Bergoglio and the Ultimate Questions

A 2003 essay by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio reflects on modern man’s failure to pursue answers to life’s deepest questions

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, right, now Pope Francis, is pictured traveling by subway in Buenos Aires in 2008.(CNS photo/Diego Fernandez Otero, Clarin handout via Reuters)

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, right, now Pope Francis, is pictured traveling by subway in Buenos Aires in 2008. (CNS photo/Diego Fernandez Otero, Clarin handout via Reuters)Someone sent me a book chapter entitled “For Man.” Its author was Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The book, Generative Thought:  An Introduction to the Works of Luigi Giussani (Mcgill Queens University Press, 2003; edited by Elisa Buzzi), is an appreciation of Msgr. Luigi Giussani’s own book, The Religious Sense. Msgr. Giussani is the founder of Communion e Liberazione, a dynamic religious movement now found in some sixty countries. [Editor: Bergoglio’s chaper is available in PDF format online] 

What struck Bergoglio about Giussani’s influential book was that it hardly ever spoke of God, of any of the normal questions about his existence or meaning. Rather it was about man. Reminiscent of John Paul II’s Redemptor Hominis and many writings of Benedict XVI, the issue was the being of man—of whether he bore within himself the image of God, of the nature of human knowledge. 

At the time this essay was written, John Paul II had just published Fides et Ratio. Bergoglio cites the famous beginning passage of this powerful document wherein John Paul lists the important questions about the meaning of human life and death, of evil and good, of our final destiny. Pope Wojtyla had noted that such questions are present in almost all human cultures and traditions, not merely in Christian ones. He concludes from this survey that these very questions reveal something basic about human nature. They must be asked and considered if we are to face what we really are.

Leibnitz and other philosophers had asked: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “Why is this thing not that thing?” Many philosophers such as Eric Voegelin took up this same theme, as did several documents of Vatican II. Of course, these questions also go back in their own way to Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. The theme of Giussani that Bergoglio especially liked was that, to know what we are, we have to take into consideration more than just scientific or systematic reasoning. Benedict had often pointed out that the range of our reason includes intuitive and practical knowledge that is real enough but cannot be reduced to a rationalism based on mathematics. The sciences are justly based on the fact of matter but things exist that are not simply matter. Our intelligence itself is one of them.

What bothered Bergoglio was the fact that so many people are not bothered by these ultimate questions and the answers they seek. Citing Reinhold Niebuhr, we discover that many keep in their souls “unasked questions”—questions such as “Why do I exist?” and “What is death?” We cannot pretend that such questions go away simply because we refuse to or are afraid to ask them. Bergoglio writes: “But if we wish to answer questions that we do not dare to answer, do not know how to answer, or cannot formulate, we fall into absurdity.” In other words, a human being who refuses to ask of himself what he really is essentially rejects his own nature.

Using the classical notion of knowledge of the heart rather than of only the head, Bergoglio, in effect, associates himself with Benedict who insisted in this breadth of our knowledge capacity that included all of reality. There are many things we know that cannot be reduced to a scientific formula. There is nothing wrong with scientific methods, except when these methods are considered adequate for what is not matter.  This enables Bergoglio to say, “The drama of the world today is the result not only of the absence of God but also and above all of the absence of humankind.” What does this “absence” of man mean? It means that we refuse to ask what kind of beings we really are. Why do we do this? Largely, I think, because we are afraid that the proper answer to the unasked questions will require us to live in a truth we do not want to accept.

Bergoglio speaks of a reason “open to reality in all its factors and whose starting point is experience, whose starting point is this ontological foundation that awakens a restlessness in the heart.” It is being itself that makes us uneasy, yet curious. What is this but Aquinas, with his stress on what is, on beginning with experience, and Augustine with his restless hearts? We cannot, Bergoglio adds, raise the question of God “calmly,” as if it were not a burning drive we find in our souls. Indeed, it is this spiritual lethargy in our souls that most seems to bother Bergoglio. How is it possible not to wonder what we are?

How can we be certain about these “mysterious” things about our being? Bergoglio speaks of a community in which we see a “moral certainty” about what we need to live together. We do not need to think that we can answer all our questions by ourselves. We live among those who have thought about them.  “Certainty does not reside in the human head but in the harmony of all human faculties.”  Faith itself is primarily a trust in the authority of another. Most of the things anybody knows, he knows by trust in the testimony of others. Our religious faith depends on the witness of the Apostles and their faithful handing down what they saw.

But faith is “not contrary to reason.” Faith in fact is directed to reason. And reason is always concerned with the intelligibility of what is presented in revelation.  “Faith is reasonable, which does not imply that it can be deduced to mere reasoning. It is reasonable—let us push the term—but not reasoning.” Perhaps this rather enigmatic statement is clearer if we simply say that what we do not know about something is not unintelligible but that we just do not yet grasp its full intelligibility. Omne ens est scibile.

Bergoglio returns to the great questions: “Why is there pain, why death, why evil? Why is life worth living? What is the ultimate meaning of reality, of existence? What sense does it make to work, love, become involved in the world? Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?” It is always good to see these questions spelled out for us. By not asking them of ourselves and of our fellows, we cease to be what we are.  Young and old, believers and non-believes ask these questions that “cannot be uprooted.” Yet, and this seems to be Bergoglio’s view, they can be ignored or suppressed in such a way that we cease to be really human.

 “Human beings cannot be content with reductive or partial answers that force them to censor or neglect some aspect of reality.” If they do, as their freedom allows them to do, they are only “running away from themselves.” Human beings in fact possess a “yearning for the infinite.”  He even talks of a “homesickness” that we have. Here I detect not just the shadow of Odysseus, whom Bergoglio cites, but of Chesterton’s “Why do we feel homesick at home?” Bergoglio is said to have belonged to a Chesterton Society in Argentina. “The human heart proves to be the sign of a Mystery, that is, of something or someone who is an infinite response. Outside the Mystery, the needs for happiness, love, and justice never meet a response that fully satisfies the human heart. Life would be absurd if this response did not exist.” 

Bergoglio’s short treatise ends with what is in effect a recapitulation of Aristotle’s notion of wonder as the beginning of knowledge. “The beginning of every philosophy is wonder, and only wonder leads to knowledge.” Bergoglio here cites Pope John Paul I—who also had a letter to Chesterton in his Illustrissimi. Pope Luciani once remarked: “The drama of contemporary Christianity lies in the fact that it puts categories and norms in place of wonder.” In modern philosophy, what replaced the search of what is was a system concocted by the human mind to explain things by itself without reference to reality.

The only thing I would remark in conclusion about this insightful essay of Pope Francis in his earlier days is that Samuel Johnson once wrote an essay about wonder. But Johnson noticed that many people do wonder but they refuse to do anything more than wonder. They do not take the next step to examine the facts and depths of reality. This failure seems to be really Bergoglio’s point about the modern world composed of men and women who wonder about all sorts of things excerpt what is really important to them.

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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).