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Intellectual Charity: On Benedict XVI and the Canadian Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. | October 9, 2006

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Recently, for a course that I am doing in Medieval Political Philosophy, I had occasion to take a look at the chapter on the Arab Philosophers--Al Kindi, Al Ghazeli, Al Farabi, Avecenna, and Averroes, among others--in Etienne Gilson's famous History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. This book was first published on the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel (September 29), 1954. It bears the Imprimatur of Cardinal McGuigan. At the time, Gilson was the Director of Studies at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto. Several of my own professors and friends, I think particularly of Clifford Kossel, S.J., Raymond Dennehy, and Desmond Fitzgerald, had studied there.

This famous book of the great Gilson came to mind as I read the recent comments that Benedict XVI gave to the Canadian bishops from Ontario. The Canadian talk was given just a few days before (September 8) his now famous Regensburg Lecture (September 12). The Pope recalls the passage in 1 John 4:16, affirming that "we know and believe the love that God has for us." The Pope explains these words. They "reveal faith as personal adherence to God and concurrent assent to the whole truth that God reveals." The text adds an un-cited reference to the fundamental doctrinal statement that Joseph Ratzinger made as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, namely Dominus Jesus (n. 7). I decided that I had better look up this passage before I went on.

Paragraph seven of Dominus Jesus (August 6, 2000) says that the "proper response" to revelation is the "obedience" of faith, "by which man freely entrusts his entire self to God. "Faith is a gift of grace." We do not engineer it by ourselves. The "obedience" of faith means "the acceptance of the truth of Christ's revelation." This truth is guaranteed by God who is "Truth itself." Faith is a "supernatural virtue." There is a double relation: that of trust in God and that to the truth revealed. This basic content of faith is spelled out using a citation from the General Catechism: "We must believe in no one but God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" (#144). We should keep in mind those who do not hold these views or do not allow others to hold them.

"For this reason, the distinction between theological faith and belief in the other religions must be firmly held." No inter-religious discussion can be based on the putting this truth aside. But this affirmation does not mean it is not possible to grasp what is true in other religions, while maintaining the truth of our own. The trouble is that "this distinction" between theological faith and what is belief in other religions is "not borne in mind in current theological reflection." What is the result? "Theological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself." Evidently, this confusion is why we hear that it is not necessary to "convert" anyone because the "belief" in religion is the same in all religions, including Catholicism, with only differing modalities.

Ratzinger here implies that what is believed--its content--it itself necessary to understand not only as a part of faith but of reason also. The failure to make the distinction between faith as revealed in its content and the sum of "beliefs" in other religions is "one of the reasons why the difference between Christianity and other religions tend to be reduced at times to the point of disappearance." What is specifically Christian is thus eliminated as a kind of minor oddity, whereas in fact it is the heart of the matter.

I have taken the liberty at this point to cite what is said in Dominus Jesus, because it serves to make the point that respect for other religions does not mean agreement with their doctrines or practices unless there is something objectively true in them. We do not enter here into subjective ignorance and other impediments, but only concern ourselves with the affirmation that what is believed has a specific content. This content is itself revealed and, as the Pope will state to the Canadian bishops, this content itself will turn out to be culturally important on the most fundamental of human and societal issues.


Benedict then continues to the Canadian bishops by affirming that we must realize that "the whole truth that God reveals can only be credibly proclaimed in the wake of an encounter with Christ." Believers, including bishops, must in fact "believe" in both senses, that God reveals and what He reveals. Benedict then returns to the issue of modern disbelief. He is frank with the Canadian bishops. "In increasingly secularized societies such as yours"--yes, Canada!--"the Lord's outpouring of love to humanity can remain unnoticed or rejected." The "outpouring" may indeed be there, but "unnoticed," even in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. Not to notice what is there is itself a choice.

Why is this personal withdrawal from faith made? Because many think that this "withdrawal" will constitute their "freedom" to do what they want. But if we try to understand ourselves without this relation to what we are conceived to be in revelation, man becomes "a stranger to himself." Men and women dismiss "the love which discloses the fullness of man's truth." People thus end in a "wilderness of individual isolation, social fragmentation and loss of cultural identity."

Benedict is never content just to analyze, though that is a first step--to define the issue we face it, to make it intelligible. The culture must be "evangelized." Somehow the "face" of Jesus, something that John Paul II often spoke of, something that has overtones in much modern philosophy (Levinas, Buber), must be made "visible." Deus Caritas Est also touched on this problem. Individuals need to recognize the love of Christ for them. This recognition is the concern of bishops. (See Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, "The Identity of the Bishop," Christian Faith & Human Understanding.)

Again the Pope insists that we cannot be content to talk merely of "values," a word in modern thought that can mean whatever we want it to mean. It is (from Max Weber) a function of modern skepticism. "Any reduction of the core meaning of Jesus, that is, the 'Kingdom of God' to indefinite talk of 'kingdom values' weakens Christian identity and debilitates the Church's contribution to the regeneration of society."

Bishops who officially visit this Pope definitely must be prepared to know modern thought and its relation to the Catholic mind. It would be most useful for them to know Augustine, Aquinas, and the Fathers of the Church. The Pope is even more blunt: "when believing is replaced by 'doing' and witness by talk of 'issues,' there is an urgent need to recapture the profound joy and awe of the first disciples." Their hearts "burned" on hearing the truth for the first time. Benedict here, of course, refers to the "orthopraxis" notion that the content of what is believed is not important, only politics in which "action" becomes primary. When "orthodoxy" (right doctrine) is reduced to "practice," practice itself is headless, or even "clueless."


The Pope next turns to a discussion of politics and democracy. In recent years there has been much discussion within Canada of the degree to which it has become a society that in almost absolutist terms imposes "values" defined by modern ideologies and moods on the population. The Pope begins by noting a distinction between "Gospel and culture" (see Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition). This was a theme from H. Richard Niebuhr, T. S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, Voegelin, and others. This separation resulted in "the exclusion of God from the public sphere."

The Regensburg Lecture would go into the philosophic origins of this exclusion in modern philosophy. This Pope does not think that this "exclusion" is simply a necessary result of "separation of church and state" or "democracy." Canada, the Pope acknowledges, has "a generous ad practical commitment to justice and peace." He noted the "vibrancy" of the many peoples who have settled in Canada.

In secularized culture, however, we have the context in which to make the "face" of Christ visible. How? Referring indirectly to the second section of Deus Caritas Est, in which he pointed out the need of individual, personal charity, the Pope adds, "in helping individuals to recognize and experience the love of Christ, you will awaken in them the desire to dwell in the house of the Lord." (see Jennifer Roback Morse, Love & Economics).

Is all well in Canada? The Pope recalls something of G. K. Chesterton's remark that the modern world is filled with snippets of Christian truth gone wild in isolation. "Certain values detached from their moral roots and full significance found in Christ have evolved in the most disturbing of ways." How, for instance? "In the name of 'tolerance,' your Country has had to endure the folly of the redefinition of spouse, and in the name of 'freedom of choice' it is confronted with the daily destruction of unborn children." Pretty blunt. The Pope does not use words to hide the truth. We are so used to calling things by other names that we no longer see what goes on; the daily destruction of unborn children goes on among us. It is no different in ultimate principle from the suicide bombers and other terrorists.

Benedict gives a reason for this position. "When the Creator's divine plan is ignored the truth of human nature is lost." Thus, there is a "divine plan"; human nature has a "truth" which we can know but also reject. Our "public policy" does not change our nature or the divine plan. But it may contribute to corrupting our souls.

The Pope does not excuse Christians who are often responsible for causing or allowing much of this destruction. They have within their own souls "false dichotomies" that seem to "justify" their participation in these popular aberrations. The Pope does not let politicians who are Christians off the hook. "When Christian civic leaders sacrifice the unity of faith and sanction the disintegration of reason and the principles of natural ethics by yielding to ephemeral social trends and the spurious demands of opinion polls" great damage results. The Pope here reminds civic leaders that they can and should be leaders for what is indeed true and honorable. Why else be in public life?

"Democracy succeeds only to the extent that it is based on truth and a correct understanding of the human person. Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle." The fact is, not a few evidently do, and not only in Canada. The Pope is really calling politicians to their true dignity. Democracy as a "method" can elect anyone. Indeed, I saw reference of late to a conference in the Vatican in which a Muslim representative said that Islam would take over the West precisely trough democratic means. The list of things of unreason approved by voters is not short. With no attention to what it means to speak and vote for the truth, the splendor of truth (title of John Paul II's encyclical, Veritatis Splendor) would be silenced and an autonomy from morality proclaimed." The bishops are supposed to discuss with public leaders the fact that "our Christian faith, far from being an impediment to dialogue, is a bridge, precisely because it brings together reason and culture."


The Pope next turns to the Catholic schools, of which Canada has not a few. Indeed, in many ways, Canada has been much more "democratic" in this sphere than the United States has to its Catholic population. The Pope encourages the need to provide for Catholic schools.

But as he did in Regensburg, the Pope goes to the heart of the matter. "A particularly insidious obstacle to education today ... is the marked presence in society of that relativism which recognizes nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires." With no reason or moral law, we are left to "make" our own law and call it "freedom." But this sort of freedom obliges us to nothing but ourselves and our own desires. The Pope even uses a phrase that was often seen in Leo Strauss, namely, that relativism deflects us from higher things and we experience "the lowering of standards of excellence." No one is brave; no one has courage to stand up for what is true. We find a "timidity before the category of the good, and a relentless but senseless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom." What we need is precisely this, "intellectual courage."

But, in conclusion, Benedict has one final, brilliant remark. What he has already accomplished in his short reign is to use his mind to go to the heart of things. It is almost as he is the only one thinking out loud on fundamental issues in terms that go to the philosophic heart of the matter. Perhaps reminiscent of Gilson in Toronto, the Pope tells the Canadian bishops, "such detrimental trends point to the particular urgency of the apostolate of 'intellectual charity' which upholds the essential unity of knowledge, guides the young towards the sublime satisfaction of exercising their freedom in relation to truth and articulates the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life."

I do not recall ever having seen the phrase "intellectual charity" before, though it is in quotation marks in the text and may be common. It does remind me of Christoph Cardinal Schonborn's remark that Thomas Aquinas was the only man ever canonized simply for thinking. Obviously, intellectual charity can mean many things. It is used in the context of intellectual order and disorder, in an address to Canadian bishops, who themselves have a notable tradition of intellect in places like Toronto and Laval, among others. The Church in Canada has fallen on very difficult times and one wonders whether and how this tradition of intellect relates to its pastoral problems.

But I take intellectual charity to mean rather the purpose or healing effect of revelation on intellect. The term "Christian philosophy," a phrase also associated with Jacques Maritain and Gilson, has long meant that genuine philosophy is more philosophy because of the need to think about revelation. This impact, I suspect, is going to be the long-term effect of this Pontificate on human culture and philosophy. Vice versa, as we saw in the Regensburg Address, reason is itself part of the faith in the sense that faith does not contradict but completes reason; it completes what reason itself ponders.

One has to say that Benedict XVI chooses his targets very carefully. This time, in what might be an otherwise little noted short lecture, he speaks to the Canadian bishops from Ontario. They will, I hope, long ponder the notion of intellectual charity and its relation to their own polity and academic heritage. As in Regensburg, this address can and will, hopefully, be read by many. Its thesis is that religious minds also have to think correctly. It is an act of charity, as I think Aquinas said, to teach, or even to point out, the truth to another. This pointing out is where we begin, now at the University of Regensburg, now in the Consistory Hall of the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo to about twenty bishops from Ontario in Canada.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

• Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
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Deus Caritas Est (Vatican website) | Pope Benedict XVI
• God's Eros Is Agape | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• First Musings on Benedict XVI's First Encyclical | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
• Some Comments on Deus Caritas Est | Mark Brumley
Is Dialogue with Islam Possible? Some Reflections on Pope Benedict XVI's Address at the University of Regensburg | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
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.

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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