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The Papal Visit | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 8, 2008 | Ignatius Insight
"Revolution and utopia—the nostalgia for a perfect world—are connected; they are
the concrete form of this new political, secularized messianism. The idol of
the future devours the present; the idol of revolution is the adversary of reasonable
political action aimed at making concrete improvement to the world." -- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Political Visions
and Practical Politics." 
"As a theologian, I do not regard philosophy as being, ultimately, a study which we pursue for
philosophy's sake. Yet...the integrity of the faith depends on rigor of
philosophic thinking such that careful philosophizing is an irreplaceable part
of theological work!" -- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Afterword to the English
Edition of Eschatology. 
Several of my friends have
wondered if Schall could provide tickets for them to attend events of the
upcoming papal visit. My reply is that "Alas, Schall is still waiting for the
call himself." Contrary to unfounded rumors, Schall does not communicate with
Rome on a daily basis about high level policies. But I have read enough of the
works of the present pope to be certain that he has already pretty well charted
out just what he intends to say, to whom, where, why, and when.
Every papal visit, certainly
since John Paul II, is a major happening in the country visited by the reigning
pontiff. Often it is a world event of major and lasting significance, as were
John Paul II's visits to Poland and Benedict's "Regensburg Lecture." No one
quite knows what to do with a pope, of course, except to follow proper
diplomatic protocol. He is a religious figure who speaks comfortably about
Greek, not to mention German, philosophy to those who have either forgotten it
or never knew it. Benedict, in the few years since he became pope, has talked
with most major political, religious, and cultural figures in the world, as
well as with diplomats, artists, sports figures, and many ordinary people.
We know that a visiting
pontiff will meet with the head of state, along with leading political figures.
He will visit the local and national hierarchy. He will address the priests and
religious in nearby parishes, monasteries, and convents. He will greet members
of the laity. Talks to and often prayers with members of other Christian
churches and members of other religions will be on the agenda. I would not be
surprised, depending on security as most things do, if there were not a concert
of classical music presented for this pope who himself plays Mozart. I did see
an article in the Washington Times
about the choral music being practiced for the musically adept pope.
The pope will lecture to
academic representatives and students. He will make some effort to visit
"unimportant" people, the poor, and those who work for them. A number of
addresses will be presented on many topics. A pope is unavoidably a very
visible man. He is charged, by his office, with "strengthening" the brethren,
which is usually understood to mean the bishops, who usually need it and want
it. Above all, this pope explains things, if we are listening.
Hopefully, the visit will
pass without security incident. Wherever he goes, there will be heavy
protection. As is also the case with presidents and prime ministers, he is no
longer free to wander about looking at the sights. Yet, he will see and be
shown many sights that few of us will ever see. I have been a subscriber to L'Osservatore
Romano, English, ever since it first
came out. In each edition, we always find a charming photo of the pope with
people, young, old, and in-between, visiting Rome, in an audience, or in some
other occasion. The papacy is like no other office in the world. It is urbi
et orbe, to the city and, through
that city, the eternal city, to the world. In some sense, it is already
With Benedict XVI, moreover,
we have a man who is undoubtedly the most learned man in public life anywhere
in the world. He is easily the equal of any academic on any campus anywhere.
The passage I cited in the beginning about the relation of theology to
philosophy is meant to remind us that the Catholic Church is also an enterprise
of intelligence, perhaps never more so than now. It knows no "unexamined"
philosophies, including its own. A pope has to speak of profound things to
learned people and, lest we forget, the same profound things to ordinary
But to everyone, he has to
speak of why he, in his office, exists. The pope is technically also a "Head of
State." He basically stands before the world for what is the core of revelation
to our kind. He relates this revelation to those who hear it, even to those who
don't or won't. Though he will speak of peace and love and justice, he will
also speak, as he has been of late as in
Spe Salvi, of the four last things. He talks of eternal life,
of how modern thought, as a deviation from its Christian origins, seeks to
accomplish the core of revelational promises by inner-worldly political or
scientific means, something that is, when spelled out, impossible, impractical,
and, indeed, immoral.
The pope's general reaction
to America is that this nation has a fine founding in its classical writers. We
are a generous people. However, somehow Americans have more recently drifted
away from these founding principles. "As a first step, go back!" he will urge.
He will mention the obvious relativism and secularism, which has too often
replaced the central values of western civilization, including that of America
and even in the Church.
presents itself in cultures by imposing a world and humanity without reference
to Transcendence," Benedict told the members of the Pontifical Council for
Culture, "is invading every aspect of daily life and developing a mentality in
which God is effectively absent, wholly or partially, from human life and
awareness. This secularization is not only an external threat to believers, but
has been manifest for some time in the heart of the Church herself. It
profoundly distorts the Christian faith from within..."  The inner relation of
believers-Church-nations-world to the final destiny of each human person and
that of our kind to God is constantly before the pope's mind. This is, after
all, why his office exists, that men may know the truth about themselves and
their final destiny. Everything else has its importance relative to the final
end of our being.
Ever since his address on
modern religious movements in Mexico several years ago, the pope has paid
attentions to cults and spiritualities that seem to prevail in a society
evidently returning to pagan origins on its rejecting Christianity. Thus, he
continues in the same address to the Council for Culture: "The 'death of God'
proclaimed by many intellectuals in recent decades is giving way to a barren
cult of the individual. In this cultural context there is a risk of drifting
into spiritual atrophy and emptiness of heart, sometimes characterized by
surrogate forms of religious affiliation and vague spiritualism." It has
frequently been said that, unexpectedly, the aftermath of Marxism has not been
a return to Christianity or to science even, but to eastern religions and
No doubt the pope will say
something about life, about abortion, skewered views of marriage, including homosexual
"marriages." These are issues about which many American politicians would like
to think are "settled constitutional issues." That is, beyond criticism or
intellectual discussion. In his Salt of the Earth,
Joseph Ratzinger made a comment that I think is
pertinent here: "Evil has power via man's freedom, whereby it creates
structures for itself."  This is pretty much where we are. We have a
protective "structure" of evil that claims immunity because we are so "settled"
about it that we need not examine what it means. Even though here and in
Europe, the decline of population is of major political import, we pretend not
to see the connection between our future and new human beings coming into the
world. We are blind to the needed reforms of our lives, families, and state
that would make this renewed attention to the need of new members of our
In the beginning, I cited a
comment of the Holy Father. He cited revolutionary thought that claimed to
improve the world, not by grace and virtue, but by our own means alone. Over
against this thought was an approach that worked for "reasonable political
action aimed at making concrete improvement to the world." This latter attitude
has always been the classic American view about politics at its best from the Federalist
Papers on. We might reflect for a
long time on this incisive passage.
What is the origin of the
idea that mankind can, by itself, take control of itself and, by rejecting God,
improve its world? "Adam's sin consisted precisely in the fact that he wanted
to accomplish his own will and not God's," Benedict remarked at the Chrism Mass
during Holy Week, 2007.
temptation is always to want to be totally autonomous, to follow its own will
alone and to maintain that only in this way will we be free, that only thanks
to a similarly unlimited freedom would man be completely man. But this is
precisely how we pit ourselves against the truth. Because the truth is that we
must share our freedom with others can we can be free only in communion with
This temptation to total
autonomy also has political overtones. It is expressed in the view that there
is no source above or beyond the will of the legislator or majority to correct
anything that a given polity might propose to itself.
In an interesting address on
December 9, 2006, to Catholic Lay Jurists, Benedict spelled out the proper
relation of the Church and State. They do not exist essentially in terms of
antagonism. When properly distinguished, their respective purposes and mutual
limits compliment each other. The pope is aware that such a thing as
"democratic tyranny," a notion also found in John Paul II's Centesimus Annus (#44-45), is possible. This would be a system in
which the will of the people, the majority, has no limits. Indeed, Benedict
thinks much of modern secularism tends in that direction.
In his address to the
Catholic Jurists, Benedict recalled the medieval meaning of the word "secular."
It referred to lay secular authority over against ecclesiastical authority.
Both sides were Catholic, however. In modern times, secularity means "the
exclusion of religion and its symbols from public life by confining them to the
private sphere and to the individual conscience." Religion is reduced to the
individual conscience. Religion is wholly interior and has no public
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"Secularity would be
expressed in the total separation between the State and the Church," Benedict
explained, "since the latter is in no way entitled to intervene in areas that
concern the life and conduct of citizens; secularity would even entail the
exclusion of religious symbols from public places designated for the proper
function of the political community: offices, schools, courts, hospitals,
prisons, etc." Now there is no doubt that much American legal ideology and
practice in recent decades has seen as its mission to do precisely this
secularist "removing" of any religious presence in any part of the public
order. Such thinking involves the state conceiving itself in total control of
the public order, answerable to no one but itself.
What is the common sense
alternative? Vatican II, as Benedict recalls, used an almost similar phrase,
"the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs" (GS, #36). Reflecting the
distinction between God and Caesar from the New Testament, where this
distinction originally arose, a distinction exists between the two bodies that
are not necessarily hostile or exclusive. Indeed, it is the standard Catholic
position that the State will not be what it should be without revelation and
that the Church cannot be itself a state.
Moreover, such a thing as
"healthy secularism" acknowledges "the effective autonomy of earthly realities,
not indeed from the moral order but from the ecclesiastical sphere. Thus, the
Church cannot point out the preferred political and social order; it is the
people who must freely decide on the best and most suitable ways to organize
political life." That there should be government is part of human nature. That
it should be in this form or that is a matter of judgment and prudence. The
Church may "prefer" one form of government as ideal. In modern times, this is
usually a "democracy," but the Church is also realistic. It knows that the form
of rule does not automatically guarantee moral rule.
"Any direct intervention
from the Church in this (political) area would be undue interference." The
Church simply does not ambition political rule, contrary to many prejudices
about its purposes in this world. "Moreover, 'healthy secularism' implies that
the state does not consider religion merely as an individual sentiment that may
be confined to the private sphere alone." The Church has a visible and public
organization with transcendent and immediate purposes to carry out. "Since
religion is also organized in visible structures, as is the case with the
Church, it should be recognized as a form of public community presence." The
pope means here public law presence that is capable of acting in its own way,
with protection from the state for its own proper purposes. This is what a
common good really means.
"This (recognition) also implies," Benedict adds, "that every religious denomination (provided it is
neither in opposition to the moral order nor a threat to public order) be
guaranteed the free exercise of the activities of worship—spiritual,
cultural, educational and charitable—of the believing community.'' This
freedom is what religious liberty means, something surely well within the central
American tradition. "Likewise, to refuse the Christian community and its
legitimate representatives the right to speak on the moral problems that
challenge all human consciences today, and especially those of legislators and
jurists, is not a sign of healthy secularity." This is simply free speech that
is being insisted on also for the expression of moral judgments in the public
order about the human good and man's purpose.
Is this "interfering" with
politics by religion? Hardly. "It is not a question of undue meddling by the
Church in legislative activity that is proper and exclusive to the State,"
Benedict explains, "but, rather, of the affirmation and defense of the
important values that give meaning to the person's life and safeguard his or
her dignity. These values are human before being Christian, such that they
cannot leave the Church silent and indifferent. It is h ere duty to firmly
proclaim the truth about man and his destiny." What is often not understood is
that most of the Church's interest in what are called political affairs do not
arise from revelation, but belong to what is known by reason and forms the
basis of any reasoning and understanding of public things. The identification
of all expressions of religious officials as if they were religious is to claim
that these same officials do not also have a claim in reason for their
position, which is precisely what Catholic leaders do claim.
In his first encyclical, Deus
Caritas Est, Benedict provided one
of the best explications of the limits of the state written by anyone in modern
times. In addition, he addressed himself to the crucial limits of the state's
ability actually to aid most human beings in need, which requires spiritual
forces that the state cannot provide. "The Church cannot and must not take upon
herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible,"
Benedict affirmed to those who do not understand the limits that the Church
sees for herself. "She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same
time, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.
She has to play her part through rational argument, and she has to reawaken the
spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot
prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of
the Church" (#27a). These are remarkable words worthy of a major political
thinker who understands what a civil state really is intended to be.
What then are the
consequences when a state, even in the name of working for public welfare,
claims to be able by its own methods to solve the deepest human problems?
State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would
ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing
which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving
personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls
everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of
subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the
different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in
need. The Church is one of those living forces. (#27b).
These are strong words to
political systems that are often tempted to put into effect these very things
by their own power. "We do not need a State which regulates and controls
everything." The state works best when it addresses itself to a common good.
This good is conceived as an order which promotes and allows smaller, more
personal, and religious institutions and motives to exist and flourish within
it. They can do what the state cannot do, or do well, as we know from the
experience of trying to do so.
In his book, Jesus of
Nazareth, Pope Ratzinger, in his
incisive discussion of the temptations of Christ, returned to this theme of the
limits of political power and its motivation for claiming more than it is
capable of delivering. "Jesus, however, repeats to us what he said in reply to
Satan, what he said to Peter, and what he explained further to the disciples of
Emmaus: No kingdom of this world is the Kingdom of God, the total condition of
mankind's salvation. Earthly kingdoms remain earthly human kingdoms, and any
one who claims to be able to establish the perfect world is the willing dupe of
Satan and lays the world right into his hands."  No kingdom of this world is
the Kingdom of God.
Having again reminded us
that no actual civil society in history is or can be the Kingdom of God, the
pope's main purpose as pope is to guide us, with his favorite writer Augustine,
along the proper paths to the transcendent City of God so that our civil
societies will be free of the temptation to make themselves absolutes. This
temptation has been the chief character of modernity. Spe Solvi actually is addressed to these very claims of the
state to control death, life, punishment, and reward by its own powers.
Will the pope talk about
peace? No doubt. He is a realist even when he talks of dialogue. He knows that
military and police forces need to be around if the external conditions of any
meaningful dialogue is to obtain. He will no doubt be asked about Islam. The
pope's emphasis on philosophy, science, and reason is, I think, something that
falls within his broader vision of the revival of evangelization to Islam
itself as to modern secularism, China, India, the Buddhist world, and
The pope's policy on Islam,
as I understand it, is not confrontational. He does not think that much
meaningful religious dialogue is immediately possible. He also understands that
theological issues are found behind at least a good part of terrorism. What he
does think is that concrete, reciprocal, mutually assured steps of justice must
first be made. It is simply not all right to allow, say, no churches or bibles
in Islamic lands but demand this denied freedom in lands of civil liberties. In
other words, some kind of enforceable universal norms must exist which are
recognized and observed first before any further steps can be taken.
Benedict has been to
Germany, Austria, Turkey, Spain, and Brazil. He will be in Australia for World
Youth Day. No doubt, health and politics permitting, he will continue such
visits which in fact he seems to enjoy and serve his efforts to accomplish the
main lines of his papal office.
When Benedict departs from the United States, I suspect, we will have been given
pretty good lessons in our own constitution, in natural law, in the meaning of
Christianity, in suggestions about how to live. We will also find, if we look
for it, much philosophical and theological depth in what he tells us. As I say,
Catholicism is, at its best, a religion of intelligence and good sense. It
contains, no doubt, not a few sinners, as we all know by looking at our own
hearts. It was never suggested it would be otherwise. But it basically stands for
our transcendent end, which we should know. At the same time, it insists that
that end is reached by those who also obey the Lord and seek to understand His
ways. These ways include those which teach us to live also in this world, this
country. We live in and work out our salvation in a homeland that is no lasting
city, though it is indeed a city.
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Political Visions and Practical Politics,"
Today and Tomorrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 54.
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Afterword to the English Edition," Eschatology: Death and
Eternal Life (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 269.
 Benedict XVI, "The Church and the Challenge of Secularization" (March 8, 2002), L'Osservatore
Romano, English, March 19, 2008.
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth, An
Interview with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 220.
 Benedict XVI, "Homily at Chrism Mass, Holy Thursday, 2008, L'Osservatore Romano, March 26, 2008.
 Benedict XVI, Jesus of
Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 43-44
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his
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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