Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

“Faithfulness to the Depositum fidei as presented by the Church’s Magisterium is the premise par excellence for serious research and teaching. This faithfulness is also a requirement of intellectual honesty for anyone to whom the Church entrusts an academic teaching role.” — Benedict XVI to German Bishops, November 10, 2006.

“Let us return, therefore, to the subject of ‘God’. The words of St. Ignatius spring mind: ‘The Christian is not the result of persuasion, but of power’ (‘Epistula ad Romanos’ 3, 3). We should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of multiple, minor details, but rather, should always keep our eyes in the first place on the greatness of Christianity.” — Benedict XVI to Swiss Bishops, November 9, 2006.


Nietzsche, who in some sense brought modernity to a close by exposing its own inner incoherence, is always interesting to read. Pope Ratzinger, good German scholar that he is, will cite him rather often. A sense of poignancy hovers over the reading of Nietzsche. We sense the disappointment that he felt over Christians themselves who, in his strict view, do not, as he thought, really believe what the faith holds to be true. This practical disbelief in the truth of Christianity, however, is increasingly prevalent in Western societies over a century after Nietzsche’s death.

The only alternative open to him, in Nietzsche’s own mind, was the famous “will to power.” This much-pondered principle was in fact a license to construct our own world, to declare our freedom precisely by rejecting all previous explications, particularly those stemming from Plato and Christianity, from natural law or faith. We should, Nietzsche thought, have the “courage” of our mind, something, alas, only a few have. He insisted that everyone, including himself, be “intellectually honest” and accept the consequences of no truth. This “courage” to be honest meant that we should live as if, whether true or not, God were dead. We should bravely take the consequences. Truth simply did not exist. We should create and live by our own definitions of man, of what we want him to be. We should not be bothered or weakened by small things like virtue or right or doctrine.

Of course, Nietzsche was overly strict and sanguine in what he expected of Christians. If they were not exactly like Christ, then it followed, he thought, that Christ was a failure. He had no followers. Imperfect Christians were hypocrites. Nietzsche seems not to have read that Christ came to save sinners, even recalcitrant ones. This too-high standard would expect all Christians after Christ to be simply perfect. Perhaps Nietzsche maintained this high standard as a justification for his own theories of a world solely dependent on the will of his new man.

Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s agenda or inspiration, in many forms, can be found at the roots of much of modern culture, particularly academic culture. We live with a dogmatic relativism that empowers us, so it is claimed, to depend on neither nature nor grace, on nothing but our own willed social and personal constructs, whatever they are. In the end, in this cosmos, we find nothing but ourselves, a thought not a few find consoling. Our “dignity,” it is said, is to live accordingly. This living our own formulated truth is what “intellectual honesty” meant to Nietzsche.

In a November 18, 2006, address to a second group of German bishops, Benedict XVI spoke about marriage. His words repeat an oft-heard theme of this Pope about the prevalence and insufficiency of the secularism that we find about us. This is a secularism that often is said to be the result of Nietzsche’s declaration of the emptiness of philosophy. “Today, the order of marriage, as established in creation and of which the Bible tells us expressly in the narration of creation (Genesis, 2:24), is gradually being obscured,” the Pope commented in a passage that recalls the heritage of Nietzsche. “To the extent that man seeks in new ways to build for himself the world as a whole, thereby ever more perceptibly endangering its foundations, he also loses his vision of the order of creation with regard to his own life. He considers he can define himself as he pleases by virtue of an inane freedom.” That is a strong phrase, an “inane freedom.” It no doubt means the same sort of freedom implied in Nietzsche’s “will to power,” not a freedom that confronts and accepts the truth, but a freedom that creates whatever truth it wants. One truth is thus as good and as evident as another, so long as we have the courage to embrace and enforce it.

In his November 9, 2006, address to the Swiss Bishops, Benedict touched a similar point. “The other part of morality, often received controversially by politics, concerns life,” Benedict observed.

One aspect of it is the commitment to life from conception to death, that is, its defense against abortion, against euthanasia, against manipulation and man’s self-authorization in order to dispose of life. People often seek to justify these interventions with the seemingly great purpose of thereby serving the future generations, and it even appears moral to take human life into one’s own hands and manipulate it. However . . . the knowledge also exists that human life is a gift that demands our respect and love from the very first to its very last moments, also for the suffering, the disabled and the weak

Here we have a classic papal reiteration of the dignity of human life.

One point that might be especially noted about this passage is its reminder that all attacks on human being and dignity are made in the name of some greater good. Here, all these destructive practices or human interventions are justified because, it is claimed, they serve future generations. This was a theme dear to Marxists. The actual good of one person, one group, is thus sacrificed to some future goal about whose actual coming to be we know nothing. The end justifies the means. Human lives are not taken to be themselves ends but mere means to some idea of the future.


The Pope’s address to the Swiss bishops, looking at it in more detail, begins with an apology that he did not have time to make a thorough preparation for his presentation. With some amusement, Benedict recalls that “when I used to go to Germany in the 1980’s and ’90’s, I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion, and other such constantly recurring problems.” No reporter, in other words, was interested in the “two specific themes” that Benedict wanted to talk to the Swiss bishops about, namely, “God” and “the greatness of Christianity.” Unless we have these latter straight, it is very difficult to talk of the former persistent questions.

Once drawn into such controversial topics that the reporters thought was the only “news” they could find in religion, Church teachers then appear to be merely “moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith.” The “true greatness of the faith” is what concerns this Pope. Augustine, Benedict recalls, taught the two sides of Christianity: God is Logos and God is Agape. God is reason, and God is love. In a magnificent, almost lyrical passage, Benedict continues: “God is ‘Spiritus Creator’, he is Logos; he is reason. And this is why our faith is something that has to do with reason, can be passed on through reason and has no cause to hide from reason, not even from the reason of our age. But precisely this eternal, immeasurable reason is not merely a mathematics of the universe and, far less, of some first cause that withdrew after producing the Big Bang.” God comprehends both mathematics and the Big Bang, if it indeed happened. He would be the same if extended matter, the basis of mathematics, or the universe did not exist in the first place. This is not to denigrate either mathematics or the Big Bang. Both deal with reason, but only to place them in the right order of understanding.

Faith is not opposed to reason. Reason is a means for the passing on of the faith itself. Faith seeks intelligence and, to use a word the Pope employs elsewhere, “heals” it when necessary, heals it to be itself as all healing is intended to do We do not hide from reason or science, quite the opposite. This is the boldest of Christian affirmations. We are not Deists who maintain that whatever began the whole magnificent process of creation subsequently turned it loose as if it was of no more concern to it.

Not a few of the American founding fathers were in fact upholders of Deism, a theory that at least recognized the need for an origin of things. The traditional Deist image was one of a clock, not a Big Bang. Benedict has merely brought the position up to date. Creation is not a denial of providence. Providence is not a denial of freedom either in God or in the cosmos, after its own order of being. Providence is not a declaration that God has nothing to do with the world. Rather it acknowledges that the world really exists with real contingency and freedom within it according to the respective orders found within the cosmos.

The great mystery of the Godhead in our regard is the Incarnation, a doctrine that often causes even more perplexity than the Trinity. God, the Pope said, was able to renounce His “immensity” to take on “flesh.” This point is Paul’s idea that God empties himself out to become Man. Here is the basis for the “true greatness” of the Christian’s “conception of God.” God is not “a philosophical hypothesis.” He is not something that, as the Pope puts it in a happy phrase, “perhaps exists.” We know Him, He knows us, with a knowledge that increases in our conversation with Him in prayer and contemplation.

Christianity is not best conceived as a “morality,” though obviously how we live is a consequence of what we understand about God and ourselves. Christianity should be “understood as a gift to which we are given the love that sustains us and provides us with the strength we need to be able to lose our own life.” But this love is something that also must go out from us. We are first loved. But this means that we are also to go out to what is loveable. This going out was the concern of the last part of Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est. The whole uniqueness of Christian revelation is that God in fact is concerned with the world and likewise with what we are to be.


In his November 10, 2006, address to the first group of German bishops, the Pope wanted them to “take a look at the situation of the Church in our country.” The scene is not always happy. “Many have succumbed to discouragement and resignation, attitudes that stand in the way of witnessing to Christ’s liberating and saving Gospel.” But not a few, particularly the young, want to know what the Christians have to say about the highest and most important things. “We Christians must not fear spiritual confrontation with a society whose ostentatious intellectual superiority conceals its perplexity before the final existential question.” Benedict is going to leave nothing unexamined, to recall Socrates. What appears to be arrogance and intellectual superiority may well be bravado and a failure really to face the “final existential questions”: What is life? What is death? Who am I? What is the meaning of evil? What is our destiny?

Christian answers have a specific origin– from the Gospel of the Logos made man. Others, particularly the Muslims in Germany, Benedict affirms–and he puts it delicately–“have a right to receive our humble and sound testimony in favour of Jesus Christ.” If Islam considers the Trinity and the Incarnation blasphemy, we do not and are not to be deterred from affirming these truths of God. Inter-religious dialogue and relations with other philosophies and religions do not mean avoiding talk about what is fundamental. Otherwise the highest things have no place within our culture. We do not deny what we hold to be true on the grounds that we need not affirm what we hold when asked.

The Pope proceeded to a number of practical items. In Catholic schools and adult formation, the Pope continued, “the central content of the faith and the Christian view of life are not (to be) glossed over to give precedence to current issues of marginal problems.” About Mass, he remarked, “delivering the homily during Holy Mass is a task bound to the ordained ministry; when sufficient priests and deacons are present, it is their task to distribute Holy Communion.”

What about the question the reporters asked? Does the Church have its own structure? Can it do with itself whatever it wants? That is, are those offices within it merely readily reformable legal or political appointments? Are all tasks found in the Church interchangeable? The Pope’s response, echoing Dominus Jesus, is quite clear: We cannot discuss questions connected to this (ecclesial structure) in the light of personal convenience alone, for here it is a question of the truth of faith; that is to say, “the sacramental and hierarchical structure that Jesus Christ desired for his Church. Since this is based on his will, just as the delegation of apostles relies on his mandate, these matters are exempt from human intervention. The Sacrament of Orders alone authorizes those who receive it to speak and act in persona Christi. It is this, dear confreres, that must be inculcated ever anew with great patience and wisdom and the necessary conclusions drawn.” Benedict leaves us to draw the conclusions. This is the definitive answer to the reporters at his visits to Germany in the 1980s and 1990s.


In conclusion, I want to recall again the striking phrase that was cited in title of these comments, the notion of the “intellectual honesty” that is “required” of us in matters of reason and faith. What is “intellectual honesty?” I will admit that a formal heretic can be “intellectually” honest and still be a heretic. Sincerity is not, as such, a criterion of truth. There is no reason in principle to think that a Hitler or a Stalin was not sincere in his convictions. That is, in part, why both were so dangerous. But it is not good to be a sincere heretic or tyrant.

The attractiveness of “intellectual honesty” is that the person we deal with tells us what he really holds. Nietzsche’s problem with Christianity originated in his sense that those who claimed to be believers really did not hold what they were supposed to believe. Whenever something comes between that to which a man interiorly testifies and what he is heard in public to proclaim, there is a distinct possibility that what he holds is alienated from what he says he holds. Nothing can be more dangerous to both faith and reason than doubt about what a man really holds. Nothing could be more dangerous to the faith since such a barrier breaks the link between soul and soul on which both faith and friendship exist. This doubt about the integrity of human interchange arises the minute that a man has to place something between himself and his hearer.

The Pope admonishes us to think within the confines of the body of faith, something we are free to do. That is, once someone thinks within the scope of the Creed, he thinks in a way that is different, but no less true. Intellectual honesty means that we know that he thinks within the limits of faith–limits what make him, in fact, much more open to all of reality. Intellectual honesty means that the hearer and the speaker understand one another, and that no barrier of dishonesty or hiddenness stands between them.

No doubt, people can lie and dissimulate. We cannot bear our souls to just anyone. Yet, philosophy exists in conversation. I suspect conversion also exists in conversation, which is the reason why the Pope insisted on the freedom and courage to state that for which we stand be it before the secularist or the Muslim. Recently, I saw an article of some theological professor who argued that if we are ever to get along with the Muslims, we need to downplay the two central doctrines of Christianity, the Trinity and the Incarnation, so that we can better get along. No doubt, if we cease to be Christian, if we cease to affirm the truth, including especially the truth that guides us from revelation, everyone will find us easier to get along with. We will have gained tolerance at the price of what we are to hold.

The Holy Father does not take this naive path. The essence of politics, in one sense, is to make provision for the most fundamental of human rights and duties, the freedom of religion, the freedom to speak honestly and without fear of the highest things. This freedom allows us, in any society, to speak of the God that is. Societies that do not permit this freedom–and they are surprisingly many in our time–are hardly human. We are often innocent enough not to know or admit how difficult it is in various political entities of our era to speak honestly of “God” and the “greatness of Christianity.” Intellectual honesty tells us to learn and point out the restrictions that prevent any adequate and free presentation of what the faith is about, on its relation to reason. It also teaches us to be sure, when we speak, that what we hold is rooted in the faith that is Logos, the faith that can be passed on through reason.