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What is the Proper Object of Theology? The Pope at the Gregorian | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | November 27, 2006

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"The immediate object of the different branches of theological knowledge is God himself, revealed in Jesus Christ, God with a human face." -- Benedict XVI, Address Gregorian University, Rome, November 3, 2006

"The dominant practice of Harvard now is choice. Students should be able to choose the courses they want to take. The practice applies also to professors, who are permitted to choose the courses they want to teach. I say this is the 'practice,' not the principle, because a principle would say why choice is most important and what goal is to be sought by it. Our postmodern professors, however, do not care for principles." -- Harvey Mansfield, "Have It Your Way," The Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2006.


The Holy Father visited the Gregorian University on November 3. I first saw the full text of his Address published on Zenit on November 20. Also, it was in L'Osservatore Romano (English, November 15), which I received on November 21. It so happens that, on the same date, I came across the essay of Harvey Mansfield at Harvard about proposed changes of curriculum there to include, of all things, the study of "America and religion"! One might wonder what was previously being studied at Harvard if it did not include "America and religion," just as one might wonder what was being studied at the Gregorian if it did not include the knowledge of "God himself, revealed in Jesus Christ, God with a human face."

In any case, I thought it might be of some interest to reflect on these two by no means dissimilar items, each directed to apparently different kinds of university. Can there be different kinds of university? As we saw in the Lecture at Regensburg, Benedict deals with all kinds of universities. But he thinks that they all should be devoted to the truth and, indeed, to the same truth. Or to put it another way, if there can be "two truths," there can be no truth. We might also recall that, while the Gregorian is the oldest Jesuit university and Harvard the oldest American university, the very formation of what we know as a university came out of the medieval Church, at Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca, and Padua.

The Holy Father's address at the Gregorian was of particular interest to me as I had taught there from 1965-77, a period about which I still have fond memories. In his address, Pope Ratzinger mentions that he taught a course in the "Most Holy Eucharist" at the Gregorian at the invitation of the then Rector, Father Hervé Carrier, a French Canadian Jesuit, who was a member of the same social science faculty to which I was attached. The formal title of address to a Rector, one the pope used in this present address of the present Rector, is "Rector Magnificent" (Rector Magnificus), a title that is always most amusing translated into English.

I must confess, however, that, even though I was at the Gregorian at the time, I had no inkling that a certain Josef Ratzinger from Germany was giving a Second Cycle course on the Eucharist. Had I suspected this man's future, I surely would have hustled over across the Piazza to listen him. So much for Schall's prophetic powers! But I have, in the meantime, read his Spirit of the Liturgy, a must.

Just inside the huge Gregorian front doors is a large, enclosed aula, a photo of which appears within the L'Osserevatore text. The Pope began his lecture by calling this aula an "elegant and austere interior quadrangle." As interior Roman spaces go, I would never have described the place as "elegant"--"austere", yes. But it was a pleasant enough area, now much changed, as I understand it, by the addition of a conference center in the lower level of the building. This "newer" building that I remember was the one that replaced the famous old Collegio Romano located several blocks away across the Corso. The newer building where the lecture was given, as the pope mentioned, dates from the time of Pius XI, five popes previous to himself.

The pope, of course, greets everyone there, beginning with students. He tells the latter, "in a certain sense, the University is truly yours. It has existed since St. Ignatius founded it for you, for students, long ago in 1551." Likewise, at least one cardinal (Zenon Grocholewski) is in the audience, together with bishops, the General of the Society of Jesus, and the faculty. The folks working for the university are mentioned, as are the benefactors from the foundations that strive to support the university.

The Jesuit General is reminded that the Gregorian is "one of the greatest services that the Society of Jesus carries out for the universal Church." Near the end of the address, Benedict recalls Pope Julius III's letter of July 21, 1550 -- in Rome, everything is yesterday afternoon! In this letter, Julius said that the Jesuit Order was founded to serve the Church and the Roman Pontiff. Every member of the Order was to commit himself "most especially to the defense and propagation of the faith and the perfection of souls in life and Christian doctrine through public preaching, lectures and whatever other serves the Word of God." In the Eternal City, one Pope cites another. Some things don't change by changing.

This concrete work at the Gregorian and its sister institutions, the Biblical Institute and the Oriental Institute--the value of whose collective libraries the Pope acknowledges--is called, in rather graphic words, "this charismatic specificity of the Society of Jesus." It has, moreover, an institutional form in "the fourth vow of total availability to the Roman Pontiff" in anything he may see fit to command "for the perfection of souls and the propagation of the faith. Thus the Superior General of the Company of Jesus summons from across the world the Jesuits best suited to carrying out the task of teaching at this university." It is nice to see that "charismatic specificity" of purpose again spelled out, even for Jesuits

The pope adds that he realizes this Roman priority may cause "sacrifices" to other important projects of the Order. For these sacrifices, he makes no apology. He simply says that "the Church" is "grateful" for this use of manpower. That being said, he "desires the Gregorian to preserve the Ignatian spirit that enlivens it expressed in its pedagogical method and curriculum." Sometimes, the best things that happen to us are reminders of what we agreed to do in the first place. Chesterton says something like this about what he calls "rash vows."

Throughout the lecture is found a constant theme that the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity must be actively present if both faculty and students are to live and understand what goes on here. "Even when, as in Canon Law and in Church History (faculties), the immediate object (of which) is the People of God in its visible, historical dimension, the deeper analysis of the topic urges us once again to contemplation, in faith, of the mystery of the Risen Christ. It is he, present in his Church, who leads her among the events of the time towards eschatological fullness, a goal to which we have set out sustained by hope. However, knowing God is not enough. Knowledge must become love." This latter, no doubt, is a gentle reminder of Benedict's encyclical Deus Caritas Est, itself worth a couple of courses at the Gregorian.

The pope recalls the many faculties and distinguished professors who taught over the centuries at the Gregorian. He remembers that sixteen popes have studied there. He talks of the scientist Christopher Clavius and the Gregorian (Gregory XIII) calendar, the one we still use, and of Matteo Ricci in China, one of Clavius' students.

The pope uses the word "entrust" in speaking of the various national colleges who send all or some of their students to the Gregorian. "Dear sons of St. Ignatius, once again the Pope entrusts to you this University, such an important institution for the universal church and for so many particular Churches. It has always been a priority among the priorities of the apostolates of the Society of Jesus." That is a deft phrase, "a priority among the priorities."


Does this papal lecture have anything to do with Mansfield's comments about the new Harvard initiative on General Education, an initiative about which Mansfield has some doubts? Mansfield recalled an earlier Harvard educational program of 1947 under James Conant. This earlier effort sought to connect science (something the pope is most interested in) with democracy. It proposed to accomplish this end through the study the "Great Books of Western Civilization."

Today, however, such great books are often seen to be parochial and a "limitation of student choice." However, in Mansfield's view, students in fact are interested in what is normally considered this tradition. "It is apparent from the courses that students seek out and from the dissatisfaction they express that they are more interested in big questions (Great Books) and in the big picture (Western Civilization) than their professors." Too many professors, Mansfield thinks, teach such classical texts "without affection" and to "cut them down to size."

Mansfield then examines what he calls "the logic of change." What does it mean to have as a primary goal the "study of change?" This very topic smacks of Benedict's concern in the Regensburg lecture with voluntarism, that is, with will that is ungrounded in reason. By what principle, Mansfield wonders, are students to "adopt to change" if change itself is the principle? Choice has the same problem. If someone chooses to adapt to "change," what is he actually doing? How does anyone know whether "change" is good or bad? And if we are "beyond good and evil," what difference does it make to what we change to? Every change is all right because it is, well, change.

"Adapting to change leaves you at the mercy of impersonal forces that care nothing for you or your choice." Mansfield writes. "In order to meet their responsibilities, students must be responsive to the conditions of the 21st century." Your responsibility is not to do what is right, nor even to do what you think is right. It is to be reactive. "You are recommended to exercise your choice by surrendering it to whatever is coming next." Without an end, a choice is not even a choice. And to choose what is new because it is new basically means to accept whatever comes along without really asking about it, without, in fact, having any principles by which we can even ask about it.

What about "globalization?" What is modernity? And why is change so essential? As Mansfield said, these ideas have their origins in Western civilization, so that, by adapting to them, are we really globalizers?

But what does make "life worthy of respect? What could inspire it? Where is the experience of greatness?" These questions are mindful of the following comment of Allan Bloom in Shakespeare's Politics: "What is essentially human is revealed in the extreme, and we understand ourselves better through what we might be. In a way, the spectators live more truly when they are watching a Shakespearean play than in their daily lives, which are so much determined by the accidents of time and place." To see what nobility and virtue are, we need to learn of them. Our experience of them must include the literature, philosophy, and, yes, theology that tells us about them, allows us to behold them. Mansfield rightly concludes: "It would be good for students to learn about America and religion ... if only they had teachers partial to human greatness." Such are poignant words.


At the Gregorian University, Benedict also brought up the topic of "change." Those professors who contributed to their specialties gave service to "the Apostolic See in the exercise of its doctrinal, disciplinary and pastoral role. With the development of the times, outlooks necessarily change." The pope here repeats his three papal roles, as teacher, sanctifier, and ruler. Knowledge must contribute to the effort to see what is changing, whether this change is neutral or not. Change happens, but it is not itself a principle, to recall Mansfield's words. Change is only understood against what does not change.

The pope next spoke of the world in which these students at this Roman university live, not always a pleasant one. "Today, one must take into account the confrontation with secular culture in many parts of the world, which not only tends to deny every sign of God's presence in the life of society and of the individual, but, with various means that bewilder and cloud the upright human conscience, is seeking to corrode the human being's capacity and readiness to listen to God." This is the "big question," of course.

Signs of God's presence, however, can be found in society and in our souls, signs not always pointing to a reality examined only by "modern scientific method" with its basis in mathematics. The highest things cannot be measured by mathematics, which is no insult to mathematics. It is only asked to do what it can do. Upright consciences in our time are "bewildered" and "clouded" by the culture in which we live. This secular culture affirms: "nothing is true," "choose what you want," "make no judgments." We can even doubt our "capacity" to listen to God. None of our powers, it is said, reaches beyond ourselves. Modern epistemology since Descartes has long doubted that we can get outside of ourselves to what is. We can only formulate hypotheses about it. If this incapacity is so, we can derive no guidance from outside of ourselves. We can discover no human natural law or order other than what we give to ourselves on the basis of our will alone.

What about religion? "It is impossible to ignore relations with other religions," Benedict affirms. The Church in recent times has spoken much of relations with other Christian denominations and other religions. In fact, the world political scene, almost for the first time in recent modernity, looks like a confrontation with or relationship with the world religions has become the prime political task of our immediate future. This almost shocking turn-about comes much to the consternation of those who thought that "God was dead." Some gods seem very alive and quite aggressive.

Yet the pope remains blunt. The purpose of dealing with religion is not the construction of a minimalist world consensus about something vaguely called the "spiritual." This is a pope who speaks here. Change and universalism do not abrogate, but highlight, the question of truth. Discussions with other religions can and should take place. But they can only be "constructive" if we "avoid all forms of ambiguity, which in a certain way undermine the essential content of Christian faith in Christ, the one Savior of all mankind." On this latter point, Benedict refers to his Declaration Dominus Iesus of 2000, a document worth many readings. The world, at times, seems to be in a desperate struggle to find a way to salvation, but only in any way other than the Christian way. The purpose of the papacy is to keep the Christian option in its essence open to us.

The silent or explicit hypothesis of globalist cultural encounters is that no religion can be true; therefore let them all get along. Any religion that claims that it is true must therefore be declared in opposition to common culture of relativism or change in which there can be no truth. On such premises, what is enshrined is, in fact, the very "ambiguity" that "undermines the essential content of Christian faith."

Put in another way, Christians are not in this cultural business because they doubt their faith. They hold that it is true. They have rational foundations on which to base this claim, to recall the Regensburg lecture. At this point, they are not asking agreement, but understanding of what is at stake both for them and for the other religions in the actual polities that govern the world.

Sciences that concern the human being, the pope continues in his Gregorian address, "cannot set aside reference to God. In fact, man, both in his interiority and in his exteriority, cannot be fully understood unless he recognizes that he is open to transcendence." This transcendence is, of course, what lay behind any problem with "change" as itself a "principle" in which to understand ourselves.

"Deprived of his reference to God, man cannot respond to the fundamental questions that trouble and will always trouble his heart concerning the end of his life, hence, also its meaning," Benedict explains, in words reminiscent of Mansfield's comment about what sort of courses students at Harvard actually choose. If God is excluded as part of the equation, no answer can ever be given. "As a result, it is no longer possible to introduce into society those ethical values that alone can guarantee a co-existence worthy of man. Human destiny without reference to God cannot but be the desolation of anguish, which leads to desperation." The "desperation" is essentially the realization that the methods and theories that we have been using in modernity to explain ourselves simply do not explain what we are.

But how do we know that we are first loved, something alone that makes us realize that we are worthy? "Only in reference to God's Love which is revealed in Jesus Christ can man find the meaning of existence and live in hope, even if he must face evils that injure his personal existence and the society in which he lives." The pope is under no illusions--we may and do have to "face evils that injure" our personal existence. There are martyrs all over the place if we would only see them and what causes them.

The pope is not interested in "change" but rather in "improvement." That is, there are standards and norms according to which we rule ourselves and our societies. Our dignity and our responsibility flow from the same source. The pope puts it well. He is quite appreciative of the dangers of modern nihilism, which cannot give us a real reason to live, to be what we are. "Hope ensures that man does not withdraw into a paralyzing and sterile nihilism but opens himself instead to generous commitment within the society where he lives in order to improve it," Benedict remarks. "This is the task that God entrusted to man when he created him in his own image and likeness, a task that fills every human being with the greatest possible dignity, but also with an immense responsibility."

We must know, in conclusion, what the proper object of theology is. We must also know that "choice" must have an object worthy of its activity. Without an indication of what is worth choosing, choice can be tyranny or virtue or nothing, mostly nothing. Benedict is to be read carefully. A perceptive professor like Harvey Mansfield is aware of the vagaries of choice and change when their only basis is themselves. In any case, universities exist that we will be moved by the highest things. If we are not so moved, it may be because we have narrow souls. It may also mean that, in student lives, we never really encounter what the pope calls "the big questions", and what Mansfield calls "human greatness." When both the pope of Rome and a Harvard professor circle the same quarry, there is a glimmer of hope.

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The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent book is The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006).

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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