Under the heading of Catholicism I have collected a number of essays -- reflective, explanatory, apologetic, hopefully insightful -- about the nature and status of Catholicism. If there is a case to be made for a religion or philosophic position, it seems worthwhile making it. Religion or faith, and the arguments on which it might stand, are often unknown or ignored. This is unfortunate. Both civil and academic freedom encourage the effort of people at all levels to explain themselves, to state what is to be said for or against a position.
Several of my books deal in one way or another with this heading: 1) Redeeming the Time (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1968); 2) The Distinctiveness of Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982); 3) Unexpected Meditations Late in the XXth Century (Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1985); 4) What Is God Like? (Collegeville, MN.: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazer, 1992); The Praise of 'Sons of Bitches': On the Worship of God by Fallen Men (Slough, England: St. Paul Publications, 1978); Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), and Does Catholicism Still Exist? (Staten Island, N. Y.: Alba House, 1994).
Below I will include fourteen essays in this section:
10) “The Secret Praise of God: The Holy Spirit, Giver of Life,” 11) “Catholicism and ‘The Truth of Things’”; 12) “The Universal Mission of the Church,” 13) "On the Uniqueness of Catholicism and the Diversity of Religions.”
CATHOLICISM: "WHAT ELSE IS THERE?"
For born Catholics, familiarity with their faith can produce an inattentiveness to its inner coherence and its transcendent meaning. To be a "born" Catholic is no doubt one thing; to see why remaining a Catholic makes intellectual sense is another. Yet, the function of the human mind is to know what it holds and why. The most dangerous thing we can do, as Chesterton remarked, is to doubt the capacity of our mind to know and to state, as true, what it knows.
What is unique about Catholicism, and on this uniqueness it stands or falls, is its claim to be true. Many philosophies and religions likewise claim to be true. Indeed, even the claim to be true implies that the function of the human mind is itself to be critically examined especially when it comes to religion. The mind, the locus of intelligence, is to know the truth and to know that the truth can be known. Dominant philosophies in recent years, contrary to earlier religious and intellectual debates, have not argued the particular issue of Catholicism's claim to be true together with the evidence for this claim. Rather they have doubted the capacity of the mind's knowing anything to be true. They have denied that the very purpose of the human mind is to discover, define, and establish what is true. Refusing to take a chance that something might in fact be true, it is best, they seem to think, to make it impossible for anything to be true. That way, any position can be held with no responsibility to test it other than with power or desire.
Catholicism's claim to be true is not proclaimed in a kind of vacuum. It is a concrete faith. Catholicism's intellectual side has manifested a serious attempt, according to time and place, no less so today than ten or fifteen centuries ago, to meet the arguments that reject, on whatever basis, its truth. The new General Catechism is in part a record of these controversies and of the way the Church has responded to arguments against its own claim to truth. Any alternate version of either Christianity, religion, philosophy, or science that would claim to undermine Catholicism's own self-understanding as essentially true has been and is to be examined and responded to in terms intelligible to the matter at controversy.
In part, this intellectual effort to account for the possibility of differing versions of truth is due to the faith itself in its very content. We are told that we are to know the truth and that this same truth, nothing more, nothing less, will make us free. This is the claim we make about ourselves, so if we are logical and honest we must affirm this truth. This is not arrogance, nor any lack of respect for the views of others. Rather it is taking seriously what others claim to be their positions and the reasons for them. We must also clarify in what sense we are free because of this same truth.
Secondly, Catholicism is in its very constitution a missionary religion. Evidently all men need to know something that, without it, they do not know already about their human lot. All nations are to be taught. Whether we likes it or not, this missionary effort puts the faith before the nations. Almost always, this missionary effort, which arises from the intrinsic structure of the faith itself, will confront and challenge the nations. The nations have varying political religions and laws that themselves claim to oversee the content of truth or practice allowed for their own citizens.
The Cairo Population Conference reports stated, strikingly, that the Vatican's position was the only one from among the nations that in principle maintained that abortion was always and everywhere wrong. All others compromised, including the so-called Catholic and democratic nations. Catholicism can, at first sight, wring its hands that it is in such a minority position. Surely it cannot be right and the rest of the world wrong. Yet, in this opposition, Catholicism is implicitly asked to follow the morality of the rest of the world on the dubious principle that so many political "nay" votes cannot be wrong.
And yet, the history of the nations may well be inevitably leading to this sort of paradox, that no one is willing to acknowledge truths that are scientifically and rationally obvious and verifiable. The Church, especially when it is a minority of one, is a dangerous opponent. For in such a case different criteria of truth are clearly at work between the Church and the nations. The Holy Father's recent and brilliant Encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, spells this issue out as clearly as it has ever been analyzed in the history of region and philosophy. In Christian literature, at least, it is by no means inconceivable that the time will come, or perhaps has already come, when the nations will officially and publicly reject what is true, in spite of the evidence of truth itself. When the nations collectively "boo", as they did at Cairo, those few who present the truth, not of faith but of life, we can be sure of some ultimate issue.
On Saturday, April 3, 1779, Boswell visited Samuel Johnson. "I mentioned my having heard an eminent physician, who was himself a Christian, argue in favour of universal toleration," Boswell wrote. He maintained "that no man could be hurt by another man's differing from him in opinion. Johnson. 'Sir, you are to a certain degree hurt by knowing that even one man does not believe.' What, we ask, was Johnson's meaning here, that we are "hurt" by knowing that even one does not believe?
Samuel Johnson's rejoinder to Boswell is indeed quite surprising when we read it today. We all accept this "universal tolerance" as the only "democratic" attitude to religion. All are equal. We dare not hint that it makes much difference what we believe. Religious or philosophical diversity of opinion, we are led to understand, makes not the slightest difference in reality. Our mental faculties thus are of little worth. They can conclude to nothing, the opposite of which might not be equally true. We are so "tolerant" that nothing counts for anything. The only theory we are not tolerant about, of course, is the one that maintains that it does make a difference what we think, what we hold to be self-evident or true.
Since, in practice, we uphold nothing as true, almost all things are permitted. When all sorts of dire things follow from this view, as they inevitably do, we are necessarily tolerant or conciliatory about these results. We maintain that not merely are someone's ideas of no consequence, but no one's actions are of any consequence either. As in the case of AIDS or abortions, we systematically deny that actions have consequences. We have in principle evaporated the world of any meaning or inner coherence.
Johnson's point was, no doubt, that thoughts are the origins of our actions. When he said that we are hurt when even one man does not believe, he merely alluded to that very delicate bond with which we are all bound together in truth and goodness. We are told in revelation that we are not even to think on certain things that, if we do them, disorder our souls. The way to respond to ideas and thoughts is not to minimize their importance but to see to it that our thoughts and actions are right and true. We are not to be so naive as to think that no relation exists between what is wrong in the world and the rightness of what we think we ought to do or be.
I bring this passage of Johnson up because Catholicism in particular finds itself in a very unusual position today. I would be presumed to be brash if I were to propose that Catholicism has no intellectual enemies worthy of it anywhere on the modern scene. But this circumstance seems to be in fact the case. The situation is doubly paradoxical, I think, because from within the Church itself, this situation is hardly admitted. In fact its very truth is rejected or ignored by many Catholics, particularly intellectual ones because it involves recantation of well-publicized positions.
If we take a look at the modern popes, moreover, particularly John Paul II, we can see in Catholicism a concerted and systematic effort to explain itself in the context of the available alternatives to it. We have a Pope who is himself a major philosopher. We find papal commissions devoted to discussions with all the major and minor Protestant bodies, with Jews, with Muslims, with scientists, with social science, with the Orthodox, with eastern religions, with non-believers of varying sorts. Thus, and this is my thesis here, Catholicism has never been intellectually more coherent or, and here is the irony, culturally weaker.
What do I mean by this irony? To explain my meaning, I harken back to a passage from the letters of the novelist, Flannery O'Connor. She was responding to a friend who was apparently scandalized about so many sinners in the Catholic Church, including in high places. Evidently, in Flannery's friend's mind, this fact was a reason for disbelief of Catholicism, rather than a reason for its need. Obviously, with the recent spate of scandals throughout the clergy, we know that great shock exists in the population. There is and ought to be the greatest unease on our part that such things happen.
As an aside to this point, I have noticed that in many Masses, priests drop the washing of the fingers after the Offertory, as they apparently are now permitted by the rubrics to do. Yet, I have thought that, if we, both priests and laity, read the prayer that the priest says at this moment and listen attentively to the words he is supposed to say -- "Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me from my sins" -- this part of the rubrics is one of the last things that should be dropped. For what we are in need of is not merely fewer sins, but more clear statements of what sin is, something that, in part, John Paul II wrote the General Catechism and Veritatis Splendor to show us.
Years ago, I remember reading an observation of the British historian Christopher Dawson. He remarked that if we were in the most important cities in the world in the year 4 B.C., and we happened to read the morning paper, we would have found there no account of events that took place in a little town outside of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. I have often pondered this remark because it suggests the radically differing criteria about what is really important to us, about the difference between what we think of our world and what God thinks of it.
Even if we had been in Jerusalem on that Passover some thirty years later on which Christ was crucified, we would have probably found at most a brief notice about three criminals being crucified under orders of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Some gossip might possibly have also been recounted about certain strange activities in the Temple that required its Veil to be repaired. But all in all, not much would have been reported about the most important thing ever to happen to our race. This quiet way is, no doubt, the way God acts. The history of the City of God takes place alongside of and within the history of the nations.
To continue this mode of reflection, even the Gospel accounts of the end of the world similarly suggest that we would mostly not recognize what was going on at the end times. Not merely do we not know the day or the hour, but we do not know how to read the signs of the times that might indicate that certain prophecies or conditions are being fulfilled. People will go on marrying and giving in marriage, quite perplexed that anything should interfere with their ordinary lives.
No doubt, many things happen in our lives about which it is good for us not to know too much. We really would not like to be born knowing the definite day and hour of our death. That we do not know the day or hour is in fact a blessing that enables us to go on and participate in the activities of this world. We do not want to know ahead of time whom we will meet, know, or love in our lives as this prior information would take the adventure out of living.
One of the things we rarely discuss in polite company any more is religion. Actually, religion is seldom even preached any more. What is mostly preached, on objective analysis, is a kind of bland socialism or social concern in which the purpose of religion is mainly to make the world better. Just what the word "better" means in such a view is itself something so ill defined that "better" can mean precisely establishing things that were once considered to be definitely evil or disordered. Part of the reason for any lack of discussion about the truth of religion is that we really cannot discuss any fundamental differences seriously. We prefer not to disturb anyone. It is not to be done, of course, except for serious and mutual search for the truth.
The ecumenical movement itself, as it popularly has worked itself out, has become in many ways not so much a serious confrontation with religious differences and the importance of these differences but a kind of good fellowship in which everything is left as it was. If something is true, however, and it can be shown to be true, then we need to change our minds about it. We need to do something about our errors, about our lives based on them. I do not mean to disparage custom or historic ways of human living. But they need testing. This is why the Apostles were to be fishers of men and to go forth to all the nations.
What is almost a forbidden topic today is that of the truth of Catholisicm. The atmosphere of unlimited tolerance has brought it about that it is impolite under any circumstances to suggest that truth makes a difference in our lives and in our regimes. We pride ourselves, as I said, in thinking that differences of views about truth, including religious truth, make no difference. Just before he died, the novelist Walker Percy wrote a short essay about his religious beliefs. Percy was, to recall, a medical doctor, a philosopher, a kind of sage. He was concerned that words mean something. He felt the need to give brief and terse replies sometimes to frequently asked, but not altogether neutral questions. "However decrepit the language and however one may wish to observe the amenities and avoid offending one's fellow Americans," Walker Percy wrote, "sometimes the question which is the title of this article ('Why Are You a Catholic?') is asked more or less directly. When it is asked just so, straight out, just so: 'Why are you a Catholic?' I usually reply, 'What else is there?'"
Ever since I came across this terse remark of Walker Percy, I have been wondering about it. Percy admitted that he was being a bit flippant in making it. None the less, he was quite serious. We live in a time of the decline of ideologies. The passionate debates about Marxism are now quiet. The search is on for a new religion but it is not allowed to be Catholicism, which is supposedly proven to be simply wrong or out-of-date, however little evidence there is that this is so.
The newest candidate for "what else?" is, surprisingly, Islam itself, which is making serious inroads, even in the West. The Muslim claim is that they will grow rapidly in population and will become numerically and thus politically dominant over a demographically declining Western population caught within the logic of its own theories about the relative insignificance of incipient humnan life. At least one answer to the question "what else is there?", then, is Islam.
Paul Johnson, in an essay I have often cited, asked, after the fall of Marxism, whether "totalitarianism was dead?" He thought that in fact the same intellectual theories that gave rise to Marxism were at work in the West under different guises but to the same purposes. The notion that the ever increasingly powerful state should control the economy and society in the name of some sort of world common good has reappeared in the form of ecology and environmentalism, almost always embracing positions directly opposed to Catholicism. If we follow carefully what is said about animals, about trees, about the carrying capacity of the earth, we will begin to suspect a neo-pagan religion is at our doorsteps. It is taught everywhere in the schools and campuses. In it, individual human beings are subsumed back into a kind of abstract species and become functions of its own closed system. Ecology is propounded in the name of science but almost every one of its premises are shown to be scientifically questionable. It is a new act of faith that refuses to correct itself in the name of reason. It is itself very apocalyptic while being a harbinger of precisely those things in this world of which religious apocalypse at its best warned us.
One could go on, I suppose, listing the sundry alternate proposals that claim, in one way or another, a superior or higher understanding of man, nature, or cosmos than Catholicism. What the recent proposals have in common has been called variously their "gnostic" or "anthropocentric" first principles. Essentially, all can be reduced to some form of denial that there is a transcendent destiny to each human individual. What substitutes for this personal transcendence is usually some form of world state in which its power becomes in effect unlimited. No order of nature or man is claimed to exist so that whatever we will, is alone to have a claim on our energies and choices.
To be sure, the older philosophic attractions remain. Plato and Aristotle continue in their unChristianized forms and to that extent represent, in my view, something rather healthy. But the temptation of the philosophers remains very narrow and has behind it a long history of response, especially within Catholicism. In this sense, Thomas Aquinas remains important and active among us.
The particularly Catholic and contemporary response to all of these alternatives can be found most clearly and persuasively presented in John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, in the General Catechism, and in Veritatis Splendor, among other places. What is fascinating, in my view, is that the Church has taken great pains to articulate most clearly just what it itself holds about itself, this in the light of the various alternatives be they from other religions, from science, from ideology, from philosophy. My initial premise was Catholicism has taken all the alternatives seriously, examined them, agreed with what was reasonable and sensible, and shown its own unique claims precisely in the light of the best thought of our time.
This large-scale reworking or re-presenting of the specificly Catholic position is largely unknown, I think, not because it is not available, but because there are political and moral reasons not to examine and consider it. For it does involve a questioning of how lives are lived and states ruled. I have often wondered why in the media, in the universities and schools, in computer on-line services, and in book stores, in what is claimed to be the most uncensored of all societies, it is almost impossible easily to find those documents, books, and arguments that simply state this intelligible and articulate account of Catholicism in relation to "what else is there"? I think that at least one of the answers is that many knowingly choose not to know. That is to say, the problem is no longer really intellectual but moral and spiritual. From all we know about the faith itself, in its own self-understanding of itself, this possibility is not unanticipated.
What else is there? It still appears that what is not considered or admitted in some honest and sober manner is precisely Catholicism's understanding of man, God, and world. This response begins with the folly of the Cross, with the answer to our personal disorders and to our refusals to accept the wisdom that is in fact there and splendidly articulated in our time. Indeed, so bound are we together, we are indeed "hurt" by one man who does not believe. We do live in a world in which the alternatives to Catholicism are known and carefully examined by it. We do live in a world that has failed to find God by pursuing its own wisdom, a world that has ended up with nothing but its own choice. This is "what else" there is. The question remains, no doubt, simply, "do we want it"?
THE FULL CATHOLIC MESSAGE
After breakfast on March 14, I was sitting in our community recreation room reading the morning paper about the NCAA basketball tournament. A friend of mine who was at a table across the room brought over a copy of The Washington Times for that morning. "Take a look at this ad," he told me, showing me a glaring, full page advertisement beginning, in very bold and large print, "Why Are Catholics So Wimpy?" Well, I confess that this question echoes a frequent theme or concern of mine -- my Does Catholicism Still Exist? brings up the point in another way. How can it ever have come about, one wonders, that anyone could ever consider calling Catholics "wimpy"? The fact is that to many wimpy is how we often appear, wimpy and wishi-washy.
Catholics boldly maintain that they stand for something distinctive but those calling themselves Catholics who likewise reject what is its official teaching are seldom challenged. Bishops in their corporate capacities have positions on every imaginable public policy but practically no particular instance of deviation from teaching or moral practice, especially by an academic or public official, is addressed, save for rare cases such as that of the Bishop of Lincoln. Usually the few bishops who try to account for departures of practice or doctrine take such flack that nothing further happens; they give up knowing the other bishops will not back them. Certainly no concerted or cooperative effort of all bishops seems on the horizon.
Llewellyn Rockwell said what many think:
Christianity is now thoroughly politicized. The (Catholic) bishops and (Ralph) Reed have no trouble speaking about the importance of pro-family legislation, or the glories of religious pluralism, but they are shy about such basics as the Christian teaching on salvation. The longer the process of politicization continues, the thinner the faith gets. Political ambition causes people to water down their beliefs for the sake of gaining favor. The hazard is especially prevalent in a society with competing religions. The first stage of sell-out comes with the exaltation of political pluralism above doctrinal truth, the second stage with the denial of doctrinal truth altogether for achieving political goals (Chronicles, April, 1996).
One might note, in this context, that John Paul II's encyclical on the diversity of religions, Ut Unum Sint, took particular care to avoid this very real doctrinally minimizing tendency that Rockwell noticed.
The irony of such concerns is, I think, that there has never been a time in which the Church has been intellectually more coherent and forceful. We owe in the area of Christian intelligence an enormous debt to John Paul II. And yet, at the same time, at no time has the Church been culturally weaker. The Pope has not been followed. Nietzsche, to recall, thought Christians to be slaves and weak-souled on principle, but not even he thought that they were simply "wimpy", if there was a corresponding German word. Nietzsche thought that Christian doctrine itself, by comparison to his strong-willed, "beyond good and evil" scholar or leader, led to weakness, the turning the other cheek and all that. But wimpiness means a sort of embarrassment about what one holds. It is not just a lack of courage or knowledge, but a lack of gumption, a lack of any will to take seriously in public what one apparently stands for or, even less, to do anything about it.
The NOR advertisement was right. We do have to walk a long way to find a vibrant, forceful Catholicism presented among us in our sermons, in our media, in the way we live. The reason Mother Teresa is so effective and so much a target of the relativizers is because she is not wimpy. Except in rare cases, such non-wimpy Catholicism is not in the universities; it is not in the high schools, not in the seminaries or convents, not in many parishes, does not come out of diocesan chancery offices which are usually full of the utmost caution in things orthodox and, simultaneously, the utmost experimentalism in the things liberal or secular. Almost the only way a cleric or layman can get in ecclesial trouble today is to plead for more orthodoxy, more reverence in the Mass, even calling it a "Mass".
A vibrant Catholicism is, of course, found in the Catechism, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, and in every parish homily of John Paul II printed in L'Osservatore Romano. Calmly, Cardinal Ratzinger speaks this forceful Catholicism. We indeed found it in Flannery O'Connor or Chesterton or de Lubac. It's in Peter Kreeft, Walker Percy, Richard John Neuhaus, Ralph McInerny, Russell Hittinger, and a surprising number of scattered young intellectuals. I think of Susan Orr, Kenneth Grasso, Scott Walter. It is in Robert Sokolowski, Robert Sirico, and Joseph Fessio.
My friend, who was sympathetic to the thesis of the NOR ad, wanted to know if I had ever heard of The New Oxford Review, as evidently he never had? I explained to him its origins, that years ago I had even written a couple of essays in it. (The essay that eventually grew into my The Distinctiveness of Christianity originally appeared in the NOR [September, 1978]). He said that he had never heard of the authors mentioned except for Avery Dulles. So I said something about the various authors -- Percy, Elshtain, Noonan, Kreeft, Lasch, Lukacs, Vanauken.
Now, I suppose that one should expect an advertisement for a journal to be somewhat "cheeky", as evidently Newsweek once called the NOR. The ad is pretty blunt and to the point about what bothers its editors about the present condition of Catholicism in America; namely, there is little correlation between what one reads coming out of the Vatican and what one hears in the average parish. It is almost as if there is already an American Church independent of Rome in all things but name. The Church's teachings are not systematically, fully, or accurately presented on a regular basis to the faithful. It is not a question of the laity demanding a more liberal teaching against a resistant clergy, but mostly the opposite. The local liturgy is too often a product of free enterprise and acting; the Ordo is there to be "improved" upon. Sin is rarely spoken of, or at least not the sort of sin that Christianity has for two millennia said that our salvation depended on our avoiding.
We have, with much relief to our collective consciences, invented something called social sin that pretty much allows us to go on our own way doing what we want to do provided we support the right causes and vote the right way in elections wherein the big problems are settled by majority or by Court. All moral and political things are questions of proportion and consequences, not principle. No one can have every thing right, so if anyone gets two or three out of ten, he is not doing so bad. As a theoretic not moral position, compassion for everything reigns. Someone can still run for office as a Catholic and have a clear pro-choice voting record with no fear of ecclesial reprimand. What we hear too often in our churches in fact is warmed-over liberal culture dressed up in sort of pious language, a kind of "ethical humanism" with little grounding in any absolute principles.
Popular theologians, not the Pope who maintains the opposite, tell us that we can have no unconditional moral principles. The same Pope also inconveniently tells us that all so-called social sin is rooted in personal sin. Evidently, it is not very "pastoral" to talk of personal sin. No real examination of conscience seems evident; everyone goes to communion, even those of other communions. The correlation between doctrine and sacrament or doctrine and practice is, in effect, tenuous, if not non-existent.
By chance, the week before I had read this advertisement, I had been at a Protestant-Catholic Conference here in Washington. There I met a lawyer who has been active in many pro-life issues over the years, a very articulate and effective man. I had mentioned to him that I had seen in the Milwaukee Journal an article about the new Jesuit President of Marquette. The gist of the article was, citing several well-known Jesuit respondents, that this president-elect would probably be the last of the Jesuit presidents of Marquette, and by implication, I suppose, of most Jesuit universities. The "pool" of possible candidates is said to be quite low, so Jesuits should be prepared graciously to relinquish these traditional, but highly visible, posts. About the same time I received a letter from my own province stating in essence the same thing about principals of high schools.
The issue of declining pools and lack of vocation is almost always put in fatalistic, statistical or actuarial terms, about the inevitable decline in vocations, as if some sort of fate were ruling this diminishment of numbers. I have never heard a frank discussion of why the vocations are not there. The Archbishop of Omaha's quite sensible remarks on vocations are worth citing here:
The vocation "crisis" is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church's agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the Pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines these ministries.
I am personally aware of certain vocation directors, vocation teams and evaluation boards who turn away candidates who do not support the possibility of ordination of women or who defend the Church's teachings about artificial birth control, or who exhibit a strong piety toward certain devotions, such as the rosary. When there is a determined effort to discourage orthodox candidates from priesthood and religious life, then the vocation shortage which results is caused not by a lack of vocations but by deliberate attitudes and policies which deter certain viable candidates. And the same people who precipitate a decline in vocations by their negative actions call for the ordination of married men and women to replace the vocations they have discouraged (Social Justice Review, November/December, 1995, 164).
The list of young men who are turned away from entering declining orders because they, the young men, are too conservative and too prone to Rome, is, in my experience, quite long. The Archbishop of Omaha is right; there is no shortage of vocations as such.
The gentleman, to return to my earlier conversation, replied that the clerical administration of this Church patrimony that is the university system -- it is really owned by the Catholics who faithfully built these schools -- has let the whole matter get out of hand. What is taught in these universities has little relation to what Catholicism is about. It is time, he thought, for lay administration to take over precisely to return to a Catholic university philosophy that has generally been abandoned. I suppose this view somewhat reflects the NOR advertisement's remark that "cowardly clerics, fearful of being politically incorrect or challenging the flock or offending some stray soul, keep the full Catholic message from us. In effect we're blindfolded." I am not quite so confident myself that such lay take-over would do anything more than continue the secularization of the universities, though I am willing to be proved wrong.
Practically all universities using the name Catholic today take as their practical model what goes on in other state and secular universities for all purposes of curriculum, hiring, firing, and promotion. And in those places wherein there is some effort to emphasize the "Catholic" side of education, this emphasis generally, again with exceptions, turns out to be a Catholicism that already imitates the secular standards and not that reflected in the intelligence of the Holy Father or the central Catholic tradition. What is ironic here is that one notices of late within the Jesuits at least a distinct attitude that would want this "laicization" of the universities and schools to happen. We hear talk of a broader Jesuit vocation that would include laymen and women, families even. A cynic might see here a belated Jesuit effort to imitate the successes of Opus Dei, but in another ecclesial direction! I have had at least one superior tell me that he thought Jesuits would be mostly out of higher education fairly soon except for an odd faculty member here and there.
This lack of what I call institutional "courage" to present the full teachings and practices of the faith within its own realm has long puzzled me. Why does the most brilliant and effective Pope of our time find so few imitators on the levels of episcopal or priestly leadership? I often recall Belloc's remark that as one gets older that he increasingly worries about the human side of the supernatural Church. Things are in the hand of God. And yet, one of Christianity's most recent claims is that it should be existentially, locally effective. We have seen in the past quarter century an enormous emphasis placed on "social action" by the various bureaucracies of the Church. On content examination, this social action, however, is too often less than distinctly Christian but a very close imitation of secular liberal ideas on poverty, wealth, family, population, and the extended use of government to solve human problems.
Eric Voegelin has argued that, in the last half century, the reason we see Christians so suddenly plunging into such social action and taking their criterion from the secular world is because of a loss of faith in the transcendent. The energy that should go into a Christian life aware of the transcendent is now redirected to this-worldly enterprises as if the two things were exactly the same and never conflicted with each other. Nietzsche implied somewhat the same thing. The "death of God" was not a theory but his practical conclusion based on the way Christians acted. At first, this reasoning that there is in fact a subtle crisis of faith among believing Christians might surprise us. After all, it is not a modern idea that Christianity should affect our lives and aid others. This is already in Scripture, in Augustine. What is new is the reliance on the world not reason or revelation for a criterion of what Christianity is.
But what I think we forget, in considering the wimpiness or worrisome loss of faith of Catholics, is the enormous fear of, or perhaps, prejudice against a coherent, persuasive Catholicism in our culture, one that is pervasive and mostly unacknowledged. It cannot be called simply innocent or ignorant. One might, in fact, argue that accommodation of so many Christians to essentially secular values has partially lulled the enemies of Catholicism in particular. If we had a Church in this country that obviously believed in its transcendent purpose and its coherence, we would be in serious public difficulties. Chesterton's famous remark that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but tried and found difficult can be improved on. The Christianity that is not found wanting is not found easily.
The primary worry about Catholicism today is precisely its increasing intellectual coherence and plausibility. Great efforts are taken, even by Catholics, to prevent this unified and well-grounded position to be presented in any but the narrowest fora. No graduate of a Catholic or secular university today, even those of the best of wills, could pass the most minimal test about what Catholicism holds about itself, this in spite of the Catechism which has been studiously avoided in the universities and too often in the high schools, seminaries, and parishes, too little encouraged by the bishops.
There is some talk of persecution for those few who retain clear orthodoxy. I often reflect on Augustine's words: "As the end of the world approaches, errors increase, terrors multiply, iniquity increases; the light, in short ... is very often extinguished; this darkness of enmity between brethren increases...." We sometimes wonder why the Holy Father speaks so much about martyrdom, as he did in Veritatis Splendor, a document devoted precisely to the widespread deviation from the truth within the Church. And it is a Christian paradox that it is the good and the innocent who suffer most from iniquity's growth. Earlier generations of Catholics asked nothing more than to be left in peace by the state, to live their lives in this world in quiet and virtue. But it seems to be true that Catholics will be required to accept more and more of the principles of modern life at variance with that is handed down in tradition. They will not be left alone to live in peace. Neither Socrates nor Christ, to recall, were left alone, nor can their disciples expect it for long.
Josef Pieper wrote, in words that seem quite contemporary, that "it is a liberal illusion to assume that you can consistently act justly without ever incurring risks: risks for your immediate well-being, the tranquillity of your daily routine, your possessions, your good name, your honor -- in extreme instances possibly even more: liberty, health, and life itself" (Josef Pieper -- An Anthology, 1989, p. 67). Have we been living in this "liberal illusion" for so long, I wonder, that we no longer notice that we are not acting justly? that we are not taking risks because we do not in practice believe, as Nietzsche suspected?
Let me go back to the NOR advertisement, in conclusion. For all its brashness, I think that it put its finger on a widespread opinion about Catholicism today. No one can tell much difference between them and anyone else. This accommodation would be a good thing were it not for the haunting suspicion that the vibrant Catholicism that the ad intimated ought to be among us would not be at all welcomed. Ironically, our mediocrity has protected us. A Catholicism that claims to be true, that claims even that there is such a thing as good and as true, that spells it out as the Holy Father does, in clear, philosophical and human terms, will be bitterly combated. The other side of this equation, if that is what it is, is also true. An honestly, accurately presented Catholicism, one that knows about science and politics, about economics and psychology, about what is beautiful and what is true, is most appealing and attractive. It is this Catholicism that is not allowed to be offered and presented in any wide-ranging fashion. If there were any sort of real indication of that vitality leading to conversion and a more honorable way of life on a wide scale, all the forces of the culture and the state would eventually be arrayed against it.
If we read attentively Veritatis Splendor, Ut Unum Sint, Evangelium Vitae, or Crossing the Threshold of Hope, it becomes clear that Catholicism is making every effort to carry out honest and thorough considerations of what is right and true in other religions, with philosophy, science, with any source of or claim to knowledge of right living. The lesson of Marxism should always be kept in mind that however powerful the forces of evil and disorder are, ultimately they do not conform to the human condition and are in themselves weak, though they can do much damage when allied to deviant human will.
To the question, "Why Are Catholics So Wimpy?", I think it proper to remember that the real question today is not so much about the Catholics, especially clerical and intellectual Catholics, who do not believe or whose faith is weak. Rather, the question is why are the forces arrayed against Catholicism, and more broadly, truth and good itself, so weak and incoherent, and yet so culturally strong? Why is it that Catholicism is quite willing to talk with all systems on their own terms in any responsible forum, whereas every effort is made, especially academically and in the public forum, to prevent a clear and adequate statement of Catholicism? The unexpected advertisement of the NOR, for all its brashness, does alert us to the right questions and issues about the status of Catholicism in our society.
TO KNOW THE THINGS THAT ARE
On What Is Not Given in the American Catholic Academy
"I am sure that the Bible is being secularized, being treated as literature, in many of the academies. I remember that as long ago as the 1930's an edition of the Bible was offered to the general public under the title, The Bible Designed to Be Read as Living Literature, something like that. Well, I know that it is happening, that many people read the Bible without any notion that it is in some sense the Word of God."
"Philosophy is not the reading of books; philosophy is not the contemplation of nature; philosophy is not the phenomenology of personal experience; philosophy is not its history. These are indispensable tools aiding a man to come to know the things that are. But that knowing is precisely knowing and nothing else. We were once given this, not too long ago, in the American Catholic academy. With few honorable exceptions, we are given it no longer."
Modernity was originally argued in the name of reason, of generally autonomous or pure reason. This argument claimed, contrary to Plato and Aquinas, but in conformity with Epicurus, that we could know that the gods did not exist, that they had communicated nothing to us, that we can receive no rewards or punishments from them by our pleadings. In short, we are alone. We create our own morals and our own polities, even our own natures. Our glory is to defy the gods and their commands. The Kingdom of God thus became not a transcendent gift but a political project claiming to absorb all our attention and energy.
What was said to be from the gods was in fact considered to be an impediment to the achievement of wealth and abundance for all. The justification most commonly employed for rejecting the gods was that they were incompetent in the sphere of human compassion and need. But reason as merely an instrument to achieve goals, whatever they were made to be in our own minds, still seemed to justify ends that were not just or right, a distinction that persisted in spite of its being absorbed into a theory of human autonomy. The commandments of the gods were broken in the name of a kind of counter-justice, one that originated not in the gods or nature but in ourselves. In order to achieve these ends that were not just but still were highly desirable, it was not possible to re-fashion reason which stubbornly found contradictions in the very name of autonomous justice. But it was possible to deny that reason could know anything other than its own wants, a proposition itself something of a contradiction to reason. A spiritual power that claimed that it did not know evidently seemed to know something.
For the success of this modern project of complete human autonomy, the first thing that needed to be cut off was any avenue to the gods, the next was any avenue to reason. We are to be left with what we choose, presupposed to nothing but our own power of choosing. We maintain that the ultimate power to decide what is good and what is evil is now in our hands. Natural laws and unnatural sins are overruled by the autonomous political power bent on refashioning the man given by nature. If we do find evil things, they arise in modernity mainly from those who claim that God has spoken to us or from that reason tells us something for certain about ourselves, that there are absolute truths and standards. Behind the great contemporary outcry against "fundamentalism" lies the fear of autonomous reason that something other than itself exists. Socrates' rule that it is better to suffer evil than to do it likewise is specifically overthrown. Given a choice between suffering evil and doing it, we do it, because we are the ones who decide by our actions what is good. Suffering as such has no transcendent meaning, no capacity to witness to a standard higher than human will.
We are told that there is no destiny, no immortality, no providence or at least none that could contradict what we choose. Our nobility does not consist in defying the gods since there are no gods, though we do defy what we are told that the gods have revealed to us. We positively reject them in rejecting their so-called commands. We act out our own wills to prove that the gods are not gods. We have no king but Caesar. Our political history consists in controverting one another after we have deified ourselves, since will is crossed by will. No absolute truth exists to arbitrate between will and will. If the Bible, the word from outside of ourselves, is, as Richard Wilber says it has become, merely "literature", not standard or authority, then it is not the Word of God. We study the Bible for reasons for which the Bible was neither composed nor preserved. If the Bible is literature, it will do us no damage, nor will it give us any authoritative guidance.
It is widely accepted though rarely acknowledged that, in terms of content analysis, little study of orthodox Roman Catholicism as such is found in Catholic universities, with the exception of what we find in the newer and smaller schools. If we compare the required credits of today with those of fifty years ago, it is clear that we demand practically nothing, two to four courses, usually. Sometimes one has the impression that the content of Roman Catholic studies programs in state or Protestant colleges is more accurate in presenting the essence of Catholicism than in the Catholic colleges. The fact is, in any case, that, numbers-wise, most Catholic university students in the United States and Europe are in state schools. Largely because their tax monies went only to state institutions, the vast majority of middle-class Catholic students have been mostly priced out of the private school market. Few of the student-aid programs in Catholic universities are aimed at Catholic students as such; paradoxically in this area, the "poor" or diversity students have replaced the "Catholic" as the primary beneficiaries of such schools' private aid package. It seems a further fact, again with a few exceptions, that most Newman Clubs in public universities are, in content, parallel to the situation in the Catholic colleges. The orderly, careful presentation of what exactly the Church holds as an appeal to mind, such as that found in the Summa or in the Catechism, would come as simply startling to the average student who has never heard it so presented. It is not that that such a student is necessarily hostile to this content, but simply that he has never heard it explained or been asked to consider its content and coherence.
Were there, for instance, an objective national examination to ascertain whether students in existing theology and philosophy classes knew the bare minimum contents of what Catholicism teaches about itself -- one could use the Catechism as a guide -- it would no doubt be discovered that the situation was worse than dismal. Increasingly, students themselves know this situation and lament it. Recently, I asked a very bright young senior at a college that still calls itself Catholic if he thought the students at his college received even the barest minimum of accurate knowledge about Catholicism. He laughed and said, "No, of course not. There is only one course in our school that even professes to be about Roman Catholicism and that is taught by someone who I am sure is a heretic." Certain colleges, in what appears to many to be a lack of courage, have taken to describing themselves as schools in or from the Roman Catholic tradition. This wording constitutes a not so subtle way of maintaining a minimum amount of honesty about what is actually taught in the classes while at the same time not admitting any objective evaluation of the content of this tradition as actually taught in the school..
Theology, even when it is still called theology, has been replaced in practice and often in name by "religious studies", which means that one is as likely to have a course in Buddhism as in the Trinity. The object of study is not Catholicism, but all religions. Indeed, multiculturalism, not the universal culture, has become the criterion of theological education. Roman Catholic theology and philosophy, something that can by no means be adequately presented in the one or two required courses in philosophy or "religious studies", exist within a curriculum in which Islam and Catholicism have more or less equal billing with Marxism and deconstructionism. No one, presumably, would think of studying, say, Saudi Arabia, without studying the Koran, but we often find those who would quite innocently follow a study abroad program in Europe to admire Chartres in its 800th year of existence without an accurate clue about the meaning of the Blessed Mother.
At the academic level, furthermore, little agreement is found about what Catholicism is. No authority other than internal is allowed to decide what it is and what it is not. Catholicism is what is taught to be Catholicism. In academic institutions, hostility is manifested to Catholicism's ability authoritatively to define itself and objectively present this teaching as true and intellectually defensible. That articulating this authority and its grounding was the purpose for which religious institution were established is not recognized in any positive or constitutional sense. In a moment of madness, one almost longs for a return of interdicts and excommunications if only accurately to identify what is in fact Catholic and to be maintained as Catholic. It does not take an overly bright student to be aware that contradictory and incompatible positions are being proposed as Catholic in different classes and in comparison with what he might know coming from the Church itself.
Thus, one does not have to be too perceptive to know that Catholicism cannot really be everything it is taught to be and still maintain its own coherent and consistent authority. With more than a little irony, we can now see in retrospect how and why these instruments of interdict and excommunication arose in the first place -- namely, because certain professors and writers denied or obscured what was true. Such formal canonical instruments were established, as was in part episcopal authority itself, to protect the faithful from deviant intellectuals. There may be another way to accomplish this same purpose -- John Paul II has in fact managed to go over the heads of the universities with his careful and brilliant analysis of the truths of the faith and the philosophy that supports it. But at the actual university level, nothing seems evident. Ralph McInerny's proposal to establish a university through television is clearly a step in the direction of bypassing or at least counteracting the confusing diversity of what passes as Catholicism in the academies. Perhaps the way to go for the American episcopacy is to encourage the establishment of more smaller and coherent colleges and let the present schools go their own ways, which the massive decline in religious vocations seems to portent in any case.
As it is, since little or nothing is done by official Catholic sources to establish whether what is being taught in the area doctrine and morals in the schools follows official Church teachings, it is assumed at the public level that every thing that is said to be Catholic is in fact Catholic. Anyone who hints otherwise seems to usurp episcopal prerogative. If the bishop is silent, there can be no problem. It is considered divisive even to intimate that what is being taught is in any way erroneous, no matter what it is. Tenure and academic freedom have come to guarantee in practice that what is taught as Catholic is, by that very fact, what is Catholic in the universities, whatever it is. Those in ecclesial authority who make no inquiries or who do nothing to suggest there is any problem are understood to accept the status quo. Officially silence rules.
Church law, in any case, is so unweildly and so easily misunderstood in this area that it is practically useless anyhow. No one can blame a bishop for wanting to avoid unpleasant publicity. The practical structure of Catholic organization implies, however, that when bishops or superiors do nothing, this inactivity means, in practice, that any non-officially-sanctioned opinion in the schools or media is by that very fact assumed to be compatible with Catholicism; otherwise it would have been sanctioned. Since it is the bishop's job to care for the faith and nothing is forthcoming, things must be fine. Anyone who suggests otherwise is the one at fault. Criteria of loyalty to the institution or uncharitableness to individuals take the place of objective accounts of the truth or falsity of what is being taught or practiced.
True "Catholicism" as it appears in the schools, thus, comes to have little consistent public content and takes the shape of what is taught or proposed. It mirrors the liberalism of the schools themselves. Indeed, Catholicism is not taught but is "proposed" as if it were a hypothetical problematic searching for some future form. Another graduate of a Catholic college now working overseas told me that the local missionaries there held that the Catechism was "trash". One wonders about the content of their counter-sources, about what it is they are doing or teaching. What would anyone who thought the Catechism was "trash" be teaching in its place? We find many indications that Catholicism is taught as if it is something other than what it says of itself -- this at a time when what it says of itself at the papal level is extraordinarily persuasive, brilliant, and philosophically grounded.
Individual teachers, no doubt, are still found who will account for the central Catholic tradition, though any new teachers who hold these things are difficult to be hired or, if hired, to acquire tenure. A young professor recently, after reading Avery Dulles' critical remarks to the Catholic Theological Society, observed that he would like to say many of the same things but if he did, he would never get tenure at his school. Students, on the other hand, are increasingly unhappy with the kind of exclusive radical and politically correct gospel to which they are subjected in many departments, not just theology and philosophy. English and history are often among the worst. That is, students are not buying what is being taught. Just as there is a newer and younger group in the secular order rejecting the liberal enthusiasms of the now aging and out-of-date 60's and 70's generations, so younger clergy and seminarians worry the established clerical version of the same outmoded movements in their religious forms.
Still, there is almost no place where the intellectual revolution that is John Paul II is either known or confronted in any systematic fashion. What is striking in fact is the lack of any serious study of this reality. One hears rumors that at least some bishops, reminded again and again by the Holy Father of their responsibility to teach the truth of the faith at every level, are bothered by the condition of the universities, but nothing serious has thus far appeared other than a few quiet meetings. The Holy Father himself, however, still retains his remarkable charisma of being able to reach over the heads of media and universities into the heart of many young people in our time. The Holy Father has produced one of the most amazing and coherent corpus of teachings in the history of the Church and of human thought. We will, no doubt, be remembered by posterity as an academic generation who were alive when the greatest intellectual experience in Church history took place and many of us did not even notice it, except perhaps to oppose it.
One might say, I suppose, that local bishops really do not want to know what is being taught in the name of Roman Catholicism in the local colleges. They know it is a can of worms and have too many other problems. Unlike European bishops, our bishops are a distinctly unacademic lot. One can wonder, however, if many of their other problems do not arise because of a long neglect in this area, one that affects even their own ability to understand the faith and their faithful's ability to practice it. Bishops must know in some degree the extent in which even their most educated laity are intellectually unevangelized in the past quarter century. The rapid rise of evangelism in our country seems to make the same graphic point that the rise of the Pentecostals in Latin America makes.
When a question of orthodoxy comes up in some unavoidable fashion, moreover, what seems to happen, if anything, is that the local ordinary, after being prodded by irate laymen or parents or students, calls up the local university or college president who, in turn, assures him that all is well and that the rumors are exaggerated, usually by some hapless conservative. The ordinary makes no further objective analysis of his own but goes back to his busy schedule. The school goes on its way under protection of academic freedom comforted that the local ordinary has no official problems with what it is doing. However, one would think, reading the documents of the Church and knowing its stormy history, that the very first person interested in what passes for Roman Catholicism as presented in the colleges, Protestant, Catholic, and state, would be the local bishop. He has a vested interest in seeing that what is described as Catholicism is in fact what is presented as such. The very idea of such organizations called "Catholics For Choice", for instance, seems like nothing so much as a violation of copyright or patent laws. But the name is allowed to stand and its members are not excommunicated, so it appears in the press as a viable Catholic "option".
We know there is some attention to Ex Corde Ecclesiae by a few bishops, but almost invariably the solution of any problem is left in the hands of those who have the problem. There is evidently discord among the bishops themselves about the extent of the problem and what might be done. Students and parents have, in the Code of Canon Law, a right and an obligation to know whether what is taught in the name of or as a description of Catholicism is accurate or not. There is nothing necessarily wrong or unhealthy, of course, about being exposed to descriptions of Catholicism that are in fact widely off the mark, except when there is nothing else presented by way of contrast or correction. St. Thomas' Summa, in fact, insisted on dealing directly with errant positions precisely as a method to teach the true position.
Catholic students who went to public schools at one time regularly had to study the Baltimore Catechism. Bishops required this study, in fact. That is, when what is presented as Catholicism is seriously deficient or erroneous, the local bishop has some responsibility to provide an alternate program and suggest that Catholic students have an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to know what is the Church's understanding of itself on basic issues. No doubt the most interesting and healthy thing that could happen would be for some brave bishop who has actually learned what is taught in a college in his diocese to insist that Catholic university students, even those who get credit for religion or philosophy courses in the local Catholic college, for the good of their souls, also take a course under his direction, one based on what the Church teaches. With today's media facilities, this is probably feasible. For all the talk about Vatican II restoring the episcopacy, one would have to conclude that in this area of what colleges actually teach in courses about Roman Catholicism, the episcopacy is little in evidence. Implicitly, it seems to accept what is being presented in the colleges as Catholic, no matter whether it agree with the teaching authority of the Church or not.
At the same time, perhaps because of an unacknowledged awareness that students in fact know very little of the rich Catholic intellectual tradition, or know that they cannot find it in the university, we are beginning to hear from various sources proposals to institute, of all things, Catholic academic programs within Catholic colleges, something that at first sight sounds like squaring the circle. Even Catholic schools are beginning indirectly to acknowledge that they have not been teaching Catholic things in any adequate fashion. This proposal is designed in part to appeal to wealthy Catholics who have been turned off by the acknowledged poor record of Catholic colleges to identify and foster that for which they were founded. But unfortunately, the proposal generally looks to the same administrators and faculty, who were responsible for the present condition of Catholic studies in the first place, to implement the mew programs. Generally speaking, as I have mentioned, Roman Catholic theology is no longer taught, but in its stead appears something called "Religious Studies" in which a gentleman's acquaintance with everything from Buddhism to Animism, from Luther to the Koran, is taught in a kind of liberal free market of religious ideas, not that there is anything wrong with accurate knowledge of Animism or the Koran. Roman Catholic theology is rarely if ever taught as demonstrably true within the intellectual tradition we inherit from Augustine or Aquinas. It does not appear as something that does deal, by comparison, with whatever truth is found in other religions and philosophies.
In a too little known essay in Modern Age, Frederick Wilhelmsen reflected on what he considered the greatest faults of Catholic schools in the last half-century, namely their voluntarily giving up their own most effective scholastic intellectual tradition in favor of "great books". In the meantime, the great books themselves have been undermined by multiculturalism and no longer bear the burden they were supposed to have carried as a replacement for scholastic thought. The current ideologies are nothing so orderly and rationalistic as Marxism or enlightenment liberalism, but rather they doubt the very powers of the intellect itself -- the establishment of which, incidently, was almost the very first issue to which the old scholastic method in the colleges, as Wilhelmsen remarked, addressed itself.
At first sight, it is puzzling for many to figure out just why Catholic colleges went the way they did, downplaying rather than emphasizing their Catholic uniqueness. There are many opinions on this score. In once sense, I think, a the major step was Msgr. John Tracy Ellis' famous article on "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life", back in the early 1960's. That article, paradoxically, was an attack on what was considered to be the mediocrity of the then just rising Catholic colleges, a mediocrity hotly disputed by Wilhelmsen in his essay. The method to decide this presumed mediocrity was something that has since become the main instrument for the secularizing of Catholic colleges, namely, the desire for prestige, defined as the universities define prestige -- that is, by articles in prestigious journals, professors from prestigious colleges, books by prestigious presses, membership in prestigious organizations.
One can excuse a certain amount of vanity in academics, I suppose. But it eventually becomes clear that this prestige criterion eventually ends up by changing the structure and purpose of the Catholic university without changing its name or initially its conception of itself. By giving up the scholastic tradition or, better, by not developing it within its own genius, Catholic institutions in practice accepted the terms of the modern project, only to find out too late that this project was somehow opposed to the academic teaching of Catholicism. The cynic might say that we now have great universities but no Catholic university, the latter being something that the modern liberal thought was impossible in any case. Government money, hiring policies, and evaluation criteria have made such universities prefer to be "universities" rather than Catholic universities.
No doubt there is nothing wrong with a desire for excellence. The problem is in the day to day understanding of how this excellence is defined in a Catholic world and in the culture of modernity. One cannot simply imitate the style and sources of modernity at every level and expect to retain one's own tradition. What we need is a new center of intellectual witness that really does say something else but what can be found in a rather uniform modern university system. That unique tradition has to have its own voice and its own content. A Catholic university will not be ashamed to teach its own tradition as true, will not hesitate to hire and publish those who can articulate this position. For this effort we need the courage of our own convictions; we need in fact something of the intellectual depth and enterprise that John Paul II has demonstrated to us again and again in all of his work. Though this approach will not accord with the prestige of the secular universities, still it will be recognized as itself, as standing for what it professes about its own intellectual tradition.
Today, young Catholic professors who know and love the tradition -- they come from surprising places -- are often in the diaspora; they cannot be hired or promoted in their natural homes in the Catholic universities. This is not all bad, of course, since, as I mentioned, most Catholic university students are not in Catholic universities. A Catholic student with a spark of inquisitiveness often only needs to find one person, even in some out of the way place, to make a difference. A chance reading of Cicero, after all, changed Augustine's life in some out of the way reach of Empire. The fact is, as I have often suggested, that intellectually Catholicism itself has never been stronger or culturally weaker. Whether existing universities "in the Catholic tradition" will make much difference in restoring the Catholic intellect remains to be seen. The fact is today that other institutions and media make universities less important particularly when they have nothing unique to present.
Let me close by returning to Wilhelmsen's reflections on his own early education before World War II:
The seal of a Jesuit education was eighteen hours of philosophy, the study of which was constituted by a rigorous and systematic education in the scholastic tradition, beginning with logic and usually ending with ethics.... In the still ghetto-dominated Catholicism of the times, the post-immigrant inferiority complex that plagued the Church in America disappeared within the walls of Jesuit schools. We were the best educated men in the nation and we knew it. ... There was little, if any, of that hankering after the Ivy League that often troubled many of our WASP brothers in academia. Not only was our Church right, but we had the reasons to prove it.
In retrospect, such reflections cannot be any longer written off as triumphalism or as some outmoded understanding of an historic culture. Rather they recall what was given up and not developed, tools and methods and principles that we no longer know or teach but which remain valid. Under the inspiration of the work of John Paul II, they are there to be recalled or, more likely, to build anew, beginning in small, unprestigious places the careful intellectual work that our culture so greatly needs.
THE PERSON FROM WITHIN:
THE FOUNDATIONS OF SOCIAL TEACHINGS
In the modern world, the alternatives to Catholicism almost always take the form of a social theory or program that promises a radical improvement in the human condition. This projected improvement is to come either through the reform of something outside of the inner soul or will of man, in his institutions and his environment or through his subjective will with no relation to any objective order. As I have pointed out, there is something logical in this alternate social program, both because it is a fact that religion has some particular effect, some influence on the world and because the most subtle alternative to God is going to be a counter city, a City of Man, as St. Augustine called it, something that at first sight will claim to have the power to correct mankind's ills.
John Paul II in his major Address in Santo Domingo quite clearly has understood the import of this issue:
These days are witnessing a cultural crisis of unheard-of proportions. It is certain that the cultural substratum of the present has a good number of positive values, many of them the result of evangelization; however, at the same time, it has eliminated basic religious values and introducted deceptive ideaswhich are not acceptable from the Christian viewpoing.
The absence of these basic Christian values from modern culture has not only obscured the transcendent dimension ... at the same time, it is a major cause of the social disenchantment in which this crisis of culture has developed. In line with the autonomy introducted by rationalism, today there is a tendency to base values most of all on subjective social consent which frequently leads to positions which are even contrary to the natural moral law.
The religious values that remain have been cut off from their spiritual roots and alternative structures of life come from an autonomous reason and will subject to nothing but itself.
These types of proposed correction, either restructuring society or leaving the will no criterion but itself, however, will always have something missplaced about them. They will miss the heart of human dignity and the drama of human choice and its object wherein all real change in the world ultimately originates. Here, I want to suggest in general why the Catholicism insists that man does not live by bread alone, even if he needs bread, and I want to show how, in the latest statement of the Church on this issue, the Encyclical Centesimus Annus, this priority is consistently formulated to take into account both the spiritual and the political and economic dimensions of man.
During the years I was in Rome, I had the pleasure of knowing a fellow Jesuit, Roger Heckel, whom the Holy Father appointed to be the Secretary of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace. He was an Alsatian, a man who later became a bishop in Strassbourg. He was unfortunately killed in an automobile accident at a relatively early age. He wrote a number of brilliant things for the Commission. To begin these considerations on how we should live, which I think flow naturally from the implications of the General Catechism, that is, from a coherent presentation of what the faith holds, I want to cite something from Bishop Heckel as I think he comes close to the heart of how Catholicism looks on the political and social life of man.
"What is true in the reciprocal interaction between the quality of human person and that of institutions is all the more fruitful when we are able to recognize the priority of the ethical and spiritual dimension, human transcendence," Heckel wrote.
The development of the moral and ethical life, however "seems unfortunately always to be left behind" (Redemptor Hominis, #15). This gives rise to the practical urgency, the permanent and fundamental necessity to strengthen the human person from within. This is the proper task of the Church whose "social doctrine" takes on life only when it is presented by morally and spiritually mature consciences.
Already here is stressed the emphasis that will be found in every historical document and teaching of Catholicism that the inner life of man causes and shapes the exterior life, including the economic and political life. And there is a "reciprocal" relationship. Good polities will assist this same inner life; bad ones will cause harm. But in no case is man determined by these external orders.
Religion has been called, in a famous phrase, the "opium of the people." But it has also been held to be the "foundation" of public order. In the first case, religion is depicted as a distraction of men from the "important" things that they were called on to do,. These important things, it was said, had to do with the construction and reconstruction of the worldly city to be a fit place for human living and habitation. the sources of this fashioning of the human city were said to belong exclusively to man and his own powers. Anything from outside man, including any divine influence, was said to be "alienating."
In the second case, religion was itself a civic project. It had no transcendent purpose in itself but was seen to be a necessary way to maintain order among those citizens who could not be exptected to understand the need for law and order from their own resources. To propitiate the gods substituted among the people for the knowledge of how to rule among the philosophers. Religion in the case of the non-philosopher filled in for what thought or virtue could not do for them. In this sense, religion did not "distract" men from their earthly duties, but incited them to fulfill such obligations even when they did not understand them. The philosophers themselves did not believe in the civic religion itself, but they recognized its civil utility.
Political philosophy has long wrestled with its most central question -- namely, what is the best regime? But in the best authors, this question was seen to be resolutely answered in a negative fashion. The best regime did not and could not exist as an actual state without refashioning man or submitting him to such a control that human life would be practically impossible. The impossibility of the best city led to the actual or imperfect cities as the real situation of mankind. The most important result of philosophic reflections on the best regime was that politics was essentially "limited." there were things that could not be achieved by politics. There were aspects of man, indeed the highest ones, that transcended the political order. Freedom, in its highest sense, meant the possibility of pursuing these higher things without necessarily neglecting the ordinary things.
The note of all healthy political thinking, consequently, is its abiding awareness of this sense of limitation. Politics ought to be politics, but it ought not to be anything else but itself. Certain things could rightly be done in the political and economic orders, but there were things that could not be achieved. And this implied no defect in politics, but rather implied that it knew its own limitations, knew what it was. When in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John were forbidden to preach the Good News, they politely replied that this was one prohibition that the civil authorities did not have within their competence because their message was not limited to nor did it originate in the category of politics.
The uniqueness of the New Testament in political philosophy is not its attention to the things of God. All classic religions and philosophies, all ancient cities, both Jerusalem and Athens, recognized some sort of public due to the divinity, usually manifested in the form of civic liturgies or ceremonies. The New Testament is not, moreover, a treatise in political science or economic doctrine. No doubt, there are things in the New Testament that would cause special attention to be placed on political or economic affairs -- we recall that Christ had the apostles pay taxes to Caesar, that St. Paul did not hesitate to use Roman judicial proceedings to defend himself, that the poor were always to be with us.
However, the New Testament is not primarily a teaching about the structure or constitutions of the civil order. It is a teaching about salvation in any political order. And if we recall that St. Paul himself was probably executed under Nero, certainly one of the world's most unlovely rulers, we will not forget that he admonished the Romans that all authority, even Nero's such as it was, came from God. We can assume, of course, that St. Paul did not think that Nero was some sort of Platonic philosopher-king. If we wish to examine rule and the forms of rule, the relation of the ruled to the rulers, the nature of citizenship and authority, we do not go to the New Testament, but to the philosophers, to the lawyers, to the experience of men of wisdom, and to practical knowledge.
The purpose of the New Testament then was not to explain the things of Caesar, even while it acknowledged that there were indeed such civic things that it was the purpose of thought and experience to discover. The New Testament did not intend to substitute itself for what man could figure out by himself, thought it did imply that there were indeed d things even perhaps political things like the true nature of reward and punishment, that men could not ultimately figure out for themselves. The fact that the New Testament does recognize things of Caesar is, indeed, one of its chief claims for its own credibility. But its religious purpose did have the effect of limiting Caesar to those things only that belonged to Caesar, which things were learned primarily from experience and the philosophers.
If the purpose of the New Testament was to teach man about is ultimate, not political, destiny, it did not imply that there was no connection whatsoever between these two purposes. *the New Testament ever treated man as a whole in which all human actions and deeds fit together, including man's relation to God and to the polity. Aristotle ad already distinguished between contemplative happiness and political happiness. For Aristotle, the civil society did have a legitimate purpose and form, the ultimate purpose of which was to enable men eventually to participate in those things that belonged properly to the philosophy of life.
The active virtues were required, moreover, for the contemplative ones, but both were proper to man's condition. It was in this contemplative life, that Aristotle held was more divine than human, however, that the higher questions of the immortality of the soul and the transcendent nature of man resided. It was to these questions that revelation primarily addressed itself so that in defining their proper nature, man was freed form the temptation of building his own heaven on earth by his own powers. In this sense, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body completes questions asked but unanswered by political living and philosophy.
"One cannot revolt against God without revolting against reason," Eric Voegelin has written. It has been the Catholic tradition in social thought, following Aquinas, that there is a right order of things that includes revelation and reason, the one supports and understands the other. The disordered political society -- and there are many forms of disorder of soul and polity -- may in fact be the sort of actual sate in which most real men, most of the time, have ever lived. Utopia, as St. Augustine realized, is not a Christian concept, yet it brings up the question of the exact location of the highest things even when they cannot be achieved in this world. We will never have perfect political order, though, to be sure, some political orders will be better or worse than others. It is important, even religiously important, to know these differences and their consequences.
Salvation in the Catholic sense can be found and achieved in any existing political order, even the worst one. Likewise, it is quite possible to lose one's soul in the best and most just of historically existing political societies. Catholicism is not "individualistic" in the rigid philosophic sense, but it does teach that we are responsible for our souls even when salvation is a gift. Political and economic life in this sense is not therefore frivolous, not something that makes no difference to our ultimate good and goal.
Moreover, there is no "collective" salvation that ultimately would place our transcendent fate on the shoulders of reasons modern political heresy from Rousseau is to postulate that our ills lie in the structures and system and now, as St. Augustine following the teaching of genesis, knew, in our souls, in our wills. E. F. Schumacher has written in this regards:
Some people are no longer angry when told that restoration must come from within; the belief that everything is "politics" and that radical rearrangement of the "system" will suffice to save civilization is no longer held with the same fervor as it was even twenty-five years ago.
This abiding truth that the reform of the polity attends the reform of the soul was found in The City of God and remains a basic truth for the understanding of Christian thought about the greater public order. It is also the ultimate grounding for the familiar Christian teaching that even in economic or social matters, everyone should seek to do what he is capable of doing.
In his Puebla Address, John Paul II wrote:
The Church's action in earthly matters such as human advancement, development, justice, the rights of the individual, is always intended to be at the service of man; and of man as she sees him in the Christian vision of the anthropology that she adopts. She therefore does not need to have recourse to ideological systems in order to love, defend and collaborate in the liberation of man: at the center of the message of which she is the depositary and herald she finds inspiration for acting in favor of brotherhood, justice, and peace, against all forms of domination, slavery, discrimination, violence, attacks on religious liberty and aggression against man, and whatever attacks life.
What John Paul II said here was that Catholicism at its center contained its own revelational resources for dealing with what man is in his dignity, for understanding what violated this same dignity. However much reason and experiential politics may go wrong, these sources remain true and in tact for their own purposes, purposes that indirectly at least also serve the order found in reason.
That there is an ultimate correspondence between this revelational teaching in so far as it touches human conduct in this world and what good men have learned is the classic doctrine that faith and reason do not contradict each other. On the other hand, these are not exactly the same sources except in the sense that both arise, though in different ways, from the same transcendent source. It is quite possible to have religious presence in quite disordered societies, to draw even in such dire places order and inspiration from prayer, suffering, and penance. Change in disordered societies will seldom be easy of rapid, and must begin and continue at the deepest levels of human personhood. This is also the teachings of the best philosophers like Plato and aristotle who do deal with both the order of the soul and the order of polity.
For Catholicism, freedom of religion has meant, among other things, the freedom to teach its own doctrines and receive its own sacraments in any civil polity. The twentieth century has been unique in that it is the first century to develop political systems that claim and enforce complete control of man including control of his beliefs and his thoughts. Catholicism has seen, as have many philosophers and men of common sense, that this claim implies that politics is its own justification.
This position means that in modern thought, there is a claim to be able to explain all the disorders in society ana establish a perfect order depending on nothing other than man's own powers. From the very beginning of its existence, Catholicism has been confronted with the idolatry of the state. What is unique in modern times is both the powers available to the state to enforce its idolatrous claim and the intellectual apparatus to make it plausible.
The practice of Catholicism, thus, finds itself involved at two levels. On the one level, it is a teaching of the limits of man, limits that conform with his being, but limits that do not deny man's essential goodness or his mission to use all his powers, including his political ones, to establish a more human civilization. Too, there an and are many civil orders that display a wide variety of form and ethical priorities. In itself, this diversity is not bad but something to be expected and encouraged.
While Catholicism is realistically concerned with the right ordering of the civil order, this right ordering is not its basic task. Its primary task concerns those things that are revealed to it about man's nature, destiny, and the spiritual ways to reach his salvation. Politics in this sense can utterly fail, while man can succeed. The members of the ultimate City of God or City of Man, as St. Augustine taught, can come from any existing civil society.
The basic Catholic teaching about politics lies in the phrase in the New Testament that admonishes men to "seek first the Kingdom of God." This priority is by no means in conflict with the love of neighbor. But it is a priority that limits politics. A politics that is not limited to its own competency is a politics that rivals the Kingdom of God and offers men a choice between itself and God. The seriousness with which we must take this possible claim of the state to substitute itself for God is manifested in many areas -- in law, in attitudes to life, in understanding human enterprise, in the undermining of the family.
The great Protestant theologian Oscar Cullmann wrote in this regard:
The Church's task with regard to the State, which is posed for all time, is thus clear. First it must loyally give the State everything necessary to its existence. It has to oppose anarchy and all Zealotism within its own ranks. Second, it has tot fulfill the office of watchman over the State. That means: it must remain in principle critical toward every State and be ready to warn it against transgression of its legitimate limits. Third, it must deny to the State which exceeds its limits whatever such a State demands that lies within the province of religio-ideological excess; and in its preaching the Church must courageously describe this excess as opposition to God.
The limits of the civil society, therefore, are precisely that, "limits." That is, there are legitimately things that belong to the state and things that do not.
Finally, neither the state nor the Church exist for themselves. Each has its own dignity and organizational structure. Yet, each is designed to serve its own defined purpose. The state is in this sense natural; it is something that arises out of man's very being what he is. The Church is established for a supernatural purpose, to achieve in each person what cannot be achieved by man's own powers. While the state can and has posed as a substitute for the divine, this is an aberration, not the normal face of the civil power. but both state and religion minister to man's destiny, to his individual destiny that is a dramatic relation to the divinity, to God.
Catholic thought about politics, then, places man within the normal institutions of human life, family, state, society, religion. Each of these minister not to himself but to God. Each member of any polity is ultimately to choose to be a member of the Kingdom of God or to refuse so to choose, No civil power can changes this deep drama that goes on in any and every civil order. The foundations of Catholic social teachings, then, "strengthen the person from within" both for the civil order and for that Kingdom of God to which each person is called in whatever civil society he might happen to live in whatever era of human history.
How does this position about the primacy of the spiritual fit into the latest understanding of Catholicism about itself and the social condition of the world? When the 1987 social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, was published, I was very concerned about it in spite of the great admiration I have for the present Pope. I felt at the time that the Holy Father had missed one of the great opportunities of the Century. Finally, at a crucial moment, he had the occasion to remedy what was most lacking in Catholic social thought, namely, its failure to recognize the relation between wealth-production and the sort of basic social disorders the Papacy had criticized since the beginning of the modern era, since Rerum Novarum, in fact. But, as I saw it, Sollicitude Rei Socialis failed to meet this challenge and in fact seemed to be a step backward in many respects.
Fundamentally, as Lord Bauer had pointed out in a biting essay on the dangerous inadequacies of "ecclesiastical economics" at the time of Paul VI, the apparent re-distributionist bias of the thinking in papal social doctrine should have been rejected on empirical as well as on moral grounds. Redistributionism is the theory that a finite amount of goods exists in the world so that what one person or country has implies that someone else must lose the same amount. The theory is in many ways attractive, but it is quite false as a fact. To solve the modern problem of poverty, it is said, we must redistribute existing wealth politically, not create new wealth.
But in fact, this re-distributionist theory was not the solution to dire problems but the cause of further poverty and, in addition, of much tyranny, however good may have been the subjective intentions of those who promoted it, including the papacy. Rather than seeking to understand how and why wealth is produced, papal thinking seemed rather to suggest that the problem was one of greed and the failure of the political order. The ecclesial analysis, in other words, seemed to embrace modern theories of world order that were anything but solutions to the problems the papacy itself wanted confronted.
In contemporary ideological analysis, the so-called mal-distribution the world's goods seemed to be explained in terms of envy by the poor along side the moral corruption of those economic systems that did in fact produce existing wealth in the modern world. The result of such a theory was that instead of examining the many cultural, political, economic, and especially religious causes of why the poor were poor, the poor were told that they were poor because they were exploited by the rich, by those who knew how to produce wealth.
As a result of this analysis, the poor need not learn how to produce wealth but instead they should insist, even violently, that what was rightfully "theirs," on the to basis of some exploitation theory, be "returned" to them. Such theories not only proved statistically impossible -- the world needs more wealth, not a redistribution of existing wealth -- but justified decades of wasted energy and effort by the poor peoples themselves seeking a false solution to their own problems and blaming theories that did work for their own problems.
The world was seen, furthermore, to be divided between North and South, the rich and the poor. The most important thing was the "gap" between rich and poor and not, as in fact is the case, the gradual increase of wealth on the part of everyone. The solution to this problem of poverty, however, was not the ideological systems often chosen by the poor nations themselves to be their models of development, rather it was to be found in the success of the rich.
But this success was not primarily an exploitation or an injustice. It consisted in learning new ways of production and distribution that depended on intelligence, enterprise, and work, methods that did not in principle take away anything from anyone. These new methods proceeded from what exists, though the most basic of resources, human knowledge and skill, to fashion new wealth. This approach was the real key to the problem posed by re-distribution to help the poor, a key that often seemed to be understood everywhere better than in the Church.
Many activist tendencies in the Church, such as liberation theology, "gapism," and the newly present and worrisome uncritical appearance of ecological rhetoric in ecclesiastical circles seemed to reinforce this suspicion that the Church was going more and more in the wrong direction. But if the Church really wanted to achieve what it claimed that it wanted, namely, a free, limited society that was guided by principles of justice and generosity, it needed to understand and support a productive, expansive, and efficient economy that could actually make the poor rich, if given a chance.
It is not that John Paul II himself did not at times show great sympathy for certain elements of the free market system. But such rather uncritical notions as "options for the poor," or "consumerism," or a kind of bias against profit in his writings and speeches seemed to strike at the very roots of any positive system that might be able to meet the needs of mankind in behalf of which the Pope so eloquently witnessed wherever he travelled.
Much attention thus was given to the poor countries, not to the successful economies after World War II. The so-called "Fourth World," the least developed countries, received more sympathy than these oriental countries like Japan or Taiwan or Korea, lands with far fewer natural resources than many of the so-called poorest countries. These Far Eastern countries graphically showed that nations could pass rapidly from poverty to wealth during the same period that concerned clerics and other secular idealists were complaining about the poor being exploited by the rich and those becoming rich without any real means in their theories to do anything about it.
There is nothing wrong with calling attention to extremes of poverty, of course. The present encyclical continues this dogged insistence that we do not forget the poor. But the whole problematic and tenor of this attention are now significantly shifted from the re-distributionist context about which I had been concerned. The very meaning of "options for the poor" need no longer be ideological in overtones but directed instead to the real possibilities for a poor people to overcome their own problems with the intelligent aid of those who know how to produce wealth in the first place.
Before I remark on what is so right about this extraordinary encyclical, let me first call attention to a number of points that I still have problems with, this in the name and spirit of what John Paul II has been trying to do. John Paul II is the most extraordinary and intelligent of men. There has been no one quite like him in the modern era, a holy, wise man who has spoken to more political and intellectual leaders in the world than any man in history, surpassed only by the numbers of ordinary and poor people who have sought out and listened to his words. It can be argued that the decline and fall of the Marxist states owes more to him than to any other man or source.
To acknowledge what the Pope did requires recognition of spiritual forces at work in the civil order. Thus, the spiritual and religious roots from which the Pope comes remain alien to the liberal premises of the modern era. These premises, as Paul Johnson said, are at a deep level often the same ones from which marxism arose in the first place. Many of these secular forces are also very present in the Church itself in a form that seeks to transform the Church into a instrument for the achievement of the ends of the remaining ideologies of our era.
These premises of modernity, just to put them on the table, maintain that the "whole truth about man," to use the Pope's memorable phrase in exactly the opposite way that he does, is that man is the cause of his own being. Freedom is autonomy. There is no natural order to which man is subject. Freedom is creating one's own life, family, polity, world, on the basis of one's sole choices, themselves presupposed to nothing but themselves. Man is to take total control of what he is and makes. If there are some so-called "limits" in nature, these restrictions merely serve, in the ecological wing of this position, to justify the subsumption of man into the on-going process either of state or of nature.
No individual purpose exists beyond this life that would question man's ability to refashion and reconstruct himself against any so-called natural standards or norms that would prescribe or guide him in his normal activities to the purpose of his existence. Any effort to claim that the human being cannot will what he wants is looked upon as fanatical. There are no norms to democracy or to human nature other than those that man gives himself. Needless to say, a Pope who maintains eloquently and persistently that this sort of understanding of human nature and freedom is not at all its "whole truth" will be seen as anything from a Polish "reactionary" to a religious "enthusiast." That he is neither represents the most fundamental spiritual crisis for many Catholics and Christians, for many intellectuals and critics today.
Let me begin by rapidly remarking on a number of aspects of this document that strike me as weak or ill-argued. I call attention to these things not to seem more "wise" than the Pope, but to engage in that persistent duty we all have to argue clearly and objectively for what is true, all the time acknowledging that other understandings might be better than ours. These concerns are considered here under the understanding in the encyclical of the notions of work, of rights, and of ecology.
The first issue has to do with the emphasis the Holy Father gives to "work." My problem with what John Paul II says about work, already present in the Pope's encyclical Laborem Exercens, goes back to Josef Pieper who was at pains to reflect on the meaning of work and contemplation. Pieper insisted that there was something marxist in the notion of "intellectual work." This issue itself goes back to the Greeks and the problem of slavery, to the relation of art or craft to human society. The Pope is most concerned to dignify the worker. Again and again, he insists that in every industry or business, the most important thing is the worker and his family. The worker is more important than profit or material goods. Moreover, the Pope realizes that there is a kind of proportional dignity among all men no matter what kind of work they do.
In this encyclical, John Paul II has begun to recognize what people like George Gilder and Peter Bauer have long emphasized, that the real wealth in the world today is not goods but knowledge. This very convergence necessarily takes us back to the Greek discussion of practical and theoretical knowledge and their relationship. Likewise, it forces us to realize again that one of the major reasons for the disappearance of slavery was the Industrial Revolution and all that went with it in terms of machinery and organization. Aristotle had already implied that much work was drudgery, and if it could be replaced by the moving Statues of Daedalus, say to weave cloth, it would be a boon for mankind. It is not without interest that the weaving of cloth was the first large scale industry of the Industrial Revolution, and it still remains one of the most important industries for human well being.
With the invention of the computer and electronics, the possibility of placing into each man's hands powerful tools of inventiveness has been increased a thousand-fold, something someone like G. K. Chesterton had long wanted to see happen. The point I am trying to make here is that the emphasis on "work" that the Pope insists on seems too much to separate the work and the worker from what in fact the worker does or produces. By emphasizing rather knowledge and enterprise, something the Pope begins to do in the encyclical, I think it will be possible to restore the distinction between work and contemplation that Pieper sees at the heart of civilization. The problem is not solved, it seems to me, by calling what the highest activities consist in as "work." What the Pope wants to do is, no doubt, most laudable. He wants to show how each man leads a worthy life by his work. The question still must be asked, "is this work worth it?" By failing to ask this question, we can in principle justify governments that simply "make work" by legislation, or by bureaucracy, or by whatever classical means.
The Pope speaks of the worker so much and so earnestly because he wants a system whereby one's work is really contributing to man's well-being and at the same time offers a means to support a family. This sort of economy, of course, is what the Holy Father is seeking to get at in this encyclical. What is noticeable is that, while he insists on the need for voluntary societies, he never addresses himself to the more recent questions of the widespread phenomenon of labor union corruption or of the real economic and social necessity of unions themselves. In other places in Catholic social thought, the problem of union corruption, political and criminal, has been reservedly acknowledged. But the widespread decline of unions, their often counter-productivity regarding questions of just prices and contribution of other producers, are not mentioned.
A second major problem that seems to continue in this document, as it has in the major papal documents, is that of the meaning of the word "right." Nowhere in Centesimus Annus does there appear to be any reservation about the origins or use of this concept. It is assumed that everyone knows what a "right" is. It is universally acknowledged to be a good thing to promote. "Rights," however, are a product of modernity. If we want to make them concepts from say Aristotle or St. Thomas, we have to undertake the most careful of analysis about their meaning. "Rights" are philosophical words, words that are rooted in a system of thought very alien to the sort of concerns the Pope has in mind in using them.
Clearly "rights" are, at first sight, familiar concepts, used in public documents from the beginning of the modern era. They are found in the American and French documents, in the League of Nations, in the United Nations, in almost every civil constitution. Yet, they are rooted in a system of pure will, presupposed to no natural order. Again and again in recent times, we begin to find that there are "rights" to all sorts of things that are quite incompatible with Christian and natural law teachings.
Conflicts of "rights" now have been transformed into the "duty" of the state to protect the exercise of sundry human disorders. A glowing praise of man's "rights" ends up in wondering how we can oppose a "right" to an abortion, or a "right" to a deviant life style. Moreover, "rights" to work or to housing, economic rights, in other words, have tended to embody the very socialist ideology that has failed. In any case, the point I want to make here is that it is not sufficient to use the doctrine of "rights" without in every case clearly identifying what is meant by them and how they are justified. As they are used in Catholic social thought, I am afraid, they often tend to imply notions quite at variance with what is in fact desired.
A further worry in this encyclical is the discussion on ecology, itself another potential ideology of the modern era. The Holy Father seems to give little warning about the intellectual background of much of the environmental and ecological movement that is so opposed to many of the very ends that he is proposing. It is not sufficient to say that ecology simply represents a delayed awareness of the limits of the earth and man's greed or lack of control. Ecology is if anything closer to a new religion that has premises and ends that subsume the individual person back into nature. The anti-growth aspect of the environmental movement is also an anti-human aspect. Thus far, I see no indication that this side of ecology is understood in its relation to the Church's own teachings and interests, nor do I see the sort of questioning of the validity of the thesis of the movement itself.
If these are some concerns that I have with this document, they are nothing compared with the enthusiasm I have for the extraordinary insights and acknowledgements that have appeared in Catholic social thought as a result of John Paul II's new encyclical. Suffice it to say that it has appeared to many that Christianity would eventually identify itself with socialism. The so-called moral "force" of socialism is apparently very attractive to many religious people who see in the ordinary workings of economy or politics a kind of escapism or self-interest. Likewise, socialism has appeared to be an ideal way to unify religious and political energies to improve the world. In retrospect, we must be most respectful to the good sense of the Church, beginning with Leo XIII, as John Paul II duly noted, to see in this system ideas and tendencies most at odds with Christian and human understandings of man.
We cannot exactly say that the Catholicism has rejected socialism with this encyclical. Rather we must say that, granting the failures of socialism itself, the Church has finally been able to set aside the century old obligation of weighing socialist-capitalist claims in tandem to arrive at some sort of middle ground. Without denying its critique of the performance of capitalism, and not forgetting the liberal theory in which it was based, a theory so much criticized by the Church in the last century, we find here a frank acknowledgement that socialism has failed on its own terms as witnessed by events in Eastern Europe.
As a result there is a new look at the theory and practice of those free market economies that have proved their ability to know about the production of an abundance of goods and services, in fact relatively well-distributed within their confines. Since the Church wants poverty confronted, since it wants this confrontation to be done justly and with the interest and cooperation of the workers and the poor, it has had to acknowledge, as did the socialist systems themselves, that there are certain ways that must be employed if mankind is to meet its economic problems. These ways can be known and imitated, but they must include a juridical system, profit, enterprise, knowledge, exchange, a market, voluntary organizations, a relatively independent economy, private property, and respect for work and excellence.
The Pope proudly notices that the beginning of this crisis of the marxist states began in Poland with the workers movement. But behind this he sees deeper forces. He takes time to recognize that there was a relationship between modern totalitarian ideology that embraced socialism and carried it to its extremes and its corresponding attack on certain theological and religious notions, beginning with the belief in God. The Pope's analysis of totalitarianism is remarkable in this document. He does not hesitate to maintain that atheism does have political overtones and can result in the most extreme forms of political rule. He does not limit this effect only to admittedly totalitarian regimes of our era. He knows that certain democratic theories of relativism have the same premises as the more extreme theories.
The Pope argues as a result that the basic liberty to be that of religion. To acknowledge the reality and force of the transcendent God is the beginning of specifically human freedom. He sees in this direct relationship of man and God the only real power that limits the state from claiming with modernity complete autonomy or power over each man. One of the most striking aspects of Centesinus Annus, then, is not its calling religious people to do their duty to world, though it does this also, but its calling the world to recognize and allow certain relationships to God. The Pope even remarks, rather severely, on those states with established religions -- he is thinking of Islamic states, no doubt -- that in practice allow no freedom of religion to their citizens either in theory or practice.
If the first unique aspect of this encyclical is its analysis of the real problem with totalitarianism, the second unique aspect is its willingness to accept the general principles of a market economy. The Pope insists that there are always many dangers of greed, selfishness, and materialism in this market system. No one needs to deny his point to recognize that he also calls attention to what have become commonplaces among those who have sought to understand how modern societies develop their material bases.
Ever since the Tawney and Weber studies of the relationship of Protestantism and Capitalism, it has been a suspicion that Catholicism was somehow unable to understand the principles that caused the modern scientific, economic, and technological revolutions to take place. Catholic countries were said to be poor because they paid too much emphasis on morality and to the next world. As a result the people wasted time in religion better spent in working. It would be too much to say that this encyclical is a belated recognition of certain elements in the Reformation, those having to do with a vocation in this world, of hard work, of savings, of sobriety. None the less, all of these things are now present in this document.
The third and final thing that seems to be unique in this encyclical is the Pope's blunt and frank statement that man cannot achieve his inner-worldly goods or goals without Christianity. One has to know a good deal about the tendencies in modern academia and modern philosophy to realize the importance and radicalness of this aspect of Centesimus Annus. We Americans, perhaps, are so used to the exaggerations of our rhetoric on the separation of church and state that we are not prepared to recognize that this separation has something very unnatural about it. But the Pope is not talking about the legal or constitutional principle of how to deal with religion in a civil society. Rather he is dealing with the unity of man in all his aspects, faith and reason, this world and the next, morals and economics.
The Pope takes great care to make sure that man's eternal destiny is at stake in any civil society, even in a totalitarian one. Indeed, he suggests that this over-riding concern with ultimate things is just what has happened in Eastern Europe and Russia. On the other hand, the Kingdom of God is not in any earthly society. Nevertheless, and this is the point, it does make a difference what we believe and do. Faith is one of the main sources of our doing and making rightly. What exists among us is not just our polities or our philosophies, but grace and faith. Whatever we might say about tolerance and understanding others, it is not fanaticism that Catholicism is different and needed even to understand and do what we ought to do.
Perhaps nothing in the modern world drives more people to extremes than the simple and classic religious claim that God did become Man and that this has changed the meaning and history of the world in all its aspects. The emphasis of the Holy Father in this encyclical is simply factual or historical, however we might designate it. Let me, in conclusion, cite three remarks of John Paul II in this regard. They are cited in the context of the remarkable efforts he has made to know what is going on in the world and to acknowledge the truths of many social and economic and political facts that have recently come to the fore, facts that have been rooted in experience and practical intelligence.
1) To teach and to spread her social doctrine pertains to the Church's evangelizing mission and is an essential part of the Christian message, since this doctrine points out the direct consequences of that message in the life of society and situates daily work and struggles for justice in the context of bearing witness of Christ the Savior. This doctrine is likewise a source of unity and peace in dealing with the conflicts which inevitably arise in social and economic life. Thus it is possible to meet these new situations without degrading the human person's transcendent dignity, either in oneself or in one's adversaries, and to direct those situations towards just solutions (#5).
2) 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).
3) 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. The newness which is experienced in following Christ demands to be communicated to other people in their concrete difficulties, struggles, problems and challenges, so that these can then be illuminated and made more human in the light of faith. Faith not only helps people to find solutions; it makes even situations of suffering humanly bearable, so that in these situations people will not become lost or forget their dignity and vocation (#59).
These statements, if I read them correctly, maintain that human social and ethical problems can be understood and resolved in peace, that grace and faith are also necessary to incite men to act properly and to understand fully what their nature and situation demands, and that when all else fails that faith remains attentive to the final reality and destiny of each human person even in suffering and loss.
The tradition of Catholic Social Doctrine, which John Paul II has reflected on and advanced is not merely a philosophical analysis of moral principles, though it is at least that. Nor is it a claim to have something merely beyond the world, though it also claims that. Rather it is a description of the presence of God in the world, in the world of principles as well as in the world of suffering, in the world of production as well as in the world of distribution. The capacity to see the needs of mankind over time, to refine, revise, clarify a full human understanding is the remarkable and unique fruit of Centesimus Annus. Does Catholicism still exist? The explication of its doctrines include an explanation of the world. The person from within, the person who understands that he must be first related to God, is the same person who dwells and acts in existing cities.
JESUS THE CHRIST
On Sunday, July 3, 1781, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson went to "Southhill church which was very near Mr. Dilly's house." Dilly was a bookseller and his house was in a section of London known as the Poultry. After the service, Boswell and Johnson were discussing "original sin, in consequence of the fall of man, and of the atonement made by our Saviour." Johnson was particularly eloquent that morning. He specifically dictated to Boswell his further thoughts on the subject. In particular, Johnson remarked that "the great sacrifice for the sins of mankind was offered at the death of the Messiah, who is called in Scripture, 'The Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.'" When we first hear such solemn words, we might well be perplexed. Who is this Messiah? Are sins after all that bad that they need sacrifice? How can the death of one man atone for, bring back to oneness, not just man in general with God, but each one of us in particular? Are not these claims rather outlandish?
Johnson added to his statement the following explication: "To judge of the reasonableness of the scheme of redemption, it must be considered as necessary to the government of the universe, that God should make known His perpetual and irreconcilable detestation of moral evil." In other words, God makes known this detestation of moral evil through the death of the Messiah, of the one we call Jesus the Christ. This detestation might have been made known in another manner, through immediate punishment, for example. But it was rather manifested through the death of the Messiah, the Lamb of God, in order that the gravity of what we do, but ought not do, can be seen and comprehended. The consequences are concentrated in an innocent person who is, in fact, the Word made flesh, the Son of God, who dwelt amongst us until He was crucified by a Roman and a few Jewish authorities of the time, but for our sins. The crucifixion of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Word made flesh, the Son of God, for our sins, is the single most vivid instance we have to explain the seriousness, the eternal seriousness, of each of our daily acts insofar as it is sinful, disordered, yes, evil.
We live in a time of little detestation of moral evil. We are often little moved by the most heinous of our deeds. We listen with deaf and uncomprehending ears, even when we hear them, to the affirmation of Socrates at his Trial, that "it is never right to do wrong," an affirmation that, in its own way, prepares us for the coming of the Word. Many of the worst moral evils are now, moreover, called "human rights," enforced and financed by governments, embraced by popular modes of talk and living. Yet, we suspect that whatever we call them on the basis of our own subjective desires or social theories makes little difference to what they remain in fact. This is what John Paul II taught us in his great encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
Johnson emphasizes that the scheme of redemption in a sense can be shown by reason not to be so irrational as it might at first appear, however much it was unexpected. He likewise intimates that what is at stake is "the very government of the universe." What is interesting is that it is God Himself who is said to show His "perpetual and irreconcilable detestation" of moral evil in such a manner that Christ's cross was a consequence of it. Needless to say, this detestation hints that the relation existing between God and Christ is itself a central element in our understanding. Who Christ is, in other words, cannot be understood without understanding who God is in His inner life.
Christ is true God and true man, as the Creed tells us. And it is the Creed that directs our minds to the understanding of what God is and of who Christ is. The precise understanding of who Christ is, the effort to know His status as God and man, is not simply an esoteric academic exercise or an indifferent doctrine. Only when we know who Christ is can we be said to know who we are, how important we are, as what St. Paul calls us, adopted sons of God who are thereby permitted to call God properly "Abba, Father."
Catholicism is, among other things, a particularly intellectual religion; or better, it is a revelation also to intellect, not just a vague feeling or ungrounded emotion about some esoteric vagueness. It likewise recognizes a difference between the learned and the unlearned, a difference that does not, however, imply, as did the ancient and modern Gnostic heresy, that only the learned are saved. Catholicism generally suspects that the unlearned are more likely to be saved than the learned with their oft-accompanying pride. Catholicism insists that it is right and indeed necessary for everyone, learned and unlearned, to think about what is held about God and His reality. In this area, as in others, as St. Thomas said, following a remark of Aristotle, a small error in the beginning will lead to a huge error in the end. It does make a difference in our lives and in our destiny that we think rightly about God and how He has revealed Himself to us.
There is, moreover, an intimate relationship between living rightly and thinking rightly, a relationship that is already found in Plato and Aristotle. If we think wrongly, it is most likely because we live or want to live wrongly and hence we are seeking in our wry ways to explain why we are living "rightly" as if what we actually do were not wrong. This need to justify by endless explanations our disordered lives leads us into deliberate, articulated error. We come to embrace certain positions about God, man, and the world because we do not want to accept that understanding of God that is the one revealed to us, the one that most clearly conforms to what we know about reality, to what we really want for ourselves. We see that if we admit certain erroronius things about God, about the things God has taught us about Himself, the consequence will be that we must change our lives. So we seek an alternate, deviant explanation of God rather than change our ways By not understanding properly about God, we misunderstand ourselves and how to correct our lives. In choosing our own norms, we refuse to restore ourselves to order by the standards of truth itself.
St. Augustine tells us that for a time he was a Manichean, that is, someone who maintains that there is a God of good and a god of evil. This convenient theory justified him in doing whatever he wanted to do in his current life because he could blame what he did wrongly on the necessities of matter, on the god of evil, over which, as he postulated, he had no control. Augustine, of course, knew that this "two god" thesis would not really explain himself to himself. Eventually, he was forced to drop it as unworthy of the truth and of what he knew about himself.
If we are alert, we will frequently notice that whenever someone seeks to justify a practice that is known to be contrary to Catholic teaching or even to common sense, he will ultimately be forced, by the very logic of his position, to maintain that the Church is unreasonable or wrong in what it holds. The instant someone proposes a "reason" against a position of the faith, that stated position enables us to examine this claim to another kind of reasonableness besides that of the faith. We begin to see where deviant explanations of God lead us. A good part of the intellectual history of the Church consists in examining carefully particular and general claims about why the Church is wrong in what it proposes about God, man, and the world. The Church knows that "orthodoxy", thinking rightly, is part of its mission of service on this Earth.
John Henry Newman entitled a sermon he gave for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, in his Parochial and Plain Sermons, "Christ, the Son of God Made Man." Newman affirms three things about Christ. The first is that "Christ is God: From all eternity He was the living and true God." But we are aware that this needs further clarification. Thus, secondly, "while Our Lord is God, He is also the Son of God, or rather, He is God because He is the Son of God." Within the Godhead, as it is revealed to us, there is a diversity of persons. As I like to put it, God is not alone even in His Godhead, as the ancient philosophers had feared. This diversity of persons, made known through this Son of God, is the Christian revelation about God.
"The great safeguard to the doctrine of our Lord's Divinity," Newman tells us, "is the doctrine of His Sonship; we realize that He is God only when we acknowledge Him to be by nature and from eternity Son." Again, notice that we are to "acknowledge" the truth of God. Even these rather complicated statements about what and who He is are unabashedly addressed to each of us. We are to state them, affirm them, hold them. This truth about God is why it is our privilege and duty to recite carefully the Creed at Sunday Mass. It should never be omitted for it is our best and most succinct affirmation of the being of God that we, or any of our kind, can make about God. If our minds seek to know, what they seek to know, as St. Thomas said, is "the truth about God." And the truth about God is revealed to us as Father and Son and Spirit.
What is to be known about this Son of God, moreover, is that He became flesh, man. Newman puts it this way: "It was neither the Father nor the Holy Ghost, but the Son of the Father, God the son, God from God, and Light from Light, who came down upon earth, and who thus, though graciously taking on Him a new nature, remained in Person as He had been from everlasting, the Son of the Father, and spoke and acted toward the Father as a Son." What we know of the Father, in the inner life of the Godhead, is told to us by the Son, the Word. Our mediator is the man Jesus the Christ, true God and true man. We must remember, however, that Christ was a divine Person, not a human person. He had a human nature and a divine nature, but He was one in person. This is where, for all eternity, the divine and human meet, without being mixed confusedly together, but in a proper divine order. This is why we are redeemed because our nature itself touches the Godhead in the person of Christ.
"He was a man because He had our human nature wholly and perfectly," Newman carefully continued,
but His Person is not human like ours, but divine. He who was from eternity, continued one and the same, but with an addition. His incarnation was a "taking of manhood into God." As He had no earthly father, so has He no human personality. We may not speak of Him as we speak of any individual man, acting from and governed by a human intelligence within Him, but He was God, acting not only as God, but now through the flesh also, when He would; He was not a man made God, but God made man.
Christ did, of course, in His human nature, have a human intellect and will. He did learn. He did suffer and feel and know. He was not an illusion or a phantom, as some early heresies wanted to maintain because they could not admit that the lofty Godhead was also man, the lowly creature.
Today, we are at a rather opposite end of the spectrum. We emphasize Christ's humanity often at the expense of his divine Personhood. We want Him to be like unto us in all things, including sin, if we would believe certain movies and theologians. We are quick to translate divine compassion into the eradication of any real sin without our having any essential input of our own. We prefer to believe that Christ's suffering leaves us with nothing sacrificial to do with our own lives. This leaves us free to go about as we would wish.
But Christ is not merely another good guy, another president of the assembly, or managing director. In his wonderful book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II took up the question, "Is Jesus the Son of God?" In these ecumenical times, we want to respect other religious traditions. There are many who want to equalize all religions, not just tolerate their diversity. The result of this attitude is that there is no need to learn who Christ uniquely is. He is just another prophet or example, no big deal. His way of salvation is merely "a" way, not "the" way, not "the" truth, not "the" life, as He claimed. The result of this position is a downplaying of the ideas of evangelization, mission, and conversion. The dynamism put into the world by the Gospel is replaced by a kind of stagnation of religious zeal.
We are urged to let well enough alone. The whole idea of sending missionaries to evangelize the pagans, it is implied, only resulted in hostility and martyrdom. This missionary enterprise was, it is said, wasted effort. Let well enough alone. God will provide. The urgent commissions "to go forth and teach all nations" are misplaced. Everyone will find his way to heaven by different paths. We do not want to embarrass any cultures by implying that they lack something. Christ thus was not a "unique" savior, as it is said. Don't confuse people by questioning their traditions, no matter what they are. Ideas, especially theological ideas, do not much matter. Do not unsettle anyone with new teachings, like those in the Gospels. God will find a way to save everyone. Every culture has its own way.
Responding to this sort of thinking, the Holy Father first emphasizes that we do insist on a general political and religious freedom wherein people are at liberty to listen to the Gospel and to embrace it if they choose without civil or cultural impediment. This situation of real religious freedom is far from being widespread in the world today. We have little idea of the persecution of Christians in our time; but it is vast. The Gospel, however, should be propagated by Gospel means. That is the only way worthy of man and of the Gospel itself. But still, there is something different, unique to propagate, to make known. The very essence of Christianity is that it is different. The understanding of this difference is itself an effort of the intellect and of grace. It makes a difference about how we live. We cannot be what we are created to be without the knowledge of God as a part of our lives.
So why, the Holy Father asks, is not Christ considered to be simply a wise man like Socrates, or a prophet like Mohammed, or enlightened like Buddha? "How does one maintain the unprecedented certainty that this Jew condemned to death in an obscure province was, in fact, the Son of God, the one being with the Father? This radical Christian claim has no parallel in no other religious belief" (p. 42). The Holy Father put his finger on what is important for us to realize when we seek to understand other religions as a way of salvation or of explanation of things and their order. The teaching that Christ is the Son of God, the Word made flesh, has no parallel in other religions. Other religions talk about sacrifice, about holiness, about the Almighty. They have good things to say, no doubt. But none speak of God who becomes man. Whatever other parallels or similarities that we might find, and these cannot help but exist, the truth is that no one claims what Catholicism does about Jesus the Christ. Since Christ is God, everything is different, including, be it noted, ourselves.
The Creed, John Paul II said, is not just a kind of Greek philosophical summary, though it does have philosophical grandeur, but it is the synthesis of apostolic teaching about who Christ is. "I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord...." Notice how concrete this Creed is. He was born. He suffered under a known political figure, Pontius Pilate. He was killed by the execution that the Romans reserved for the ones that they wanted to make examples of, by crucifixion. He died. He was buried.
The same Creed tells us other things that are not directly observed, but true none the less. He was conceived of the Virgin Mary. No one but Mary and the angel know of this event, yet its meaning is directly related to who was conceived. The holiness of God was present in the way Christ came to be born among men. On the third day, He rose again. There are those who saw Him and reported what they saw -- people like Mary of Magdala, Peter, John, and several others. He ascends into Heaven and from there He will come again to judge the living and the dead. These statements are summaries of what Christ told us of Himself. We are to be judged. That is, what we do with our lives needs judgment. We are here to follow Him and we must be worthy, not because of our own doing, though what we do matters, but of His grace.
The easiest and most available way to know who Christ is in a familiar and intelligible manner is to consult, and keep consulting, the General Catechism of the Catholic Church. No Catholic today should be without one at hand. Indeed, I think every Catholic should have both the Catechism and a proper text, not just a leaflet, of the Roman Missal so that he can know exactly what the order and wording of the Mass are to be. Indeed, I want to go to the Catechism and to the Missal to make clear who this Jesus the Christ is. In this regard, it is helpful to recall what St. Cyril of Jerusalem once said in a catechetical sermon: "For if you believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved and taken up to paradise by him, just as he brought the thief there." Notice, we need to believe two basic things, 1) that Jesus Christ is Lord and 2) that God raised him from the dead. If we believe these two things about God and Christ, their intimate relationship, we will be personally saved in a sense as radically vivid as the saving of the Good Thief as the time of Christ's crucifixion. If even a thief might be saved, as the last moment, as it were, each of us has hope if we notice what the Good Thief himself noticed.
The relation of each person to the understanding of Christ is explained in what is called catechesis, a Greek word that means to make something known to someone by teaching him orally. A catechism, thus, is a written form of this teaching. Listen to how the General Catechism explains what it is doing:
To catechise is to reveal "in the person of Christ the whole of God's eternal design reaching fulfillment in that Person. It is to seek to understand the meaning of Christ's actions and words and of the signs worked by him." Catechesis aims at putting "people ... in communion ... with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity." In catechesis "the Incarnate Word and Son of God ... is taught -- everything else is taught with reference to Him -- and it is Christ who teaches -- anyone else teaches to the extent that he is Christ's spokesman.... (#426-27.)
Notice how broadly this understanding of Christ reaches. We are to see that the whole plan and design of God are fulfilled in His person.
This is why it is worth the effort to know why the Person of Christ, that bears both a divine and human nature in its unity, is so important, because it is in this unity that we, limited, finite, sinful creatures that we know ourselves to be, have hope of redemption and, indeed, of resurrection. Break that unity of Christ's person and we have no direct connection with God. Who and what Christ is we find revealed to us in His words, in His deeds, and in His miracles, all of them. By these words and actions of Christ, we can be put in contact, through grace, with the Holy Trinity, the Godhead. This end or purpose is why each of us is created in the first place and why the world is made as it is.
What is it that we hold about this Jesus the Christ? The Catechism puts it in memorable words:
We believe and confess that Jesus of Nazareth, born a Jew of a daughter of Israel at Bethlehem at the time of King Herod the Great and the emperor Caesar Augustus, a carpenter by trade, who died crucified in Jerusalem under the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, is the eternal Son of God made man. He "came from God," "descended from heaven," and "came in the flesh." For "the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.... And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace."
We find repeated here, of course, words of Paul and John, powerful words that our minds seek to understand because they tell us about why we do not cause ourselves, why we are first loved, why we are redeemed and worthy to be redeemed.
Moreover, I want to call attention to something we are quite familiar with, only perhaps we do not notice it. I mean the Canon of the Mass wherein we are directed to pray as we are instructed by Christ. I will take the First or Roman canon as the text. Notice first how the Mass is not primarily directed to the worshipping community or to the priest. It is always and everywhere directed to something outside both, to the Father, to Domine, to God. All the prayers are directed to God. They are to pass "through our Lord Jesus Christ, in unity with the Holy Spirit, world without end...." The proper setting of the Mass is, as it were, vertical, priest and congregation together face the Father. The priest does not have his back or face to the people, but all, priest and people, face the East, face symbolically the source, the Father. The priest is the locus who does not act on his own, does not compose words of his own, does not explain what he is doing on his own. He re-presents Christ, the High Priest, the designated intercessor between God and man. On his own, he is nothing.
The Preface asks us to give thanks to the Lord our God. The response adds that it is right and just to do so. And at the end of the Preface we recite the words of Isaiah, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of the Sabbath, the heavens and the earth are full of Thy glory." And we continue, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord." Who comes in the name of this God is Jesus the Christ. He comes from what is holy, from whom the heavens and earth receive their glory.
Notice how the prayer of the priest, in his office as priest, is phrased: "Te igitur, clementissime Pater, per Jesum Christum, filium Tuun, Dominum nostrum, supplices rogamus et petimus...." The object addressed by priest and prayerful community is not something vague, but precisely "Father." This is the name with which God identifies Himself to us from His trinitarian life. He is not here a philosophic First Mover, or the Good, or the Just, but something much more surprising. The primary idea of fatherhood, moreover, is not something garnered from human experience and then projected onto God, but it is the other way around. Human fathers are pale images of some distinction in God. The Father is the Father, not something else. But we do not dare to address the Father so familiarly by ourselves. We only do so through Jesus the Christ who is called the Son of God and our Lord. Again, we do not impose these words or meanings on God. We are a reflection of what God creates and reveals. Indeed we are each images of God, but we are created in the Word from whom alone we, priest and faithful, dare to ask and petition the Father.
As we go through this Roman canon, we notice constantly that we are actively worshipping God not in our manner but in a way that was revealed to us by Jesus the Christ in and through the Holy Spirit. We even become somewhat demanding because we can in fact call God "Father." When we think of others for whom we are to pray, we say, "Memento, Domine, famulorum famularumque tuarum...." "Be mindful, Lord...." It is almost a command on our part, something we "dare" to say, as we later do in the "Our Father." And when we name those we seek intercession for, we call them precisely "thy" servants or members of "thy" family, as if to acknowledge that everyone we deal with is already the Lord's. This designation, therefore, makes us realize the immense dignity of each person, a dignity that comes not from us but from the very fact that each also reflects the glory from which the heavens and the Earth are created and which they manifest.
In a recent address, Bishop William Lori called our attention to how we pray at Mass. "The prayers of the Roman liturgy always begin from the vantage point of what the Triune God has done to save us," he pointed out.
No prayer begins or ends with reference to what we will do for God or one another. The collects, prayers over the gifts, eucharistic prayers, and prayers after communion begin by referring to what God has done for us in Christ Jesus; only then do they beseech God to engender in us, through the power of the mysteries themselves, both a response of prayer and a transformation in thought, speech, action, and being.
If we see the Roman Mass in this way, we will begin to catch just how revolutionary and remarkable it is.
The central part of the canon ends with two short prayers both of which are addressed to the Father, through Christ. Notice the particular power of these oft-repeated prayers of adoration, in which we simply, but knowingly, intelligently, praise the Father. We say, "Per quem haec omnia, Domine, semper bona creas, sanctificas, vivificas, benedicis, et praestas nobis." Through Christ, you, God, give us all these things. They are filled with life and goodness; they are blessed and made holy. Again, there is an order by which we are to praise God, the Father. The Lord God is addressed in the Son, the Word, the Word in which all that is good and holy is created and exists.
At the last minor elevation before the recital of the "Lord's Prayer," often sung, when the priest holds the consecrated Body and Blood of Christ made present before us, the memorial of the Cross, the priest says "Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso, est tibi Deo Patri omnipotenti, in unitate Spiritus Sancti, omnis honor et gloria, per omnia saecula saeculorum." All honor and glory belongs to the Father, but the mode of our expressing this glory and honor is according to the plan of the Father's will, so that we do not praise by ourselves but through, with, and in Christ, in unity with the Holy Spirit. And we do this forever, what God has created He intends to be without end.
Jesus the Christ is made present to us at the Consecration, the center of the Mass. This is our faith. The priest is not here acting on his own as if he had some proper power in himself. He is acting in persona Christi, as they say, not of his own talents or character. Bishop Lori again makes evident what happens in this central action of our worship:
At the consecration, the priest is not speaking in behalf of the Church or in behalf of humanity at large; he is not speaking as "community coordinator," or as an actor mimicking what Christ said and did. No, the priest speaks the words of consecration to the Father in a mysterious identity with Christ, through the prior sacramental transformation wrought by the Spirit in Holy Orders. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the words which the priest speaks at the consecration change bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, and render present Christ's sacrificial death and blessed resurrection.
The dignity of a priest is thus, at the same time, both humble and great. He is ordained again, not for himself, but to be able to do what God has asked in the Incarnation, that Christ's Incarnation and Cross remain visibly dwelling among us. The Mass is the worship of the Father. We worship the Father in actions and words as, and only as, Christ did and left us a Memorial to do.
John Paul II, in his Tertio Millennio Adveniente, set aside 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000, as years in which we remind ourselves and the world of what God is. Each year is devoted to one of the divine persons. We break the unity to understand better so that we can understand the whole. The first of these years is to be devoted to Jesus the Christ. John Paul is very conscious of the need to understand what we know of God perfectly and accurately. He is also aware of those who do not know this teaching of God. He says, for example, that Buddhism and Hinduism have soteriological character, that is, they profess themselves to be a way of salvation. The Christian mission is not to deny the good things found there. Yet, it is necessary to "explain more fully the truth that Christ is the one mediator between God and man and the sole redeemer of the world, to be clearly distinguished from the founders of the other great religions" (#38). The essence of this distinction is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, in his very being, true God and true man.
The starting point of Christianity, of man's historic search for God, is that in the Incarnation we know that God first searches for us. "Christianity has its starting point in the incarnation of the Word," the Holy Father explains. "Here is is not simply a case of man seeking God, but of God who comes in person to speak to man of himself and to show him the path by which He may be reached.... In Christ, religion is no longer a 'blind search for God' but the response of faith to God who reveals himself" (#6).
In conclusion, then, when we think of Jesus the Christ, as we should, we often forget that our Mass, our Scripture, our Church itself, takes great effort to teach us about God, about the Trinity and the order of the Persons within the Godhead. It teaches us so that we can worship God and become familiar enough with Him to address Him as, "Abba, Father." We can only presume to do this if we are instructed by God's own initiative to us, which is the Incarnation, Life, and Death of Christ, who rose again. Jesus the Christ.
The last words of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans are these:
Glory to him who is able to give you the strength to live according to the Good News I preach, and in which I proclaim Jesus Christ, the revelation of a mystery kept secret for endless ages, but now so clear that it must be broadcast to pagans everywhere to bring them to the obedience of the faith. This is only what Scripture has predicted, and it is all part of the way the eternal God wants things to be. He alone is wisdom; give glory therefore to him through Jesus Christ, for ever and ever. Amen.
We need strength, grace, to live according to the Good News and glorify the Father. This is possible through Jesus the Christ, who was prepared from all ages but now is present among us to be made known everywhere. It is all part of the way the eternal God wants things to be. Wisdom is found nowhere else. We are asked "to give glory" to God, to the Father, through Jesus the Christ, forever and ever. The very fact that we can be asked to glorify God in this way indicates to us the dignity that God in his fatherly creation has given us. We have the power to give glory through Jesus the Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father. If anyone wonders where the real revolution in history lies, it is right here.
IS CATHOLICISM SERIOUS ABOUT ITSELF?
The question in the title of this essay obviously implies at least the possibility of a negative answer -- that is, "No, Catholicism is not serious about itself." The evidence for this negative answer would lie in the degree to which we find Catholics acting little differently from any one else. Granted that we are all sinners, including Catholics, perhaps especially Catholics, to be a Catholic should result in some marked difference of soul and action, in things to be done, in things not to be done, in things to be held, in things not to be held.
The negative answer implies, furthermore, that within institutions supported by the Church or in parishes, nothing occurs that would indicate any distinctiveness about Catholics. The dominant Catholic ethos at least since John Tracey Ellis' "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life" in the 1950's and 60's, has been to strive to be pretty much like everyone else in all things of public and academic life. The divisions found within Catholicism come mainly from political, not religious, sources.
Tolerance, which still retains the notion that something tolerated is wrong even though it could be let alone, has passed into multi-culturalism, in which a multiplicity of different "right" positions is contemplated. As a result, little or no effort is made in the direction of conversion, both because it does not seem to make much difference and because it is unseemly to claim important some possession that others do not acknowledge. I have even seen Chesterton, Lewis, Kreeft, and Hahn criticized because they were making converts when Vatican II, so it was said, was about letting everyone alone. It was unseemly to disturb anyone's subjective view.
Christian doctrines, detached from their balanced place within an overall understanding that includes both faith and reason, however, are found running riot through society. Take the notions, "judge not, lest thou shalt be judged," or "let him who is without sin cast the first stone," or "be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful." In context, these admonitions are proper, revolutionary guides to remind us that we are all sinners, though not all sinners in the same way. They recall that justice can be harsh and that judgment is the Lord's.
On the other hand, such precepts, with some stretching, to be sure, can be taken to mean that, for all practical purposes, no criterion exists for judging anything to be right or wrong, or for indicating that anyone has done anything at all questionable, no matter what. Nobody can cast any stones at anything. There are no targets to be hit. The operative principle is not, "let him who is without sin cast the first stone," but "since we are all sinners, it makes no difference what we do." Everything is permitted because we really cannot know anything about another. No one can find any objective norms in reality -- something for which most scholars thank Kant, though there are other candidates. In any case, sincerity, what I call "the most dangerous virtue," covers every act with a pall of subjectivity that excuses any objective declination from what is good or right.
To be merciful, moreover, comes to mean to be "compassionate," something rather different. To be compassionate today means not "to suffer with," its literal meaning, but rather not to impute anything to anyone. It means to accept someone else's principles whatever they might be. We ask no questions; we silently "suffer with" whatever anyone does or holds. We suspend all judgment. To be compassionate means to accept someone else's liberty, no matter what it is. To be compassionate thus means that there are no distinctions within reality, or at least none that we can detect. Everything is accepted. The only sin conceivable is to imply that something is wrong, that someone did something worthy of objective blame. That insinuation of praise or blame we cannot tolerate. All definitions and judgments indicate "fanaticism," the only real sin. Fanaticism, in a morally disordered society, comes to be identified with orthodoxy, with the life of virtue.
Jennifer Roback Morse makes this point of how compassion is confused with charity in this ecclesiastical reflection:
Vatican II's call for the renewal of moral theology occurred at roughly the same time as the establishment of the Great Society programs in America. Are the two compatible? Superficially, it might seem so, because the Great Society appears to be an increased social commitment to the care of the poor. But at a deeper level, the Great Society substitutes a legalistic, minimalist approach to the Christian precept of charity. For what could be a more minimalistic contribution to the poor than pulling the voting lever for a candidate whose speech writer sounds compassionate? What could be more legalistic than filling out a tax return, and believing we have (thereby) satisfied the Biblical injunction to charity (Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy, 1997).
To what degree, in other words, can a religion that is serious about itself achieve its spiritual goals through its being aided and promoted by state institutions that operate on quite different principles?
The compassionate state that will take care of all our ills verges on the totalitarian state, itself usually a claim to care for the poor. Contrary to its initial good intentions, welfare destroys families and sanctions irresponsibility. Much of the criticism of Mother Teresa, I suspect, arises from the fact that her charity cannot be identified with a political compassion that wants to meet by new laws the very problems she rather addresses with charity.
When a religion becomes non-judgmental, hesitant about identifying anything as right or wrong, even against its own stated principles, when it becomes so compassionate that anyone can do anything simply because it is rooted in his own choices, it risks disappearance as an identifiable organization. Paul Johnson's exasperated words make the point in their own way: "Is the Church of England coming to the end of the road? It looks like it. The service for sodomites and lesbians at Southwark Cathedral last Saturday, blessed by Anglican bishops, has brought home to millions of people in this country who have not much thought about the matter before what kind of an institution our national Church has become" (The Spectator, 23 November, 1996).
The question of what kind of habits and institutions churches foster is a vital one for any civil society and cannot be presumed to make no difference. Average people who read the Bible are not so foolish as not to notice when something against its very foundations is presented in its name. Politically it is always difficult to deal with a religion that is what it professes to be. The question today seems to be rather, what to do with religions that are not doing what they profess to be?
The first words of the Gospel are "repent," which means that even before the Gospel came along, sensible people who never heard of Christianity recognized that they had something that needed repentance. If there is nothing that needs repentance, Christianity is certainly outmoded and quite unnecessary. Moreover, what needs repentance ought not to be some subjective guilt feeling, but the violation of a real and object standard of human conduct, something that we can know and know that we are violating. As Russell Gough, writing of Dennis Rodman, the basketball star's inability to control his temper on a playing court, put it, in a very Aristotelian way, "our lives do not ultimately flourish or self-destruct because of our personality traits but because of our habits of character. Habit, not personality, is destiny" (The Washington Post, February 2, 1997). We are responsible for the formation of our habits, good or bad. The fact that we all sin does not mean that the effort to define sin or bad habits, or to provide a means of repentance or change of life, is an utterly useless effort.
Sin is often said to be merely some social mal-adjustment. Rousseau said that man is good; his institutions are wrong. Therefore, rearrange the institutions and, lo, individuals will be good again. Individuals are said to be victims, not agents of their own souls. The fact is, however, that bad institutions arise from bad choices and bad habits. Aristotle had it right. Constitutions follow on the character of the people who choose to foster and preserve their own definitions of right and wrong through how they construct their institutions of rule. If we want to change a republic, for better or for worse, we must first look to changing souls.
Is Catholicism serious about itself? In a lecture at St. Vincent's College, Brian Benestad had it right, "The dependence of justice in society on the order in the individual soul is surely one of the most neglected aspects of Catholic social teaching on the virtue of justice." Again we ought to know that preaching about social institutions and causes, however popular because of the incorporation of Rousseauian ideas into our culture, will never work. We also know that it is not enough to change our souls without our seeking to help those in need. But we need to be careful that the need to be addressed is not itself caused precisely by some sin or habit. Our charity or compassion ought not not simply to reinforce and smooth over what causes the problem in the first place. We look for technical solutions on a societal level -- vaccines for AIDS, say -- that "might" work instead of moral cures on a personal level -- say, self-control -- that will work.
Christianity, moreover, is being rent by distortions of its own egalitarian premises Equality is another good idea, like compassion, gone riot. At least one origin of the idea of human equality (the other is Stoicism) is the doctrine of the personal creation by God of each human being. "All men are created equal," as a famous document states. Notice, as Chesterton quipped, that the word "created" is operative here, "for they certainly did not evolve equal." For Christians, human equality is not an abstraction. As usual, John Paul II put it well: "Recognition of someone as a human being is never based on the awareness or experience we may have of him, but by the certitude that he has an infinite value from conception, which comes to him from his relationship with God. A human being has primacy over the ideas others have of him, and his existence is absolute and not relative" (December 7, 1996). A human being has primacy over the ideas others have of him.... This is another way of saying that when the Word was made flesh to dwell amongst us, it included the word in which each of us is made to be what we are.
Another Christian source of equality lies in the fact that we are all sinners and in need of redemption, be we pauper or king, scholar or merchant, cleric or gambler. We have all been invited to share in the divine life, but only after the manner of its own definition about how this participation is to come about. We do not set the terms of our own redemption. Though the burden is light, the way is narrow. Thus, the very idea of equality before God implies the freedom and the duty to become, as it were, unequal. We become unequal by freely choosing not to sin, by freely choosing to act virtuously, by freely choosing to repent, even when these choices make us different, make us a minority, even when we may have to suffer for our choices in terms of adverse public opinion, if not by actual persecution, which is in fact more widespread in the world today than we are willing to admit.
News is beginning to filter through, with the help of the latest Kennedy divorces, moreover, about the rather astonishing numbers of annulments that are being granted in various diocesan chanceries. Even though the general divorce rate has somewhat abated, it looks very much as if there is little difference in statistics between Catholics and any one else when it comes to the de facto integrity of marriage bonds. We are tempted to conclude, in fact, that among us very few "indissoluble marriages" take place today. Death is not what does the parting.
Almost all actual marriages, in retrospect, appear to have some now easily defined and proved impediment of knowledge, intention, or psychological status that render them dubiously valid from the beginning. We have no divorces, but myriads of annulments. Maybe that is what we should expect from living in culture degraded in almost every aspect of its understanding and practice about sex and marriage. Marriage itself is no longer able to be defined in the public forum as what it is, the permanent union of a man and a woman that looks, in the heart of their own relationship, to the begetting and caring for their own children. Begetting is more and more turned over to science, while "unwanted" children, sooner or later, are turned over to the state or destroyed in the womb. Sex is left as a kind of insignificant plaything, only to be safely undertaken when it can engender no reproductive results, preferably no emotional ones either.
Somehow, I came across an essay in the Boston College Observer (January 31, 1996) by a student there, Adam DeMaro, who discussed the vapid homilies he had heard on campus. I believe the young man's school has no monopoly here. "Why are so many sticky issues avoided and why are so many priests not bolder and more enthusiastic about the Faith?" DeMaro wondered. Sermons evade doctrine as if to imply that there is little relation between what we do and what we think, certainly not a Catholic position. "Many sermons downplay the importance of infallible doctrine in cultivating a genuine personal faith." That the Church would deign to teach something as definitive is downright dangerous in an academic culture where practically nothing is permitted to be definitive.
The sermons also dodge sin. The preachers do not want to upset us. The flock is presumed to be very delicate. "Thou shalt nots" succumb. In their place, we emphasize "the positive," as a priest told DeMaro when he asked him why no sin was mentioned. The lists of what not to do is rarely heard. Sin itself is also culturally relativized. Something is "ok" in Kansas City because it is "ok" in the South Seas, or at least because of what some anthropologist, mirroring his own life, says is "ok" in the South Seas.
Of virtue, it is said, no universal standards exist; we cannot "impose" our dogmas or practices even on believers who "dissent." "Fornication is a case in point," DeMaro adds. "Not once have I heard a sermon preached warning us of the terrible consequences of this act. And a majority of students engage in it regularly." That is a pretty funny, frank observation, in fact. No one, particularly no preacher, wants to interfere with regular student practices, of course. No one mentions any such "terrible consequences" or even imagines out loud what they might be. Modern sex in fact is designed specifically to have no consequences. Emphasize the positive. At least some students, like DeMaro, in spite of all this positiveness, still wonder "what good (is) the good news, being saved by Christ, if there is nothing we need saving from?" This is, indeed, a very good question.
We live in a world, however, in which every year many, many Catholics and Christians die, are murdered, for their faith. Estimates go as high as a hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand. We do not much want to hear about it or try to do anything about it. It implies judging other people about their quaint "customs." We do not want to analyze too closely laws that make Christians second-class citizens, if that. We certainly do not want our culture questioned, even by the Commandments, certainly not by those who kill and persecute fellow Christians. We'll say nothing of their sins if they say nothing of ours.
Fornication is, in fact, more likely to be a topic of sermons than martyrdom. I have been struck recently by the number of Jews who have wondered why Christians are so little concerned about the persecution of their own. Mona Charen (Washington Times, 11 December 1995) put it well: "But above all, American Christians are simply ill-informed. If one major TV magazine program aired a segment on what is actually happening to Christians in the late 20th century, the apathy would be gone in a flash. Child slavery, false imprisonment, torture, murder. It is all happening to Christians in Islamic and other countries. How long will the world's largest Christian community stay silent?" The answer to this last question seems to be "for a very long time." Even though the State Department itself belatedly produced a paper on the extent of the persecution of Christians throughout the world, Christians themselves appear to be little interested in the persecution of other Christians, no matter how widespread. If we can largely take abortion and infanticide in stride, surely we can adjust to persecution as some kind of statistical event that is bound to happen somewhere at any time among diverse cultures, all happily equal.
John Paul II, no doubt, has referred to contemporary martyrdom very often. Probably the best recent study of this very shocking situation is Paul Marshall's Their Blood Cries Out. The fact is that we live in a world in which the sufferings of brothers and sisters in the faith is little emphasized. We do hear of those who want to socialize the world to prevent poverty without ever hearing it mentioned that socialism will not prevent it. The governments and religions that are most often responsible for persecuting Christians are relatively immune from our criticism, often because we think we need them for economic reasons.
Again we wonder whether Catholics are serious about the communion of saints? We seem to have more sympathy for every suffering group in the world, including rain forests, than for our own, not that we should not concern ourselves with any sort of suffering. We even see a huge decline in efforts of evangelization because it is considered impolite or impolitic to insist on legal freedom of religion where it does not in practice exist. "Interfering in the internal affairs of others," it is called. Many even want to maintain that it does not make any ultimate difference what faith or philosophy or lack thereof someone holds. God, it is said, if He exists at all, must be so compassionate that He saves everyone, no matter what he does or says. Again, no serious reading of Catholicism can justify that position.
Another reason for religious and cultural lethargy may well have to do with the relative population decline of once Christian peoples who seem to have lost confidence in begetting and fostering their own in stable families. Studies seem clearly to show that major causes of our familial and cultural crisis are divorce and the lack of a stable, two parent, male and female -- it needs to be specified -- home. Never let it be said that no observable relation exists between faith and children. Except from graphic studies of people like Allan Carlson, we do not hear much said about divorce either. Sermons on divorce are almost as rare as sermons on fornication. The late Allen Bloom, I believe, claimed that he could look at the faces in his college classes and tell which ones came from homes of divorced parents (The Closing of the American Mind). I sometimes believe it.
Professor Lewis Tambs, in a perceptive article in Policy Counsel (Spring, 1997), has detailed the relative loss of population in European countries and in the United States. In both areas, needed population is being recruited or supplied from from areas of the world that have large populations with quite different values.
The megatrends foreseen by futurologists envision a post-modern era in which the West is no longer the dominant culture, but one of many. For the West has been weakened by demographic decline.... Western civil wars (World Wars I and II, the Cold War) also accelerated transfer of modernity to other peoples, a trend of technological transfer hastened by multinationalism, globalism, and economic integration. These peoples of the Third World, moreover, fight in different, non-conventional ways. So called "fourth generation warfare" of post-modern conflict is waged through immigration, tribalism, trade wars, terrorism, and opiates.
The loss of spiritual confidence and certainty manifests itself in a refusal to give life to new generations.
Few Western countries reproduce themselves at rates sufficient to remain even. Italy, I believe, has become something of a model of how rapidly a people could decide not to replace themselves. The death of a people or civilization is the result of a choice against life. A civilization of death is being rapidly formed. The choosing against life in practice is the result of something deeper, some rejection of objective order both in the soul and in the polity in favor of our own self-imposed and self-defined order.
The trouble, as Tom Bethell has recently remarked (The American Spectator, February, 1997), is that there is a war on that Catholics and Christians choose not even to notice. They do not appreciate that the very foundations of their faith, or even its possibility, are being aggressively denied legally, culturally, and philosophically. Our intellectual classes in the Church have thought it their glory in the past half century to accommodate themselves smoothly to the prevailing culture without noticing how the same culture has changed. It is radically undermining the possibility of living a Christian life. In many cases, almost irreparable corruption takes place in children before the age of reason, certainly before the age of driving.
Tom Bethell put the matter bluntly:
The judiciary's assault on religious traditions has coincided with a near vacuum in Christian leadership. For some time now the Christian churches have harbored virulent apostate movements squarely in the enemy camp. The mainline Protestant churches appear to be near collapse.... The American Catholic hierarchy has been preoccupied with leftist causes for a generation and has squandered much much of its moral capital as a result. Heresy is met with diplomacy.
Political compassion has replaced charity and doctrine. We cannot point out traditional teachings because those that practice deviations from them would be offended. Civil rights almost have come to mean the justification of moral disorders. The intellectual effort of accurate moral analysis and conclusion is delegitimized.
Robert Reilly had it right about how this deligitimization works. "The culture of vice," as he called it, (National Review, November, 1996), does not stop until it declares the classical vices to be virtues. It insists further that in the public forum, including the religious sector, that they be called precisely virtuous. Even to cite the list of sins that a St. Paul said were both abnormal and heinous is to violate someone's civil rights to practice them with government aid and protection. "Judge not," under any circumstances.
Reilly rightly begins with Aristotle's observation that "men start revolutionary changes for reasons connected with their private lives." He adds:
For any individual, moral failure is hard to live with because of the rebuke of conscience. Habitual moral failure, what used to be called vice, can be lived with only by obliterating conscience through rationalization. When we rationalize, we convince ourselves that heretofore forbidden desires are permissible. We advance the reality of the desires over the reality of the moral order to which the desires should be subordinated. In our minds we replace the reality of moral order with something more congenial to the activity we are excusing. In short, we assert that bad is good.
This is very well said and explains the mood of the public moral order, or lack of it, that we witness today. Paul Johnson in The Intellectuals and E. Michael Jones in Degenerate Moderns have made a similar point about the relation between the relativism of modern philosophical positions and the moral character of their authors.
In an address he gave to the European Doctrinal Commission in 1989 in Vienna, Josef Ratzinger, in a slightly different manner, made the same point that Reilly stressed:
Key concepts present themselves in the words "conscience" and "freedom" which are supposed to confer the aura of morality upon changed forms of behaviour which, at first glance, would be plainly labelled as a surrender of moral integrity, the simplification of a lax conscience. No longer is conscience understood as that knowledge which derives from a higher form of knowledge. It is instead the individual's self-determination which may not be directed by someone else, a determination by which each person decides for himself what is moral in a given situation.
The Supreme Court, in the Casey decision, pretty well espoused this view of absolute moral self-determination that Ratzinger indicated as the exact opposite of any classical or Christian idea of conscience or freedom.
We live in a strange time, no doubt. In academia today, we do not like to speak of "Roman" Catholicism; each school, even each department, not to mention each individual, under this same doctrine of self-deciding freedom, has its own version of the content of faith, if indeed any is admitted. Yet, the Roman Catholic Church itself has never had at its head a more intellectual and decisive Pope, nor in the case of Josef Ratzinger, a more intellectual head of its doctrinal concerns. I sometimes suspect that there is an uneasy, but grudging realization of this fact not merely in Catholic intellectual circles but in the world at large. Great care is taken not to allow the force of the Catholic statement of itself to be presented accurately and clearly. Dissidents are always preferred when it comes to explaining in the media or academia what Catholicism might mean or intend. If Catholicism is not culturally stronger, it is not because it has not adequately accounted for itself at the highest level in almost every area.
One can interpret the recent American conclusions over Ex Corde Ecclesiae university directives -- themselves now turned back for revision by the Holy See -- in several ways, I suppose. Probably James Hitchcock was not far from the mark when he remarked (The Academy, April, 1997) that from now on, in universities and colleges, Catholicism, what it is, will not be a matter of doctrine, practice, and authority, but of consensus. A different form of Catholicism will be found in each school. No one will be able to say what is or is not orthodox without being accused of violating the bishops' decision not to interfere. Except rarely, bishops will not be consulted nor will they say much of anything.
Something like the General Catechism will not, in practice, serve as a common standard since any standard is subject to varying consensus. This consensus is not generally determined by the university but will be turned over to certain faculties within it. Bishops, whatever the now very obscure confines of their legal standing, will not venture into this, to them, closed world. Students or faculty members who want religious ceremonies or teaching in conformity with the Holy See will be marginalized. They will have to look outside the system. There will be, however, no confrontations, no resolution in terms of a common standard of belief handed down or judged by a religious authority about what it is about. Self-professed Catholics will hold, in effect, opposite positions on everything from precepts of the moral law to the divinity of Christ or the place of Mary or the Eucharist. These will be merely differences of academic views.
All of this, I suggest, is happening while the formal statement of the basic doctrines and moral principles have never been clearer or more coherent. The International Theological Institute was opened in Gaming, Austria, on January 28, 1997, the Feast of Thomas Aquinas. The sermon was delivered by the Viennese Archbishop, Christoph von Schönbrun, himself appropriately a Dominican. In the course of his Sermon, von Schönbrun cited the famous line from the very first question of the Summa Theologiae, "The entire salvation of man depends upon the knowledge of the truth." We should not fail to realize just how revolutionary this single sentence from Aquinas is in our culture. Everything conspires to deny that there can be such a thing as a knowledge of the truth.
But what struck me most about von Schönbrun's sermon was his assessment of the place of Aquinas in the Church. Our culture is dominated by an activist streak that not only denies any standard of virtue or vice but acquires its own morality from what it chooses to enforce. We pass from prohibiting drinking to prohibiting smoking as if there is no irony in the thousands of references that morality cannot be legislated. Morality is identified with the law which itself is based on nothing but its own statement, on will. Law can change tomorrow and a new "morality" will then be in vogue. No appeal from positive law to a natural or revealed law will be tolerated. Hence, whatever the law says is right, until it is changed. To whatever it is changed, this will then become right.
"In the Church, there are all kinds of saints: holy housewives and holy kings, holy fools and holy artists. Among these saints there are also holy thinkers and theologians," von Schönbrun recalled.
Thomas Aquinas is considered the greatest of these. Thomas did not take care of the sick, he did not deliver great sermons. Like few others he only studied, searched, taught, and wrote. And for this he is revered as a saint.... Thomas is only a thinker, philosopher and theologian, so much so that his biography is of comparatively little interest. When one speaks of Thomas Aquinas, one means his work. He is holy in his work.
What struck me about this reflection is that those orders and centers that we have looked to for "thought," for "truth," are rarely places wherein it can be found. Thomas must largely be found on our own.
So how can Catholicism be serious about its truth? I knew a bishop once who told me that many of his college students went to a Catholic college in another diocese. When he found out that all the theological faculty of that college signed a document opposing one of the stated positions of the Church, he told me that he hoped at least some of his students would ask him about it. He said he was willing to write a letter to the university requesting exemption of all his students from any theology class on the grounds that it was a danger to their faith. Alas, he could find no student bright enough or with gumption enough to test it out.
But this story does bring up an issue that I think at least worth suggesting. Even though there is little or no formal relation now between universities and bishops -- most Catholic students are in state or non-Catholic schools anyhow -- still bishops remain responsible in some sense for the spiritual well-being of all their students. They cannot abdicate this responsibility. How might they exercise this responsibility since in practice they can no longer satisfy their consciences that what is taught at the college level is what students need to know about their faith and its intelligence? In Italy, the Holy Father seems to have organized a series of "theological weeks" for students in Italian universities. His world youth days also have been enormously successful. Ralph McInerny has proposed a television university.
I sometimes wonder if bishops should not require, as a matter of grave conscience, that each college student, no matter what college he attends, state, private, or Catholic, read at least the General Catechism and perhaps Crossing the Threshold of Faith during his college years, with a few other books recommended, say Augustine's Confessions and Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Perhaps some sort of video cassette might work also.
The atmosphere into which students are sent requires some positive effort on their part and on the bishops' part. Msgr. Robert Sokolowski put the matter properly:
The secular sciences and academic fields as they are now constituted claim to be independent of any authority external to their disciplines. They claim that their ways of thinking begin within each discipline itself, with principles, methods, and sources of that discipline, independent of an authority outside it. This claim rests on a conviction concerning the nature of human reason: reason is seen as self-authorizing and autonomous, as generating its own principles and not accepting anything on authority, as setting itself up as the beginning and the judge of thinking. In this perspective, accepting things on faith has a tinge of gullibility and uncritical submission, of what Kant called heteronomy, which he saw as the deepest betrayal of reason. ("Church Tradition and the Catholic University," in The Nature of Catholic Higher Education, 1996).
No doubt, this is a factual description of the kind of intellectual atmosphere that most students encounter.
The situation, in conclusion, is not altogether hopeless. Looking at the failure of communism in his Guadalajara address in November, 1996, Josef Ratzinger observed, "The failure of the communist regimes is due precisely to the fact that they tried to change the world without knowing what is good and what is not good for the world, without knowing in what direction the world must be changed in order to make it better. Mere praxis is not light." The world cannot be changed without knowing what is good and what is not good. Changing the world is first a matter of soulcraft.
But we are Christians and know that philosophy itself will not save us. John Paul II remarked precisely to youth preparing for his World Youth Day in Paris, 1997, "Christians are not the disciples of a system of philosophy: they are men and women who, in faith, have experienced the encounter with Christ" (15 August, 1996). This too is well said.
But this fact that Christianity is not a "system of philosophy" does not mean there is no place for philosophy. Josef Ratzinger, again in his remarkable Guadalajara address, had it right: "But Barth was wrong when ... he proposed the faith as a pure paradox that can only exist against reason and totally independent from it. It is not the lesser function of the faith to care for reason as such." The seriousness of Catholicism in the modern world should be precisely this, "to care for reason as such." The degree to which Catholicism is serious about itself, I think, is to be measured both by John Paul's we "are not the disciples of a system of philosophy," and by Josef Ratzinger's remark that "not the lesser function of faith is to care for reason."
THE "GOOD NEWS" RECONSIDERED
First, the bad news. A New Yorker cartoon (Latham, 22 April 1996) shows us down in Hell. We see several pudgy, furry devils, with their three pronged forks and pointed tails, herding throngs of hapless human sinners through the licking flames of the Inferno. Sitting on a hot rock observing the scene is a rather reflective gentleman, hand on his chin. He has been down under for some time and knows the score. Obviously, he has been just quizzed by a rather dazed, innocent-looking gentleman descending by the hot rock about what it is like further down into the scorching caverns. As a frowning devil looks over his shoulder, long-term human resident of Hades tells the expectant, hopeful arrival, deflatingly, "No, it's not going to be O. K." In other words, in these smoking realms, contrary to all popular earthly psychology, however politically incorrect, when we choose certain alternatives, we lie to ourselves if we think that our condition is anything other than "I'm not O. K. and you're not O. K."
We have here, in fact, a surprising bit of Christian orthodoxy in so unlikely place as The New Yorker, not normally known for its theological acumen. Yet, one of the most solid signs of orthodoxy is always the right understanding about Hell, about what is at stake in our purposeful lives, about whether, no matter what we do, it necessarily comes out "all right, O. K."? We would like to think, at first glance, that we can really do nothing that might be ultimately serious, ultimately worthy of eternal punishment. But if we cannot ever do anything to which such dire consequences are attached, we have to wonder whether we can do anything worthwhile either. Are the good things we do likewise not in any sense our responsibility? We have to wonder, indeed, on such an hypothesis, whether we, by our own choices, can do anything at all, whether we may not be living in a deterministic world in which neither we nor our actions really matter? In other words, when spelled out, much is at stake with each doctrine, not least one so perplexing as that of Hell, even though we often do not, at our peril, reflect enough on it to figure out what its cause might be.
Yet, such are the ironies, the concluding statement of The New Yorker's cartoon would also be perfectly orthodox if its setting were not Hell but what Christian tradition called Purgatory, wherein a veteran inhabitant could rightly say to a new comer, "Yes, eventually it will be O. K." The distance between the one and the other doctrine, as this tradition teaches and the cartoon implies, is infinite. Small mistakes of understanding or inference can make enormous differences in these matters. This is why thinking and thinking correctly are also essential elements to our spiritual lives. We sometimes like to maintain that accuracy and clarity of what it is we hold are really not important. All that counts is how we "feel" about something, including our own deeds. But this view, however popular, is very superficial. It ignores the importance of our active reason in all that we do. The teaching about Hell is that there really can be terrible things that free creatures can and do choose, actions against unknown human beings, each of infinite worth, against friends, against mankind itself. And while these crimes, sins, or disorders may be forgiven, even the worst of them, still they may not be ignored or treated as if they did not happen or matter.
Thus, if we insist that whatever we choose is legitimate, no matter what it is we do, we have succeeded in setting ourselves up as gods who decide what is good and what is evil against any permanent objective standard. Not even God can change a will fixed on itself. Hell, when rightly sorted out, is merely the consequence of living totally with our own creations, our own choices depended on nothing but ourselves. Purgatory, however, that so often misunderstood teaching, simply implies that, at some point, we recognize that we do not create the difference between good and evil. On this basis, actually acknowledging the vast divergence between what we did and what we ought to have done, we repent; that is, we indicate to ourselves and others that what we did, claiming our will or feelings were sufficient justification, was in fact wrong. Sorrow and repentance in this way uphold the structure of what is right. Punishment, as Plato taught us, means that, in accepting it, we acknowledge to everyone, including ourselves, that what we did needs repair, restructuring.
Purgatory, as it were, is a place wherein the depths of the evil we did, even when acknowledged, can be accepted by us and atoned for. There is, in this sense, nothing odd or unusual about this sort of understanding of the power and consequences of our choices, especially our wrong choices. What we put into existence by our actions, we are responsible for, for better or for worse. But if we do uphold what we ought to do by our acknowledging that what we did was in fact wrong, then, "yes, things will be O. K." When we freely acknowledge that this deed of ours ought not to have been done, we are in a very different situation than when we do not grant the validity of the standards against which we act. In the latter case, "no, things will not be O.K."
The contrast of "bad news" and "good news" is of course of long standing. "Bad news" is not
just a matter of listening to CNN every night and believing what we hear. The very word "good news", to recall, is a translation of the Greek word, ευανγελιον, good news, or better in the older English translation, "good tidings". In the Christmas scene, the angels brought to the shepherds "glad tidings of great joy". This "evangel" was the word used for the Gospel. Since this good news was supposed to be directed to the consideration of everyone, eventually to those of "all nations", even to the ends of the world, it has the connotation of something sent, something sent for a reason, something sent to someone. The good news had the characteristic of faithfulness to what was initially revealed to us. It was a trust. We are not going ,to improve on its scope, on its wonder. The bearers of this good news were not primarily intellectuals or emissaries with their own message. Indeed, if that is what news they bore, news strictly of their own concoction, it was not what was assigned to them, not what we wanted or needed to hear from them.
St. Irenaeus, the Second Century bishop, already explained what was at stake in keeping intact the original teachings:
The faith and the tradition of the churches founded in Germany are no different from those founded among the Spanish and the Celts, in the East, in Egypt, in Libya, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. Just as God's creatures, the sun, is one and the same the world over, so also does the Church's preaching shine everywhere to enlighten all men who want to come to a knowledge of the truth. Now of those who speak with authority in the churches, no preacher however forceful will utter anything different -- for no one is above the Master -- nor will a less forceful preacher diminish what has been handed down. Since our faith is everywhere the same, no one who can say more augments it, nor can anyone who says less diminish it (Against Heresies, I, 10).
This ancient passage reminds us that it is not our eloquence or lack of it that is important but what we have been given, what is handed down to us. Men who "want to hear the truth" are the ones to whom the truth is directed, again implying that to hear the truth we must want to hear it. However great the diversity of mankind in culture or time, what each person ultimately needs is exactly the same, the accurate description and presentation of what it is that revelation intended to tell us about ourselves, about our world, and about God.
The Apostles were sent into the world to speak of these "good tidings". What was intended here was something that everyone would want to know about for it concerned something that was of vital importance to each finite human life. To "evangelize" eventually came to mean to bring this explanation, this good news, to the attention of folks of all nations as something they not only had a right to know about but as something they would want to know about, insist on knowing about, if they could have the opportunity to understand its dimensions. The good news, directed to all men in all regimes, even those hostile to it, was, as it were, an explanation of why human life was in fact more than it appeared to be. If it was at risk in some ultimate sense, as the doctrine of Hell seemed to imply, this risk, by way of paradox, also indicated its ultimate worth even to those who bore the risk.
How did human life appear to be? Aristotle had noticed the "wickedness" of human nature left to itself. Augustine eloquently described the disordered consequences of The Fall. To others, like Hobbes, it appeared, in a famous phrase, to be "nasty, brutish, and short". It appeared to contain disaster, foreboding, sickness, deceit, and certainly death as its last and apparently final act. It appears so bad, even today, that some of our courts are helping us to commit suicide to avoid its ramifications. We are rapidly becoming a culture of death, putting in place laws and means to facilitate our personal demise, even with our own consent. Against such a background and experience, even in our own days, anyone who maintained that he had particularly "good news" would seem less a benefactor than a madman.
It soon became clear, moreover, that not everyone wanted to hear this good news, for it involved, even demanded, a change of life and its living. It introduced what seemed new and outlandish principles, such as forgiveness and repentance, the sanctity of life and the sacrificial nature of suffering. It announced a new seriousness to our lives. Our faults were not merely missteps but sins, indeed they even seemed to reach the Godhead who loved those whom we offended. Our free will was much more powerful than we had ever anticipated or bargained for. We could actually choose against the order of being; we could conceive ourselves to be ill-created because we were limited by what was right to do, when we preferred to do whatever we wanted to do..
April 19, 1778, was an Easter Sunday. James Boswell, the great Scottish biographer of Samuel Johnson, had been to services in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. After services, Boswell visited Johnson but, he tells us, he "did not stay for dinner." However, in a reflective moment, he told Johnson, that he wished "to have the arguments for Christianity always in readiness, that my religious faith might be as firm and clear as any proposition whatever." And why did Boswell want to have his arguments in order? So that, as he tells us, he would not be under the "least uneasiness, when it should be attacked." Boswell obviously expected that some attack from some source or other would always occur, so he wanted his head to be full of good argument. He was rather vain about it, in fact.
To this concern of Boswell, Johnson had a surprising response, one that is worth a considerable amount of reflection especially today. "Sir, you cannot answer all objections," Johnson wisely reminded his precocious young friend.
You have demonstrations for a First Cause; you see he must be good as well as powerful, because there is nothing to make him otherwise, and goodness of itself is preferable. Yet, you have against this, what is very certain, the unhappiness of human life. This, however, gives us reason to hope for a future state of compensation, that there may be a perfect system. But of that we are not sure, till we had a positive revelation.
The "positive revelation" is, of course, precisely the "good news". Johnson has here in this little paragraph, no doubt, a brief outline of the essential arguments that Boswell had in mind, arguments mindful of those of Thomas Aquinas himself.
Thus, we can know that there is a First Cause, something of its nature, from reason, its power and goodness. But if God is good and powerful, why do we humans experience such "unhappiness"? Johnson was a realist. This unhappiness is a great mystery and cause of revolt. This same unhappiness, however, when experienced, led us to look for some "future state of compensation". Plato and Aristotle had profound considerations about these issues and principles. But they did not get them too far, Johnson thought, since, in the end, they were not "sure". In ultimate things, we need to be "sure". But now that we have a positive revelation, we can be more certain. We cannot use our faith as if it were merely another argument, as Boswell seemed to have wanted. Yet, every denial of what faith taught, itself seemed to lead to a contradiction when adequately thought about. However elusive, this faith seemed to have a persistent, coherent intellectual component. Ideas rooted in faith, when considered and drawn out, seem to increase reason, make things more coherent, not less so.
The Year 2000 has fascinated the present Pope, John Paul II, ever since he was elevated to the Papal See. In a remarkable document entitled, "On the Coming Third Millennium," the Pope has considered it time to re-present, to re-send to mankind the essentials of Christian doctrine, particularly its teaching about God Himself. The groundwork for this re-presentation has been the result of the enormous clarification, reformulation of the Christian faith that has been carried out by this remarkable Pope. The essence of this understanding of the faith is that the single God has manifested Himself as a being of one reality with a diversity of Persons within the one substance or being. In revelation, these Persons are respectively called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost or Spirit. One of these Persons, the Word, became man, lived in a definite time and place, in the regime of Augustus and Tiberius Caesar.
Each of the years coming into the Third Millennium, 1997-2000, is to be devoted to one of the persons of the Trinity, with the Year 2000 devoted to the very Triune God. That is to say, that Catholicism is making it a particular enterprise to re-present its teachings and understandings about God. This endeavor is done under the urgings of the faith itself that maintains that mankind both needs and wants what is revealed to it. While it is important, as both faith and reason teach us, that we freely accept what is revealed, we can also reject it. Moreover, there is a certain urgency, almost as if the way we live has reached a critical point, that our personal disorders are no longer minor ones, inadvertent ones.
When we think of it, very little discussion exists in the modern world about God Himself, what He is like. Now this knowledge of the communal or Trinitarian life of the Godhead, in its specific form, is not something that the pagan or modern philosophers figured out by themselves. It was something that needed to be revealed to us, but once revealed, we were to think about its meaning and implications. There is a coherent and plausible explanation of the Godhead that does not deny its mystery, its infinite surpassing of the powers of the human mind. We in fact rarely hear this explanation, rarely often are allowed to hear it. Media, educational, and political control makes considerable effort to prevent a clear and honest explanation of the Godhead from being presented on a wide scale. People themselves are often reluctant to listen to what they ought to hear and live by. Political regimes are content with their "civil religion" or lack of it. They do not want to change. Ways of life are set. Many have made choices, moral, personal choices, which, if unchanged, will prevent personal consideration of the Godhead both as it can be known from reason and from revelation.
One of the little attended to aspects of the efforts of John Paul II is his endeavor to call political regimes simply to the minimum of religious liberty wherein an honest and thorough presentation of revelation and its dimensions could be presented without fear of reprisal or punishment. It seems rather ironical that today, on this front, it is not the state demanding civil tolerance of the religions but religion requesting basic civil freedom befpre the increasingly all-powerful state, including particularly the democratic state. John Paul II, of course, is not interested in religious wars and strife. But he is interested in religious discussion and reflection on what each religion, no matter what it is, teaches and practices.
Almost alone of modern public men, John Paul II insists that we clearly and cautiously begin to speak to each other about our past records and differences in a way in which we can acknowledge our past sins and faults and, at the same time, have the courage to think about the truth, wherever we find it. One of the main lessons of the late tewntieth century is that the sins of the past, sometimes centuries past, be acknowledged and forgiven. John Paul II is concerned about honest and fruitful discussion among people who are serious and take their lives seriously. He has no doubt it can be done if we observe certain basic civilities and respect one another.
This approach means that beyond politics, beside it, there ought to be everywhere places wherein we can hear and reflect on what it is that revelation is about, what does it teach us about God and how we are to live. Religious liberty is not a cover for religious or philosophical skepticism, but an invitation to seek the religious truth honestly and openly. One can say with little fear of contradiction that the religious world today is far more prepared to listen to arguments against religion than the secular world is prepared to allow and reflect on religious teachings.
On February 18, 1996, in Rome, John Paul II repeated for the hundredth time the exact teaching of Catholicism on religious liberty. "There is no relativism or religious indifferentism at the heart of this right (to religious freedom), as if no truth existed and every choice had the same value," John Paul II observed. "Instead, there is the dignity of the human person, who by nature had the right and duty to seek the truth and can do so in a truly human way only if he is actually free." Each human person has first the duty and then the consequent right to seek the truth in a human way. No faith is worth anything at all if it is not rooted in freedom, a freedom not for its own sake as if there was nothing further than making our own choices, but the freedom to seek and live by what is true and what is right.
Religious freedom in a political sense means simply that we all ought to have this opportunity, unhindered, to hear what is handed down and, subsequently, to practice and to live by what we hear without fear of political coercion or cultural disdain. In theory, perhaps, there is religious liberty in many parts of the world today. Most civil constitutions at least pay lip-service to it. But the practice and reality are far different. In many places Christians are severely restricted or even repressed, the Sudan being at present the most obvious and least attended to example. Even in democratic societies, perhaps especially there, we can fine a great difficulty in learning about and in practicing one's faith. The growing home school movement in the United States is very often the result of a kind of practical despair at ever getting proper religious teachings in state and even private controlled schools. Almost everywhere, even Catholics have to make special efforts to hear precisely what it is that the Church teachers. The new General Catechism of the Catholic Church has provided a basic text that frees us from so much false teaching and emphasis, a problem that can come sometimes even from within Church circles, as John Paul II reminded us in Veritatis Splendor. But a book is not a book for us, including the Bible and the Catechism, until it is read and assimilated.
America is said to be a country in which more people believe in God and go to church than anywhere else in the world. Yet, it is a country of surprising moral disorder. The ancient philosophers at their best taught us that to reform our public lives we had first to reform our personal lives, that tinkering with external things like laws and regimes would little avail us if we were so disordered in soul that we could not recognize what was right. And in many corners of our civilization, religion is looked upon as a threat precisely because it does hold certain truths to be self-evident. It is hardly ever considered for what it actually teaches.
The old Epicurean philosophers held a view that we often still find today, indeed it was at the root of Marxism for Marx studied Epicurus. It held that science has proved that belief in the gods was untenable. Religion was said to be caused by fear of the unknown. Once we understood that there were no gods and that everything could be explained, we would not need the gods because we had nothing to fear. There would be no fear of Hell because all could be explained without it. This argument was, of course, known by Thomas Aquinas. He gave it as the second objection (the first was the existence of evil) to his proofs for the existence of God. Science, however, has not shown that it can explain everything including fear of punishment resulting from our evil deeds.
In our time, religion is almost always seen as something primarily political, but this is because the political has claimed more and more of our lives. Politics looks more like a religion than religion looks like politics. Religion, contrary to its own inclinations, has been forced to become political because the laws of the public order increasingly embody principles and practices that are directly opposed to the tenets of religion, and of Christianity in particular. There is nothing secret about this. Anyone who objectively, say, reads the morning newspaper followed by reading the Ten Commandments cannot help but being aware that some deep conflicts exist in the soul of the democracies. As the state has gained control over the educational and cultural process, it has excluded anything that it did not directly control.
The notion of the separation of church and state only meant something if there was something to separate. The state today, as I have said, often looks more like a religion than it does a state. This is why it might well be maintained that we live in a time of an odd kind of religious civil warfare. Quite clearly, there is a vested interest in relativism, both cultural and personal, as a claim to be the only foundation of that sort of democracy that can deny moral order and encourage practices that militate against the human good. The claim that certain things are right and others wrong means that relativism cannot be right. Every relativism holds that the principle of relativism is true, which if true, means that something is not relative. To be free means to be able to reject those things that are wrong, to live our lives without wrong things being imposed on us. We will have a very different kind of public order, however, if we believe nothing is true but what we choose, or if we believe that what we choose today can be rejected tomorrow, that there is no criterion to establish any difference.
We live in a busy, busy time. St. Paul said, in a famous statement, that faith comes by hearing. But today we can hear and see almost anything. If we add the computer which has immediate access to almost infinite amounts of information, including that of religion, we will soon realize that competition for our attention, for what is important, is all-pervasive and limitless. The problem we most run into when we seek to reconsider the "good news" is that everything, including the "good news" itself, exists within this entire atmosphere of competing voices. Whereas Irenaeus could maintain that the faith was presented in the same way all over the world, we experience great confusion in finding out what this same faith is, even though its essentials can be found if we are persistent enough, if only in the ancient creeds.
We are fortunate in our time to have the papacy to be vigorous and clear but we also notice that everything is controverted. A well-known Catholic scholar or politician can usually be found to deny in the public forum almost any religious truth found in the corpus of its teachings. Indeed, the major media will often deliberately find a dissident voice and feature that counter-position as part of its own claim to be objective and thorough in covering religious things. This procedure leads to a double confusion. It obscures what is in fact taught in the Church and it hides what is not orthodox under the appearance of orthodoxy.
In his homily in Central Park in New York City (October 7, 1995), John Paul II recalled the Christmas song he used to sing in his homeland. "I remember a song I used to sing in Poland as a young man, a song which I still sing as Pope, which tells about the birth of the Savior. On Christmas night in every church and chapel, this song would ring out, repeating in a musical way the story told in the Gospel.... The same story is told in the beautiful hymn 'Silent Night', which everyone knows." From this Christmas scene we get the very terminology of the "good news", the "glad tidings". Revelation includes a series of events that happened in human time, each of which is part of a whole, an interrelated, coherent explanation of what we are and what is our destiny. We ourselves are caught up in the working out of God's plan for mankind, a plan that includes the particular destiny of each of us.
We sometimes think that, because of the extraordinary diversity of religions and philosophy that different people have different destinies. Yet, however diverse the explanations of what human destiny might be like, in fact there can be only one destiny; or to put it more accurately, we ultimately all have the choice of accepting or rejecting the same destiny. There is a divine plan or purpose. The order of its accomplishment has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We all belong to this plan that is not designed for itself or for some abstract collectivity but for each of us. Every human being ever born on this Planet, or even ever conceived for that matter, has the same destiny, which is to enjoy forever the divine glory. Adult, responsible human beings can, however, positively reject this destiny.
Though we cannot be certain of this, some, perhaps as St. Augustine thought, many do reject this gift offered to them. This ominous possibility of things ultimately not being "O.K." is what is at stake in living out our lives, in our own time and place, whenever and wherever that might be. Were our freedom not involved in our destiny, we could not be the kind of beings we are. Certain activities must be free, those that indicate specifically what we love and we admire. Likewise, what is in fact good and the origin of what is good, when spelled out, contain the characteristics of personhood. The divinity, to the enjoyment of which we each are created, is not an inert thing or a sort of vague celestial energy, but an infinite being whose inner life consists of the ordered interchange of three persons.
The "good news" as it is conceived in Christian understanding is that we are called to be something beyond what we could possibly expect to be due to us on the basis of a realistic understanding of our own finite nature, an understanding that we can and ought to acquire by reflecting on and examining what we are. At the origin of creation is a tremendous risk that God took in forming beings other than Himself. We do not often think of it this way. But none of us would want someone to love us if he were forced to do so. The principle involved is exclusive to us human beings. Rather we must say that however little we would want someone to love us who did not choose to do so, so much the less would God want someone to love Him who did not choose to do so. The whole drama of creation is contained in this simple observation.
This relationship of man and God, when we think about it, forms the context and, yes, the suspense of human existence on this earth. What is going on in mankind's history, at its deepest level, is the presenting to each human person, also through human means -- the going forth to teach all nations -- this good news. If there were not in every generation those who did not want this understanding of human destiny to be known and did not want life to be practiced according to its norms, human beings would have known accurately and objectively long ago the essential outlines of their destiny, something they still do not know on a universal scale today.
But while there is only one destiny for each human being, there are many competing explanations of human existence. The history of wars and rumors of wars, of internal strive and personal disorder, results largely from these competing explanations. And it is no little thing that a human being properly understand that for which he is created, for what he exists. Faith includes and is directed to intelligence. What is perhaps unique about our time is that we all, even ordinary people, have the possibility of confronting the single destiny of mankind within the myriads of explanations of this destiny.
Today, it is quite possible to have an accurate historical and doctrinal account of every religion and philosophical position claiming to be able to explain man's nature and destiny. We can know what the various sects of Islam teach and practice, for example. We can classify and compare We know about Buddhism and Hinduism, Mormonism, Marxism, and the New Age. We have read the philosophers. The era of government trying to prevent other religious or philosophic explanations than the official one is not completely over, to be sure. China with its one-third of the world's population remains mostly a closed society, still largely confined by sophisticated modern force. The charges that private and public media in democracies are biased against belief likewise have much to be said for them. Still, with the computer, fax, CD, e-mail, tape-recordings, books, telephone, and television, it is almost impossible that accurate information cannot be somehow attained.
At first sight, this multiplicity of means might sound like a worst-case Tower of Babel revisited. And this very variety does present a formidable challenge just to know what sorts of understandings are available. Yet, we have the one destiny. It is possible that some, many do not achieve it. We all must, in any case choose it. Moreover, there are not "many" ways to this same salvation, but only one way. If there is anything new about the good news, or better about the way it is to be known, it is that we no longer deal with one another in ignorance. We have an active engagement at many levels about our differences and similarities. The great question is how we choose. We know that those who strive through their own lights to seek the will of God, however it is perceived, will not be denied God's graces. But we also know that our differences, in so far as they can be resolved, are not to be neglected. Our procedures are not based in relativism. It is part of the very good of human intelligence and freedom that we do not deny what we hold and are.
In conclusion, I might say that in one sense the forces standing against the human good and the truth of revelation in our time, forces that seem so formidable, may in fact be very weak. The suddenness of the collapse of Marxism, an empire that we can see better in retrospect did have much evil connected with it, perplexes our social sciences because it really does not appear to have an identifiable scientific cause.
At his Trial, in a passage that defines the heart of our civilization, Socrates had said that we can escape death in battle if we throw away our arms and run away, that if we are unscrupulous enough we can always escape death, at least for a while. The difficulty, he added, "is not so much to escape death; the real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong." Then he added that "nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death, and his fortunes are not a matter of indifference to the gods." Even if the good man, the martyr, is killed by the state, he cannot be harmed.
Recently, I came across a paperback edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's Unfinished Tales in a book store in Virginia. I mentioned finding this book in a class of mine. I was surprised that a couple of the students had already read it. One student told me a couple of weeks later that he checked the book out of the library and read it again. In the Tale entitled "Narn I Hîn Húrin", there is an encounter between Morgoth, the Prince and origin of Evil, and the human hero Húrin after the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Húrin had fallen into the hands of the Evil Ainur, Morgoth, who wanted him to reveal a secret that he was forbidden to reveal.
This brief encounter repeats the lesson of Socrates in its own way but in the light of the classic spiritual tradition of not dealing with a prince of evil. In fact, it recalls the scene in Genesis in which Satan, speaking to Eve, about violating the prohibition to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, told her that in telling them that they would die, that God lied.
"You have learned the lesson of your masters by rote," said Morgoth. "But such childish lore will not help you, now they are all fled away."
"This last then I will say to you, thrall Morgoth," said Húrin, "and it comes not from the lore of the Eidar, but is put into my heart in this hour. You are not the Lord of Men, and shall not be, though all Arda (earth) and Menel (heavens) fall into your dominion. Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you."
"Beyond the Circles of the World I will not pursue them," said Morgoth. "For beyond the Circle of the World there is Nothing. But within them they shall not escape me, until they enter into Nothing."
"You lie," said Húrin (Ballantine, p. 7).
Here are all the elements of our destiny -- the power of evil in the world is real, but it cannot stand. It is based on a lie. For those who think this world is everything, that beyond it there is nothing, they cannot see the rejection of doing evil. The courage it takes looks foolish to them.
"It is good to have the arguments for Christianity in readiness." "The faith and the tradition of the churches founded in Germany are no different from those founded among the Spanish and the Celts...." We see "the unhappiness of human life" that leads us to hope for "a future state of compensation .... But of that we are not sure, till we had a positive revelation." "We cannot act as if no truth existed and every choice had the same value." "On every Christmas night, in every church and chapel, this song would ring out, repeating in a musical way, the story told in the Gospel." "The difficulty is not to escape death; the real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong."
Evil claims for itself something that it cannot deliver.
In the Circles of the World, evil and its prince lie to us. This is its intrinsic weakness, why it can disappear in a moment of blessedness.
The bad news is that "it is not going to be O.K."
The "good news" is that, if we so choose, it is.
ON THE WILL TO KNOW THE TRUTH
Newman on Why Men of Learning Often Do Not Believe
"We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away; we perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own."
-- John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, I, Discourse V, 1853.
"But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and being mortal, to think of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything."
-- Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, X, 7.
Several years ago, in 1990, to be exact, some friends gave me for Christmas the Ignatius Press Edition of Newman's Parochial and Plain Sermons. This is a book of almost inexhaustible depth and richness. On taking up this book again, I notice that I had, some time ago, put a mark on the Twenty-Fourth Sermon of the First Series. It is called "On the Religion of the Day." It begins, "In every age of Christianity, since it was first preached, there has been what may be called the religion of the world, which so far imitates the one true religion, as to deceive the unstable and unwary." Naturally, wishing neither to be "unstable" nor "unwary," I want to be sure that I have some idea of the subtleties of this religion of the world, which subtleties evidently can deceive even the elect because they "imitate" the "true religion." We like to think that the worst evils will look horrid so that we shall easily recognize them, but it is not so. Most often they will be quite enticing and we should not doubt it.
Newman already implies here that no age of Christianity will ever be quite free of this
confusion between the true religion and its erstwhile imitators. True religion and truth, no doubt, have difficult going whenever and wherever men dwell. Here, it is intimated that to be successful, the religion of the world must imitate some or other aspect of true religion or else it will never attract anyone. On the other hand, since the imitation is not the true religion, it will contain something that is dangerous, something that will deflect us from the truth while looking rather much like it. We are again surprised that knowing the truth is so difficult. We wonder why.
We suspect at first that truth may be very complex and subtle so that the main problem is simply lack of intelligence or talent, something for specialists, not for us ordinary folks. But we notice, if we are at all sharp, that the cultured and academic unbelievers are many and articulate. It is not the experience of Christianity since its beginnings that the more intelligent one is, the more likely one is to be a believer. Yet, Christianity professes to be and is, more than any other, an intellectual religion. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God...." Such words from the Prologue to St. John suggest that the world is suffused with intelligence, with word.
Our age has a difficult time with the idea that we are rational beings made to know the truth. We are afraid of truth because it confronts us with our limits, with things that are true whether we like it or not. We like to think we are, in our intrinsic nature, rather raw desires made to "will" into existence what we want, whatever it is we want. Truth, however, implies that freedom is related to something other than itself. Our eyes grow narrowly cautions when we hear, especially from revelation, that it is the truth that will make us free. We think and are taught that it is the truth that will make us "unfree," that truth is a threat to democracy, to what we are, or at least to what we want to make ourselves to be. We have established a culture of choice not of reason. We do not want to bind ourselves even to truth. At the heart of reality, we hold that things could always be otherwise, not by virtue of their having been created by a divine will, but by virtue of their having no necessary connection with what we choose or limitation of what we want. Things, including our own nature, do not restrict us; we use them as we will. We teach these things in our universities; we live them in our daily lives. We will not admit that anything wrong is the result of what is known or of what is true. Wrong can only mean wrong for me. The "I" acknowledges no other criterion.
Thus, we are perplexed to learn that our happiness consists, according to, say, Aristotle, in knowing and in knowing the highest things. The moral virtues, even in being themselves, are intrinsically ordered to our knowing. We are to know things for their own sakes, simply because it is worthwhile knowing them. In fact, we long to know even if we get nothing further out of it. If there is something we do not know, we seek to learn about it, find out about it. We want to know the world about us. We want, as Socrates said, to know even ourselves, as if there is something about us to know. We want to know about God and who and what He is, once we realize that we did not create or order either ourselves or the universe to be as they are.
Even when we do not use such terms as truth or will, this seeking to know whatever is is what we do. We give reasons for everything we do, including, often adamantly, the things that we do wrongly. We cannot not but be rational even when we are acting wrongly. We insist on justifying ourselves, that is, in giving reasons for our deeds and acts, even when we know they are wrong. We are a proud lot. Yet, we worry about what pride is, especially after we have read Augustine who warned us about it, who told us it was the origin of all vice. We do suspect that we seek to locate the cause of all things in ourselves, not in God. This was Augustine's definition of pride, in fact. Even though we do not believe in the devil, so we say, we know his vice was pride. We are curious about this. What is it that made him a devil instead of Lucifer, the bearer of light, of intelligence? Why is the most dangerous of fallen spirits also among the most intelligent?
The Thirteenth Sermon in the Eighth Series of this famous Newman collection is entitled, "Truth Hidden When Not Sought After." It begins with a famous quotation from Second Timothy in which St. Paul disturbingly tells us of those who "turn their ears from the truth," of whose claims to truth shall in fact become mere "fables." Here Newman brings up something that must often cause many to wonder and be concerned about. We know there are intellectual saints. Neither Augustine nor Aquinas, nor Newman himself, nor the present Pope, have need of yielding anything on the line of intelligence to any philosopher or wit of any era. Yet, we also know that Augustine, justly or unjustly, is often said to be the father of most heresies. At one time or another in his life, he embraced about every conceivable intellectual disorder. Thomas Aquinas was not much recognized in his lifetime. Today he is little studied except in a few isolated places. The most intellectual of all popes has unending opposition from what are said to be intellectuals, of indeed intellectuals who call themselves Christians.
Newman, still commenting on St. Paul, points out that if there is religious truth, this implies that there will also be "religious error." He adds that this truth is one so that "all views but one are wrong." Forgetting this centrality of truth, many, even Christians, turn away from truth to embrace "many fables." What are these "many fables?" Clearly, they are alternate explanations of reality, of God, of our redemption and its suffering, of ways to explain us or save us that would not include the revelation that we have received. Newman adds, speaking of his own time, that "all this (embracing of fables or ideologies) is fulfilled before our eyes." Needless to say, the situation is not better some century and a half after Newman. "The multitude of men," Newman observes, "whether by their own fault or not, are wrong even in the greatest matters of religion." This is not an observation of despair about truth, but simply a statement of fact about the reality of the human condition. And it would not be a significant statement unless, in fact, error in religious affairs were indifferent to human living and had no impact on human reality. Newman is willing to "tolerate" religious error, but not at the cost of denying that it is error or at the cost of denying that it makes any difference to our lives what we hold and whether what we hold is true.
If we understand the truth of this statement of Newman, intended, as I said, to be no more than a statement of objective fact, we will be alerted. "This is a most solemn thought, and a perplexing one," as Newman put it. "How could this be," we wonder, "that most people do not know religious truth?" But there is something that is even more perplexing; although, as Newman said in the light of St. Paul, it ought not to be. It is not just that ordinary people are confused and unknowing about religious truth, but that "men of learning and ability are so often wrong in religious matters also." Here Newman already brings up something that later came to be called the "betrayal of the intellectuals," not just in religious matters but in matters of polity and morality.
Aristotle had already pointed out that a slight error in the beginning of some science or philosophical position would, if not corrected, lead to a great error in the end. That is, this error would continue in the intellectual community. Its disorder would be expanded, developed, organized; its implications would be carried out in reality. Great systems of errors are often based on a very narrow fault or error, one that seems, to recall Aristotle, small in the beginning. From truth, truth follows, but from error anything can follow, as an old saying went. And of course, even truth can be rejected, though always in the name of another claimed truth.
What concerned Newman is not so much the errors themselves, but the fact that they occur most often in the academics, intellectuals, and, yes, in the clerics in so far as they too belong to the intellectual classes. This deviation of intellectuals concerned Newman because, like Aquinas, he was a great defender of truth and its dignity, philosophic or natural truth as well as the truth of revelation. Newman was not concerned, however, to set up some kind of organization or system to prevent this error from being spoken or propagated. Rather he was troubled by the souls of academics, intellectuals, and clerics themselves, in their deviation.
St. Paul had already warned us that such aberration among philosophers was possible, even likely. Newman knew that St. Augustine himself embraced practically every error imaginable at one time or another in order to justify his life. Newman also knew that Aquinas calmly identified, defined, and explained all the known errors of his time or any time, almost always better than those who promoted them. Christianity is concerned with changing hearts and minds away from error to truth, but after the manner in which hearts and minds ought to be changed, by better thought, by discipline, oftentimes by prayer and a conversion of heart.
When natural intellectual guides embrace religious error, Newman tells us, "they become stumbling-blocks to the many." That is, they cause and give scandal. They confuse the simple and ordinary folks. Newman is frank, with a kind of refreshing bluntness we almost never hear today. "Let us honestly confess what is certain," he tells us,
that not the ignorant, or weakminded, or dull, or enthusiastic, or extravagant only turn their ears away from the Truth, and are turned into fables, but also men of powerful minds, keen perception, extended views, ample and various knowledge. Let us, I say, confess it; yet let us not believe in the Truth less on account of it. I say that in the number of adversaries of the Truth, there are many men of highly endowed and cultivated minds. Why should we deny this? It is unfair to do so, and not only unfair, but also unnecessary. What is called ability and talent does not make a man a Christian; nay, often, as may be shown without difficulty, it is the occasion of his rejecting Christianity, or this or that part of it (p. 1661).
One has only to spend a small amount of time on university campuses, including those that go by the name Catholic or Christian, to realize the abiding validity of Newman's observation.
Newman's point is not, however, that there is something intrinsically at variance between Christianity and intelligence. Quite the opposite, he thinks that their mutual compatibility is itself proof of their own authentic and related insights. The observed opposition, then, must arise from sources other than revelation or intelligence themselves. When Newman points out that "ability and talent do not make a man a Christian," he puts his finger on the problem. Christianity was sent to more than the philosophers, the number of whom will no doubt be very few in any era. The average parish, or university for that matter, is not populated by philosopher-kings. Christ was sent to save not philosophers but sinners, among whom no doubt there might be counted not a few philosophers.
Actually, Newman had in mind not merely for the proud professors in Oxford or Cambridge, but also for the local village philosopher who could well display the same attitude of mind that we find in the learned skeptics. St. Paul, in Corinthinans, is worried about the "wise" of this world, and Christ spoke things hidden from the wise and prudent, but revealed to little ones. In other words, no Christian should be at all surprised to find the leading intellectuals of his time confusing him about the truth of revelation or of reason for that matter. We should not be surprised that "men of acute and powerful understandings" reject the Gospel because they think, rightly, that revelation is addressed "to our hearts, to our love of truth and goodness, our fear of sinning, and our desire to gain God's and favor." This is not the stuff of which the intellectual, as such, is made.
The intellectual is interested in something else -- "quickness, sagacity, depth of thought, strength of mind, power of comprehension, perception of the beautiful, power of language." Such things are likewise good as far as they go. We may, however, have such intellectual gifts but lack grace or inner goodness. "Ability of mind is a gift, and faith is a grace" (p. 1662). Here we begin to see how Newman sees the problem. "We just look with amazement on the error of those who think that they can master the high mysteries of spiritual truth, and find their way to God, by what is commonly called reason, i.e., by the random and blind efforts of mere mental acuteness, and mere experience of the world." The reason that can cause such difficulty is a reason that closes itself off from what is beyond reason, yet which likewise contains its own reason, is addressed to reason. The sign of intellectual pride is always that of an unwillingness to consider or to accept what is not merely worldly experience and mental acuteness. What are we to do about this experience of academic blindness to truth?
Newman does not despair, even though he holds no optimistic expectations of it ever being otherwise or of easily convincing proud men about truths they did not concoct for themselves. He is mainly concerned with explaining to believers what they will experience from intellectuals and in warning them not to be particularly bothered about it. Newman's own remedy is quite surprising -- respect the intellect for what it is, that faculty of truth that we are given from nature. The fact of its abuse is no cause for us to worry about what it is in itself.
This should be kept in mind when Christians are alarmed, as they sometimes are, on hearing instances of infidelity or heresy among those who read, reflect, and inquire; whereas, however we may mourn over such instances, we have no reason to be surprised at them. It is quite enough for Christians to be able to show, as they well can, that belief in revealed religion is not inconsistent with the highest gifts and accomplishments of mind, that men even of the strongest and highest intellect have been Christians..." (p. 1663.)
Newman's point is clearly that intellect as such is often a temptation to pride and that many an academic or intellectual is consumed by it. But intelligence as such is a worthy thing. The fact that some, like St. Augustine or Aquinas, are Christian and intelligent would suggest that the essential concern that we have, whether we be an ordinary person or an intellectual, is how we live, how we respond to the graces we receive. It is not our IQ's that will save us, even though we are made to know, to know the truth, and to delight in it.
But it is true that what makes a difference is the way we live. Aristotle already said that our ability to see the truth often depends on our virtue. If we are disordered in our ends, in our choices, we will spend our lives not pursuing truth but rather in shrewdly using our minds to justify what we want to do. Yet, Newman warns us that faith is not easy, even though it is a grace and a gift. We can thus be somewhat disdainful of the academic skeptics while at the same time neglecting the real effort and work it takes for us to know what we ought to know. One of the great problems in particularly Catholicism is the very fact of its intellectual richness, a richness that is only rarely and minimally ever seen in an education that includes even doctoral and post-doctoral studies.
The society is filled, in all sorts of disciplines, with the baptized who display Ph.D.'s after their names. Yet their religious and philosophical background is almost at the level of a seven year old, if that. Often the highly-degreed reveal the simplest and crudest misunderstandings of basic truths of theology or history. If one's secular knowledge is in radical disproportion to the level of one's religious knowledge, there is bound to be trouble. (This is a problem I have dealt with in my Another Sort of Learning.) What Newman says on this point is quite blunt.
Let us consider for an instant how eagerly men in general pursue objects of this world; now with what portion of this eagerness do they exert themselves to know the truth of God's word? Undeniably, then, as is the doctrine that God does not reveal Himself to those who do not seek Him, it is certain that its truth is not really felt by us, or we should seek Him more earnestly than we do. Nothing is more common than to think that we shall gain religious knowledge as a thing of course, without express trouble on our part.
No one expects to learn anything else without effort and discipline, so it is Newman's point that religious knowledge is not something that arrives from nowhere, without any effort on our part.
"To gain religious truth is a long and systematic work. And others think that education will do everything for them" (p. 1164.) But Newman here is not just concerned with the effort that it might take to know religious truth. He also tells us that this truth draws us, attracts us. We have to be prepared to feel its influence on our souls. We do not seek truth just because it is a necessary intellectual exercise. We seek it because we already feel the attraction to the source of truth. Newman can be witty in describing our common foibles and excuses about religious truth that we claim is difficult, uninteresting, or of little meaning to us.
Doubtless if men sought the truth with one-tenth part of the zeal with which they seek to acquire wealth or secular knowledge, their differences would diminish year by year. Doubtless if they gave a half or a quarter of the time to prayer for Divine guidance which they give to amusement or recreation, or which they give to dispute and contention, they would ever be approximating to each other (and eliminate their religious disputes.)
What Newman says here is that religious knowledge requires as much attention as any other knowledge. In addition, it requires means that are intellectual and more than intellectual. We know that amusement, recreation, dispute, and contention take up time often better spent on knowing religious truth.
Lest we think that Newman is speaking of a time utterly unlike ours, let us listen to his description of the man's mind who gives his justification for not honestly thinking through the validity of religious truth. Such truth is difficult to come by because it makes demands on us. We suspect that it will demand of us things we are not presently prepared to undertake. It is difficult because we have conjured up ready-made intellectual excuses that protect us in our implicit refusal to consider truth.
The present confused and perplexed state of things, which is really a proof of God's anger at our negligence, these men say is really a proof that religious truth cannot be obtained; that there is no such thing as religious truth; that there is no right or wrong in religion; that, provided we think ourselves right, one set of opinions is as good as another; that we shall come right in the end if we do but mean well, or rather if we do not mean ill (p. 1665.)
These positions, of course, while written a century and a half ago, constitute an almost perfect contemporary intellectual description of what most of our contemporaries hold.
Newman's remedy for this condition is, we are astonished to learn, obedience, the most annoying of the commands that the Lord gives to the intellectual of any age. Newman warns us, however, about judging others, even the proud. "Unless we have faithfully obeyed our conscience and improved our talents, we are no fit judges of them at all" (p. 1666). We also know that the variety of philosophies and religions are offered with confidence by those intellectuals who hold them.
How are we to avoid producing our own fables instead of obeying the true religion? Newman's advice is rather in the form of a command or admonition:
Seek truth in the way of obedience; try to act up to your conscience, and let your opinions be the result, not of mere chance reasoning or fancy, but of an improved heart. This way, I say, carries with it an evidence to ourselves of its being the right way, if any way be right; and that there is a right and a wrong way conscience tells us. God surely will listen to none but those who strive to obey Him. Those who thus proceed, watching, praying, taking all means given them of gaining the truth, studying the Scriptures, and doing their duty; in short, those who seek religious truth by principle and habit, as the main business of their lives, humbly, not arrogantly, peaceably not contentiously, shall not "be turned into fables" (p. 1667.)
If truth must first be sought after, as Newman tells us is the case, our seeking of it must recognize that truth first calls us. We do not create it. We find it, after having looked for it because we know that we do not possess it by ourselves.
This advice to obey, honestly follow conscience, and pray, we know, are not spoken to us by someone who does not know what intelligence and its temptations might be. Newman reminds us that there are those who are believers and who are also intellectuals. We need not be surprised that many intellectuals do not believe or believe in false gods. This is neither new or unexpected. Yet, it is a betrayal of that good that intelligence can provide for others who do wonder about things and seek illumination about truth from those who claim to know.
But more is available to us about truth than we often are willing to admit if we have not formulated properly the questions for which our minds seek answers. We are all already redeemed, even those who reject redemption. The way is open; what is lacking is not grace, which is sufficient. Understanding our actual condition is the first step in our quest to know why truth is hidden when not sought after. "We are not under the law of nature, but under grace; we are not bid to do a thing above our strength, because, though, our hearts are naturally weak, we are not left to ourselves. According to the command, so is the gift. God's grace is sufficient for us" (p. 1668.)
The primary sin of the intellectual is not the rejection of reason. The rejection of reason is normally the consequence of the rejection of grace, for once this is rejected then we must create fables to explain why reason and revelation, grace and nature, do not in fact fit together. They do not fit together because we make them so, but because they are so, apart from our making, but not apart from our seeking and not apart from the grace that is sufficient. We are not asked to do a thing above our strength and our hearts are weak. We are not left to ourselves. The will to know the truth includes the gift that is sufficient for us. The rejection of reason is the drama of our time. It is first a rejection of grace and the patient work that it takes to know religious truth, but above all the will to know it and the humility to accept it.
Aristotle advised us not to follow those who would restrict us to purely human and mortal affairs, however worthy of pursuit they are, as Aristotle himself taught us. We attain heaven, Newman tells us, "by using the world well." Yet, we know that it too "passes away." We perfect our nature not by rejecting it, or making it over into our own image, but by adding to it especially under the guidance of revelation, that teaches us much about ourselves, much that completes the questions we have about ourselves. Men of learning often do not believe because because they do not will to know the truth that makes us free. The academic problem is, more than anything else, a spiritual problem -- the struggle of pride, grace, and reason. Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est. This famous scholastic phrase that we are created for a divine purpose is what Aristotle implied and what Newman taught. The men of learning who do not believe will not to know this truth, the one essential truth that reminds us all that we do not make but are given what we are.
ON UNDERSTANDING CONTEMPORARY INTELLECTUAL MOVEMENTS
Ratzinger on the Modern Mind
One of the standard questions hovering about the intellectual world since the crisis of Marxism has been, "where does the intellectual left go next, especially if it refuses to consider orthodoxy?" The obvious, most likely answer, I think, is that it goes in the direction of ecology and environmentalism insofar as these all-embracing systems provide an apparently plausible, natural justification to reduce the relative importance of man's individual dignity in the name of a planetary or worldly, if not cosmic, "good". This postulated inner-worldly transcendent good is proposed in the name of the on-going cycles of nature and of the good of the living "species" within it. This higher "good" becomes the criterion by which we judge how many people we can have in each country or on the earth, how long they can live and under what conditions, what they can or cannot consume, what is their relation to the state. Indeed, it is not the state but the world state, which, since it said to have the exclusive responsibility to look out for the distant future, can control the present in its name. "Progress" is replaced as an ideal by "stability". This simultaneous relativizing of the dignity of the human person and of the consequent justification for the vast expansion of the state has provided a handy way to replace or rather incorporate the Marxist ideology that formerly justified these inner-worldly goals with a new more comprehensive ideology that explains what is happening in a different manner.
One of the immense advantages of Catholicism today, known everywhere outside the universities, is not so much the importance of an authority that is not dependent directly on academic, scientific, or political fashions of the time but on an authority that is rooted in the intelligence of faith. And what is even more useful in this connection is that, in the persons of both the Holy Father and Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, we have with us a coherent body of teaching whereby we can keep contact with the living intelligence of Christianity as it reacts to the dominant intellectual positions that persist in modern culture. In the case of Ratzinger, whose perceptive mind is often overlooked, we can find a bemused and powerful intellectual force that, from time to time, directs itself to evaluating the movements that are seen daily intersecting, from around the world, that central crossroads in Rome where not only European and American trends are observed, but also those in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
In May of 1996, before the Doctrinal Commission of the Latin American Bishops, in Guadalajara, in Mexico, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger presented a remarkable discourse on the various interconnecting intellectual trends found throughout the world with their relation to basic Catholic teaching ("Current Situation of Faith and Theology," L'Osservatore Romano, English, November 6, 1996). I did not receive my surface copy of this particular L'Osservatore Romano until January 27, 1997, but I sat down and read it immediately. Ratzinger has a remarkable facility for synthesizing and explaining things of a complicated or subtle nature. He is wide-ranging and, what can I call it? -- calmly bemused by the curious extremes to which modern intellectuals go in explaining their ideological substitutes for precisely his area of jurisdiction, namely, doctrine and faith.
The Guadalajara address does not directly touch on the vast confusions that ecology and environmentalism have increasingly presented to the basics of Christianity, which has tried, largely unsuccessfully, to respond by developing a sophisticated doctrine of "stewardship". The latter presentations that I have seen so far vastly underestimate the degree to which environmentalism has become a rival religion to Christianity. But Josef Ratzinger does take up a second and not unrelated way in which many of the enthusiasms found in the ecological schools manifest themselves through an attempt to combine liberation theology with Western academic relativism and Eastern mysticism. Value-free democracy has become political expression of academic relativism. Into it are mixed also certain strands of particularly Indian religious philosophy. Much of this Eastern spirituality, with not a negligible amount of New Age thought, itself related to Eastern philosophies, also has influence in the ecological schools and vice versa.
Ratzinger begins with a very careful analysis of how and why liberation theology came to be considered a substitute for the Christian idea of redemption. What happened, in Ratzinger's analysis, was that relation of personal sin and redemption was shifted to the relation between social structures and redemption. The Christian approach was thus not to be a conversion of heart through repentance and Sacrament but a redesigning of the social order in some specific way (change of property, family, state) to eliminate evil from the world. Political struggle was what the faith was said to be about. "Redemption thus became a political process, for which the Marxist philosophy provided the essential guidelines." Liberation theology provided, apparently, a practical method to reform the world to rid itself of spiritual problems. To this theory, Ratzinger says simply, "The fact is that when politics want to bring redemption, they promise too much." Politics cannot accomplish these spiritual things. It seems ironic, though it is true, that the world's worst tyrannies arise from promising too many political things.
Ratzinger next comments on what everyone has observed, namely, that liberation theology suddenly fell into disrepute because suddenly the world realized that the Marxist systems in fact produced neither redemption nor liberation but tyranny. But Ratzinger adds, in a passage that seems to me very perceptive,
(that) the non-fulfillment of this (Marxist-liberationist) hope brought a great disillusionment with it which is still far from being assimilated. Therefore, it seems probable to me that new forms of the Marxist conception of the world will appear in the future. For the moment, we cannot be but perplexed: the failure of the only scientifically based system for solving human problems could only justify nihilism or, in any case, total relativism.
That is, the results in the West and too often in Marxist countries was not natural law or Christianity but relativism.
What about this relativism as a substitute for the supposedly scientific certainties of Marxism? Ratzinger proceeds to trace the relativist systems that prevail in dominant Western culture. Relativism is considered to be a "positive" system. It provides what is thought to be the philosophic grounding for democracy. Democratic dialogue and compromise, it is said, depend on the absence of any theoretic grounding for either what is true, right or good. "Democracy in fact is supposedly built on the basis that no one can presume to know the true way, and it is enriched by the fact that all roads are mutually recognized as fragments of the effort toward that which is better." All positions depend on historic situation, not on philosophical grounding. No political opinion can be "correct" Thus a place for contradictory and morally incoherent systems exists by right in any democracy. The relativist sees any claim to be correct or to truth to be the error of Marxism and all dogmatic religion.
On examining the position that this relativist freedom solves all problems by tolerating them to exist, Ratzinger points out the logical consequences: "However, with total relativism, everything in the political area cannot be achieved either. There are injustices that will never turn into just things (such as, for example, killing an innocent person, denying an individual or groups the right to their dignity or to life corresponding to that dignity), while, on the other hand, there are just things that can never be unjust." Some ways of doing good things or dealing with wrong things can vary widely, no doubt, but what are the "limits"? Obviously, the limits arise when we claim the right to contradictory things -- to life and to killing, to speech and to lying.
This philosophical relativism is now invading religion. Christians are increasingly influenced by this movement in religious relativism that goes back to the 1950's. The enthusiasm that attached to liberation theology is now to be found in the enthusiasm of the theologians advocating the plurality of religion schools. In this approach, Christianity is reduced to just another religion with no particular claim to uniqueness. And it is here that liberation theology meets Eastern religion, especially those of India. Behind these newer considerations, Ratzinger mentions, among thinkers, especially the American Presbyterian John Hick and the former German Catholic priest, P. F Knitter. Behind all of these movements lies the influence of Kant and the notion that we can "prove" that we can have no contact with objective reality. We must rather turn inwards for any contact with ourselves. Jesus in this system cannot be considered the one avenue to God. He becomes something of a "myth", one among other prophets or spiritual leaders. Since the Absolute cannot, in this view, come into history in any manner, there can be no Church or sacraments or dogmas.
Fundamentalism is, consequently, taken to mean, from a relativist philosophy, the affirmation that there is a revelation of God in history through Christ, that is, taken to mean orthodoxy. This "fundamentalism" (that is, standard Catholic orthodoxy) is seen to be an attack on modernity and its essential philosophical roots in absolute tolerance and freedom, both taken to be without limits. The notion of dialogue also has a new meaning, not the honest and open accounting for what one believes or holds ("We hold these truths"), rather it means "to put one's own position, i.e., one's faith, on the same level as the convictions of others, without recognizing in principle more truth in it than that which is attributed to the opinion of others." To take this view of dialogue, of course, means that one must already, in principle, doubt one's faith before entering into dialogue. "According to this concept, dialogue must be an exchange between positions which have fundamentally the same rank, and, therefore, are mutually relative." Religion in this sense comes to mean implicitly the denial of both Christ and the Church to enter a dialogue with other "religions".
How does this thinking relate to Indian philosophies? First of all, again, Christ must be made to exist on the same level as Indian salvation myths. The historical Jesus -- it is now thought -- "is no more the absolute Logos than any other saving figure of history." Since in human history, there are these many faiths in space and time, there is not a reason why one is more important than another. "Under the sign of the encounter of cultures, relativism appears to be the real philosophy of humanity." If anyone might disagree with this view, he denies both liberty and tolerance. He is also trying to impose a "Western" view -- that is, there is in fact a revelation -- on others. And this encounter of cultures and their religions is where the intellectual critical point is in the upcoming New Millennium, just as the critical point was with Marxism in the middle part of the Twentieth Century.
Knitter realized that the pluralism of religion theory left the world in a kind of stagnation. That is, if every religion and culture were the same, why bother to change any? Thus, he wanted to unite the theology of liberation (political change) with that of the plurality of religion. This effort to find an outside prod to the ancient Indian religions is why Ratzinger does not think Marxism is totally dead. We are, however, still looking for the new man and the new age. If there is a relativism at the basis both of current Western philosophy and of classic Indian religion, then thought alone, trying to decide which is right, cannot solve our problems because all thought is equal in the cultural relativist view. The only place to go, it seems, is to "praxis", to practice, to this famous Marxist concept. "Putting praxis above knowledge in this way is also a clearly Marxist inheritance. However, whereas Marxism makes only what comes logically from renouncing metaphysics concrete -- when knowledge is impossible, only action is left - Knitter affirms: the absolute cannot be known but it can be made." That is, we presumably know what we "make", so that all society becomes not something natural, but something "made" or "constructed" by human means.
At this point, Ratzinger himself simply wants to know "why?" Why is it so obvious that action does not need truth? He explains, "Where do I find a just action if I cannot know what is just in an absolute way?" Communist regimes failed, he added, because "they tried to change the world without knowing what is good and what is not good for the world, without knowing in what direction the world must be changed in order to make it better." That is a remarkable observation. So to the idea that we ought to change or make the world no matter how we change or make it or even if we do not know the truth, Ratzinger adds, in the pithiest of statements, "Mere praxis is not light."
Indian religions traditionally did not have any doctrine. No compulsory doctrine belonged to them. What they had was ritual. One was saved, presumably, not by knowing the truth, but by performing the right ritual. The Greek and Christian idea was different. There was a difference between opinion and glory (the same Greek word, doxa). To be orthodox did not mean just having the right opinion or following the standard ritual, but "to know and practice the right way in which God wants to be glorified." This "right way" implied that some ways were the wrong ways, even if we were to show respect to the persons who hold them. Now most people no longer think that the Indian ritual saves, but they do think, because of their relativism, that some practice will do the trick. Where does this practice come from? Why, it comes from politics, so that there can now be proposed a certain union between East and West, each providing what the other lacked. The problem is, however, that neither of these freedoms, either of praxis to make what it wants or of Indian mysticism from all matter and being, has any content, even when presented in Christian terminology. "When mystery no longer counts, politics must be converted into religion."
The "New Age" provides a further component to these movements. "For the supporters of the New Age, the solution to the problem of relativity must not be sought in a new encounter of the self with another, or others, but by overcoming the subject, in an ecstatic return to the cosmic dance." This New Age system is said to be scientific. But what is proposed is a kind of anti-rationalist mysticism: "The Absolute is not to be believed, but to be experienced. God is not a person to be distinguished from the world, but a spiritual energy present in the universe." The New Age spirituality is not an encounter with God as a transcendent Trinity of persons. Rather, not unlike the Stoics, it advocates that we become in harmony with the cosmic whole. The old atheism wanted to identify everything with the self. The new atheism wants the self to be absorbed into the whole and be identical with it, which is itself the only "god" there is. We must overcome the idea of a personal being or self against which a world of things, persons, and God exist and for whom we are to relate ourselves in love and knowledge. "Redemption is found in unbridaling the self, immersion in the exuberance of that which is living, and in a return to the whole. Ecstasy is sought, the inebriety of the infinite which can be experienced in inebriating\ music, rhythm, and, frenetic lights and dark shadows, and in the human mass." Ratzinger remarks that this position logically has renounced both modernity and man himself. The gods have taken the place of God. Thus we are in the process of reviving pre-Christian religions and cults.
What about Christianity in relation to these events? "If there is no common truth in force precisely because it is true, then Christianity is only something imported from outside, a spiritual imperialism which must be thrown off with no less force than political imperialism." The living God is indeed met in the sacraments, but if we do not believe or accept the truth of this meeting, then it too is empty ritual. Thus, there is nothing to prevent us from joining the pagan cults now revitalized. And Ratzinger makes a remarkable connection here between the rise of New Age and the demise of classic Marxism, "The more manifest the uselessness of political absolutism (as a scientific explanation), the stronger the attraction will be to what is irrational and to the renunciation of the reality of every day life." Notice what he says is that these movements do not lead to the denial of God, but to a "renunciation of the reality of every day life", the very place that Aquinas says that we must begin our search for God and one another. Without orthodoxy, in other words, we no longer even see the ordinary things around us because they are no longer themselves but something we made or a mystical part of ourselves.
Ratzinger proceeds to remark on a phenomenon that I am sure many have noticed. Externally, in the Church, everything still looks more or less the same. But underneath, there is a widespread loss of faith and explicit doctrine, especially among the intellectuals and many clerics. If we cannot maintain the sources of authority in the Church as set forth in its own doctrines, we find another source. The first of these signs of loss of faith is the effort to "democratize" the Church after the model of that form of democracy itself based on relativism. Faith, however, cannot be decided by majority vote. Either faith comes from the Lord in the sacraments or it does not exist. "A faith which we ourselves can decide about is not a faith in the Absolute." The alternative of those who think that faith is decided by the majority is either to identify faith with power (the majority, whatever it is) or, more logically, not to be believe in anything.
The next concern has to do with the doctrinal effect in the Church of widespread changes in liturgy, both those permitted and those practiced whether permitted or not. "The different phases of liturgical reform have let the opinion be introduced that the Liturgy can be changed arbitrarily." This rapid change of liturgy leads to the suspicion that the doctrines that explain the liturgy are also subject to change. Likewise,. New Age tendencies are discovered at work in the liturgical practices that have appeared -- "what is inebriating and ecstatic is sought and not the 'logike latreia'." Ratzinger says that he perhaps "exaggerates" these tendencies in order to see them, but they are there. We do not dance because of what God is, but we dance because we think ourselves to be gods participating in the cosmos and identified with it.
In the light of the appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike of Marxism, relativism, and New Age movements, Ratzinger asks, now addressing himself to the intellectuals in the Church, "Why has classical theology appeared to be so defenseless in the face of these happenings? Where is its weak point, and why has it lost credibility?" It is remarkable that this question is asked at such a high level in the Church. These are, no doubt, fair and perceptive questions. Ratzinger thinks that one primary reason has to do with the status of exegesis. The writers who promote Marxist, relativist, Eastern religions, or New Age positions usually begin from what they believe has been proved in Scripture studies: "They state that exegesis has proven that Jesus did not consider himself absolutely the son of God, the incarnate God, but that he was made to be such afterwards, in a gradual way, by the disciples." Besides this so-called evidence from contemporary exegesis that the Church could not teach what it said it did, theology is also based on a Kantian position about the impossibility of the mind to reach any kind of reality or to have any awareness of the absolute. Ratzinger thinks that these two sorts of consideration indicate the nature of the problem with theology.
In response, Ratzinger first points out that exegesis itself does not uniformly teach that Christ, say, did not consider Himself to be God. Moreover, historical criticism cannot have the kind of certainty on this point that modern thinkers claim for it. But let us suppose that most exegetes do hold that the basic Christian positions cannot be proved. The reason for this claim is that these exegetes have a common philosophy which does not allow them to conclude to anything else. Their method reduces the reality they study to its (the method's) proportions. Ratzinger puts this position into words: "If I know a priori (to speak like Kant) that Jesus cannot be God,. and that miracles, mysteries and sacraments are three forms of superstition, then I (the exegete with this philosophy) cannot discover what cannot in fact be in the sacred books." My philosophical theory has prevented me from seeing what might be there. What I see is my theory, not the reality. Ratzinger does not deny that there is value in the "historical-critical" method. Generally, if it is used to study the history of the Roman emperors, say, it works fine. When the method is used of the Bible, two problems arise. The method wants to find out about the "past as something past." History further is said to be "uniform." This means that all instances of a given type will be judged to be the same on the basis not of fact but of theory. The method brings us to the past, not to the present.
Secondly, the world in theory must be held to be always the same. The method requires this. The crisis of exegesis is a crisis of the philosophical presuppositions that guide its method by which it reaches conclusions such as that Jesus did not affirm His own divinity. "The problem of exegesis is connected ... with the problem of philosophy. The indigence of philosophy ... has turned into the indigence of our faith. The faith cannot be liberated if reason itself does not open up again." Reason, in other words, knowing itself, must see that it is grounded in what is, over which it has no control. What is controls what we know and not vice versa. The exclusion any reality, however, is contrary to the object of reason itself . "Human reason is not an autonomous absolute." Ratzinger thinks that scholastic philosophy in the Twentieth Century in a sense failed because it tried to do the impossible, that is, provide a totally rational ground of the faith that a priori excluded the possibility of faith's openness to reason.
Yet, it was reality, not reason, that decided that to which reason was open. And reality included the reality of God and His activity in time. Faith cares for and about reason. "It is not the lesser function of the faith to care for reason as such. It does not do violence to it; it is not external to it; rather, it makes it return to itself." Thus, faith can liberate reason from itself by asking it questions that it could not itself have anticipated, yet about which it can consider. "Reason will not be saved without the faith, but the faith without reason will not be human."
Finally, Ratzinger asks, "Why, in brief, does faith still have a chance?" His answer is remarkable: "because it is in harmony with what man is." Kant lies at the heart of the problems that much modern philosophy has with the faith. Because he arbitrarily cut off any path to reality, he has to "postulate" substitutes for what reason animated by faith could reach, which remains, in spite of this philosophies presuppositions, reality, what is. "In man there is an inextinguishable yearning for the infinite," Ratzinger concludes. "None of the answers attempted are sufficient. Only the God himself who became finite in order to open our finiteness and lead us to the breadth of his infiniteness responds to the question of our being. For this reason, the Christian faith finds man today, too." That is to say, it "finds" man in the today because the active God is not limited to the rigid past moment examined by the philosophical suppositions contained in much exegesis.
In conclusion, let me remark that Josef Ratzinger is acutely aware that what is behind the philosophical and religious movements that propose themselves as alternatives to orthodox Christianity, many of which already disguise themselves in Christian terminology, is the effort to solve all human problems and disorders by human means. Ratzinger's awareness that Marxism is not altogether dead and how it might reappear reminds me of what Paul Johnson wrote back in 1989:
Perhaps the most important single thing which the Judaeo-Christian tradition established was the principle of monotheism and the concomitant rejection of natural phenomena -- sun, moon, trees, rivers, woods, and symbolic animals -- as objects of worship. There is among the more active environmentalists an element of pantheism, one might almost say of paganism.... The ideological scene ... may become more complicated by the the next century (2000).... But whatever form this conflict of ideas takes, we can be confident that the radicals will continue to insist that human behavior can be transformed by political process and that the state must play the leading role in this transformation. Hence those who remain skeptical of this contention ... must continue to focus on two fundamental points -- the natural imperfection of human beings and the limits which must be imposed on state power.
Josef Ratzinger's discourse in Guadalajara on contemporary intellectual movements is a remarkable reminder of the nature of the democratic state when it is based on relativism, of the confluence of liberation theology with its emphasis on politics joined with Eastern mysticism with its lack of definiteness about the divinity and things themselves. What Josef Ratzinger has shown is that orthodoxy remains the intelligible alternative to the ideologies of our time at the precise point wherein each deviates from reality, from what is.
THE SECRET PRESENCE OF GOD: THE HOLY SPIRIT, THE GIVER OF LIFE
"The condescension of the Blessed Spirit is as incomprehensible as that of the Son. He has ever been the secret Presence of God within the Creation: a source of life amid the chaos, bringing out into form and order what was at first shapeless and void, and the voice of Truth in the hearts of all rational beings, tuning them into harmony with the intimations of God's Law, which were externally made to them. Hence He is especially called the "life-giving" Spirit...."
"The Triune God, who "exists" in himself as a transcendent reality of interpersonal gift, giving himself in the Holy Spirit as gift to man, transforms the human world from within, from inside hearts and minds."
In explaining our redemption, scripture refers in various ways to three different persons, as they came to be called, involved within the one Godhead -- Father, Son, and Spirit. The most enigmatic Person to imagine is the Holy Spirit. To the degree that understanding the Holy Spirit is difficult, to that same degree reflecting on His person is more rewarding. What we know of God is worth knowing, even if it be little. Christians have meditated on this Third Person for centuries. Within the Godhead there is "otherness," that is, God is not alone. Newman called the Holy Spirit "the secret Presence of God within the Creation." What we call "creation" contains within it the presence of more than its own vast variety of finite things. But in calling the Spirit's presence "secret," Newman referred to the being and mission of the Spirit's work which is called after "breath” or “wind.” Words, however inadequate, are used in revelation to bring us as close as possible to the mysterious realities that form our own presence in the world.
John Paul II, in his Encyclical, Dominus et Vivificantem, of 1986, organized and re-presented what we hold about the Holy Spirit. "The Church's mind and heart turn to the Holy Spirit as the twentieth century draws to a close...," John Paul II observed. "For according to the computation of time, this coming is measured as an event belonging to the history of man on earth.... For us Christians, this event indicates, as St. Paul says, the 'fullness of time,' because in it human history has been wholly permeated by the 'measurement' of God himself, a transcendent presence of the 'eternal now'" (#49). In Aristotle, time is a "measure" of before and after, while St. Thomas called time the fluxus ipsius nunc. The Pope remarks that human history is permeated by the "measurement" of God himself. It is a transcendent presence of the "eternal now."
God's purpose in creation is not creation itself minus man. God's purpose is that He freely associate other free beings in His own inner life, but on the condition that they be there only if they so choose. The Word meets our word in our world; freedom meets freedom; eternal now meets passing now. The world is created by God in His Word, redeemed by the same Word now made flesh, all brought about "by the power of the Holy Spirit." The vastness of God more than matches the vastness of His creation with our own histories within it. The complexity of creation, in each of its particulars, is the object of our own intellect, directed to what is
"The cosmos is created by God as the dwelling place of man and the theatre of his adventure of freedom," the Pope observed.
In the dialogue with grace, every human being is called to accept responsibly the gift of divine sonship in Jesus Christ. For this reason, the created world acquires its true significance in man and for man. He cannot, of course, dispose as he pleases of the cosmos in which he lives, but must, through his intelligence, consciously bring the Creator's work to completion (OR, English, August 26, 1998).
This is a remarkably clear statement about the purpose of God in Creation with its relation to man’s own destiny. God does not first create the cosmos and then try to figure out what to do with it. Man is not a happy, or perhaps, unhappy, afterthought. The cosmos exists for man and the ultimate purpose he himself is invited to achieve.
In this Encyclical on the Holy Spirit, the Holy Father recalled the Old and New Testament texts that mention "spirit," or "fire," or "gift," or other images of the Holy Spirit. He likewise explained what meaning the Church and Christian thinkers have found when organizing these references into an intelligible and coherent whole that explains the relational nature of the life within the Godhead. The Holy Spirit is not something that we "make up." We find the Spirit to be an integral element in the way scripture speaks of God's relation to us and to our destiny. This Spirit enables us, if we choose, to address God as "Abba, Father."
We could not have imagined, by our own powers, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Godhead. Yet, the Spirit is there in the texts. We seek to know as much about this reality within the inner life of God as we can. We seek to know all we can about God even on the basis of what little we do know by our own reason. We know that God is one, with three divine persons -- not three gods, not one person. We are also aware, as the Holy Father said elsewhere (July 22, 1998), that our very being is changed, elevated, because of the original purpose for which we are created, that is, to be able, by His grace, to know God as He is. "The Spirit of the Lord not only destroys sin, but also accomplishes the sanctification and divinization of man. 'God chose' us, St Paul says, 'from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth'" (2 Thes 2:13).
Catholic Christians are often accused of reducing or oversimplifying the mystery of the Godhead by seeking to state in doctrinal terms what this inner life of God might be like. If we did not seek to know and state this reality as best we can, however, something would be wrong with us. We would fail to understand and follow our own nature. To be sure, we seek to know this inner life only because it appears as an essential aspect of how scripture explains God, the world, and the purpose of man within the world and his destiny beyond it. Plato, Aristotle, and other great philosophers wondered about the cause of things and the meaning of man. They often made profound arguments about the origin and nature of things, including first things. They do not seem to have arrived at a "personal" God or at an adequate notion of our ultimate destiny. Still, they spoke of God as Good, as Intelligence or Mind; they spoke of the immortality of the soul, though not of the resurrection of the body. These aspects are not false.
No contradiction can be found between affirming, in clear and precise terms, what must remain essentially a mystery to the finite mind, namely the inner life of the Godhead as it is revealed in scripture, and stating what we do know in the light of what is revealed about this mystery. If we come across certain data about even the Godhead, it is permitted for us to puzzle out what this data might mean. We are not forbidden to use terms from philosophy or ordinary experience that might aid us in understanding what has been revealed. We find certain unexpected analogies between the intelligence of God and finite intelligence.
Yet, the common accusation against dogmatic religion that charges it of thinking only in terms of "propositions" or "doctrines" seems strange. They are said to reduce our understanding to humanly formulated dogmas or statements, as if such statements, rather than the reality of God to which they refer, were the object of faith even in their correct statements. To set down as clearly as possible what revelation means to human intelligence does not, and cannot, imply that this same human intelligence fully comprehends in the statements themselves the inner mystery of the life of God. If the human intellect could fully comprehend by itself what God is, it would already be God. Correct doctrinal statements of God point not to themselves but to God and are known to do so in their very presentations. Dogmas, as such, however useful, are not "worshipped." On the other hand, it is possible to understand false or erroneous statements about God and to see how these errant positions interfere with man's proper relation to God.
Revelation is directed to our intelligence. The Word of God addresses our inner word, the creative word that makes each of us to be uniquely ourselves, in order that we might know as accurately as possible what God is. We naturally seek to know what is and why it is, after the manner of our own knowing. As Plato said, we seek to know of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. But we seek to know not as that knowing is directed to itself, to the act of knowing, but to what exists in reality outside our knowing powers -- to "the truth of things." To a Colloquium at Castel Gandolfo on "Time and Modernity,” the Holy Father said that "I have always considered the search for 'the truth of things' as the defining human quality" (17 August 1998). The defining human quality is the search for the truth of things -- it is the Pope who tells us this.
We do not think the mind, any finite mind, circles merely around itself, though it is luminous to itself and indirectly knows itself in knowing what is not itself. We do not know ourselves unless we first know something else besides ourselves. We are beings whose very structure, as it were, is to know the truth of both ourselves and what is not ourselves. We can realize the incompleteness of ourselves, our dependence on what is not ourselves. We know that we did not make either ourselves or what it is to be ourselves. We want to know as much as we can about our own relation to the origin of things. Indeed, this accurate knowing is the principal reason why we have intelligence, "the defining human quality," as the Pope put it. We are made in our very physical and spiritual being to communicate with what has intelligence, even the most exalted intelligence, though we do not easily know by our own powers what this communication might mean or whether we can participate in it.
We really know nothing of the reality of the Holy Spirit by our own intellectual powers. But we add that, once known through revelation, certain other things that we do know make more sense. Are there any consequences to the not knowing of this reality within the Godhead? Do false ideas of God have any noticeable human consequences? “When he (Paul) asked (the Ephesians) ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ they answered, ‘No, we were never even told there was such a thing as a Holy Spirit” (Acts, 19:2). However fascinating it is to think about what God is like, the Jewish and Christian revelation, as it is presented to us, has, not a Greek theoretical orientation, but a practical one. We are to be redeemed in a certain manner, the dimensions of which redemption we do not ourselves establish but receive from the only source that can inform us on the topic, namely, from God Himself.
We are not forbidden, to recall Trent and Vatican I, to seek to know as much as we can about God, both with our reason and from deducing things from revelational data or by comparing what we know from reason and revelation. The adventure of knowing God is described often in scripture, and not wholly unlike Plato's philosophical Eros, as a desire to know Him "face to face," not just as a desire to have accurate statements about Him. Yet, the having accurate statements about God, or the having wrong statements about Him, directly helps or hinders the adventure of knowing God face-to-face. The Pope recalled, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, that the philosophy of "face-to-face" is a welcome element in recent philosophy. The Christian philosopher sees some congruence here with the fittingness of the resurrection of the body, the final, almost defiant, "act" of the Father towards the Word made flesh. It is the resurrected Christ who sends His Spirit to remain with us all days, even to the end of the world..
The encyclical on the Holy Spirit is divided into three parts: 1) "the Spirit of the Father and Son given to the Church," 2) "the Spirit who convinces the world concerning sin," and 3) "the Spirit who gives life." The Holy Father devotes twenty-two of sixty-three pages to the second question, namely, the function of the Holy Spirit in convincing the world of sin. This emphasis reflects accurately a central purpose of the Spirit in revelational texts themselves. We think, with modern Gnosticism, that we can save ourselves. We accept modern relativism. Nothing that we know or do in our lives is so important as to need a "redeemer." We in fact deny sin. We think that we will be "saved" no matter what we know or do. Religious "pluralism" wants to by-pass any definite order of redemption, especially one that would follow the path set forth in Christian teachings -- to "repent and be baptized."
In light of his many travels, the Holy Father pointed out that the Spirit is at work in all times and places preparing, in ways we know not, the advent of God's kingdom as it has been revealed to us. At this point, we are not dealing with sin or the deliberate rejection of God's word, though even that, as Paul says, also works to the good. “The Spirit of God, present in creation and active in all phases of salvation history, directs all things towards the definitive event of the Incarnation of the Word,” the Pope remarked (August 12, 1998).
This Spirit is no different from the one who was given "not by measure" (cf. Jn 3:34) by the crucified and risen Christ. The same identical Holy Spirit prepares the advent of the Messiah in the world and, through Jesus Christ, is communicated by God the Father to the Church and to all humanity. The Christological and pneumatological dimensions are inseparable and not only run through the history of salvation, but through the entire history of the world.
Therefore we can legitimately think that the way to salvation is open wherever there are elements of truth, goodness, genuine beauty and true wisdom, wherever generous efforts are made to build a more human society in conformity with God's plan. Even more so, wherever there is a sincere expectation of God's revelation and a hope open to the saving mystery, we can recognize the hidden and effective work of the Spirit of God who spurs man to the encounter with Christ, "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (Jn 14:6).
We do not know what plans are in the providence of God and the mission of the Spirit for the redemption of all mankind. We only know that the Spirit is operative in the "entire history of the world" itself.
Two Persons of the Trinity are both at work in the world in different ways, but in ways that are not contradictory to each other, in ways that require one another. The work of the Spirit is directed to the Incarnation; Christ sends the Spirit into the world to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Pope is not discontent with the ways of the Spirit, yet he also insists on the ways of the Church as the visible society that Christ established on the Rock, guaranteed by the presence of the Spirit within it. The finding the "footprints" of the Spirit outside the Church is not intended to be a substitute for it, but a way towards it.
The Spirit is to convince the world of sin. In our time objective sin abounds but is rarely acknowledged and often denied to be sin. Unacknowledged sin is more dangerous to our kind than sin that is admitted. Nor does anyone want to talk of Hell, the locus of sin’s ultimate consequences. That is, no one wishes to speak of deviant human actions as having any ultimate consequences. The failure to talk of sin, even the calling it good, removes the seriousness of our existence. In his sermon on "The Gift of the Spirit," John Henry Newman warned of the consequences of misunderstanding the Spirit who accuses us of sin. Newman pointed out the dangers of misunderstanding the work of the Spirit -- which is "unseen, supernatural, and mysterious." The root of modern ideology is precisely in a claim to produce by our own means, not that of the Spirit, what is promised to us by the unseen, mysterious, and supernatural gifts of grace. This is the most subtle of the political temptations. The rejection of the Spirit appears as a claim to solve, by human effort, the problems of worldly society precisely on the basis of rejecting supernatural criteria..
Why is it necessary to talk about sin, to talk about chosen, internal moral disorder? The Greek notion of sin as missing the mark, though useful, does not reach to the depths of the Christian notion. It seems odd that God would remind us of sin. Obviously, the fact of sin relates to the purpose of creation in the first place, with the possibility of its being achieved even if some reject it. "Christ did not come into the world only to judge it and condemn it: He came to save it," John Paul explains in Dominum et Vivificantem.
Convincing about sin and righteousness has as its purpose the salvation of the world, the salvation of men. Precisely this truth seems to be emphasized by the assertion that "judgment" concerns only the "prince of this world," Satan, the one who from the beginning has been exploiting the work of creation against salvation, against the covenant and the union of man with God: he is already judged from the start. If the Spirit-Counselor is to convince the world precisely concerning judgment, it is in order to continue in the world the salvific work of Christ (#27).
The word "judgment" today has anti-cultural overtones. It implies that a criterion of judgment exists, one that we did not ourselves formulate. When the Pope notes that Satan seeks to "exploit the work of creation against salvation," he shows a remarkable perception about the condition of modern ideological thought that seeks to pit cosmology or anthropology against redemption.
Sin is seen in the Church in the light of "the redemptive power of Christ, crucified and risen” (#31). The greatest of human sins was precisely "the killing of Jesus, the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father.... That sin ... was committed in Jerusalem on Good Friday -- and also (in) every human sin." Though this greatest sin turned out to occasion the famous "felix culpa" by which we are redeemed, redemption is not achieved by denying the greatest sin or any sin. The mystery of sin forces us to search, in the Spirit, "the very depths of God." That is, we must see both the evil that is sin and how or why it might be forgiven in order to see how the purpose of creation could still be achieved. It is a principle of revelation that certain truths, of which we can have some natural appreciation, are to be seen with more fullness in the context of our revealed destiny. If we are to be "convinced" of sin, we see something worse in our deeds than we ever thought possible. But this "something worse" is itself the other side of the possibility of something more glorious than we ever thought possible.
"The 'convincing' is the demonstration of the evil of sin, of every sin, in relation to the cross of Christ," John Paul writes (#32). “Sin, shown in this relationship, is recognized in the entire dimension of evil proper to it, through the "mysterium iniquitatis" which is hidden within it. Man does not know this dimension -- he is absolutely ignorant of it apart from the cross of Christ. So he cannot be "convinced" of it except by the Holy Spirit: the Spirit of truth, who is also the Counselor.”
John Paul returns to Genesis on Creation and the Fall. The reason sin is so thoroughly discussed is because its confrontation is the work of the Spirit. On being sent among us, the Spirit is to convince the world of its sin. Sin is something that is there, chosen. At the theoretical origin of this sin is the upsetting possibility that man can reject, turn against God, in the name of creation but against redemption.
It is impossible to commit sin without at the same time choosing some real, but disordered good. This is why, as the Pope points out, creation is pitted against redemption. In terms of almost shocking paradox, the Pope shows that God, by the influence of the spirit of darkness and our own cooperation with it, can be seen not as man's good but as his evil.
The spirit of darkness is capable of showing God as an enemy of His own creature, and in the first place as an enemy of man, as a source of danger and threat to man.... Satan manages to sow in man's soul the seed of opposition to the one who 'from the beginning' would be considered as man's enemy -- and not as Father. Man is challenged to become the adversary of God (#38).
To reject God as Father -- the real tendency of the ideologies of our time – we substitute the good that God intends for us, that is, a participation in His own eternal life, for a good that man makes for himself. Man defines his own good and evil. His own will is the sole source of all value and right.
John Paul envisions how God must have reacted to man's rejection of Him, a reaction, as we might expect, involving, on God's part, a yet greater love, but a love that does not deny the reality or consequences of sin as such.
In the "depths of God" there is a Father's love that, faced with man's sin, in the language of the Bible, reacts so deeply as to say, "I am sorry that I have made him...." But more often the Sacred Book speaks to us of a Father who feels compassion for man, as though sharing his pain.... This inscrutable and indescribably fatherly "pain" will bring about above all the wonderful economy of redemptive love in Jesus Christ, so that through the mysterium pietatis love can reveal itself in the history of man as stronger than sin. So that the "gift" may prevail (#39).
God in His perfection cannot properly speaking "suffer" in His own inner life. This incapacity does not mean, as the Pope remarks, that He does not know the pain of sin when it occurs in His creatures. God is not defeated by sin. Something in history is "stronger" than sin. An economy of redemptive love arrives among us not as necessary, but as freely given. This is the presence of the Holy Spirit among us.
"Man alone suffers interiorly because of the evil he has committed" (#45). Man suffers "interiorly" because of sin. No sin of thought, word, or deed is without effects on our soul. It also has ramifications for others. God takes our own lives and those of others so seriously that our sins also directly offend Him. This is why each sin must be forgiven not by ourselves, but by God. The Pope intimates that the Father likewise can, so to speak "feel" this inner pain. He thus established an economy of redemption to meet it. Sin is not the last word, at least from the side of God. But God can only deal with the sinner after the manner of the freedom that caused the sin in the first place. The "limits" of God's action are found in God's very gifts of being and freedom to the creature. This rational freedom, though it need not, ought not, can choose to see the very Godhead as its "primary adversary."
What about the famous "sin against the Holy Spirit" that is not forgiven? Does this sin not contradict the mercy for which the redemption is said to stand? The Pope answers this question by citing St. Thomas: this particular sin "excludes the elements through which the forgiveness of sin takes place" (#46). What does this imply? "Blasphemy" against the Holy Spirit is not a question of mere words. Rather "it consists in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the cross." This "refusal" is, of course, what disconnects modern culture's relativist, will-based morality from Christianity. If we reject the salvation offered through the Spirit, we spend our lives and form our political institutions precisely to embody this "refusal." "If Jesus says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven either in this life or in the next, it is because this 'non-forgiveness’ is linked, as to its cause, to ’non-repentance,' in other words to the radical refusal to be converted" (#46).
John Paul II sees this refusal of conversion to be linked to the "will-rights" on which much of modern social and political discourse is premised. Machiavelli, Hobbes, Nietzsche, and other modern thinkers understand "rights" and "values" to have no content other that what arbitrary human will assigns to them. A political order based on these "will-rights" is closed to the idea of revelation and the notion of forgiveness of sin. "Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is the sin committed by the person who claims to have a 'right' to persist in evil -- in any sin at all -- and who thus rejects Redemption. One closes oneself up in sin, thus making it impossible for one's conversion, and consequently the remission of sins, which one considers not essential or not important for one's life" (#46). The "right" to persist in evil is necessarily directed against God.
The loss of a sense of sin -- called by Pius XII "the sin of the century" -- is what has trivialized and undermined the meaning of human life in our time. If nothing is important and everything chosen is either permitted or excusable, we have voluntarily closed ourselves off from any transcendent meaning of human life. The Holy Father is aware that our interior lives and the dealings with grace inevitably have exterior consequences.
The resistance to the Holy Spirit which St. Paul emphasizes in the interior and subjective dimension as a tension, struggle, and rebellion taking place in the human heart finds in every period of history and especially in the modern era its external dimension, which takes concrete form as the content of culture and civilization, as a philosophical system, and ideology, a program for action and for the shaping of human behavior (#56).
This remarkable passage links, not unlike Plato, our interior and exterior lives. It reveals a Pauline awareness that once we reject being and grace, we seek to justify our lives on the basis of a philosophy or ideology that will allow us to continue our refusal or rejection.
The Holy Father does not reject all things modern, of course. But he is aware that modern culture and civilization have embraced systems and ideologies that deliberately close themselves off from what the Pope called elsewhere, "the whole truth about man." Atheism and materialism, which the Pope calls "the striking phenomenon of our time," are the results of this inner spiritual refusal (#56). “The signs and symptoms of death have become particularly present and frequent" among us (#57). He adds, "on the horizon of our era there are gathering ever darker 'signs of death': a custom has become widely established -- in some places it threatens to become almost an institution -- of taking the lives of human beings even before they are born, or before they reach the natural point of death" (#57). Customs, laws, and institutions can in fact manifest internal actions that will what is contrary to God's laws and human reason.
Dominum et Vivificantem, in conclusion, deals with sin because it explain to us, often unwilling listeners, what we have chosen. The encyclical is primarily interested in what we know of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit in the Godhead is revealed to us as "gift," as that completion or ending within the life of God from which all that is not God takes its reality, not by necessity, but by something far higher and beyond justice or need. St. Thomas had asked whether the world was created in justice or mercy? (I, 21, 4). That it was created in mercy is the most extraordinary fact about creation itself, that it is suffused by something beyond justice, itself the harshest of the virtues.
In his encyclical, the Holy Father relates the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father. The mystery of Incarnation "was accomplished 'by the power of the Holy Spirit' -- consubstantial with the Father and the Son -- who, in the absolute mystery of the Triune God, is the Person-love, the uncreated gift, who is the eternal source of every gift that comes from God in the order of creation, the subject of God's self-communication in the order of grace" (#50). This encyclical seeks to make us realize the personhood and reality of the Holy Spirit. "The mystery of the Incarnation constitutes the climax of this giving, this divine self-communication," the Holy Father explains this "greatest work" of the Holy Spirit.
The conception and birth of Jesus Christ are, in fact, the greatest work accomplished by the Holy Spirit in the history of creation and salvation: the supreme grace -- "the grace of union," source of every other grace, as St. Thomas explains (III, 2, 10-12).... The “fulness of time" is matched by a particular fullness of the self-communication of the Triune God in the Holy Spirit (#50).
The Holy Spirit is not an abstraction, but a reality at work even now, even in the present.
Newman spoke of the Holy Spirit as the "secret presence of God in creation." The drama of our lives is not external to our inner acceptance or rejection of the movements of the Spirit in our hearts. The work of preaching, of praying, of conversion, of teaching, of reflecting within ourselves is the first object of the Church's concern for us. All of the aberrations of the world first pass through the minds and hearts of especially the dons -- "the men of awakened and sensitive minds," as Newman called them -- the spiritual and academic dons, whose acceptance or rejection of the Spirit forms most directly the atmosphere of life or death in which most men of any time or culture live. "The way of the Church passes through the heart of man, because here is the hidden place of the salvific encounter with the Holy Spirit, with the hidden God...” (#67).
Dominum et Vivificantem remains an instruction in the inner life of God that most directs us to our own inner lives and to their effect on the culture and civilization of our time, our era. The Holy Father says, astonishingly, that it is precisely this time that reveals the author of the work that now guides our redemption, "the person of the Holy Spirit."
In his Pentecost Sermon, 2000, John Paul observed that the Church has a duty to witness to the Gospel in every time and place.
She does so with respect for the dignity of peoples, of their culture, of their traditions.... The divine message entrusted to her is not hostile to the deepest human aspiration; indeed, it was revealed by God to satisfy , beyond every expectation, this hunger and thirst of the human heart. For this very reason, the Gospel must not be imposed but proposed, because it can only be effective if it is freely accepted and lovingly embraced” (#3)
Looked at from one angle, this insistence on “free acceptance” seems to be a formula for keeping the visible Church smaller in numbers. The dominant doctrine of freedom is “self-autonomy,” not “free acceptance” of revelation. If unwillingness freely to accept the truth is the result, the Pope implies, “so be it.”
The Holy Father intimates that, at times, the only thing that Christians can do is live a quiet, visibly worthy life before others who will not for the present change. “If the proclamation is to be effective, a lived witness remains crucial. Only the believer who lives what he professes with his lips has any hope of being heard. One must bear in mind that circumstances at times do not permit an explicit proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour of all” (#4). The Pope acknowledges here the force and power of hostile religions, philosophies, and governments. Yet, he concludes, recalling the many martyrs of recent decades, that in the lives of each faithful believer, “it is the Spirit who continues to speak to our contemporaries in the language and life of those who are Christ’s disciples today” (#5). The Holy Spirit is still the main “Advocate” who seeks to accomplish in our time, in any time, God’s primary purpose in the Creation of men and angels, that they freely choose to accept the gift of eternal life from the Father through Christ in His Church.
CATHOLICISM AND “THE TRUTH OF THINGS”
“But the man who is willing to taste every kind of learning with gusto, and who approaches learning with delight, and is insatiable, we shall justly assert to be a philosopher, won’t we?”
“Truth is predicated of every being inasmuch as it has being. And this truth is seen as actually residing in all things, so much so that ‘truth’ may interchangeably stand for ‘being’.”
“As a hind longs for running streams, so do I long for thee, O God.... Send forth they light and thy truth to be my guide and lead me to thy holy hill, to thy tabernacle....”
– Psalm 42:1; 43:3.
Catholicism is an intellectual religion. With reflective insight into the meaning of its denial, it accepts the principle of contradiction as the basic intellectual tool to examine reality, including divine reality. Except for methodological purposes to show that this principle cannot be rejected, Catholicism does not doubt the existence of things or the validity of reason. A religion or philosophy founded in doubt has little attraction for those who know that things exist, for those who do not try to prove the obvious. Reason and revelation, Catholicism maintains, cannot and do not contradict each other. The human mind is made to know truth and does in fact know at least some truth. As such, the mind is at least potentially capable of knowing all truth, capax universi.
The human mind is not, however, to be confused with the divine mind. Analogously both are minds, both can address each other. One is not the other. Revelation and its content are directed precisely to mind. Catholicism is not “only” a religion of intelligence, of course, just as man is not “only” mind. Still Catholicism specifically denies that it is itself an ideology, that is, a system dependent solely on human intelligence and will for its content or purpose. Catholicism maintains that it can show in some intelligible fashion that what is “beyond” human intellect is not “anti-intellect.” Rather, it is, as it were, super-intellect. As St. Thomas put it in his Disputed Question on the “Virtues in General,” homo non proprie humanus, sed super-humanus est – man is not properly human but super-human.
From the beginning, our very existence is directed to more than could be expected of it by its own powers. No purely “human” condition, that is, one un-elevated by grace, ever existed, however much it might have been possible. The “restless hearts” of Augustine and of all those who likewise experience this abiding unsettlement at the core of their being are constant manifestations of the natural inability to satisfy our longings. Nothing we encounter in nature will do so, even though all things, including ourselves, are good by this same nature. But that we are called to more than what we are is not an evil or a defect or a denigration of our being but a glory. “Grace does not destroy nature, but builds upon it,” to recall a famous phrase from Thomas Aquinas. Even though it be a risk, it is all right to be what we are, and indeed, by grace, to be more than we are. At the completion of what we are, we find not “nature” and things proportioned to ourselves but “gift” and “super-abundance,” not darkness, but light.
Modern thought, as Leo Strauss once pointed out, even when it gave up on the specific content of supernatural destiny found in revelation, did not really “lower its sights” but merely shifted them to an endeavor to produce ultimate happiness in this world by political, economic, or psychological means. Modern man presumed without acknowledging it the forgotten elevation of grace while, at the same time, he would not admit its necessity for the exalted condition in which he had been created and for which he still sought. The heart remained restless, lacking that which might cause it to rest. Revelation in fact remains obscurely “present” in modern philosophy and politics almost by its very absence, through mankind’s constant endeavor to find a perfect society or individual life based upon his own efforts.
In our very act of knowing something, anything, we likewise realize that we are finite, that we are not gods. We are not the causes of ourselves, nor of any of the powers we possess, including the power to know and to will. But neither are we nothing. We are a certain kind of being that is. We stand outside of nothingness and know that we so stand. Indeed, such is our lot, we cannot even know ourselves without first knowing something other, something not ourselves. Some given and particular otherness is what first makes us aware of ourselves. This other remains itself even in our knowing it. We know the real being of the other, however, after our own manner of knowing. Our knowledge does not take something away from the reality it knows, but it does add something to our reality. We are more while what we know is marvelously not less.
The mind is the anti-entropic reality in the universe. Things do not only wind down; they increase with the application of mind to them. We still share some of the awe that Socrates felt when he came across Anaxagoras’s principle that behind everything there is not water or earth or fire but mind (400a). The act of knowing something not ourselves, furthermore, enables us reflect back on ourselves, enables us to be luminous to ourselves. This power of self-reflection is characteristic of a spiritual power, indeed, of a spiritual soul, though a soul whose normal characteristic is not to exist apart from the body but as animating it. This insight too has enormous implications only fully realized with the Incarnation and Resurrection -- “the Word is made flesh”; “I am the resurrection and the life.”
The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is a Greek philosophical idea, not a prime teaching of revelation, though there are traces of it in Scripture. The philosophical doctrine became important for revelation when the latter sought to explain how the same human being who dies, say Socrates or Mary, is the very person who is resurrected; otherwise we have a problem with our identity both in time and in eternity. Without this understanding of the immortality of the soul after death, we would not have what Christians call a “resurrection” of the same Socrates, but the creation in eternity of a Socrates with no relation to the original. If that could happen, there would be no need for an original Socrates, probably no need of a world at all.
The doctrinal point, then, is that we persist in the same being from conception to forever. This teaching that is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles remains not only more philosophic but also more romantic than any other explication of our ultimate being. As Aristotle remarked of our friends, we do not want them to become someone else, neither gods nor kings (1159a5-10). Ultimately, we do not want Socrates or Mary to be merely a soul, nor a god nor anything other than what they are, Socrates and Mary. Christianity, from the angle of the doctrine on the resurrection of the body, is the ultimate defense of finite human being and the ultimate ground of human dignity.
Christopher Cardinal von Schönbron, in a lecture he gave in Austria, pointed out that St. Thomas Aquinas had the unique distinction of being the first man who was canonized for no other reason than that he thought, and, I might add, thought correctly. When we praise St. Thomas for thinking, we must not forget that Lucifer was also, after his own manner, condemned for thinking. We are often reluctant to admit that thinking itself, as a moral activity, depends on whether what we think to be true is true. All error and yes all sin, I think, arises from our suspecting that what is true, might demand our living this truth. Therefore, we avert our attention from the truth in order that we may continue to live as we want. We cannot live this way, of course, when our minds do not support truth so we necessarily erect another, an alternate world for ourselves that prevents us from acknowledging the world that is. All error, as Aristotle implied, can explain itself, give reasons for itself, but only provided that it be allowed the privilege of not telling the whole truth which it suspects but does not admit.
Thinking, knowing the truth, knowing why the truth is truth, however, is itself a proper activity of the being of man. This is what it means to define man as precisely the “rational animal,” the being composed of matter and spirit who thinks. Thinking does not need to be justified on some grounds alien to itself, for example, that it is “useful” for making something or for doing something, even though it properly does these things also. But our intellectual activities do need to be examined on the basis of the truth of what it is we think. Much of the excitement of being a human being, and it is considerable, depends on the wonder of seeking the truth, on the delight in finding it, and, indeed, in the ever-present danger of rejecting it.
Catholicism, however, is sometimes, indeed often, charged with being rooted in some identifiable falsity, whether historical, philosophical, scientific, or theological. But any such accusation of falsity is itself intelligible. The opposing point can be spelled out and itself examined for its own truth or falsity. This “spelling-out” is at least one of the reasons why we have “intellectuals” within Catholicism. Ultimately, as Plato said, to recall his definition of the truth, we are to say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. To do this identifying of truth and falsity requires far more courage than we might at first realize. Most of the disorders in the universe, as I like to say, arise in the minds and hearts of the “dons,” intellectual and clerical, when they claim, explicitly or implicitly, to be themselves the causes and architects of the distinction of good and evil apart from any relation to what is.
This positive affirmation of the need of what are called “intellectuals” in Catholicism, therefore, does not deny that these same intellectuals, ourselves not necessarily excluded, are probably the ones most tempted to substitute their own “reasons” for what is called the ratio fidei, the reason of faith. No Catholic theology can with impunity ever forget that Lucifer was among the brightest of the angels. Nor can we forget that Chesterton lovingly wrote Heretics before he wrote Orthodoxy, that he came to the latter through the contradictions he found in the former.
All of this understanding the position of the other recalls the method of St. Thomas, indeed of Plato and Aristotle. Namely, we must be able to state how something deviates from the truth if we would know the whole truth of anything. To put it precisely, to know what error is, is itself a high intellectual good – to know of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. And we must make every effort to know error and falsity and, indeed, vice. Almost invariably, what prevents us from knowing the truth of things, including revelational things, is not our limited intelligence. Rather it is our suspicion that knowing what this truth is will make demands on us according to which we refuse to live or to follow.
Much of this was already spelled out by Aristotle in the First Book of his Ethics where he indicated the alternatives to a proper definition of our happiness. Once we choose in our souls some deviant end, even though it have as it must some goodness, all our activities will be directed toward it. Soon by long habit we will cease to aver to what we have chosen in all that we do. We will refuse to examine how we live because we do not want to live as we ought.
The honest, objective analysis of any such allegation of falsity in Catholicism, from whatever source, then, is itself a part of Catholicism’s self-understanding. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger’s recent Dominus Jesus was primarily the fulfillment of the Church’s teaching about what it itself is. On knowing what it is, Catholicism necessarily also knows, articulates, and affirms what it is not. It does not want to be misunderstood about its very being. At the foundations of Catholicism, we find, not an object of our own making, but something handed down, something we could not possibly have concocted as the purpose of our existence.
One of the most subtle of the objections to Catholicism, as Chesterton put it, is that it is “too good to be true.” He was right, of course, this mysterious coherence of all things of faith and reason, of desire and reality, of will and intellect, is the most unsettling thing about what is called Catholicism. It is a dangerous thing to examine honestly and few examine it. It is unnerving not only to think that it is true in what it says about man, world, and God, but even that it might be true, that its reasons are indeed “reasonable.”
What really annoys many critics about Catholicism, then, is not that it is theologically or philosophically “false,” but that, on examination, it might very well be as true as it claims to be. It might be capable of grounding and elaborating the basis of its position in a convincing manner, though never in a manner that “forces” our freedom. The truth always must be both known and chosen. We retain the power to reject it. Catholicism, again, professes to be true. It claims that there is a conformity between what it holds and what is. No doubt, anything making such a claim to truth today, in a climate of pluralism and skepticism, themselves both philosophical problems in their own right, is considered to be “arrogant,” or impossibly uninformed.
But a Catholicism that does not maintain its basis in truth, that does not pass on what was handed down to it as true, would not only betray its own founding, it would also cease to be at all interesting, at all provocative. A Catholicism that can comfortably adjust itself to the tenets and ideologies of this world, no matter what else it is, is not Catholicism. Christ said that He came to cause “division” not peace (Luke, 12:49-55). But how does this cause of “division” make sense as an argument for the truth of Catholicism? Only if it did make a difference whether or not what Christ thought about who He is and about how we ought to live was true for everyone, including ourselves. Catholicism, in other words, has good reason to think that what matters is not only what we do, but what we understand and what we think about the highest things.
Consequently, a Catholicism that presents itself to be but one among many religions or philosophies, and not as the true religion with a foundation in a valid philosophy, is already untrue to itself. The Catholic Church, moreover, has absolutely no objection to other religions or systems that claim that they are the truth. It can deal with such positions on objective grounds. Who, after all, would really care about a Catholicism that held one thing in one generation and its opposite in another or about a Catholicism that said of itself that “it might be true, but was not sure?” Catholicism, in its central understanding of itself, is either true or false; it conceives itself as a whole, as a coherent, unified understanding of the truth about God, man, and the world. This position is not intended to deny any proven truth found in any other religion or philosophy. To recall a medieval controversy, there are not “two truths,” one of which can contradict the other. What Catholicism is quite sure of is that the proposition that “all intellectual positions are equal” or that “there is no truth” cannot be true. If the latter propositions are the sole grounds which it must acknowledge to receive political standing or cultural acceptance, it must reject them because they make what Catholicism is to be impossible.
Catholicism does insist on the truth, on the accuracy of its claim as given to it. But at bottom, Catholicism holds that its central revelational doctrines, properly understood, are not found elsewhere. By any comparative standard, what it holds is unique. No other religion or philosophy has really arrived at the same position with regard to the heart of revelation, namely with regard to God -- Trinity and Incarnation – and with regard to the world -- creation, Fall, and redemption. Catholicism also holds that these same revealed doctrines, though they are not the products of purely human intellect, do address themselves to reason in such a way as to confirm an authentic philosophy and indeed, on examination, to make it more of itself, more philosophical. The mysteries of revelation are also designed to make us think more clearly, this in order that we might know reality more fully. They accomplish this clarification when we try to think these truths that are handed down to us.
An old New Yorker cartoon (Breslin) shows a middle-aged couple sitting on a sofa in their mid-town parlor. On the table in front of them are two cups of coffee. The gentleman, probably just home from the office, is rather portly, sitting in suit and tie, in a kind of an exhausted trance. He is staring straight ahead, almost as if he ready to leap up. His frowning wife at the other end of the sofa is in slacks, one leg crossed over the other. Her arms are affirmatively folded. She has blond hair rolled high on her head, heavy eyelashes, large ear-rings.. Looking right at him with a cold stare, she is obviously lecturing her husband. “What do you consider your biggest fault?” she asks him; then after a pause, she continues, “and what are you going to do about it?” We can be sure that the lady already knows his “biggest fault.” And she also suspects that, as in the past, he probably will do nothing about it. But there is no escape for the man. The passage from acknowledgment of one’s “greatest fault” to firm amendment is expected to be immediate, automatic. No time for confession or repentance. The sinner has no leeway – “What is your greatest fault? And what are you going to do about it?”
When I ask myself, “why is this cartoon funny?”, I cannot help but thinking that it gets at something about the modern world that is very anti-Catholic. I do not mean “anti-Catholic” in the sense of bigotry, though there is plenty of that around, but “anti-Catholic” in the sense that there is little understanding of the perplexing lot of the sinner, an understanding that stands at the heart of classical Catholicism. When asked why He came into the world, Christ’s answer was a pithy “to save sinners.” Spiritual fathers, no doubt, have long told us to seek out our “main faults,” as it were. St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, set down an exacting procedure on how to go about this reform. The very structure of the sacrament of confession, moreover, has to do with what we are going to do about our faults and sins. But this stern lady’s philosophy is basically “Pelagian.” We can get rid of our major faults by a simple act of command by the will. The cartoon is also stubbornly mindful of the difficulty of our doing what indeed we ought to do.
It is often said, with some substance, to be sure, that what most impedes the conversion of the world is the bad example of Catholics who do not practice what they claim they hold. No doubt there ought to be a correspondence between what we think or hold and how we live. Yet, we also can point to examples of those who do not become Catholics because other Catholics do practice what they preach, as it were. Only fanatics, they argue, would observe all the commandments and other outlandish practices required of Catholics. We are more comfortable with lax Catholics, those who do not live up to the Gospel standards. Even a survey of Catholics elected to public office would confirm this. A Catholic known to “disagree” with the Church is more likely to receive the honor of public office than one who agrees, though, happily, we find exceptions.
Yes, it is a church of sinners. Christ did not come for the healthy but the sick, not for saints but for sinners. “What is going on here?” we might ask. Christ Himself intimated that we do not go to the doctor if we are healthy. The modern world, no doubt, with its doctrine of frequent check-ups, has changed the point of this ancient wisdom. I have gone to a dentist for semi-annual examinations for fifty years. The other morning, I had a terrific pain in one of my teeth. My dentist was busy, so he sent me to another dentist. The second dentist tapped the painful tooth with a small mallet. I jumped. He said, “yes, there is something there.” After he drills for a while, he tells me that I have a big cavity. I think, “so much for semi-annual examinations.” What do I conclude from this with regard to Catholicism’s understanding of itself? “Only he who preserves tot he end will be saved.” That is to say, there is no safe place wherein all our teeth will be solid and only virtue will be practiced. Catholicism does not allow us to think that some political or economic or social program will automatically save us. In the drama of our purpose, of our understanding what we are, is ours.
What about the social gospel? What about justice? What about culture? All of these questions, I think in conclusion, are themselves subordinate to the first question about the truth of things, about the truth of Catholicism. The question of truth comes first, even though living the truth follows on knowing what it is. We will have no social gospel, no justice, no adequate culture if the pursuit and acknowledgment of truth, and truth for its own sake, as the Greeks used to have it, is not also an intrinsic element in their understanding. As I like to put it, more or less following Plato, we can, and many do, save our souls in the worst of regimes and lose them in the best. The risk and drama of our existence take place whatever the condition of the world. The reason that God created and redeemed us is not contingent on our politics, on our social situation. In the Epistles and the Gospels, slaves were saved, almost as if to say that those who were not slaves might well not save their souls.
Catholicism, however, is not a religion of withdrawal from the world. It does think that man has something to do in this world that makes a difference both to the world and to his own salvation. What else could the giving a cup of water to the thirsty mean? Indeed, what else could the invention of a pure water system for public consumption mean? Catholicism thinks things can be better or worse not by themselves but how we stand to them. It also thinks with Aristotle that, very often, when we claim we are making things better, we are in fact making them worse. Our “intentions” are not entirely independent on the worth or danger of the actions that flow from what we decide to do. This possibility that what appear to be noble ideas can produce something quite aberrant, again, is why truth matters, why action is not healthy if it is not grounded in contemplation and truth. And is it possible to construct societies, families, souls on the basis of some untruth, or series of untruths? Of course it is. Does there remain some truth even in the errors? That too is valid but not unless we acknowledge both the truth and the error..
So this is the agenda of Catholicism. It is both contemplative and active, both vividly aware of the city of man and of the City of God. It professes to accept any truth wherever it is found. It also holds that its own peculiar truths are designed not just for itself in some isolated enclave but for everyone. Hence it cannot rest with itself. Woe to it if the Gospel is not preached. Catholicism is not true to itself if it presents itself among the nations as simply “another” religion. But it knows about saints and sinners, knows that each of us, even believers, can potentially be either. We live in a world that does not want to be bothered by the truth. We have a religion that insists that only the truth will make us free. We have minds that are restless and malcontent if they do not find the truth that also seeks them.
Without Catholicism, I think, we could not, ultimately, know who and what we are, men destined to eternity, fallen and redeemed.. The story is told of an aunt coming to visit her sister’s family. The sister had two small children who eagerly watched their aunt as she opened her suitcase. They were waiting for the presents that they knew she would bring. Finally, the aunt fished out two large, handsome bean bags, one blue and one red. She said to her little niece, “One of these bags is for Tommy, and the other is for you, which one do you want?” The little girl promptly replied, “I want Tommy’s.”
This little story contains the truth of things, doesn’t it? We are given gifts we do not deserve, even though we anticipate them. Catholicism holds that this world exists from nothing, that it need not exist, but does. Man is the center of the universe and at his center is his will that must choose even to accept the gift of what he is. The fact that we want Tommy’s gift and not our own reminds us of the Fall, of our ability to reject what we are given and make the world in our image. We fall and yet we rise again. The Fall is not the last word. The truth is the last word. For this we are made and for this we long. The laughter of our selfishness – “I want Tommy’s” – hints that evil and pride are not the last word in our creation. Catholicism is an account of how it all fits together, the truth of things. We may not want to listen to it, we may not want to live it, but it is there, constantly directing itself to our minds so that we might understand what we are.
THE CHURCH'S UNIVERSAL MISSION
In reading the brief statements by many Asian bishops at their recent Synod (L'Osservatore Romano, English, 29 April and 6 May 1998), one is struck by how frequently they express disappointment at the small percentage of Asians who are Christians. Many reasons for this paucity are offered. Most often, the reason given is that something is wrong in the presentation of Christianity; otherwise the numbers would quickly increase. The common, though unproven, assumption is that if Christianity "looked" more Asian, granted there is not just one "Asia," it would be more attractive to Asians.
Logically, one might suspect, on the contrary, that if it were more "Asian," Christianity might simply disappear altogether, the minute it loses the universal distinctness of its creeds and of its understanding of Christ and the triune God. Perhaps the three percent who are Christian are the ones who have painfully realized the spiritual and theoretical problems of the Asian religions in comparison with the whole truth of man's relation to God as found in revelation. The three percent may, in fact, be needed, vital witnesses to a distinctive truth and not merely a disappointing number of disheartened believers in what is, to the Asian majority, a strange creed.
Though there is nothing wrong with examining one's own conscience, the search for the cause of the fewness of Asian Christians is located almost exclusively in Christianity as if there were no other plausible alternative. Time itself is said to be a factor, as if two thousand years were obviously long enough, without human fault, for the plan of God to have worked itself into the complexity of Asia. But of course, we do not know the "times or moments" of God's design. For all we know, it may be quite on track, granted factors we cannot ourselves fathom. It may be we, not God, who are impatient at this numbers situation of the Church in Asia. "Go forth and teach all nations," as far as we know, had neither a time limit on it nor a guarantee of widespread success. It might even be that God's plan is already complete with only the three percent. We don't know.
Several bishops concentrate on the notion that Christianity is "western" and therefore somehow contrary to the Asian mind or culture. "Claiming to be equally valid means of human salvation as Christianity," Archbishop Daniel Acharuparambil, O.C.D., of Verapoly, India, remarks, "the great religions (of Asia) strongly oppose any change of religion. That is why Christianity remains a small minority of less than three percent in Asia." Needless to say, if Christianity, with the other great religions, is merely "an equally valid means of human salvation," and not a unique, divinely intended one, if it is purely "western" and not also universal, it has no business in Asia at all -- except for the ironic fact that it too was born in Asia.
The major "opposition" to change in Asia may come, as the Indian Archbishop implies, from the Asian religions themselves, from religions that see no need to change, especially if Christians themselves increasingly maintain that they should become more and more Asian. No doubt, the Asian religions will see this movement within Christianity to become more "Asian" to be a sure sign that they, the Asian religions, have been right all along. They will expect simply to absorb Christianity into themselves as but another aspect of themselves. The Asian religions, in other words, see nothing incomplete or erroneous in themselves and firmly reject any doubt about their own complete systems of salvation, however it is described.
Moreover, is the fact that only three percent of Asia's population are Catholic a reason in itself to suggest some failure on the part of Christianity? If there is a failure, is it, granting admitted Christian faults, wholly on the Christian side? Is it at least permissible to ask that question in some objective, non-controversial fashion? Is the "strong opposition to any change of religion" itself wholly rational or philosophically defensible? No one would argue, for instance, that since science and technology have a predominantly "western" origin, this fact means that therefore they ought not to be taken up by Asians.
But again science and technology should be taken up by Asians not because they are western but because they work, that is, because there is something universal about them that relates to all cultures and that anyone can learn. And science's possibility itself may well have been rooted historically in certain theological principles, especially those about the stability of secondary causes and the idea of creation from nothing, principles found in western theology, but universal in scope. Science did not arise where it did arbitrarily or in a theoretic vacuum.
"To bring home interreligious dialogue as well as to give it greater pastoral resonance, it would be better to call it 'genuine brotherhood of religious believers on journey,'" Bishop Ancietus Bongsu Antonius Sinaga, O.F.M. Cap., of Sibolga, Indonesia, suggests. "This proposal accords as well with the desire of many Synod Fathers, given the Asian preference for family terminology rather than sophisticated formulas." But can loosely formulated family expressions always substitute for more sophisticated and accurate formulae? Were not these more exact statements hammered out precisely because accuracy of thought and expression did make a difference? Did not looseness of expression often also lead to error and disorder?
"A small error in the beginning can lead to a large error in the end," as Aristotle warned and Aquinas repeated. This danger about error was true also in the understanding of God -- the proper knowledge of whom is, insofar as possible, one of the purposes and glories of the human intellect itself. It is not a praise of God to lessen the power and purpose of intellect. A small error in the accuracy of expression about art and icons, Chesterton once remarked, would have destroyed all the statues of Europe, as they were destroyed in Islam. The Church in its history understood that seemingly minute points of doctrine and morals had enormous practical consequences. The frequency with which the Church realized the importance of these apparently minor points, as they worked themselves out in practice, was itself one of the arguments for the truth of revelation.
Archbishop Ramzi Germou, the Coadjutor of Tehran for Chaldeans, in Iran, pointed out that in fact the Christianity that first appeared in Asia was not "western." "Have we forgotten," he asks, "that from Antioch to Beijing, our Church (Syrian) brought the Gospel to India, Mongolia and China, and this in a Semitic, Mesopotamian form, therefore little influenced by Graeco-Roman thought?" (See Michael W. Tkacz, "The Multicultural West: Ethnicity and the Intellectual Foundations of Western Civilization," Intercollegiate Review, 33 [Fall, 1997], 10-17).
Archbishop Garmou likewise proposes that efforts to state accurately the truths of faith are somehow divisive:
As for Asian theology, it must be above all, contemplative, mystical. Let us respect the mystery of God in taking upon ourselves the apophatic tradition of our Fathers, who did not trust concepts and rightly preferred symbolically to evoke the mysteries of the Liturgy, especially in poetry, hymns and authentic icons. This will bear witness to the transfiguration by the Spirit of all men in Jesus our Lord and we will avoid the vain quarrels of concepts foreign to our way of thinking. Too intellectual, this speculation on ineffable mystery has caused so many ruptures in the Church of Christ in Asia since the early centuries; we must recognize the temptation of pride which sometimes lurks in our reasoning. We must give priority to adoration.
Much of this approach about hymns, poetry, and mystery is found in Plato's Laws. We can also wonder if there is not a touch pride in not reasoning about the meaning of revelation. And surely it is possible to "adore" idols that are not God, so that we must make every effort to know the true God in contradistinction to vain idols, however they appear.
Is the effort to state the meaning of the mystery merely pride? Were there not really serious issues that caused the ruptures? Are we to agree with other systems of thought and theology at any price? For instance, can we speak without ambiguity of "all men" being "transfigured" by the Spirit in Jesus Christ? All men in grace and response to it might be open to salvation and resurrection, but is it not only Christ who is properly "transfigured"? We are "divinized," and it is not wholly wrong analogously to use the word "transfigured" of mankind. But we remain men even in everlastingness. Is it better to leave this issue a matter of "poetry" and vague wordings rather than more accurately to explain what is meant when the word is applied to Christ and to us?
The careful effort to state what is to be believed was never intended to suggest that the human mind could completely comprehend God. Rather revelation was intended to address itself to the human mind in a way that made it more mind, more philosophical. To know as precisely as possible what was contained in revelation was considered a proper function of the human enterprise. Without the meticulous effort to understand and state what was revealed more accurately, we might never know that anything at all had been revealed.
Archbishop Leo Jun Ikenaga, S. J., of Osaka, Japan, adds a passage that makes the question about the correctness and accuracy of theological formulae even more pertinent:
I address the issue of evangelization of East Asia. Missionaries have laboured in their field for centuries. In India, which is, of course, West Asia, missionary work, we are told, goes back to apostolic times. Yet, to this day, evangelization had taken but a few small steps forward. Baptisms are few, and perhaps more important, Christian thinking has not entered into the mainstream of Asian society. The cause is not just cultural variances but also differences in the human heart. Nurtured in Europe, Western Christianity makes a clear division between God and the universe, between heaven and hell. It stresses the paternal aspect of God. The peoples of East Asia have a pantheistic mindset, believe in the transmigration of souls, are drawn to the thought of the embracing mercy of God.
But these ideas about God and the universe, heaven, hell, and pantheism are not obviously "western." These relationships, in their exact doctrinal formulation, were resolved under the impulse of revelation itself seeking to know what was and what was not handed down to human beings.
What are we to make of the notion of one "human heart" in Asia and another in Europe, or presumably of one "human mind" in one part of the world and another in another? One slight step and we have two races of men united in nothing at all, in no common origin or principle of heart or reason. Surely Asia and the West are not divided primarily on the grounds that "heart" lies in Asia and "mind" in Europe. Both heart and mind are proper to both looking at the same revelation with the same human minds.
For readers of Plato's Republic, moreover, the idea that the "transmigration of souls" is solely found in East Asia will seem strange. The division between God and the universe was surely found in Asia, in Genesis. It was found there in order to combat other Asian notions of the proper relation of the world and God, the Manichean notion of a God of good and a God of evil. This latter was the notion that Genesis implicitly denied because the prevailing notion signified two worlds, two gods, not one.
The concept of the all embracing mercy of God somehow encompassing in itself heaven and hell was another formulation of the attempt to save even the damned. This idea is likewise found in Origin and has been re-proposed often in the history of theology in an effort to escape the reality of free will, moral responsibility, and their consequences. There may technically be orthodox ways of posing this problem but not at the price of uniting heaven and hell in the same city. Pantheism itself, moreover, has at least Stoic origins; by itself it does not distinguish East and West.
But what is interesting about these ideas -- reincarnation of souls, pantheism, the unimportance of heaven and hell, the mercy that eliminates moral distinctions, the division between God and the universe -- is that none of them are "western" ideas as such. The Greeks and Romans themselves, in their philosophical background, found such ideas already prevalent from Africa or Asia and came to wrestle with them on their own terms. Even though the clarification of these ideas came to be formulated in the Church, the resolution of the problems involved in them came not solely with western philosophy, but through eastern and western philosophy under the impulse of revelation.
These "sophisticated formulae," thus, were not simply "western" expressions but statements of the mind wrestling with ultimate issues designed to provide as clear a knowledge as possible of the most important things. The impulse to achieve correct formulae, then, was not entirely philosophical in origin, even though its results were instrumental in the correction and development of philosophy. That is to say, there is something universal, not merely cultural, in these formulae. Once we have them accurately stated, they point us in the right direction. They are not themselves, as formulae, substitutes for the living God. But neither are they simply irrelevant as efforts to know what we can know of God.
When St. Thomas asked whether revelation was also "necessary," in addition to the natural and eternal law, he recognized that the human mind could be led to speak more correctly and accurately of God, of man's relation to Him, and of the world itself. Thus, even though transcendent reward and punishment, the eternity of the world, and the forms of things are discussed in classical philosophy, the proper statement of these relationships did depend on efforts to understand the precise implications of what is presented in revelation, itself reflecting back on what the human mind knew, often seen in the Greek philosophical tradition. This tradition itself, however, was not primarily "Greek," but universal. That is, it intended to know and confront other explanations and understandings on the basis of a common reality and a mind open to what is and what is revealed.
It is perhaps worth while to look further at some of these issues. Take, for instance, the notion of the transmigration of souls. In the Myth of Er, Plato uses this familiar idea of a single soul taking a different form in each incarnation to ask whether we can ever stop the eternal passage of one soul to another, from animal to human, back to animal, all the result of the way we live in one life after another. He suggests that it can only be stopped if we in fact choose the right way of life the only time the opportunity is given to us.
What is behind this issue, from the Christian point of view, is the permanent uniqueness of each human person both in this life and the next. It is not enough to say that this idea of the transmigration of souls is an eastern idea; therefore we need to make some accommodation to it. It is in fact a very old and much considered idea, the implications of which have been spelled out in detail both in the East and the West. The question is whether it is a true and defensible idea that supports or undermines a basic position in revelation.
Logically, if one soul can become another, or the same soul inhabit many bodies, one after another, all souls are eventually every other soul and all souls are one. There is no reason why the soul of Christ, furthermore, is not caught up in this same series of reincarnations or transmigrations. Do we simply throw out this "logic" that would protect personal individuality and uniqueness on the grounds that the principle of contradiction is not true, that someone can be at the same time someone else? The whole concept of personal human dignity is based on this premise of the uniqueness of each person without which we could not ground our particular worth, except on the dubious hypothesis that we are all the same soul.
It seems more reasonable to ask whether this idea of reincarnation or transmigration of souls has a truth implied in it and whether there is not some other explanation that is superior and more noble that better explains its basic point. The transmigration of souls is in a sense a worldly substitute for personal immortality and resurrection, the Greek and Christian ideas. Transmigration is an effort to deny the tragedy of the death and the loss of the individual by making him go on and on down the cycles of this world. Unlike the thesis of the resurrection, no one ever gets out of the recurring cycle.
The Christian idea is that each person is and remains unique, in life and in death. There is no "transmigration of souls," but there is a better explanation for what that idea was trying to get at. The dialogue with the eastern religions ought not to be posed solely in terms of East and West, but rather in terms of what is true and what is not. What is true is not something that is eastern or western, no matter whether the idea that comes closest to the truth in these matters was discovered in the East or the West. In other words, there is some universal arena in which all cultures stand before each other as seekers of truth, not just of their truth or tradition. In this sense, Christianity is not western or eastern even if it seeks expression in whatever nation that may exist, assuming that things that are not true are not beneficial to any society, even if they be traditional.
Another notion that is often presented in these matters is that of "culture." Christianity is said to be in need of "inculturation." Presumably, the revelational tradition and content are in some sense inculturated in the western society because the ancient philosophical ideas are now reformulated in Christian terms and purged of their errors or exaggerations. If Christianity is a "missionary" religion, it is not because it is something "unique" to some given era or area, but because, having been born in a particular place, it is intended to be a catalyst to all cultures, eastern and western, so that certain definite ideas about God and His coming into the world might be established in every culture. The purpose of inter-cultural dialogue is not simply to affirm the uniqueness of every culture, but to place each culture's understanding of itself and the world before revelation. It may be quite impossible for all ideas and cultural practices in every society to be related in a coherent way to revelation such that the cultural understanding remains simply as it has always been. Revelation does imply change.
John Paul II is comfortable talking about the valid elements in various oriental religions. But he is also quite frank in stating what he thinks about them. He does not understand transcultural ecumenism to mean that we must downplay or suppress points of difference and disagreement in order to be nice. He writes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope:
Buddhism is in large measure an "atheistic" system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fulfillment of such detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process (p. 86).
The Pope is here simply recording what Buddhism says of itself. If it holds none of these positions, he is happy to acknowledge whatever it holds. But assuming that this description from its own sources is mostly accurate, he suggests in what and why Christianity will differ from it. He will indicate why this divergence is not merely a matter of indifference.
No doubt the problem of evil and its relation to God is something that both Buddhism and
Christianity have sought to explain. Avoidance of evil is no doubt a good thing. But the question arises: does this escape from evil imply an escape from the world itself, on the grounds that the world, not the bad use of our wills, is evil? We see here hints again of the Manichean notion that the world is created by a God of evil, or at least that the world is not good. Whatever the right explanation, East or West, or some other formula, the fact is that the true explanation is and ought to be directed to every culture and should be incorporated into it in such a manner that its stories and philosophies, as Plato would say, reflect the accurate explanation of God, world, and man. The completeness of this explanation of evil is provided in a revelation, initiated in, but not restricted to, one or another culture. Neither Judaism, Christianity, nor any other system can avoid the historical fact that the Word that became flesh in a particular place and in a particular time.
Of all the interventions, it was that of the Bishop of East Timor, Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, S.D.B., that was most conscious of the importance of the universality of particularly Catholic social thought for Asia. "The concept of the human dignity of every man was of divine (Trinitarian and Christological) origin in Judaeo-Christian thought. Over the last 100 years, the Holy See has legitimately earned for itself the reputation of being a universal voice sustaining human rights.... For the Church, defending human rights and the cultural dignity of man is directly linked to spiritual mission."
One of the abiding problems of Christianity in Asia has been precisely the political arm of the ancient or modern state used against its free expression. John Paul II has constantly spoken of this basic freedom of religion wherever he travels. But it is clear that in very few states in Asia is there freedom of religion, other than the limited tolerance to continue in existence already existing ecclesial bodies. The lament about the paucity of Christians in Asia may well be considered an aspect of the state in league with existing religions and ideologies to prevent any calm objective presentation of universal religious truth. The tendency of many bishops to down play the "western" aspect of Christianity may well go against the "universal" aspects of Christianity and its rightful claim to be heard in its own terms.
At another level, on the issue of whether Asia is so closed to western thought, it is always well to recall the the largest bloc of Asians and several smaller ones by their own testimony profess to be followers of a man born Trier, Germany, and who developed his ideas in the British Museum, a man who was Jewish by birth, with Protestant theological interests, and a follower of the most complex of German philosophers, Georg Friederich Wilhelm Hegel. Whatever modifications, or "inculturations" to Asian traditions may have been made in the process, we must keep in mind that leading Asian political leaders in the twentieth century have, in fact, realized and imitated the significance of western ideas, sometimes, unfortunately, as in the case of Marxism, of the most dubious ones. The fact that Asian economies have rapidly under other western economic ideas, those of freer trade and competition, is also a caution to any overemphasis on Asian aloofness.
In a recent lecture to the Italian Bishops (27 September 1997), Josef Cardinal Ratzinger made an important point about the essential nature of the Mass that is pertinant to our considerations here. Contrary to many current ideas, the Mass ought not to be conceived as itself "missionary" so that it be modified to speak the language of people who are not Christians, as if this were its primary purpose. Several bishops at the Synod emphasized the importance of adoration. It is precisely this point that Ratzinger stressed using as his example the awed reaction of Russian diplomats when they first saw the Mass at Byzantium.
The Byzantine liturgy was not a way of teaching doctrine and was not intended to be. It was not a display of the Christian faith in a way acceptable or attractive to onlookers. What impressed onlookers about the liturgy was precisely its utter lack of an ulterior purpose, the fact that it was celebrated for God and not for spectators, that its sole intent was to be before God and for God, pleasing and acceptable to God....
What fascinates is precisely the worship of God, the praise of God, in the way Christ has handed down the sacrifice to us, to "do this" in His memory.
Cardinal Ratzinger is quite clear that the transformation of the liturgy primarily into an instruction agency or into a means of socialization is not directly what the Christian adoration is about. He continues:
To speak, as has been common since the 1950's, of a "missionary liturgy" is at the very least an ambiguous and problematic way of speaking. In many circles of liturgists, this has led, in a truly excessive way, to making the instructive element of the liturgy, the effort to make it understandable even for outsiders, the primary criterion of the liturgical form. The idea that the choice of liturgical forms must be made from the "pastoral" point of view suggests the presence of this same anthropocentric error. Thus the liturgy is celebrated entirely for men and women.... In such a view, the liturgy is an instrument for the construction of a community, a method of "socialization" among Christians. Where this is so, perhaps God is still spoken of, but God in reality has no role: it is a matter only of meeting people and their needs halfway and making them concerned.
The proper concentration on what is for its own sake, for the worship of God, does not mean that there is no time or place for others or for the poor or for normal human concerns. It rather means that unless we have our priorities correct, unless we see what is first, God's worship, adoration, we risk not only missing the highest thing we are about, but also transforming Christianity into something it is not.
In conclusion, these comments of Josef Ratzinger serve to redirect our attention to the concerns of the Asian bishops, to what is primary, to the universality of revelation. Not unlike the Russian diplomats in Byzantium, what the Asian world will pay most attention to is the worship of God itself. There is need to specify exactly in what this worship consists and to whom it is directed. But it is itself with no "ulterior purpose." This is where the universality of Christianity begins and all its efforts to explain itself, however valuable these be, cannot take the place of the experience of worship.
The central act of worship of the Christian faith is unique and has a particular awareness, including intellectual awareness, of what it is about. No other worship is like it in its understanding of what is going on or in its direct object. Likewise, it is something that, in the effort to understand it more fully, requires each culture and nation to open itself to what it does not have. Yet, what it does not have is intended to belong to it as if it was the heart of its very world. Indeed, it is the heart of the world in which we are redeemed by the Cross on which the God-man died for our sins.
ON THE UNIQUENESS OF CATHOLICISM AND THE DIVERSITY OF RELIGIONS
Now, the man who finds many unjust deeds in his life often even wakes from his sleep in fright as children do, and lives in anticipation of evil. To the man who is conscious in himself of no unjust deed, sweet and good hope is ever beside him -- a nurse in his old age, as Pindar puts it.
-- Cephalus in Book I of Plato's Republic, #331a.
This new life in the radicalness of the Gospel also involves certain breaks from the customs and culture of whatever people in the world, because the Gospel is never an internal product of a particular country but always comes "from outside", from on high.
On my morning stroll through Georgetown, I walk down "N" Street to 27th Street, then over to Dumbarton Street and back to the campus, perhaps a mile and a half walk. On the way down, I pass the Georgetown Baptist Church at 31st Street, then the Kesher Hebrew Congregation's Synagogue at 28th; just before turning the corner at 27th Street, I go by the Alexander Memorial Baptist Church. At the corner of 27th and Dumbarton, is the First Baptist Church, then, half a block away on Dumbarton, the Epiphany Catholic parish, that doubles on Sunday as la Paroisse de St. Louis de France. Farther on, half a block off Dumbarton, on 29th, is the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church; at 30th and "P", you can see Christ Episcopal Church, and just before Wisconsin is Dumbarton Avenue Methodist Church. Crossing Wisconsin on "O" Street at Potomac, is St. John's Protestant Episcopal Church. Back to 36th Street on "O", I walk by the Rectory of Trinity Catholic Church, and into the campus through the central tower of the Healy Building, I come to the court yard, where stands Dalghren Chapel that now sometimes serves as an ecumenical building.
If I walk another block or two, I can find a number of other churches, including the Church of the Two Worlds on "P" Street, Christ the King on "O" that uses the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and the Jerusalem Baptist Church at 26th and "P". And when I cross Key Bridge to Fort Meyer Drive, I can look back across the River to see at the highest hill in the District, the National Cathedral, and, ahead, is an Amoco gas station, on top of which is the Arlington Temple, a United Methodist church. Sometimes in the distance I can see the Washington Monument in Alexandria with its Masonic symbolism. A Mosque and a Greek Orthodox Church can be found along Massachusetts. Every local at one time or another has seen the Mormon Temple on the 495 Beltway North and probably the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at Catholic University.
In this particular walk, I come across none of the flourishing evangelical, Pentecostal, Adventist, or Christian Science Churches, but I do not have to go too far to find them, nor the ethnic Korean or Vietnamese congregations. I once walked into an Ethiopian Protestant Service at a church near George Washington University. And so far, I am only talking about churches, mosques, and synagogues. In addition to religions, we can find philosophies, ethical societies, and other ways of life that claim some unique truth or explanation of reality. The universities are full of conflicting and contradictory claims to truth or to its impossibility. The universities are often bastions of sundry relativisms or politically correct doubts that are likewise ways of life and readily claim for themselves a superiority by distinguishing themselves from religions of whatever variety. If we extend our vision to a national or international scale, we will find ourselves confronted with a vast and extraordinary array of religions and philosophies, now at peace, now at war, with one another.
Though we do not often aver to it, this closing twentieth century has probably seen more martyrs for the faith than any previous century, perhaps more than the rest of the centuries put together. At Georgetown, we have had a Sudanese archbishop recouperating in our community. He recounts the hundreds of thousands of Christians killed in his country in the past quarter-century in what can only be called religious persecution, a persecution that does not exactly fill the pages of our prestige journals, or even of our Cathoilic prese. Indeed, Mona Charon, who is Jewish, did a recent, and to her, perplexing column about the strange lethargy and silence of Christians aobut the persecution of their fellow Christians at various places in the world, almost as if they did not want to bother about the plight of their felow Christians (The Washington Times, December 11, 1995).
The Holy Father has, in fact, proposed, in this august age of progress, liberalism, and political freedom, that we update the famous Roman Martyrology to include these more recent martyrs for the faith, including the non-Catholic ones. Moreover, no one knows what to call those human beings who have been systematically killed by our various public policies of abortion and euthanasia throughout the world, but surely they, like the original Holy Innocents, must be somehow included as martyrs within the human race and will themselves achieve full salvation.
It is not my purpose here to give an extensive account of the variety and diversity of religion and philosophy in the modern world. This diversity is paralleled by what we now call a diversity of life-style, culture, and civilization, a diversity that often implies a denial of anything like what we must still call natural law, a standard that includes all men and does not allow us to justify whatever it is we might do or think simply on the theoretical basis that we do it or think it.
But what are we to make of all these differing claims to knowing, or not knowing, God's word and revelation? Surely, their variety tempts us, as it did the ancient philosophers, to skepticism, to doubt that any of these systems, including one's own, can be true, since there are so many of them and since they often hold contradictory positions. Or we wonder about the apparent inefficiency of Christ's command at the end of Matthew for us to go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the "Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" -- to use that older baptismal formula that I am sure these must have been the words that, once upon a time, the pastor used for my own infant baptism at a small parish in rural Iowa.
China, India, and Japan, moreover, remain practically untouched by Christianity, though it is there. Official China is totally hostile to religion of any sort. The well-known Japanese novelist, Shusaku Endo, worried that the Japanese are simply impervious to Christianity. The vast Islamic world is experiencing a rebirth, often at the expense of the Christians. Mass remains forbidden in Saudi Arabia. I believe there are now almost as many Muslims in the United States as Jews. I have heard that the famous Jesuit Church in Brussels, in Belgium, was recently turned over to Muslims. The rapid decline of birth rates in the traditional European Catholic countries like France, Bavaria, and Italy portend radically differing types of religious make-up in these areas. At least one Muslim writer thinks that this new population from Islam will prove to be the the way finally to conquer Europe.
Even within the Christian world, new forms of Protestantism hardly seen before are making vast inroads into both the mainline Protestant religions and into Catholic areas such as Latin America. The latest liberal scare is something called "fundamentalism", which is said to be the most dangerous social phenomenon around, even when often it just means seriously practicing a faith. The eastern religions and Islam are appearing more and more in the West and making converts there. A mosque is now constructed in Rome midst the Catholic Italians whose birth rate is now below replacement ratios. In spite of their own very low birth-rate, many Jews have recently regained their faith and have sought to live the life that it encourages. Their homeland has survived intact for over half a century and what Maritain called "the mystery of Israel", of its survival, becomes ever more perplexing.
Again, what are we to make of all this seemingly overwhelming divergences of religion? Ought it to bother us? Is it against or according to God's will? If salvation comes through Christ in the Church, where does this leave all the myriads of people who never heard of this revelation?
Linus is seen walking toward Lucy, who is happily jumping rope. Linus is reading from a book. "Here is something I'll bet you don't know?" he tells her, obviously glad that he has found something she does not know. As Lucy goes off indifferently still skipping rope, Linus continues, "The Bible contains 3,566,480 letters and 773,893 words!" In the next scene, he looks at her expectantly, waiting for some sort of reaction. But Lucy merely continues jumping rope with a distant look in her eyes as if Linus or his facts didn't exist. In the final scene, a disgusted Linus yells to a Lucy jumping away, "You're just not interested in theology, are you?"
Well, let us suppose that there are, in the history of mankind, a number of different religions and philosophies equivalent to the number of words in the Bible. How do we go about considering this unsettling variety in any intelligible fashion? Are we, like Lucy, just skipping rope or are we able both to maintain that one religion, in our case, Catholicism, is in fact a true description of human destiny and, at the same time, to give a coherent, sympathetic explanation of its relation to the diversity of other religions and systems?
To our great and often unacknowledged astonishment, we live during the time of one of the most important popes in the history of the Church. By himself, he is one of the greatest missionaries the world has ever seen from any religion. He has systematically re-thought, re-presented, and re-proposed every aspect of the faith with a clarity and coherence unknown to any other philosophy or faith. If we do not know this record, it simply means that we have not been reading or listening to him for the past quarter of a century. Many, I know, even those who claim to be Catholics, do not want to hear John Paul II. But that is a different problem, a problem whose origin lies in conditions of will, in contexts of humility and virtue. It is something in part at least that touches the mystery of evil.
No one has given more thought to this diversity of religion and this divergence of philosophy than John Paul II. Astonishingly, he has told us that he has been planning for the coming Third Millennium since he first became pope. He quite literally sees it as an occasion to present the religions and philosophies of the world with the precise truth of Catholicism. But this exposition is to be in a manner that is no longer polemical or combative, but is to be offered simply and calmly as if it were possible for human beings to listen to what the Pope has to say as he obviously listens to what other religions and philosophies have to say about themselves. In his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Holy Father wrote carefully about the difference between Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism and Christianity at fundamental points. For each of the next four years (1997-2000), in any case, John Paul II has planned a careful and systematic presentation of what God is, what revelation says about the divinity and man's relation to God. Each year is to be devoted to one Person of the Trinity, ending with the year 2000 to be devoted to the Trinity itself, the great Christian revelation about the inner life of God.
The Pope is deadly serious here. He too has taken a look at what passes for religion and philosophy. He has re-emphasized in Redemptoris Missio that Catholicism remains essentially missionary, that is, remains dire ted to explain what it is even whiule bearing the gretest respect and understanding for other positions. The Pope has concluded that it is time to stop everything and decide with much more clarity just what we do hold, this whether we be Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or members of any philosophic sect. The Pope is not so naïve as to believe that everyone will welcome this endeavor. What is clear is that the initiative is coming from Catholicism to the world, to each of the organized religions and philosophies that are capable coherently of defining themselves and willing to consider, with mutual consideration, their own truth in the light of common principles and the propositions of revelation..
The occasion for these particular remarks was an article in the Fall of 1995 in The Washington
Post reporting several Editorials that appeared in La Civiltà Cattolica, entitled "Christianity and the Other Religions". As this latter journal is known to be read by the Vatican and is often seen as an indication of its thinking, the article naturally drew a good deal of attention. Actually, the articles are generally in line with what John Paul II has been writing about in his letter on the "Third Millennium" and in his Encyclicals Redemptoris Missio and Ut Unum Sint. Likewise, the Document from the Congregations of Evangelization and Interreligious Dialogue (Arinze and Tomko) entitled, "Dialogue and Proclamation" is also most instructive. What these Italian articles seem to ask is whether we can properly speak about a way to "salvation" found in the rites and religious practices of the other religions? Thus, these reflections are not merely about other Christian churches but about other religions, particularly the Oriental ones.
What is at issue here? Does the disunity within Christianity itself and with Judaism, together with the multiplicity of other religions and philosophies portend, the untruth of Catholicism or the impossibility of its claims as the essential way to salvation? Or does the coherence of Catholicism as an explanation of man's final destiny incorporate in a coherent whole the other sects, religions, philosophies, and ways of life such that this diversity has itself a purpose or at least a reason within the unity of Catholicism's claim to the locus of revealed truth?
Is Catholicism right to maintain that there are elements in other religions that do and other elements that do not support the ultimate attainment of salvation and the proper understanding of the whole truth about God and man? A specific characteristic of Catholicism in its conception of itself is that it takes intelligence seriously and considers it incumbent on it to understand honestly and precisely what is held by any other religion, sect, or philosophy. And, I might add, it expects others to understand what it teaches and holds about itself as a matter of intellectual and spiritual honesty. It is one thing to hold or reject Catholicism for what it is, but quite another for what it is not. Today, there is no longer any excuse, in the media, in the universities, in normal human discourse, for a prejudiced, inacurate, or wrong statement of what Catholicism holds about itself.
From the side of Catholicism under John Paul II two things can definitely be observed. First, in a very careful, systematic manner, this Pope has undertaken the vast and conscious effort to state clearly and profoundly the Church's understanding of itself in the light of what is revealed to it about the inner life of God, about God's will to communicate this life to us, and about the terms of our response to this divine initiative. Secondly, the Pope has undertaken organized efforts to enter into dialogue, respectful and tolerant, with every Christian church, with Judaism, with other religions and philosophies, to discuss together just what each holds, to seek as far as possible an honest and frank discussion about divisions and misunderstandings. He further maintains that such discussions can and should lead somewhere, to unity, to agreement about truth.
The ultimate divisions of mankind are those of the spirit, of understanding what our life is about. The most important question that we must ask of one another, as Socrates again said, is "how we live" (#352d). The very worst thing that can happen to us is that we have a lie in our souls about reality itself. In a profound passage, Socrates concluded that, "... no one, surely, voluntarily wishes to lie about the most sovereign things to what is most sovereign in himself. Rather he fears holding a lie there more than anything" (#382a). No one wishes to be deceived in that ultimate source of his own being. There is a correspondence between our minds and reality that we want to be related, to be true. Indeed, this correspondence is what truth really is.
What is the problem that seems to be uppermost in the minds of many Christians after two thousand years? It is of course about the truth of the faith in relation to all mankind. St. Paul said that God wishes all mankind to come to a knowledge of the truth 1Timothy, 2:4). The Christian faith has four major points that it affirms about itself in relation to the salvation of all mankind. These are, as the Editorial in Civiltà Cattolica stated, "that the salvific will of God extends to everyone; that Jesus is the only and universal Savior of men; that the Church is the universal sacrament of salvation, and that faith in God and in Christ is absolutely necessary for us to be saved." The question is how can we reconcile these basic truths with the fact that most of the human beings that have ever lived have either not known or lived up to these basic points? If we look about the differing religions, moreover, we find one or other of these claims in some imperfect form. It is recognized that we need to be saved from something and that we cannot save ourselves is recognized everywhere but in certain forms of modernity.
The Catholic Church understands itself to be a religion that is quite unlike the other religions, even though we can account for and document certain similarities to other religions on specific points. First of all, in Catholicism, there is a specific doctrine of God which separates Him from the world without denying that the world depends on Him. Indeed, God has a plan for the re-ordering or salvation of the world. The Christian understanding of God did not originate from men, but from God. What is revealed has two specific teachings about God, teaching that respond perfectly to certain specifically unanswered questions posed by good philosophers themselves about reality.
The first teaching is that there is only one God, with an inner life of three divine Persons. God in this sense is not an inherently lonely God that needed the world, but a God who created the world out of nothing, out of some other motive than that He needed it because of His own lack. Secondly, one of the Persons of the Trinity, the Second Person, the Word, became flesh and dwelt amongst us at a certain time and at a certain place. This Man-God in the Person of Christ has become Himself part of the worldwhile remaining the Word. His coming into the world was prepared for all along through the activity of the Spirit and will come to a completion again through the Spirit acting in the world to carry out the Father's plan. The world, in other words, is not a chaos, but an order, an order, the outlines of which have been revealed to us by God Himself. This plan is mysterious, yet addressed to understanding, our understanding.
In a famous question in the Summa Theologiae, moreover, Thomas Aquinas asked "Whether Christ Was the Head of All Mankind" (III, 8, 3)? In this question, "all mankind" is to be taken literally, that is, all those ever belolnging to the human race in this world. The import of this question for our problem here was pointed out by the noted philosopher Eric Voegelin. Aquinas knew that "if Christ was to be the head of all mankind," Voegelin wrote,
He had to be more than head of the members of a Christian church. Hence, Thomas formulated clearly that Christ was indeed head of all men from the creation of the world to its end. He was, one might say, a true humanist who knew that Christ had come to every man, not only to Christians, or perhaps only to theologians. Thomas' insight of course raises problems that, so far as I know, no Christian thinker has ever dared to touch: how can Christ be concretely the head, say, of Babylonians or of the Greeks of the city-state period, and how does the pneumatic presence of His logos express itself in the experience and symbolization of Babylonians and Egyptians?
These these precise questions are currently being asked.
Looking forward, God's plan for the world seems to have a missionary purpose with regard to all mankind. They are to be informed about what is revealed about God and the ways to achieve what He has offered to the free creature as his proper destiny. Looking backward, we wonder about the fate or status not merely of those who positively reject salvation when properly understood, the problem of hell, but of those who had confused notions of God or of the good but who strove to do the best they could.
Of these latter, as Vatican II established, the Church teaches that those who do what they can, who strive to live an honorable life as best they can, will not be denied the salvation that God has prepared for all mankind. Just how this salvation reaches each person is something of a mystery, but it has long been understood that the Holy Spirit can and does operate outside the confines of the visible Church. St. Thomas put it succinctly, "those who lack the faith, although in act they are not members of the Church, are nevertheless potentially members of the Church. This potency is founded on two principles: first and mainly by the power of Christ which is sufficient to save the whole human race, and secondly in free will" (III, 8, 3, ad 1). Since the Lord is a Lord of History, moreover, it seems appropriate that a long sequence of time and events within it would be necessary properly to reflect the salvific plan of God for the free creatures. Divine providence, thus, will include what is to us the mystery of those who do not know God's plan either innocedntly or who deliberately reject it.
What we note in the work of John Paul II, as we did in Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), a certain urgency that mankind recognize the seriousness of its relationship to God and His plan for us. In Redemptoris Missio, Ut Unum Sint, and Tertio Millennio Adveniente, a strong missionary emphasis is set side by side with great efforts to understand and sympathize with other religions. The Pope is aware that these issues cannot be resolved politically or even culturally. What revelation has to teach each nation and culture comes from outside that culture or nation, even though it respects and understands what is true, wherever found. But have to reach the heart of individuals. The public status of religion, in one sense, from the viewpoint of Catholicism is to insist upon the constitutional right for it to be able to present itself, offer the sacraments, and preach, in every existing civil society, something that it cannot universally do. But it sees this constitutional basis to be a minimum on which it can pursue its missionary task according to criteria of dialogue and truth that exist at a level deeper than politics.
In conclusion, what is important is the concerted endeavor of Catholicism to see that its mission to the world goes on, that it seeks to incorporate itself in each culture but only while recognizing both universal truths and what is good, wherever found. This universality includes Catholicism's position that what is found in its revelation is true and intended for all men. The fact that this revelation is either rejected or prevented or not widely known is not apart from the divine plan. God has His own ways, but these ways include the mandate to go forth to teach all nations, teach both by clear expositions of what is true and teach them by examples of lives worthy of living according to the distinct standards of moral virtue as found in the Gospels.
That God wishes all men to be saved, that all must choose to be saved, that there is no other way but Christ, these are truths that can be reconciled. The Church is in a position now to think of its mission on a world scale, no longer merely in terms of Europe or the West but the whole world. Scholarship has provided us with a thorough understanding of what the various religions and philosophies hold about themselves.
The uniqueness of Catholicism and the diversity of religions, then, are both included in the divine plan. The "missionary" nature of Catholicism is rooted at the hart of the Trinity itself. Those made in the image of God are to return to the source of ther being and beatitude, but they are to do so after the manner of human beings, that is, after the manner of their understanding and choice. On the one side, every effort is made to understand and accept what is true. On the other, we find the need to recognize that mankind is not the origin of its own salvation, that something has come "from outside" that alone can reconcile the perplexities of belief and unbelief and their relation to reason.
What seems to be unique about the present time is a certain revitalization coming from the heart of Catholicism itself about its meaning in the world, not merely its own understanding of itself but its insitence that it be correctly heard and considered by those who do not accept its own positions and ways of life. An urgency born of faith itself puts a new, even ominous, light on widespread contemporary unbelief, in an age that has seen the faith suddenly clarify and manifest its own coherence more clearly than perhaps at any time in any other era of human history.
The lack of unity within Christendom and the diversity of religions in the world are unexpectedly confronted at the beginning of the Third Millennium by a calm inmsistence that God's plan is addressed with its own clarity to every man willing to listen. It is also addressed to those who, in their own hearts, find unwilling, I use the word deliberately, to listen. The plan of God is addressed to the human intellect, to those who seek to know the mystery of reality, including the reality of their own sins, disbelief, and honest confusion about what God is like.