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"Certain Fundamental Truths": On the Place and Temptations of Politics | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | October 6, 2009
"Remember that the proclamation of the Gospel and adherence
to the Christian values... is not merely useful but essential for building a good
society....'" — Benedict XVI to Brazilian Bishops, Ad
Limina Visit of Brazilian Prelates from West Region, L'Osservatore
Romano, (September 16, 2009. Citation from Caritats in veritate, #4.)
A good society ought to be possible to man's natural reason.
We wonder why it is so rare that any even passable society comes about in human
history. The answer to this question has to do with our ability to locate and
define what human life as such is about. It is not primarily about building a
good society, though that is of importance.
Moreover, it would seem that even if we want a good society,
something else is in fact necessary, something that is not necessarily or
primarily political. This position does not contradict Aristotle's notion that
a good society is what the polis is for,
that man is by nature a political animal which is not complete simply by
"Proclamation of the Gospel and adherence to Christian
values" are said by Benedict, speaking to some Brazilian bishops, to be more
than "useful." They are "necessary." Does this view undermine the relative
autonomy or secularity of politics? The fact is that it makes this relative
autonomy possible. All political societies are natural institutions whose end
as such is also natural. Yet man is more than a "natural" being. He is created
from his personal beginning to achieve the vision of God, something beyond his
If we treat man as only natural, he will no doubt end up
being less than natural. This is the record of human history. This consequence
must mean there is more to ourselves than ourselves. This is what revelation is
about. The principle is not, get man's natural end right and you will be happy,
but get man's supernatural end right or you will not be able to get his natural
or this worldly end right. Politics is not only the highest of the practical
sciences, but it is also the main temptation of man. It is the most logical
enthusiasm to replace God when we refuse his invitation to the end for which he
The Holy Father's short address to the Brazilian bishops
contains some remarkable lines. "God," he tells them, "does not see as human
beings see! The urgent need of the good Lord is dictated by his wish that 'all
men be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth'" (Tim. 2:4). Thus, it
would appear that God is not particularly concerned about the rise and fall of
nations or the structures of polities except in so far as they foster or impede
a purpose that is not itself political.
The pope describes our contemporaries, ourselves included.
Many folks pass their "whole life in an instant and others wander in tedium and
inertia or who abandon themselves to every sort of violence." He sees these
lives as "desperate" for hope. They look for meaning in life.
The pope returns to the theme of what happened to the Church
after Vatican II in order to alert bishops to the real issues. "Some have
interpreted openness to the world (after the Council) not as a requirement of
the missionary zeal of the Heart of Christ, but rather as a passage to
secularization, seeing in it several values of great Christian depth, such as
equality, freedom and solidarity, and showing that they were ready to make
concessions and to discover areas of co-operation." These thinkers, however, in
analyzing such common ends did not always understand them in a Christian
Thus, the pope is blunt here, "certain leading
clerics"—no names given!—"took part in ethical debates in response
to the expectations of public opinion." They talked about equality, freedom,
and solidarity often enough but were silent on other matters in which the whole
Christian mission to the world also consists. "But [these same] people stopped
speaking of certain fundamental truths of faith, such as sin, grace,
theological life and the last things." And it was in these latter doctrines
that the problems arose. Spe Salvi had
to write a complete reorientation of eschatology because those who only spoke
of "equality, freedom, and solidarity" followed the ideologies into making
these goals the principal purpose of man in the world.
Sin, grace, the theological virtues, and the four last
things look beyond the future in this world. They intimate that the main
purpose of man in the world is not the construction of some inner-worldly
political order down the ages. It is true that a correct understanding of these
notions, all of them, might result in some adequate or good worldly society as an
indirect effect of living well and knowing the transcendent end of each human
Such Catholic thinkers and "ecclesial communities" were
caught up in what Benedict calls a "self-secularization." What was the result?
They found their appeal to these limited interpretations was leaving the pews
empty. People in great numbers began to leave the Church in which they were
"deprived and disappointed" at not finding the essentials of Catholicism
preached and deepened.
"When they meet us," Benedict writes in a happy phrase, "our
contemporaries want to see what they see nowhere else, that is, the joy and
hope that come from being with the Risen Lord." It is the Risen Lord who
grounds the particular destiny of each actual human being in history. It is not
the movements of history or some future bliss down the ages.
When people look at the Church today, what do they see?
"They see the abyss of differences and opposition to the Magisterium of the
Church growing ever wider, especially in the field of ethics." We all know what
this means, of course.
What is the result? "In this desert without God, the new
generation feels a deep thirst for transcendence." The pope, with his
predecessor, meets a new youth who have not known unity in the public face of
the Church. "It is the youth of this generation who knock at the doors of the
seminary and need formation teachers who are real men of God." These young men
coming into seminaries, the Holy Father thinks, "participate in the Eucharist"
daily. They love silence and prayer. What they seek, almost in the literal
words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, is "the glory of God and the salvation of
souls," including no doubt their own.
So, this short conference with a few Brazilian bishops (the
photo in L'Osservatore Romano shows nine
bishops), is rich in Benedict's analysis of what has gone wrong. It is a
penetrating mind at work of keeping the essentials before us. The Gospel does
need to be proclaimed for what it is. Christian doctrines need to be lived.
When they were not, it was not just the Church that was in trouble, but society
itself, so intimately is the Gospel associated with how we live our lives.
If we never hear "sin, grace, the theological virtues, and
the last things" preached and explained, we are missing what we need to hear.
Paradoxically, only when we hear and live these things can we also find the
"joy and hope that come from being with the Risen Lord..."
Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:
On the "Great Crime" of the Gentiles | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Omnipotence and Mercy | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Caritas in Veritate: "Its Principal Driving Force" |
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Caritas in Veritate | Catholic World Report
Benedict XVI's Theological Vision: An Introduction | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | From the introduction to
Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI, Theologian of Joy | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | An interview with the author of
Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
Spe Salvi and Vatican II | Brian A. Graebe
Vatican II and the Ecclesiology of Joseph Ratzinger | Maximilian
Heinrich Heim | Introduction to
Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology.
The Courage To Be Imperfect | Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. |
The Introduction to Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience
of Our Age
The Theological Genius of Joseph Ratzinger | An Interview with Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
First Musings on Benedict XVI's First Encyclical | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
The Encyclical: God's Eros Is Agape | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. 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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