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On The "Great Crime" of the Gentiles | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 25, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
"Do not be surprised, brothers, that Mary is said to be a
martyr in spirit. Let him be surprised who does not remember the words of Paul,
that one of the greatest crimes of the Gentiles was that they were without
love." -- Bernard of Clairvaux, d. 1153, Sermon, Feast of the Assumption.
"This is the great hope we are left with: we cannot find the
Truth on our own, but the Truth, who is a Person, finds us." -- Benedict XVI,
At the screening of a film on St. Augustine, 2009. 
We might describe mankind over time as a body of
truth-seekers who have not found the truth, or at least not all of it, or not
yet. Implicit in that description can be the assumption we can find what we set
out to find all by ourselves. That is, not a few people would evidently reject
truth if they did not themselves "make" it. The idea that truth might be given
to them and require honest acknowledgement strikes at the very foundation of
much ancient and modern thought.
Still, the very fact we do seek to know the truth means that
already something in us urges us to do so. Even when he holds that there is no
truth, no man is comfortable with the proposition: "I do not seek truth." We
have the power to recognize truth at least when we find it. No one wants to
establish his dignity on the basis of his principled rejection of any truth. He
must at least cling to the contradictory proposition, "It is true that there is
Benedict XVI would perhaps modify that last statement about
recognizing truth by saying we have the power to know the Truth when it "finds
us." We often assume "truth" is a kind of inert thing just sitting out there
waiting to be found. And some of it is, no doubt. Yet, if Truth is a Person,
there is the possibility of that Person finding us. We also recognize that the
dynamics of accepting truth involve what can only be called a personal
relationship, which we can accept or reject for any number of reasons. As the
New Testament records, several of those who saw the Truth either went away sad
or went out to kill Him who proclaimed it.
The drama of our given being, created and fallen, is that
each of us can in this life reject this Person who is the Truth. St. Bernard
said, in a striking phrase from St. Paul, that it was a "great crime of the
Gentiles" that they were "without love." If St. Bernard called being "without
love" a "crime," it must be because he thought something was wrong with the
Gentiles who would not accept what was offered them. In Romans, Paul held the
pagans responsible for not knowing what they could learn from natural events
In some sense, Benedict's latest encyclical, Charity in
Truth, was addressed to this very problem,
namely, that love, as such, should not be separated from truth. But from
Augustine's "two cities," we know that it can be and often is. We can and do
love false gods, idols of various sorts. They are no longer in our time golden
calves or things made of human hands. They are plans to make the world perfect.
They are political movements that coerce and forbid what is true, that attack
our kind, always made in the image of God, in its most innocent forms.
A sober look at the world two thousand years after the birth
of Christ tells us that at most a fifth of the world is Christian, and within
this fifth, we find many divisions, heresies, and odd enthusiasms. On June 29,
2009, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (though that feast is strangely not
noted), Benedict wrote a letter concerning "Christ's Missionary Mandate." He
wrote it for World Mission Sunday. As was clear from the Regensburg Lecture and
from other papal sources, this un-evangelized world is a major concern of the
Holy Father, as it was with Vatican II, with Paul VI's Evangelium Nuntiandi, and John Paul II's Redemptoris Missio.
The Catholic Church, if I understand it correctly, has taken
the view that the political power of other religions and
ideologies—Communism in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Islam, Hinduism and
Buddhism, and the pagan religions, as well as political liberalism in the
West—can only be addressed by finding a common basis of discourse that
does not involve religious truth as such. Discussion of the truth of a religion
itself, under the rubric of multiculturalism or ecumenism, simply will not be
allowed to be discussed in public on any fair terms. It is within this heavy
restriction that the issue of evangelization must be considered
This effort—and it can be a fruitful one—largely
seeks a non-religious common human or philosophical ground. This basis used to
go by the name of "natural law," but is not commonly recognized as either
common or law today. The "rights" approach runs into its own problems, as the
Pope noted in Caritas in veritate, when
he pointed out that "rights" have to presuppose and lead to duties. No one
really wants to talk much, except in rather vague terms, of "religious
freedom." We need to acknowledge the amount of political force used today among
the nations to prevent a free and honest presentation of Christianity in these
areas where it has, at best, a minimal presence from historic mission work.
The Church has, in effect, acknowledged that no "crusade" is
available to it. Everything has to proceed in peace with the hope that civil
powers at least prevent violence, which they do not always do. The Church must
at least tacitly admit that, in the case of the old Christian lands in the
Middle East and Africa, it was precisely military force that detached these lands
from the Christianity of apostolic times and is currently making a plausible
attempt to do so again. We have definitions of what is a martyr today that are
diametrically opposed to each other. One says a martyr is someone who dies
witnessing to the truth of his faith. He suffers evil rather than does it. The
other says that to kill as many infidels as possible by killing oneself is to
be a martyr to his faith. The grounds of such diametrically opposed positions
need to be spelled out in reason. The question remains whether even reason is
accepted in these cases.
Right from the start, the pope rejects the syncretistic or
parliament of religion solution in which Christianity would be absorbed into a
kind of spiritual backwater or conglomerate wherein all religions absorbed and
controlled all other religions under some world body itself subject to the
superior force of a world government. The Holy Father recalls the end of
Matthew's Gospel, that the disciples should go forth announce the good news to
the nations. "The goal of the Church's mission is to illumine all peoples with
the light of the Gospel as they journey through history towards God, so that in
him they may reach their full potential and fulfillment." Immediately, the pope
recognizes, following what happened to Christ himself, that the effort to make
this light known will often result in suffering and persecution. This
persecution of and refusal to allow considerations of religious truth are
widespread in the world today.
This "good news" is, however, seen to be a "service" to the
"whole of humanity." This service approach is a path recommended in revelation
itself. That is, something all humanity should and would want to know about its
destiny is contained in this good news. This presentation as a service of truth
seems to be what Christ had in mind in commissioning the apostles to go forth
to all nations. "The whole of humanity has the radical vocation to return to
its source, to return to God, since in him alone can it find fulfillment through
the restoration of all things in Christ." If we place this sentence over
against the inability or deafness to hear what the content of this "vocation"
is in our time, we see how far we are from any more than minimal accomplishment
of Christ's initial mandate. We are, however, made to share in the "eternal joy
of God." We still speak of the "nations" turning to God in this light.
"Proclamation of the Gospel must be for us, as it was for
the Apostle Paul, a primary and unavoidable duty." This "proclamation," as I
indicated, is often politically, religiously, or culturally so impeded that the
"unavoidable duty" becomes dishearteningly difficult to carry out. The Church
itself, Benedict states, "knows neither borders nor frontiers." It is not
itself another nation or geographical enclave. By being itself, it takes
nothing away from actual polities, except perhaps their claim to be more than
they are intended to be. It frees them from the temptation to be themselves a
"The measure of her (Church's) mission and service is not
material or even spiritual needs limited to the sphere of temporal existence,
but instead, it is transcendent salvation, fulfilled in the Kingdom of God."
The Church exists to explain and, though sacraments and worship, to lead each
individual person to salvation. It is called here "salvation." It is "eternal
life" in the resurrection of the body. It is participation in the life of the
Trinity to which we are invited. No other religion has ever taught eternal life
is the final end of each person. No other religion or philosophy taught that
God was Trinity. Such truths had first to be announced to us by Christ, the Son
of God. He did announce them. He suffered and died because He did.
Yet, this same Kingdom of God already exists "in this world
within its history (as) a force for justice and peace, for true freedom and
respect for the dignity of every human person. The Church wished to transform
the world through the proclamation of the Gospel of love." We should notice
what is implied here. The political or temporal world can be "transformed" into
what it ought to be, but evidently only on condition that the transcendent
issues are first known and attended to. The oft-cited fear that concern about
eternal life or salvation will lessen interest in the world and thereby make
less effective the efforts of this-worldly affairs is here turned around. This
world, in the end, will only become what is if the proper understanding of life
as found in revelation is acknowledged and practiced.
"The mission of the Church, therefore, is to call all
peoples to the salvation accomplished by God through his incarnate Son." What
the Church seeks in the political order is simply the freedom to state what it
is, to have its own space and institutions, which are not seen somehow oriented
to any natural purpose of man. In another sense, the suspicion is that any
natural purpose will only be accomplished when the transcendent purpose is
first recognized. Otherwise, the state will see itself in competition with
man's highest end.
"At stake is the eternal salvation of persons, the goal and
the fulfillment of human history and the universe." Few sentences are more
profound. The salvation of persons, the fulfillment of history, and the completion
of the universe are all bound up in this revelation. The completion of history
is directly related to the fact human persons can attain everlasting life. That
is, actually existing persons, who live mortal lives in this world, do
transcend it and they join the community of those who worship God within the
inner life of the Trinity as has been promised to them. We do not understand
man if we only understand man.
"I mention especially the local Churches and the men and
women missionaries who bear witness to and spread the Kingdom of God in
situations of persecution, subjected to forms of oppression ranging from social
discrimination to prison, torture and death." We cannot talk of the spreading
of the Gospel throughout the world without facing the fact many will not
welcome it. Many will do everything to oppose its being known or practiced.
Those who die remain as witnesses to the truth that was not received. "The
Church walks the same path and suffers the same destiny as Christ, since she
acts not on the basis of any human logic or relying on her own strength, but
instead she follows the way of the Cross, becoming in filial obedience to the
Father, a witness and a travelling companion for all humanity." We might ask
why God chose this path for the salvation of all the nations if it took so
long, caused such strife, and was rebuffed so often. The simplest answer was that
salvation includes freedom, without which salvation is meaningless.
The last words bring forth another truth, namely that we do
not do this by ourselves. "It must be reaffirmed that evangelization is
primarily the work of the Spirit; before being action, it is witness and
irradiation of the light of Christ." The "logic" of the Cross is a "logic." In
respecting our dignity and freedom, God must also respect our sins. In heaven,
we find no automata. The great meaning of the missionary command that must
exist within the Church as it is directed to the nations is, as Bernard said,
the Gentiles are "without love." This love is what is being presented to the
If we look at the un-evangelized nations, in the end, we
suspect that what they lack, even today, is what is not permitted to be
preached to them. This world is not enough even for those who pass through this
world. The history of our time can, in one sense, be read as the record of
those who think this world does not require a Trinitarian source. The "great
crime" of the Gentiles is not to know the inner Trinitarian life and the place
of the Holy Spirit within it.
 Benedict XVI, Comments after seeing
film, "Augustine: The Decline of the Roman Empire," September 2, 2009, L'Osservatore
Romano, English, September 9, 2009.
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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, 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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