"The Ultimate Meaning of Our Human Existence": On the Fundamental Question of the Modern Age | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | October 7, 2010"The Ultimate Meaning of Our Human Existence": On the Fundamental Question of the Modern Age | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | October 7, 2010


"All of us, in our different ways, are personally engaged in a journey that grants an answer to the most important question of all—the question concerning the ultimate meaning of our human existence." -- Pope Benedict XVI, "Meeting with Representatives of Other Religions", September 22, 2010 [1]


The visit of Benedict XVI to Great Britain was an occasion that we can long ponder. Preparations for the visit seemed to indicate that there would be much opposition from many sources, most of which failed to materialize. Instead, the journey to England culminating in the Beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman was a dignified and indeed happy occasion. Pundits misjudged both the English and the Pope. The Holy Father spoke or preached in many different places, in churches, in universities, in Westminster Hall, in parks in Glasgow, London, and Birmingham, and even in castles. The Queen was there. Bless her, and the Prime Minister.

Baroness Hayman, the Speaker of the House of Lords, after listening to the Holy Father's address in historic Westminster Hall said touchingly: "But for me, perhaps the most important and long-standing thing that I will take from what you said was the need for an ethical foundation as each and every one of us approaches the complexities and the difficult issues facing us as individuals, as communities, and facing the world today."

The amount of teaching and instruction in this visit was enormous. The pope never lost an opportunity to speak to the young about their lives, about prayer and vocation. In Westminster Cathedral, at a blessing of young people at the font of the Cathedral, Benedict said: "Every day we have to choose to love, and this requires help, the help that comes from Christ, from prayer and from the wisdom found in his word, and from the grace which he bestows on us in the sacraments of the Church." Benedict quietly teaches us how to take care of our souls. "Deep within our heart," he told these young folks, "he (Christ) is calling you to spend time with him in prayer. But this kind of prayer, real prayer, requires discipline; it requires making time for moments of silence every day." Such advice is right out of A'Kempis or John Paul II, St. Bernard and St Benedict, in whose shadow, as the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked, all of England stands in buildings stemming from the Benedictine tradition.

I will not touch on here the various references and talks that the Holy Father devoted to Newman, a man whom Pope Ratzinger (as he acknowledged in Hyde Park), has studied all along in his life. But I do want to emphasize two comments that Benedict made concerning Newman in the Hyde Park Prayer Meeting (September 18, 2010). First, "Newman, by his own account, traced the course of his whole life back to a powerful experience of conversion which he had as a young man. It was an immediate experience of the truth of God's word, of the objective reality of Christian revelation as handed down in the Church." The important phrase in that passage is that Christian revelation is an "objective reality." Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth is precisely about the objective nature of Christ's reality and presence.

Secondly, Benedict recalled that in "one of the Cardinal's best-loved mediations is included the words 'God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another.'" We cannot help but universalize such a passage and apply it not only to the pope's own life but to each of our own. This too, when we come to see our lives spelled out, will be the case. We are created for some definite service, a service that we can refuse, but in refusing, no doubt, God's plan will work out another way.

During this visit, the Holy Father did not hesitate to mention those Catholics who suffered martyrdom in England, often for the defense of the office of Peter—Sir Thomas More, those killed at Tyburn, and St. Thomas A'Beckett. Many of the great English, Welsh, and Scot saints are mentioned—Bede the Venerable, St. Ninian, St. Columba, St. Mungo, St. Margaret, St. David, and St. Edmund Campion. My only disappointment in the trip was that, though he cites him elsewhere, the pope did not cite Chesterton.

Perhaps my favorite comment of Benedict took place during the interview with reporters on the flight over to Great Britain. The pope was asked if there was anything that could be done to make the Church more "attractive." Benedict responded:

A Church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power. The Church is at the service of Another; it does not serve itself, seeking to be a strong body, but it strives to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths, the great powers of love and of reconciliation that appeared in this figure and that came always from the presence of Jesus Christ.

This is a constant Christian theme. We did not invent our religion. We received it and are to keep it in the world in the basic form in which it was handed down. If people listen, fine. But if they do not, we can only accept their choice. "The Church is at the service of Another."


At several points in the visit, the Holy Father gave brief, even pithy, explanations of what it is all about. I cited in the beginning the universal question that all men must face—"What is the ultimate meaning to our existence." This question was placed before the members of other religions. The pope went on to say:

Yet, these disciplines (the human and natural sciences) do not and cannot answer the fundamental question, because they operate on another level altogether. They cannot satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart, they cannot fully explain to us our origin and our destiny, why and for what purpose we exist, nor can they provide us with an exhaustive answer to the question, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?'"

It might be noted that Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., in his recent appearance on the Larry King Show, elaborated on this very question. In spite of Professor Stephen Hawking's claim that he could explain everything so that there was no need of God, Spitzer pointed out very carefully that the scientific formulae that the human mind derives from investigating things does not itself make the formulae or place their operations in cosmic things. They do not come from nothing, in other words. Their only initial source can be from outside the cosmos itself, which is not a self-created entity.

In an Ecumenical Celebration in Westminster Abbey, Benedict, summing up what was held in common with Anglicans, said that our society has often become "hostile" to Christianity. Yet, the resurrection is the only real response "to the spiritual aspirations to men and women of our time." The pope then reflected: "As I processed into the chancel at the beginning of this service, the choir sang that Christ is our 'sure foundation.' He is the Eternal Son of God, of one substance with the Father, who took flesh, as the Creed states, 'for us men and for our salvation.' He alone has the words of everlasting life."


In terms of worldwide political interest, the Holy Father's address in Westminster Hall was of great significance. The pope began by praising the English common law tradition from which we Americans have our legal roots. Of the famous men and women who were in this Hall, the pope singled out Sir Thomas More. This is the very place where he was condemned, who "chose to serve God first." The pope acknowledged the relation of More's execution to his own office, the Chair of Peter.

The British took significant steps to limit subsequent arbitrary political power—"freedom of political affiliation, and respect for law, with a strong sense of individual rights and duties, and the equality of all citizens before the law." Catholic social thought, Benedict pointed out, also includes such limitations. Pragmatism itself cannot consistently justify such principles. The role of the British parliament in the abolition of the slave trade is praised because it was not mere pragmatism.

But what grounds these principles? "The central question at issue, then, is this: Where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers." One cannot overestimate the importance of this passage. In public debate, whether it be about abortion, gay marriage, war, taxes, welfare, or education, Catholics do not first appeal to revelation as the source of their position. It may back it up, but they primarily appeal to grounded reason that is not closed to anyone else in argument.

Religion assists to "help purify reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This 'corrective' role of religion vis--vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves." These views do not give due attention to reason. The Church remains in the public order today the principle defender not of revelation but of reason. Religion and revelation need one another even in the public order, in this sense.

The public expression of religion is a good thing. "There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silences or at least relegated to the purely private sphere," the Pope tells the English politicians. "There are those who argue that public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue—paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination—that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their consciences."

The pope's reason sees the contradictions of logic in such arguments. Such views do not understand the rights of citizens or the reality of religion in public life. Cooperation between the Church and state "religious bodies—including institutions linked to the Catholic Church—need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church."

In his talk to other religious leaders, the pope took up something that needs much more emphasis, namely, the lack of reciprocity in granting religious freedom in many areas. The pope does not name China, Islamic countries, and other restrictive cultures. "I am thinking in particular of situations in some parts of the world where cooperation and dialogue between religion calls for mutual respect, the freedom to practice tone's religion and to engage in acts of public worship, and freedom to follow one's conscience without suffering ostracism or persecution, even after conversion form one religion to another." The fact is, we have no real idea of the amount of persecution and discrimination that goes on against freedom of religion in many parts of the world and diplomacy or weakness prevents us from pointing it out more forcefully.

In his departure, with the British Prime Minister present, the Holy Father expressed his appreciation to the Queen and Parliament, to the Anglican Archbishop, as to the whole of the Islands for their gracious courtesy during his visit.

But my final words to be cited from this trip are those of Benedict to the Anglican Primate:

Fidelity to the word of God, precisely because it is true word, demands of us an obedience which leads us together to a deeper understanding of the Lord's will. An obedience which must be free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age. This is the word of encouragement which I wish to leave with you this evening, and I do so in fidelity to my ministry as the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of St. Peter, charged with a particular care of the unity of Christ's flock.

With such words, spoken on English soil, I think, we have again made present in that land what was once rejected with so much blood. The unity of the flock is fundamental. The one charged with it is the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

On reflecting on this visit, no Briton, I think, whatever be the fame of English practicality, can help but wonder, if he has not before, "What is the ultimate meaning of our existence?" He did not have this question addressed to him in the Times or the Guardian but in the reflections of Benedict XVI, the Successor to Peter. It is still the most fundamental question of the modern age.


[1] Benedict XVI, Meeting with Representatives of Other Religions, Walgrave Drawing Room, St. Mary's University College, September 17, 2010, L'Osservatore Romano, English, September 22, 2010. All references in this essay will be found in this edition of L'Osservatore Romano.

Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
All books by or about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

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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