Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.


Already in reading the remarkable amount of material the present Holy Father writes each week, it is clear, as in the case of his predecessor, that it is a full time job just to keep up with him. The public responsibilities of a pope both to be present for and to speak to an amazing variety of differing people from all over the world requires him–in both short talks or letters, in weekly exhortations and audiences, and in a variety of other fora–to explain to us how he understands our faith and its foundations. Regularly, the Pope speaks to members of the diplomatic corps, as to heads of state or high officials, to a constant stream of bishops and curial staff, to visitors, to conferences, to members of other religions, to athletes, actors, and philosophers, to the small, the great, and the ordinary.

Obviously, the Pope has a staff, a schedule, and a thought-out agenda, for he also has his own ideas about what needs to be said. The Church needs to be ruled, governed. His position allows him to say what no one else in the world will tells us. Yet he must be prudent and careful. In these days, the wrong word might cause St. Peters to be blown up. Fanatics, as they are called, seem to spare nothing and no one. Many audiences regularly occur. People will hear him differently, some with sympathy, some with hostility, some with curiosity, some with doubts, some with faith, some with questions.

Benedict XVI, in his weekly audiences, continuing the reflections on the Psalms that John Paul II began, always manages to cite one of the Fathers of the Church, or sometimes a more obscure bishop or theologian. For example, in his comments on Psalm 136 (OR, 16 Nov 2005), Benedict recalls St. Basil the Great. Interest in the Fathers, of course, was one of Benedict’s many scholarly interests. But it is also a reminder that, in the intellectual and religious world, we do not just have the Bible and modern thought. We also have tradition. That is, we must be aware that Christians have been constantly thinking and writing about this revelation given to us throughout the history of the Church. The same core of revelation is explained in every century.

“I find the words of this fourth-century Father (Basil) surprisingly up to date,” Benedict tells us, “when he says:

Some people, “deceived by the atheism they bore within them, imagine that the universe lacked guidance and order, at the mercy, as it were, of chance.” How many these “some people” are today! Deceived by atheism they consider and seek to prove that it is scientific to think that all things lack guidance and order as though they were at the mercy of chance. The Lord through Sacred Scripture reawakens our reason, which has fallen asleep and tells us: in the beginning was the creative Word. In the beginning the creative Word — this Word that created all things, that created this intelligent design which is the cosmos — is also love.In view of a recent court decision by a Pennsylvania judge telling us that intelligent design cannot be taught because it is covert religion, this passage is of remarkable interest. The Pope here does not say that the order of the cosmos is a religious question, even though religion also affirms it. To see this design, we are prodded by Scripture to “reawaken our reason,” quite a different thing. The even more subtle message of this reference is that patristic interpretation of Scripture is not made wholly obsolete by modern methods.

The Pope is ever sensitive to the effect such teachings of atheism or scientific disorder have on our souls, especially the young. To a group of Mexican bishops, he said that the young “find themselves facing a society marked by growing cultural and religious pluralism. Furthermore, sometimes very lonely and bewildered, they come up against currents of thought which hold that men and women, without the need for God and even opposed to God, achieve fulfillment through technological, political and economic power” (OR, 21 September 2005). Again and again, the Pope will meet this skeptical position head on. It simply will do not do what it claims.

In his audience at Castel Gandolfo for that same week, on Psalm 132, the Pope cites the fifth-century priest, Hesychius of Jerusalem. But he first tells us of the importance of temples and, a pari, churches, following the example of David in the Old Testament to build God a dwelling place.

And this is a very important thing, because it shows that at the heart of the social life of a city, of a community, of a people there must be a presence that calls to mind the mystery of the transcendent God, a proper space for god, a dwelling for God. Man cannot walk well without God; he must walk together with God through history, and the task of the temple of the dwelling of God, is to point out in a visible way this communion, this allowing God to guide.The Pope is obviously aware that there are governments today that will not allow such temples or churches to be built, or which put severe restrictions on them.

Implicitly, the Pope underscores a form of polity that recognizes, as part of its own dignity, and therefore a guidance to its youth, the presence of such temples in its midst. The state by itself does not “worship” God, as it is not itself a physical, substantial being, but it must provide a place, a space for those who can. Technical, political, and economic power are not enough to satisfy the human heart, yet, to recall what he told the Mexican bishops about youth, they need to see through the currents of thought that cut man off from God.


The Pope often turns to the subject of what the Church is. It is first listening to what is revealed. This is the starting point, the only starting point of the theological enterprise. On occasion of the 40th anniversary of Vatican II’s document on divine revelation, the Pope recalled that

the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, whose drafting I personally witnessed as a young theologian, taking part in the lively discussions that went with it, begins with the deeply meaningful sentence, “Hearing the Word of God with reverence, and proclaiming it with faith….” The Church does not live on herself but on the Gospel, and in the Gospel always and ever anew finds the direction for her journey. This is a point that every Christian must understand and apply to himself or herself; only those who first listen to the Word can become preachers of it. Indeed, they must not teach their own wisdom but the wisdom of God (OR, September 21).This was a theme that the then Cardinal Ratzinger touched on in his Spirit of the Liturgy–that the preacher is not there to tell us what he thinks or concocts about spiritual things, but what the Gospel says.

The Pope can be a bit whimsical. In his homily for the opening of the Synod on the Eucharist, he spoke of bread and wine. With all due respect to the tea totalers of this world, especially those who must forgo this pleasure for their own safety, the German pope shows that he is aware of the good side of what grows on those orderly vines along the Rhine, Mosel, and Main riverbanks in his homeland. “Wine … expresses the excellence of creation and gives us the feast in which we go beyond the limits of our daily routine: wine, the Psalm says, ‘gladdens the heart.’ So it is that wine and with it the vine have also become the images of the gift of love in which we can taste the savour of the Divine” (OR, 5 October 2005). Belloc would have loved such a sane passage.

But the Pope uses this imagery to talk of love itself. “God instilled in men and women, created in his image, the capacity to love, hence also the capacity for loving him, their Creator.” Often, as in this instance, the Pope will come back to the relation of creation and love. He will show that the whole structure of our world is contingent on this respect of God for our freedom and of the centrality of our freedom as something that God holds most sacred. “In the foreground of the Old Testament is the accusation of the violation of social justice, of contempt for human beings by human beings. In the background, however, it appears that with contempt for the Torah, for the law given by God, it is God himself who is despised. All people want is to enjoy their own power.” These are sober thoughts. Behind the contempt of human beings for human beings lurks the contempt for God, for the order of His creation. What replaces it–with overtones of Machiavelli and Nietzsche–is the desire for power for its own sake.

How does the Pope explain the logic of the relation of love and power? “We men and women, to whom creation is, as it were, entrusted for its management, have usurped it. We ourselves want to dominate it in the first person and by ourselves. We want unlimited possession of the world and of our own lives. God is in our way.” We should, on reading such lines, have no doubt that we have a first-class mind on the Chair of Peter. He starts right off teaching us about ourselves, our culture, and the heart of our culture’s disorders. “Either he (God) is reduced merely to a few devout words, or he is denied in everything and banned from public life so as to lose all meaning. The tolerance that, as it were, admits God as a private opinion but refuses him the public domain, the reality of the world and of our lives, is not tolerance but hypocrisy.” One form of tolerance allows us to speak, another form only allows itself to speak.

When Benedict was elected pope, several commentators remarked that, just as John Paul II was chosen because he came from the communist world, so Benedict was selected because the primary spiritual disorder in the world today is found in the souls of the Europeans and their betrayal of their own heritage, in their freely chosen loss of population and confidence in what they are. The Pope continues in the same homily:

The judgment announced by the Lord Jesus refers above all to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. Yet the threat of judgment also concerns us, the Church in Europe, Europe and the West in general. With this Gospel, the Lord is also crying out to our ears the words that in the Book of Revelation he addresses to the Church of Ephesus: ‘If you do not repent I will come to you and remove your lamp-stand from the place.’ Light can also be taken away from us…Even if we are unbelievers, these are sober words indeed. Again and again in his writings, as did John Paul II in his last book, Memory and Identity, the Pope has returned to the subject of Europe: What is it? What is its problem? Does it have a future?


On his first Christmas as Pope, Benedict had many nice things to say about its traditions. At the Angelus on December 11, commenting on Christmas preparations, the Pope said, “following a beautiful and firmly-rooted tradition, many families set up their Crib immediately after the Feast of the Immaculate conception, as if to relive with Mary those days full of trepidation that preceded the birth of Jesus. Putting up the Crib at home can be a simple but effective way of preserving faith, to pass it on to one’s children” (OR, 14 December 2005)

At Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s, the Pope continued, “Along with the Christmas tree that our Austrian friends have also brought us this year a small flame lit in Bethlehem, as if to say that the true mystery of Christmas is the inner brightness radiating from this Child.” (OR, 4 January 2006). And at the General Audience December 21, 2005, he added, “As we prepare to celebrate the Saviour’s Birth joyfully in our families and our Ecclesial Communities, while a certain modern, consumerist culture tends to do away with the Christian symbols of the celebration of Christmas, may it be everyone’s task to grasp the value of the Christmas traditions that was part of the patrimony of our faith and our culture, in order to pass them an to the young generation.” (OR, 4 January 2006).


How does one deal with the temptations and problems presented to us in modern culture? Writing to the First National Day of Young Catholics in the Netherlands, Benedict observes: “How easy it is to be content with superficial pleasures that daily life offers us; how easy it is to live only for oneself, apparently enjoying life! But sooner or later we realize that this is not true happiness, because true happiness is much deeper, we find it only in Jesus. …” What to do about it? “The recitation of the Rosary can help you learn the art of prayer with Mary’s simplicity and depth. …Take care to grow in the knowledge of the faith in order to be its authentic witnesses. Dedicate yourselves to understanding Catholic doctrine ever better even if at times in looking at it with the eyes of the world it may seem a difficult message to accept, in it is the answer that satisfies your basic questions” (OR, 14 December 2005). Notice that the Pope proposes awareness of the problem, of our reaction to it, the need both of prayer and intellectual understanding.

The Pope is clearly very aware of the high level of intelligence demanded within the Church. The Catholic Church is definitely a thing of intellect. To members of the International Theological Commission, the Pope pointed to a number of perplexing issues that need attention. He recalled something related to Dominus Jesus, namely “The fate of children who die without Baptism in the context of the universal salvific will of God, of the one mediation of Jesus Christ and, of the sacramentality of the Church” (OR, 14 December 2005). This is part of the more general discussion of the relation of all non-baptized to salvation and its specific relation to the Church as its primary locus. It is of interest how calmly the Church can identify problems, state their dimensions, and propose the limits within which the solution must be found, taking all issues into consideration.

In the same consideration, the Pope turns to another important issue. One of the great problems in modern social thought has been the great confusion over “natural” or “human rights.” This is an unfortunate term in many ways. In its current usage, it is usually a product, not of classic or medieval, but of modern political philosophy. In its modern form, it has a specific meaning, usually from Hobbes, namely that a “right” is a power to do whatever we want. For its basis, it presupposes nothing but the will of the one who demands it.

As the Church documents themselves often use this same phrase “natural rights,” nothing but confusion has resulted when “rights” are declared to be the foundation of Catholic social thought. Many immediately assume that the Church is using and accepting the modern meaning when it uses the modern words. Thus, abortion and homosexuality are called “rights” in modern usage, but are violation of natural law or right in Church usage. In fact, the modern understanding of the term “natural rights” undermines what this term is intended to mean in Church thinking.

The Pope, obviously aware of what is at stake, addresses this problem. First, he says, we can understand “the natural moral law” only if we see that rights “are rooted in the person’s nature and as such, derive from the will of God the Creator.” That is, they are not rooted in one’s freedom to choose what ever he has the power to do–the modern conception of rights. “Even before any positive law by a State, these (natural) laws are universal, inviolable, and inalienable, and must therefore be recognized as such by all, and especially by the civil authorities who are called to promote them and guarantee respect for them” (OR, 14 December 2005). Notice the special emphasis always put on the intelligence and conscience of legislators and judges.

Thus, the roots of “rights” are not in the simple will of the legislators who propose positive laws as the contents of rights. Behind all laws are objective standards, not subjective wills. “Even if the concept of ‘human nature’ seems to have been lost to contemporary culture, the fact remains that human rights cannot be understood without presupposing the values and norms, which are to be rediscovered and reaffirmed and not invented or subjectively or arbitrarily imposed, are innate in the human being.”

Benedict knows that such a view of the ontological basis of rights is rejected in much of modern legal and political thought. But he insists in challenging this same thought on the basis of reason. “The dialogue with the secular world is of great importance: it must appear clearly that the denial of the ontological foundation of the essential values of human life inevitably ends in positivism and makes law dependent on the currents of thought that predominate in a society, thereby corrupting law and making it an instrument of power instead of subordinating power to law” (OR, 14 December 2005). That this subordinating of law to power is a pretty good description of what has happened in most political jurisdictions goes without saying.