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5/19/2009 7:06 PM
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This thread wll be devoted to commentaries and exegeses of the spoken and written texts of Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI.

And what better commentator to start with than Fr. Schall? (I wonder if, in the modern era, any Pope received as much particular contemporaneous attention to his Magisterium by a single commentator as Fr. Schall does with Benedict XVI (and Sandro Magister, on a more quotidian level).
May 19, 2009

"The God of the Bible is not some absolute Being who, crushing everything he touches, would suppress all the difference and all nuances. On the contrary, he is God the Creator, who created the astonishing variety of beings 'each according to its kind,' as the Genesis account says repeatedly. Far from destroying differences, God respects them and makes use of them (cf 1 Cor 12:18, 24, 28)."
- John Paul II, "Address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church." [1]

"Being faithful to the Church means, in fact, fitting into the current of the great Tradition. Under the guidance of the Magisterium, Tradition has recognized the canonical writings as a word addressed by God to his People, and it has never ceased to meditate upon them and to discover their inexhaustible riches."
- Benedict XVI, "The Life and Mission of the Church Based on the Word of God." [2]


The major milestones in the Church's official dealing with the methods of interpreting Scripture and what Scripture essentially means have been recently commemorated.

In 1893, Leo XIII issued Providentissimus Deus, which dealt with the issue of whether or not modern science has made the material found in Scripture obsolete. It hadn't.

Leo XIII established the Biblical Commission in 1902. Pius X founded the Biblical Institute in 1909. On the 1500th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, Benedict XV, in 1920, wrote an encyclical on interpreting the Bible.

In 1943, Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu fifty years after Providentissimus Deus was published. At that time, Pius was concerned with a movement that apparently denied that any use of scientific critical method was of value.

This encyclical is generally considered to be the mandate summarizing the Church's ideas of Bible scholarship and modern methods of research.

Vatican II, in 1965, issued its own document on Scripture, Dei Verbum. "Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture," the Council stated,

have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Holy Mother Church, relying on the belief of the apostles, holds that the books of the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. (#11)

The essential themes are here:
1) Divine realities are presented.
2) The Church relies for this truth on the testimony of the apostles.
3) The parts and the whole of both testaments as such are canonical and sacred.
4) Biblical authors are inspired by the Holy Spirit in their writing.
5) God is the ultimate author. And
6) what is written is found in the Church.

In 1993, the Biblical Commission itself produced a lengthy document (105 pages), entitled, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. In its Preface, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger clarified the legal status of this Commission.

It "is not an organ of the teaching office, but rather a commission of scholars, who, in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take positions on important problems of Scriptural interpretation and know that for this task they enjoy the confidence of the teaching office." [3]

The Church wants scholars to be genuine scholars, but it also wants them to be prepared for the whole picture of what they study.

The Church recognizes the place of scholarship in its mission. At the same time, it recognizes that those who pursue scientific knowledge of any sort have their own presuppositions. For better or worse, these assumptions will affect their work. This is but a particular application of the general discussion of faith and reason found in all modern popes.

This combination is why Ratzinger uses the term "believing exegetes." There are "unbelieving" ones who find in their methods only what methods can reveal, which is themselves. The method as such does not know what it is looking for.

The methods thus can come to be used to manifest the ideology in the researcher's mind. Faith directed to reason, and reason directed to faith, means that a higher unity involves both. What methods each employs can respectively by each be taken together and correlated.


On April 23, 2009, Benedict XVI delivered a short address to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, chaired by his successor in the Doctrine of the Faith Congregation, William Cardinal Levada.

In all of his scholarly life, Benedict has taken a lively interest in biblical scholarship. Often he is reported to have a Greek Bible with him for easy reference. As a scholar in his own right, he is very much aware of what "method" means and what "Bible" means. He does not see them in necessary conflict. Both depend on what one means by either term method or Bible.

The subject of the current session of the Biblical Commission was "Inspiration and Truth in the Bible." The purpose of inspiration is not merely to inspire. It is to arrive at the truth.

There is truth in the Bible. It is spoken to us by those who wrote its words. They are the authors, Isaiah, Amos, Matthew, John, Paul, or Peter, but they write under the inspiration of God who is the main author of the whole enterprise of the Bible. This is what inspired by the Holy Spirit means.

The Church is based "on the word of God, which is the soul of theology and at the same time the inspiration of Christian life."

Theology means to use our reason to understand what is revealed to us in an orderly and intelligible manner. What is revealed, we are to confidently live. It is not just a series of ideas, though it is that too. This relation to actual living is why an error of theology easily leads to a false or incomplete way of conduct.

Benedict acknowledges that the interpretation of Scripture is "very much at his heart." He too recalls Providentissmus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu.

Pius XII "urged Catholic exegetes to find solutions to full agreement with the Church's doctrine, duly taking into account the positive contribution of the new methods of interpretation which had developed." Scholarship ought to be an ally, not an enemy, of Scripture.

Vatican II's document Dei Verbum, Benedict states, benefited from this previous papal encouragement to study the Bible according to modern methods.

First, the Council affirmed that "God is the Author of Sacred Scripture."

How is this authorship to be understood? "All that the inspired authors ... state is to be considered as said by the Holy Spirit, the invisible and transcendent Author."

This transcendent authorship is what lies behind the Church's insistence that method alone is not enough and that the whole plan of salvation has a single source.

These books of the Bible teach "that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures." The sentence is a citation by Benedict from #11 of Dei Verbum.

What is significant about it, I think, is it reminds us that the whole of Scripture has a single purpose, namely, to save us, and in doing so to explain what God is like.

We ask: "Why is Scripture written the way that it is, even though we may not see its purpose?" The fact is, its purpose is that we attain our transcendent good. This good is achieved only by our freely living the life that we are guided to lead in Scripture through the Church.

Christianity is both a religion of intellect and a religion of living well so that we might achieve, as St. Ignatius said, "the end for which we were created."


Are there norms for the "correct" presentation of the "inspiration and truth of Sacred Scripture?"

The first step is to remember that even if God is the Author of Scripture, "he speaks to man in a human fashion." We find both human and divine speech in the same text. "God really speaks to men and women in a human way."

This aspect of human speaking means that what the sacred writer says and how he says it are significant. We need to seek "attentively" what the writer said, or "what it has pleased God to express in human words." This knowledge is why we carefully read and study them.

This view, incidentally, is very different from the Koran, which Muslims claim to be literally the words of Allah in Arabic; Mohammed was a mere recorder, not a speaker or writer.

The fact that what is said in the Koran actually rescinds the central doctrines found in Scripture on the basis of a presumed later "revelation" makes it impossible to consider both texts "divinely" revealed as they claim to be. One "contradicts" the other.

Indeed, it seems quite clear that much of the source of the Koran is Scriptural in Old and New Testament sense.

Benedict then sets down a primary principle: "Since Scripture is inspired, there is a supreme principle for its correct interpretation without which the sacred writings would remain a dead letter of the past alone: Sacred Scripture 'must be read and interpreted with its divine authorship in mind'" (#12 Dei Verbum).

This understanding means that the one reading or commenting on Scripture must be aware that, throughout his analysis, the author of what he reads is the divine author. This divine authorship is what holds all of Scripture together as a text ultimately from one single source.

The three criteria for interpreting Scripture are these:

1) The whole of Scripture is a unity. The different books take on many forms of style and wording, still they have one author "by virtue of the unity of God's plan whose center and heart is Jesus Christ."

In this sense, everything in Scripture is related to this divine plan that ended with the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, the Word made flesh, who will come again to judge living and dead.

2) The Church has a living Tradition of understanding Scripture. This means the whole Church — not just the experts or just one rite.

Benedict cites Origen as saying that before Scripture is written so we can read it, it is first found in "the heart of the Church." The Church has a "living memory of the Word of God." This memory reminds us of Augustine's treatment of memory as that which brings our real selves together before our active understanding.

3) What is known as the "analogy of faith" means that the individual truths must be seen in relation to all other truths within the overall plan in which these words and events did take place.

And as Vatican I said, what we can learn from reason is also pertinent to what we find in Scripture and Tradition. All truth has one ultimate source.

Those who do research need to keep all three of these criteria in mind. "The scientific study of the sacred texts is important but it is not sufficient in itself because it would respect only the human dimension. To respect the coherence of the Church's faith, the Catholic exegete must be attentive to perceiving the Word of God in these texts, within the faith of the Church itself." The human dimension is not the only dimension if there is both divine and human authorship of the same text.

If the exegete concentrates only on the human side of the written word — granted that there is a human side that can be studied — he will lose "sight of its principal goal, and risk being reduced to a purely literary interpretation, in which the true Author — God — no longer appears."

To lose sight of this plan is to use a "reductionist" scientific method that limits what is to be investigated by the terms of the method employed in the study.

Nor can the study of Scripture be just an individualistic thing. "The Catholic exegete does not only feel that he or she belongs to the scientific community, but also and above all to the community of believers of all times. In reality these texts were not given to individual researchers or to the scientific community, 'to satisfy their curiosity or to provide them with material for study and research.'"

This latter phrase is taken from Divino Afflante Spiritu. As a person, what even the exegete reads belongs to "the community of believers of all times." That is an extraordinary phrase.

Scripture is first given to us that we might believe and enter the plan of salvation that Christ has for each of us. We will in fact make more scientific progress if we understand this twofold relation of Scripture to its authorship and to our final end.

Benedict adds, "I would say, a rationalistic hermeneutic of faith corresponds more closely with the reality of this text than a rationalistic hermeneutic that does not know God."

If we "lower out sights," we will only see what we can see by our own self-chosen limits.


The tradition that understands these approaches sees in the canonical writings "a word addressed by God to his people." When we meditate on this word, we always discover new richness of meaning and of being.

The Church is given the task of judging Scripture's final meaning and unity. Tradition also transmits the whole word of God, the same word that is found in Scripture. The Church has certainty of what Scripture teaches both from Scripture itself and from Tradition, from what is passed down within the Church.

Tradition with the authority of the Church over Scripture, however, "in no way is an obstacle to a serious and scientific interpretation but furthermore gives access to the additional dimensions of Christ that are inaccessible to a merely literary method."

We might add that often in universities today the Bible is proposed to be studied as "literature," say as English, Italian, or German literature in its translation. This approach may be well enough, but the only reason to study the Bible is because it is true.

Allan Bloom, in Shakespeare's Politics, put it quite wittily: "One could never reestablish the Mosaic religion on the basis of a Bible read by the Higher Critics."

This observation is the same as Benedict has been making all along. The prior assumptions of the "higher critics" often make it impossible for them actually to read what is in the Bible.

"It is indispensable that exegetical science attain a good level." Scripture does have an ecclesial context in which to understand the "Word of God which makes itself the guide, norm and rule for the life of the Church and the spiritual growth of believers."

The Church is not concerned primarily with "scientific knowledge," though it does not disdain it. It is concerned with the souls of actual human persons in this life.

But this salvific concern, Benedict affirms, is "in no way an obstacle to a serious and scientific interpretation but furthermore gives access to the additional dimensions of Christ that are inaccessible to a merely literary analysis, which remains incapable of grasping by itself the overall meaning that has guided the Tradition of the entire People of God down the centuries."

Thus, it is possible to "study" Scripture scientifically and still not know what it is really about. A "literary analysis" will not tell us what it is about, however exalted the diction and however memorable the works in our language.

But a scholar who understands what Scripture means will find that scientific method can indeed help him and will enable him to deal with those critical sources that claim that "scientific study" undermines the validity of the Bible.

To conclude, I had, in the beginning of these considerations, cited a passage of John Paul II to the Biblical Commission in 1993, in which he said, almost poetically, that "God created an astonishing variety of things." Half the joy of human life is simply noticing such things. God, John Paul added, does not "destroy differences but makes use of them."

It is significant that such words were spoken in the context of the scholarly study of the Scripture. The Scripture itself is filled with an astonishing variety of things, the familiarity with which is a constant impetus into the reality in which we are cast in our finite lives directed to eternity. The infinite variety of Scripture reflects the infinite variety of things.

I wonder if this fact is not the reason for both a human and divine authorship of its text.

The story Augustine tells us in the Confessions of his finally opening an apparently arbitrarily selected passage from Paul's Epistle to the Romans only to find that it explained to him exactly what he needed to know about himself at the time properly to live his actual life is most instructive.

Not only did Augustine have to understand what the text told him about how not to live his life, but he had to see it as addressed precisely to himself.

No scientific exegesis could have done this self-enlightenment for Augustine. What did happen to him was his recognition that these words of Paul were also authored by God but were meant also for him and no doubt for myriads of others, including us.

Such a passage comes pretty close to what Benedict, lover of the works of Augustine that he is, told the Biblical Commission about what, ultimately, their work is about.


[1] John Paul II, "Address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," April 23, 1993, in The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993), 20.

[2] Benedict XVI, "The Life and Mission of the Church Based on the Word of God," Address to Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, L'Osservatore Romano, English, April 29, 2009.

[3] Interpretation, ibid. 28.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:05 AM]
6/8/2009 5:41 PM
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On the occasion of Trinity Sunday yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI gave one of those mini-homilies of his that stand out like a precious cameo even among his countless Magisterial jewels.

Ignatius Insight has seen fit, rightly, to reprint a commentary written by Fr. Schall last year on the Holy Father's homilies about the Trnity while on a pastoral visit to Savona and Genoa.

Before going on to Fr. Schall's commentary, here first is what the Holy Father said yesterday about the Trinity:

Today, let us contemplate the Most Holy Trinity as Jesus has made us know it. He revealed to us that God is love "not in the unity of one single person, but in the Trinity of one single substance" (Preface): He is Creator and merciful Father; he is the Only Begotten Son, eternal Wisdom incarnate, who died and resurrected for us; and finally, the Holy Spirit who moves everything, the cosmos and history, towards the full final recapitulation.

Three Persons who are one God because the Father is love, the Son is love, the Spirit is love. God is all love and only love, the purest love, which is infinite an eternal. He does not live in splendid solitude, but is rather an inexhaustible source of life which he gives and communicates to us incessantly.

We can sense this by observing around us - whether it is the macro-universe - our earth, the planets, the stars, the galaxies; or the micro-universe - cells, atoms, elementary particles.

In everything that exists, the 'name' of the Most Holy Trinity is somehow 'imprinted, because all being, until the last particle, is being in a relationship - the God-relationship, ultimately appearing as creative love.

Everything comes from love, reaches out to love, and moves at the impulse of love, though, of course, with degrees of consciousness and freedom.

"O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!" (Ps 8,2), the psalmist exclaims. When it speaks of the 'name', the Bible means God himself, his truest identity: one that shines over all creation, where every being, by the very fact of being and by the very 'fabric' of which he is made, refers back to a transcendent Principle, to eternal and infinite Life which can be said in one word: Love.

"In him", said St. Paul at the Areopagus of Athens, "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17,28), The strongest proof that we are made in the image of the Trinity is this: that only love makes us happy, because we live in relationship - we live to love and to be loved.

Using an analogy suggested by biology, we can say that the human being carries in his own genome the profound imprint of the Trinity, of God-Love.

The Virgin Mary, in her obedient humility, made herself a handmaid of Divine Love: she accepted the will of the Father and conceived the Son by the action of the Holy Spirit. In her, the Almighty constructed a temple worthy of him, and made her the model and image of the Church, mystery and home of communion for all men.

May Mary, mirror of the Most Holy Trinity, help us to grow in our faith in the Trinitarian mystery.

And now to Fr. Schall:
June 5, 2008

"On this Solemnity (Trinity Sunday), the liturgy invites us to praise God not merely for the wonders that he has worked, but for who he is...."
— Benedict XVI, Even of Trinity Sunday, Savona, May 17, 2008. [1]

"From the reality of God which he himself made known to us by revealing his "name' to us comes a certain image of man, that is, the exact concept of the person. If God is a dialogical unity, a being in relation, the highest creature made in his image and likeness reflects this constitution; thus he is called to fulfill himself in dialogue, in conversation, in encounter."
— Benedict XVI, Trinity Sunday, Genoa, May 18, 2008.

Over Trinity Sunday 2008, Benedict visited the Italian cities of Savona, where Pope Pius VII had been in exile in the time of Napoleon, and the port city of Genoa, which was the home of the World War I Pope, Benedict XV.

In one way or another, the theme of all of Benedict's homilies on this occasion was that of the inner nature and being of the Godhead, the most fascinating of all topics put forth to the human intelligence to consider.

The Trinity is, of course, the feast that is devoted to God's very being as such. In this feast, as Benedict said in Savona, "God proclaims his own name."

It is not just that men, almost since they began to wonder about it, have sought to call God by His proper name. Or, barring that, they tried to come up with some name that would come closest to what God is.

The names that we gave to God, names like "All Good" or "Perfect Being," are neither complete nor are they wrong. They contain truth. The fact is that the accurate naming of God is not something, in the end, we concoct by ourselves. Rather it is something that, once we understand why, must first be given to us.

On coming to know it, we can think about its appropriateness or meaning in a more enlightened manner. Logically, if we claimed we could, by our own powers, accurately say what God is, we would ourselves be God. On the surface, if we reflectively know anything about ourselves, this alternative is rather doubtful.

Of course, nowhere in Scripture do we find God calling himself the "Trinity." This is a human, philosophic word that the Church finds most suitable to state in a word the central point of the Christian understanding of what is said in the New Testament about God. At the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy, Benedict said:

We are invited to contemplate, so to speak, the Heart of God, his deepest reality which is his being One in the Trinity, a supreme and profound communication of love and life. The whole of sacred Scripture speaks to us of him. Indeed, it is he who speaks to us of himself in the Scriptures and reveals himself as Creator of the universe and Lord of history.

Christianity begins not with "What do I think God ought to be called," but with "How does God speak of Himself?" He speaks to us in words and deeds.

The name we use is intended to identify, make intelligible, the reality that the name indicates. Among the ancients, to "name" a thing often meant to "possess" it.

Benedict cites the passage from Exodus 34 in which the question "What is God's name?" is asked. The answer is given in the Old Testament that He is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."

These words are "human words" in the Holy Spirit, but they tell us "the truth about God." This truth is after all what we want to know above else, the truth about God. These words tell us "the Name of the Ineffable One. This Name is Mercy, Grace Faithfulness."

The names used in the Old Testament and the name used in the New Testament do not describe different "gods" but, ever more clearly and incisively, the same God. They are continuations, developments, if you will, of the same revelation.

The "logic" in the understanding of God is the increasing comprehension of what it means to say that God is love. That name is the word used by John in his Gospel to speak of Him.

We seek "the Face of the Invisible One, (words used in the Old Testament) to tell us the Name of the Ineffable One. This Name is Mercy, Grace, Faithfulness." Each of these words, on examination, brings out a different aspect of what Love means. Hence, they indicate what God is.

Benedict recalls that in a famous apparition in Savona on March 18, 1536, Mary introduced herself precisely as "Our Lady of Mercy." And it is under this notion of mercy that John Paul II often talked of our understanding of the limits of evil.

Basically, as the late Pope said in Memory and Identity, the limits of evil are the limits of what the divine mercy can forgive. The only thing that it cannot forgive, in brief, is what chooses not to be forgiven.

Benedict makes a most interesting remark of the Blessed Mother in this connection. "But Mary did not speak of herself, she never speaks of herself but always of God, and she did so with this name so old yet ever new: mercy, which is a synonym of love, of grace."

The Old Testament descriptions of God are thus preparatory to the way God will "name" Himself in the Incarnation, through which fact the name of God becomes properly known to us.

"God is One since he is all and only Love but precisely by being Love he is openness, acceptance, dialogue; and in his relationship with us, sinful human beings, he is mercy, compassion, grace, and forgiveness."

We thus "name" God differently depending on our condition, on the basis on which we choose to address Him.

"God has created all things for existence and what he wills is always and only life." The central understanding of the Trinitarian life is "eternal life."

The term "death" thus does not mean that the dead disappear into nothingness. As the Pope explains in Spe Salvi, the terms heaven, hell, purgatory, and death relate to our final condition with respect to the inner Trinitarian life of God. Once God creates us, we remain created. How we stand to God lies within our choice, which God cannot overcome except at the cost of denying to us the kind of free being that we are.


"In God's gift of himself in the Person of the Son the whole of the Trinity is at work."

All of God's acts outside of Himself are the results of the Trinity acting as one God. The Incarnation of the Word relates to the Father and is through the Holy Spirit. Christ ascends to the Father and sends His Spirit.

The Name of God always includes the One and Three. This is what Trinity means and we can understand that these elements must be kept present. Our misunderstanding of God is reflected in our misunderstanding of ourselves and of our cities.

At his address at the major seminary in Genoa, Benedict continued his explication of the Trinity. Again beginning with the Old Testament names, he recalled that "God is merciful and compassionate."

In the New Testament God is Love and reveals Himself by giving His only Son whose death is steeped in mercy and compassion. Consequently, this Name clearly expresses that the "God of the Bible is not some kind of monad closed in on itself and satisfied with his own self-sufficiency but he is life that wants to communicate itself, openness, relationship."

This passage clearly refers to those speculations of the philosophers about what the cause of being might be like. God was only a sort of "final cause" or enclosed "monad" who was just out there. He was not a person. He or it had no relation back to the cosmos or to rational beings within it.

What is striking about Scripture, however, is precisely how it can accept what truth that may have been found in the philosophic positions and yet form a more complete understanding of God. The doctrines of Creation and redemptive Incarnation are central here.

Thus, it is God who takes the initiative. This God, in Benedict's words, is the one who "desires to establish a solid and lasting bond" with us under the ideas of mercy, compassion, rich in grace.

"Scripture knows no other God than the God of the Covenant who created the world in order to pour out his love upon all creatures and chose a people with which to make a nuptial pact, to make it become a blessing for all the nations and so to form a great family of the whole of humanity."

What this passage implicitly says about other understandings of God, about what might be known as the human "religious" tradition, is that the God of Scripture is by far a more complete and intelligible understanding of God than any of its rivals.

Even on the supposed grounds that "God does not exist," we can still recognize the superiority of this "God of the Covenant." The various "understandings" of God do not stand independently of each other, but in a dialectical one that separates what is true and intelligible from what is not.


The revelation of God is "fully disclosed" in the New Testament. The "Face of God" is seen in an actual face, that of Christ. It is no theological accident that our painters and sculptors have sought to represent, to picture this very Face.

"If you have seen Me," Christ tells the apostles, "you have seen the Father." Thus we find the habitual speaking of the one God in the New Testament to be "Father," "Son," and "Spirit."

We have to assume this is not contradictory. This is why we also need philosophy. This is in fact the way Christ did speak of Himself and of His relation to His Father and to the Spirit.

The first question is not so much whether this way of speaking is true, but rather "Is this the way Christ did speak?"

We recognize on empirical grounds, as the Holy Father showed in his book Jesus of Nazareth, that Christ did speak this way. On this basis, we can begin to reflect more deeply on what this God is like who is so conceived in His explication of Himself to us. [2]

But the starting and ending points of our efforts to understand God are given to us by God, even though in our very creation we find ourselves, on reflection, to be driven by our desire to know the truth of things, including the cause of things. "Why is there something, rather than nothing?" This too is a Trinitarian question.

Moses climbed Sinai to be in God's presence, where he received the Law. On this basis, Benedict tells us that "Our history depends on God's Name."

Evidently, if we think of how God named Himself, we will begin to understand even ourselves. God made His reality known to us when He revealed His own "Name." The very notion that something is "revealed" to someone else means that both parties are capable of understanding what is received.

God does not reveal Himself to the rocks as if they got the idea of the Trinity. But he did reveal it to human beings precisely because it was important that they did have the proper Name, proper understanding of God, how to address Him.

The exact concept of a "person" means that there is someone one who can receive God's indication of who He is. If the inner life of God is community, what is created in His name reflects this community. This reflection, as it were, requires someone who can receive knowingly what is reveled.

The foundation of our dignity, then, the very meaning of personhood, indicates that, within the universe, a specific kind of being exists who is free and intelligent. The completion of the universe that is not God requires a being that can and must seek to understand God in Himself, insofar as He can be understood by finite beings.

"If God is a dialogical unity, a being in relation [a concept the Holy Father reaffirmed in his Angelus homily yesterday] , the human creature made in his image and likeness reflects this constitution: thus he is called to fulfill himself in dialogue, in conversation, in encounter."

What this remarkable passage says it that the inner Trinitarian life does not need creation to be itself. But if God does create, He creates only in His Trinitarian image.

If philosophy exists in conversation, as it does, if truth exists in the judgment of the person knowing the mind's relation to what is, then our relation to God will also imply communication and conversation, prayer and wisdom. All human relationships with God are intended to be and are personal.

What if man wants to fulfill himself by his own not inconsiderable powers? This effort, in a sense, is the history of much of modern thought.

What if he wants to be autonomous? He can of course seek to do so. He has in fact so sought to do so. But he must live with the consequences of this choice. He will never find anyone to "converse" with about what really is.

"Man is not fulfilled in an absolute autonomy, deceiving himself that he is God but, on the contrary, by recognizing himself as a child, an open creature, reaching out to God and to his brethren, in whose face he discovers the image of their common Father."

It is indeed possible to think that we are ourselves "gods" and thus not wanting any relation with others. One of the purposes of revelation was to warn us that we are not this kind of a being, that we will never find ourselves if there is only ourselves to "converse" with.

Interestingly enough, the Pope tells us that it is the family, with its central nuptial relationship of two persons in fidelity, not the more abstract state, is the model of our understanding of ourselves.

This is perhaps something new in political philosophy, which has long understood that the family is that out of which the state a rises, but it has not understood it as that into which it should return.

There are intimations of this return, of course, in the notion of leisure, but the key point is that the state to be itself needs relationships of love and compassion and mercy, which are not in principle political.

It is a model of the human family transversal to all civilizations, which we Christians express confirming that human beings are all children of God and therefore all brothers and sisters. This is a truth that has been behind us from the outset.... The Magisterium of the Church which has developed from this vision of God and of man is a very rich one. It suffices to run through the most important chapters of the Social Doctrine of the Church....

What is above the state takes us back to the political need of friendship is justice is to be justice. It is not an accident that Aquinas explained the notion of "charity" after the philosophic basis of Aristotle's friendship. The relation of eros, philia, and agape is needed to complete this understanding of a nuptial based relationship to transcendence.

This background is reflected in both the first and last part of Deus Caritas Est. In the first part the Pope addressed eros and its history in the light of agape or a descending love, the word the New Testament uses to describe God's love.

In the last part of the encyclical, the Pope carefully points out that all Christian relations, even in the state, to be complete need to be suffused with personal love and attention.

In a sense, the personal love that begets the family also is the end of the state, or at least its effect. This is indeed the purpose of our existence with God in which there is no relation that is not personal. There is no relation that is not suffused with love, a love that itself reflects the inner life of the triune God.

These reflections of Benedict XVI in Savona and Genoa, in conclusion, might easily pass unnoticed.

"The he goes again," some cynic might tell us, "speaking of God and other irrelevant topics, when will he talking of something important like, say, birth control or ecology?"

Well, the fact is that this and related topics are what he is talking about. The editor of L'Osservatore Romano, Giovanni Maria Vian, in fact took time in a special editorial to underscore the importance of these Ligurian addresses. "These are not words scattered to the winds but a teaching..." This observation is surely correct.

"The Triune God and the person in relationship; these are the two references that the Church has the duty to offer to every human generation as a service to build a free and supportive society."

The first, the Trinity, tells us what the inner life of God is. The second, following from this, tells us that we cannot be persons by ourselves. To be a person is to be freely related to other persons in a proper order.

In a society fraught between globalization and individualism, the Church is called to offer a witness of koinonia, of communion. This reality does not come 'from below' but is a mystery which, so to speak, 'has its roots in Heaven,' in the Triune God himself.

It is he, in himself, who is the eternal dialogue of love which was communicated to us in Jesus Christ and woven into the fabric of humanity and history to lead it to its fullness.

The Trinitarian understanding of God is not something that we figured out by ourselves. But it is not less true or delightful for all that. The greatest truths and goods are not those that we drummed up ourselves but those that were first given to us. On Trinity Sunday, we "praise God for who he is."

The "reality of God" implies a certain image of man as a person who stands in conversation with the Persons of the Trinity, one God, one in Being, three in Persons. We are called thus to fulfill ourselves in "encounter," yes, in "conversation" even with God if He so chooses.

Our age is, with this Pope, being taught first about God, without which teaching, all other teaching lapses into confusion.

To think rightly about God is to name Him. His Name is "I AM."

I AM reveals Himself to us through His Son, true God and true man, who dwelt amongst us as a man to teach us what we are, persons created in the Spirit to know God as He is, Trinity.


[1] The Savona and Genoa homilies and talks are in L'Osservatore Romano, English, May 21, 2008. Also available online on the Vatican website.

[2] See James V. Schall, What Is God Like? (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Glazer, 1992.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:07 AM]
6/8/2009 6:52 PM
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A fresh treat from Fr. Schall comes in the June issue of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, dutifully featured by Ignatius Insight. The Feast of the Assumption is the apparent take-off point, but it is really a wide-ranging reflection on the basic facts of Christian belief and how they constitute the consistent focus of Benedict XVI's Magisterium.

Fr. Schall also rightly refers to Spe salvi, arguably the most beautiful and most powerful summation so far of Benedict XVI's Magisterium - the magnitude of which, frankly, I was unprepared for when it first came out, because I somehow foolishly thought it would be difficult to exceed the sheer beauty and power of Deus caritas est. But Benedict XVI did, to near-universal acclaim.

June 2009 issue

“Today’s feast (Assumption) impels us to lift our gaze to Heaven; not the heaven consisting of abstract ideas or even an imaginary heaven created by art, but the Heaven of true reality which is God himself.”
—Benedict XVI, Homily, Feast of the Assumption, 2008.

“The teachers are terrified of the thought that they might really have something divine to teach. They are terrified of dogma, or Tradition, or of Divine Revelation, of Divine Law, of authority, of ‘Thus says the Lord.’”
—Peter Kreeft, Jesus Shock.

“Let there be one common festival for saints in heaven and for men on earth. Let everything, mundane things and those above, join in festive celebration. Today this created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.”
—St Andrew of Crete, Discourse, Feast of the Nativity of Mary.

Though full of ideas, the characteristic of Catholicism is its stubborn concreteness. It talks about a “real presence,” as opposed to an unreal or merely symbolic one.

Its Trinitarian God is different from the classical concept of a First Mover or the Good. The Trinity means personal relations within the Godhead itself and, from there, not to “humanity” in general, but to each existing human being. “Humanity” is a logical abstraction, in fact, an abstraction from an abstraction.

Christ did not become man to save a logical abstraction, but to save Suzie, John and Henry, actual human beings with names. Indeed, properly speaking, the Word was made “flesh,” not “man,” just to be sure we have the idea straight and what it refers to. But it is an idea that we must carefully spell out and define so that we know exactly what is at stake and what is meant.

The Incarnation is a most scandalous idea; we should not doubt it. No doctrine gives more consternation to the philosophers and to the other religions than the Incarnation.

The idealists, the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus have to reject it on their own grounds. God, while remaining God, becomes one of us; and we know, or should know, what we are. We are not God. We are not the “ground” of our own being. But this fact does not deter us from maintaining both that Jesus is God and that this same Jesus is man.

Those who wrote the Nicene Creed used their heads carefully to show how both of these positions are true, how they do not contradict each other. They distinguished properly.

Using one’s brains is also a first principle of Catholicism. So is “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The two are connected, as it were, the hearing and the thinking.

Christ was the Word made flesh; he also heard his mother and father, his disciples, and those who hated him.

Logical abstractions, as such, take us back to the Platonic form. Plato has to be thought about. No one is more stimulating or more fascinating. In thinking about him, we, as Catholics, are likewise able to think about Jesus more clearly.

As Augustine said, the Platonists had the Word, but not the Word made flesh. When a mind thinks the forms, they are already “eternal” or unchangeable, but abstracted from something that exists. We have the capacity to know what is not ourselves because it exists and we affirm it.

We study logic to know about genus and species and things that we use to understand what is. We are bad logicians when we confuse our ideas as they exist in the mind with the reality that is. Ideas as such are “real” enough with their own being in an intellect that belongs to each existing person.

When Marx talked about the “species-man” that we were to become, he was confusing logic with reality. Species only exist in the mind. That simple confusion has been a scourge to real human persons. Wrong ideas have consequences, even when we insist they are good ideas.

Another characteristic of Catholicism is its doctrine that Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, had a mother. She has a name, Mary. The people who wrote of her knew her. Her husband’s name was Joseph; her cousin was Elizabeth. She was Jewish. She lived in an obscure but real place called Nazareth.

She is not a myth or a conclusion of a syllogism, even though her existence found syllogisms useful, to wit: “All that is born of woman is human. But Christ was born of Mary, a woman. Therefore, he was a human being.”

She has a name that, like all human names, refers to a single concrete existence. It applies to no one else, even if there are many other Marys in the world and in the Scriptures. Our names do not designate a species or a form, but the wholeness of what we are, body, soul — all the this-ness that makes us unique, unrepeatable.

One of the revolutions that is taking place in the Catholic Church under Benedict is the complete re-presentation of every basic teaching so that its essence is made quite clear and quite intelligible in terms of truth itself to ordinary human beings as well as scholars.

In this sense, Spe Salvi is so remarkable that we hardly know what to do with it. Many would like to ignore it. It is nothing less than a thorough re-explanation of the four last things in terms that anyone, including scientists, can understand.

And I note that it is an explanation — not, as we have seen too often, an “explaining away” such that heaven, hell, death, and purgatory become fancy ideas for what in effect are abstractions.

One of the central things the Pope has done is to put politics in its own place. Its own place is not nothing, but it is not salvation either. Politics is an aspect of moral theology, not eschatology, as the Pope pointed out in his book Eschatology, a book that shows us that this Pope has been thinking about these things for a very long time.

Few theologians, philosophers and critics — Eric Voegelin being an exception — have been alert to the way modern politics has become a branch of eschatology. That is, it has claimed the power to resolve the fears and hopes of the last things by itself.

Benedict has clarified the issue by showing that eschatology goes on in whatever polity that man has put together. Politics do not excuse us from the burden of saving our souls.

The Kingdom of God is not a political norm of political activity, but it is a moral norm of that activity. Political activity stands under moral norms, even if morality as such is not politics nor politics as such morality.

In other words, the message of the Kingdom of God is significant for political life not by way of eschatology but by way of political ethics. The issue of a politics that will be genuinely responsible in Christian terms belongs to moral theology, not eschatology.

This passage can be applied to Mary in an illuminating way. When her son was born “the whole world was at peace” under Augustus Caesar. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem because of a political edict or census even though this going has older traditions from the Old Testament about where the Messiah would be born.

The point I wish to make here is that the salvation of the world is going on in whatever political entity we find ourselves, even the worst.

Augustus Caesar had no clue that his decree would have any world-shattering implications. He was just trying to figure out how many citizens were in his newly formed Empire.

The Old Testament considers this “counting” as a form of vanity and mistrust of the Lord, but census taking is itself a perfectly normal political action, as we know.

Eschatology, none the less, was working itself out in the Roman Empire. It was doing so in spite of the inner intentions of the Roman leaders. The Roman leaders themselves would be judged by their deeds whatever went on. We can say that they were instruments of providence.

Benedict in fact implies in his Regensburg lecture that when Paul was called to go to Macedonia, something more was going on than a boat trip to see dispersed Jewish communities.

Anne Carson Daly has frequently pointed out that, if we carefully read the Scriptures when they mention Mary, we discover that this young Jewish lady was no push-over. She in fact talked back, in no uncertain terms.

Thus, when the Angel Gabriel made his announcement to her — or better, his request — she wanted to know, in effect, “What’s the deal?” She did not see any way this was possible.

Also, once she did understand, she made a momentous decision to accept, a decision that impinges on the whole history of the world.

This incident took place in a very obscure hamlet and was not noted by the political movements of its time. But the Incarnation happened. It was not a dream.

The Christian theme from the Magnificat is not that the powerful will rule in the essential things but that “he has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”

The theme of The Lord of the Rings was that the lowly are often the ones through whom the great deeds are finally accomplished.

Mary’s twelve-year-old son slipped off the caravan and returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. When he was finally found, his mother asked him if this is the way a young man acts toward his parents. And she was right to ask him about what was, to his parents, irresponsible behavior.

But the young man did answer his mother frankly and honestly. He told her about his Father’s business. She did not pursue the matter. She did not ask: “What Father’s business?”

Mary was not totally privy to this business of the Father, but she had every reason to suspect that more was going on in this incident than she understood.

In his book on Luke’s Gospel, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, writes:

Mary did not just have vague impressions to go on. She had not been given her child by Joseph. God had made her a gift of the child, after she had given the angel her assent to God’s plan. Other people might doubt whether it was so, might cast suspicions on her…. She knew whence this child that she had received had come. She kept in her memory every word the angel had said to her about the child’s future.

Again, we are not dealing with an abstraction or a myth here. Mary herself was gradually learning more about this son of hers by observing him. She was involved in something greater than herself.

In one sense, Mary knew more about Jesus than he did, at least on the human side. With a real human nature, Christ had to “grow” in knowledge as he went along. She could tell him from her memory the details about the Gabriel incident or the Bethlehem situation or the being lost on the way back from Jerusalem. She was there.

We do not know whether she did or did not talk to the young man about it, though it seems likely. St. Ignatius has said that certain things happened even if they were not in Scripture. Christ probably washed up after a hard day’s work before he had supper, but not a word of it is in Scripture.

But we do know that Mary “pondered” these things, ever more so as the young man grew. We know nothing of what went on from his twelfth to his thirtieth year. Presumably Joseph died in this period.

Still, Mary knew something momentous was going on around her son. She had been told by Simeon in the Temple that a “sword” would pierce her heart. Knowing this, she needed some of John Paul II’s “Be not afraid,” which, of course, was a theme of Christ himself.

But not being afraid and not being sorrowful when something happens to a mother’s son are not the same things. It is like saying that we should not make too much of the Crucifixion because we know about the Resurrection.

In the beginning of this essay, I cited a comment of Peter Kreeft about weak or effectively unbelieving bishops, pastors and teachers. In a graphic phrase, Kreeft said that many are “terrified” by what the Church teaches about who Christ is, who Mary is. In Kreeft’s phrase, these are “shocking” teachings if true.

Nietzsche, in fact, said much the same thing, namely, that few Christians really believe and practice what they are to believe if one knows their own teachings.

Nietzsche, the great analyzer of modern thought and its implicit contradictions, was also contemptuous of professed Christians who did not really believe what the Church taught about Christ. They did not act on what they said they believed. This scandalized Nietzsche and sent him off in other directions.

But the doctrines about Mary are all consequent on who she was. As Andrew of Crete said on the feast of Mary’s birth, through her acceptance of the Angel’s invitation, a place was made in this world “for him who made all things.”

That is to say, that the origin of all things, the Word, needed someone on the human side before he could actually enter the world by becoming flesh. He was dependent on the acceptance of Mary of this seemingly outlandish plan of salvation of the Father that in fact depended on her consent.

But once she consented, she herself had to follow out the results, both as a mother and as someone seeking to understand what was happening. She had to keep what she saw in her heart, because she knew about the sword. She was not yet sure what it would actually be in her case. She herself was not martyred like most of the apostles. Her “sword” was a mother’s sword, that which comes from the love of a child for the good of the child.

When Benedict spoke of the Assumption of Mary, he was careful to state that this teaching was grounded in reality. In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict again and again made the point that all the efforts to explain Jesus as both God and man fail.

Modern scholarship sometimes seems to be obsessed with the need to deny the reality of the Incarnation. However, the facts of Scripture and of reason reflecting on it make clear that Jesus did exist. Moreover, all the testimony is that he was indeed God made man. That is to say, the Incarnation, life, death and Resurrection of Christ happened.

Once we understand that God did in fact enter the world as the Incarnate Word made flesh, we also realize that the world is forever different and on its way to what God has intended for it.

In Spe Salvi, Benedict points out that we have hope in our own future because of the fact that Christ was in the world and that we are created to follow his path. This means that resurrection is not just a pious hope. We each are human persons who will be resurrected in the flesh. This is our destiny and indeed what we wish. This hope is why the Pope says that heaven is not an abstraction. This is why Mary’s Assumption is not just a story.

All Marian doctrines are Christological doctrines. Mary stands on the human side for our destiny in which, while remaining ourselves, we each see God face-to-face.

Mary did not “become” God. She remains Mary the mother of Jesus, the young man who skipped out of the caravan. We can imagine the two of them in heaven having a good laugh over this, along with Joseph, who probably thought at the time that maybe they would have to put the kid on a short leash, until Mary told him to let it go for now.

In conclusion, the birth of Mary and the Assumption of Mary teach us about ourselves in a kind of mirror of the way that Christ’s life teaches us. Not a few are inclined to think, “Well, Christ was God and I am not, so his example is beyond me.”

But Mary is another matter. Yes, she too is without original sin as befits her role as Christ’s mother. She is not a goddess. She is the Mother of Sorrows and the Seat of Wisdom because she was at the Cross and pondered each step that led her son there.

The realism or concreteness of Catholicism is startling to minds conditioned only by abstractions or by materialism alone.

Mary’s life reminds us that each life, in its actual context of living, growing and dying is a full life whose final outcome also depends on what we believe and do with our lives.

No one in Mary’s time ever paid the least attention to the “significance” of her life. Yet, it was her life that led to the first death of our kind after the death of her son.

When Benedict tells us that heaven is not an abstraction, what he means is that the real person each of us is will follow the same path. We will each also be judged, for, as he recalls the Creed, Christ came to judge the “living and the dead.” That is, our lives are significant. We are not saved whatever we do or think.

We are said to live in a “vale of tears.” We know of Mary’s sorrows. We are said to be pilgrims and wayfarers, that is, we are each on our way to that purpose for which we are created.

In the case of Mary, the purpose for which she was created, aside from the reality of her being, was that the Incarnation of the Word could happen in this world.

But it depended on her. At that moment when she confronted the angel, the whole future of the world was at stake in a small out-of-the-way place. She did not have to be “great” to be great. What she had to do was accept the offer of God to have a son who would be called Emmanuel, God with us.

It is all very concrete. If we do not like it, we can become something else, non-concretists, as it were. One thing is sure: no other explanation of things comes anywhere near to this one in guiding us to what it is that we most want.

Mary’s Assumption showed the way. This is a “frightening” doctrine if it is true. But it is true. This is why we need and want to hear it, even when we do not hear it.

Reverend James V. Schall, S.J. is now teaching at Georgetown University after having taught at the University of San Francisco and the Gregorian University in Rome for twelve years. A prolific writer, he is the author of many books and hundreds of articles. One recent book is Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (Lexington Books).
[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 6/8/2009 6:53 PM]
6/11/2009 9:17 PM
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This particular review of a new volume of essays by Cardinal Ratzinger focuses on one of his 'political' essays on the nature of democracy and how it should reflect authentic human values which are also the fundamental Christian values.

Conscience, according to Joseph Ratzinger
by Benedetto Ippolito
Translated from

It is onerous for a philosopher to try and sum up his thought in a few pages. Benedetto Croce admitted to this difficulty explicitly at the start of a collection of his writings in 1945 entitled La mia filosofia.

Sometimes, however, compendia succeed quite well. And this is certainly the case with this splendid volume of essays by Joseph Ratzinger, which has been in Italian bookstores for a month now,
L'elogio della coscienza: La verita interroga il cuore (Eulogy of conscience: Truth interrogates the heart).

It is a volume that is as slim (178 pp) as it is precious - a gift to the general public of an accessible anthology of old addresses given on specific occasions in which as cardinal, Ratzinger spoke as a simple scholar-researcher.

The essays are subdivided into three sections corresponding to the three great themes confronted in the book: relativism, truth and evangelization.

Among the essays included, a lecture given by the author in Bratislava to Slovakian bishops in March 1992 stands out with particular relevance. It is dedicated to the meaning of religious and moral values in a pluralistic society.

It condenses the true critical mass of Ratzinger's political ideas, which would later prose in his famous philosophical debate with Juergen Habermas in Munich.

He takes off from teh idea of demcoracy, defined as the most perfect social synthesis of freedom and equality. As in Kelsen and Bobbio, popular sovereignty means, for Ratzinger, collective participation in the creation of laws.

This formidable opportunity offered to cizens of modern democratic societies must, however, be accompanied by the awareness of teh system's fragility.

The participation of every man and woman in political life implies that everything can be questioned - even democratcy itself - by the citizenry.

The paradox is that freedom, if devoid of content, can easily slide into destructive relativism, weakening the very functioning of public institutions.

This particular fragility also leads to the always incumbent risk fo an incompatibility between democracy and freedom, with the corollary risk of dangerous authoritarian 'exceptions'.

For Ratzinger, a democracy must never accept such 'solutions' because they are incompatible with its fundamental principles. And so the correct line to follow must always start with the idea of freedom, which must be upheld, but in a strongly ethical context.

On the other hand, a non-relativistic intention is constantly disclosed in society, attributable to the need that communities inevitably have for public recognition of certain substantial human values, protecting such values and guaranteeing their legality.

Ratzinger's precise proposition is, therefore, towards the consistent organization of aan authentically demcoratic State which does not claim to be the exclusive bearer of absolute truth nor the only promoter of freedoms which are nonetheless devoid of content.

Democratic institutions nust, in other words, welcome from 'outside; the good on which they live, adhering to a space of moral truths which are independent of the freedom of the citizens but acceptable to everyone without impediments.

A level of common public rationality must be found, obtained from the historical and cultural contributions of Christian tradition, which are able to guide consciences towards full activation of democratic life, in which, therefore, freedom along with intelligence would bring about true and proper unanimous acknowledgment of what is ffective for the good of society.

Ratzinger's conviction is that human rights are the only rationally adequate resource that can assure both the freedom of all the mebers of society as well as the robustness of certain independent moral values - both being irrenunciable aspects necessasry for a functional democracy to stay alive.

Moreover, a nucleus of moral truth, expressed in a few fundamental human rights, can be grasped by human reason and made compatible with individual freedom.

The conclusive hope of this profound philosophical reasoning it for the emergence of a renewed political interest in moral truth, not only as in the classical teaching of Plato, but even the modern teaching of Bayle and Maritain.

Indeed, it is only with the diffusion of a public passion for authentic values that the desire to consolidate democracy completely and definitively can be born in the free conscience of its citizens.

From the publisher's blurb:

More than directives from the hierarchy, what counts more is the ability to orient the faith in a way that leads to spiritual discernment.

The Pope does not impose anything from the outside but guards and protects the memory on which our faith is founded. Christianity must be defended continuously from the menace of subjectivity and the pressures of social and cultural conformism.

A review by one reader:

We must truly be grateful to then Cardinal Ratzinger for having offered us so many dense points for reflection to reinforce our human nature in its totality.

Ratzinger's texts are true and proper 'antibiotics' to neutralize the infections coming fromthe gusts of relativism, hedonism, and agnosticism with which, unfortunately, we are constrained to live.

Conscience is too delicate to be exposed without concern to all the dosctrinal winds that would blow away the truth that Christ has given us in himself. Thank you.

Other reviews of this book were translated and posted earier in the PRF.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:07 AM]
6/14/2009 10:46 PM
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Conscience and truth -
in a new book from Benedict XVI

by Lucetta Scaraffia
Translated from
the 6/14/09 issue of

It certainly is nothing new that a Pope intervenes in order to make more clear to the faithful an understanding of the problems of the times we live in, but we can say without fear of exaggeration that no one has done this with the acuteness and profundity of Benedict XVI.

To the point that his writings dedicated to a critical reading of the present are now considered classics which can - and should - interest everyone who wants to better understand the age in which we live, not only Catholics.

Because of this, the essays collected in a book recently published in Italy (Joseph Ratzinger/Benedetto XVI, L'elogio della coscienza: La Verità interroga il cuore, Siena, Cantagalli, 2009, 175 pp, euro 13,50) are particularly illuminating.

With his usual limpid and simple style - that simplicity that only deep and well-settled thinking can arrive at - the author confronts the principal theoretical problems of our time, denouncing their limitations and manipulations, and proposing a clear response, drawn from the treasury of Christian tradition.

All the essays revolve around two questions that are intimately linked: conscience and truth, both 'cancelled out' by contemporary culture which has replaced them with subjectivity and relativism, thinking that this is the way to guarantee individual freedom, the one true modernist fetish.

The book's title essay, 'The eulogy of conscience', clarifies a complex and often misrepresented subject, the role of conscience. In a culture which tends to oppose a 'morality of conscience' against a 'morality of authority', unhooking the problem of conscience from that of truth, the only guarantee of freedom appears to be the justification of subjectivity, whereas authority is seen to "restrict, threaten and outright negate such freedom".

Here we touch the truly critical point of modernity: "The idea of truth has been eliminated in practice and replaced with that of progress" which although seemingly exalted, is instead deprived on all sides. In a world without fixed points of reference, without truth, there are no longer any directions, either.

Choosing not to admit that in order to be human, it is possible to know the truth, leads to a lack of interest in content, in order to give pre-eminence to technique, to formalism.

A clear example in this respect is in art: "Today, what the work expresses is altogether a matter of indifference: the only criterion is its technico-formal execution".

Living in a society which influences and conditions individuals, it is difficult to hear that which was considered 'the voice of conscience', that is, "the perceptible and imperious presence of the voice of truth within the subject himself".

Even if the way to truth and goodness has been abandoned because it is arduous, inconvenient, and considered too difficult to follow, that doesn't mean we should renounce it: "We would dissolve Christianity into a moralism if there were no clear announcement that goes beyond our own faith".

In these conditions, the very truth about the good becomes unattainable, because the only reference for each man is that which he is able to conceive by himself as good, thus renouncing that minimum of objectively established rights - not those agreed upon through social conventions - as the only ones on which the existence of every political community can be established.

In essence, where God 'disappears', "the absolute dignity of the human person also disappears". and the dignity of everyone no longer depends on the mere fact of existence, on being wanted and created by God. That is why "the ultimate root of hatred and all the attacks against human life is the loss of God".

Benedict XVI discloses one of his principal concerns, which he has repeated many times: the fear that the modern notion of democracy cannot emancipate itself from the relativistic option, in a world where relativism appears to be the only guarantee of freedom.

On the other hand, the Pope knows well and repeats ceaselessly that "a foundation of truth - truth in the moral sense - appears irrenunciable for the survival of democracy itself". We must not forget, he writes, that, in fact, "all states have attained rational moral evidence - which allows them to deploy its very effects - from pre-existent religious traditions".

Benedict XVI often returns to the subject of the search for truth: "If God is truth, if truth is the true 'sacred', then renouncing truth means fleeing from God". Even when this comes within a religious confession because, the Pope denounces, there is also a 'fideist positivism' which 'is afraid of losing God by exposing itself to the truth about created beings".

Truth is the fundamental premise of every morality, but if instead, the criterion of utility or of results, as sustained by currently asserted political theory, takes the place of truth, then the world shatters into so many partialities because utility always depends on the viewpoint of the subject who acts.

What then does it mean to be a theologian in this cultural situation? This question is answered in unprecedented and exhaustive manner by the last essays in a volume which is fundamental for understanding the world today and for living in it as a Christian.

Too bad that the editor to whom we owe the admirable initiative of putting together these texts did not specify when each was written, and whether it was by Cardinal Ratzinger or by the Pope. As if this were irrelevant to the reader.

[I was under the impression from all the reviews so far that all these texts were from when the Pope was a cardinal. It is rather surprising, though, that date and author attribution is not provided for each text in any anthology.]

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:08 AM]
6/15/2009 11:40 PM
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June 15, 2009

In Nazareth on May 14, Benedict XVI made the following incisive remark: "The conviction that the world is a gift of God, and that God has entered the twists and turns of human history, is the perspective from which Christians view creation as having a reason and a purpose" (L'Osservatore Romano, English, May 20, 2009).

That is a remarkable sentence. Human history, to be sure, does have its "twists and turns," that is, it is very complex, unexpected, and difficult to understand. But its workings out ever leave us with a sense that there is intelligence at play somewhere.

In spite of this difficulty of understanding, we can still say that this same creation is a gift. It is not a necessity. It did not have to happen, nor happen in the way it did happen. God also has entered human history.

Indeed, this entering is the salient point in the unfolding of human history itself. That is, within the actual world, at a given time and place, God in the Person of the Word did dwell on this earth.

This fact must mean that the world we live in is significant for this divine indwelling to happen among us. Or perhaps, we should say that the world is important enough that God once dwelled among us. "Why would He do so?" we wonder.

Notice that the Pope says that there is a reason and a purpose for creation. It does not just happen that the cosmos exists. It, the whole, does not "cause" itself, but is caused. And if it is caused, it is caused for a purpose. This purpose stands prior to creation itself and is not part of it.

Most religious traditions also think that peace among us is also a gift of God. But it is not a gift that can be achieved "without human endeavor." Peace requires we recognize that the world "is not our own."

What then is the world? It is not for itself. Rather it is "a horizon within which we are invited to participate in God's love and cooperate in guiding the world and history under his inspiration."

What does this "invitation" imply? We might say the world exists that something else might take place within its confines according to what it is. Among the beings in the world are the rational beings who stand in the unique position of looking back at the world itself, articulating it.

The world does not seem to be complete without this articulation, as Plato said. The world and history are to be "guided" by the rational being. So the world does not achieve its purpose outside of the purpose of the rational being for whom the world exists.

The families, societies, nations, and institutions that are characteristic of human life present a context in which "love and cooperation" can take place.

But the hitch is this, that the free creature is "invited" to know what is true; he can reject it. He can build a world that is not the one to which he is invited.

This is why the world is a "horizon," or a field of play, or an arena in which what is constantly going on are the decisions of each personal human being about how he lives and ultimately his eternal life, the real reason for his personal existence.

On the same day, this time at the Grotto of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Benedict stated: "What happened here in Nazareth, far from the gaze of the world, was a singular act of God, a powerful intervention in history, thorough which a child was conceived who was to bring salvation to the whole world."

Here is another "twist and turn." Great things do not necessarily happen in great places or to famous people, as Tolkien was fond of pointing out. Like Augustus Caesar, the great may at best be occasions whereby the important things happen.

Benedict calls it nothing less than a "powerful intervention in history." That is, something from outside of history came into history. It was an "act of God," not man, not of nature.

What was it that happened? A child was born.

What was He about? He was to bring "salvation to the whole world."

What was this salvation? It directly had to do with whether each free and rational person would accept the gift of everlasting life, but the intervention did not remove death or suffering from this world.

"When our Lord Jesus Christ was conceived in Mary's virginal womb through the power of the Holy Spirit, God united himself with our created humanity, entering into a permanent new relationship with us and ushering in a new Creation."

Jesus Christ is identified here as God. The power of the Spirit is the agency that brings about the union of God and man. The result was a new relationship between God and man because the Word was in fact now endowed with a human nature. But the person who bore this nature was God, the only begotten Son of the Father.

If this New Creation is to be genuinely human, however, it cannot just be imposed on mankind. Someone must accept the gift. That someone is Mary. But she too is free and she questions the angel about the intervention proposed to her.

God, Benedict adds, "does not impose himself, he does not simply predetermine the part that Mary will play in the plan for our salvation: He first seeks her consent."

This consent is nothing idle or perfunctory. For God to be in the world as human requires that someone human allow or invite Him in. Thus, Mary is not a kind of clone made by some artifact. She is a genuinely free being who must consent. "Let it be done unto me..."

The Pope then draws an important contrast between God's situation at the initial creation and the one at the New Creation that transpires with Mary's consent.

"In the original Creation there was clearly no question of God seeking the consent of his creatures." That is, it is simply impossible for God to ask a non-existing being whether it wants to exist. In that sense, God could only find out how free beings would react to Him if they existed in the first place.

It was enough they were created in goodness that they be allowed to decide how each would stand to the good. We must add here, that what God had in mind was something initially beyond the range of what might be expected of a rational being.

For God intended that they be offered a life, eternal life, which was proper to His Trinitarian life, not just a kind of immortality either in this world or the next, which did not include the full human being, body and soul.

Thus, "in the new creation," God does ask the consent of the free creature. "Mary stands in the place of all humanity." Mary's consent is what allows the Incarnation to happen as it happened.

Once Christ is conceived, he can be born, grow, live, and die as a human being, as someone who actually lived on this earth, who was present there in a given time and place. The existence of God in the world is a fact.

Benedict cites St. Bernard to say that Mary's consent is the locus of the "nuptial union between God and humanity." This union of man and God thus is not conceived as an imposition, but it is an invitation that must be freely accepted, otherwise it would not allow for that relation of love and friendship in which the highest things of God alone can exist.

These two short addresses of Benedict in Nazareth, I think, bring out something we need to understand about our world and about God.

The plan of God for the world is directed to those creatures who can receive the kind of life that He offers them, eternal life. He can simply decide to make such a world, the first Creation.

But the Second Creation, both in the case of the First Parents and in the case of Mary, is of a much more exalted nature. God cannot offer what He intends for us unless we first exist. We have no say in that.

Once we are conceived and born, we are conceived and born as human beings. We find that within history an event took place, at Nazareth in fact, in which God became man. This event changed the world.

It was God's initiative. It is the central fact of human existence. It enabled the world finally to achieve its purpose, that we reach that end to which we are invited.

But the kind of beings we are means we must agree to accept the gift. We can reject this gift. The drama of the world, in the end, is nothing else but the accounting of how each person chooses to direct his life in the "horizon" of the world in which he is given in his time and place.
[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:09 AM]
6/26/2009 4:18 PM
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June 26, 2009

I am including this commentary here because Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has probably been the most vocal - and certainly the most influential - member of the Catholic hierarchy to consistently point to the continuity/unity between the Old and New Testaments not only as a foundation for Christianity but as the strongest evidence for the indissoluble bond between Jews and Christians.

Also, the study analyzed by Fr. Schall was commissioned by then Cardinal Ratzinger. It is almost obligatory reading for any literate Christian.

"The Jewish people's Scriptures are received in the Christian Bible under the name Old Testament ... The Old Testament and the New Testament are inseparable."
- Albert Cardinal Vanhoye, S. J., "The Plan of God Is a Union of Love With His People", Synod Report, October 6, 2008 (L'Osservatore Romano, October 22, 2008)


In effect, this is a report of a report. Among the many interventions at the Synod on the Word of God, that of Cardinal Vanhoye on how the Christian Bible refers to the Hebrew Bible and how it speaks of the Jewish people was of particular interest.

In 1996, the then Cardinal Ratzinger suggested to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (of which Vanhoye is a member) that this general topic would be worth considerable attention. The Commission finally produced a long document. It is about this research that Vanhoye reported to the Synod. Even if belatedly, I think it worth recording the central points of this presentation.

The Commission report wanted to put the whole issue of the relation of the two testaments in a positive context. Since the Old Testament is basic to the New Testament and the Jewish people as individuals and as a people are spoken of in the New Testament, the question was simply a fact.

The final text, as Vanhoye admitted, was "not always easy to read," a not unheard of reaction to academic sounding investigations. The authors wanted to be as careful and precise as possible.

The operative principle to be kept in mind is that the Hebrew Bible is also considered to be at the origin and within the context of the Christian Bible. But the Jewish people do not, as Christians do, see the Hebrew Bible as containing or even as related to the Christian Bible.

To put it briefly, to be a Christian one must hold the revelational truth of the Hebrew Bible, but to be a Jew, one must not accept the Christian Bible as the completion of its own revelation. Thus, Pius XI could say that spiritually "We (Christians) are all Jews."

The Marcionite heresy that wanted to keep the New Testament but not the Old was declared a Christian heresy. Otherwise, there could be no coherence between the two testaments.

God's particular plan of salvation begins with the Jews. It still includes them. There is no room for "anti-Judaism." The Christian Bible, by itself, is not complete. The Jewish Bible is first necessary.

"Without its conformity to the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people, (the Christian Bible) could not be presented as the accomplishment of God's project." Christians thus persist in seeing the two testaments as belonging together in a coherent whole.

How many times does the phrase "according to Scripture" occur in the New Testament? "The Christian faith then is not only based on events, but also on the conformity of these events with the revelation contained in the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people." As we read of the life and death of Christ, we cannot imagine its coherence if we do not know how it relates to the Old Testament.

The New Testament uses the Old Testament because it sees its authority. It too is the "word of God." The Jewish scripture and people are seen as looking for fulfillment. The New Testament simply maintains that it is fulfilled in terms of the Old Testament itself.

But there is development within the Old Testament. Vanhoye uses the example of the presence of God in the Temple, a presence that ends in Christ's "destroy this temple..." (Jn. 2:19). The continuity is there, as is the difference, something greater than the Temple.

The Old Testament itself is full of "tensions" between the institutional law and the prophetic spirit. In this sense, the Christian Testament "conforms" to the Hebrew Bible. Paul's "justification by faith", not by the law, is faithful to the law and prophets.

Christ did not fulfill just one aspect of scripture, but as it were, all aspects at once. Emphasis on the Messiah and the Jews rejecting Him can cause an exaggeration. The events of the New Testament themselves are what cause us to look back into the Old Testament for explication.

It is not as if the Old Testament was a roadmap of what would happen. It was the "what happened" that enables us to see the map. It is not that the Jews who "do not believe in Christ" did not see what was there. It was the Christian experience looking at the text that finally saw what was "hidden" there all along. Yet that meaning is there.

Christianity does not "find" something that is not there in the Old Testament texts, otherwise the two testaments would have nothing to do with each other.

The Jewish reading of the Jewish Bible is "possible." That is, it can be read in a manner in which the Messiah is not a single person from their stock. One cannot simply say that the Christian reading of the Old Testament is the "only" reading. The Jew will read the same passages as only referring to the people.

To read it as the Christians do means that we take the events of Christ's life and death as true. In this latter light, the Old Testament does lead to Him.

"While it is possible for Jews who do not believe in Christ, this reading is not possible for Christians, because it implies accepting all the presuppositions of Judaism, in particular those that 'exclude faith in Jesus as Messiah and son of God.'"

If a priori we say that the Old Testament cannot in theory or practice lead to the conclusion that the fact of Jesus as Son of God is true, obviously we deny the very unity of the two testaments that Christianity stands for.

The Jewish reading sometimes "does not imply the refusal of faith in Christ. It simply corresponds to a reading made before Christ's coming." The implication is that the actual coming of Christ as an event or fact in history enables us to see the overall plan of God that was present in both testaments.


Both the Jewish studies of the Bible and the Christian studies of the same Bible can and should contribute to each other's enlightenment. There is no reason a Jew cannot read the New Testament to see what it says. The Christian, to be a Christian, must read the Old Testament.

Vanhoye then points out that much depends on how we see the early years of Christianity and its relation to Judaism at the time. We forget that scripture did not come before tradition.

"Tradition gives life to Scriptures and then accompanies it, because 'no written text can adequately express all the riches of tradition,' Tradition determined, in particular, the canon of Scripture."

In this sense, the Christian canon is larger than the Jewish canon. For the Jews, it was the law that became the center of their legal, moral, and liturgical life. The Christian tradition, not denying the law's importance, gives more emphasis on the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament.

"The Church of Christ is not a nation." Christians did not impose Jewish customs and ceremonial laws on Christians. They were free of the law but not the commandments. By calling the Jewish law the "Old Testament," Christians do not mean that it is entirely dated.

The two testaments are "inseparable." Some want to drop the term "Old Testament," a term St. Paul used. It is not a pejorative concept.

"The Church fully recognizes the importance of the 'Old Testament' as the Word of God." Scripture itself justifies the usage. The first covenant is of Moses, the last of Christ. The essential covenant with Moses is permanent as its terms indicate. It is still in effect.

The two testaments have much in common, especially their particular thrust. "The New Testament fully appropriates the great themes of the theology of Israel." Christ came to fulfill the law.

The fact is that Scripture itself also indicates some "rupture" in the middle of the history of God's people. The New Testament deals with specific things that are not in force among them: "the levitical priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple, the cult forms like animal sacrifice, religious and ritual practices like circumcision, rules concerning purity and impurity, dietary prescriptions, imperfect laws such as divorce, and restrictive legal interpretations concerning the Sabbath."

These practices remain important to Jewish life. Yet, already in the Old Testament some of these practices were questioned such as animal sacrifices. The Lord preferred obedience to such sacrifices. Assuming this continuity, the New Testament merely takes up a movement already found in the Old Testament.

The New Testament does not see Jesus in opposition to the heart of what Israel stood for. The document puts it this way: "The new Testament attests that Jesus, far from being in opposition to the Israelite Scriptures, revoking them as provisional, brings them instead to fulfillment in his person, in His mission, and especially in His Pascal mystery. In fact, none of the great Old Testament themes escapes the new radiation of Christological light."

Nowhere in the New Testament is the Covenant as such seen as revocable. Jeremiah had spoken of a "New Covenant" that would be offered to Israel. The claim that this Covenant was offered thus is not somehow unbiblical. This New Covenant is what Christ's death is about.

"The Church is composed of Israelites who have accepted the new covenant, and of other believers who have joined them." The Church includes those who "belong to Christ."

The Church is not a "substitute" for Israel. Paul uses the notion of "adoption" or "being engrafted."

"The Church is conscious of being given a universal horizon by Christ, in conformity with Abraham's vocation, whose descendants from now on are multiplied in a filiation founded on faith in Christ."

Christ is a completion of what went before. The universality of the Covenant now stands in clearer light. The New Testament is faithful to "the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish People." This faithfulness follows the "prophetic oracles" that tell of a New Covenant.


How do individual Jews appear in the New Testament? During and after the time of Christ, divisions existed among the Jews themselves. Indeed, these divisions were already in the Old Testament.

The Jewish historian Josephus divides them into Pharisees, Scribes, and Essenes. Even that is not complete. The document talks of these divisions in the last century before Christ, then in Christ's time, in the time of the disciples, and in the time after the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.

The outlook of the Gospels and Epistles is positive. The Jews are recognized as "a people chosen by God for the fulfillment of his plan of salvation." This understanding means that the place of the Jews is central for any Christian understanding of itself.

As the Jews are the chosen people, so Christ is a Jew. He is "sent" by the Father. He doesn't just happen along.

"The divine choice finds its highest confirmation in the person of Jesus, son of a Jewish mother, born to be the Saviour of his people, one who fulfils his mission."

The Jewish people are "chosen" for another divine choice that will complete the "plan of salvation" for all mankind. Most of those who first attached themselves to Christ during His own lifetime were Jews, the twelve Apostles being the obvious example.

We also find in the Gospels and Epistles that these Jews who did follow Christ ran into opposition from several Jewish leaders, some of whom are identified by name. The Acts and the Gospels record many of these altercations which often end in beatings, prison, even death. The New Testament simply records these incidents because they happened. What else could it do?

Eventually, "the greater number of Jews" followed these leaders in this opposition that eventually became codified in the Jewish explanation of itself without the Messiah as recognized and codified in the New Testament by Christians.

No one, either Jew or Christian, wants to deny that such conflict happened. It was not made up. On the other hand, it falls into the broad context of following the example of what happened to Christ himself. He told his followers to expect such treatment, especially from political and religious leaders.

Actually, the document points out, the Old Testament, long before the time of Christ, often excoriates the Jewish leaders more harshly than did anyone in the New Testament. These incidents, however, cannot today be taken as a basis for "anti-Jewish feeling."

What is found in the New Testament is not the phenomenon known as "anti-Semitism." Rather, there "reproaches are addressed to certain categories of Jews for religious reasons, as well as polemical texts to defend the Christian apostolate against Jews who opposed it."

One cannot say that protests or opposition to unfair treatment is "hatred." Jews themselves are famous for pointing out unfair treatment of their persons and causes. Nor can explaining what one holds to be true be said to be an unjust exercise of power or fanaticism. To speak the truth is the very basis of peace, ultimately.

As it says in the Acts of the Apostles "Israel's sin is to have put to death the Prince of Life" (3:15). Does one have to interpret this statement of Peter pejoratively? It is rather a call to attention, to conversion and repentance. It may not be accepted. But the mere saying it is certainly justified. Peter said it because he himself at the time is being tried by Jewish leaders for stating what he holds to be true.

The examples of Jesus Himself and Stephen at his stoning show a remarkable forbearance. Peter even mitigates the blame of the Jewish leaders by saying that they really did not "know" what they were doing. They dealt unjustly with an innocent man, but they did not understand who Christ was.

In that sense, Christians, rightly or wrongly, see them as instruments of the plan of salvation itself as foreseen in the Old Testament itself. The text adds that we no longer have such a polemical situations. Both Jews and Christians can accept the facts of what happened. No one claims that no sins and faults occurred. Everyone needs to see the transcendent significance of what happened.
We need not have "prejudice and deliberate misunderstandings."

Again, to conclude, as the document does, with considerable frankness, "The New Testament is 'in serious disagreement with the vast majority of the Jewish people,' because 'in it (the New Testament) essentially a proclamation of the fulfillment of God's plan in Jesus Christ (announced in the Old Testament'" is present.

The disagreement is a fact. The proclamation is a fact. The "vast majority of Jewish people do not accept this fulfillment." Who can disagree with that?

It does not mean that there are not coherent reasons for the Jewish view. It does not mean that there are not intelligible reasons for the Christian view. It does not deny anything of what is common to both. Paul's example in Romans about the love of his people is to be a model. This is the only "truly Christian attitude is a situation which is mysteriously part of the beneficent and positive plan of God."

The framework of this thinking is most useful. Cardinal Vanhoye did us a favor to briefly point it out. How is the Old Testament seen in the New Testament? How are the Jewish people pictured in the New Testament?

No one denies that sins have been committed on both sides over the centuries partly because we were not clear on what was in the traditions of both about what each other was.

If we ask, "How were the Jewish people treated by Yahweh in the Old Testament?" the answer is often very harshly, but with love too to call them back. Christ said to Peter at one point, "Get thee behind me Satan." Sins can be repented and forgiven. This, as we believe, was one of the real purposes of there being a New Testament in the first place.

The vast majority of the Jews profess to live with what they see in the Old Testament. They see nothing further in the New Testament. The vast majority of Christians see in the New Testament the fulfillment of God's plan of salvation in Christ for everything, including the Jews and the Gentiles.

Both can admit that the Old Testament portent some kind of further completion. No one can deny, believer or not, that a possible reading of the Old Testament sees its completion in the New Testament, as Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth repeatedly indicates.

But in both cases, Jews reading the Old Testament, Christians reading both testaments, we need faith, wisdom, and, yes, goodness, to see the whole. Study alone, dialogue alone, useful as they are, certainly better than polemics, are not enough.

It is not a neutral thing for mankind that the unity of Scripture is not seen by all. Revelation includes intelligence. It also includes grace, and the mysterious ways of God. We know not the day or the hour. It is a good thing.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:09 AM]
7/30/2009 2:15 PM
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Reconciling Judas:
Evangelizing the theologians

by Edward T. Oakes, S.J.


In 1968, a professor of theology at the University of Regensburg wrote a modestly sized treatise on the Apostles' Creed called Introduction to Christianity.

Its impact, however, was anything but modest, for the book so captivated Pope Paul VI that he made its author archbishop of Munich (and later cardinal, one of his last appointments to the college); and just a few years later, the new Pope, John Paul II, summoned the same man to Rome to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His name, of course, was Joseph Ratzinger.

Not many books have changed history, but this one certainly did, not just for the author personally but also for the wider Church. For it would be hard to exaggerate the influence of this bookish Bavarian, not just on John Paul II (perhaps the most influential pope in history) but on Catholics worldwide through the cardinal's role as doctrinal overseer and enforcer of magisterial orthodoxy, and now, as the Supreme Pontiff himself.

What made the book itself so remarkable was not just its deft use of the Apostles' Creed to explain Christianity to the lay reader or its acute analysis of unbelief and the secular mind.

An even greater virtue of the book was the future Pope's keen analysis of why the promising spirit of Vatican II failed to bring about a reunited Christianity and a re-Christianized Europe.

According to Ratzinger's analysis, post-Enlightenment Christianity in Europe had been conned into adopting an evangelical strategy too superficial in its approach and too intimidated by Enlightened objections to Christian doctrine.

He illustrated the reasoning behind this anemic strategy with a parable, one that Søren Kierkegaard once recounted about a fire that breaks out backstage right before a circus is set to perform. In panic the stage manager sends out one of the performers -- a clown as it happens, and naturally already in costume -- to warn the audience to leave immediately.

But the spectators take the clown's desperate pleas as part of his schtick; and the more he gesticulates the more they laugh, until fire engulfs the whole theater. This, said Kierkegaard, is the situation of Christians: The more they gesticulate with their creed, the more laughable they seem to their skeptical neighbors, until the world becomes engulfed in the flames of war and mutual hatred -- a hell on earth as prelude to the hell after death.

If only these Christian clowns had first thought to change out of their goofy costume, he implied, the theatergoing world might have been spared.

Kierkegaard did not explicitly say just what kind of funny clothes he thought Christians should now strip off to make their message of impending doom more credible. But whatever costume this Danish philosopher felt Christians should doff, his parable, at least for the professor from Regensburg, does not get at the real dilemma of preaching the gospel to a secular culture.

The very news that a fire is on the way -- and, above all, that we can be spared by the simple expedient of a belief in a transworldly message (why not just leave the theater?) -- strikes the contemporary secular spectator as much more incredible than any costumed language in which it might be couched.

Change the rites of the Mass from Latin to the vernacular, call on nuns to modernize their habits, introduce guitars and folk music in the Church's worship, address the modern world in tones of respect and hope, praise modernity for its achievements -- the core of the message will still seem absurd to the secular mind.

So maybe Kierkegaard misled us with his famous parable. Perhaps another story is more appropriate. For that reason, the future Pontiff began his book with an even more somber narrative, one of the fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm.

Once upon a time, a poor widow sends her young son Hans into the village to fetch a simple meal, and along the way into town he discovers a lump of gold. Thrilled, he heads back home to show his mother his amazing good luck.

But no sooner has he started back than he meets a knight who persuades him to exchange the gold for the knight's steed. "The better for plowing!" the knight assures the boy.

Further down the way, a farmer explains that the widow can't eat a horse, so why not exchange the horse for the farmer's cow? After making this seemingly reasonable bargain, the boy continues home but then meets up with a neighbor carrying a goose under his arm.

Of course the widow wants a meal today, says the neighbor, so why not exchange cow for goose? Done. Finally, nearly home, he meets up with a boy who tells him that if he exchanges the goose for a whetstone he can keep his knife sharpened for slaughtering any number of geese in the future. Done again.

But when he gets home he notices the clumsy stone in his pocket and, puzzled at its presence, throws it away before crossing the threshold of his home, none the sadder and certainly none the wiser.

Anyone who has followed the path taken by Protestant theology in the past two centuries, and by Catholic theology in the past four decades, already knows the point of this story: All the costume changes in the world won't matter if the messenger has squandered his treasure by altering his message to suit the convenience of the audience.

For Ratzinger, creeds matter only if what they proclaim is true, and if Christians deep down don't really think so, then all the translation strategies in the world will mean nothing:

The worried Christian of today is often bothered by questions like these: has our theology in the last few years not taken in many ways a similar path?

Has it not gradually watered down the demands of faith, which had been found all too demanding, always only so little that nothing important seemed to be lost, yet always so much that it was soon possible to venture on to the next step?

And will poor Hans, the Christian who trustfully let himself be led from exchange to exchange, from interpretation to interpretation, not really soon hold in his hand, instead of the gold with which he began, only a whetstone, which he can be confidently recommended to throw away?

The results of this not-so-wonderful exchange have now descended upon us: plummeting church attendance and a secular culture grown aggressively anti-Christian. Little surprise there, for the Church now trumpets its gospel with a most uncertain tocsin.

As the late and renowned historian of dogma Jaroslav Pelikan brutally observes in Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (the fifth of his five-volume The Christian Tradition), "The modern period in the history of Christian doctrine may be defined as the time when doctrines that had been assumed more than debated for most of Christian history were themselves called into question: the idea of revelation, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the expectation of life after death, even the very transcendence of God."

Add to this mix doubts about the existence of hell and the need for the atoning death of Christ on the cross, then no wonder more and more struggling and confused believers say to themselves, "Why bother?," and no wonder secular culture regards with such contempt the pathetic attempts of self-styled liberal believers to play catch-up ball with modern advances.

But perhaps the greatest harm done by this step-by-step sell-out is the damage Christians inflict on themselves by continuing to go to church while calling into question, secretly or openly, such central doctrines as the divinity of Christ and His atoning death.

For when that happens, professions of faith become hollow and words are used without meaning them. In other words, Christians turn themselves into liars by showing up for church while hedging their bets even as they profess their Faith.

In one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons, fittingly called "Unreal Words," John Henry Cardinal Newman gets at this point directly when he says:

To make professions is to play with edged tools, unless we attend to what we are saying. Words have a meaning, whether we mean that meaning or not; and they are imputed to us in their real meaning, when our not meaning it is our own fault. He who takes God's Name in vain is not counted guiltless because he means nothing by it -- he cannot frame a language for himself; and they who make professions, of whatever kind, are heard in the sense of those professions, and are not excused because they themselves attach no sense to them.

Jesus Himself admonishes us in just these terms when He says: "But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36-37).

But what is true of individuals is even truer of the Church, for when ambivalence and equivocation take hold of the faithful in the very act of reciting the Creed, the Church will be choked off from the very graces it was founded to give to the world -- again as Cardinal Newman, in that same sermon, foresaw:

The invisible Church has developed itself into the Church visible, and its outward rites and forms are nourished and animated by the living power which dwells within it. Thus every part of it is real, down to the minutest details.

But when the seductions of the world and the lusts of the flesh have eaten out this divine inward life, what is the outward Church but a hollowness and a mockery, like the whited sepulchres of which our Lord speaks, a memorial of what was and is not?

And though we trust that the Church is nowhere thus utterly deserted by the Spirit of truth, at least according to God's ordinary providence, yet may we not say that in proportion as it approaches to this state of deadness, the grace of its ordinances, though not forfeited, at least flows in but a scanty or uncertain stream?

A scanty, uncertain stream indeed. How else can we explain the dearth of vocations in the industrialized West, the empty churches in Europe, the abysmal ignorance of the Faith among nominal Christians, the closing of Catholic schools in this country and Canada, the notorious violation of their vows by some priests (however few or many that number may be), even the very fact that the internal precincts of the Church have become one of the battlefields in the Culture Wars?

For that reason, I hold that the primary cause of all that ails the Church in modern times stems from this prior capitulation to the Enlightened agenda so well adumbrated by Cardinal Ratzinger in his epochal book.

Sometimes this capitulation is openly admitted, even celebrated, as in the slogan that was so popular in the Sixties and Seventies: "The world sets the agenda for the Church." Many trends in theology are also quite open about this capitulation.

St. Paul says, "We destroy arguments, demolishing every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). In total contrast to such Pauline courage would be the pusillanimity of those theologians who take the opposite tack by capitulating to every Enlightened thought to make the gospel captive to it.

Take, for example, the Jesuit Rev. Roger Haight, whose book Jesus: Symbol of God perfectly illustrates Catholic theology's recent declension from gold to whetstone. What follows is a kind of catena of citations from the book -- a catena plumbi [leaden link], as it were -- to show what I mean:

My understanding of the resurrection does not support the necessity of an empty tomb in principle. Resurrection faith today is not belief in an external miracle, an empirical historical event testified to by disciples, which we take as a fact on the basis of their word. Although that may describe in fact the belief of many Christians, it is no ideal.

A reflective faith-hope today will affirm Jesus risen on the basis of a conviction that Jesus's message is true; because God is the way Jesus revealed God to be, Jesus is alive.…

Because it was Jesus whom people experienced as risen, and not someone else, one must assume that Jesus had a forceful religious impact on people.… In the view proposed here, the external event that helped mediate a consciousness of Jesus risen was Jesus himself during his ministry. Or, to be more exact, after his death, the disciples' memory of Jesus filled this role [emphases mine].

In other words, the resurrection of Jesus differs in no fundamental way metaphysically from the way Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi continue to live on in the memory of those who have been inspired by their respective messages.

With a thesis like this now afloat in the professional journals, theology has clearly reached the point where it thinks it can bargain with modern unbelief using a whetstone for legal tender.

What Father Haight has given us, in effect, is a christology equally suitable to the followers of the slain Beatle, John Lennon, whose fans gather each year at Strawberry Fields in New York's Central Park (their Golgotha) on the anniversary of his assassination (their Easter), fondly recall his memory, proudly affirm that his message is true, and recognize him for the forceful impact he had on people (as he once blurted out to a reporter when he was on tour in South Africa, and to immense controversy, "We're more popular than Jesus").

But let us now ignore that one book as merely symptomatic and turn to all those sermons on Easter Sunday that inform the congregation that "Jesus died as a man and rose as a community" or warble on from the pulpit that the risen Jesus is "not a he, but a we."

Or as one campus minister said in my hearing at a church service (I will forbear to call it a Mass, although such was its billing), "Let us now worship that sense of Ultimacy we sometimes call God."

I recall another occasion when an ex-priest from Denver (who edits one of those depressing "homily helper" newsletters) got caught speaking incautiously to the religion editor of the Rocky Mountain News. "No, I don't have a personal relation with Jesus," he averred. "My pastoral approach is to gradually wean people away from the individual to the corporate reality."

To possible objections that might arise from a more careful and exacting exegesis of the New Testament's resurrection narratives, the man merely sneered and, borrowing an arrow from Father Haight's quiver, called these gospel depictions "the Polaroid Jesus, someone you could photograph on Easter Sunday."

The reporter recounting these recherché opinions seemed rather nonplussed and wondered what could ever motivate Christians to consent to such an obvious, wholesale liquidation of their own company store, to which the man replied that an "allegiance to a Jewish male affronts the modern commitment to ethnic and gender diversity."

It is because of views like these that I hold that the first (but in no way exclusive) task of the New Evangelization is to evangelize Christians.

This task, as I say, is daunting and requires, among its other skills, that the orthodox be alert to what I call "pod-people talk," using here an analogy drawn from that classic sci-fi flick, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the famous cult movie about aliens who try to take over the planet by kidnapping hapless humans and forcing them to spend a night in large pods the size of body bags.

Upon awakening from these awesome contraptions, the earthlings would have been zapped into alienhood: They emerged from their pods still looking and acting exactly as their past humanity would lead one to expect, but in essence they were aliens, fully intent on taking over the planet.

For me the fascination of this plot derives from the way the loved ones of these newly alienized beings came to suspect something might be amiss. For although the Los Angeles English of the aliens was completely idiomatic and accent-free, there was yet something vaguely unsettling about their demeanor and sentences.

A kind of subtext to their ordinary communications made their loved ones edgy and uneasy, until finally one or another of the disguised aliens would say something so utterly out of character that there could be no doubting their new identity.

In the course of 40 years of adult life spent in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, it has gradually been borne in upon me that most students attending our elite divinity schools must have spent a night in the theological version of these pods.

For although they seem to speak real English, unaccented and fully idiomatic, there is yet something strange and unsettling about the lingo that comes out of their mouths.

At first their sentences are merely unsettling and ooze with a slippery vagueness that sounds wrong but which can -- with those patient hermeneutical transpositions that so many theologians have made their stock-in-trade -- be explained away.

But then along comes a Father Haight or an ex-priest caught on tape with a reporter, and suddenly the orthodox wake up with the queasy feeling that the body snatchers have entered the ancient precincts of the Church.

A few years back the Vatican made half-hearted attempts to address this problem with the directive known as Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but the sex-abuse crisis seems to have taken the wind out of the bishops' sails when the time came to enforce the prescriptions in that document (which was one reason the liberal press, most especially the liberal Catholic press, found the scandal so useful).

But however worthy the document or half-hearted its implementation, the problems attendant upon the professionalization of theology, with its huge superstructure of hermeneutical legerdemain, actually go much deeper than anything that the Vatican could address with a mere document.

In the face of this truly mortal danger to the life of the Church, I believe Christians must be evangelized by preachers who deliberately set out to destroy the pretensions of the body snatchers. And to do that they must attack head-on what I regard as the most basic presupposition of the pod people.

In my reading of their works, liberal Christians want to make the Christian message easy to believe, and to do so they must first make the New Testament hard to understand -- which explains why there must be such a huge superstructure of biblical commentaries and hermeneutical throat-clearing whenever a preacher sets out to preach, and why the end result proves to be so easy on the intellect once the sermon is over.

For example, no one could possibly doubt that the disciples "remembered" the ministry of Jesus after His death; and if, by definition, that is all that the resurrection means, who could deny that Jesus "rose" in the mind of the disciples?

But to explain how the New Testament could seem to give an impression so at odds with this easygoing view, one must subject the Scriptures to an astonishingly elaborate historical-critical analysis and then try to get the believer to accept the end result as an even remotely plausible reflection of what the New Testament says. No wonder courses in hermeneutics are so popular in elite divinity schools.

In fact, the situation of New Testament interpretation is the exact opposite: I maintain that the Christian dispensation is much more difficult to believe than it is to understand, for its message can be boiled down to a five-word sentence of remarkable simplicity but one that represents a radical challenge to the intellect: We die before we live. Or again, another five-word kerygma: We meet Christ in death.

In each case, five simple, easy-to-understand words, but ones that nearly everything about the way the modern world is structured make difficult to believe.

In an age of popularized books on neurology from the pen of Oliver Sacks and when most people are intuitively aware of the dependence of consciousness on brain chemistry (just from living in a "Prozac Nation" or from witnessing a relative suffer from Alzheimer's disease, if from nothing else), these two five-word sentences will immediately strike the hearer as easy to understand but difficult to believe.

Far be it from me to deny the difficulties involved in true belief, as opposed to the thin gruel peddled by our pod theologians. But whatever the challenges facing preachers of the true gospel, we at least have before us the lesson of two centuries of cultural Protestantism and four decades of liberal Catholicism to warn us against the alternative.

For both these versions of "Christianity" teach us that a little bit of the gospel is more damaging than would be forthright rejection of the whole package. [Therein is the whole fallacy of cafeteria Catholicism. You either believe everything about your faith, or else, stop thinking you are still Catholic when you pick and choose only that which you find convenient. Religion has never been a matter of convenience; religion and faith demand spiritual discipline.]

Watered-down Christianity has only given us absurd hopes, the vision of a non-existent future, lukewarm zeal, a narcissistic ethic, incantatory theology, invented grievances (like the pseudo-allergy to so-called gender-biased language), and a preaching in which, in Dante's harsh words, "sheep leave church, having been fed on wind." No wonder T. S. Eliot tartly observed, "We know too much, and are convinced of too little. Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion."

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., Chester & Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the Catholic seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Crisis Magazine [updated after Joseph Ratzinger became Pope].

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:10 AM]
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August 21, 2009

"Since God himself is now near us, we can know him; he shows us his Face and enters our world. There is no longer any need to make do with those other powers, because he is the true power, the Omnipotent."
- Benedict XVI, Aosta Cathedral, July 24, 2009


While in the Italian mountains, the Holy Father officiated at Vespers in the Cathedral at Aosta, during which he gave a brief, but incisive homily.

He began by citing a Vesper prayer, itself based on Paul's Letter to the Romans. The pope noted that the Italian text of the prayer begins simply: "Merciful Father." Then he amusingly chides the Italian bishops responsible for this translation.

The Latin text, the pope pointed out, is a little "fuller." It says: "Almighty and Merciful God." He added, that, in Caritas in veritate, he tried to show the importance of God both in one's private sphere and in "the life of society, of the world, of history."

One's relationship to God is a profoundly personal matter. Each person has a relation to other persons. If the relation to God is not a living one, then no other relation to anything else "can find its right form."

This remark means that a disordered relation to God will also result in a disordered relation to others. The same principle holds for society and for humanity as a whole. Without God in the right place, with His power, we have nothing by which to guide ourselves. We lack a compass.

Thus, "we must bring the reality of God back into our world." Yet, "how can we know God?"

Benedict recalled that he regularly meets bishops from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, so their concerns are vivid to him. These bishops differ in many ways, but they have one thing in common.

"They all know that God exists, one God, that 'god' is a singular noun, that the gods are not God, that God exists, God." Yet, God seems "absent." He "hides, we do not know his Face."

Most religions thus deal not with God but with "objects. They are aware of nearer 'powers'. These are spirits, ancestors or, I suppose, even demons. People thus 'make do' with the nearer powers. What Christianity is about is the closing of the distance to God. God takes the initiative to make Himself 'truly known'. He shows 'his Face'. We can see His Face. No veil covers Him any longer. There is no longer any need to make do with those other powers, because he is the true power, the Omnipotent."

God shows His Face. He enters our world. Here the pope remarked: "I do not know why the world 'omnipotent' has been omitted from the Italian text, but it is true that we feel a little threatened by the word 'omnipotent'; it seems to limit our freedom, it seems to be too strong."

We are afraid, in other words, that God will "limit" what we choose to do, whereas He makes it possible that we actually become what we are. One would hope that the Italian bishops hasten to restore the original wording!

The Pope then proceeded to explain why the word "omnipotent" needs to be in the text — omnipotent and merciful.

"The omnipotence of God is not an arbitrary power, because God is Good, he is Truth, and therefore he can do anything, but he cannot act against good, he cannot act against truth, love or freedom, because he himself is good, love, and true freedom."

God is indeed all powerful, but this power of His is what founds truth, goodness, and freedom. It is what makes these things more than mere pious musings.

God does not have an "evil eye." His is the eye that sees what it loves. Good is being. Benedict repeated the opening of the prayer, this time in its fullness: "Almighty and Merciful God."

The merciful should not be there without the almighty. Mercy without power has no effect but weakness. Benedict then recalls a "Roman prayer" that related to the Book of Wisdom.

It says: "O God, show your omnipotence through pardon and mercy." Pardon and mercy are themselves manifestations of omnipotence. Thus "the summit of God's power is mercy and pardon.

This position does not mean that God's power is not also justice, as Benedict says in Spe Salvi. It is only because God is all powerful and all knowing that He can also be merciful and can pardon. Pardon and mercy do not deny justice but see behind it.

Our normal understanding of someone with power is a rich man, a commander, a politician, a boxer. Benedict even cites here Stalin's famous quip: "How many divisions does the p\pope have?"

The fact that he has no divisions does not mean that he has no power; nor does it mean that someone with many divisions at his disposal is really powerful in the things that count.

"In his mercy, God demonstrates true power." Recall that for Aquinas, the world is in fact created in mercy, from nothing, such is the divine power.

God has redeemed the world. What sort of "power" did He use? God has suffered with us through His Son.

The pope next added: "This is the summit of his power, that he can suffer with us."

The suffering of the Father is vicarious through His Son, but it is none the less real. Those who love suffer when those whom they love Suffer. Ordinarily, we cannot imagine how God might 'suffer'.

When we grasp the Incarnation of the Son, we can see how He might suffer, though we still must grasp the reasons why this redemptive path is the one God chose to follow. He embraced the power of mercy, not that of might and awesome fear.

Thus, our own suffering is never just our suffering. God has shown a capacity and will to suffer with us. He does this for the reasons that cause suffering, that is, the need to forgive sins that are repented.

Obviously, a major obstacle remains. "Why was it necessary to suffer to save the world?" Initially, we might say that it was not necessary. Conceivably other options were open.

We assume that the one who was in fact chosen was chosen because it best achieved what God was about in creating us in the first place, namely that we freely accept the gift of eternal life offered to us.

The reason that God chose the path of suffering through His Son on the Cross had to do with our freedom. His power could not destroy our freedom to save us.

"There exists an ocean of evil, of injustice, hatred and violence, and the many victims of hatred and injustice have the right to see justice done." This passage recalls what the Benedict said in Spe Salvi about the necessity of the "judgment of the living and the dead."

"God," the pope told us, "cannot ignore the cries of the suffering who are oppressed by injustice. To forgive is not to ignore, but to transform."

Forgiveness does not mean that what was terribly done has no meaning or consequence. Just the opposite — it means that those who suffered can alone forgive those who caused their sufferings.

Thus, "God must enter into the world in order to set against the ocean of injustice a larger ocean of goodness and of love. And this is the event of the Cross from that moment, against the ocean of evil, there exists a river that is boundless, and so ever mightier than all the injustices of the world, a river of goodness, truth, and love."

The image of the two waves, one of injustice and one of mercy, is designed to show how mercy can overcome injustice. But it all depends on the willingness of the one who caused the injustices to repent and ask forgiveness.

This is the divine limit. God cannot create man free and then take it away and leave the same being in existence. If this forgiveness is not in some way asked, even God can do nothing but pursue justice, which is exactly what the pope implies.

The divine power does not and cannot make evil good. What it does is to allow those who have done evil to repent and be forgiven, even unto seventy times seventy times.

The pope concluded this brief homily with an exalted hymn in honor of the God who forgives us, in his power. Benedict refers to Teilhard's cosmic liturgy in which the very world itself praises God through man, now redeemed and forgiven.

"We ourselves with our whole being must be adoration and sacrifice and by transforming our world, give it back to God. The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy."

What Benedict said so beautifully here is mindful of what he said of the priesthood in the Spirit of the Liturgy, that the priest is the mediator between God and man, that he, like those who believe and repent, all face the Father, whose Face they can look upon because of the Incarnation of His Son who suffered, died, and was buried, who rose again on the third day, who ascended into heaven and will come again to "judge the living and the dead."

Such is the divine omnipotence, that it has the power to be merciful to us, to save us, if we will.

Since Fr. Schall says he uses the English translations of the papal texts which eventually get published in the weekly English edition of L'Osservatore Romano, I am not sure he was aware that the homily he comments on above was delivered entirely off the cuff. His appreciation for its cogency and originality might perhaps been even more!
[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:10 AM]
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September 25, 2009

"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. [1]


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 no truth."

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 He 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 and things.

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 ope 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 substitute divinity.

"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 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 nations.

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.


[1] Benedict XVI, Comments after seeing film, "Augustine: The Decline of the Roman Empire," September 2, 2009, L'Osservatore Romano, English, September 9, 2009.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:11 AM]
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January 9, 2007

This is a 2007 essay by Fr. Schall which makes a good basic reference for how Benedict XVI sees the concept of secularity as opposed to the ideology of secularism.

"It is our task to make people understand that the moral law given to us by Him and manifested to us by the voice of our conscience does not aim to oppress us but rather to set us free from evil and make us happy."
- Benedict XVI, to Italian Jurists, December 2006


On December 9, the Holy Father gave a Lecture to 59th Study Conference of the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists in the Vatican's Hall of Blessings (L'Osservatore Romano, English, December 20/27, 2006). Its subject briefly is that we should promote "secularity" not "secularism."

What, you might ask, is this all about?

Some of the older readers will recall the oft-heard Latin ending to prayers and invocations that went per omnia saecula saeculorum. This phrase was usually translated into English as "world without end, Amen." Literally, it means through "ages of ages." A saeculum is generally the period of a man's life. So it comes to mean the generations of man down the ages, the length of our time on this earth.

Thus saeculum means the world. In Scripture, "world" has a twofold meaning. It means what is good but not God. God created precisely "the world," which was not God. God would be God even if He did not create a "world." This created world was good, not evil.

But we also recall that Christ told the disciples that the "world" would hate Him -- that we are not to be overly concerned about the things of this "world." Ultimately, however much as it is our home, we are not made solely for "this world," even when we are made to dwell within it. Thus, the world can also mean what is formally opposed to God.

Christianity is not embarrassed when it asks us to think clearly about what words mean in context. And the ultimate temptation of man is to understand "the world" precisely as apart from God - as being man's sole business, not God's.

In medieval law, moreover, the secular was conceived to be opposed, not to the world, but to the orders of clerics. The "lay state" was the secular state of life, with its own goodness. By extension the "secular state" took on legitimate political overtones. It meant that which belonged to this world and especially to its politics, which were, as Aristotle said, "natural" to us.

In this sense, then, the notion of the saeculum came to mean the natural world, what was due by nature, what was intended to be irrespective of any consideration of revelation and its subsequent orders. Politics, in this sense, were conceived to be "secular."

They were only considered by the Church when they touched on something that pertained to revelation. The whole medieval period sought to separate out intellectually and practically what belonged to the Church and what to the world, to the civil order, to Caesar.


The Pope recalls to the Italian Jurists the various ways in which "secularity" is understood in the "contemporary" world. Some ways of understanding "secularity" and living it can be opposed to each other, that is, what is said to be good in one order is said to be evil in another. Thus an exercise in fundamental distinction is called for.

"In the Middle Ages, 'secularity' was a term coined to describe the condition of the ordinary lay Christian who belonged neither to the clerical nor to the religious state." Some opposition was implied here in the sense that one was not the other and both could misconstrue the limits of their competence. But both were good and had their proper place within the order of the whole.

However, in modern thought, the term "secularity" came to mean "the exclusion of religion and its symbols from public life by confining them to the private sphere and to the individual conscience."

In the classic Roman tradition, both the private and the public (res privata, res publica) were considered perfectly normal and compatible, even necessary to each other. The triumph of the one over the other meant harm to both.

The family in particular was res private whose inner health it was part of the res publica to defend and promote. The interpretation of the saeculum as excluding both the private and the transcendent implied a claim to authority that overreached the competence of what secularity was about.

The ideological understanding of "secularity" that excludes any carefully understood presence of the transcendent or the private from the public order is the "opposite of its original meaning."

"Secularity is commonly perceived today as the exclusion of religion from social contexts and as the boundary of the individual conscience." That is to say, nothing can be addressed either to the public order or individual conscience from outside of itself. They make their own laws and their own "world."


Benedict explicitly brings up, from an extra-constitutional letter of Jefferson the phrase "the separation of Church and State." In this understanding of "secularity," the Church is not "entitled" to intervene in areas that concern "the life and conduct of citizens."

Religious symbols themselves - Crosses, Nativity scenes, displays of the Ten Commandments - are thus excluded from "schools, courts, hospitals, prisons" and other governmental centers.

However, because of this notion of separation, Benedict points out, the issue becomes more clouded. If "secularity" by definition excludes any philosophical or religious contribution to the public order, what follows is that the world, the polity, must develop its own thought, morals, politics, and ethic. No other source but itself is allowed.

We subsequently have a "morality" that is totally independent of any nature, revelation, or reason that would claim a more universal grounding than what the state establishes for itself, whatever it is.

We now have an "a-religious" morality. No room can be left open for God. No mystery can transcend this inner completely self-enclosed morality. Nothing can claim to be true or right "in every time and every situation." Multiculturalism and tolerance - the acceptance of everything and the exclusion of nothing - are the only remaining virtues.

[In practice however, and it is becoming more and more a practical problem in the United Sattes, ideological proponents of secularism claim to accept everything but yet would exclude anything that has to do with God or Christianity!]

Only if we understand this intellectual background of the various meanings of "secularity" can we begin to understand "post-modernity and especially ... modern democracy," the Pope observes.

That is, modern democracy is often a promoter of precisely this inner and exclusive understanding of "the world" that excludes all outside input or influence. It is itself totally autonomous.


Is there an alternative? Can we formulate an understanding of "secularity" that would include a place for moral law, for Christ, for the Church, for honoring God? And can this view allow for an understanding of "the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs" - a phrase from Vatican II?

"Secularity," in its proper sense, meant the gradual and historical development of our understanding of "the laws and values of matter and society."

We are supposed to use our minds and hands, as Aristotle said. We are supposed to learn what things are and how to use them. God is praised both by thought and action. That is, the very meaning of creation was that many things were left to man to find out by himself.

God might have revealed everything to us by some illumination, including how to make an airplane, but this would have the drawback of never allowing mankind to find the things he could find by himself.

Thus, a perfectly valid understanding of human "autonomy" can be formulated, one that does not imply exclusion from all things higher or lower than the state or the world. Things have their own "stability" and "excellence." Secondary causes are real causes.

It is the purpose of revelation to enhance, not substitute for this understanding of the world. Nature may need to be healed, but it is not to be replaced.

When "autonomy" means, however, that nothing depends on God or that no limits can be found to what we do or endeavor, then believers in God will see the vast scope of this counter claim to exclude God from all the public order.

"Secularity," in the proper sense, does not mean excluding God but rather means limiting both the Church and state to their proper spheres, to learning by mind and experience what belongs to what and why.

The state cannot view religion as simply an "individual sentiment that can be confined to the private spheres alone."


The Church is a visible organization. It is a form of "public community" and so to be officially recognized. It is not simply a private association of individual consciences whose activities have nothing to do with the world. Such a view implicitly denies the very meaning of what a "rational animal" is.

By his very nature, in all he does, the human being reaches out from inside of himself to the world. And, in its own way, the world comes back to him as something already what it is beyond his own making.

Indeed, expanding on this principle, the Pope says that "every religious denomination (provided it is neither in opposition to the moral order nor a threat to public order) [should] be guaranteed the free exercise of the activities of worship - spiritual, cultural, educational and charitable - of the believing community." This is a most penetrating passage and leaves us much to wonder about.

For instance, in the light of the Regensburg Lecture, just whom does the Pope think might in fact be opposing "the moral order" or posing a "threat to the public order"?

What states and ideologies do not permit public expression of spiritual, cultural, educational, and charitable activities to religious peoples?

The list is astonishingly wide, I suspect. Those polities that forbid these latter activities are certainly not always "secular" in any proper sense.

Religion can be used to deny revelation. Many have embraced the ideology of "secularism" that displays "hostility to every important political and cultural form of religion and especially the presence of any religious symbol in public institutions."

There is something else that bothers the Pope about this exclusive secular autonomy. "To refuse the Christian community and its legitimate representatives the right to speak on the moral problems that challenge all human consciences today, and especially those of legislators and jurists, is not a sign of healthy secularity."

Obviously, Benedict here refers to the right of Church officials to present their views about public issues that concern truth and morality without fear of being accused of interfering with the "internal autonomy" of the secular or religious order.

It is delicately put, that the Church does intend and has an obligation to speak to its own members and to the world about truth and morality in public issues that are of transcendent importance.

Isn't this view just another view of typical Church "interference?" The Pope does not back down. It is not "meddling" in affairs of State but "the affirmation and defense of important values that give meaning to the person's life and safeguard his or her dignity."

It is noteworthy that the Pope states, "these values are human before being Christian, such that they cannot leave the Church silent and indifferent."

This statement goes back to the notion of a legitimate intellectual and human autonomy that believers also are witness to and have an obligation to address themselves to. This is a defense of philosophy and politics as such.

The Church sees it as a duty "to firmly proclaim the truth about man and his destiny." Who else, we wonder, is proclaiming this when the very questions of the truth of man and his destiny are excluded from serious public consideration?


The Pope recognizes the many accomplishments of our times. "We are living in an exalted historical period because of the breakthroughs that humanity has achieved in many areas of law, culture, communication, science and technology."

Acknowledging this "exalted period" is nothing other than a recognition, in a proper way, of the "natural autonomy of human affairs."

Yet, Pope Ratzinger is not naïve. "There are attempts by some people to exclude God from every sphere of life and present Him as man's enemy." He does not "list" who such people are, but expects us to recognize them when they appear in our midst. We need to have full, objective understandings of these attempts and a strategy, both intellectual and political, to prevent their total success.

If universities need an intellectual agenda about reality, the Holy Father has one. "It is our task to make people understand that the moral law given to us by Him and manifested to us by the voice of our conscience does not aim to oppress us but rather to set us free from evil and make us happy."

"Making people understand" does not mean "coercion" but genuine understanding of what is at stake, of what is our precise destiny.

We have to show (that is, give reasons), "that without God man is lost, and that the exclusion of religion from social life - and the marginalization of Christianity in particular - undermines the very foundation of human coexistence. Indeed, before being social and political, these foundations are of a moral order."

Of course, this legal "marginalization," as the Pope knows, is what is taking place over the foundations of the European Union and indeed in every modern democracy. But politics and society do not form man to be man. He is already formed in his being what he is by his very existence, which he does not give himself.

This short address of Benedict XVI is a jewel in clarifying what we mean by intelligence and its use to define what and who we are in "this world".

The state does not "make man to be man," as Aristotle said. Benedict speaks within a long history of philosophy and theology in which the two sources are both open to him and to all of us. It is, as he says, his "duty [to] firmly proclaim the truth about man and his destiny."

As I often say, who else is proclaiming precisely these two things together about our whole being? Such is what we need to know per omnia saecula saculorum, "through generation upon generation, world without end."

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 1/29/2010 11:11 AM]
1/29/2010 11:04 AM
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February 2, 2007

Excellent reading on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas - and timeless, even if it dates to 2007.

According to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, human reason, to say it as such, 'breathes,' that is, it moves on a wide-open horizon in which it can experience the best of itself. Nonetheless, when man limits himself to think only of material and experimental objects, he closes himself to the questions of life, about himself and about God, impoverishing himself.
- Benedict XVI, Feast of Thomas Aquinas, January 28, 2007


A seminarian friend of mine in Connecticut brought my attention, via e-mail, to the ZENIT copy of the Holy Father's Angelus for Sunday, January 28, entitled, "On the Faith-Reason Synthesis: A Precious Patrimony for Western Civilization." Naturally, I hastened to look it up as I had not yet read it.

One good thing about the weekly papal Sunday "Angelus" talks is that they are short, to the point, and seldom designed to say more than one thing to the folks assembled below the papal balcony to receive the papal blessing. As I had been reading both Chesterton's Heretics and John Paul II's Memory and Identity with a class, this brief comment on Aquinas was of particular interest to me.

I have always considered particularly prophetic the conclusion of Chesterton's book, written in 1905. It described, in his own vivid and far-seeing way, what would, more than anything, be the philosophical irony of the then upcoming 20th and 21st centuries, namely, the "self-limitation" of the human mind so that it denied itself the power to get outside of itself into a reality it did not make.

In a certain almost verbatim anticipation of the thesis of Fides et Ratio, Chesterton wrote of the coming centuries, "We (those with the faith) shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed."

The fact is that, a hundred years after Chesterton wrote, it is primarily those with the faith who can affirm that their senses and reason report to them a real world that is. They are the ones with the courage to speak of the skies as "heavens" even if blue and of the grass as green.

Chesterton's paradoxical passage, of course, presupposes that we recall the famous conversation of Christ with the apostle Thomas after the Resurrection. Thomas brashly clamed that he would believe it was actually Christ only after he had put his hand in the side of the Lord's risen body. Christ's equally paradoxical reply was "blessed are those, Thomas, who have not seen but have believed."

Here, we find Chesterton stating the obvious, that, in our time, it is those with the faith who are most likely to be the ones who use their senses and mind to see and affirm the world that is, who think that there really is a world to know.

The Pope, in his comment on Aquinas, adds that there are things to be known by our reason that are not limited to the material realm, about which latter many philosophers also doubt whether we can know other than through our man-constructed scientific theories about them.

Thus, on such a premise, what we see are not things but our theories of things. And when our theories change, we wonder whether we ever see anything at all. We have to "believe" that what we see with our senses is really there.


Benedict, who is often said to be more of an "Augustinian" than a "Thomist" philosopher (neither of which, be it noted, are sins), remarks that Aquinas has the "charism" of both a philosopher and a theologian.

Aquinas "offers a valid model of harmony between reason and faith." Both of these "dimensions of the human spirit (reason and faith)" are "fully realized when they meet and dialogue."

If we take this statement literally, as I think we should, it means that philosophy is not philosophy if it is only philosophy, and theology is not theology if it is only theology. To be what they are at their best, both need the other, and more, both need in those who hold them the full experience of human living itself.

The notion that faith and reason should not meet - absolute "separation" of church and state, complete "autonomy" of faith and reason - is itself a formula for not "fully realizing" the whole, to which both theology and philosophy are to be open by their own proper approaches.

Revelation addresses itself to a reason that has its own unanswered philosophical questions. Philosophy, when it knows what it knows, realizes that it is but a "quest." Only the gods are wholly wise.

Benedict remarks that Aquinas' thought literally "breathes" on the whole "horizon" of the reality to which it is open. Here the Pope uses the analogy of "breathing" rather than that of "seeing."

The Spirit "hovers" over the waters, all waters. It is quite possible for us, however, voluntarily to close ourselves off from things higher than those to which our scientific or theoretical methods will allow us to grasp.

What the Pope emphasizes here is that this "closing off" is not a theoretically necessary thing, but a "choice" on our part not to see certain things whose existence would impinge on our own self-made image of the world, on the way we choose to live.

Benedict next refers back both to John Paul II's Fides et Ratio and to his own Regensburg Lecture in which these very issues were discussed in greater detail. The "challenge of faith and reason" has directly to do with the problem of Western culture's understanding itself, itself and other cultures.

The Pope never misses an opportunity to praise what in modern technological culture is worthy and even noble. These good results "must always be acknowledged."

Yet, there is an Enlightenment problem. The tendency to consider true only "that which can be experienced constitutes a limitation for human reason and produces a terrible schizophrenia, evident to all, because of which rationalism and materialism, and hyper-technology and unbridled instincts, coexist."

Because something cannot be "measured" or reproduced by mathematical methods, themselves rightly based on matter, does not mean that everything is material. Mathematical "ideas" are themselves, as Plato said, spiritual. If we insist that only matter exists, we "reduce" our sights so that we only see what is material. We confuse it for everything.

What is needed? We must "rediscover in a new way human rationality open to the light of the divine Logos and to its perfect revelation that is Jesus Christ, Son of God made man."

Does this view not "restrict" our range of freedom and knowledge? Quite the opposite. Any closing off of the mind from the full range of things to which it is open is itself a denial both of freedom and reason.

"When Christian faith is authentic, it does not mortify freedom or human reason." There is no reason for faith and reason to be "afraid" of one another. This is particularly so because, when faith and reason meet in dialogue, both "can express themselves in the best way." Reason by itself is not full reason. Faith by itself is not full faith.

Benedict puts St. Thomas's famous dictum that "grace builds on nature" in this way: "Faith implies reason and perfects it." When reason is itself "illuminated" by faith, it finds strength "to rise to knowledge of God and of spiritual realities."

Does reason somehow "lose" something if it is stimulated by faith to be more reasonable on its own terms? Hardly. Faith or revelation is not in the least interested in a reason that is somehow under compulsion from revelation or anything else. This lack of freedom would corrupt both reason and faith.

Faith calls for "free and conscious adherence." What is seen by reason in faith makes sense to it, that is to reason, on its own grounds.

Thomas, Benedict points out, spent much effort, especially in the Summa contra Gentiles, with the thoughts and positions of Jewish and Muslim philosophers. Thomas is always "present" in dialogue with other religions and cultures precisely because of his ability to press the question of reason to any claim to truth, even a truth of revelation. He simply wanted to know if what was held contradicted reason. If it did not, its credibility was naturally much enhanced.

To "introduce this Christian synthesis between reason and faith that represents a precise patrimony for Western civilization," which was the achievement of Aquinas, is the key to dialogue with "the great cultural and religious traditions of East and South of the world." The East and South, of course, include but also go beyond both the Jewish and Muslim worlds.

It is significant that Benedict's vision is not a restricted one precisely because of what is at the heart of the Western tradition, a universality of reason addressed to any mind whatever its geographical or cultural or religious background or intellectual component..


The second chapter of John Paul II's last book, Memory and Identity, is entitled "Ideologies of Evil." It is intended to ask about the meaning of the major ideologies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism. Why so much evil? Does this not prove that God does not exist?

John Paul II, like Benedict in the Regensburg Address, is conscious of the relation of historical events to salvation history. In order to reflect on this issue, John Paul II, himself, like Benedict, no mean philosopher in his own right, endeavors to explain, in theological terms, the meaning of the fact of the evil of these ideologies and their actual record of human devastation. In order to do this, Pope Wojtyla presents a brief history of philosophy that serves to reinforce what Benedict had today of Aquinas.

John Paul II initially recalls his first three encyclicals, on the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Following Augustine's definition of pride, he explains the relation of modern ideology to the claim of man to be able to form his own laws independently of God (modernity in the ideological sense). The temptation of Adam and Eve is precisely to enable us to" decide what is good and what is evil".

To overcome this pride, the love of God must replace the love of self. The evil of historic movements can only be overcome by reestablishing the proper order of man to God.

Mankind needs something more than himself, a help which is offered in grace. But he may freely refuse it. Out of this "refusal" comes most of the disorder in the world that we know.

Man cannot get back onto his feet unaided: he needs the help of the Holy Spirit. If he refuses this help, he commits what Christ called "the blasphemy against the Spirit," the sin which "will not be forgiven" (Mt. 12:31).

Why will it not be forgiven? Because it means there is no desire for pardon. Man refuses the love and the mercy of God, since he believes himself to be God. He believes himself to be capable of self-sufficiency.

John Paul II wants to know: what "limits" evil, the actual experienced evil of our times? To talk of its "limits" implies knowing what evil is, or better, what it is not, that is, the lack of a good that ought to be there in a good being.

John Paul II makes the following startling statement: "Over the years I have become more and more convinced that the ideologies of evil are profoundly rooted in the history of European philosophical thought."

What we think is not an indifferent matter, particularly if we think our minds are not bound by what is. This intellectual source of evil calls for a reexamination of the Enlightenment, which had a somewhat different form in each European country, including Poland. It erupted with particular violence in the 20th century with Marxism.

Demonstrating his own careful philosophical studies, John Paul II examines the effect of Descartes and how his thought differed from the philosophy of St Thomas.

Aquinas began with being, with what is. Descartes began with thought itself, the famous cogito. At first sight, this difference might seem a mere philosopher's quibble and not the origin of modern evils. But Pope Wojytyla makes a good case for why this difference enabled modern ideologies to be so lethal:

In the pre-Cartesian period, philosophy, that is to say cogito, or rather the cognosco, was subordinate to esse, which was considered prior. To Descartes, however, the esse seemed secondary, and he judged the cogito to be prior. This not only changed the direction of philosophizing, but it marked the decisive abandonment of what philosophy had been hitherto, particularly the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, and namely the philosophy of esse.

In Aquinas, thus, God was a real and self-sufficient Being who created an actual world to which we are open. God was the "necessary ground of every being."

The shift that took place with Descartes meant that God was "thought." All being, including the divine being, remained within thought. Indeed, in Descartes, for anyone to know anything outside of one's self, he first had to prove the existence of God in his mind. "Philosophy now concerned itself with beings qua content of consciousness and not qua existing independently of it."

The significance of this shift in emphasis is that a Creator God who is subsistent Being (Aquinas) might be able to communicate with real being from outside the causation of creatures, but a God totally under the control of our minds (Descartes) could not do this.

The very possibility of attaining to God was placed in question. According to the logic of cogito, ergo sum, God was reduced to an element within human consciousness; no longer could he be considered the ultimate explanation of the human sum. Nor could he remain as Ens subsistens, or "Self-sufficient Being," as the Creator, the one who gives existence, and least of all as the one who gives himself in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and grace.

The God of Revelation had ceased to exist as "God of the philosophers." All that remained was the idea of God, a topic for free exploration by human thought.

And it was, ironically, precisely this notion of God as being a "topic" of free explanation, ungrounded in being, that the Pope Wojtyla sees as the origin of modern ideological evil.


Evil in the basic sense can only "exist" in something actually good and real. This position is the foundation for any initiative to counteract it. The "good" in the being lacking something, the evil, is always there to continue its path of goodness. This is why, in the world of real being, real esse, there is always "hope," even in the worst evil.

Thus, John Paul II could ask about the "limits" of evil. He responded that the limits are only to be found in the "divine mercy."

"Evil, in a realist sense, can only exist in relation to good and, in particular, in relation to God, the supreme good" (10). Strictly speaking, there is no "evil" in an idea. The "idea" of evil as such is a good; we are supposed to know what it is.

What was redeemed by Christ was real evil, or better the evil that existed in some real good. The Cross - the redemption through suffering - is the result of evil. But it is the divine way to turn it around to the good.

"Man was redeemed and came to share in the life of God through Christ's saving work." That is, the Incarnation was real; the Son became man and dwelt amongst us. This man, foretold by the prophets, was killed on the Cross in a state execution. This happened in real time, in a real place. We know the names of those who carried it out. It is not a product of any imagination. We only know what it is because it happened.

Scripture has a factual historical component without which it is myth. This is why Scripture scholars, as it says in Fides et Ratio, also need to know a realist philosophy.

What happens, however, if we have a Cartesian philosophy to explain our redemption? "The entire drama of salvation history had disappeared as far as the Enlightenment was concerned. Man remained alone: alone as creator of is own history and his own civilization; alone as one who decides what is good and what is bad, as one who would exist and operate etsi Deus non daretur, even if there were no God" (10).

It is worthwhile noting the sharpness of John Paul II's intellect here. That Latin phrase, etsi Deus non daretur, was from the famous Dutch international lawyer Hugo Grotius. It was, as Charles N. R. McCoy used tirelessly to point out, the key concept by which God was removed from natural law which, in turn, became itself "autonomous." Once autonomous, subject only to our own consciousness, we could fashion it as we pleased in principle. From hence forward, ominously, we had "natural rights" which were not based in anything but human will.

This result is precisely what John Paul II spells out. "If man can decide by himself, without God, what is good and what is bad, he can also determine that a group of people is to be annihilated."

And that, he thinks - since this is what did happen - is the intellectual origin of 20th century ideologies of evil These crimes seem outlandish until we realize their intellectual heritage.

But John Paul II, like Benedict, sees this same ideology not only in Marxism or Islamic voluntarism but also in our liberal and democratic tradition that itself denies any grounding in esse, in being, in what is.

The fall of the regimes built on ideologies of evil put an end to the forms of extermination just mentioned in the countries concerned (Germany and Russia). However, there remains the legal extermination of human beings conceived but unborn. And in this case, that extermination is decreed by democratically elected parliaments, which invoke the notion of civil progress for society, and for all humanity.

Killing the unborn, of course, is not "civil progress," especially in a world like that of Europe itself in desperate need of babies.

John Paul II, who seemingly never tired of talking of "human rights," was quite aware of the dangers involved in a conception of voluntarist rights with no grounding in what is.

"It is legitimate and even necessary," he continued, "to ask whether this is not the work of another ideology of evil, more subtle and hidden perhaps, intent upon exploiting human rights themselves against man and against the family."

There can today be little doubt that this new "ideology of evil" is prevalent among us. There can be no doubt that many refuse to call it what it is, "an ideology of evil."

If we "close ourselves off to life," to ourselves, and from God, as Benedict put it, we "impoverish" only ourselves. The point of these reflections, then, is that evils and their ideologies have an intellectual history and their own inner persuasiveness.

The philosophy of Aquinas, its realism, is not merely an indifferent option. It teaches us what is at stake when we refuse to allow our minds know reality but insist rather that our own consciousness is responsible for our freedom and our own reason. We claim ourselves to be the causes of what is good and what is evil, both in our own lives and in our public fora.

Neither John Paul II nor Benedict denies the good things that exist in the modern world. Both insist, however, in our knowing where we go philosophically wrong. They insist that we see the result of ideas that are no longer rooted in what is.

But there are "limits" to evil. God draws good out of the good in which evil exists. Yet, the divine mercy is not a "voluntarism" that would permit God to declare what is good to be evil and what is evil to be good. God is good.

Rather it is a "mercy," a willingness itself to accept suffering, even of the Cross, to forgive those who want to be forgiven. The divine mercy is neither a denial of justice nor a formation of a world with principles opposite of natural law and the Commandments. Rather it is an effort to appeal to our freedom, to our minds, the only basis on which we can finally, if we will, acknowledge the good that is.

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