On Being Human In a Civilization of Forgetfulness

Benedict XVI understands that the wars of the world are still fought in the minds and hearts of men.

“The Church represents the memory of what it means to be human in the face of a civilization of forgetfulness, which knows only itself and its own criteria. Yet just as an individual without memory has lost his identity, so too a human race without memory would lose its identity.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia, December 21, 2012.

“I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity. To be sure, we do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us; Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia, December 21, 2012.


Each year the Holy Father gives a significant lecture to the Roman Curia about the events of the previous year. In this year’s account, Benedict spent time recalling his trips to Mexico, Cuba, and Lebanon. In the course of a year, the modern popes probably see more important (and “unimportant”) people in the world than any other public figure. Their trips to various countries are usually major events in those countries. It is said that John Paul II was seen in person by more human beings than any man in history.

In introducing Pope Benedict, Cardinal Sodano recalled the liturgical antiphon: “Propre est jam Dominus, venite adoremus–The Lord is near, come let us adore Him.” The Child in the stable in Bethlehem, Benedict continues, “is God himself and has come so close as to become a man like us.” Benedict never hesitates to identify Christ as true God and true man. These very words—the “Child is God Himself”—defy and challenge the whole world by affirming its truth. 

Benedict made a most interesting remark about Cuba: “That country’s search for a proper balancing of the relationship between obligations and freedom cannot succeed without reference to the basic criteria that mankind has discovered through encounter with the God of Jesus Christ.” One presumes that, if that statement is true for Cuba, it will be true for other lands, including our own. Evidently, mankind has learned something about obligation and freedom from its dealing with the reality of Christ. Essentially it is that no freedom exists without corresponding obligation. Likewise, an obligation that is not freely accepted is more like determinism or coercion than free responsibility.


To the Curia, Benedict devotes considerable discussion to two topics: the family and the meaning of dialogue. The meeting on families in Milan gave the Holy Father an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the family and the modern effort to eliminate it as the central institution of human life.

Many questions come up about the family with which we must be familiar: “First of all there is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself to a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to human freedom?” These are the common questions that we hear when we try to justify divorce or infidelity of various sorts. They are rooted in an individualism that does not see human perfection as a relationship of commitment to others, including to God Himself.

But Benedict brings up something of great profundity about the nature of the modern attack on marriage. Evidently, the pope has been reading a reflection on marriage by the Chief Rabbi in France, Giles Benheim. Rabbi Benheim points out that the current attack on the family, child, and marriage is not just rooted in a false notion of freedom. This latter view has been characteristic of much modern opposition to permanent marriage. Now the issue goes to the very nature of what a human being is, not just his freedom.

What is questioned is the being of man as we have known it. It is only if we deny the being of man that we can embrace views of human relations that undermine the structure of man. Traditionally, Rabbi Benheim notes, to be a human being meant to be born “of woman.” Chesterton noted somewhere what a terrible thing it would be if we were “born of man.” But today, the notion of gender is not something of given fact but of choice. What one is born of makes no difference. “Sex is no longer a given element of nature that man has to accept and personally make sense of; it is a social role that we choose for ourselves.”

If man is born of woman, the role chosen for him is essential to his own good. But if we conceive “being given ourselves” to be a denial of our “freedom,” we must develop a theory that denies our given nature. We thus have to choose our “gender”, whatever it be. Of this view, Benedict states: “The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious.” This obvious falsity, however, does not prevent individuals and governments from choosing it.

People deny they have a “nature” that derives from the fact of the body (and soul) given to them at conception and birth. They want to “make” themselves with no relation to God or nature. They will seek to prove that nothing in them has an origin from anything but themselves. “According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of human nature.” The male and female division of human beings is essential to human nature as such. This duality is now questioned.

What are the consequences of this new view? It is the belief that it was “not God who created us male and female.” What did this was “society,” whose authority we now also deny  We decide for ourselves. “Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will.” This is a new form of what Maritain once called “angelism.” The body has nothing to do with our soul and spirit.  Will is everything, shades of Nietzsche. We need not account for our body, let alone see in it as part of our own real good. The pope points out that now we are manipulating human nature, a manipulation often pursued by the same people who are up in arms about manipulating the environment. They oppose manipulating the latter but demand that we manipulate human nature.

One can only stand in awe at the force of the pope’s mind as he examines the logic of these views of gender. “From now on there is only the abstract human being who chooses for himself what his nature will be. Man and woman in their created state as complimentary versions of what it means to be human are disputed.” Yet, we are not just spirit and will but we are persons with body and soul in one whole. We are a unified being, all aspects of which belong together in a harmonious whole

Benedict proceeds to draw out the logic of this denial of the normalcy of male and female in one nature. “But if there is no preordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him.” The dignity of the child is that it is a gift, not the product of human engineering or ownership. He is a good in his own being.

“Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately too man is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God…. The defense of the family is about man himself…. When God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.” (See Schall, “On the ‘Right to Be Born,’” in Political Philosophy and Revelation, The Catholic University of America Press, forthcoming 2013).

If we maintain that someone, male or female, has an independent “right” to a child apart from the stable male-female marital relation, it follows that any arrangement in which a child can be obtained—in vitro, cloning—is merely the exercise of one’s rights. The child, who ought to be the center of the issue, is deprived of his own need of father and mother, of his own dignity.. What comes first is not the child but oneself, the complete opposite of the natural order.


Benedict next takes up the issue of dialogue. It is a confused area. The noble Platonic notion has become—if not useless in a world of relativism in which no truth can be found—at least a justification for endless discussions that decide very little. Benedict sees three areas of dialogue: with the state, with society, and with religion. When civilizations forget what man is, the Church becomes the memory of mankind, of what man is. What the Church knows from its experience is relevant to non-believers. 

Benedict draws a delicate line here. Knowing the almost impossible task of discussing theological issues publicly, particularly with Muslims, he grants that dialogue still must find some basis of agreement about common problems. Still, any dialogue will lead in some way to fundamental issues. “A dialogue about peace and justice is bound to move beyond the purely pragmatic, to become an ethical struggle for the truth and for the human being.…” What began as a pragmatic issue does bring up the question of what is the right way to live and why.

Two reasons are given for dialogue among those whom we are not seeking to change. “1) Dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at understanding. In this respect it differs from evangelization, from mission. 2) Accordingly, both parties to the dialogue remain consciously within their identity, which the dialogue does not place in question either for themselves or for others.” These principles, of course, strike us as being a long way from Plato’s understanding of dialogue. The pope himself finds problems with them. “I find them too superficial. True dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at better mutual understanding—that is correct. But all the same the search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing close to the truth.”

A Christian cannot say that his discussion blocks out any approach to the truth. “I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.” He can do this because reason open to revelation and revelation addressed to reason constitute a grounding in the what is that unifies our knowledge and sees the truths  in other views together with their limitations.

The Church exists in part that we do not forget who and what we are. It sees that the most fundamental institution of society, the family, is now an object of complete elimination and the relations that are associated with the family, the most fundamental ones, are left without grounding in nature or being. The dialogue with any of the disparate religions and philosophies of our time cannot ultimately forget that truth is the direction in which all reason tends. When Socrates said that dialogue taught him what he did not know, he only reached this conclusion after eliminating many positions that were in fact not true. Dialogue may not be conversion but the establishment of any truth or the rejection of any error remains a central task. The wars of the world are still fought in the minds and hearts of men. Benedict quite clearly understands this fact. 

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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).