12. PAPACY IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
The relation of revelation to politics is a vast and most interesting question. In particular the continuing reflection of the Papacy on its own revelational mission and how the orders of the world are understood in its light are of abiding importance. Here I will include entries plus a brief bibliography of essays on this general topic. The essays includes are: 1) "The Pope on the Human Person"; 2) "To Teach and Defend: The Intellectual Legacy of Paul VI," 3) "The Teaching of Centesimus Annus"; 4) "Alexander VI and John Paul II: Or, On Why Good Popes Cause More Difficulty than the Bad Popes," 5) "The Spirit of Veritatis Splendor"; 6) "Confronting the Moral Disorders of Our Time"; 7) "The Papacy: 'No Simple Exhibition of Religious Absolutism'"; 8) Other essays on this topic.
A brief estimate on John Paul II: From Crisis, 15 (November 1997), 18: --
James V. Schall, S. J.
The Legacy of John Paul II
We live during the time of perhaps the greatest of popes. By this alone we are blessed. But we have first to choose good to recognize it, acknowledge it. John Paul II is, I think, God's way of mocking our intellectual pride. We are given a pope more than equal to any intellectual of our time. In addition, this man has grace, charm, and courtesy. As a friend in England told me, after Paris, the French Left knows not what to do about this man who mysteriously goes over their heads to the youth of our time.
What John Paul II does is to tell the truth when no one else tells us the truth. He has moral courage. But what maddens his critics and enemies is his wisdom. They will be known as those who lived in his time but did not notice. He is not surprised by arguments against either faith or reason, as he has already considered them, answered them. He is gentle with sinners, firm with prideful men. His bequest is "fear not." The faith is true. The philosophy it inspires responds to every dilemma and need. His legacy -- know the truth. It alone will make you free.
THE POPE ON THE HUMAN PERSON
"Man is precisely a person because he is master of himself and has self-control. Indeed, insofar as he is master of himself he can 'give himself' to the other."
"In inter-human relationships, therefore, the disinterested gift of self (of the person) stands at the basis of the whole order of love and the whole authenticity of love. The human being as a person is capable of such a gift. Moreover, a personal gift of this nature does not impoverish but enriches the giver."
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Vittorio Messori asks the Holy Father what exactly he meant by his oft repeated emphasis on "human dignity"? In his answer, John Paul II recalled his "involvement with young people who asked me questions." And what did they ask this remarkable Polish priest? He was surprised that they did not ask him "about the existence of God." Rather they wanted to know "about how to live, how to face and resolve problems of love and marriage, not to mention problems related to work." As he recalled these conversations with young men and women in his homeland, just after the German occupation, Karol Wojtyla realized that their doubts and questions indicated to him "the way," the inspiration for the major themes of his own intellectual life. Out of these encounters his book Love and Responsibility was born and later, the more theoretical work of Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person. His living background is something that shines through in almost everything he writes, in his addresses, lectures, encyclicals, and letters.
As he thought back on this experience, John Paul II realized that he could not meet these normal and earnest inquiries from the young people he loved without himself dealing "with questions concerning human existence -- questions asked by people not only in our time but in every time." The example of one of these perennial questions, the Pope adds, in a theme that he developed more fully in the first part of Veritatis Splendor, is "the question of good and evil ... as shown by the young man in the Gospel who asks Jesus: 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' (Mk. 10:17)." So if we ask about why this Pope came to speak and write so much about the human person, his answer is both surprising and touching: "The development of my studies centered on man -- on the human person -- (this) can ultimately be explained by my pastoral concern."
As a philosopher and theologian, naturally Karol Wojtyla knew that the notion of "person" had a long and complicated history going back through Aquinas and Augustine to early controversies over Trinitarian theology in which the inner life of God was explained in terms of differing Persons in one God. He knew that the Incarnation was likewise explained in terms of person, that Christ was the Second Person of the Trinity made Man. He had learned the philosophical definition of person from the late Roman philosopher Boethius, that a person is an "individual substance belonging to a rational nature." The Pope incorporated these earlier questions into his own explanations of the dignity of precisely the human person, as something irreducible, unique, irrepeatable, the source of action and volition.
As Professor George Hunston Williams put it, the Polish word for person, osoba, is always used by Karol Wojtyla to mean "'sovereign person' and 'the subject of an act', which in the relationship of love, has another person as object, but an object who must also be treated as a sovereign, and therefore never used (exploited)." But we will miss the urgency and immediacy of the Holy Father's discussions about the dignity of the human person if we do not see that the profoundest of questions and intellectual studies can and do arise, even for a Pope, perhaps especially for this remarkable Pope, from what was in fact a priestly concern. Karol Wojtyla sought to respond to actual questions posed to him about how to live, about marriage, about work, about things that pertain to every human being who is like the young man who wants to know what he should do, what he should do to live rightly, to be saved.
The immediate problem the Pope faced was thus a pastoral one, one worked out in his concern over questions especially about marriage. He tried to formulate some way to respond to sincere questions that would be true and intelligible but fully aware of all the issues involved. We cannot forget that the profoundest of questions arise from and within such everyday experience. Wojtyla developed, in his careful answer, what he called his "personalistic principle." We begin to grasp some of the range of the Pope's mind when we see just what he had in mind: "This principle is an attempt to translate the commandment of love into the language of philosophic ethics." What, in other words, would a being have to look like, or better be like, who is capable of loving one's neighbor as himself, or, to use Christ's words, of "loving one another as I have loved you," that is unto the Cross? The Pope is not confusing theology and philosophy here, but he is opening a way within philosophy whereby revelational answers can be considered while respecting the integrity of the human intellect. Thus, he asks if there is anything we have been missing about our reasoned understanding of man that is brought to light by the command to love?
John Paul II's response is simply startling: "The person is a being for whom the only suitable dimension is love." Think what this might imply if, as the Pope holds, the world is in fact filled with precisely persons. Why might this "suitable dimension" be so? It is so because of the inner life of the person to which we direct ourselves, an inner life that in turn suffuses the whole person, including the face and the body, both themes to which the Pope has given deep thought. The Pope adds that "We are just to a person if we love him." Obviously, we are not being told here simply to be just, though we should always be just. Something is being added to justice that we did not otherwise notice, something that in fact goes beyond justice, that harsh virtue which does not look to the person as such but only to the relationship between persons. A civilization based on justice alone evidently is incomplete, is missing something. This is why John Paul II is fond of citing Paul VI's phrase, "a civilization of love."
John Paul II goes even further with this principle. "This is as true for God as it is for man." What this implies, as the classical discussions of grace remind us, is that when we love, we are participating in a power that is found first and primarily in the inner life of the Trinity, something finally offered to the free creature according to which he is invited to live. We thus must be beings, even in what otherwise must appear to be our limited finiteness, who somehow have faculties and powers that can receive and put this love into effect. This is what founds our dignity and explains Karol Wojtyla's effort further to understand what a person is. If we recall that all love has a touch of everlastingness to it -- no genuine love is just for tomorrow afternoon or till a week from Tuesday -- we can appreciate the foundation of the dignity that our capacity to love and be loved gives us. It is in this context that John Paul II thinks of the person.
The Pope is fond of citing in this context a passage from Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes, #24), a passage he may well have had a hand in composing. He tells us that the personalistic interpretation of this command of love is found in words from the Council. The following points are made in this passage: 1) When Christ prayed that his disciples be one as He and the Father are one, he meant to imply that there was a similarity "between the union of divine persons and the union of the children of God in truth and charity." 2) Man is the only creature on earth "whom God willed for his own sake." God willed other creatures, to be sure, but for the sake of their species and all for man's sake within a universe that was willed itself for God's own purpose and glory. Each individual person, however, from the moment of conception, as the Pope will frequently remark, is willed for his own sake, not as a means of something else. Each has eternal life as his immediate destiny. 3) Someone in existence for his own sake, someone who is capable of bearing and exercising a love that is identified as God's love for Himself, someone to whom we are just only if we love them, the Pope concludes with the Council, "can only discover himself by the sincere giving of himself."
Thus, if we speak of "self-realization", we totally misunderstand what it means if we think it is something that we can accomplish solely by ourselves looking to ourselves, by certain forms of asceticism or psychology. "The person is realized through love." We cannot understand the person as person if we do not have and choose to exercise our human freedom to give to others. "If man does not commit himself to becoming a gift for others, then this freedom can become dangerous. It will become the freedom to do what I myself consider as good, what brings me a profit or a pleasure, even a sublimate pleasure." The Holy Father is quite aware, as was Augustine, that love directed to the wrong things is supremely dangerous.
We must grant, then, that our world is filled with a huge legacy of misplaced loves. This is what constitutes its danger, for even misplaced love carries the force of passion and enthusiasm that belongs to all love. We cannot, however, escape from the possibility of loving wrongly because any loving at all, including especially loving rightly, must also be free. The drama of our personal existence, of the person we are, can best be described as a struggle between loving rightly and loving wrongly. "If we cannot accept the prospect of giving ourselves as a gift, then the danger of a selfish freedom will always be present." Again, not to have this prospect simply means that we could not exist, for the only creature in the world made for himself is the same creature that loves rightly or wrongly. He is not given the possibility of not existing or of not loving at all. He exists and his existence is given to him that he might love rightly, give himself as Christ gave himself, even unto death. The Pope realized that a finite creature given such powers is one great dignity, of great worth.
The world, as John Paul II sees it, is composed of incarnate persons. Each has an inner life in which he fashions his own awareness of what he knows and what he is. He is also to relate himself to other persons, ultimately including the divine Persons, in all their human and spiritual dimensions. Person, with its Trinitarian origins, already implies otherness. We are not solitary beings. It is not without accident that the Holy Spirit is spoken of as "Gift". The Holy Spirit is likewise the point at which a God, Who is complete in Himself, can look outward, but with no inner necessity, to create freely what is not Himself, yet something that is intended to return to Himself. Thus, the Holy Father wrote in his Encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Dominum et Vivifcantem, that
It can be said that in the Holy Spirit the intimate life of the Triune God becomes totally gift, an exchange of mutual love between divine Persons, and that through the Holy Spirit, God exists in the mode of gift. It is this Holy Spirit who is the personal expression of this self-giving, of this being-love. He is Person-Love. He is Person-Gift. Here we have an inexhaustible treasure of the reality and an inexpressible deepening of the concept of person in God, which only divine revelation makes known to us (#10).
What lies behind the Holy Father's thinking on the human person is his reflection on the divine Persons and the sort of being the human person must be to be able to receive and live this lofty, yet vital gift.
In his first Encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II explained that his concern with the philosophy of person and of human dignity was not some abstraction addressed to "humanity in general", but something very particular because the drama of God's redemption was to reach each one for whom the divine personal mission was intended. "We are speaking precisely of each man on this planet," he wrote,
this earth that the Creator gave to the first man, saying to each man and woman: "subdue it and have dominion." Each man in all the unrepeatable reality of what he is and what he does, of his intellect and will, of his conscience and heart. Man who is his reality has, because he is a "person", a history of his life that is his own and, most important, a history of his soul that is his own. Man ... writes this personal history of his trough numerous bonds, contacts, situations and social structures linking him with other men, beginning to do so from the first moment of his existence on earth, from the moment of his conception and birth.
Perhaps no single passage can be found to emphasize better the concrete realism of the Christian faith that is concerned with the salvation of actual, unique men and women, with human persons, in this very earth. We sometimes forget, in our attempts to accommodate diversity, the concreteness of the Christian purpose -- "each man without any exception whatever has been redeemed by Christ." This defines the scope of the love that the Holy Father thinks is intrinsic to us. Yet it is a love with a certain definite order, beginning with the family.
This unique context is the objective situation of each person. The fact is that each person needs to have this self-understanding, to become aware of it. The full meaning of person includes one's understanding of what he is, whoever and wherever he is. "This vocation of perfect love is not restricted to a small group of individuals," the Pope wrote in Veritatis Splendor (#18). There is a universality that fearlessly teaches that each person, in each nation and culture, needs this knowledge of his redemption to know who he is and what it is that he is created to be. "The human being holds a position superior to the whole of nature and stands above everything else in the visible world," Karol Wojtyla wrote in his essay on "The Dignity of the Human Person." "... A being that continually transforms nature, raising it in some sense to that being's own level, must feel higher than nature -- and must be higher than it. In this way, the constant confrontation of our own being with nature leads us to the threshold of understanding the person and the dignity of the person."
In a remarkable phrase to which the Holy Father often returns, we find just why it is that what might be called a clear and objective understanding of our lot and position as human beings in terms of science or merely human knowledge is not sufficient. What is revealed needs to be known and lived because it is only here that a full explanation of man is possible. "Man cannot live without love," the Pope repeats again to emphasize his purpose. "He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This is why ... Christ the Redeemer 'fully reveals man to himself.'" This phrase about man's being "fully revealed" to himself implies that knowing fully about ourselves is itself necessary for our acting and for our ability to judge properly about what is important.
The Holy Father concentrates in the person the central teaching about man's social relationships. Society exists in order that the person may fully know himself by being able to relate to, love others. "Today, the Church's social doctrine focuses especially on the person as he is involved in the complex network of relationships within modern society," John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus. "The human sciences and philosophy are helpful for interpreting the person's central place within modern societies and for enabling one to understand oneself better as a "social being." However, a person's true identity is only fully revealed to him through faith...' (#54)." Clearly, what the Pope implies is that man cannot explain himself to himself fully by human sciences and disciplines alone, however helpful they might be. The dignity of the person is something much more than human self-reflection can ascertain. However, unless this final destiny of eternal life open to each person offered redemption is known and taken into consideration by each person in his acts, man will not fully understand himself or be himself. The missionary aspect of the Church, its urgency, as it were, relates not only to the dangers that result if we do not correctly know ourselves as persons but also to the confusion and disordered lives in others that ensue from their lack of proper understanding about knowing themselves. This is why the Holy Father sees, as he pointed out in his Encyclical, Redemptoris Mission, the missionary element in every Christian life to be of vital importance for everyone.
During his first visit to Turin, in Italy, in 1980, John Paul II addressed the following words to thousands of university students there about what exactly constitutes the dignity of the human person.
The man of today often lacks the sense of the transcendental, of supernatural realities, of something that is beyond him. Man cannot live without something that goes further, that is beyond him. Man lives his life if he is aware of this, if he must always go beyond himself, transcend himself. This transcendence is deeply inscribed in the human constitution of the person.
This sense of what transcends the person also indicates the person's own dignity. All through John Paul II's life he has maintained that an accurate understanding of the human person is the central point of every relationship that he will encounter, be it in family or society. Consequently, he has seen the need to explain the person as someone who is capable of loving and for whom love constitutes the purpose of his existence.
But the reason why this purpose constitutes the core of human existence, the full revelation of man to himself, is because he is initially created in the image and likeness of God. Man is not God, but as the being he is, is called to live in God's very love. The early historical reflections about person did not usually attribute personality to man, only to God. What seems to be the fruit and core of the thought of John Paul II is that he has explained why the word person is the best one also to describe what man is. Once a man knows himself, knows that he has a transcendent destiny, what remains is for him to become what he is. The Holy Father's understanding of the human person leads naturally to that same unique person's deciding in his freedom whether he will accept the gift of his own reality and its destiny.
"Self-determination ... points as though inward -- toward the subject, which, by willing this value, by choosing it, simultaneously defines itself as a value: the subject becomes 'good' or 'bad'," Karol Wojtyla wrote.
Human beings not only determine their own activities but also determine themselves in terms of a most essential quality.... Through self-determination, the human being becomes increasingly more of a "someone" in the ethical sense, although in the ontological sense the human being is a "someone" from the very beginning. .... Self-determination ... points to self-possession and self-governance as the structure proper to a person.
The person who is self-governed, self-determined then must decide what to do with himself, with what he is, with the full revelation of himself to himself as the only creature created for himself, his unique, particular being. John Paul II's final purpose is to show that only by self-giving can this person really be himself because that is the nature of the love he has received, a love received as a gift, designed to imitate God's own love manifest best in the Incarnation, a love even unto the Cross. It is this personal, self-giving love alone that will make the world what it ought to be and that will be the eternal life that is the final answer to all of our questionings.
TO TEACH AND TO DEFEND
The Intellectual Legacy of Paul VI
"The Apostle is a teacher. He is not just the echo of the religious consciousness of the community; he is not the expression of the opinion of the faithful -- the voice, as it were, which makes it precise and legalizes it, as the Modernists used to say, and as some theologians dare to affirm nowadays. The voice of the Apostle is one that generates faith; just as it brings the first news of the Gospel, so does it defend the Gospel's true meaning, define its interpretation, guide the faithful in accepting it, and denounce the errors which distort it."
What is striking about the popes of modern times? It is, I think, the surprising degree to which they do in fact deal with the intellectual condition of their contemporary culture. They have a good understanding of this culture and are aware of the places it deviates, often in subtle ways, both from Christian doctrine and practice and from the right order of things.
Catholicism, among other things, as the recent publication of Le Catéchisme de la Eglise Catholique has again forcefully reminded us, is an intellectual religion. That is, it is a religion that takes intellect seriously by accounting for its own teachings and for comprehending what else is to be known. Not only does it require that its own teachings be made as clear and as intelligible as possible, but it does not allow other claims to reason that might contradict its positions to go unchallenged or intellectually unaccounted for.
While the Office of the Papacy is not primarily an academic function, it is, none the less, in its own constitution, a teaching office. It is an office whose function is to maintain in tact a coherent body of truth handed down to it both in its own integrity and in its relation to other claims to truth made against it. It must, consequently, understand not only what it holds from its own sources, but what is argued, presented, and maintained in other traditions. The direct impact of revelation on the Christian mind is to force it to think more deeply, more accurately. Catholicism, it should not be forgotten, is an articulated claim to know and present truth. This claim is both why it is hated and why it is attractive.
We have almost become used to this intellectual aspect of the papacy in the light of the extraordinarily forceful example of John Paul II, certainly one of the most brilliant minds in the public order today and in the history of the papacy itself. Pope Wojtyla, along with Cardinal Ratzinger, on solely human standards, are the intellectual peers of any faculty in any university in the world. But a very high degree of intellectual acumen was true also of Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, and, in a particular way of Paul VI. Whether this be due to good fortune or to divine providence, the fact is that Roman Catholics have been most fortunate in finding on the Throne of Peter both good men and intelligent men during the last century and a half.
Paul VI was pope from June 21, 1963 until his death on August 6, 1978. Many things can be said about his career and his personality -- he was the first modern pope to travel outside of Italy; he presided over the completion of Vatican II, and he witnessed with considerable anxiety a relatively widespread collapse of religious and Catholic life. Though for opposite reasons, he has been blamed both by the left and the right for a certain weakness or indecisiveness. Yet in fact, he was a very courageous and affirmative pope who perhaps expected too much of us. Paul VI began his papacy with a learned and penetrating dissertation on religion and dialogue (Ecclesiam Suam); he ended it with the reaffirmation of classic Catholic doctrine about marriage (Humanae Vitae).
Communism seemed, during his time, to be gaining strength and making profound intellectual claims on our souls, This apparent attractiveness of marxism, of course, caused him, like all his contemporaries, carefully to consider its premises. In retrospect, some are wont to suggest that communism was overvalued. But the truth seems rather to be that its collapse had much to do with profound spiritual forces, even supernatural ones. The decline and defeat of communism ought not to make us unaware of the fact that it might have won. We read our times in a very superficial way if we do not acknowledge this possibility. Like John Paul II, Paul VI made a visit to Fatima.
I saw Paul VI a number of times during my years in Rome, though always in formal settings. I suppose the most memorable scene was on December 8, 1965, at the Promulgation of Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes, on "The Church in the Modern World," in St. Peter's Square. On this occasion, Paul VI was formally presented this highly praised document by the great French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, as a representative of the cultural world. As a young man, Giovanni Battista Montini had translated into Italian Maritain's Three Reformers. There was something symbolic about that moment as Maritain too, like Paul VI himself, in the few years before he died as a religious brother in France, worried about the direction of actual Christian life after the Council (The Peasant of the Garonne).
The very first thing I recall ever reading of Montini was written when he was still a Monsignor functioning as Substitute Secretary of State to Pius XII. The Italians, French, and Germans during recent decades had organized a series of "Social Weeks" in which they gathered together to discuss and reflect upon the meaning of Catholic thought in the public order. In 1952, under Giuseppe Siri, then Archbishop of Genoa, the Italian Social Week was held in Turin. The subject matter of the studies was "The Enterprise in Modern Economy," a title in retrospect that seems surprisingly to presage Centesimus Annus.
In his Letter to Siri, Montini observed that "the economic world is primarily a creation of the free will of men; it pertains to the State, therefore, to create those conditions which may allow private initiative to expand within the limits of the moral order and of the common good." Ironically, on re-reading this passage, I have always considered Paul VI's Populorum Progressio (1967) to be the modern social encyclical that least understood the nature of precisely private initiative and the free will creation of the market. Yet, the fundamental principle is already here in Montini in 1952.
On the occasion of his Tenth Anniversary (1973) as Pope, there were two official events in which Paul VI participated. The first was his opening of that part of the Vatican Museum devoted to modern religious art. The second was his attending a concert, sponsored by the Italian broadcasting company RAI, in the Vatican Audience Hall, a lovely Hall in fact named after Paul VI himself. At this concert, Leonard Bernstein conducted the orchestra, the Men's Chorus from Boston, with the Newark Boys Choir, in Bach's "Magnificat." This was followed by a performance of Bernstein's own lovely "Chichester Psalms."
I cite this scene -- there is a photo of Bernstein greeting the Holy Father at the concert -- to acknowledge the myriad of aspects under which one might appreciate the work of any Pope. Paul VI was a learned and sensitive man. Unlike John Paul II or even John XXIII, neither of whom ever photographed badly, Paul VI's pictures usually reveal a face with more anxiety than was probably the case. The fact is that he was very warm and direct, with more than a touch of shyness about him.
I want to continue these reflections with a remarkable passage found at the beginning of Paul VI's "Credo of the People of God," one of the most important and most clear of papal statements about what the Christian faith is essentially about. But I cite this passage because, in its own way, it is prophetic of issues and problems that have arisen in a more acute form subsequent to his time, those in particular arising from deconstructionism and the doubt that we can really know anything. Already, Paul VI was aware of the problems that were likely to arise from such philosophical positions as well as those Kantian presuppositions so often found in modern thought.
As a kind of preface to the "Credo" itself, Paul VI touched on the necessity of research and, at the same time, on the need to "protect the teachings of Christian doctrine." He was not being anti-intellectual or obscurantist here. Quite the contrary. Obviously, his position is based on the idea that Christian doctrine has nothing to fear from genuine research, but any research that seems to undermine this doctrine needs itself to be carefully investigated further in regard to its own philosophical integrity.
Paul VI then proceeded to the heart of the matter. Scientific phenomena is based on something other than itself. It does not function in a vacuum but presupposes the validity and nature of human intelligence itself. This intelligence is not the product of science but presupposed to it. It is already given as part of the structure of the world.
The intellect, which God has given us reaches that which is, and not merely the subjective expression of the structures and development of consciousness; and, on the other hand, ... the task of interpretation -- of hermeneutics -- is to try to understand and extricate, while respecting the word expressed, the meaning conveyed by the text, and not to refashion this meaning in some manner, in accordance with arbitrary hypotheses.
Contained within this short passage is an acute awareness of the kinds of modern philosophy that divorce man from reality. This thought casts doubt on man's own capacity to know reality or, once knowing it, on his ability to explain it and explain it not as we would have it but as something handed down to us as rational beings.
In 1975, Paul VI alluded to the theory behind his own position in a Letter he wrote to the noted Thomist Scholar, Etienne Gilson (August 8, 1975). The Holy Father praised many aspects of Gilson's prodigious work. "You have demonstrated the originality of Thomism," Pope Montini wrote to Gilson,
by showing how the Angelic Doctor profited by the light of Christian revelation (especially the doctrine of creation and what you yourself have called "the metaphysics of Exodus") to reach the original and really revolutionary idea of the "act of being" (ipsum esse). By that very fact his philosophy stood on an entirely different plane than that of Aristotle. You have thus unsealed once more a fountain of wisdom from which our technological society can derive great profit, for it is a society fascinated by "having" but often blind to the meaning of "being" and to its metaphysical roots.
The metaphysical roots of being, of what is, of course, are in God, Ipsum Esse. A society fascinated with "having" will be one that identifies intelligence with what it makes, not with the prior question of what the thing is that is being dealt with, the thing that already exists as this something. This distinction, as I shall suggest, lies behind Paul VI's intellectually courageous position on marriage, children, and human sexuality. But, as I have indicated, it is remarkable how modern popes, if one takes pains carefully to read them, have made every effort fairly and clearly to present other views about reality and then to trace their intellectual roots, often occasioned by misunderstandings about or failures to practice Christian doctrine.
In 1971, for example, Paul VI gave a brief address to the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Believers, "Atheism, Secularization, and Christian Faith." In the course of this address, Paul VI cited his friend Jacques Maritain's remark (from La signification de l'athéisme contemporaine) to the effect that "to believe in God should mean that one lives his life in a way that it could not be lived if God did not exist." Actually, Paul VI, more than other popes, cited contemporary authors. In this address he cites, in addition to Maritain, he cited Henri de Lubac, Harvey Cox, G. Cottier, the Dominican scholar on atheism, Francois Mauriac and G. de Rosa, the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica.
Paul VI defined quite clearly how certain forms of humanism led to atheism. Today, "even society itself, desiring to remain neutral in the face of ideological pluralism, is organized independently of any religion; and it relegates the sacred to the subjectivity of the individual conscience," Paul VI observed.
This secularization, which entails the growing autonomy of the profane, is a striking fact in our Western civilization. It is within this situation that secularism has appeared as an ideological system. It does not simply justify this fact; it takes it as the objective, source and norm of human progress. And it goes so far as to claim absolute autonomy for man in achieving his own destiny.
This description is very close to the reality of our public culture. We have an ideological pluralism that insists that religion has no objective or public function, but is only subjective in an invisible conscience. Culture is profane and autonomous. Indeed, it is made to be the very goal of the public order. Man achieves his end by his own efforts and is dependent on nothing outside of himself for what this destiny might mean.
No doubt, what Paul VI will be most remembered for is his Encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968). For a time, it appeared that Paul VI might approve contraception and other varieties for birth control as he was widely being urged to do. In retrospect, the fact that he did not in the face of so much opposition makes him one of the most intellectual brave men of our time. For any one with a clear sense of logic, it is clear that he was perfectly right both in the nature of marriage itself and in the civil and moral consequences that would follow once the essential principle of the integrity of the marital act was undermined. Probably on no issue in modern times in its broad consequences is the relation of faith and reason more evident.
The increasing moral chaos of our time is directly connected to the truth of this teaching. Paul VI was quite frank about his role in this issue -- it was one that did involve in some basic sense the historical integrity of Catholic teaching on a fundamental issue. He recalled the work of the various experts who had recommended a change in Church teaching. Here is how Paul VI responded in Humanae Vitae:
The conclusion at which the commission arrived could not, nevertheless, be considered by us as definitive, nor dispense us from a personal examination of this serious question; and this also because, within the commission itself, no full concordance of judgments concerning the moral norms to be proposed had been reached, and above all because certain criteria of solutions had emerged which departed from the moral teaching on marriage proposed with constant firmness by the teaching authority of the Church (#6).
There is something almost awesome about this passage. Here we have a pope in the exercise of his authority acting against the advice of learned and popular opinion precisely because it violated something handed down by the Church the truth of which he understood himself obligated to uphold.
As I said, we can also show that this position is also reasonable, both in logic and in consequences. This position, moreover, led Paul VI to state more directly that those reasonable positions that were directly or indirectly connected with the essence of revelation also fell under the competence of the Church's mysterious magisterium.
It is, in fact, indisputable, as our predecessors have many times declared, that Jesus Christ, when communicating to Peter and to the Apostles His divine authority and sending them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as guardians and authentic interpreters of all the moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel, but also of the natural law, which is also an expression of the will of God, the faithful fulfillment of which is equally necessary for salvation (#4).
If we compare this passage with what Paul VI had said earlier about that side of modern culture that is closed off from revelation and declares a complete human autonomy, it is clear that rock of Peter remains a contradiction precisely because it defends the human even against the human itself.
A final document that I should like to refer to in the light of Paul VI's intellectual analysis of our time is his Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975). It is a document that provided much of the inspiration for John Paul II's Redemptoris Missio (1991). But what both documents have in common is the realization that Catholicism still must make a case for its own uniqueness. Since Vatican II, the Papacy has made a remarkable effort to "dialogue", to use Paul VI's word, with every possible religion and philosophy. The Church has conceived itself to be open and willing to discuss, treat with, or otherwise promote understanding. But it has not entered into this effort with any idea that it was to compromise itself or its teachings on basic matters the integrity of which it was bound to uphold.
"Wherever men are trying to understand themselves and the world, we can communicate with them," Paul VI wrote in Ecclesiam Suam.
Wherever the councils of nations come together to establish the rights and duties of man, we are honored when they allow us to take our seat among them. If there exists in men "a soul naturally Christian," we desire to show it our respect and to enter into conversation with it. Our attitude in this, as we remind ourselves and everyone else, is, on the one hand, entirely disinterested: we have no temporal or political aim whatever, and, on the other hand, its purpose is to raise up and elevate to a supernatural and Christian level every good human value in the world. We are not civilization, but we promote it.
It is to be noted that Paul VI presents the Christian teaching as something that is there to be considered with its own force, but that this force completes and develops civilization itself.
This free civilizational aspect of Christianity is not its primary purpose, however much it is connected with it. Even if civilization completely rejects and even persecutes Christianity for maintaining its way of life, the ultimate ends of human life can still be attained. It is the Church's purpose to teach about Christ. If it fails in this, all else is relatively unimportant. "The Church exists in order to evangelize," Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi,
that is, to preach and teach the word of God, to be the channel of his gifts of grace, to reconcile sinners with him, and to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass which is the memorial of his death and resurrection (#14).
Man's ultimate destiny is given to him. It is given according to a certain understanding of man, the world, and God. However odd it might seem, there are certain practices and doctrines that are necessary for salvation. Whatever else the Church might teach in the way of civilization, these are its essentials. When Christians become more interested in culture or economics or politics than in their salvation, they are betraying their own heritage as well as making it impossible for culture and civilization to reach the heights to which they are capable.
Paul VI noted that some people maintain that to preach and to teach what the Church actually teaches, what it is sent to the nations to teach, are "an infringement on religious liberty." Paul's response to this common reaction can serve as a fitting conclusion for the way this most intelligent of popes sought to carry out his own mission of teaching. "It is certainly wrong to force anything on the conscience of our brother," Paul VI acknowledged.
It is quite another thing, however, to confront his conscience with the truth of the Gospel and with salvation in Jesus Christ, and to do so with full openness and complete respect for his right to choose.... Is it an attack on freedom to preach with joy the Good News we have received from a merciful Lord?
And with some asperity, he continued,
And why is it legitimate to offer men only lies and errors and obscenity, and even, alas, in many instances, to force these upon them through the mass media with their deadly powers of persuasion, through laws which tolerate such license, and through the cowardice of the upright and the boldness of the wicked (#80)?
As I have suggested, the modern popes know what is in the culture, what is good about it, what is exasperating. They are free to present their case and do so. They are willing to talk and to discuss, but they are also, at times as here, forced to call things by their correct names.
Paul VI was a man of many talents and many parts. I have chosen this intellectual aspect of his work not only because he was himself an intelligent man, but also because, in his understanding of the truths of the faith, a brave one. It is often more difficult to be brave in the modern world before world opinion than in battle. Paul VI knew that he had to find the good in all teachings and opinions when it was there. But he also knew that the Church was given its own tradition of practice and doctrine to hand on to its members and to all who would choose it. The integrity of the faith is also an understanding of the faith. For this integrity, Paul VI has left us a noble witness and a profound body of explanation and reflection on what it is we understand and hold.
THE TEACHING OF CENTESIMUS ANNUS
To read the "signs of the times" is to interpret personal and historical events, events of the orders of action and making in Aristotle's sense, in the light of some more stable and intelligible, usually divine, order. Many a recent reader of these "signs" has been someone who urged us to accept the Marxist movement and adapt religious or political doctrine to it, since it was, supposedly, "scientific" and "the wave of the future." In short, it was said to be "a sign of the times."
We sometimes forget, in this context of a rather liberal contemporary use of the phrase "the signs of the times," that on at least one occasion when Christ was asked for a "sign from heaven," He rather bluntly replied, "Why does this generation ask for a sign? I tell you this: no sign will be given to this generation" (Mark, 8, 12). The search for signs can sometimes be a means to escape the understanding of what we already know, of what is already quite clear.
Yet even those writers who believed in democracy and freedom felt, right up until the moment of its crisis, that little could be done with the concentrated power and will that existed in the Marxist system. We would have to compromise with it, not provoke it or seek to eliminate it. A kind of grim fatalism or determinism seemed to instil itself in social history and political will.
Indeed, current cultural relativist and deconstructionist theories, popular in academic circles, would even doubt whether we could distinguish in terms of good and bad between any competing systems. Marxism was, after all, just one type of philosophical and political system that originated in the same presuppositions of modern political philosophy. Since none could be proved superior to another, we must, it was said, base ourselves on "tolerance." This tolerance was to be dogmatically rooted in the theoretical inability to distinguish any concept of true or good embodied in history or in human activities. Except perhaps for the Jews, who managed to get a considerable number of their faithful out of the Soviet Union, Christians and members of free societies could do little, it was claimed, to alleviate those faithful citizens actually caught under the Marxist system behind the Iron Curtain.
The Vietnam War, which was in fact a war with the Marxist world, ended with a crisis of internal will in the West. This internal Western crisis, in retrospect, substantially divorced itself from what was going on in Southeast Asia. There, unattended bloody consequences in Cambodia and Laos proved to be one of the most tragic incidents of our era. Few thinkers, however, had a viable framework in which both the collapse of Marxism and the critique of liberal modernism could be ordered in a coherent whole.
The momentous events inherent in the changes in the Marxist world, moreover, had not been foreseen by the social or historical "sciences." These social sciences had prided themselves on modeling their analyses on the predictive nature of the so-called "hard" sciences, as if the subject matter of human action and the subject matter of physical objects were of the same character. This failure to anticipate the events of the Marxist world is itself significant because it exposes the "reductionism" of these social sciences that allow valid knowledge only to their own methods. Spiritual forces or movements are not apparent in these methods and do not exist as such in their literature.
It is as if, as E. F. Schumacher pointed out in his A Guide for the Perplexed, the whole realm of the most important things to mankind did not exist because they did not appear within the methods of the social sciences. John Paul II often refers to this narrow attitude. "Man is created in the image of God. We are all living icons of Him who is our origin and our final destiny," the Pope observed before the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Those who, enlightened by faith, discover in themselves and in their brothers and sisters the features of this icon are able to have a more penetrating and universal vision of the human person and the world about us. With this awareness, and in an attitude of humble gratitude to God, they must unite their efforts to those of all people of good will in order to offer to humanity the contribution of light which comes to them from faith. In particular, they will remind their brothers and sisters that every kind of immanentism, by proposing a reductionist image of man, deprives him of that transcendent dimension which alone can remove from him the prospect of final annihilation.
This "reductionist image of man," that lies at the theoretical basis of much human science, necessarily leaves out any transcendent dimension that would suggest that something more than man exists in the universe.
In this context, moreover, it is not without interest that, during the United Nations Symposium on Centesimus Annus, the one participant to stress this issue was the Slovak Prime Minister, Dr. Jan Carnogursky. "The life of man is more complex, special, and in itself truer than any scientific theory could depict," Carnogursky remarked,'
The life of any saint tells you more about man and his world than all the collected works of Marx, Engles, and their so-called intellectual allies. Today, it is obvious that Marxist methodology and its resultant social system have been defeated by the very system it created. When looking back, it is a surprise that such a bogus system could have influenced so many people, many of whom were wise people. I can remember how, in the early 1980's, even some priests defended the use of Marxist methodology....
Such blunt and direct words serve again to emphasize both the failure to recognize the power of spiritual forces in the world and the dangers of the scientific "reductionism" to which John Paul II points. Method can only yield what it considers so that its results depend on what narrow object the method as such seeks to account for. What is, in other words, is not co-terminus with what information, however valid, our methods yield.
When spiritual issues do appear in such "scientific" analyses, be they Marxist, behaviorist, or ideological, they are presented not as spiritual forces but as indirectly measurable effects deprived of their full given meaning. We will listen in vain on radio or see on television or read in the press much about the relation of faith and transcendence to these momentous world events of our era. We limit ourselves to political or economic explanations, that do contain some truth, to be sure, but which fail to indicate that anything further may be present and operative in the historical lives of actual human beings. We miss the deeper currents of reality because of our scientific methods and philosophic prejudices. "The human person receives from God its essential dignity," John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus, "and with it the capacity to transcend every social order so as to move toward truth and goodness" (#38). Already here we find the most essential principle of all specifically Catholic social thought, namely, that no human person is confined in his destiny to economic or political institutions alone.
Yet, the curious collapse of Marxism has all the earmarks of the work of God. Perhaps the most tyrannical system in the history of the world ceases not in immediate bloodshed or in chaos, but in a kind of gentle, even peaceful fashion, in eloquent words of new-found leaders who have suffered the ravages of the Marxist experience. This very system, as we have libraries of books to attest, was often praised and promoted by many intellectuals in free societies, as Malcolm Muggeridge already pointed out in his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time. True, there were many agonies, some bloodshed in recent events, but by comparison with World War I or II or with Korea or Vietnam, practically nothing has happened. This comparatively peaceful revolution does not mean that things cannot get worse, or that places of turmoil do not exist even in the aftermath of the Marxist collapse. Nor does it forget the failure of the Chinese effort to throw communism out of its system by peaceful means.
"Is this remarkably placid result an accident?" we can wonder. It goes without saying that all through the modern era, from the very inceptions of Marxist rule, mankind has been told that spiritual forces, both of light and darkness, were at work. The fact that we hardly knew what to make of such warnings, from Lourdes to Fatima, is itself a witness to an intellectual climate of modernity that has gradually taken out of nature and existence any sign of meaning except what it put there by itself and as originating in mankind itself. In this sense, we have lived in a "closed" human world. Humanism, that noble word, had come to mean for many that nothing existed in the world but what human will and technique put there. It came positively to exclude, in other words, any will open to the transcendent by virtue of the intellect's own realization of its own finiteness.
We were asked, furthermore, to pray especially for the conversion of Russia. Generations can still explicitly recall so praying at the end of each Mass in the Catholic world. The accumulated suffering of weak and innocent people in Gulags and concentration camps, moreover, was simply enormous. We were tempted to gloss over it as if it had no ultimate meaning. It was asked that Russia be dedicated to Mary, in terms of social science a most improbable, if not positively ridiculous request. This dedication too was made though there is considerable controversy whether it was made in the form requested.
In the spiritual world there was some sense that all-pervading evil was at work within mankind and especially within the Soviet system. An American President was berated for suggesting that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." In retrospect, this designation seems to be what its actual inhabitants called it when they were free enough to do so. But the response to the disorder in the Marxist system would have to be primarily effected through a spiritual understanding of man's nature and being, through a "turning" in the heart of each person. With some challenge, Solzhenitsyn spoke to this point:
A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of the human personality in the West while in the East it has become firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. The complex and deadly crush of life has produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting personalities than those generated by standardized Western well-being.
From this evidence, the experience of suffering among mankind is not lost, however much we deplore what causes it.
Moreover, the "conversion" of Russia was linked mostly with penitence and with living good lives, as if what was important, even politically, was a kind of personal integrity no matter where one stood in the political or economic spectrum. Many of the dire consequences of not praying did come about in the 20th Century almost as predicted. This Century, consequently, is most difficult to explain on social or political grounds alone. These dire consequences recorded in the Marxist system were themselves, on analysis, logical workings out of positions taken by leading modern thinkers about the nature of man and of the world. Moral and intellectual disorders were somehow related.
Paul Johnson has pointed out in Modern Times that this Century of "progress" was the most bloody in man's history and that it was caused mostly by armed prophets or ideologues, men who were intellectuals with political power. They were not old-time tyrants but modern ideologues. They were not just men with uncontrolled desires, but men with an idea about how to refashion the very world in their image, as their own personal "icon." It was almost as if the vast majority of mankind was made to suffer the consequences of the errors of the spiritual and academic dons, or, to put it somewhat differently, ideas have force whether they be right or wrong. "Almost everything that has gone wrong in the recent history of our culture," Nicholas Lobkowicz has observed, "originated in the minds of people such as ourselves, people who are university graduates and intellectuals." Such are sobering words in the light of the care Christianity has always had with regard to the importance of intelligence open to truth and the worldly consequences of a failure to achieve it.
The Catholic Church has been, in many ways, an independent force in the modern world. Nothing quite like it exists in terms of a living organism, as it were, that can reflect on itself and on what it taught, say, one hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago, as if such reflections all belong to the same coherent discourse going on today, in any "today." The Church can quote Augustine or Origin or Aquinas or Ignatius of Loyola as if each were equally present in current dialogue. In one sense, this record serves as a kind of independent or parallel commentary on the events of each era. "The Church, in fact, has something to say about specific human situations...," John Paul II remarked. "She formulates a genuine doctrine for these situations, a corpus which enables her to analyze social realities, to make judgments about them and to indicate directions to be taken for the just resolution of the problems involved" (#5). The Church's reflections are addressed to the coherence and meaning of human history as such. Indeed, the very survival of the Church as an intact, structured organization is itself one of the great mysteries of human history.
Likewise, this particular spiritual force understands itself to be at work in the world though not completely of the world. It acknowledges forces that are not recognized by the social sciences or normal political wisdom. The Church needed to explain things, even public things, in its own unique terms, within the context of its own proper purpose. The common charge that it dealt only with the "hereafter" and therefore neglected the present was not accurate, however much it did deal with the hereafter. The here and the hereafter were not the same, but they were real and related. Both needed to be acknowledged because both were accessible and were required to explain the whole of human life to itself.
One of the most striking things about Centesimus Annus, the 1991 Social Encyclical of John Paul II, is its insistence that there is one world, not merely one globe, but one world of spirit and matter. This one world, whose full understanding requires proper distinctions of beings found within it in the manner of Aristotle or Aquinas, includes the political, social, and economic movements of any era, whether it be those of Leo XIII's last of the 19th Century, or those of John Paul II's Third Millennium, or those concerned with the rise and collapse of Marxism in the 20th Century. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Augustine, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux are still alive in this discourse. This discussion also includes the understanding of man's nature and being, of his transcendent destiny. This "understanding" is something that is to live and to be intelligible within each person. It is not an abstraction or an ideology, in this sense, both because it has a claim to be true and because it is to exist in each person.
John Paul II himself has been an actor in recent events. Many hold, in fact, that his election to the Papacy and his example in Poland and Eastern Europe were the real beginnings of the events that led to the remarkable collapse of Marxism. The attempt on his life, evidently through some connection with the Bulgarian Secret Police and Soviet intelligence, was seen by the Pope himself as having a providential import, as he remarked in a visit to Fatima (May 12-13, 1991). The Holy Father was a visible proof that faith could not only exist but even flourish under modern totalitarian circumstances however dire.
Nor has this Pope been concerned only with Marxism. John Paul II has sought to relate the problems of the Third World to the Marxist-West split, without denying the importance of this divergence (#33). He has entered into a public discourse about what a best practical and possible order for the world would look like as if he has some definite criterion and as if it is possible to achieve some notable approximation, without calling it a Kingdom of God on earth, which it is not (#25, #62). He does not conceive this project as utopian. In fact, he explicitly disassociates himself from utopian premises (#43). On the other hand, he is not a "political realist" in the sense of holding that nothing can be done or can be done only with violence (#25). He is a pope of "action" in the philosophical sense, as his own philosophical works already intimated.
Probably, the two men with the most clear insights on this whole era, then, have been John Paul II and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Both have one further thing in common. They understand, as I have indicated, the importance of the spiritual forces at work in mankind. They also realized that many of the dangerous forces that disrupted civil society were, in their principles, as present in the democratic world as in the Marxist world. Both men are often, to put it mildly, hated for their courage in pointing out similarities when they are not generally acknowledged by those who adhere to these common principles of modernity. For The New York Times, Solzhenitsyn was a "religious enthusiast" (June 13, 1978). The Holy Father is often seen, even by certain hostile Catholic writers, to be a sort of narrow Polish cultural fanatic.
Yet, what strikes us most about both John Paul II and Alexander Solzhenitsyn is that they themselves belong to the class of intellectuals. John Paul II in particular is a man of great personality and openness. To say that he is himself an "intellectual" is to obscure the thousand other fascinating things about his warm character. Yet, in discussing Centesimus Annus, I want to deal with the remarkable intellectual
penetration of the Holy Father's analysis. What this document does, I think, is to address a concise and brilliant argument to the modern world about what it is about and what is the nature of the reality with which it must deal. And this analysis is not merely an intellectual reflection but precisely a "teaching," something proposed to us as true, as a cause for assent, and as a basis for action action because it conforms to human reality at its deepest levels. The Holy Father, no doubt, is aware that intellectual integrity is not as forceful as simple virtuous human example.
Some articulate and perceptive writers like Peter Berger have, on the other hand, only seen this document in terms of its social and political insights.
Inevitably, I suppose, the Pope emphasizes the continuity and the sagacity of Catholic social teaching in the century since Rerum Novarum, both matters on which an outside observer may have some reservations. I suppose it is also inevitable that the pope oversells the value of this teaching: it is offered to the world as "an indispensable and ideal orientation." On this I must respectfully demur. If one forgets the authorship of the document, its analysis of the contemporary situation and its moral judgments certainly seem well-informed, eminently reasonable, and sensitive to the moral ambiguities of modern institutions.... All the same, there is little here that sheds new light on the economic, political, and social processes of our time, and the moral observations are not new.
There really are "things of Caesar." Religious or moral ideas that deflect man from his spiritual destiny, however, would also impact on his public life. Most of Catholic social thought has arisen from this latter source, with efforts to account for things that have gone wrong. The net effect of these effort is to clarify for itself the meaning of the basic issues of political forms or economic institutions and motivations. In this matter, what seems most striking about Centesimus Annus is not its economic or political doctrine, which is often an affirmation of ideas long familiar in the secular and religious world, but its hint that these goals will not be achieved purely on secular terms (#11, #59).
John Paul II begins Centesimus Annus with what he calls a "re-reading" of Leo XII's Rerum Novarum. The very concept of "re-reading" implies memory, memory of reality, of what has been said before about things of the greatest importance. The Church claims for itself a basic consistency in what it teaches over the ages so that care is taken to be sure that the same fundamental understanding of man, society, and God are present in all fundamental Christian reflection. It implies that what Leo XIII said still can have validity because certain permanent things are there in reality.
But secondly, the effort to understand current events and movements, the guidance of which the Pope specifically says is not the direct competence of the Church, is part of the social doctrine of the Church (#43). Thus, we find some remarkably stated paradoxes in John Paul II. Few documents, I think, are quite so clear on the fact that the visible problems of mankind have a spiritual origin. This coherence means that the separation of church and state, faith and reason, this-worldly and transcendent affairs, have to be seen in their coherent unity. Not only are they not in opposition to each other, but in their full understanding they require each other.
Social sciences in modern times, often especially as it is used by those Christian social scientists who have imitated the ideologies as the best way to promote faith, have lost the dimension of transcendent purpose in each human life or so identified it with a particular political policy as to make it useless as a grounding for the human. To restore this centrality of specific Christian understanding of man, his freedom and destiny, is the first thing that the Holy Father seeks to do. This effort might be seen as the Pope's understanding that both liberalism and marxism have faulty spiritual and philosophical roots, but this does not mean that everything in them is bad unless shown to be so by argument or experience, as the Pope seems bent on doing in the case of socialism (#23-24).
The Pope is aware that the corrosive effects of liberalism can prove to be as much a problem as the dire effects of Marxism. Many do not like this critique of capitalism by the Holy Father at all. But the Holy Father's analysis of classical liberalism is now, with this document, clearly separated from certain valid concepts of the state, the economy, and production that we have too long associated exclusively with philosophic liberalism and not a kind of common sense rooted rather more in Aristotelian common sense. Once this difference is understood, the Pope's constant use of the rather unfortunate term "consummerism" for the effects of liberalism becomes more intelligible. "Consummerism" does not evidently mean that we need things to consume, that we need to produce things of great quantity and high quality (#36). Failure to know or to learn how to achieve these things has been what is wrong with the modern effort to aid the poor. Rather "consummerism" signifies more a mentality that denies anything higher in man but production and consumption. In the Holy Father's usage, the word is very close to Aristotle's analysis in which he explains that some people identify happiness with wealth or pleasure.
It is the "lowering of sights" of which Machiavelli and modern liberalism spoke that concerns the Pope. In much of modernity, with Hobbes and Marx in particular, it was believed that the causes of social problems were religious and philosophical in nature. Thus if we could get rid of this transcendent concern and deal with material goods, we would not waste our efforts on war and controversy. We would thus be prosperous but only on the condition that we did not concern ourselves with truth or goodness. In itself, however, the abundance of material goods available to all in market exchange is one of the extraordinary accomplishments of the modern era. Aristotle had maintained that the good of the household was the end of wealth-getting. A family or a polity that sought nothing else but wealth, however, was one that missed attention to and knowledge of higher things. John Paul II, I think, in his concern with "consummerism" is rather closer to Aristotle than we might think. The Pope is not, as it may appear, undermining the very conditions of the market with its need of profit and exchange, a need he was at pains to praise (#38).
The "atheism" of which the Pope speaks in Centesimus Annus often seems to suggest that concern with God and the hereafter is the cause of civil unrest and lack of progress (#13). One of the functions of Centesimus Annus is to challenge this accusation and turn it around to show that, in fact, atheism, personal and "corporate," does lie at the heart of civil unrest. The Pope's reasoning is as follows: man has an end or purpose beyond this life in the light of which all man's being and action are interrelated. Once this transcendent purpose is eliminated through the denial of God's existence, what happens is that there is no guarantee for any order of justice and good. What takes primacy in lack of a principle of order are the selfish drives and prejudices.
Whether in Marxism or in liberalism, these consequences prevent any conception of a common, limited good, that does not propose to be an earthly Kingdom of God, but merely a reasonable, just, and abundant order for human beings in that time allotted to them in this world (#25). "People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the State as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve" (#49). Clearly, this position neither exalts nor denigrates state and market but maintains that in order for them to be what they are, it is necessary to understand what purposes they do not by themselves establish. By being themselves, they can allow what they are not to flourish. The Pope, as Russell Hittinger has remarked, has been most concerned with the experience of Western states in limiting the state, in accepting competition, the rule of law, and checks and balances, as a way institutionally to limit the state and to avoid totalitarianism (#34, #44).
The first side of the critique of atheism, then, is to confront it on its own terms. The Pope is not talking so much about the so-called "good" atheist, but about the implications of the idea itself and its logical effects on an individual or a society. Obviously, many individual atheists will not be "logical." They will lead lives that are worthy by standards of classical virtue or religion. But the Pope realizes that the theoretic justification of atheism lies behind most of the turmoil of modern times. It is not sufficient to combat it by moral or military means, though these are not to be neglected. It needs to be confronted by theological and philosophical means. For intellectual errors are of great social significance.
The Holy Father sees a truth in the Marxist concept of "alienation" in this connection even in prosperous societies that do not properly understand man's ultimate meaning. This alienation is not eliminated in socialist societies and is misunderstood there. It also appears under a different form in Western societies. Alienation is "the loss of the authentic meaning of life" (#41). Those who are alienated seek meaning in a false utopia or material goods or power. John Paul II takes the concept of "alienation" seriously as he thinks it does describe a very common condition among people who have not found God or the meaning of life. "The concept of alienation needs to be led back to the Christian vision of reality, by recognizing in alienation a reversal of means and ends," the Pope wrote. Since man is created to give of oneself,
one cannot give oneself to a purely human plan for reality, to an abstract ideal or to a false utopia.... A person is alienated if he refuses to transcend himself and to live the experience of self-giving and of the formation of an authentic human community oriented towards its final destiny, which is God (#41).
Clearly, in the Pope's experience, disorders of soul and society are caused by this most fundamental failure to orient one's given existence to its proper end. This alienation is not an abstract experience but something quite familiar in all modern societies.
The second thing to note about the Pope's treatment of atheism is his frank acknowledgment that actual social problems will not be solved without revelation and the Gospel (#11, #45). At first sight, it will seem paradoxical that the Pope will take so much effort to establish the relatively autonomous nature of modern social problems, only to turn around and indicate that they cannot be solved in terms of politics or economics or social science alone. This position seems to bear out the accusation that Christianity is concerned only with the hereafter. Many modern social philosophers of a more classical bent, such as Leo Strauss, are unwilling even to consider such a line of thought because it involves a faith to which they do not belong. John Paul II, however, maintains that no real answer to social questions can be found apart from the Gospel (#5). But we should not forget that the social questions are themselves lived and formulated by men in this world. It will not be recognized that there is a Gospel response to these questions unless the questions are properly understood in themselves.
The Holy Father, thus, does not hesitate to state the case or argument for Christianity as such, in its own terms, in terms of truth itself. Indeed, he conceives the whole enterprise of "social doctrine" to be primarily a part of Christianity's understanding of its whole religious purpose. Without too much exaggeration, we can say that the Pope is almost the only public or academic figure who relates this transcendent purpose to political and social life with persistent clarity. After granting the nature of the problems and failures of the modern world, as well as acknowledging its remarkable successes, the reasons for which are also part of the Encyclical's reason for existing, the Holy Father wrote:
In order that the demands of justice may be met, and attempts to achieve this goal may succeed, what is needed is the gift of grace, a gift which comes from God. Grace, in cooperation with human freedom, constitutes that mysterious presence of God in history which is Providence (#59).
The Pope goes on to remark not merely that faith helps "to find solutions" but that it makes "even situations of suffering humanly bearable."
What is to be remarked here that the Holy Father operates within what Gilson called "Christian philosophy," that is, the proposition that faith is addressed to the intelligence, to philosophical intelligence both as a stimulus and as a guide to right thinking. Moreover, philosophy is addressed also to the natural and political failures that result in suffering. This position is not a utopian or ideological theory that proposes to get rid of all suffering. It is a religious response to actual suffering to find in it spiritual meaning, not despair or rebellion, without at the same time denying the effect of faith or grace in seeking actual solutions to problems of those who are poor or who suffer.
Seen from this point of view, Centesimus Annus is a positive and optimistic statement about the effects of the Gospel in the actual world, yet it does not fail to recognize the depths of disorder and suffering. Having insisted that man is not only or merely political and economic being, the document can talk about economics or politics freed from the ideological burdens and baggage that they are not equipped to handle. The substitutes for religion in the modern world have been largely political or economic doctrines refashioned into some over-arching worldview. These ideologies have usually been put into reality by ideological thinkers who have somehow grasped the reins of political power. The collapse of the Marxist phase of this view obviously presents great opportunity. The Pope remains concerned, obviously, with Islam, for instance, as a closed but aggressive alternative claim on many people (#29).
Milton Friedman, the famous free market economist, in remarking on Centesimus Annus, admired its understanding of economic freedom but he had some difficulty with the degree with which "truth" was a constant subject of concern in this Encyclical. "As a non-Catholic classical liberal, I find much to praise and to agree with in this letter addressed to members of the Catholic faith," Friedman wrote.
My stress on the political character, on the dominance of good will and high motives over substantive content is not a criticism. For the Church is a political as well as a religious institution, and this is a political document. But I must confess that one high-minded sentiment, passed off as if it were a self-evident proposition, sent shivers down my back. "Obedience to the truth about God and man is the first condition of freedom." Whose "truth"? Decided by whom? Echoes of the Spanish Inquisition?
Perhaps no comment on the Encyclical reveals more clearly the different philosophic origins for understanding both democracy and the market. Classical liberalism does claim to be based on a skepticism about theoretical truth. The notion of "obedience" to the truth of God is, on the other hand, seen by Christianity as the very foundation of a just and human moral order.
This same issue -- "Whose 'truth'? Decided by whom?" -- is treated by the Holy Father in analyzing the notion of democracy. "Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which corresponds to democratic forms of political life," the Pope wrote, relative to Friedman's remark.
Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that the truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends (#46)
It is to be noted that Aristotle's position on "democracy" in the Greek sense as the best of the bad form of governments, in which liberty ruled the many in the polity, a liberty presupposed to no order or truth but one's will, is substantially the same analysis.
The Holy Father's initial response to this view is simply that "if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. And history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism" (#46). In effect, the Pope turns the charge of a "renewed Spanish Inquisition" against the classical liberal position that truth is relative. The Pope suggests that the theory that truth is "relative" provides no defence against either the whims of the majority or the power of the tyrant. The objection to the Spanish Inquisition was not on the grounds that truth ought to be sought and known but on grounds of politics, that the freedom to seek the truth itself as the best context in which to achieve it.
The Holy Father's remarks here show an awareness of the positivism and historicism that is so prevelant in academic circles as the basis of cultural life. One of the unique things about Centesimus Annus is its insistence that truth is, in fact, the purpose of the human intellect and that, however difficult to achieve, it is not an unworthy goal for all religion and philosophy. The context in which the Holy Father spoke of "obedience to truth" was precisely his discussion about the right ordering of human life in terms of human goods. It is interesting to cite the whole passage in which the phrase Friedman used appeared:
A person who is concerned solely or primarily with possessing and enjoying, who is no longer able to control his instincts and passions, or to subordinate them by obedience to the truth, cannot be free: obedience to the truth about God and humankind is the first condition of freedom, making it possible for a person to order his needs and desires and to choose the means of satisfying them according to a correct scale of values, so that the ownership of things may become an occasion of personal growth (#41).
If freedom is limited to nothing but itself, it does presuppose no truth and does allow any sort of civil society or moral action to happen. "Obedience to the truth" about God suggests that truth is not ours to formulate as if our own wills were the only ones in existence. In a sense, there is no difference between Friedman's Spanish Inquisition and the results of the market presupposed only to itself. Freedom as it works its way out will require obedience to one or the other, both arbitrary in principle. "Obedience" to God alone suggests that there are real limits to our wills because there is a reality not formed by human beings but one in which they are grounded.
John Paul II makes his position on this point quite clear:
Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent, in obedience to which a persons achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another.... The root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God is therefore by his nature the subject of rights which no one may violate... (#44).
What the Pope is getting at, of course, is the notion of autonomous freedom, of a view of modernity, which allows no outside criterion other than the working of the will itself. Self-realization means that nothing in the world exists but what is willed by the individual or collective will. The criterion of truth is whether what we want is put into existence. This is a confusion of Aristotle's artistic truth for his prudential truth in which politics is rooted. In this approach for thinking of human purpose, we have a "right" to our autonomy which means a "right" to freedom whatever it may be.
This conclusion, I think, causes some considerable concern about the use of both the terms "rights" and "values" in this encyclical, as these terms, especially in English, have a particular philosophic history that tends to root them only in will. Centesimus Annus itself hints at but does not clearly deal with this problem: "Even in countries with democratic forms of government, these rights are not always fully respected. Here we are referring not only to the scandal of abortion..." (#47). In most democratic countries, unfortunately, abortion would be called not a "scandal" but itself a "right." The issue cannot be passed over.
No doubt the most striking aspect of Centesimus Annus is the degree in which "rights," as opposed to virtue or even duties, have become the central, perhaps only, locus of moral and political discourse. Literally dozens and dozens of different "rights" are to be counted in this Encyclical. Rights are to be protected and promoted evidently in some sort of vacuum. If we do not get all the "rights" due to us from others, from state and society, we are "victims." As Janet Smith wrote, "we feel that we have suffered or been discriminated against and thus should be excused for whatever wrong we might do. We have no sense that we are ultimately accountable for our actions, no fear of impending punishment." Rights can serve to define human dignity only if they are not isolated from the human will's relation to an objective order rooted in being.
No reference to natural law or to St. Thomas (but see #30) is found in any meaningful sense in Centesimus Annus. Political philosophy has long noted that much care must be taken when discussing natural law, natural right, civil right, and human right. Modern natural right and classical natural right are by no means the same. "Modern" natural right in its pure form is presupposed to nothing but will. The content of this right will is whatever is needed for survival or self- or society-defined well-being. No order for law is presupposed to this "right" when it is used in this sense, as is almost always the case in modernity.
The difficulty with this sort of discourse can readily be seen when the Church is accused of inconsistency in this area, as it often is. The Church, it is said, claims to foster what it calls "human rights," only to pull back from endorsing some of the most popular rights, such as those to abortion or sexual deviation, and a long list of other "rights" that can be increased or decreased at will. It is not enough to suggest this usage is merely an abuse of the term "right" since such usage is of the essence of modern political philosophy in so far as it is divorced from classical and medieval sources.
The Holy Father, from time to time, as I have noted, seems to be aware of some problem here. "In the name of human rights, frequently seen from a narcissistic and hedonistic individualism," John Paul II remarked, "sexual permissiveness, divorce, abortion and genetic manipulation are promoted. These are an affront to the most basic right, the right to life." It may be true that these are "affronts" to the most basic right to life but they continue to be described in much political discourse as "human rights." The fact remains, however, at the level of discourse the repeated use of "rights" terminology and "rights" philosophy makes it appear to many that the Holy Father is inconsistent and illiberal. The refusal to allow these other supposedly popular "rights" in the name of human autonomy, in the name of "human rights," makes the Church advocacy seem contradictory and confusing.
The problem is a real one and is connected with the limited, even non-existent, use of natural law. However much teleology has been coming back into modern philosophy, it seems that the use of the word "rights" cannot avoid ancient controversies. This problem is connected with John Paul II's use of the human person without a clear effort to ground that concept in existing nature. Father Ernest Fortin has stated the essence of the issue caused by such exclusive use of "rights" and "dignity" language apart from metaphysical grounding in natural law:
John Paul II (without precedent insisted) on the more or less Kantian notion of the "dignity" that is said to accrue to the human being, not because of any actual conformity with the moral law, but for no other reason than he is an "autonomous subject of moral decision" (#13). The more usual view, which Kant was rejecting, is that one's dignity as a rational and free being is contingent on the fulfillment of prior duties. That dignity could be forfeited and was so forfeited by the criminal who had no respect for and no desire to abide by the moral law. One's goodness or dignity was not something given once and for all; it was meant to be achieved. Its measure was one's success in attaining the end or ends to which one was ordered by nature. The Rousseauean and Kantian notion of the sovereign or sacred individual had yet to make its appearance. To be and to be good were two different things.... Centesimus Annus bears traces of the transition from early modernity to late modernity, i.e., from the Lockean notion of the sacredness of private property to the eighteenth-century notion of the sacredness of the sovereign individual.
Theoretical problems with "human rights" and with the "dignity of the human person" will continue, I suspect, until a more thorough metaphysical reconsideration of these notions appears in the light of natural law. It is true, as John Paul II said, speaking of private property, that "one fulfills oneself by using one's intelligence and freedom" (#43). This fulfillment, as the Pope also said, must be accomplished in truth since even the most disordered life is also, in its way, a manifestation of intelligence and freedom.
No doubt, the most widely publicized and striking aspect of Centesimus Annus is its teaching on the market economy (#32). The Pope carefully notes potential abuses and misunderstandings. But John Paul II, in the light of the theory and experience with socialism and the success of market economies, has affirmed that the outlines of prosperity, how it is produced and conserved, is now basically known in the productive economies. What remains is for bureaucratic dangers of the welfare state and the total control of the Marxist tradition to be confronted and removed (#48). The Pope understands that there is no possible discussion of the distribution of the world's goods if the world cannot produce such goods. Exclusive discussion of distribution, which was so prevalent in much religious discourse about poverty, will simply preserve poverty if it is not subsumed into a discussion of production. The Pope also understands that this production is primarily a responsibility of individual peoples and nations themselves (#42-43).
Positively, the Pope has understood that wealth is not primarily a function of land or money, but of intelligence (#32). The only real wealth is the human mind as it is manifested within a system of work that allows for profit, entrepreneurship, freedom, and growth. The great concern for poverty in the third world, the only really effective "option for the poor," is for these peoples to learn to produce wealth through private property and through encouraging political and voluntary organizations. Many nations in the last forty or fifty years have in fact learned this process, many of these with comparatively few so-called natural resources. The passage to productivity requires the right priorities.
But it also requires, as Lord Bauer and Father Stanley Jaki have pointed out, the right understanding of the world and the moral discipline that allows men to rule themselves. At the origin of natural science lies the doctrines of Creation, of a world open to the human mind but a world not merely receptive to its projections. It is a world in which we find a stable series of secondary causes, the nature of which must be discovered by human experiment and analysis. The reasons for lack of development in the contemporary world and throughout history are often ones caused by errors of theology and morality. In this regard, one could argue that there is more than a surface connection between John Paul II's Centesimus Annus and his Redemptoris Missio. In this sense, the teaching of religion is presupposed to, not subsequent to, a properly productive economy. The "common purpose of goods" (#30) needs always to be understood in this context of the relation of intelligence, production, exchange, and distribution.
A further aspect of Centesimus Annus that deserves particular attention is the connection that John Paul II draws between personal morality or holiness and social structures. He does not deny, in the tradition of Aristotle, that some structures or forms of governments are better than others, some better for some people, some better for others. The discourse about the best forms of economy or of political and legal organization are worthy ones. The Holy Father is at pains, however, to deny the Rousseauist notion that changes in property or rule are what essentially make people good. It is the other way around. In this sense, Plato's notion that soulcraft effects statecraft is correct. "People lose sight of the fact," John Paul II puts this same principle in his own memorable words, "that life in society has neither the market nor the State as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve" (#49).
Thus, in his discourse presenting the Encyclical, John Paul II remarked:
The whole document (Rerum Novarum) is imbued with the conviction that economic and political reforms of themselves do not suffice to solve the social problem. Structural reforms must also be accompanied, or even preceded, by a moral reform, inspired by the Gospel and sustained by grace.
Again, John Paul II is not afraid to maintain that, however valid and good man's ordinary institutions and power may be, because of "original sin," a doctrine he explicitly reaffirms (#25), we will need more than human efforts to accomplish even those things which are proper to mankind. "In order to overcome today's widespread individualistic mentality, what is required is a concrete commitment to solidarity and charity... (#49).
There is a vigorous promotion of human action and freedom in Centesimus Annus. Buoyed by the changes in Marxism, John Paul II emphasized, based on the experience of 1989, "the complex problems faced by those people can be resolved through dialogue and solidarity, rather than by a struggle to destroy the enemy through war" (#23). On this point, it might be possible to suggest that the Holy Father has perhaps been overly sanguine, however astonishing it is that Marxism changed without war. There is, it would seem, justice in Jacob Neusner's comment on this point:
The Pope explains what happened in 1989 as "an example of the willingness to negotiate and of the Gospel spirit in the face of an adversary determined not to be bound by moral principles." Maybe so. But if the Communists could have held on to their empire, they would have. If they could have added Western Europe, the gospel spirit would not have stopped their tanks. NATO kept them at bay. The patience, indomitable spirit of the American people, embodied in President Reagan's "evil empire" speech, as much as Christianity, explains the annus mirabilis, 1989. We stood firm; they gave way.
In view of the Holy Father's own earlier remarks on the validity of deterrence, along with those of the French and German bishops, these remarks of Neusner seem like a more complete picture of what contributed to the collapse of Marxism. No doubt the careful use of non-violent means in Poland and Eastern Europe did demonstrate a remarkable political force which in the context of deterrence prevented any widespread violence. Centesimus Annus, however, seemed unnecessarily reluctant to acknowledge this undoubted contribution of fifty years of deterrence policy with all its admitted problems.
In recent years, the Holy Father has said a good deal on ecology or environmentalism. In many of its theoretic roots, this movement has significant anti-Christian roots. It is often anti-population growth, pro-abortion, anti-economic growth, precisely those things that are opposed to basic Catholic social doctrine. Joseph Ratzinger has noted the anti-Christian nature of much of the environmental movement. In Centesimus Annus (#37-38), John Paul II attempted to take the positive side of this movement without referring in any depth to its more dangerous philosophy. Probably nothing is more threatening to the poor and to future human generations than a misunderstanding of the real potential in human intelligence and in the abundance of the world. Experience with socialism has already shown that the market system remains the best way to deal with most environmental problems.
In conclusion, Centesimus Annus is a remarkably rich doctrine which seeks to "re-read" the tradition of Catholic social thought in the light of present day concerns and thought. What seems most striking about this document is its teaching about the relation of faith and human civilization. The Holy Father remains in this doctrine a teacher of truth. He does not maintain that mankind can achieve its purpose if it misunderstands itself. "The human sciences and philosophy," John Paul II observed,
are helpful for interpreting the person's central place within society and for enabling one to understand oneself better as a "social being." However, a person's true identity is only fully revealed to him through faith, and it is precisely from faith that the Church's social teaching begins (#54).
This position is neither a denigrating of philosophy or science nor an attempt to impose Catholic doctrine. Rather it is presented as a reflection that would take into consideration the whole of the human situation, neither neglecting original sin nor transcendent destiny nor the ways of the world.
This teaching includes not only the truths related to Creation, hence those having to do with the abundance and potential of the world and its relatedness to man and his purpose, but also those related to Redemption. It is quite possible that both of these doctrines in practice will be rejected or misunderstood or even hated. In a sense, the Papacy exists that what is "the whole truth about man" be made intelligible and be directed to human minds and wills seeking to know their meaning as human beings in this world.
"The Church renders this service to human society," John Paul II wrote,
by preaching the truth about the creation of the world, which God has placed in human hands so that people may make it fruitful and more perfect through their work; and by preaching the truth about the Redemption, whereby the Son of God has saved humankind and at the same time has united all people, making them responsible for one another (#51)
Thus, Centesimus Annus in its own way is a coherent attempt to reconsider, in the light of contemporary economic and political experience, the central truths of Catholicism -- original sin, Creation, Redemption, grace, reason, the distinction of good and evil, faith, sacrifice, eternal destiny.
The most remarkable and "radical," if I might use that term, aspect of Centesimus Annus, then, is this forceful statement, which John Paul II found in re-reading Rerum Novarum:
Now, as then, we need to repeat that there can be no genuine solution of the 'social question' apart from the Gospel, and that the 'new things' can find in the Gospel the context for their correct understanding and the proper moral perspective for judgment on them (#5).
In the end, what is this affirmation but a quiet restatement of St. Thomas' effort to relate reason and revelation in a coherent whole combined with a reflection on the experience in our times that would suggest that while the Church can and does learn many things from the world, the world still has much to learn from the Church, and this for the good of the world itself?
ALEXANDER VI AND JOHN PAUL II:
OR, ON WHY GOOD POPES CAUSE MORE DIFFICULTY THAN BAD POPES
My title, of course, is paradoxical and ironical. Over the centuries, many popes are candidates for the worst pope in history, but some bad popes have better literary apologists than others. Some popes were considered to be bad in one way, some in another. John Peter Olivi in the Fourthteenth Century even thought that the pope was the "anti-Christ", something more dangerous no doubt than if the pope were thought to be merely a bad man. We need not be surprised, however, that some popes are better or worse than others, just as we need not be surprised that some presidents or boxers or salesmen are better or worse than others. I recall an expression from my youth that went something like "good guys don't win ball games", a position that was itself designed to remind us of the difference between being a good man and being a good athlete.
In either case, in deciding who are the good guys or who the bad guys, the good popes or the bad popes, what we need is some criterion of what we mean by better and worse. Without this standard, the question of good or bad players or of good or bad popes does not arise in the first place. We can amusingly or seriously speculate on who was the worst pope in history, moreover, without necessarily suggesting that somehow this especially bad pope made the theory on which the papacy was established to be untenable. The possibility of a bad pope is included in the definition of this special office in the first place, just as the fact and hence the possibility of a Judas is intrinsic to our consideration of what it means to be an Apostle. When Christ said to Pilate at his Trial, that "you would have no authority over me if it were not given to you by my Father," He was questioning not Pilate's office but his conduct of it. Yet, we cannot doubt that being a good man does have something to do with being a good pope, even when bad men who are popes are included in the succession of those who have held this office.
The inestimable Martin Luther, to take another approach to this question, lived during the period of some of the worst popes. Luther, the former Augustinian monk, came to be no lover of the papal office. Thus, he wrote, in his Commentary on Galatians:
Most horrible it is, that the Pope should ever be able to bring this to pass in the Church, that Christ should be denied, trodden under foot, spit upon, blasphemed, yes and that even by the Gospel and sacraments; which he hath so darkened, and turned into such an horrible abuse, that he hath made them to serve him against Christ, for the establishing and confirming of his detestable abominations. O deep darkness! O horrible wrath of God!
We know that Luther maintained that the abuses of the papacy were sufficient to deny the centrality of the office itself. This hatred of this historic office eventually led Luther to go back and reinterpret the whole of Scripture in the light of minimizing and excluding the function of the papacy itself in the Church. Luther evidently argued that papal abuses undermined the validity of the office itself. Indeed, for Luther, these abuses indicated that the papal office, as understood in the Roman Church, was itself an abuse from the beginning.
Catholics have no difficulty in agreeing with a Luther that there were many things wrong in the personal lives of several of the most notorious popes. However, they would insist that no pope can be identified precisely as positively a teacher heresy, even though there are one or two famous cases that have required considerable clarification on this point. On the whole, however, Catholic thought does maintain a clear distinction between the office as established by Christ to guarantee the integrity of Christ's teachings down the ages and the person of the pope. Moreover, it can further be observed that some of the worst popes were not bad administrators or rulers of the Papal States, while some of the holiest of the popes were in fact quite incompetent when it came to administrative or political or even social talents.
The office of the papacy by any standard is a remarkable phenomenon, the only office of its kind that has continued practically uninterrupted for two thousand years. This fact itself requires some explaining, whatever our theories, since its fact goes against all reasonable historical expectations and experience. Popes, however, remain at all times human beings. Like the rest of us, they can lose or save their own souls without this possibility, rooted in a freedom given to every human being, implying that what it is the office of the papacy is designed to do is thereby jeopardized. Popes can be saints or sinners, just as can bricklayers or housewives or soccer players.
By all accounts, however, among several strong candidates from several previous centuries, the worst pope has generally been considered by competent scholars to be Rodrigo Borgia. He became Pope Alexander VI in 1492, that momentous date of Columbus. Alexander VI died in 1503. This much criticized pope has in fact many not insignificant things to his credit. He was the architect of the Treaty of Tordesillias (1494), which divided the world between Spain and Portugal and sought to establish at least some peace among the nations. He called and presided over the Holy Year of 1500, an event that will be recalled with the upcoming Jubilee of the Year 2000 of our Redemption. He remodeled much of Rome, including Castel Sant'Angelo and the University. He was at the beginnings of the efforts to get Michael Angelo to rebuild St. Peter's, an event that was to cause Luther so much grief when it came to financing this very project.
When Alexander VI came to die, delicious rumor, probably false, had it that he expired by poisoning, by drinking a goblet of doctored wine that he had himself prepared for Cardinal Adriano da Coroneto. Cardinal Adriano hosted at his personal villa the very party Rodrigo Borgia was attending. Alexander VI's private life was little less than scandalous by even the most lax standards. In a highly nuanced endeavor to be objective about the man, the Encyclopedia Britannica said of Alexander VI: "Neither as corrupt as depicted by Machiavelli and by gossip nor as useful to the church's expansion as apologists would have him, Alexander VI holds a high place on the list of the so-called bad popes."
James Loughlin, in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, remarked that "so little have Catholic historians defended him that in the middle of the nineteenth century Caesare Cantu could write that Alexander VI "was the only pope who had never found an apologist." The great German historian of the papacy, Ludwig von Pastor, concluded that the documentary evidence demonstrated conclusively that there was no way to save the reputation of Alexander VI. But lest we think that there is something "un-Christian" about recalling this less edifying side of the papal record, Loughlin also cited Pope Leo XIII, who must be classified, I think, as one of the good popes. Leo wrote (September 8, 1889) concerning Church History, that "the historian of the Church has the duty to dissimulate none of the trials that the Church has had to suffer from the faults of her children, and even at times from those of her own ministers."
Whatever was the degree of his corruption, this scandalous side of Alexander's life, that is, his record of depravity, was what drew to him the attention of that shrewd political observer Niccolo Machiavelli. It was through Machiavelli's amusing and acid descriptions of Alexander VI that the sometimes bemused, sometimes shocked attention of subsequent generations of critics of the Church and the papacy was most graphically focused for the ensuing ages. No one has succeeded better than Machiavelli in making the bad popes seem so bad while at the same time praising them for their badness.
Consequently, it is on Machiavelli's analysis that I want to concentrate here because he in fact effusively praised the worst of popes when, if we insist on being naive, we would have expected his wily condemnation. However, such was his literary genius, that Machiavelli could both praise and condemn at the same time. Machiavelli in his writings admired Alexander VI immensely, or at least so it seemed. Machiavelli was the first to enjoy the spectacle of his own praising, as a model to be followed, a pope whom every sensible person would think should be roundly condemned for the very reasons for which Machiavelli praised him. It is, to be sure, from this ironic admiration of Machiavelli that I draw the title for these remarks, on why do they praise the bad popes?
Let us discern how Machiavelli praised Alexander. One of Alexander's sons, the notorious Caesare Borgia, was the political ruler whom Machiavelli praised most fulsomely. Indeed, we cannot help but being amused at Machiavelli's delicious sarcasm in complimenting Alexander, the Pope, for his assiduity in taking care of the careers of his several children, for being, in other words, a good father. But in order to get his son in power, Alexander had to find for him an open political position, probably one within the domains of the Church's temporal possessions in Italy. "Alexander VI had many difficulties, present and future" Machiavelli tells us, "in wishing to make the Duke, his son, great." For Machiavelli, the term "great" did not mean spiritually great or holy, but politically successful. Machiavelli looked to Caesare as a guide to how to rule when the prince is inhibited by no moral scruples. After some political machinations with Venice and Milan, with the alliance of France, the Pope did succeed in gaining a position over the Romagna for Caesare, whom was called "Duke Valentino" in The Prince.
Caesare, in Machiavelli's terms, was launched on a highly admirable, though distinctively cruel, political and military career. He seemed to do everything that Machiavelli wanted a prince to do, but his success was cut short because his father, the Pope, died prematurely and suddenly before Caesare could consolidate his power. Caesare, himself appointed to be a Cardinal by his father when he was only twenty-five, made one famous political miscalculation, namely that he was prepared in everything to take advantage of his father's death, except that at the very time his father died, he himself, Caesare, was also dying. Machiavelli's chosen hero was thus never able fully to prove himself because of accident, because of the deaths of both father and son.
Machiavelli wrote two instructive passages in The Prince, in which he praises Alexander VI. What impressed Machiavelli was that Alexander's ruthless policies made the papacy militarily and politically stronger, something Machiavelli grudgingly admired even though he thought the existence of the Papal States prevented Italy from its desired unification. In discussing the particular problems of ecclesiastical principalities, which were found all over Europe during the late feudal era, Machiavelli observed that of all pontiffs, Alexander VI "showed how much a pope with money and with forces could prevail." Who else but Machiavelli could have seen this sentence as a compliment to the pope? Consequently, when the pope who followed Alexander VI, namely, Julius II, himself no mean example of a bad pope, took over the papacy, he found that he was in secure possession of the Romagna. The factious families of Rome were "extinguished", and Alexander had devised new ways to "accumulate money", ways that previous popes had never figured out. These ways included a levy to support the crusades against the Turk, a stiff fee to be appointed a cardinal, and the sale of indulgences and ecclesiastical offices. Machiavelli is of course deliberately praising these very activities that became such notorious scandals in subsequent history.
No doubt the most damaging passage in Machiavelli about Alexander VI had to do with the Borgia Pope's ability to deceive. Machiavelli, not without humor, thinks this capacity is a needed talent for any prince who wants to remain in power at whatever cost, something any prince wants to do in Machiavelli's view of things. This praise of Alexander VI came up in a chapter that Machiavelli entitled, "Whether a Prince Ought to Keep Faith?", that is, should we rely on the word of a prince to keep his promises? Clearly, a prince whose word could be relied on would be for that very reason in Machiavelli's eyes a weak prince, something Machiavelli by no means wanted. For Machiavelli, then, Alexander happily proved to be one of the least reliable and therefore one of the most successful and admired of princes.
The model of an ideal prince, that is, a prince who is least trustworthy, is Alexander. Here is what Machiavelli says of him:
I do not wish to be silent about one of these recent examples. Alexander VI never did anything else and he never thought about anything else but how to deceive men, and he always found a subject for his practice. And there never was a man who was more efficacious in asseverating, or with greater oaths affirmed a thing, who less observed (his faith). Nevertheless, he always succeeded in deceiving at will, because he knew so well this part of the world.
Clearly, this passage is, and is intended to be, devastating to those who like to think that the papacy is a morally noble office. That is to say, we suddenly find a pope praised for the most venal of actions, that is, for his ability to deceive at will. And this quality is presented as a sign of his political shrewdness that was not limited by trust or truth..
So, in a sense, we owe Machiavelli a debt of gratitude for his ironic praise of a thoroughly bad pope. Machiavelli's praise occurs when the description of what ought to be good becomes instead an ideal model for what is bad. This overturning of values occurs in a context of teaching us how to rule. Machiavelli wants us to imitate Alexander's many dubious talents; that is to say, he wants to teach us another morality besides that which the classics and the Bible taught us, another standard besides those for which a pope ought himself in his life to stand. Machiavelli wants us to think that even a pope can teach us how to deceive and how to use every means to enhance our glory and power.
Thus, in the case of Alexander VI, the classic instance of a bad pope, he is praised in order to use his example to subvert the criterion of truth and good that ought to judge good human actions. Machiavelli himself had told us to put away those classical discussions from philosophy or Scripture that instruct us about what we ought to do; for if we follow such instruction, it will only ruin us. We should rather do what men do "do". For an example of what they do "do", Machiavelli instructs us to take a look at this Alexander VI, from whom we can learn how to deceive both our friends and our enemies at will.
My initial proposition, then, is that bad popes are praised for being bad, for not standing for that criterion of good and truth and charity for which their office was established. They are praised when they uphold principles and standards contrary to what the classic philosophers and what the Bible teaches us about how to live If bad popes are condemned, on the other hand, precisely because they violate Christian or natural law standards, this means that we are trying to uphold the principles in these sources against those who abuse them. But when we praise the actions for their badness, it means that we are embracing another morality, another philosophy, one designed to replace the Christian and classical philosophical standards themselves.
What about good popes? We would expect, I should think, that good popes would be especially praised for being good popes. What happens, however, is something not quite so clear. If we look at the papacy since say Pius IX in the last century, we have been fortunate enough to have had a string of popes who have themselves in their personal lives been quite good men, one of whom, Pius X, is a saint and all the others -- Leo XIII, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul I, distinctly admirable. Moreover, the present pope, John Paul II, a philosopher in his own right, is one of the most remarkable men ever to sit on the Chair of Peter. No doubt, like his ancient predecessors Leo and Gregory, he will eventually be known as John Paul the Great for the remarkable way he brought the office of the papacy to the world and the way he taught the world what Catholicism, what human dignity means. John Paul II has been the first really international man, the one who has been every place and who has considered every issue of reason and revelation in the light of every human person's relation to God.
But we are forgetful of human nature in the light of revelation if we think that the good will always be praised just because they are good or if we think that all we need to have is good men on the Throne of Peter for people to acknowledge the validity of the truths taught through the office. We insist that our lives should conform to our ideas and beliefs. But we must recognize that when they do, it will not necessarily follow, because of human freedom, that others will accept either our ideas or our ways of life. If we recall the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were created in conditions of perfect harmony both with themselves and with nature. Their "fall" was not the result of some lack or deficiency or blame that they could attribute to something outside of themselves. Free and finite beings can reject what is good and indeed reject it because it is good if it goes against what they choose to do. Thus, it is one thing to reject the papacy because it is manned by bad men. If, however, it is rejected because it is manned by good men, then it is clear that other principles and considerations, ones much more mysterious and perplexing, must come into play.
The problem with good popes, in other words, is that they are good popes, that there is no reason to object to them except through the rejection of that for which they are required to uphold and stand by terms of their office and by the requirements of virtue. Georg Schwaiger, in his essay on the papacy in the German Encyclopedia of Theology, wrote that reaction to the pope is often caused by the rejection of the very existence of the papacy as such. "The Pope has to answer to Christ for the way in which he serves the salvation of all," Schwaiger remarked.
Thus the primacy is itself also a form for the expression of love, placing itself at the service of men in obedience to God's eternal plan of salvation. But the love of which we speak here is of such a type that it cannot connive at or confirm man's self-assurance or selfish ease, his worldly longings or his enslavement to the world. It has to tell the arrogant and self-centered to go out of themselves and find the liberty of the sons of God, freedom from anguish and freedom in joy. For man, this often means disquiet and disturbance. He shrinks from taking the step across the abyss to God and hence finds the challenge to do so an imposition. Hence an institution which binds him formally by law to go our of himself and give himself to Christ is for him a scandal.
This is a remarkable passage in that it locates the problem of why good popes are hated in a broader intellectual context.
What this passage means is that, in terms of modernity, it will be considered a "scandal" to human dignity if man has to acknowledge that some criterion of human action or human worship exists, some criterion that did not arise solely from human choice or artifice. What the good popes confront is not the praise of the Machiavellis of this world for their ecclesiastical ill deeds, nor is it the admiration of the good for being good. What they confront is the pride and freedom of man before the evidence of natural law and the guidance of revelation that indicates that certain things ought or ought not to be held or done if man is to achieve the end for which he is created and for which he exists.
Why the good popes are hated, I think, has to do with their violation of the first principle of modernity, that nothing is true, that everything is relative, that nothing can be concluded definitely about how we ought to act and live, about what is true. The good popes deny that such relativism is true or that theoretical tolerance is the highest virtue. The height of incivility today in the minds of many is, thus, the very existence of the papacy itself, especially when it is doing what it is designed to do. In other words, it is when the popes are most clearly doing what they are established to do that they are most hated and disparaged in the modern world.
John Paul II himself has an almost perfect record first, of being himself a good and gentle man and, secondly, of clearly and straight-forwardly presenting what it is that Catholicism holds about itself, about what is true and about how we are to act. Moreover, he does not just state or repeat basic philosophical or religious positions, but gives a detailed, learned, and logical presentation of them for our further understanding. He has also not hesitated to come to terms as much as possible with other philosophies and religions that claim to be true. He has been willing to talk seriously about any difference or controversy, provided it is carried on at the level of principle and reason. He has been careful to follow the basic Thomist principle of a willingness to see the good in any view or practice, to see what is its point, what can be agreed with, what must be rejected and on what terms., all of this in a cordial and friendly atmosphere.
Take, for example, what the Pope has said in his recent book on Buddhism. For what he said in his simple and direct manner, namely that for Buddhism "the world is the source of evil and suffering for man", John Paul was roundly criticized and even threatened while he was in Sri Lanka. Allowing for possibilities of normal misunderstandings that can happen in such cases, the fact is that the Pope took Buddhism seriously, on its own terms. He did not try to distort what it said about itself. Any objective critic, I think, would simply say that he merely made the same sort of remarks about Buddhism that any one who has studied the matter would hold, including the advocates of Buddhism itself. It was with what Buddhism said on this point of the source of evil and suffering" that he disagreed in terms of argument, in terms of truth.
The pope acknowledged, moreover, that Buddhism is now being preached in the West. He remarked that when he visited a large Buddhist monastery in Thailand, he noticed several western faces among the monks. None of this cultural context, however, prevented the Pope from addressing the question of whether he himself agreed with a Buddhist analysis, that is to say, of whether he thought certain basic points of Buddhism were true. What he did was to explain what he meant by Buddhism, and in this fair light, to state how Catholicism was substantially different.
Substantially, the Holy Father has made the same sort of efforts to understand Islam, Marxism, the various differences with the Jews, with the Protestants, with the Orthodox, with the several schools of philosophy. He has, in other words, sought the truth, not merely the truth of his own philosophical and theological position, but the truth that lies in other religions and philosophies and how this scattered truth relates to revelation. He even has worked on theories on how and why there are different religions and why philosophers might disagree with one another and with Catholicism. But he has also persuasively argued that all truth is one, from one source and directed to one transcendent end.
In his recent encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, furthermore, John Paul II has sought to understand and explain the reasons for the anti-life positions and practices throughout the world. He has clearly reflected on the political and personal reasons presented for justifying any threat to human life, from abortion to euthanasia or genetic engineering. He has examined them and related them to principle, in the light of which he has rendered his judgment about the rightness or wrongness of the various practices. First of all, it is his duty to make an examination about whether certain ideas, practices, or customs contribute to or deflect from human dignity and from what we are taught about man in revelation. This is what his "ministry of Peter" is about.
What causes the present pope apparently undying hostility and criticism is not his admirable philosophical care and precision, not his addressing a topic of public ethics, but his faithfulness to reason and revelation, his concluding that something is wrong in the direction and principles found in much of modern Western society and in so stating. What bothers those men and women who have accepted modern relativism or modern principles insofar as they diverge from the reason is the Pope's ability to state so clearly the truth and what is opposed to it. If the Pope states why something is wrong, he makes his statement only after he has exactly stated what the position is with which he disagrees and the reasons given for it by its advocates. The Pope, be it noted, is never accused of misstating the argument he opposes. He is accused or opposed because he disagrees with it for clear and clearly argued reasons.
Listen to how accurately the Pope describes the prevailing justification for actions in the area of human life that are contrary both to natural law and to revelation:
On the one hand, individuals claim for themselves in the moral sphere the most complete freedom of choice and demand that the state should not adopt or impose any ethical position but limit itself to guaranteeing maximum space for the freedom of each individual with the sole limitation of not infringing on the freedom and rights of any other citizen. On the other hand, it is held that, in the exercise of public and professional duties, respect for other people's freedom of choice requires that each one should set aside his or her own convictions in order to satisfy every demand of the citizens which is recognized and guaranteed by law; in carrying out one's duties, the only moral criterion is what is laid down by the law itself. Individual responsibility is thus turned over to the civil law, with a renouncing of personal conscience, at least in the public sphere (#69).
No advocate of secular liberalism will ever state his own position better than the Pope has.
The sort of reasoning that the Pope calmly presents is, no doubt, precisely what is now considered to be the sole basis of ethical and political life in the modern world. Anyone opposed to it, including the Pope, is to be considered intellectually outside of the culture, no matter if the reasons for opposing this reasoning constitute the defense of human dignity and the worthiness of civilization. The Pope "scandalizes" the world because he understands the world and is not afraid to oppose it with argument when it deviates from the truth. The good popes, I think, are hated because what they say is true in a world loathe to admit that what it practices can in fact be disruptive of human worth and destiny. We are, as a culture, not prepared to change our lives to accord with this truth, this truth that does not come form the good popes or from ourselves even, but from God and reason.
To suggest how this works, let me find an example. Charlie Brown is on the mound. He is trying to get his team enthused. He is turned around towards second base yelling at his motley players, "All right team." Then he shouts louder in classic baseball talk, "Let's talk it up out there!" We next see Lucy in distant outfield obediently taking up Charlie's challenge. Hands drooping at her side, baseball hat on her head, from her lest important position on the team post, with head raised, she replies in a most modulated voice: "Good morning. My name of Lucy van Pelt. I'm eight years old and I play right field.... I'm fine.... How are you?" This sort of literal reply of course infuriates Charlie Brown on the mound. This is exactly the sort of "talking it up" that he does not mean or want. He screams back at her, "THAT'S NOT WHAT I MEAN, AND YOU KNOW IT!!" If we examine this marvelous piece of analysis of human nature, we can see that what angers Charlie Brown is Lucy's deliberately taking him at his word and not at his meaning.
What infuriates the modern world about this pope is that he understands it all too well and still disagrees with much of its premises and practices. The Pope is criticized for dealing with principles from the past whereas he deals with principles that are timeless by which he can see that our present is itself disordered on certain basic points. The Pope judges in the light of the constant truth of reason and revelation as it has been handed down. But, in turn, this truth is rejected by the modern world. The Pope is, in his own way, one of the most completely modern men of our era and a thinker who has done much to define and save what is right in modernity. But the Pope maintains that man cannot solve all his own personal disorders by himself, that the ways of revelation are now necessary to him.
Indeed, the Pope makes bold to state, rather often, that our societal problems will not be resolved before we resort to the spiritual means that were given to us in revelation whereby they can be solved. In a kind of perverted spirit of tolerance, Christians have often ceased to mention and argue what they do hold and believe. Modern civilization, the Pope wrote in his book,
constantly equips itself with power structures and structures of oppression, both political and cultural (especially through the media), in order to impose similar mistakes and abuses on all humanity. How else can we explain the increasing gap between the rich North and the ever poorer South? Who is responsible for this? Man is responsible -- man, ideologies, and philosophical systems. I would say that responsibility lies with the struggle against God, the systematic elimination of all that is Christian. This struggle has to a large degree dominated thought and life in the West for three centuries. Marxist collectivism is nothing more than a "cheap version" of this plan. Today a similar plan is revealing itself in all its danger and, at the same time, in all its faultiness (132-33).
For the pope, the real struggle is for or against God. This struggle is what is taking place in the various moral and political controversies that manifest themselves in the public order. The good pope is hated because he can see what is happening.
Thus, what angers the modern world about John Paul II, about a good pope, is that he takes Christianity seriously. He maintains that it is true, that it does respond to the precise problems and human disorders that make the culture seem to be in decline. Many strands of modern thought are, in some basic sense, built on the proposition that revelation need not be required for men to understand the whole truth about themselves. Yet, John Paul II will say with great directness, as he did in Centesimus Annus, "that there can be no genuine solution to the 'social question' apart from the Gospel, and that the 'new things' can find in the Gospel the context for their correct understanding and the proper moral perspective for judgment on them" (#5). Moreover, this very clear and even blunt statement is not spoken in the spirit wanting to impose a religious position on anyone. Rather it is stated as a fact of experience and a truth of revelation that cannot be ignored by proud men except at their peril.
What is to be noted especially about a good pope such as John Paul II is that his opposition does not come from the people so much as from intellectuals, from those who have presumed to propose, on the strength of their own intellects, an alternate view of the world to that of Christianity. The Pope is hated because of the truth he is bound to teach and which he does teach with clarity and theoretical depth, indeed with delight. This sensible, profound Christian truth has been at first gradually and of late rapidly removed from the centers of learning and politics in the modern world, though the genius and personality of this good Pope have been brilliantly able to use the very tools of modern technology to make alive the Christian teachings on a scale and with a depth that they have perhaps never reached before.
At the end of his book, Intellectuals, Paul Johnson, himself the author of a book on John Paul II, observed that "Intellectuals ... follow certain regular patterns of behaviour. ... They are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value. That is what makes them, en masse, so dangerous.... We must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas." The hatred of the good pope, I think, follows with remarkable closeness this pattern. The central ideas that more and more dominate our civilization, those rooted in relativism and skepticism, lead to a kind of democratic tyranny potentially worse than any we have ever known.
Unwilling to admit that a proper and accurate critique of the modern intellectual system could arise from outside of itself, could in fact arise from the ancient papacy, we find that modern men attack good popes who are good thinkers. We find that the good popes are hated because they stand for the one "scandal" that cannot be even tolerated in the modern world, the truth that what both the good and bad popes stand for in their office, the truth of Christianity, is in fact valid, is in fact the right understanding of the world, man, and God. In the end, the worst pope was praised by Machiavelli for the much same philosophic reasons that are employed today by our philosophers and politicians for hating the good pope. Good popes cause more difficulty than bad popes, then, because, in our pride, it is more unsettling to us to ignore their teaching when it is our own souls that are disordered and our own ideas that are, as a result, at odds with reality..
THE SPIRIT OF VERITATIS SPLENDOR
In the months prior to the publication of John Paul II's Encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, all sorts of rumors could be heard about its spirit and emphasis. Everyone knew, of course, that this Encyclical would be of direct and fundamental importance to everyday life and to the understanding of morals. Many frankly wanted to see the Church finally accept the now legalized habits of so much modern culture. Others wanted to know what the Church itself thought of basic moral issues, so much confusion has been generated about them by theologians and professors. The Encyclical was predicted to be "stern" or "intransigent" or "blunt" or even "reactionary."
On reading this first formal treatment on moral theology by the Holy See (#115), however, I have quite a different impression about it. Veritatis Splendor, is, like all the works of Pope Wojtyla, calm and magisterial. The new Encyclical recalls the very first words he spoke in St. Peter's Square as Pope (October 22, 1978): "Do not be afraid, but open and calm." John Paul II is almost the only figure in public life today who bears in his very person, as he did again in Denver in August or Lithuania in September, this serene and confident face before what are admittedly widespread moral crises and intellectual confusions over how we should live.
This courageous man has understood his duty to speak the truth both to bishops who seem, to many, to be weak and to a world that stubbornly sets its ways against what is right. But even more, John Paul II has sensed the "splendor," the excitement of this same truth. What is most disconcerting about Veritatis Splendor is its inner coherence and lucid logic, its vibrant appeal to truth itself, to the truth of things, to the truth of human things.
This Encyclical, read in conjunction with the General Catechism of the Catholic Church forbids any honest man any longer, to doubt exactly what the Church holds on a particular issue. It becomes ever clearer if we take all the work of John Paul II together that he has systematically addressed every theological, scientific, political, philosophical, and even literary aspect of the faith in the light of the best thought of our era, indeed of any era. The Church of John Paul II is neither out of date or behind the times, but luminously clear on what it believes in the light of what modern men think and do. Again and again John Paul II has shown that, of all the available theories or systems, this faith and reason that he represents and articulates so well are the only ones that make complete sense of God, man, and the world.
Many of us, no doubt, have been perplexed by the depressing and deviant voices often heard from within the theological ranks of the Church itself. "The increasing radical rejection of the teaching authority of the Pope...," the Archbishop of Denver has observed (August 12, 1993),
has been a great tragedy for the Church in the United States.... Indeed, what can reasonably be called a deep-seated, anti-Roman bias in some parts of the Church requires all of us to reflect carefully on the profound, fruitful mysteries of communion, fidelity, and obedience ... in the Church.
We have listened to and heard praised by the media and academia the too many advocates who have espoused as necessary or as "catholic" precisely those positions that the Holy Father has finally identified, evaluated, and found wanting in relation to the central teaching of the Church. Such teaching neither the Pope nor the Church made up by itself, but were received to be handed down in tact from generation to generation even to the consummation of the world.
Vatican II was said to have affirmed the good things of the modern world. Veritatis Splendor recognizes that, whether it likes to or not, the Church must also underscore in a concrete way just what is wrong in this same modern world and why, particularly concerning those issues that directly relate to salvation, as the ordinary living of every human life does in most of our daily deeds.
One of the finest legacies of St. Augustine and St. Thomas, found again in Veritatis Splendor, is to spell out carefully and clearly just what is held by those philosophies or ideologies that reject one or other basic moral teaching of the Christian tradition. The main service to truth carried out by the Magisterium is to state and define what is not Catholic, what is not in accord with the tradition. The faithful, cleric and lay, have a right to know exactly what is opposed to Christian teaching and practice, particularly when this is being presented in the name or practice of Christian teaching and living.
No doubt, John Paul II put the whole of his considerable energy and acumen into this moving document. Moral theology is, after all, one of the academic fields to which he has devoted much of his intellectual attention. He has in fact, even by secular standards, few intellectual peers, something his critics reluctantly acknowledge. We find in Veritatis Splendor references to his own "acting person", as well as to his earlier documents such as Redemptor Hominis, Familiaris Consortio, Spiritus Domini, and Centesimus Annus. The Documents of Vatican II are constantly present. So is the new General Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi and Humanae Vitae are there, along with so many previous Popes, theologians, and Councils from all generations of the Church.
The Holy Father has located himself, as we would expect, exactly within the central tradition of the Catholic Church. He is aware that many people are wondering whether the Church still teaches in all areas, especially in ethics and morals, what was handed down to it from the beginning. No one can deny that people are confused often by their own pastors. The Holy Father also knows that there is tremendous public and private opposition, even at times hatred, to everything the faith teaches and stands for. In the words of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, "If anyone believes that, after Vatican II, there are no more wolves, he is badly mistaken in his understanding of Christian faith and of the Council."
While remaining calm and peaceful, the Pope understands that the Gates of Hell must be involved in the kinds of corrupt and evil things that men do to themselves and to one another in the modern world. Actions and teachings directly contrary to what he has set forth here are common and habitual. Much to its annoyance, the Pope has persisted in worrying about the declining moral levels in particularly Western and developed societies. What good the Church teaches about human life, action, and destiny is denied both in theory and practice. "Today's widespread tendencies toward subjectivism, utilitarianism and relativism appear not merely as pragmatic attitudes or patterns of behaviour, but rather as approaches having basis in theory and claiming full cultural and social legitimacy" (#106).
What is no doubt most striking in Veritatis Splendor is the constant reference to St. Thomas and the natural law, not forgetting, as St. Thomas himself did not, St. Augustine who always puts things of truth so graphically and so personally. Some concern had been expressed in recent years that John Paul II was overly cautious in using natural law terminology for fear that it would be confused, as it easily can be, with modern language about scientific "laws". But here there is a straight-forward recognition of the centrality of St. Thomas and natural law in any adequate discussion of human ends and human actions related to them. The Pope, following St. Thomas, carefully and clearly states just what he means by natural law and all its ramifications.
What I want to do here is to say something of what I take to be the "spirit" of this doctrinal instruction, directed as it is to both our minds and hearts. The Pope recognizes that the men of our time in some sense long to know the truth about themselves, the "whole truth about man," as he often puts it. But he also recognizes that there is a "counter-truth" that seeks, with considerable success, to replace the Christian understanding of man and things with an autonomous intellect responsible to nothing but itself. Neither nature, nor God, nor tradition is said, in such a theory, to indicate any limit or order for what men can and cannot do, of what man is or is not.
This philosophy of absolute autonomy takes several forms. It is found within many moral theologians themselves in the form of consequentialism, proportionalism, teleologism, and the other intellectual efforts specifically noted in this document. Indeed, it might be said, unfortunately without too much exaggeration, to be the dominant form of intellectual tendency that has been found in Catholic universities and many seminaries in recent decades. This fact of this situation is why the Holy Father charges local bishops to judge these matters for themselves in the light of this Encyclical (#116).
The Holy Father makes this charge of responsibility to the bishops about universities and institutions that call themselves "Catholic", be it noted, because the faithful and the world itself have a right to know and hear not what these theories are but what the Church teaches. Invariably, these systems seek to shift the meaning of the Christian presence in the world so that it can accommodate itself to those very movements and practices that are obviously contrary to the traditional understanding of Christianity. If this condition remains unaddressed, it means that we have the greatest difficulty in finding out what the Church really teaches even from its professed teachers.
What is most under attack is the idea that there are universal principles of morality that cannot be violated, principles that hold in all circumstances. These principles indicate the good for individuals and societies. They have a direct relation to one's own salvation. What is further denied in practice is the place of the Church's or of the Pope's own authority in addressing himself directly to these issues in terms of truth, a truth that is in fact binding on everyone. In his discussion of the commandments, of natural law, and of conscience, the Pope restates the essence of the Catholic position which is essentially that the distinction of good and evil is from God, is manifested in the moral life of man, and is capable of being understood by the rational creature. The distinction of good and evil is not primarily derived from the will's own decisions about what it does to fulfill itself or society. This good is not to be achieved through the use of means and actions contrary to the norms found in the commandments.
The Encyclical begins, surprisingly, with a long meditation on the story of the Rich Young Man who asks Christ what "good" he must do to be saved, to obtain everlasting life? The very context of the question, be it noted, serves to join in a coherent whole the Old Testament with the New and both with genuine philosophic reasoning about right and wrong human conduct. Obviously, this account of the Rich Young Man is a favorite passage of John Paul II, but it is also one that combines reason and revelation in a single dialogue in a most graphic manner.
Christ tells the Young Man simply to "keep the commandments." The Young Man replies that he has "kept them from his youth". The Pope notes how difficult this keeping is for anyone. He does not deny the truth of what the Young Man says. This answer also implies something mysterious about even the good, namely that it is always leading us somewhere, higher. Then Christ tells the young man what he must do to be "perfect". He must sell what he has, give to the poor, and follow Him. The Young Man goes away "sad" for he has many possessions. The Apostles at this point wonder who can be saved. Christ tells them that the teaching is difficult but that all things are possible for God. We are not, in other words, justified in going away sad. We are being given guidance to our deepest yearnings that somehow take place in the most profound manner after we have entered the path of goodness. The greatest adventures begin after we decide to be good, not before -- one hundredfold in this life and life eternal in the next.
One might ask whether this introduction of the Pope is appropriate for our time and for this topic? About a month before the Encyclical appeared, when I had no idea how the Holy Father would approach it, I had a call from a former student. He told me that for personal reasons he was studying religion. He explained that he was formerly a Catholic but now a Methodist. What he wanted to know from me, however, was "whether the Catholic Church still holds the Ten Commandments"?
Needless to say, I was taken aback at this remarkable question, especially as we had said something about the commandments in the very class of mine the young man attended. In any case, I assured the young man that the Church did still teach the commandments. He replied, "Well, I went to your university for four years, took the required theology courses, went to Church on Sundays for many years both in the Catholic and Methodist churches but no one ever once mentioned the Ten Commandments." One suspects that this experience is not untypical.
When I read the Holy Father's reflection on the Rich Young man, his emphasis on keeping the commandments, I realized that what John Paul II was saying was directed to the hearts of such young men who have not heard in their courses and churches anything about the commandments, let alone about whether they kept them or whether they should sell what they have and seek to be "perfect". John Paul II has an uncanny way of seeing into the souls of the young men and women of our era, souls starving for what he is explaining, yet souls who find it almost impossible in their churches and universities and schools to discover what he is actually saying. There is, I think, no substitute for reading the Holy Father's words themselves. Veritatis Splendor and the Le Catéchisme de la Eglise Catholique -- it still is not out yet in accurate English, another intellectual scandal -- may have to be discovered by most of us in private over the heads of our churches and schools.
The key word, that appears again and again in this reflection of the Pope, is good. What good must I do to be saved? To explain the origin of this good and its content is central to the intellectual argument of this Encyclical. This good is not subjective, not something that is constituted by the wills of individuals, whatever they might choose in their sincerity or self-interest. It is an objective good that calls for judgment of truth and appeals to our freedom, but never denies it. It is a good that inheres in our being because its meaning and truth are from the cause of human existence in the first place and built into the very structure of finite being itself.
Hence, we are rational beings who must discover a truth about ourselves and our actions, a truth that we did not ourselves constitute. We still, no doubt, may choose not to follow this truth. Even when whole societies or classes make such choices against the truth, they remain wrong and their choices bear bitter fruit.
The doctrine of forgiveness, a central aspect of Christianity, is not designed to change this situation but to remedy the consequences of evil choices that are put into the world by human freedom. Forgiveness affirms and acknowledges the objective disorder of evil, while the modern moral theories that the Holy Father objected to seek, in one way or another, to make the disorders themselves to be good, to be the norms of our actions. This effort to neutralize objective evil underscores the seriousness of the problem that the Holy Father addresses in this Encyclical. His is nothing less than a defense of reason and revelation.
Most people recall this incident of the Rich Young Man in Matthew to be the classical location for the distinction between precepts and counsels. That is, there are things that we all must do to be saved, precepts such as observing the commandments, but that there are more sacrificial and demanding paths to follow the Lord if we are called and choose them. Surprisingly, little of this tradition is found in this meditation, though it is not the intention of the Holy Father here to mitigate the worth of religious life in the Church, the life of the vows.
Rather, the Pope applies the questions of the Rich Young Man about "what good" must we do to be saved to everyone, to rich and poor, to laity and clergy, to male and female. Everyone must both keep the commandments and, in addition, do those further things that reach to the spirit of love behind them. Different ways of life and service remain, to be sure, but essentially everyone is destined to the same end of final presence before the Triune God. And the way to reach this end involves grace, involves doing the good and avoiding the evil that is implicit in the commandments.
A second theme that immediately struck me about this Encyclical was the emphasis on martyrdom The Pope was concerned not merely about those unsettlingly many people who are still martyred in our time but about all the martyrs in the history of the Church. Why would the Pope, we might ask ourselves, make such a definite point about martyrs? What is at issue here? I think the question goes to the heart of the Encyclical. Put in its most direct form, the fact of martyrs means that there was and is something worth dying for, the good itself, very often seen in a principle of truth or in a doctrine of faith or in a refusal to do something evil.
The false moral theories that the Holy Father analyzes in this Encyclical, when lived out, in effect make martyrdom unlikely or unnecessary. They leave no absolute standard or principle of right and wrong that would require that one had to die rather than give in. These theories trivialize the seriousness of the faith, in other words. The emphasis on martyrdom in this Encyclical was the Pope's way of reaffirming the validity and nobility of the lives of all the Christian martyrs who saw that their faith demanded that they acknowledge the reality of evil.
The Scottish martyr, St. John Ogilvie, for example, as we read in his Letter from Glasgow on 15 October 1614, "confessed that he was one of the Ordinary Jesuits, and, being asked whether the Pope's jurisdiction extended over the King's dominions in spiritual matters, affirmed constantly the same, and would die for it." Clearly, if the Pope's spiritual authority and what it stands for are not something central, not something worth dying for, John Ogilvie's martyrdom was silly.
It is precisely this authority and what it signifies that is at stake in this Encyclical. This authority is what is charged with keeping alive the rightness of our thoughts and actions about the essential content and nature of good and evil. Perhaps also this emphasis on martyrdom was the Pope's way of preparing us for a future in which the hostility to truth takes a much more virulent form than it has in most of our societies. Signs of this hostility are already becoming much more evident.
Far from giving us a new and more detailed list of sins, however, the Holy Father in this Encyclical does little more, in one sense, than to repeat the Ten Commandments and the admonitions of St. Paul about what wrongs we can do -- murder, adultery, stealing, lying, cheating, abusing, abortions, sexually deviant acts, hatred, and, yes, contraception. Yet, since some of these aberrations are precisely the deeds and actions that are being justified by the theories the Holy Father discussed, ones often promoted and legalized in our societies and promoted even in certain areas of the Church, his reaffirmation of the commandments is radical in the extreme. The Pope cites these acts, however, as examples of things fundamentally wrong in themselves, of things not to be done under any circumstances. In doing this, he does no more than did Christ Himself, Paul, and the whole orthodox tradition of Christianity. How can we be astonished that he did what he is obliged to do?
When we hear these sins singled out by religious authorities -- if indeed we do hear them from them any more -- we are tempted to take them negatively as if we are being pressured into doing something we really do not want to do. The Pope recognizes here the very drama of the Temptation in the Garden of Eden, that we are reluctant to find the truth in sources other than ourselves. On the other hand, we are given here the gift of explanation and of grace when someone carefully details the logic of truth in our actions as the Holy Father does. His perceptive analysis of the contemporary arguments for changing the basics of morality suddenly illuminates the subtlety of the disorder we are living in. This is why he is so careful to associate the truth with light, with the splendor of seeing and understanding the truth because we can understand the very arguments that would have us miss truth itself.
Veritatis Splendor is not primarily a political or social treatise, but there are interesting references to democracy and its relation to the kinds of ethical life that concerns the Pope. Throughout his career, the Holy Father has recognized that the state of one's soul is what is most immediately under our control. We are made for eternal salvation no matter what sort of regime we live in. We are not necessarily less close to God if we live in the worst regime.
Thus, to reform society is first to reform ourselves. This is why evangelization and missionary activity begin with each person's own interior life. We are used to hearing theories that seek to reform the world by first reforming institutions, not that there are not good and bad institutions. But evil can happen in good institutions and good in bad ones because the location of good and evil is in the human will, not in institutions.
In one of the most ringing and graphic statements of the equality of all men before God, John Paul II wrote: "When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the 'poorest of the poor' on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal" (#96). In much religious social thought, there is a tendency to denigrate the dignity of the poor by blaming most of their faults on others, on structures and exploitation or maldistribution of goods.
What bothers people in affluent societies like our own about both the Pope and Solzhenitsyn is their refusal to say that our democratic systems are morally in good shape. In his Lecture to the National Arts Club (New York, February, 1993), Solzhenitsyn observed:
World culture today is in a crisis of great severity.... Nothing worthy can be built on a neglect of higher meaning and on a relativistic view of concepts and culture as a whole. ... Looking intently, we can se that behind these ubiquitous and seemingly innocent experiments rejecting "antiquated~ tradition there lies a deep-seated hostility toward any spirituality.
This relativism and hostility is what John Paul II has also found in developed societies. He sees it as a danger of the greatest moment, one unacknowledged and unadmitted. Indeed, the Holy Father sees that the danger of a new sort of totalitarianism is very real.
"Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world -- Marxism being the foremost of these," John Paul II wrote,
ther is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearning which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible (#101).
He then cites Centesimus Annus (#46) to the effect that "a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism."
Surely this is the fundamental issue that is behind all our discussions about current politics and the theories behind them in the United States and other countries. We have succeeded in theoretically and legally legitimized almost every aberration that have been defined in our moral tradition. We describe this movement as progress and liberation. Classical political theory, to use Christopher Dawson's powerful phrase, has recognized that there is a "judgment of the nations" that refuses to acknowledge whatever is done as good simply because it is willed and done. The objective evil that the Holy Father was so clear about remains to carry our its own laws and consequences. The moral order can be a fragile order because we must choose to acknowledge its truth and live it in our lives and laws.
Someone asked me, in conclusion, what I thought of the opposition within the Church to this Encyclical. The moral ideologies that the Holy Father singled out have been pervasive in the circles I know and live in. Underestimating his moral courage, I know, few thought that the Holy Father would go ahead and be Pope, as they would not have were they in his shoes. They underestimated their man, of course.
But I remarked, that if I had been teaching and advising opinions and actions for the last quarter of a century substantially at variance with the teachings found in this Encyclical, I would be very sobered if I had the least sense of Christian obedience. I would be left with only two choices: either to repent, acknowledge the damage I had been doing, and rethink my whole position or to continue to follow the philosophic and moral culture of the world, and hate the good that the Pope has now affirmed.
The Pope's exhortation to the bishops and the theologians in this Encyclical (#109-16) is an edifying one, a charitable one. But it is not at the cost of the truth that is the good. The Pope has made sure that an objective order of things, of human life and its good, would remain present in our democratic world that wants to believe that nothing else exists but our own autonomous wills. What else exists is the natural law, the Law of God, the City of God, the destiny that will be ours not on the basis of our autonomous wills but on the basis of our wills choosing to act on what is true, on what is the truth of things.
CONFRONTING THE MORAL DISORDER OF OUR TIME
We look back to 1989 with the momentous changes in the Communist world. We have almost begun to forget why the Communists were a threat. These changes were difficult to explain by the ordinary run of social sciences, presumably capable, as they think, of seeing social movements in their "causes". No one, in fact, predicted these transformations in any really convincing sense. Everyone acknowledges, sometimes reluctantly, moreover, that the one player in this event who influenced it most was John Paul II. The actions of unique individuals, as personalist metaphysics understands, always come unexpectedly, surprisingly from outside the theories. Not infrequently, the Pope warns of a "reductionism" in scientific method which implies, improperly, to be sure, that if something is not covered by a theory, it cannot exist. "No statistic aiming at a quantitative measurement of faith ... will get to the bottom of the matter," John Paul II told Vittorio Messori in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, p. 102).
In Centesimus Annus, the Holy Father gave us his account of these extraordinary days. "The events of 1989," he wrote, "are an example of the success of willingness to negotiate and of the Gospel spirit in the face of an adversary determined not to be bound by moral principles. These events are a warning to those who, in the name of political realism, wish to banish law and morality from the political arena" (C. A., #25). We ask: "For whom do these events" serve as a warning about the dangers of banishing "law and morality"? Surely, the answer today must be mostly for ourselves.
We like to think that the end of formal Communist power in Europe made it clear to everybody the validity and possibility of the moral and political relationships that must exist for human well-being to flourish. Paradoxically, mankind, when confronted threateningly with extreme tyranny, often sees more clearly how it ought to live than it does in peace and prosperity. We cannot but be struck, however, with the quietness with which Communism ended, something almost more surprising than the fact that it went at all. Till its end, we ourselves were almost convinced, perhaps by Communist propaganda itself, that the only way to overcome violence is with violence. The events, however, did not confirm this expectation.
What has happened in the meantime, on the immediate way to the Third Millennium, is that we have not learned the right lessons about ourselves, or perhaps, it is better to say, that we have not chosen to learn the right lessons. We live in an era of the primacy of political will over reason and science. Ideas that subsequently undermined basic human institutions and goods, particularly the family, have flourished in democracies, wherein, ironically, they were chosen, not imposed by any alien power. Indeed, we are at a point wherein various forms of legislative, executive, and judicial rulings, passed in accordance with due constitutional procedures in almost every free country, have commanded into existence a concept of man that is, in its pre-suppositions, thoroughly anti-Christian and anti-natural law. No written constitution has proved itself capable of withstanding the subverting forces of modern relativism, no matter how firmly its principles were said to be rooted in unchanging reason or nature or nature's God.
The seeds of this increasing "democratic tyranny," as the Holy Father has frequently called it, were already in the logic of modern European thought before Marx ever came on the scene. In retrospect, it begins to look like the significance of Communism, with its dire military threats, was that it served as a kind of temporary brake that prevented subversive notions of man, family, and the state from having their deleterious political effect. Now that this brake or restraint is gone, we are free to carry out schemes of population control, abortion, euthanasia, fetal experimentation, homosexual "marriages" and adoptions, and general moral hedonism on a scale never before imagined. Whether we do this "experimenting" under the banner of ecological doom, overpopulation, or simply a concept of freedom related to nothing but itself, we choose to see no natural order or direction to anything in human nature that would indicate what it is and how it best functions. Since we have no criterion of what is "the good" for mankind, we consider ourselves free to experiment as we will. We wish to produce a man who will be "himself," autonomous, in whom nothing exists that is said to be "imposed" or "willed" from a source outside of himself, particularly by God.
The frequency with which the Holy Father has pointed out the extent of martyrdom in this declining century, right up to the senseless, brutal murder by Muslim extremists of the seven Trappist Monks and one Dominican Bishop in Algeria in May and August of 1996, should not pass without notice. The Pope wishes to update the Martyrology to include the martyrs of the 20th Century, perhaps the most bloody Century in human history -- something that always shocks us, when we realize that it is our Century.
Christians themselves seem indifferent to the persecution of their fellow Christians throughout the world, almost as if they have ceased to think either that brotherhood binds or that their own religious liberty is important or connected with that of fellow believers in other lands. Cultural relativism has led many to think we ought not even to be trying to propagate Christianity, for that implies, it is said, that some "cultures" are not complete in their given historic dimensions. Pluralism is often taken to mean that there are many paths to salvation that do not need to be open to or altered by the Christian revelation in any manner. Hence, there is no need for a missionary Church.
Both the Holy Father's Redemptoris Missio and Ut Unum Sint are directed to differing aspects of this same perplexing problem: How to recognize the truth in other cultures and religion? How to present what other polities, cultures, and religions do not have in a free and honorable way without being subject, in turn, to civil suppression and popular pressure or without being accused of trying to "impose" something alien on others? No obligation or opportunity at least to listen to the claims of revelation is acknowledged. The "Good News" is denied religious liberty.
A culture increasingly intolerant of the basic truths of Christianity, of even allowing them to be accurately and freely stated, combined with an indifference to what happens to Christians elsewhere in the world, explains the Holy Father's emphasis that freedom of religion is and must remain the first duty of the state to define accurately and protect. Thus, in his response on receiving the Credentials of the new Ambassador to the Vatican from the Republic of Egypt, the Holy Father stated: "The Holy See cannot state strongly enough that the right to religious freedom, and the corresponding juridically guaranteed respect for this right, are the source and foundation of truly peaceful coexistence. Moreover, it is not sufficient that the commitment to ensuring such freedom be expressed: it must influence in a real and practical way the actions of political and religious leaders, and the behavior of believers themselves" (O. 4, 1996; OR, English, O. 9, 1996, p. 5). The Holy Father is aware that almost everyone claims to respect religious freedom as an abstract position but very many deny it or fail to allow it in practice. He is aware of mobs that close down churches and schools or judges that make practice of religion severely circumscribed by the state.
Almost from the beginning of his pontificate, the Holy Father has been preparing for the Third Millennium. His Tertio Millennio Adveniente, in 1991, is a more immediate preparation for precisely what the Holy Father takes to be a religious event in the order of salvation history, and not merely a secular changing of dates from the 1000's to the 2000's. While all the current intellectual confusions variously known as modernism, post-modernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, doctrinal pluralism, and their various cross currents have dominated the visible intellectual scenes, John Paul II has steadily and carefully accumulated a wide-ranging and coherent body of teaching that, remarkably enough, represents the precise antithesis of the cultural movements of our era. Every significant aspect of Christian teaching and practice has been clarified, ordered, and presented in a coherent form, accessible to anyone willing to think on it. This papal thought shows itself familiar with philosophy of the ideologies or systems that are arrayed against or critical of it. Likewise, as the Holy Father mentioned at the publication of the General Catechism of the Catholic Church, this coherent presentation of what the Church holds of itself was intended "for every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us and wants to know what the Catholic Church believes." The Church wants to be properly understood by those who seek to know what it stands for, something it believes possible for everyone of normal intelligence and good will.
The significance of this remarkable body of teaching, reflection, and discourse ought not to pass without notice. The two documents that penetrate to the heart of the disorders of modern civilization to place the Church at odds with it are Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae. That is, the Holy Father precisely directs himself to the denial of truth as a principle and to the claim that human life, who lives and who dies, is subject solely to human will. As the precise opposition between Catholic teaching and secular practice has become more visible and acute, such that so many basic human decencies are rendered meaningless by practice and law, it is well to ask if it is possible for our era to pass without great violence and persecution, if present anti-life and skeptical trends continue? Can, in other words, there be another "quiet" revolution that, almost by a change of heart, is capable of addressing itself to the terrible practices that we generally refuse to call anything else but by the noble name of "rights"?
We must reluctantly realize that the noble word "right" in many contexts today can be a most dangerous word. Pretending that this word has no intellectual ambiguity to it causes enormous civil confusions. With some historical and philosophical care, no doubt, the word "right" can be given a valid theoretical and practical meaning. The Holy Father uses the word with care, but finds himself constantly having to explain what he does not mean by the word. Nine times out of ten, however, as the word is used both academically and popularly today, it does not have a recognizably legitimate meaning, however much we might like to think it so, as it can be a useful word.
The word "right" does not mean what we normally think it does in Catholic circles wherein it is a claim to or an aspect of something intrinsic to human dignity, say, life, property, or speech. Rather the word "right", as it is used in practice, comes from at least Hobbes. "Right" in this sense basically means, "what I want," or, in a civil context, "what the state wants." This "what-I-want" is what the word means for most people and evidently most legislators and judges. This will-aspect of the word "right" is also why there is no "argument" about it. If "right" means "what I want" and I "want" something, then this "what-I-want" is the content of my "right." For this reason, it is perfectly coherent for people to speak of a "right to abortion," something that seems simply contradictory. To "respect" the "right" of another, then, simply means allowing one's own "will" to achieve its object.
We can be appalled at this usage of the word, of course. But it should not surprise us that this terminology is a perfectly logical phrase if we root "right" in "will", as has happened since the word came into early modern usage. Clearly, "the right to life" and the "right to abortion" are contradictory positions from a natural law viewpoint. Yet, there is nothing contradictory in a "will" based position. One day we will the position that "right to life" is inalienable. The next day we will the opposite, that it is not. Since law is what we "will" collectively, nothing unusual appears, no contradiction is visible. In this system, both "life" and "abortion" are "rights." What decides which will prevail is not some criterion of reason or what is, but what is willed at the moment. We appoint the state, as the locus of our will, to make the decision. So, on the basis of this theory, we have no basis, other than our own opposite and equally arbitrary wills, to object to a law that decrees a certain class of human life, say, the unborn or the old or the deformed, can claim nothing of their own intrinsic reality as a limit on the will of the state to act against them if it chooses.
Is there any way back to an understanding of will that sees it as a principle of the object, of the good that is simply there? A useful way to see the main issue is, for the sake of argument, to take the Holy Father at his word, in his repeated teachings. Namely, let us ask ourselves what his opposition to this anti-truth or anti-life movement in contemporary law or practice means? Let us take the teaching on abortion. What does our society look like if what the Pope teaches is true? We understand that on the "will-rights" theory, the exercise of the "right" to abortion has nothing to do with what happens in an abortion. The unborn child is treated as if it does not exist. What matters is the "right" of the one that wills.
The Holy Father, it is well-known, has taught a thousand times that each human life is sacred from conception. Each human life came into existence by the direct hand of God. As such it lies outside of human moral power to do anything but protect and foster it. Civil law and individual moral virtue should converge to protect and enhance this life. We also know that, in principle, no child should be born except within a family, of a father and mother, who will love it and take care of it. We know this preferred condition is not in fact always the case. When it is not, institutions and procedures as closely allied to the normal situation, often arising from supernatural energies, should be in place. Each human life so begun at conception is protected, even in abortion-ridden societies, by the commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Kill." This prohibition is the foundation or first minimal step in any coherent "right to life" and any just civil order. Prius est esse.
However, we all live in societies in which, for the past quarter of a century or more, hundreds of thousands and millions of human beings have already been legally and systematically chosen to be killed each year. This killing of unborn infants is protected by the force of law; it is not "illegal", however immoral. People have a "right" (a "will-right") to abortion as defined by the state. Practically every political society, with varying degrees of limitations, follows this practice. To point this situation out is simply to state the facts. We regularly kill unborn human beings and, in several jurisdictions, we begin to allow doctors to "assist" the old to kill themselves -- something that Paul VI already saw in the logic of the anti-life position.
In terms of the Holy Father's firm statement about each life sacred from conception, what do these facts of so many human killings mean? At first sight, it might mean merely a controversy about the definition of life. To some degree, the issue has been argued in these terms, as a kind of moral puzzle. But from the point of view of science, we must state that the Pope is quite right, not religiously but simply scientifically, when he affirms that human life begins "from the moment of conception." There is no conflict between the Church and science here. The only conflict is between the Church and science on one side and, on the other, a voluntarist politics that claims not to be bound by any limits but its own contrivance. The only human lives that will be protected by the state are those it chooses to protect, however it chooses. The state no longer protects or claims to protect "all human life" simply because it is human life.
What this means is that de facto we live in a period of great and widespread legal slaughter of our own kind. The fact of this widespread human killing is a simple thing to document, as is our wide-spread moral indifference to it. Regimes that permit and foster this killing of the most innocent of our kind, however, bear a great and accumulated moral guilt in the souls of its leaders and individual citizens who select them. Indeed, we must sometimes ask ourselves, what is the meaning of this great slaughter and suffering of millions killed before birth? It cannot simply be a nothing. God perhaps forgives, but He does not forget until He forgives. Nor should we. And forgiveness is not possible without an explicit, clear acknowledgement of what it is we have done.
The reason why this killing continues is that we do not choose to cease doing those things that make abortion an option. Technology may very well, with various deadly pills or lasers, reduce the numbers of abortion after the first few weeks. Making abortion more invisible, less an industry, would possibly reduce the political issue. Yet, we recall that the widespread use of, say, condoms or other devices, was supposed to reduce abortions also. Evidently, it did not do so as the number of abortions per capita has remained almost constant, a fact that should lead us to suspect that what causes abortions is not "mechanical" or "medical" in the first place. Very few pregnancies today occur because the begetters did not know how to prevent them by artificial means.
In the course of the past half century, most modern nations have on their collective consciences the accumulated guilt of tens of millions of abortions, of terminated human lives. Really there is no way to deny that this slaughter has happened. Each of our societies is missing hundreds of thousands and millions of human lives, potential sources of knowledge, generosity, wealth. We can either continue killing or stop it. If we continue it, as we seem likely to do, we must convince ourselves that this slaughter is nothing serious. To kill an unborn infant is, it is said, to do it a favor, to prevent it from being "unloved" or "poor" or "unwanted." Ironically, it is the Church that primarily teaches that each child should be "loved", "cared for", and "wanted." It is, no doubt, a serious thing to go about bringing children into the world without these expectations being looked into. But we cannot love, care for, or want what we kill.
To confront the moral disorder of our time, we must admit to ourselves what it is we do. We need to be reminded, gently but firmly, of our deeds. This living, moral clarification is one of the services that the Holy Father has provided to our era. Beyond this, we must see that what we do is brought into reality by our choices. This source means that it can be likewise willed out of reality by a reversal of our choices. The first step is to know, the second to acknowledge, the third to repent and restore the right order. The Holy Father's persistent calmness before Communism and his patient teaching of the truth about life are based on his confidence that, ultimately, evil has no force, that it is a nothing, that it can quietly disappear if we choose the truth, as he says in Veritatis Splendor, if we choose life, as he says in Evangelium Vitae. Such choices can make us free and enable us to bear the terrible civil burdens that we refuse to acknowledge to have resulted from our choices.
THE THIRD MILLENNIUM
"The great Jubilee to be celebrated at the end of this Millennium and at the beginning of the next ought to constitute a powerful call to all those who 'worship God in spirit and truth.' It should be for everyone a special occasion for meditating on the mystery of the Triune God, who in himself is wholly transcendent with regard to the world, especially the visible world."
-- John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, 1986, #54.
When we think of the "coming" Third Millennium, I suppose, we cannot help but recall the apocalyptic overtones that were associated with the coming of the Year One Thousand, let alone those at the coming of Christ Himself, at "the fullness of time", the Year Zero, when the whole world was at peace. Nor can we doubt that a good deal of thought and concern about the End of the World in our time is prevalent, especially among certain more evangelical Protestants. Even among ordinary Catholics, who try to play these things "cool", as they say, we find persistent wonderments about the collapse of Marxism with its purported relationship to Fatima and other Marian appearances, with prayers and penances that we are asked to do and evidently, at least on the scale demanded, do not. At the edges, we sometimes hear of anti-Christ and rumors about the third message of Fatima that, according to some at least, has to do with large-scale apostasy among clergy and especially bishops.
The Holy Father himself affirmed specifically both in Centesimus Annus and in his new book, that he saw the hand of God in this fall of communism. He saw this same hand also in the fact that the attempt on his life took place on May 13, the Anniversary of the Appearances at Fatima, in 1917. When he went to Fatima himself ten years after the attempt on his life, on May 13, 1991, John Paul II did not hesitate to speak quite frankly about the further meaning of these events that happened to him as Pope. "The pilgrimage this year had a particular purpose," John Paul II explained to the Portuguese:
to give thanks for saving the pope's life on May 13, 1981. I certainly consider this entire decade to be a free gift, given to me in a special way by Divine Providence -- a special responsibility was given to me that I might continue to serve the Church by exercising the ministry of Peter.... Mary's message at Fatima can be synthesized in three clear, initial words of Christ: "The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel" [Poenitemini, credite Evangelio]. The events which have taken place on our European continent, particularly in central and eastern Europe, give this Gospel appeal a contemporary meaning on the threshold of the third millennium. These events compel us to think in a special way about Fatima. The heart of the Mother of God is the heart of a Mother who cares not only for individuals, but for entire peoples and nations. This heart is totally dedicated to the saving mission of her Son: Christ, the Redeemer of the world, the Redeemer of man.
The Holy Father in this autobiographical passage has already linked together many of the central themes we are to find in his extensive plans for the Third Millennium and its transcendent meaning.
In further discussing Fatima and the assassination attempt on his life in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Faith, the Holy Father gave these further enlightening reflections:
And what are we to say of the three children from Fatima who suddenly, on the eve of the outbreak of the October Revolution, heard: "Russia will convert" and "In the end, my Heart will triumph"...? They could not have invented those predictions.... Perhaps this is also why the Pope was called from "a faraway country," perhaps this is why it was necessary for the assassination attempt to be made in St. Peter's Square precisely on May 13, 1981, the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima -- so that all could become more transparent and comprehensible, so that the voice of God which speaks in human history through the "signs of the times" could be more easily heard and understood.
Clearly the Holy Father sees our times as momentous because of the specific message that God is communicating to us in various ways about our own lives and the way we live them in comparison to the way we are asked to live them in the Gospels and in the teachings of the Church.
This concern about the "voice of God" in human history being "easily heard and understood" is what lies behind John Paul II's very deliberate preparation for the Third Millennium. Generally, the Holy Father's reaction to the fall of Marxism has been both joyful and tinged with an unsettling and persistent concern about the moral and spiritual condition of the rest of the world. Contrary to what we might at first expect, he thinks that the need for prayer and conversion is not less but greater after this change in Eastern Europe, almost as if to say that the real problem was not centered there in the first place. Thus, the background ideas and thoughts that initially caused Marxism are still largely in place though in a different form in the rest of the world, particularly in Europe and America.
Consequently, if we reflect on his Angelus prayer for the First Sunday of Advent, 1994, when he announced the beginnings of the preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, John Paul II recalls that we are still "pilgrims" and that God "comes to meet us". The primary purpose of this Jubilee is "to live in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving for the great gift of the Incarnation of the Word and the Redemption, and we are invited to rejoice in the grace of being, in the Church, beloved children who have been freed from our sins." The Jubilee of the Year 2000 thus is about the Incarnation and Redemption as the proper way to praise the Trinitarian God. But this emphasis means that we must understand the centrality of sin as the principal disorder, personal sin, not just so-called abstract social or corporate analyses that blame someone else but ourselves.
So important is this concern about personal sin that it is well to recall what John Paul said about this topic in 1984 in his Exhortation on "Reconciliation and Penance." We live in an era that has made most error, evil, and disorder to be the product of some impersonal force, some "ism", or corporate will, something that cannot in fact explain the voluntary origin of what is wrong in the world. Thus, in this sort of intellectual world, neither guilt nor responsibility can be located in something an individual actually did. It is, in fact, a vast triviliaztion of the meaning and reality of human life and action.
"There is one meaning sometimes given to social sin that is not legitimate or acceptable, even though it is very common in certain quarters today," John Paul II observed.
This usage contrasts social sin and personal sin, not without ambiguity, in a way that leads more or less unconsciously to the watering down and almost the abolition of personal sin, with the recognition only of social guilt and responsibilities. According to this usage which can readily be seen to derive from non-Christian ideologies and systems ... practically every sin is a social sin, in the sense that blame for it is to be placed not so much on the moral conscience of an individual but rather on some vague entity or anonymous collectivity, such as the situation, the system, society, structures, or institutions. Whenever the Church speaks of situations of sin, or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it....
The Jubilee emphasis the Incarnation and Redemption and the divine reasons for them. These realities underscore our own dignity. They are divine responses to our own personal actions, to our sins. The Jubilee is intended by John Paul II to refocus the world's attention on what, in fact, ultimately causes economic, social, and political disorders, namely our own sins, the justification for which is what lies behind so many modern philosophies and interpretations of theology.
Thus, in this Angelus talk, John Paul II, as if to give increased force to what concerns him, added these sobering words that are intended to remind us that we are dealing here with a matter of the greatest moment: "With eager intensity we are asked to be increasingly aware of the evil that threatens Christians themselves, 'when they depart from the Spirit of Christ and his Gospel'." Christians disloyal to their spiritual lives, those who define sins as something good, who do not practice their faith, seem to be the center of the Holy Father's brief exhortation. There is an "evil" that threatens those who depart from the Gospel, either in rejecting it entirely or in refusing to follow its commandments and guidance, something that results in our social or public disorders. The combination of these words, I think -- praise, Redemption, sins, evil -- indicates John Paul II's constant effort to insist that we focus our attention on what is really important in our personal, familial, cultural, and political lives. Sin is an indication of, a sign of what we actually do. Modern culture, in some sense, can thus be seen as a conspiracy that would keep our attention focused on everything but what it is that lies at the root of our disorders, namely, our wills when they choose to sin.
This transcendent meaning of our lives and our times, as we emphasized in the beginning passage from Dominum et Vivificantem, centers around the Trinity, about God's inner life, about how we human beings, individually and in our union with others of our kind, relate to this inner life through our Creation in the Word and in our Redemption in the Word made flesh, in the Second Person of this very Trinity. The word, "Trinity", a non-scriptural, philosophical word, has been carefully crafted in tradition to describe, better than any other word we have subsequently managed to come up with, the inner life of God in only we can know it, that is, as it is revealed to us as our proper destiny. The word "Trinity" defines most accurately what the Scripture says about God, one God, three divine persons, who created the world from nothing, for no reason but His own, a reason, however, about which, for own good and salvation, He has given us some precious intimations.
The Holy Father, in other words, intends, on the occasion of the great Jubilee of the Year 2000, nothing less than to teach the world about God as we Christians have known Him during the previous Two Millennia, and as he ought to be known in the next. The coming Millennium, the Holy Father knows, can give rise to legitimate forebodings caused by our repeated failures individually and collectively to heed God's word. We specifically stand in need of repentance that identifies and rejects the evil we choose. But John Paul II also knows that the Third Millennium can be more blessed and more peaceful than any other one we have known, precisely because of what the Church teaches us about God. This hope, no doubt, is why the Holy Father is so insistent that the words that the world most needs to hear are those beginning words of the Gospels themselves, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel." That is to say, we have to understand what it is of which we have to repent. We have to know why the Gospel is addressed to our sins, to the structure of disorder in our lives at all levels, why, if we fail to repent, "evil" increasingly threatens "Christians themselves".
Evidently, then, the Pope, who is by no means a pessimist but a man filled with hope and delight, a man who loves to sing and climb mountains, thinks that, from one point of view, our times are in such dire moral and spiritual condition that the words found early in the Gospel of Mark apply to our era with special force. This dire condition is likewise the theme that Peter Kreeft takes up in his remarkable analysis of C. S. Lewis' book, The Abolition of Man, probably the best brief analysis of modern spiritual and intellectual disorder ever written. Kreeft calls his own book significantly, for our purposes, C. S. Lewis in the Third Millenium. In a brilliant analysis, Kreeft shows just why the principles and practices of what has come to be known as "modernity", themselves backed up with all the force and pride of the modern state and of contemporary culture, are in fact specifically those anti-human principles that were anticipated in thought about end times in our religious and philosophic tradition.
"The most radically new feature of our civilization," Kreeft wrote in words mindful of the description of The Fall in Genesis, "is not technology, its newly powerful means, but the lack of a summum bonum, an end." This lack of a highest good was what Hobbes proposed should be the case at the beginnings of modernity. In this sense, what we witness in our times is the final carrying out in personal lives and in society of what it means not to have an ordering end, a summum bonum. Early modern philosophers on which our times and thought are built argued that disorder in the world was caused, not cured, by faith and virtue, by the knowledge and pursuit of the highest good, happiness, the summum bonum. The disorder that comes from having no order directed to a highest good who is God is something that constantly is before the mind of John Paul II when, in speaking of the coming Third Millennium, he endeavors to place the orders of secular and salvation history in proper relation to each other through explaining our own proper internal order to ourselves and its relation to God.
In this Fatima message of 1991, to recall, the Holy Father mentioned the saving mission of Christ, "The Redeemer of Man." This latter expression, of course, "the Redeemer of Man", was the title of John Paul II's first encyclical, the first of three profound early documents of his Pontificate devoted respectively to the Son (Redemptor Hominis), to the Father (Dives in Misericordia), and to the Spirit (Dominum et Vivificantem). Thus, we are not surprised that in the proximate preparation for the Jubilee of the Year Two Thousand, John Paul II plans to devote 1997 to the Son and Redeemer, 1998, to the Holy Spirit, 1999 to the Father, and 2000 to the Trinity, all in a worldwide act of homage and exact teaching about what our salvation means, about where it is from, about why we need it, and from what it is we are to be saved. Ultimately, what we are to be saved from is from our own purely man-made definitions of what human life is about and from those institutions based on these definitions.
But here I want to note how struck I was by what John Paul II said in his new book about this first encyclical. "You will remember that my first encyclical on the Redeemer of man (Redemptor Hominis), appeared a few months after my election on October 15, 1978," he told Vittorio Messori.
This means that I was actually carrying its contents within me. I had only to "copy" them from memory and experience what I had already been living on the threshold of the papacy.... The Council proposed ... that the mystery of redemption should be seen in light of the great renewal of man and of all that is human. The encyclical aims to be a great hymn of joy for the fact that man has been redeemed through Christ -- redeemed in spirit and in body. The redemption of the body subsequently found its own expression in the series of catechesis for the Wednesday Papal audiences: "Male and female He created them." Perhaps it would be better to say: "Male and female He redeemed them."
What struck me particularly about this passage, in light of the Holy Father's later remarks at Fatima, about his being given an extra decade during which to exercise "the ministry of Peter", was his lively sense that he had actually been being "prepared" to be Pope even before he was elected. The redemption of man, male and female, of the body, was much in his consciousness even before he became Pope. This concrete meaning of the Redemption, as clarified by the particular genius and charisma of his own personality and office, is what John Paul II fully intends to make known by every means available to him, himself, as he shows again and again, one of the most skillful, appealing, and dynamic public figures in the history of the world.
Such thoughts about our time, how our times came to be as they are, that is, their relation to history and to God's will for the world, are no doubt sobering, even apocalyptic thoughts. Many would prefer to ignore them as simply "private" revelation, that the facts they record we need not bother ourselves with. But, still, what are we to make of them? We see Charlie Brown staring at the television set. He is watching a golf game during which the announcer explains to a spellbound Charlie Brown that, at the very end of the tournament, the golfer has to go for it; "he can't play it safe." At this very moment little Sally, his sister, comes up behind Charlie but she hears only the announcer's dramatic concluding words, "There's no tomorrow!" Hearing this, to her, horrendous news, Sally freezes, hands on lips, shaking, eyes fixed, "There's no tomorrow?" she asks and repeats traumatically the momentous words out loud.
Such portents incite her further. She dashes out of the house screaming, "There's no tomorrow." She rushes up to Linus who is obviously shocked at the news. She yells, "They just announced on TV that there's no tomorrow." She races to the doghouse to a raised-in-the-air-by-her-vehemence Snoopy, to cry, "There's no tomorrow!! They just announced it on TV." Then she shrieks as loudly as possible, in words of a distinct Scriptural hue, "Panic! Panic! Run! Hide! Flee! Run for the hills! Flee to the valleys! Run to the rooftops!" Finally, we see Sally, Linus, and Snoopy huddled back to back on the roof of the doghouse. Linus mutters, "Somehow I never thought it would end this way!" And Snoopy adds, "I thought Elijah was to come first...."
As I said, not unlike the years leading up to the Year 1000, our own decades do display concerns about end times. This is what concerns and often bothers us even if we do not quite believe in end times or understand what is happening. And, in spite of our reluctance and reservations, maybe they should. Perhaps there is some identifiable relationship between our conduct and our times that is something new in human history, itself no doubt a graphic record of man's own order and disorder. The Holy Father himself, as I have indicated, perhaps somewhat more soberly, but still with a sense of the meaning of time and our times, sees this coming Year 2000 to be of momentous significance for the redemption of mankind. This very significance falls within its realm of choice, if I might use that much abused but noble word, within the realm of that freedom that decides what ultimately we shall be. The Holy Father sees the coming Third Millennium as a time of decision that depends on us. Yet, it is also a time of God's warnings to us about our lives, about what we do and believe, about how we explain ourselves to ourselves, about what we call evil and what we refuse to call evil even when it is.
If Linus "never thought it would end this way," we can recall that Scripture tells us that the end times will utterly surprise those living during them. No one knows the day or the hour. Messori asked the Holy Father about sociological statistics that revealed a relative decline in the number of Catholics throughout the world. Messori wanted to know whether the Pope was concerned about this decrease? In answering this delicate question, the Holy Father does not deny the statistics but he does caution about their implied meaning, namely, that numbers indicate the truth of the decline of Catholicism. That is, the Pope questions whether modern social science as a method can reveal, contrary to its own pretensions about itself, what actually goes on in the world, expecially in the inner relation of man and God to which the Church is ordained. Certainly such science did not indicate it knew what was happening when it came to the sudden demise of Marxism.
Here too, the Holy Father replied to this subject in a most surprising, yet accurate manner:
Statistics are not useful when speaking of values which are not quantifiable. To tell the truth the sociology of religion -- although useful in other areas -- does not help much here. As a basis for assessment, the criteria of measurement which it provides do not help when considering people's interior attitude. No statistic aiming at quantative measurement of faith (for example, the number of people who participate in religious ceremonies) will get to the heart of the matter.
According to Scripture, as the Pope observes, as the world nears its end, there will be less faith, not more. The decline of numbers, if that is what happens, does not indicate the falsity of Catholicism, but its truth.
This result is a very Augustinian. It means that the methods of modern science do not reveal what is going on in the religious world and can often confuse us about what is happening. Herbert Deane sums up Augustine's similar view in this way:
(Augustine) does not assume that growth in church membership or influence can be equated with an increase in the number of those men who truly love God. Indeed, as history draws to its close thee number of true Christians in the world will decline rather than increase. His words give no support to the hope that the world will gradually be brought to believe in Christ and that the earthly society can be transformed, step by step, into the kingdom of God.
These remarks again point out the relation between Kreeft's thesis about Lewis' "abolition of man" and the presence of God in our time.
What Kreeft has shown is that the intellectual structure of what goes on in the name of science and culture in our civilization is exactly the effort to destroy man as classic philosophy and revelation have known him. This "abolition" of what was created to be what it is would imply that a God who is interested in man's own salvation would, if He has an active providence towards us, be seen to take positive steps, but religious steps, to counteract this man-made effort to "abolish man" and replace him with a man not at all related to what God has created. This is why, I should note here, Kreeft ends his book of intellectual analysis not with an intellectual conclusion, but with a very scriptural plea for sanctity, the theme that seems common in all reports about Marian devotions and in all that which the Holy Father teaches us about our time. And sanctity is something that is least open to sociological analysis and most contrary to the activist, Pelagian nature of our culture that insists on setting our own standards and saving ourselves by our own efforts.
"The twenty-first century will be one of two things," Kreeft concluded in an observation that reflects the themes of Lewis and the Holy Father himself.
Either it will be the best since the thirteenth, or the worst since the twenty-first B.C., before the call of Abraham and the formation Judaism. It depends on which side wins the current war. Either we will build Gothic cathedrals again, from a restored faith, or we will build the Tower of Babel again, from a restored apostasy. Lewis, like all prophets, gave us the road map, the clear choice between the two roads of life or death, and the Mosaic simplicity of the challenge, "choose life." Please do. Please help us save the world. Please be a saint.
Our own times certainly do not want to see that our own conduct, our own deeds and intellectual positions, our own failure to choose life and sanctity, have an ultimate significance that somehow a Pope is privy to and they are not. The fact is, as Paul Johnson and E. Michael Jones have indicated with the Pope in Veritatis Splendor, there is an intimate relation between what we do and what we intellectually maintain, that more often than we want to admit, what we hold is an effort to justify how we live and not the other way around.
The fact is that the fall of Marxism came as an utter surprise, something not predicted by any social science. Yet, the discourse about the dangers and end of communism was something that rumbled through religious circles since 1917 because of Fatima and the strange events related to it. The Holy Father is both cautions about these events and conscious of their coincidence. Over the years, I have been a fairly diligent reader of the addresses and works of John Paul II. Several years after he began his Pontificate in 1978, I began mentally to note the increasing frequency with which he spoke of the coming Third Millennium. I meant to copy down every reference to the end of the Second or the beginning of the Third Millennium or the relation of the First, Second, and Third Millennia to each other, when I saw one mentioned, but I never got around to it. Still, I was conscious that the coming Third Millennium was a recurrent theme in the works of the Holy Father. At first I thought, he was mentioning it simply because it was a convenient peg on which to speak in varying ways about the human condition in general, rather graphic ways, I thought.
After I read for a second time John Paul II's "Apostolic Letter" on "The Coming Third Millennium" (November 10, 1994), however, I suddenly realized that he has probably been thinking of and planning for this Jubilee ever since he became Pope. Indeed, in "The Coming Third Millennium", he has brought together his thinking on the meaning of our time, on the meaning of all time, the periods of history, our relation to God, both as individuals, as nations, and as the human race as such. He presents these considerations and teachings in the context of celebrating and continuing, if not completing, the work of God in this world. This is the work of Creation and the work of Redemption as, in a unified way, this plan of God for man reaches all the world, even those who choose not to receive it or who do not clearly hear it. The Pope has literally done everything he can to alert the Orthodox and the Protestants, as those closest to Catholicism in doctrine and practice, to the need for unity not just in the abstract but in the concrete. He has been willing to talk systematically with Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, animists, Marxists, and philosophers. He has outlined the relation of the periods of history and their meaning. He has talked to and about every form of science in relation to itself and to revelation. Whenever possible, if it did not previously exist, the Holy Father has set up continuing commissions or fora in which honest and serious efforts to understand and resolve differences in theology, science, philosophy, and culture could be constantly addressed.
While most of us have been going about our pedestrian business with our everyday thoughts, John Paul II, in what by any standard is an extraordinary feat of intelligence, energy, decision, and organization, has been busy re-presenting every facet of Christian practice and teaching. John Paul II has accomplished what is, in fact, one of the most remarkable intellectual efforts in the history of thought and of the Church. In his speeches, encyclicals, and letters, in his Catechism, in the revision of the Codes of Canon Law, in his remarks on Scripture, in his treatment of the social order, in his attention to youth, in his careful and much needed explanation of truth and natural law in Veritatis Splendor, in his constant encounters with world leaders and peoples in his many trips, in his remarkably personal and profound book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, in his crucial role in the fall of Marxism, in his devotion to the Blessed Mother, in his defense of life and in his beautiful understanding of love and marriage, of the family, in just about everything he does, from simple talks to the profoundest philosophical dissertations, this Pope has been light-years ahead of us all in formulating a coherent and complete explanation of God, man, Church, cosmos, and destiny.
As far as I know, except for a few small institutes and colleges, except for a few alert men and women everywhere, no one, including members of the Church, even of its hierarchy, pays careful attention to what this Holy Father has accomplished, no one except perhaps the enemies of the faith itself. No religious order, with the possible exception of Opus Dei, no university, no group of scholars, no members of the media, with again the exception of someone like Paul Johnson, has begun to realize the profundity of what he has accomplished and of how far ahead of us all he really is. On top of all of this, I think, John Paul II intends the Year 2000 to be an occasion in which to gather together systematically all of this teaching in an active effort to confront all of mankind, prayerfully and objectively, with the truth of the Redemption, the meaning of what has been going on for these Two Thousand Years that no one really can account for in any other terms but those in which the Holy Father sets them. These extra years, in which he has even forgiven the man who tried to kill him, have indeed been providential for him to enable him to continue to exercise the "ministry of Peter." If we add to this reflection what might be called its reverse side, we are beginning to realize in some sense the profound disorder of soul that democratic societies in particular have chosen for themselves.
Often, when I am teaching a course on St. Augustine or St. Thomas, I tell the students to take a little time to go over to the library and take a look of the Opera Omnia of either of these amazing men. Knowing that Augustine spent a long and very busy life as a bishop and that Aquinas died before he was fifty after thirty years of constant scholarly work, one cannot help but wonder if they did anything else but write every waking hour of every day of their lives. Few of us, even if we read them every day of our lives, could complete a thorough reading of either of their collected works. I cannot help think that the whole output of John Paul II is already larger than that either of Augustine or of Aquinas, and if not, it soon will be. No doubt both Augustine and Aquinas had secretaries and the Holy Father has a whole staff, but the fact remains that the amount and quality of this work is truly remarkable. Moreover, it is not just explanatory or expository, but it is an original and faithful reexamination of every aspect not only of the Catholic faith but of modern thought in the light of classical philosophy and history.
"For modernity," Peter Kreeft has observed, "the only sin is to believe in sin." The question is whether we can again believe in sin. The only way to regain this apparently lost perception of reality is to rediscover our moral language, our ability to call things what they really are. We can begin to do this initially by identifying the causal connection between our internal moral failures, in what we choose, and the grave disorders that publicly exist in our lives, in our polities, in failures that cannot be resolved by money or aid unless they are also related to moral purpose.
"The first step to such a moral reformation is the redefinition of the problem," Gertrude Himmelfarb has rightly written.
"Social pathology" is the language of sociology and psychology. "Moral pathology" -- the language of theology -- more accurately describes the complex of phenomena suggested by that term: welfare dependency, illegitimacy, crime and the like. Most of us by now advanced beyond the old argument that these are purely economic and social problems, the products of poverty, unemployment, racism, discrimination, deprivation. We are beginning to recognize that there is a large moral dimension in them.... In the past few decades we have deliberately divorced poor relief from moral principles, sanctions or incentives. This reflects in part the theory that society is responsible for all social problems and should therefore assume the task of solving them.... The divorce of social policy from moral principles ... also reflects the spirit of relativism that is so prevalent in our time. It is this (relativism) that makes it difficult to pass any moral judgments or impose any moral conditions upon the recipients of relief.
These perceptive remarks naturally arise after the exhaustion of all alternative efforts to solve human problems without recognizing that they are finally also problems of free choice and of sinfulness. The consequences of these choices and sins are measurable and visible. The same choices and sins cannot but continue to cause the same problems until their moral source and meaning are acknowledged and addressed. What Lewis, Kreeft, and John Paul II would suggest, as would Gertrude Himmelfarb, is that the changes that we must make require both virtue and grace, without which we have not and will not find the resources to arrest the decline in which we find ourselves.
The central theme in Kreeft's analysis of C. S. Lewis concerns a statement in Aquinas to the effect that the natural law could not be abolished from the heart of man. Kreeft reluctantly thought, on the evidence of our time, that perhaps Aquinas was wrong here. He thought that Lewis has warned us in The Abolition of Man that modern thought could indeed eradicate any sense of moral purpose from man, that we would produce a generation of men wholly oblivious to the distinction of right and wrong, the distinction that lies at the heart of all ethical considerations. Not only would this abolition happen, but it is what should happen, in the eyes of much modern thought. We want a completely "value-free" personal and public life. The autonomous center of our souls lies in our wills. The will cannot, in Aquinas' view, be touched by external forces. But if this center is once breached so that men are subject to what Lewis called political or economic "conditioners" limited by no natural or divine law, it would be possible to propose the control of society for its own good. This control would be solely by means of pleasure or pain administered by a state that is also in control of police, medicine, education, religion, and media.
Kreeft finally agrees that in all likelihood that the natural law cannot be abolished from the heart of man. The fact is, however, we have come a long way in establishing the principles of public order and private activity the precise opposite of what is forbidden in the commandments and the teachings of the Church. "Our times may be terrible, even apocalyptic," Kreeft wrote,
but that is our normal condition according to Scripture: deadly peril, spiritual warfare, wrestling with principalities and powers in high places on earth and low places in Hell.... Now perhaps you will believe again that the One who alone can save your society is the One who alone can save your soul.
The central theme of saving our societies by saving our souls is, of course, classic. It is in Plato, in Augustine.
This theme is also a central concern in John Paul II and a principal aspect of the Jubilee of the Year 2000. What it seems to come down to is that we will not save our societies until we begin to look at our souls. Speaking of the Third Year of the Jubilee Preparations, 1999, the year devoted to the Father, John Paul II wrote:
In this third year the sense of being on a "journey to the Father" should encourage everyone to undertake, by holding fast to Christ the Redeemer of man, a journey of authentic conversion. This includes both a "negative" aspect, that, of liberation from sin, and a "positive" aspect, that of choosing good, accepting the ethical values expressed in the natural law, which is confirmed and deepened by the Gospel. This is the proper context of a renewed appreciation and more intense celebration of the Sacrament of Penance in its most profound meaning. The call to conversion as the indispensable condition of Christian love is particularly important in contemporary society, where the very foundations of an ethically correct vision of human existence often seem to have been lost (#50).
Such lines express the same concern we find in Lewis and Kreeft about the lost sense of sin, of its centrality and remedies.
John Paul II then has a very realistic insight into what is the nature of our times and the causes of its most fundamental disorders. He likewise has a clear view of the revelational nature both of our own abilities to understand what is wrong and once understood to remedy them. What is perhaps disarming about John Paul II, and at the same time what shows his particular genius in understanding Christianity, is his clear and logical use of reason. But together with this awareness, he knows that the seriousness of sin itself, its reaches and its remedies, are rooted in grace. The orthodox doctrine about original sin, which John Paul II reaffirms often, does not maintain that the human soul is of its very structure and nature corrupted. On the other hand, even though the validity of reason as an instrument of our soul is valid, nevertheless, by ourselves we cannot and will not save ourselves.
Ever since I first read it, I have been struck, in this regard, by the following passage in Centesimus Annus: "We need to repeat that there can be no genuine solution of the 'social question' apart from the Gospel, and that the 'new things' can find in the Gospel the context of their correct understanding and the proper moral perspective for judging them" (#5). The academic "strategy" of Catholicism in the modern world, if I might put it that way, has been to stress the "nature" side of St. Thomas' "grace perfects and builds upon nature." We have thought that by showing ourselves equally, if not more reasonable than what the secular order considered reasonable, we would render modern men more open to revelation. But, as Lewis especially has shown, it does not really work this way in practice. If I might put it that way, the good can be rejected, even hated. If we reexamine the intimate correlation between philosophic or scientific errors in the modern world over against the disordered moral lives of the originators of these ideas, we will begin to suspect that in fact these theories or ideologies have been propounded not as reactions to objective grounds of science but as justifications that would ultimately prevent personal lives from being judged by natural or divine law.
Paul Johnson has shown, in Modern Times, that the major crimes of this concluding century, the end of the Second Millennium, were efforts of politicians who claimed some philosophic pretention. John Paul II extends this disorder to include the often disordered lives of ordinary citizens found in the modern democratic polity. This is rooted in a "liberty" that acknowledges no rule above itself for anyone, ruler or ruled.. This position recalls Aristotle's principle that the only rule of a democracy is that "liberty" that admits no transcendent order to which it is directed. In this context, we see that John Paul II's strategy for the Jubilee is in fact one that re-proposes to our time, in the face of accurate analyses of its condition, the proposition that reason alone, however good, will not be enough. The position that human, autonomous reason is enough is, in fact, the major opposition to John Paul II in particular and revelation in general.
Several writers, notably William Bennett and Gertrude Himmelfarb herself, have held that the return to virtue, to right order, will require, as it has in the past, a return to and support from religion. What is clear in John Paul II, however, in his careful attention to the ecumenical movement, in his dealings with other religions, in his awareness in Veritatis Splendor, of serious intellectual disorders in the intelligentsia and even clerisy of the Church is that just any old religion is not enough, nor is it what he is talking about. The Pope can be blunt when he needs to: "It cannot be denied that, for
many Christians," he wrote,
the spiritual life is passing through a time of uncertainty which affects not only their moral life but also their life of prayer and the theological correctness of their faith. Faith, already put to the test by the challenges of our times, is sometimes disoriented by erroneous theological views, the spread of which is abetted by the crisis of obedience vis-a-vis the Church's Magisterium (#36).
A return to religion, then, is not a return to just any old religion but it is a return to precisely the Gospel, to the Church.
The Jubilee of the Year 2000 is not merely a celebration of the accomplishments of mankind but includes a repentance of mankind before God, the Blessed Trinity, in the Godhead of the Father, for the depths of disorder in our very souls, from which alone we are redeemed, by Christ, the Redeemer of Man. The scope of the Holy Father's planning and purpose is, in short, breathtaking and magisterial. What is remarkable about him, called, as he said of himself, "from a faraway place", is his ability to transcend the whole of the modern media and political and academic structure, in his "ministry of Peter." Moreover, he has managed in the planning for the "Coming Third Millennium" to zero in on the essential locus of the personal disorder of sin that lies behind the turmoil of our century, indeed of our modern centuries.
Like Augustine's Eleventh Book of The Confessions, the Jubilee Year 2000 is a meditation on time. The Holy Father manages to bring in the whole history of ancient, medieval, and modern times, before the next Millennium. He includes previous Jubilees and previous arrivals of Christianity into the various parts of the world as if we are still witnessing the spread of the Kingdom of God, still going forth to teach all nations. And as in Veritatis Splendor, in line with Paul Johnson's remarks about the Twentieth Century being the greatest killer of men in our history, the Holy Father returns to the theme of martyrdom, both in the past and in the present. He has a lively sense of the communion of saints, of those forgotten ones who are the seeds of a new life. The Pope actually intends to update the famous Roman Martyrology (#37). "In our own century," he wrote in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, "the martyrs have returned, many of them nameless, 'unknown soldiers", as it were of God's great cause. As far as possible their witness should not be lost to the Church" (#37). One gets the impression, from such words of John Paul II, that he sees the Coming Millennium as either a new blossoming of holiness or, to follow Kreeft and Lewis, the "abolition of man", as the most disordered of times because we have chosen to continue to live with the most disordered of souls. The Pope intends to make this unsettling choice quite clear to us, whether we like it or not. This is, he thinks, what the ministry of Peter is about.
In conclusion, the times are such that we are left with a very clear alternative. Either we do return to or accept the graces that are offered from the Trinity through the Incarnation of the Word, if we be obedient to this plan of salvation designed to forgive us our sins, or we will erect an order in which the only criterion of humanity is a "freedom" that is designed to overturn the internal order of our souls and the external order of those institutions designed to preserve them. As we look directly in the eye the increased "social problems" as they are improperly called in our text books and press, on our sins, as they are often better called, things like abortion of our tiniest kind, euthanasia, genetic engineering, thought control, academic intolerance for any spiritual or revelational presence, the absolute power of a state that knows no limits but ourselves, we can begin to see that against which John Paul II has been writing and that from which we might, if we choose, find salvation and redemption. In the end, then, phrases like "there is no tomorrow," "repent and believe in the Gospel", and "the praise of the Trinity" by a mankind that has heard the Good News in the light of its own sins, all belong to the same discourse, to John Paul II's exhortation on the "Coming Third Millennium".
THE PAPACY: "NO SIMPLE EXHIBITION OF RELIGIOUS ABSOLUTISM"
Every exercise of Infallibility is brought out into act by an intense and varied operation of the Reason, both as its ally and as its opponent, and provokes again, when it has done its work, a reaction of Reason against it.... Catholic Christendom is no simple exhibition of religious absolutism, but presents a continuous picture of Authority and Private Judgment ...; it is a vast assemblage of human beings with willful intellects and wild passions, brought together into one by the Beauty and the Majesty of a Superhuman Power ... but ... brought together as if into some moral factory, for the melting, refining, and moulding, by an incessant, noisy process, of the raw material of human nature, so excellent, so dangerous, so capable of divine purposes.
-- John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua,  (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), 194.
In his brief "Introduction" to Orthodoxy, a book written in 1908, Chesterton, who was not at the time a Catholic, explained what he meant by the essential content of Christianity's explanation of itself. The essays in his book, he tells us, are concerned "only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not intended to discuss the very fascinating but quite different question of what is the present seat of authority for proclaiming that creed." What Chesterton implies here is that the Creed is an abiding and necessary statement of what Christianity is and of how it explains itself in terms as humanly intelligible and as accurate as possible. It is the very nature of the human intellect to seek to know what it encounters, even when it encounters revelation.
This explanation, in its essence, moreover, is the best key to reality itself. In order that this creed remains the same and that it be taught in different times, languages, and places, there exists within Christianity's very founding structure an authority whose central function it is that this creed remain itself in all its official explanations of itself. It is not empowered to add to, change, totally redefine or subvert what is handed down. Chesterton recognizes, moreover, that the "present seat of authority for proclaiming that creed" is itself a fascinating and obviously very useful question. A mistake about the location of this authority certainly would have large and lasting consequences about the validity and nature of the authority itself.
Chesterton has one more off-handed yet most insightful reference in Orthodoxy that relates to this topic of the importance of religious authority. In the Chapter entitled, "The Suicide of Thought," Chesterton remarks that, at one level, the whole world depends on a slim strand of will. There would be no next generation, for example, if everyone chose not to beget or chose to jump into the sea. Likewise, a whole generation could cease to think if it began to doubt the capacity of intellect to know things, began to doubt that the mind is governed by reality and capable of knowing it. At first sight, we might not think that this situation, which has in many ways come to pass in our time, is related to the question of the need for religious authority or its present location. Yet it is striking that almost a hundred years after Chesterton wrote, it is the Pope who writes Veritatis Splendor, a general, counter-cultural statement on precisely the need for truth and how it relates to reality and thus to the way we live.
"The peril is," Chesterton writes, "that the human intellect is free to destroy itself.... It is idle always to talk of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason itself is a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." We cannot find anything clearer than this statement that "reason itself is a matter of faith." It shows that our thoughts relate to reality. We consistently act as if they do. If we did not assume this relationship, we would be simply paralyzed. We would act as if nothing mattered but our thoughts. Sooner or later even the skeptic must ask himself why anything follows from anything else, "even observation and deduction." Once we begin to doubt our capacity to know anything outside of our minds, we have no check on our minds. Reality becomes merely what we think with no criterion by which to decide whether what we think is true or not.
It is precisely this realization that we can deny that our mind has any relation to reality that gets religious authority into philosophy as a kind of check on philosophy's own concept of itself. "There is a thought that stops all thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed." As always, Chesterton has an uncanny way of seeing the truth in things in a manner the very opposite from what we are usually told about them. "The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defense of reason."
The scope of religious authority is not directly reason, except when it is a question of reason's denying the very instrument of reason. Without the validity of reason, faith cannot be itself. And the religion that does not attend to mind, in this crucial area, will end up, like mind, concocting wild and strange pictures of man and the world. Chesterton thus implies that religious authority is the true religious authority that, as a matter of fact, recognizes the crucial importance of the mind and its relation to reality, to what is. Needless to say, this is a very strict and perceptive criterion.
Infallibility, in Newman's sense, to recall the beginning passage, can and should deal with the reasons that intellect brings against revelation. What an infallible authority cannot deal with is the suicide of reason, the denial that reason can know anything true of reality. Revelation is directed to reason and would have nothing to which to direct itself if its very instrument were declared to be unreliable. Reason also sees, as does religious authority, that the ultimate and only sure escape of reason from the fact of revelation is when reason, as a kind of last resort, denies itself, denies the validity of its own functioning, precisely in order not to have to admit anything of revelation.
"Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity," Chesterton acutely observed, "end by flinging away every freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church" (139). Rather than admit that revelation makes reason more reasonable, and therefore admit that there is something to it, however it is to be explained, there will be men who see that they must deny the very faculty of reason, to deny its capacity to function as it is made to do. Thus, what comes to be hated most in religious authority is not its affirmation of supernatural or revelational principles, but its clear defense of reason on reason's own grounds, including especially in the area of ethics and how we ought to live.
Recently, I read two novels that dealt in one way or another with the papacy, with what Catholics take to be "the present location of religious authority.". The first was Philip Trower's A Matter of State (Ignatius, 1998). This novel contains an account of the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773 by Pope Clement XIII, an act that is generally considered to be unfair and the result of arbitrary political pressure on the papacy. The other novel was Edward R. F. Sheridan's Cardinal Galsworthy (Penguin, 1997), which was about the election of the pope to follow John Paul II and was itself a kind of history of the post-Reformation and contemporary papacy.
Moreover, I had written an essay in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, entitled, "Why Do Good Popes Cause More Difficulty than Bad Popes?" (May, 1996). This essay discussed the ironical praise that Machiavelli heaped on Alexander VI, by most accounts the worst pope, over against the often bitter criticism that John Paul II often receives precisely for doing all the right things in ruling and inspiring the Church, for being, in other words, the best pope. In posing the question about good popes and bad popes in that way, I intimated something of John the Apostle's warning that if the world likes us too much, there is probably something wrong with us. If it hates us, it hated Christ also.
Looking back over the history of the papacy, we can say, however, that the Church during the past two hundred years has in fact had rather good, often excellent, men occupying the office of the papacy. Without denying their differences and varied energies, without affirming that they made no mistakes or showed no weaknesses, we have not recently seen either a really bad pope or a really bad man as pope. Though we are still too close in his time to make a long-term evaluation, I think indeed that John Paul II, whatever his few shortcomings, may well be appreciated as the greatest of all the historical popes. The Popes of the Twentieth Century -- Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II -- by any standard of comparison with Kings or Presidents, or other rulers or leaders in this Century, have been fine and outstanding men. We can say, it strikes me, that religion has generally done a better job at finding a series of good leaders than any other political or cultural institution.
We often hear talk of how historians will "rate" this or that American president, comparing them all, insofar as this can be reasonably done, with one another, their accomplishments and failures. Thus, we find Lincoln, or Jefferson, or Washington, or less clearly Franklin Roosevelt among the best, Grant, Harding, perhaps Andrew Johnson among the lesser lights. I would not presume to "rate" the two hundred and eighty popes on such a scale, but clearly we have had some very great popes but, if we go back in history, some very unsatisfactory ones also. Evidently, the promise to Peter that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church did not necessarily mean that the successive popes would always or even for the most part be either geniuses, saints, or talented administrators. Not a few of them have been quite open sinners, others terrible, venal rulers. There is no reason to think, therefore, in spite of our recent record, that we cannot have some modern version of Julius II, generally given quite a low rating, to clear our minds.
Who knows, after all, whether we might not have been living in very fortunate times with regard to the papacy? Perhaps for one reason or another, the next Century may produce a series of immoral men as popes, or ideologues who succeed in barely holding the central line, who confuse many about the meaning of Catholicism? We are told, are we not, that in the end time, even the elect will be confused? We are told that faith can weaken so that only a few faithful remain among us.
J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, when asked about whether he was optimistic about the inner-worldly future of man: "Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect history to be anything but a long defeat -- though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some examples or glimpses of final victory." How seldomly do we hear such sobering and realistic words from religion in these days, however true their warning to us may be. We, inheritors of theories of necessary progress, want to correlate worldly success and religion in such a way that the latter's main contribution is the success of the former. But faith does not lend itself so easily to this assumption. Indeed it suggests that the worst times religiously may well occur during the best times politically or economically, that it is more difficult to be faithful during prosperity than during poverty.
Actually, I was thinking of these things because of a letter I received from a young man in California, an ex-student of mine, now completing law school, a man seriously concerned about the Church and the integrity of the faith in the world in which he lives. This is what, in all frankness, he wrote to me :
Let me tell you about a question that I ponder occasionally. What happens when some Cardinal, ... who is more concerned with politics than the Faith, at some point becomes the Pope? Where does one go? What does one do then if the person's tenure is outwardly destructive? Merely a hypothetical? Something which one cannot answer until the situation arises? An event occurring with God's approval and perhaps for some purpose?
I suppose that it can be argued that Popes are human, that the Church has undergone tremendous struggles in its past, yet true Faith has survived. If faced with such a challenge in the future, it would again preserve. Under this scenario, if one remains true to the faith (irrespective of what direction the Pope steers the Church?), then one cannot go wrong? But what happens if the Pope seems to go wrong? What happens when the Pope discourages or forbids important elements of the faith? What does one follow? This seems to me, even if hypothetical, an essential question for Catholics thinking about what the Church as a hierarchical institution means and what is its nexus with the Truth.
If one is asked such a question, or such a series of questions, obviously sincerely meant, what does one say? Belloc remarked someplace that what worries us most as we get older is the human side of the supernatural Church. But this was spoken by a man of faith who did not expect the men of authority in the faith always to be perfect.
We know, of course, that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there were times in which we had two or three rival popes. We know that the Chinese government today has set up a National Church that cannot freely communicate with Rome or allow Roman appointment of bishops. And of course, there is the whole Reformation drama with its rejection of Papal authority and the Orthodox tradition which does not acknowledge it as Rome does. John Paul II, in Ut Unum Sint, has made every effort to inaugurate steps to repair these still scandalous divisions within the Church. But these situations are, for the most part, ones in which dissenters of this or that element in the Corpus of Catholic teaching have separated themselves to set up different rites or sects or communities that define their own teachings and how they differ from the Roman center.
What is more peculiar since Vatican II is that those who dissent from the Church do not ordinarily leave it to set up their own organizations. Moreover, Rome is rather reluctant to exercise its authority to excommunicate any members, except in a very few notorious cases. One of the consequences of a more tolerant or pastoral exercise of ecclesiastical authority has been the resultant confusion in which very many ideas and practices remain within the Church without being explicitly identified or explained as dangerous to the faith itself. No doubt, the publication of the General Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, were designed in part to counter these confusing tendencies within the Church that is supposed to contain an authority that confronts precisely teachings and practices that are out of touch with the essentials of the Creed. The most serious difficulties in the Church, moreover, arise when certain bishops or hierarchies have gradually or suddenly deviated from the articles of faith, often in the very name of faith. Indeed, the fact of heretical bishops at certain points in history was one of the main reasons that Newman gave for his conversion to Catholicism.
The fact is, however, that the question of the "heretical pope," the question that my young friend asked me, was treated to some extent by the great post-Reformation theologians -- Bellarmine, Cajetan, Suarez, John of St. Thomas, and others. The young man's letter, as I thought of it, recalled something I had read years ago in Yves Simon's The Philosophy of Democratic Government, in which, in order to make clear the nature of authority in democratic and republican governments, Simon had to discuss the difference between the theory of rule in the papacy and the theory in civil governments. All of this reflection on papal power was itself written against the modern -- that is 15th-18th centuries -- notion of the divine right of kings, that was developed in France, England, and Austria precisely to prevent any democratic claim of right to a part in deciding who exercises civil power. Also at issue was the question of whether a general council of the Church was over the pope and on what authority as had been claimed at the Council of Constance. Similar ideas about "democratizing" the structure of the Church often occur in liberal Catholic circles today.
Cajetan held that the council was not superior to the pope. But in asking the hypothetical question about a heretical pope, Cajetan cited the opinion that a pope falling into heresy automatically ceases to be pope, so that he does not need to be deposed, just some official sanctioning is needed of the fact that he is deposed. Cajetan, however, thought that a heretical pope was still pope and had to be deposed, just like a heretical bishop. Cajetan's problem was how find a way to depose a pope without granting this power to a general council, a power he denied to it.
No power on earth is superior to the pope in his office, but, Cajetan thought, there was some instrument that could meet the situation. There are three elements, the papal power, the man (Peter), and the conjunction of the office and the man. The papal power came from God, the man from his parents, and the conjunction of the two from man. This conjunction takes place by election of the cardinals and is unique in the world. The power to depose does not deal with papal power but merely with the uniting of the man, now heretical, by the hypothesis, and the papal power. In this case, man merely "designates" the holder of the power, but does not constitute it. A king, on the contrary, does not have his power constituted directly by God as in the case of the pope, so the political and ecclesiastical cases are different. The pope is a vicegerent of Christ, not of the people.
Bellarmine and Suarez thought rather that a pope who clearly embraced an heretical doctrine would be ipso facto deposed. No process would be needed. There was also some discussion at this time about whether the pope as a private man as opposed to his official statements could fall into heresy. Other writers, of course, think that whatever the value of such speculations about what to do with a heretical pope if he ever appears, that the divine promise will never allow a heretical pope to happen. There were, indeed, some popes -- Virgilius, Honorius, and Liberius -- who were once said to have embraced heretical or dubious positions. These instances in fact were sometimes used as proof that the papacy was not what Catholics claimed of it because, it was intimated, there were heretical popes. But more recent scholarship has indicated that these questions were ones of too much zeal or of a lack of courage on the part of these popes, not strict "heresy" on a matter of faith or morals.
The new General Catechism of the Catholic Church does not specifically go into all these speculations that might worry us about the theoretic possibilities connected with the abidingness of the divine promise concerning the papal authority. In a sense, we do not sit around worrying about possible heretical popes at some future date, largely because of the uncanny but evident fact that we have not had one. The real worry to the human mind about the papacy does not concern the possible heretical pope, but rather the improbable but consistent line of non-heretical popes throughout history. We worry about a possible heretical pope and leave unnoticed the incredibly long line of orthodox ones. No one could possibly have expected this unbroken, historical line to have worked more or less as it was established to work. We are astonished both that the papacy still exists -- there is nothing really to compare with it -- and that it teaches the same things about faith and morals. The purpose of the papacy is not to invent something new, but to be sure that something now very old, yet also very new, remains in the world and remains in the world as an active force.
We read in the General Catechism this explanation of the papacy:
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, "is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful." "For the Bishop of Rome, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as a pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered" (#882).
We might ask, on reading this statement of the Church's conception of its own structure, "why on earth would such an institution ever have been invented?" Surely, we argue, there were better ways to do it.
Yet, as we watch John Paul II in, say, Cuba, or in Denver, or in the United Nations, or in Paris, or in Manila, or in wherever else in the world he has been in our time, almost everywhere, we cannot help but feeling that somehow this odd institution has enabled the basic teaching of Christ to be present in the world in a most unexpected and universal manner. We cannot help but thinking that this is precisely what God intended of this office. Nothing else could be quite so dramatic as a single man, smiling, speaking, touching, walking, praying. The papacy remains a sign of contradiction because of its unique structure.
Cormac Burke has taken up an oft-heard accusation against the institution of the papacy, an accusation that seems to ring so forcefully in these times of relativism and doubts about any truth. This is the charge that the splendor of the papal surroundings, the authority given to the office, these are not rooted in humility and lowliness but in pride and haughtiness. There are, to be sure, those who do not know or do not admit that real people need truth and beauty and guidance. Often there is silly talk about selling, say, St. Peter's and giving the proceeds to the poor. Such critics do not realize that it is also the poor that visit St. Peter's and are uplifted and awed in spite of whatever surroundings that they came from. How selfish are those who think the poor do not need beauty as much as they need bread.
"Some persons see pride at work in the Church's claim to infallibility. But the claim is not proud," Cormac Burke wrote,
it is an acknowledgement of the greatness of what God has done in and through her. Pride instead is a danger for someone who, wanting to follow Christ, nevertheless refuses to admit any infallible organ of teaching instituted by him. Acceptance of the Church's infallibility is a key test of faith in God's providence -- in this divine way of ensuring access to the message of salvation.
There is a delicate line between the accepting by a pope of a divine responsibility that does not come directly from him and the rejection of this same responsibility on the grounds that God would not establish such an office, even when it has been long established and has endured the ages.
Where is the present location of this office that assures to reason that it ought not to destroy itself? The fact is that if it does not exist in the Roman papacy, it does not exist at all. There is simply no one else to claim it. Thus, to recall Newman in the beginning, the papacy is "no simple exhibition of religious absolutism." It exists within human nature to allow the "divine purpose" to shine through. Likewise, it exists precisely as a divine way to ensure "access to the message of salvation." This access was not in Christianity first and primarily given through academics or through politicians and business men. It was given to everyone who will accept it through a Church and its structure, a structure that includes an authority founded on Peter. The famous "Gates of Hell" have, paradoxically in our time, prevailed not to eliminate the message of Christ but through their opposition to reason and revelation as concentrated in the papacy have worked to spread the name of Christ throughout the world.
Other items on this topic are: 1) The Sixth Paul; 2) Church, State and Society in the Thought of John Paul II; 3) "The First Right of Man," in Sacred in All Its Forms: Pope John Paul II on Human LIfe; 4) "The Strange Consistency: Humanae Vitae after Twenty-Five Years," in Does Catholicism Still Exist?; 5) "The Person from Within: The Foundations of Social Teaching," in Does Catholicism Still Exist?;
6) "John Paul II's Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: On the Limits of Social Concern," in Religion, Wealth, and Poverty; 7) "Liberation Theology in America," in Liberation Theology; 8) "The Changing Catholic Scene," in Christianity and Politics: Catholic and Protestant Perspectives," Edited by Carol Friedley Griffith, (Washington: Ethics and Public Policy, 1981), pp. 19-38; 9) "On Imitating the Creator," Papal Economics, Edited by Philip Lawler, (Washington: The Heritage Lectures, #6, 1982), pp. 18-28; 10) "The American Press Views Puebla," in The Pope and Revoljution: John Paul III Confronts Liberation Theology, Edited by Quentin L. Quade (Washington: Ethics and Public Policy, 1982), 86-96;
11) "On the Disappearance of Mercy from Political Theroy: The Significance of Dives in Misericordia," in Catholic Social Thought and the Teachings of John Paul II, Edited by Paul Williams, (Scranton, PA.: Northeast Books, 1983), 39-53 [also in The Politics of Heaven and Hell]; 12) "From Catholic 'Social Doctrine' to the 'Kingdom of God on Earth'," Communio III (Winter, 1976), 284-300, [in Readingss in Moral Theology, No. 5: Official Catholic Social Teaching, Edited by Charles E. Curran and Richare A. McCormick (New York: Paulist, 1986), 313-30]; 13) "The Modern Church and the Totalitarian State," Studies. (Dublin), LVII (Summer, 1968), 113-27; 14) "The Papacy and Humor," The Month, (London), N.S. V. 42 (September, 1969), 110-20 [in The Catholic Mind, LXVII (December. 1969), 19-28]; 15) "Of Letters and Encyclicals," Worldview, 14 (July-August, 1971), 5-8;
16) "Pope Paul at Eighty," Worldview, 20 (October, 19770, 42-48, [in The Catholic Mind, LXXVI (February, 1978), 38-53]; 17) "The Final Legacy of Paul VI," Homiletic and Pastoral Review, LXXIX (November, 1978), 56-61; 18) "Redemptor Hominis: The Amazement of God," Homiletic and Pastoral Review, LXXX (October, 1979), 11-19; 19) "On Neutralizing a Pope," Homiletic and Pastoral Review, LXXX (March, 1980), 9-21; 20) "On Inquisitors and Pontiffs: Criticizing John Paul II,' Homiletic and Pastoral Review, LXXXI (June, 1981), 14-24;
21) "In Defence of Right and Civilization: Papal Thought on War," Homiletic and Pastoral Review, LXXXII (August, 1982), 10-22; 22) "The Unexpected Encyclical: On the Extraordinary Uniqueness of Centesimus Annus," Social Justice Review, 82 (September-October, 1991), 143-47; 23) "Division Not Peace," L'Osservatore Romano, English, July 28, 1993, 9-11 [in Does Catholicism Still Exist?]; 24) "The Third Millennium," Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, 18 (April, 1995), 2-13; 25) "'The Call Contained in the Being of Things': The Import of John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, Vital Speeches, LVIII (January 15, 1992), 213-17;
26) "The Secular Meaning of Veritatis Splendor, Seminarium, (Rome), XXXIV (#1, 1994), 151-62; 27) "Why Good Popes Cause More Difficulty than Bad Popes," Homiletic and Pastoral Review, XCVI (March, 1996), 7-16; "On the Uniqueness of Catholicism and the Diversity of Religions," Homiletic and Pastoral Review, XCVII (January, 1997), 13-21.