On the Mind of the Pope

Benedict XVI has, among other things, spelled out the nature of modern disorder

It so happens that the Holy Father, who is six months older than Schall, announced his retirement about six months after Schall announced his. As far as we know, no causal connection can be established, though several of my friends suspect collusion. In fact, the pope’s intentions to retire have been hinted at all along by his attention to previously resigned popes. His given reasons are pretty much the same ones that I use—one grows weaker with age; no one wants to leave an institution in emergency situations. 

When Benedict first announced his resignation, I assumed that he would return to some appropriately quiet convent in Germany for his last years, perhaps with his priest brother. Or he might go to the Villa Helios, run by some German nuns on the Isle of Capri, at which the German Jesuits at the Gregorian University in Rome liked to stay when I was there. On second thought, Benedict is also an historian. Any reader of Tacitus would know about the unsettling residence of the Emperors Tiberius and Caligula on Capri. Too much unwelcome symbolism would be seen in such a move. Evidently Benedict will stay in the Vatican. 

The mechanism for the election of a successor to Benedict is now in place. My chances of accurately picking the new pope are about the same as my chances of picking the winner of the NCAA basketball tournament in March or the winner of the Kentucky Derby in May. We presume that something more is at work in the selection of a new pope than pure luck. 

Since at least Pius IX in the 1800s, the Catholic Church has had at its helm a series of rather outstanding men. The last two popes certainly have been extraordinary, almost as if they were “chosen” by powers beyond the capacities of the men who selected them. No political institution with its “democratic” or hereditary processes for selecting presidents and leaders can match that record over time.

Over the years of his life, Benedict has produced an enormous amount of writings. I suspect his Opera Omnia, when finally published in a German critical edition, will equal or surpass the collected works of Augustine or Aquinas , both of which are enormous. It would take most of an ordinary person’s lifetime just to read the works of Aquinas or Augustine or Benedict, let alone write and understand them. We now have the works that Joseph Ratzinger produced as a philosopher and theologian, together with that which he wrote and spoke as part of his Petrine office. As pope he gave hundreds and hundreds of talks, wrote encyclicals, exhortations, letters, even books. 

Benedict’s three volume work, Jesus of Nazareth, begun before he was elected pope, is one of those fundamental works bearing the stamp of this remarkable man. He wrote it as a personal, scholarly, yet readable and direct document. In a way, these volumes have always amused me. In effect, the pope says to an uncomprehending world: “Look, fellas, this is what I hold and the reasons for it. You do not have to take it on authority. Just read it and see if it makes sense. If you have any arguments or evidence that what I maintain is not so, let me know. I will respond to it.” This is a personal challenge which few are humble enough or learned enough to take up. For this book does nothing less than affirm that Jesus Christ is who He said He was and that all the “evidence” of classic and modern times presented to show that He was not is un-sustained or incoherent at some point.


What is the significance of the work, and of the mind of Joseph Ratzinger? Several commentators inform us that he is a shy man who never succeeded in coming out of the shadows of John Paul II. The two men were friends and in many ways possess very similar minds. Probably the work of both of them should be taken together as a whole. But what I think that Benedict has done, if I might put it this way, is to think through and put in order the basic features of the modern mind in the light of standard Catholic teachings about man, cosmos, and God. Benedict is a Thomist in the sense that he understands and states clearly and fairly that with which he disagrees. He is familiar not merely with classical and medieval thought, but most modern thought. Indeed, he knows personally a good number of the leading lights of the intellectual world in our own time. Anyone who is not aware of the intellectual caliber of Benedict simply reveals his own incompetence or incomprehension.

In Spe Salvi and in the Regensburg Lecture, in particular, Benedict has explained the modern mind in terms of its deviation from basic Catholic teachings. Almost any modern movement has its root explanation in its seeking ends and purposes that are essentially Christian but by means that reject the theological description and substitute a this-worldly, usually political and evolutionary hypothesis, that relocates the transcendent goods in this world. Once we understand this deeper root of modern thought, we will see that the work of Joseph Ratzinger has been a re-presentation of the classical Catholic views, though now in the light of those ideologies that proposed alternatives to transcendent ends. 

What is clear is that, once it claims independence of revelation and increasingly of reason, the modern mind will claim the “right” to do something that is evil in order to achieve its inner-worldly goal. Almost all the attacks on family, abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning, and human experimentation come from this origin. They are all presented in the name of benefiting mankind in this world. Any claim that they are not for the real good of actual human beings is rejected on the grounds of “rights” and “betterment” of human life and society. The pope spells out how we have in effect recreated in this world heaven, hell, purgatory, and death. 

The fact that what we in effect bring about is something much more terrible than anything we have yet known for man is rejected on the grounds of necessity and idealism. We are about producing a death, life, hell, and purgatory in this world considerably worse than the worst Christian descriptions of the four last things. We do this “work” in the name of science, technology, and human “rights.” Once it becomes clear in thought that such problems are really those at work in our reconstruction of society, we begin to realize that Benedict has in fact spelled out the nature of modern disorder. He has shown intellectually the superiority of the basic Christian understandings of human dignity founded on the faith that guides the plan of salvation that is involved in the Incarnation of Christi Himself.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

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).