“A God who responds to our reason”

Schall on Benedict on Mexico

“It seems to me very important to announce a God who responds to our reason. We see the rationality of the cosmos; we see that there is something behind it. But we do not see how this God is near to us, how He concerns Himself with me. We do not see how this synthesis of the great and majestic God with the small God orients me, shows me the values of my life. To show this is the nucleus of evangelization.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Interview on Flight to Mexico City, March 23, 2012 (Translation from Italian by the author)

I.

Customarily, recent popes, while flying to visit some distant country, give an interview to journalists who are with the pope on the flight. On Benedict XVI’s flight to Mexico, five questions were directed to him by reporters. The questions concerned naturally the spirit and problems of Mexico and touched on general issues of Catholic thought and purpose. Benedict gave very thoughtful and indeed profound answers to what might seem, at first sight, ordinary questions.

Benedict made it clear that he considered himself to be following the footsteps of John Paul II’s earlier and historic visits to Mexico. He recalled that Mexico had recently changed its many anti-religious and anti-clerical laws so the Church was now much freer to pursue its own religious purposes without excessive governmental control. Benedict recalls that he himself had previously visited Mexico as a Cardinal. In May of 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the Latin American bishops in Guadalajara on the condition of the modern intellectual world. (For discussion, see Schall, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, October 1997).   

He states right away that Mexico is a country in which 80% of the people are Catholic. But Benedict is quite aware of the issue of drug traffic in Mexico, Latin and North America. This traffic constitutes a profoundly moral issue, not just political or economic. “We ought to do what is possible against this evil so destructive of humanity and of our youth,” Benedict responds to a reporter. He then adds something that has been emphasized all through Benedict’s pontificate, especially in Spe Salvi, namely the fact of final judgment. Benedict sees this judgment as having something directly to do with the whole drug world—consumers, suppliers, and enablers.

“First, we must announce that God is a judge. We are to be soberly reminded that those who participate in the growing, transporting, protecting, legally enabling, failing to enforce, bribing, killing, and corruption that goes on in this wholly sordid business must understand that they will be judged for the terrible consequences of their acts.” Benedict presents this fact as the essential first step of dealing with the problem, namely, the personal responsibility of every one and anyone involved. Justice will be requited, even if it looks like it will succeed in this world.

To be sure, “God loves us, but He loves us to attract us to the good, to the truth and against evil.” The Church is to address itself to the consciences of everyone, not just Catholics. Its duty is to unmask evil, the idolatry of money which “enslaves” part of humanity. “Lies and deceptions stand behind drugs.” (See Schall,  “Why the Drug Problem is a God Problem”, Ignatius Insight, February 3, 2011).

Here Benedict sees that behind drugs is a false messiah. Drugs substitute for what is really sought in our longings. “Man has need of the infinite. If God does not exist, the infinite is created as a parody of Him, an appearance of ‘infinitude’ that can only be a lie. This metaphysical and theological root of the drug trade and its causes shows how important it is that God be present, accessible. We have a great responsibility before “God the judge who guides us, attracts us to the true and the good. In this sense, the Church ought to unmask this evil, render present the goodness of God, his truth, the true infinity of which we have a great thirst.” It is to this duty to which we must “hasten.”

II.

What about the question of “social justice” on this great Continent? We must first remember that “the Church is not a political power. It is not a political party. Rather, it is a moral reality, a moral power. Insofar as politics itself fundamentally ought to be a moral reality, the Church, on this duality of authorities, has fundamentally something to do with politics.” Benedict adds that the “first responsibility of the Church is to educate the conscience and thus to create the necessary responsibility, to educate the conscience be it in individual ethics, be it in public ethics.”

Perhaps, the Church does not do enough. Wherever we look, not just in Latin America, we see “in not a few Catholics a certain schizophrenia between individual and public morality. In the sphere of personal morality, they are Catholics and believers. But in the public order they follow a path that does not correspond to the values of the Gospel. These latter are what are necessary for the basis of a just society.” No doubt this principle applies directly to many well-known Catholic politicians in the United States.

“But public morality ought to be a reasonable ethics, understood and appreciated even by non-believers, a morality of reason.” The pope acknowledges that faith can help reason to be reason, to see many things, both good and evil, that might be overlooked. “Faith frees reason from false interests.” Frankly, Benedict, on being asked, doubts whether “liberation theology” would help much. With many proper distinctions, the phrase can have a good meaning. (See, Ratzinger, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation'”, Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, August 4, 1987).

What is important is “the common rationality to which the Church offers a fundamental contribution.” Notice that the Church does not claim sole jurisdiction over reason, but rather the abiding duty and responsibility for itself to address this reason on its own grounds. The Church stakes its stand on, as it were, “the reasonableness of reason” and addresses itself to it from within its own resources but not as reason could not itself be understood and normative.

Today, “Marxist ideology, as it was originally conceived, does not respond to reality.” It cannot “reconstruct” society. New models have to be found. We need patience and decisions. The notion of a “fraternal and just society” is a worthy one. Everyone in the world would like to see it come about. The Church would freely like to cooperate in this effort to work for and establish what is reasonably possible. What is especially at stake is freedom of conscience and religion. The irony of this passage is that, in fact, modern governments are deviating more and more from reason and no longer hold themselves bound by it.

III.

The new evangelization in fact began with Vatican II. The Gospel always needs to “express itself” in new ways. The world itself, in its “confusion,” has need of a new “word.” In a secularized world, the “absence of God” and widespread “syncretism” make it difficult to grasp how God is concerned with “my life.” Behind all this variety of particular situations, however, Benedict sees a common issue. Interestingly, it is not, per se, a question of faith or its loss. Rather, “We must announce that God responds to our reason.” I note that it is the Pope of Rome who is saying this remarkable truth about reason to the secular world, not vice versa. We need to see how the God who created the cosmos relates to the God who is my judge and destiny, in my very life. In Latin America especially “it is important to see that religion is not only something of reason but also of the heart.”

Finally, following the theme of reason and the heart, the pope turns to Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico and Our Lady of Cobre in Cuba as a reminder of the love of Mary and her Son for everyone, something of the “heart” that everyone understands. “But these intuitions of the heart should go along with the reason of faith and with the profundity of the faith that goes beyond (but not contradictory to) reason. We should look not to lose our heart, but to associate heart and reason so that they work together, since alone in this way is man complete and able really to aid the world for a better future.” Benedict is not a utopian, but he does see how things can be better, but only on the grounds of reason and the truths of faith addressed to it, be it in Mexico, Cuba, or anywhere else.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 160 Articles

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, “Another Sort of Learning”, for more about his writings and work.