On hearing clearly the Church’s teaching

The Holy Father speaks to US bishops

“Young people have a right to hear clearly the Church’s teaching and, more importantly, to be inspired by the coherence and beauty of the Christian message, so that they in turn can instill in their peers a deep love of Christ and his Church.”

—Benedict XVI to Bishops of the State of New York, November 26, 2011.[1]


Every five years, the bishops of a given country are to make a formal visit of account to the Holy Father. They are not simply free agents or executives who run their dioceses as if these were their private property. In November, Benedict began his reception of American bishops. As there are quite a few US bishops (283), they go in groups according to the region of the country from which they originate. Archbishop Dolan of New York was the spokesman for the New York State bishops, who made their visit in late November. L’Osservatore Romano carried a brief interview with the archbishop.

As might be expected, the Pope began his meeting with the American bishops with a reference to his 2008 visit to the United States. He mentioned the “conscientious efforts” to deal with clerical scandals. But, he added—showing how alert he is—“Just as the Church is rightly held to exacting standards in this regard, all other institutions, without exception, should be held to the same standards.” The key phrase is “the same standards.” It has long been obvious that abuse cases which have been pursued with such relish against Catholic culprits have not been pursued in the same way in the case of public schools or of government, military, business, athletic, and other institutions.

Bishops talk to the Pope. He listens. “Many of you have shared with me your concern about the grave challenges to a consistent Christian witness presented by an increasingly secularized society.” The Pope, with his experience of talking to many world figures, adds that this unsettlement is shared by others. Indeed, many wonder about the “future of democratic societies.” Such societies need firm and constant principles and virtuous practices to survive. Such things must arise from within the souls of free citizens. But they can choose, as often seems to be the case, not to live reasonably.

Thus, we find “a troubling breakdown in the intellectual, cultural, and moral foundations of social life, and a growing sense of dislocation and insecurity, especially among the young, in the face of wide-ranging societal changes.” This situation is not simply an issue in New York State. The Pope does not hesitate to link what we think with how we live. Behind every moral disorder is usually an intellectual aberration, and vice versa. Even if we are legally allowed to “think as we like,” we are not, in practice, allowed to escape the consequences of our acts. This reminder touches on something fundamental to human nature about which Benedict has often spoken, beginning with Spe Salvi.

In his brief Advent Angelus on November 27, for instance, Benedict said that during Advent we are asked to “Watch!” He adds: “It is a salutary reminder to us that life does not only have an earthly dimension, but reaches toward a ‘beyond,’ like a plantlet that sprouts from the ground and soars towards the sky. A thinking plantlet, man, is endowed with freedom and responsibility, which is why each one of us will be called to account for how he/she has lived, how each one has used the talents with which each is endowed.”[2] In other words, even if we set up our own standards and norms, in the end we will be judged by an objective order which we have rejected, refused to learn, or acted contrary to. I want to relate this brief passage to what Benedict said to the New York bishops.


Benedicts tells the bishops that we can look on this situation in a positive, prophetic fashion. We have too few bishops with voices. In modern society, it may well be more courageous to speak the truth about life, family, responsibility, sin, and punishment than it is to die with the lions. Benedict speaks of a “quiet attrition” from the Church. Many bishops comment on how many Catholics have joined evangelical congregations or how many have substituted secular causes—not, on examination, half so coherent—for religion. Moreover, the constant business of modern life that never allows a moment away from media in all its forms or the activities promoted or recommended by it seems designed to keep us from contemplating what it is all about.

“Immersed in the culture, believers are daily beset by the objections, the troubling questions, and the cynicism of a society which seems to have lost its roots, by a world in which the love of God has grown cold in so many hearts.” Is there any answer to such a situation? We can be sure that this Pope will go to the heart of the matter. We are not dealing here with mechanical or deterministic things, except in the sense that a false idea will not cease being false just because we claim it is true. If we act on it, it will carry out its disorder in the world. It cannot be stopped unless we recognize and acknowledge and, yes, confess its falsity. This is really what the judgment that the Pope spoke of in the Angelus is about.

“As with all spiritual crises, whether of individuals or communities, we know that the ultimate answer can only be born of a searching, critical, and ongoing self-assessment and conversion in the light of Christ’s truth. Only through such interior renewal will we be able to discern and meet the spiritual needs of our age with the ageless truth of the Gospel.” What is the Pope saying here? The English title given by L’Osservatore Romano to this episcopal visit was “Evangelization and Conversion: Priorities of the Church.” However much the world may not like to hear it, it is the function of a bishop to make sure that the essential teachings of Christ are heard, not watered down. We still must teach that ultimately conversion is the only answer. But we must also say that conversion is a matter of seeing, in grace, the truth; nothing forced about it. Anything less will not do. And we must be allowed to say these things as a matter of political freedom and speak them as a matter of truth. Our legal and political trends have deliberately sought more and more to make any public expression of Catholicism impossible. Not to know this is not to have been living in America.


Bishops from the state of New York on their ad limina visits to the Vatican concelebrate Mass at the tomb of Blessed John Paul II in St. Peter's Basilica Nov. 29. (CNS)Finally, the Pope has a few words on the Liturgy and the new translation of the Sacramentary. “A weakened sense of the meaning and importance of Christian worship can only lead to a weakness of the specific and essential vocation of the laity to imbue the temporary order with the spirit of the Gospel.” The Pope notes that historically the Sabbath has been respected in America. Any renewal of the “social fabric” can only be “in accordance with unchangeable truth.” In one sense, we might say that a society that insists on looking elsewhere for the solutions but where they can alone be found is a lost society. In effect, this is what Benedict told the US bishops.

“The renewal of the Church’s witness to the Gospel in your country is essentially linked to the recovery of a shared vision and sense of mission by the entire Catholic community.” He includes here the Catholic universities, which need a “renewed sense of their ecclesial mission.” The Pope again mentions Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II’s comment on what a Catholic university ought to be. Basically, it ought to be Catholic, to manifest and teach the Catholic mind in its full coherence, in the relation of reason and revelation.

The bottom line, really, is that “Catholic” is not simply the “academic” opinion of the individual theology professor. It must include the sense of a continuation of tradition from the Apostles about what is held to be Catholic. This charge, for some strange reason, was not given to professors, but to bishops. It helps of course if bishops are themselves, like the Holy Father, very scholarly and wise. But neither the Pope nor a bishop intends to state or guarantee that what is said comes from him alone, but rather is in conformity with what is handed down.

This is where Benedict says, to remind us of what a university is, something we often forget: “Young people have a right to hear clearly the Church’s teaching and, more importantly, to be inspired by the coherence and beauty of the Christian message, so that they in turn can instill in their peers a deep love of Christ and his Church.” It is not really an issue of “academic freedom” but of “academic duty” to assure students and parents and, yes, professors, that what is taught is indeed what the Church teaches. This is what is freeing, not the private opinions of professors based on their own ponderings and not clearly in line with that which was handed on to the Apostles.

[1] Ad Limina Visit of New York States Bishops, L’Osservatore Romano, November 30, 2011.

[2] L’Osservatore Romano, November 30, 2011.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).