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Pope Benedict XVI and the Essential Worldwide Mission | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 27, 2007

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"The Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure of administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women, as the Savior of the world, basing herself--in carrying out her proper apostolate--on the power of God." -- Benedict XVI, Letter to the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China, #4. [1]

"We are given a premonitory sign that allows us a fleeting glimpse of the Kingdom of the Saints, where we too at the end of our earthly life will be able to share in Christ's glory, which will be complete, total and definitive. The whole universe will then be transfigured and the divine plan of salvation will be at last fulfilled." -- Benedict XVI, Angelus, Castel Gandolfo, August 5, 2007. [2]

"The Church as such is not involved in politics--we respect secularism--but offers the condition in which a healthy political system can develop, together with the consequent solution for social problems." -- Benedict XVI, On-Board Papal Interview Prior to Landing in Brazil, May 9, 2007. [3]


In the Holy Father's recent trip to Brazil, as well as in his Letter to the Chinese Catholic Church, he again indicated, as he has done previously, his understanding of what the Church is about in this world and its relation to the "Kingdom of God." In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI made clear that this "kingdom" is Christ Himself, who did, as a fact, dwell, incarnate, in this world, all the while remaining properly God, the Word. The pope is a very careful and provocative thinker. But he is also a man of action after the manner in which a pope is given to act—namely, by fostering the mission of the Church in the world, usually called "evangelization."

If political or intellectual problems with nations, religions, or scholars are encountered, Benedict XVI seeks peacefully but directly to understand and state the issue. If possible, he engages whoever is willing (and even those who are not) in an effort to clarify and improve a situation. Often this endeavor is called "dialogue," but that is not always the best word for what the pope has in mind. He looks for more than talk or exchange, though that is a beginning. He realizes that not every one with fundamental differences with Catholic teaching will enter such an endeavor When this latter is the case, he seeks grounds and approaches that will not let the necessity of resolving the issue pass without forceful public attention. In the interview on the way to Brazil, the pope realistically stated: "In every corner of the earth there are very many people who do not want to listen to what the Church says. We hope that at least they hear her; then they can also disagree, but it is important that at least they hear her in order to respond.... Moreover, we cannot forget that Our Lord did not manage to make everyone listen to him, either." These are wise, realistic words.

As I have written elsewhere, it can be said that at least some Catholics are found all over the world, in every organized nation. The fact is, however, that the Church is largely confined geographically in modern times to the limits of the old Roman Empire, after the conquests of Islam, with Europe's colonial extensions in the Americas, Australia, and Africa. With the exception of the Philippines, Asia is only minimally Catholic.

Islam covers the vast stretch of North Africa, the Middle East, all the way to the borders of China and the Hindu part of India. The Indonesian Islands are the world's most populated Muslim areas. As it shows its own aggressive dynamism, this whole Muslim world—to which the pope pays increasing attention—is pretty much a mysteriously closed political/religious world island. Little real encounter with it occurs. Yet, there can be no doubt that Benedict has thought deeply on the steps to be taken to address each of these often closed and different worlds of Islam, China, India, and the Buddhist nations. The Roman Church is actively thinking about what its presence means on a world scale in the light of its mandate to go forth to all nations.

While he was in Brazil, the pope met with some 450 Brazilian bishops, plus the later meeting, also in Brazil, of all the Latin American and Caribbean bishops' conferences. Clearly, Latin America is the most "Catholic" of the continents. Benedict called it "the Continent of Hope." He added, to the reporters, "I am not an expert, but I am convinced that it is here (Latin America) at least in part--and a fundamental part--that the future of the Catholic Church is being decided." Latin America has a "culture" of Catholicism stretching back four hundred years. In some sense, it is a model.

On the other hand, we wonder constantly, concerning the Chinese bishops, about their freedom and independence from state interference. Much is unknown about their real lives. This issue of religious liberty and state power is a principal theme of the Letter to the Chinese Catholics. In this letter, the pope seeks to do everything that he reasonably and prudently can to stimulate at least some minimal and meaningful exchange with official China. He is willing to make many concessions provided they do not compromise the integrity of his own office and purpose.

In China, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, except for those who pre-date Marxist rule, is appointed by the Ministry of Religion. Some of these state-appointed bishops have sought and received subsequent Vatican authorization, but not all have. This system reminds us of nothing so much as the famous Gallican controversies of the French Church in early modern times over the appointment of bishops. One of the major efforts of the Church since the time of Gregory VIII, as Harold Berman has shown in his magisterial Law and Revolution, has been to obtain the freedom of the Church to control and define its own affairs.

This freedom of religion, which John Paul II called the most fundamental of human rights, necessarily includes the appointment of its own bishops. Of course, many concordats with the Holy See and modern states do provide for some form of state influence in the appointment of bishops, itself a distant heritage of the medieval investiture controversies. Often, the state recommends three candidates from which the Church chooses one. The justification for tolerating this procedure is usually the claim that a bishop also has influence on secular affairs, which he does. This tradition gives the pope some leeway and precedent in dealing with the current situation in China.


But in line with his Regensburg Lecture, what I want to indicate here (using Benedict's Letter to the Chinese Catholics and the addresses in Brazil) is to indicate both the transcendent and trans-political aspects of the pope's continuing effort to make Catholicism present and understood for what it is in parts of the world in which it is hampered or excluded. This world includes more and more modern political relativism and secularism. Taken together these groups constitute about four-fifths of the world's population. The Holy Father recognizes quite clearly that each religion's basic teaching needs to be understood, as well as, in the case of China, each political ideology. Further, the natural limits of political entities, as well as their purpose, need to be understood and stated.

Thus, as I cited above, Benedict clearly repeats settled Christian teaching to the Chinese, namely, that the Church's mission is not to change the "administration" of the State. This statement probably surprises the Chinese who tend only to think in terms of exclusive state hegemony over all affairs of human life, and who think everyone else does the same. The Holy Father's approach recalls the argument of Robert Kraynak in his book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy. There, he rightly pointed out that often, in both the past and present, the Church has to deal with existing civil societies, many of which have less than perfect forms, but which are nonetheless viable and effective. This is little else than a careful application of Aristotle's treatise on the differing regimes and how to handle them.

Just because a political society or religion is absolutist, closed, or even totalitarian and persecuting, this has never meant, in the eyes of the Church, that the people of that society do not have a transcendent destiny. Nor does it mean that they have no need to know the teachings and means of redemption, whatever else they hold. The salvation of souls is in principle independent of political form. People are saved in the worst regimes, and lost in the best. Politics, however legitimate, is not the primary concern of the Church. When politics is the main purpose of the Church (or appears to be in any given section of the Church), we can be sure the real work of the Church is not being accomplished.

Yet, if we read many of the modern social documents of the Church, they do display a distinct tendency to affirm some form of "democracy" or "republic" as the best human political form. The Church does not claim direct competence over political things, but its own interest in reason can indicate, as Aristotle said, some forms are better than others. In the case of China, this "democratic" preference presents a dilemma. Either we have an equivocation that says that what they actually have in China is "democratic," when it clearly isn't, or we affirm that China is already a good form of rule, notwithstanding what we have heard. Whatever its theoretic form, the Chinese state is apparently here to stay. It must be dealt with as it is. Hopefully, on the basis of mutually agreed principles, it can, without losing face, grant a more reasonable relation to the Church than it has displayed in the past half century.


While he was on vacation in the Italian Alps, at Auronzo di Cadore, Benedict spent an evening with the local clergy. He invited questions, to which he gave his reflections. A priest, by the name of Father Mauro, wanted to know how priests are to do their essential tasks when they are burdened with so many diverse technical duties. The pope amusingly replied, "I am somewhat familiar with this problem." In his response, the pope spoke of establishing priorities, of the importance of preaching. "What do we preach? We proclaim the Kingdom of God," Benedict affirmed. "But the Kingdom of God is not a distant utopia in a better world which may be achieved in 50 years time, or who knows when. The Kingdom of God is God himself.... Proclaiming the Kingdom of God means speaking of God today, making present God's words, the Gospel which is God's presence and, of course, making present the God who made himself present in the Holy Eucharist." [4]

I cite this remarkable passage in the context of what I want to say about the pope's overall thinking about making the essence of Christianity present in the whole world. The issue is not some distant this-worldly political utopia that may or may not come about in fifty years. The issue is making God present in any society, however it is configured. How to accomplish this presence is what stands behind all of the Holy Father's thinking about the nations and the religions of this world. John Paul II's Memory & Identity was concerned with much the same issue.

Benedict said to the Chinese, in effect, that we are not here to change your administration, even though we would like you to lighten up on us. Let us be what we are. Implicit in that approach, of course, is something the Chinese administration could not fail to notice, namely that its jurisdiction, like that of any other political organization, is intrinsically limited to its own competence. It does not extend to absolutely everything. This is but another instance of "render to Caesar what are Caesar's but to God the things that are God's," a theme the pope specifically takes up in this Letter.

The history of politics since that New Testament affirmation has been a working out in practice of what these limits might entail. Any authority that would claim a power to impose its own limits on what the Church should and could do in its own right is, of course, making a claim to be itself an all-powerful "deity." What the Holy Father affirms by contrast is that the "power of God," not humanly organized power, is the basis of his addressing himself to all the nations. And as the pope mentioned in the second introductory passage cited above, there is "a divine plan" and it is being fulfilled among existing nations and peoples.


"We Bishops have come together," Benedict told the Brazilian hierarchy, "to manifest this general truth, since we are directly bound to Christ, the Good Shepherd. The mission entrusted to us as teachers of the faith consists in recalling, in the words of the Apostle of the Gentiles, that our Saviour 'desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Tim 2:4). This, and nothing else, is the purpose of the Church: the salvation of individual souls" (#2) [5] This purpose needs to be made manifest no matter what the temporal form of political power. It is directly concerned with a transcendent purpose, because each person has such a destiny beyond politics. No political institution can change this ultimate purpose--though it can, to some degree, hinder its effective implementation. The Church never forgets that being persecuted is also a way that God accomplishes his ultimate purpose. In this sense, leaders of the world do not stand outside of divine judgment.

Because of the positive relation between faith and reason, Benedict sees a harmony between his own primary mission and the condition of the nations. "Wherever God and his will are unknown, wherever faith in Jesus Christ and in his sacramental presence is lacking, the essential element for the solution of pressing social and political problems is also missing." As he often does, he recalls in the same remarks to the Brazilian bishops his own remark in Deus Caritas Est (#1): "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." We do not concoct Christianity by ourselves, nor does our opting for it make it so. It is an encounter with an actually existing Person whose very presence in the world, not of our own bidding, indicates how we should live.

Part 1 | Part 2


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