"And Not To Any God": Benedict XVI and the God Question | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | June 10, 2010"And Not To Any God": Benedict XVI and the God Question | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | June 10, 2010


"In our time, in which the faith in many places seems like a light in danger of being snuffed out for ever, the highest priority is to make God visible in the world and to open to humanity a way to God. And not to any god, but to the God who had spoken on Sinai, the God whose face we recognize in the love borne in the very end in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen."
-- Benedict XVI, Fatima, May 12, 2010. (L'Osservatore Romano, English, May 19, 2010.)

"We impose nothing, yet we propose ceaselessly, as Peter recommended in one of his Letters: 'In your hearts, reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you'" (1 Peter 3:15).
-- Benedict XVI, Oporto, May 14, 2010.


Benedict XVI visited Portugal from May 11-14, 2010. He was in Lisbon, Fatima, and Oporto. While there, the pope gave some eleven sermons, lectures, or talks to various kinds to Portuguese civil and religious bodies. The President of Portugal was often present. A papal visit produces some remarkable words and the present one is no exception. A papal visit is a genuine teaching experience that comes to a nation from outside, in the sense that a pope comes to its midst, focusing attention on fundamental issues of the human soul—and not merely on politics or economics, though not ignoring these either.

Anyone who goes to Portugal will at some time have Fatima on his mind. "We would be mistaken to think that Fatima's prophetic mission is complete. Here there takes on a new life the plan of God which asks humanity from the beginning: 'Where is your brother, Abel?'" Mankind did not in fact find a way to solve its own problems by itself. The subsequent history of salvation deals with how this question to Cain is finally answered.

The Fatima apparitions occurred on May 13, 1917. Benedict recalls the geopolitical irony: "At a time when the human family was ready to sacrifice all that was most sacred on the altar of the petty and selfish interests of nations, races, ideologies, groups and individuals, our Blessed Mother came from heaven, offering to implant in the hearts of all those who trust in her the Love of God burning in her own heart. At that time it was only to three children..." God chooses other ways than ours to make his will known. The irony of the powers of the world at war, unable to resolve their issues, over against the three children to whom Mary appears is striking.

One of the themes of this papal visit was a constant reminder both of the openness of Christianity to truth wherever it is found and the insistence that but one God and but one proper understanding of salvation exist. As Benedict said in the Chapel of the Apparitions in Fatima, the true God is the one who announced himself to Moses and who appeared in Jesus Christ. It is this God to which the papacy is to witness down the ages. By implication there are false gods. In general, if we get the God-question wrong, we will get everything else wrong.

Portuguese intellectual history is filled with Enlightenment disputes over the place of the faith in modern culture. Portugal was one of the first "modern" states. Its early empire in Brazil, Africa, and the Orient is still influential in our time. The missionary impulse was part of the culture. The pope is concerned with the "European-ness" of that particular culture that would send missionaries into the world with the "good news."

Today we see that this very dialectic represents an opportunity and that we need to develop a synthesis and a forward-looking and profound dialogue. In the multicultural situation in which we all find ourselves, we see that if European culture were merely rationalist, it would lack a transcendent religious dimension, and not be able to enter into dialogue with the great cultures of humanity all of which have this transcendent religious dimension—which is the dimension of man himself.

A view of reason that in principle excludes a transcendent dimension is itself lacking all of the being that is given to man. Man cannot be completely be understood without his transcendent dimension.

"Reason as such is open to transcendence and only in the encounter between transcendent reality and faith and reason does man find himself," Benedict explained in an interview on the plane to Lisbon. "So I think that the precise task and mission of Europe in this situation is to create the dialogue, to integrate faith and modern rationality in a single anthropological vision which approaches the human being as a whole and thus also makes human culture communicable."

What Benedict means here, I think, is that, unlike other cultures, Western civilization has within it an ongoing challenge of reason by transcendence and of transcendence by reason. This inclusion of both is why the modern definition of reason as being itself autonomous is implicitly and actually a rejection of Western civilization as such. That is, a rejection of a civilization in which both reason and revelation are possible. No other civilization has an ongoing example of how these sources fit together.


Benedict often speaks of a "public" role of the Church in the world, within all nations and cultures, including the most closed, such as China and the Arab states. In principle, it cannot be excluded. The Church's concern and understanding of truth is not just a private thing. "Situated within history, the Church is open to cooperating with anyone who does not marginalize or reduce to the private sphere the essential consideration of the human meaning of life." These were among the first words that Benedict spoke at the Lisbon airport on his arrival. All men have both the duty and desire to know the truth about themselves. The Church has an understanding of that truth which is not merely private or subjective, but possessing information and truth about God and man.

"The point at issue is not an ethical confrontation between a secular and a religious system, as much as a question about the meaning that we give to our freedom." If "freedom" means that no binding truth can be found such that we are free even of the principle of contradiction, then we really have eliminated the world as having anything to do with us or our lives. We are simply what we do and think. No one can object to anything done by anyone else because no ground exists for such an objection on the premise that freedom is based on nothing but itself.

The pope praises the understanding of Church and State that exists in Portugal with its mutual recognition of each by the other. The pope again notes that the best way to see what the faith means is not by reading but by seeing how saints live, a witness that leads "even to the radical choice of martyrdom." In his talk to priests, Benedict remarks: "many of our brothers and sisters live as if there were nothing beyond this life, and without concern for their eternal salvation. Men and women are called to know and love God. The Church has the mission to assist them in this calling. We know well that God is the master of his gifts, and that conversion is a grace. But we are responsible for proclaiming the faith, the whole faith."

The pope thinks that the Church has done much thinking about itself and its relation to modern thought and what is valid in it. "The Church herself accepted and refashioned the best of the requirements of modernity by transcending them on the one hand and on the other by avoiding their error and dead ends." The secular world has largely refused to do its own rethinking of its own limits, largely because that rethinking involves an admission that the Church does stand for an abiding truth of philosophical import about man which modern thought has refused to admit or see.

This sophisticated rethinking of faith and the world under recent popes has made it clear that Catholicism is actually much stronger intellectually than modern secularism, which has limited its range only to itself. It has cut off revelation not because it is unnecessary or refuted, but because it shows the lack of grounding in being of much modern thought. This theme of the pope that the Church has rethought modernity is new to me. There is no doubt that the Church has made every effort to see the good in modernity when it can. When it cannot, the pope says so.

In a Public Mass at the Palace Square in Lisbon, Benedict, as he often does, made a Platonic point, namely that we must first attend to our own souls before we reform the state. "Often we are anxiously preoccupied with the social, cultural, and political consequences of the faith, taking for granted that faith is present, which unfortunately is less and less realistic. Perhaps we have placed an excessive trust in ecclesial structures and programmes, in the distribution of powers and functions..." This point is crucial in our understanding of modernity. It does not judge the Church in those things in which the Church is competent. Rather, modernity is itself judged by the Church when it misunderstands man's nature and destiny.

What is the "public" teaching all men need to know not by "imposition" but by "persuasion?" It is this: "Only Christ can fully satisfy the profound longings of every human heart and give answers to its most pressing questions concerning suffering, injustice and evil, concerning death and the life hereafter." Likewise, only the Church can teach us of that for which we are to hope— the sacraments, eternal life, the City of God, seeing God face-to-face, the resurrection of the dead, the judgment.

The title of these Portuguese reflections is that we are to seek not just any God, but that God revealed to us within the history of our life on this planet, the one who appeared to Moses, and then in the flesh in Christ. The public life of nations needs to hear these truths not in any manner but in a calm one. Modern political constitutions should be designed to all for this hearing to happen. However, these same constitutions, including our own, however designed, can be used to interfere with this free listening which, as such, is the beginning of salvation.

As Paul said, "faith comes by hearing," and as Benedict added in Portugal, by seeing the living examples of saints who live their faith and follow their reason, both together. This latter is something that should be, but is not, present in all civilizations. It is the mission of Europe to teach this—Europe, a continent that is near to losing its own faith.

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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), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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