's life and safeguard his or her dignity. These values are human before being Christian, such that they cannot leave the Church silent and indifferent. It is h ere duty to firmly proclaim the truth about man and his destiny." What is often not understood is that most of the Church's interest in what are called political affairs do not arise from revelation, but belong to what is known by reason and forms the basis of any reasoning and understanding of public things. The identification of all expressions of religious officials as if they were religious is to claim that these same officials do not also have a claim in reason for their position, which is precisely what Catholic leaders do claim.


In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Benedict provided one of the best explications of the limits of the state written by anyone in modern times. In addition, he addressed himself to the crucial limits of the state's ability actually to aid most human beings in need, which requires spiritual forces that the state cannot provide. "The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible," Benedict affirmed to those who do not understand the limits that the Church sees for herself. "She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument, and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church" (#27a). These are remarkable words worthy of a major political thinker who understands what a civil state really is intended to be.

What then are the consequences when a state, even in the name of working for public welfare, claims to be able by its own methods to solve the deepest human problems?

The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces. (#27b).

These are strong words to political systems that are often tempted to put into effect these very things by their own power. "We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything." The state works best when it addresses itself to a common good. This good is conceived as an order which promotes and allows smaller, more personal, and religious institutions and motives to exist and flourish within it. They can do what the state cannot do, or do well, as we know from the experience of trying to do so.

In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Ratzinger, in his incisive discussion of the temptations of Christ, returned to this theme of the limits of political power and its motivation for claiming more than it is capable of delivering. "Jesus, however, repeats to us what he said in reply to Satan, what he said to Peter, and what he explained further to the disciples of Emmaus: No kingdom of this world is the Kingdom of God, the total condition of mankind's salvation. Earthly kingdoms remain earthly human kingdoms, and any one who claims to be able to establish the perfect world is the willing dupe of Satan and lays the world right into his hands." [6] No kingdom of this world is the Kingdom of God.

Having again reminded us that no actual civil society in history is or can be the Kingdom of God, the pope's main purpose as pope is to guide us, with his favorite writer Augustine, along the proper paths to the transcendent City of God so that our civil societies will be free of the temptation to make themselves absolutes. This temptation has been the chief character of modernity. Spe Solvi actually is addressed to these very claims of the state to control death, life, punishment, and reward by its own powers.

Will the pope talk about peace? No doubt. He is a realist even when he talks of dialogue. He knows that military and police forces need to be around if the external conditions of any meaningful dialogue is to obtain. He will no doubt be asked about Islam. The pope's emphasis on philosophy, science, and reason is, I think, something that falls within his broader vision of the revival of evangelization to Islam itself as to modern secularism, China, India, the Buddhist world, and particularly Europe.

The pope's policy on Islam, as I understand it, is not confrontational. He does not think that much meaningful religious dialogue is immediately possible. He also understands that theological issues are found behind at least a good part of terrorism. What he does think is that concrete, reciprocal, mutually assured steps of justice must first be made. It is simply not all right to allow, say, no churches or bibles in Islamic lands but demand this denied freedom in lands of civil liberties. In other words, some kind of enforceable universal norms must exist which are recognized and observed first before any further steps can be taken.

Benedict has been to Germany, Austria, Turkey, Spain, and Brazil. He will be in Australia for World Youth Day. No doubt, health and politics permitting, he will continue such visits which in fact he seems to enjoy and serve his efforts to accomplish the main lines of his papal office.

When Benedict departs from the United States, I suspect, we will have been given pretty good lessons in our own constitution, in natural law, in the meaning of Christianity, in suggestions about how to live. We will also find, if we look for it, much philosophical and theological depth in what he tells us. As I say, Catholicism is, at its best, a religion of intelligence and good sense. It contains, no doubt, not a few sinners, as we all know by looking at our own hearts. It was never suggested it would be otherwise. But it basically stands for our transcendent end, which we should know. At the same time, it insists that that end is reached by those who also obey the Lord and seek to understand His ways. These ways include those which teach us to live also in this world, this country. We live in and work out our salvation in a homeland that is no lasting city, though it is indeed a city.


[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Political Visions and Practical Politics," Europe: Today and Tomorrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 54.
[2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Afterword to the English Edition," Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 269.
[3] Benedict XVI, "The Church and the Challenge of Secularization" (March 8, 2002), L'Osservatore Romano, English, March 19, 2008.
[4] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth, An Interview with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 220.
[5] Benedict XVI, "Homily at Chrism Mass, Holy Thursday, 2008, L'Osservatore Romano, March 26, 2008.
[6] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 43-44

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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, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his website.

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