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"Where God is, there is the future" | On Benedict XVI in Austria | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | October 1, 2007

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"Christian theology ... is never a purely human discourse about God, but always, and inseparably, the logos and 'logic' of God's self-revelation.... A theology which no longer draws its life-breath from faith ceases to be theology." -- Benedict XVI, Address at Cistercian Monastery of Heiligenkreuz, September 9, 2007.

"God has called each of us into being and gives us a personal task. God needs each of us and awaits our response." -- Benedict XVI, Vienna Konzerthaus, September 9, 2007.

"Europe cannot and must not deny her Christian roots. These represent a dynamic component of our civilization...." -- Benedict XVI, Address at the Hofburg Palace, Vienna, September 7, 2007.


At the request of the Austrian government and church, Benedict XVI visited Austria from September 7 to September 9. It was the occasion of the 850th Anniversary of the famous Marian shrine, Mariazell. On landing at the Vienna's Schwechat airport, where he was greeted by the Austrian President and the Austrian Chancellor, together with the Cardinal Primate of Vienna, the Pope said, "I intend my Pilgrimage to Mariazell to be a journey made in the company of all the pilgrims of our time. In this spirit I will soon lead the people in pray in the center of Vienna, prayer which, like a spiritual pilgrimage, will accompany these days throughout your Country." [1] In his address to the political and diplomatic officials in Vienna, the pope, more familiarly, remarked that this is his first official visit to Austria as Bishop of Rome, but he knew the country well from his earlier visits. "It is—may I say—truly a joy for me to be here. I have many friends here and, as a Bavarian neighbor, Austria's way of life and traditions are familiar to me."

The pope often talks of Europe and its Christian heritage. He seems to accept a closer European integration as a good thing. But he recognizes the rationalist and anti-Christian sentiment in much European integration thinking. He praises Europe's capacity of "self-criticism" which, the pope said, "gives it a distinctive place within the vast panorama of the world's cultures." I take this to mean that the very idea of "self-criticism" comes out of what is unique about Europe and represents something needed in all cultures.

While noting Europe's "rapidly aging" population, Benedict urges it not to "give up on itself." Europe does not, however, exercise "responsibility in the world corresponding to its singular intellectual tradition, its extraordinary resources and its great economic power." The pope thinks that Europe should "assume the role of leadership" in poverty questions. Though he touches on it, he does not discuss the relation between poverty and ideology, which in modern times is often the major cause of poverty, not any lack of know-how or even of good will. One can have the greatest desire to help the poor and opt for a method, scientific, economic, or moral, that simply won't work to achieve this end.

To the Austrian officials and accredited diplomats, Benedict makes a very strong point about the primacy of life, following John Paul II's Evangelium vitae. First, the pope affirms, that "it was in Europe that the nation of human rights was first formulated. The fundamental human right, the presupposition of every other right, is the right to life itself." The pope, however, shows awareness of the Hobbesian origins of the modern notion of "human rights," which notion, based on a pure voluntarism, results in the very opposite of what he is advocating.

Human life means "life from the moment of conception until its natural end. Abortion, consequently, cannot be a human right—it is the very opposite." Use of the term "human right" consistently gets us into this very difficulty that we affirm it with one sentence and have to turn around in the next to defend ourselves against the accusation of inconsistency because we do not support the "right" to abortion. The pope notes the logic that wants also to eliminate the elderly and sick on the basis of "rights." Obviously, if the term "right to life" means either that we protect life from its beginning to its natural end or that we terminate it when we think we have legal will to do so, there is an equivocation in the very expression "natural rights."

What is to be emphasized here is that Benedict, in dealing with abortion and euthanasia, does not argue primarily from religions grounds to the wrongness of these acts. The Catholic position, contrary what is often assumed, does not initially affirm its position on these two aberrations because of something in revelation or "religion." The view that opposition to these two wrongs--abortion or euthanasia-- is based on religion is in principle erroneous, even though religion has its own reasons to oppose them. "In stating this," Benedict says, "I am not expressing a specifically ecclesial concern. Rather I wish to act as an advocate for a profoundly human need, speaking on behalf of these unborn children who have no voice." Abortion and euthanasia are, on the grounds of reason, untenable. The pope speaks in behalf of reason, not against it. He speaks in behalf of reason against even a voluntarist law, which is a law that claims its licetness on the basis of positive law alone.

Having children, the pope aptly says, is not "a form of illness." He goes on to emphasize the joy of children and their importance in life, something that often seems lost in Europe with its very low birth rate that threatens the very future of most European nations. Benedict thus says to the Austrian officials: I also decisively support you in your political efforts to favor condition for enabling young couples to raise children. Yet, all this will be pointless unless we can succeed in creating once again in our countries a climate of joy and confidence in life, a climate in which children are not seen as a burden but rather as a gift for all." The issue of population is not just an economic or even political one, but one of the person and his concern for the future of his kind.


Another issue that is important for Europe, Benedict adds, is "the dialogue of reason." There is a "tradition of thought which considers as essential a substantial correspondence between faith, truth and reason. Here the issue is clearly whether or not reason stands at the beginning and foundation of all things." This was the theme that the pope addressed in the Regensburg Lecture. The civilization to which we belong is founded in and addressed by reason. Scripture itself recognizes this. This understanding of logos, reason, is the basis of man's internal order within oneself and of the grounds on which we know that we are addressed by God's self-revelation. God's "self-revelation," as Benedict explained to the Cistercians needs a faith that is open to reason and that is capable to receive it, hence to a philosophy that is based on what is.

What is the fundamental issue here? "The issue is whether reality originates by chance and necessary, and thus whether reason is merely a chance by product of the irrational and, in an ocean of irrationality, it too, in the end, is meaningless," Benedict explains, "or whether instead the underlying conviction of Christian faith remains true: In principio erat Verbum--in the beginning was the Word; at the origin of everything is the creative reason of God who decided to make himself known to human beings." The doctrine of creation thus holds that the foundation of the order in things is rooted in nothing less than the Logos, the Word, in which all things not God found their meaning and order. This is why the pope could say, as he did in the Vienna Konzerthaus, that "God calls each of us into being and gives us a task." He awaits our "response." This is the ultimate basis of our given dignity. We do not give ourselves being, but accept it as a gift. And our being itself implies a task that leads to God through our response to others.

As a confirmation and affirmation of what he has been saying, Benedict cites his friend, the non-Christian German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas. Habermas remarked that an understanding of the modern era requires an understanding of Christianity as something more than a "catalyst." The notions of "social coexistence" and "freedom" that stem from "egalitarian universalism" arise from the Jewish notion of justice and the "Christian ethics of love." Many thinkers and ideologue seek to find an alternative explanation of the validity of these ideas. "To this day an alternative to id does not exist," Habermas concludes. One might say, in general, that one of the most astonishing aspects of modern philosophy is its reluctance to understand the role of Christianity in western civilization and in the progress of reason. Habermas, along with thinkers like Christopher Dawson and Pierre Manent, is a refreshing exception.


The pope's lecture in the Vienna Konzerthaus was directed to Volunteer Organizations in Austria. As we recall from Deus Caritas Est, the theme of voluntary organizations has become a favorite of Benedict. Behind its purpose is the issue of the limits of the state. Christianity has indeed added something to the world that is beyond the confines of the justice or benevolence, both valid natural virtues. Christianity, as the French philosopher, Remi Brague, remarks in his Law of God, has relatively little direct effect on the political order but much effect on the order of society and family. Ernest Fortin also wrote well on this topic. The pope praises the "culture of voluntarism" that he finds in Austria. "Love of neighbor is not something that can be delegated: the State and the political order, even with their necessary concern for the provision of social services, cannot take its place." Neglect of what the state cannot do is what is really the matter with so many "social justice" schemes naively designed to cure human ills. It is true that one of the reasons that people cannot help themselves is because of incomprehension of the political order, and how to do so through application of the principles of subsidiarity and the common sense experience of what works. This limited capacity is not necessarily a defect of politics. But it is an awareness of what politics was never set up to do. It is within this area that Christian revelation has its first entry into human culture.

The pope has something much more profound in mind. "Love of neighbor always demands personal commitment and the State, of course, can and must provide the conditions which make this possible." People, especially the young, want to know that they can help. Often they do not realize that it is precisely the personal element that is lacking in many social ills and disorders. "Jesus called men and women and gave them the courage needed to embark on a great undertaking, one to which, by themselves, they would never hade dared to aspire." What is important about this passage is that charity does not necessarily mean that we embark on some grandiose scheme to transform the world. Rather we are to be personally present when someone, because of his intrinsic dignity, is in need.

In the Regensburg Lecture, Benedict cited Duns Scotus as one of the origins of Western voluntarism, of the idea that there is no real order in nature except God's arbitrary will. Here, as if to show us that a man who can have a dubious idea in one area may have a perfectly good one in another area, the pope cited the great Franciscan theologian as saying, "Deus vult condiligentes – God wants persons who love together with him." Benedict even cites Nicholas of Cusa as saying, "since the eye is where love is found, I know that you love me...." The phrase "the eye is where love is found"--ubi amor ibi oculus"--is cited often in literature, first perhaps by Democritus junior. Josef Pieper uses it. Nicholas says that "our gaze must be creative." The pope adds to this remark that "Jesus Christ does not teach us a spirituality 'of closed eyes,' but one of 'alertness,' one which entails an absolute duty to take notice of the needs of others...." No spirituality of "closed eyes," the "absolute duty to notice the needs of others"—these are marvelous phrases.

Part One | Part Two


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