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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

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"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 itself.

"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 nature.

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 is created.

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 manner.

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 person.

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.
CWR Round-Table: 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.

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), 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 website.

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