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"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
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
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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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), 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
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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