“A story He himself created”: Reflections on Benedict XVI’s recent remarks

Each person, if he be honest with himself, can recognize he is responsible for at least some of the evil in the world.

“Faith is not a product of reflection nor is it even an attempt to penetrate the depths of my own being. Both of these things may be present, but they remain insufficient without the ‘listening’ through which God, from without, from a story he himself created, challenges me.” — Benedict XVI, Interview, October 2015

I.

How comforting it is to read something new from Pope Ratzinger! Perhaps “comforting” is not the right word—“reassuring”, perhaps, or “consoling”, or even “revealing”. We have a recent interview with Pope Benedict by Jacques Servais, S.J. that covers a number of issues worth further reflection. I do not think that Schall’s comments on what Benedict said are better than what Benedict said. But it seems worthwhile to assimilate them as best as one can. It is a noble exercise in intelligence to realize that one’s own intelligence is informed and clarified by that of another, especially that of a pope of such insight.

The first issue that arises is that of the origin and nature of faith. We often hear arguments—I have made them myself—that faith helps us to “develop” or to be present before God. Such results may be true, but faith is primarily something else. Faith concerns something we would know nothing about on the basis of our own resources. Thus, the “autonomous” man, the “self-sufficient” man, need have no “faith”. But without it, he must pay a price, the heavy price of being limited only to what he can figure out by himself. “Faith is a profoundly personal contact with God.” In this sense, faith has to do with precisely “me and God”. God intends and “desires” such a direct relation with each human being that He created, including the unborn and those whose worldly lives were cut short or incomplete in any way.

But the minute we realize that we can love and communicate with God in faith, we also realize that we are “open” to others. We are to “listen”, not just speak. To “listen” means that someone else has something to tell us. We must stop paying attention to only ourselves if we are to find out that someone else, including God, has something we want to know and need to know. What is it that we “listen” for? From “without” ourselves, we listen for an account from no less than God of a “story He himself created.” That is a remarkable sentence. God tells us the story of what our lives are about. The word “story” is exact, for the “story” of each of us is different yet it always involves others.

But this emphasis on others needs definition. There is a temptation to think that, say, the Mass is formed by the community of others. “The faith community does not create itself. It is not an assembly of men who have some ideas in common and who decide to work to spread such ideas.” The Church may contain many learned men, but it is not a society of scholars, however valuable such organizations may be. We do have a “guarantee of eternal life” but it is not the result of our own making, or even of our own imagination. “I enter the Church not by a bureaucratic act, but through the sacrament… . I am welcomed into a community that did not originate in itself and is projected beyond itself.”

This realization is why faith is first receptive. We first listen and hear what it is about. Then we think about what it teaches us, tells us. Though we are to know the Creed, baptism is not the result of a successful examination. It is being obedient to Christ’s instructions of how we are to belong to His Church—whoever we are, prince or pauper. “The Church must introduce the individual Christian into an encounter with Jesus Christ and bring Christians into His presence in the sacrament. In this manner, we are introduced as proper actors in “the story that He himself created” in creating the world itself.

II.

One of the great issues from the Reformation was that of “justification,” whether it be by faith or works, or both. Benedict takes another look at the cultural assumptions in which the question of justification exists. If we say with St. Paul that we are justified by faith alone, we have one attitude to this world; if we say it is, as St. James says, dependent on our works, we have another apparently contradictory view. Both Lutherans and Catholics have basically agreed that both are necessary, that faith leads to works and that works are not by themselves salvific for man’s ultimate purpose.

What is different today is that men do not think that they need to worry about justification whether by faith or by works. Modern men think that it is not man who must do something to make him worthy of God, but that God needs to explain why He is worth bothering about since He allowed all this evil in the world. So mankind is waiting around for God to justify Himself before men. Men think, as a result, that it is God who “cannot let men be damned.” Since the ball is now in God’s park, as it were, men only have to wait about for God to save them. If He does not, it is not a human problem. Now “the concern for the salvation of souls typical of past times has for the most part disappeared.” In the older view, it was what we do, or do not do, that made the difference between salvation and damnation. In the modern view, it is all up to God as He caused the mess in the first place by creating us.

Benedict remarks that this view implies that we are open to a sense of “grace and forgiveness.” If we “blame” God for creating a world in which so much evil happens, we do not waste out time blaming ourselves or our own sins. God is the “big sinner” for making beings who could sin, never mind the dignity of free will and real intelligence. Here is another of those enigmatic “signs of the times” that can mean just about anything.

From this source arises the emphasis on the mercy of God, something we relate to Sister Faustina, Saint John Paul II, and Pope Francis. The picture of God is not one of a judge, as in Plato or in Matthew but as “full of mercy”. God is ready to forgive and forget absolutely everything. Whether we need to do anything like acknowledge our sins or ask for forgiveness can be unclear. Recalling John Paul II, Benedict writes: “Starting from the experiences which, from the earliest years of life, exposed him to all the cruel acts man can perform, he affirms that mercy is the only true and ultimate effective reaction against the power of evil.” Pope Wojtyla, as I recall, said that God would forgive all that could be forgiven. This reservation did imply that some things could not be forgiven even by God. He cannot forgive what refuses to be forgiven. Pope Francis “continually speaks of God’s mercy.” Justice frightens us.

Benedict draws a positive teaching here from these considerations. “Under a veneer of self-righteousness and self-assuredness, the man of today hides a deep knowledge of his wounds and his unworthiness before God. He is waiting for mercy.” The only question about this analysis, I suppose, is whether modern man is waiting for a “mercy” that requires anything of him—no restoration of truth, no penance, no “works”, as it were. This restriction is precisely the “limit” of mercy, the line where mercy is understood to deny justice, rather than the healing of his soul through its acknowledgment.

III.

The image of the Good Samaritan is a haunting one for modern man. The foreigner, an ordinary man, does the work, not the priest or the local observers. Men “expect the Samaritan to come to their aid.” The emphasis is not on what the Samaritan did for the wounded man, but what someone else must do for him. But how does this emphasis on mercy get back to justification? “Starting from the mercy of God, which everyone is looking for, it is possible even today to interpret anew the fundamental nucleus of the doctrine of justification and have it applied again in all its relevance.” Evidently, in Benedict’s view, we begin with mercy because modern man is in fact aware of the disorder in his soul. He knows that justice is against him. Hence he develops theories of complete autonomy that exclude any presence of a god. That way there is no one to judge him of anything and no distinction between good and evil in things.

How does Benedict relate mercy and justification? We begin with St. Anselm. The “infinite offences” against God could not be repaired by man alone. Plato understood this in the Phaedo. However valid this approach may be, Benedict understands that modern man will insist on seeing only a God of wrath who is punishing His Son for no good reason. How can we manage to accept both a God of justice and one of mercy? From the aspect of the Trinity, the just Father does not pursue the Son to punish Him. “The Father and the Son are intrinsically one.” The will of one is the will of the other. “When the Son in the Garden of Olives struggles with the will of the Father, it is not a matter of accepting for himself a cruel disposition of God, but rather of attracting humanity into the very will of God.” The human will of the Son in His suffering bears the ultimate consequences of man’s sins. He bears the terrible consequences of real sins of real men, consequences that they often freely choose not to see.

Why are an atonement and a Cross needed? Perhaps modern man can see the point in another way. Let us honestly place ourselves before the real evil that exists and that man wants to blame God for “causing” by creating the world in this way and not in a sinless way, as if that were preferable to what did happen. Ancient Israel had a daily atonement for sins in the form of sacrifices of animals. For Christians, the destroyed Temple was replaced by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. He became the Temple and the Sacrifice. He was the “counterweight” to the evils caused by men in their sins.

This is how Pope Ratzinger reasons about the relation between evil and its atonement in Christ: “Above I quoted the theologian for whom God had to suffer for his sins in regard to the world. Now, due to this reversal of perspective, the following truths emerge: God cannot simply leave ‘as is’ the mass of evil that comes from the freedom that he himself has granted. Only he, coming to share in the world’s suffering, can redeem the world.”

Thus, the charge that it is God’s fault for creating a world in which evil is possible turns out to be a failure to see that the creation of man as free and therefore capable of sinning, is itself a good. Without this freedom, man as we know him could not exist. And men did and do abuse this freedom terribly. This is a fact. This is the source of the evil that counts, the evil that results from man’s choices. What God can do, however, is to take on the suffering and atone for its evil, at least in principle. This is what mercy means. What God cannot do is to deny human freedom as a means of preventing evil. To do so would simply mean the elimination of men. So if we want to face evil, we have to do so with full recognition of its origins and of what God could to about it. The lesson of the New Testament and of subsequent human history, including modern history, is that men can still reject mercy if they insist that they have themselves no part in the sins—if, in other words, they lie to themselves about themselves.

Benedict turns to Henri de Lubac who thought that God, however perfect, could still, through His Incarnate Son, know the sufferings that evil caused among those whom He loved. The sensitivity of God to man’s sufferings is not a sign of God’s injustice or fanaticism. It indicates that the true overcoming of evil can only be met by God’s love. If those we love suffer, we suffer with them. This principle would include God in a more complete sense. But God must remain God. That is, He cannot say that the sin is not a sin or that evil is not an evil. He can “feel” the consequences of evil in others as we can. He can also show mercy, but His mercy does not eliminate the freedom to reject Him. The bottom line, as it were, is that God is ready to forgive any sin. He cannot in the process, however, say that sin is not sin, nor can he remove freedom from the mortal creature that is man. Were He to do so, man would no longer be man. Thus, it is a greater good to allow sin and its evil consequences than not to have creation and man at all. God’s mercy arises only after the sin and its being acknowledged.

IV.

Finally, Benedict broaches the delicate question that has arisen in theology and from certain remarks in Vatican II about the salvific nature of God for those who are not Christians. The missionaries of the middle ages and those of the early modern era mostly thought that everyone had to be baptized with water. Hence, we see their urgency in the missions to and conversion of pagans. But these good people at the time had no idea of the size or population of the world. It became clear that only a small percent of existing human beings was ever going to be baptized. Moreover, in this light, it seemed “unfair” that the rest were lost as if it were their fault. Hence, several theories were developed whereby people could be “saved” or “justified” without formal baptism. Some wanted to say that the mere belonging to another religion was sufficient.

The consequence of this thinking was devastating to the older notion of the missions and the urgency of preaching the gospel to non-believers. “Why should one try to convince the people to accept the Christian faith when they can be saved even without it?” No passage shows more clearly the effects of theory on practice than this position. The plot gets thicker. Christian teaching held believers to the norms of virtue. The Commandments were required to be followed for justification and salvation. But if pagans could be saved without any of these disciplines, why should Catholics be also bound?

Benedict takes a look at Karl Rahner’s thesis about the anonymous Christian. According to this view, anyone who feels a striving to something transcendent is already an “anonymous Christian”. He does not have to worry about the virtues, vices, and sacraments. Such people accept themselves as beings who are open to something higher. This minimum is said to be enough. What is the problem with this view? “It reduces Christianity itself to a pure conscience presentation of what a human being is in himself and therefore overlooks the drama of change and renewal that is central to Christianity (sorrow and penance).” The whole point of revelation was to direct man to what he should be, but is not, unless he accepts the reason and grace that indicate in faith what he is called to be.

Pluralistic theories of religion, which hold that every religion is all right, are even more problematic. No effort to change anyone is advisable or allowed. But if there are ideas and practices that need to be changed because they violate some norm, pluralist theory would be opposed to any real missionary endeavor. Following both the Old and New Testaments, we really must ask whether what other religions believe and practice is valid. Is it true? Does it ignore or misunderstand the difference between good and evil? If so, pluralism is at best an article of peace, not a theory of truth.

In the end, Benedict returns to the issue of “vicarious satisfaction”. In what might be called a new take on the “(Saint) Benedict Option” that the Church withdraw from the inhospitable public forum, Pope Ratzinger recalls the pleas of Abraham to Yahweh to save a corrupt city if even fifty, twenty, or ten just men were found in it. The notion of suffering for others, of taking the place of another, is a noble one. Both secular and religious literatures have examples of this laying down one’s life for one’s friend.

The point about Christ’s suffering for our sins and those of the world is not that the Father somehow enjoys the sight or that the suffering of others besides Christ is not real. It is that within the Godhead itself, through Christ’s human sufferings, the Father and the Spirit know the result of sins. Christ, true God and true man, is there as the only remedy that is compatible with the purpose of creation in the first place. This purpose was the invitation to other free beings to know and freely to accept eternal life not on just any terms but on the terms of their really being free. “It is important to mankind that there be truth in it, (that) this (truth) is believed and practiced. That one suffers for it. That one loves. These realities penetrate with their light into the world as such and support it.”

Since human evil is used both as a “proof” that God cannot make men good and as a charge against His seeming impotence to “make things perfect”, the Christian answer must be precise so that it does not result in a view that is in fact in more error. “The counterweight to the dominion of evil can consist in the first place only in the divine human love of Jesus Christ that is always greater than any possible power of evil.” This passage recalls Augustine’s remark that God can only “allow” evil if He can bring some greater good from its unfortunate reality.

And what is this greater good? We are to see ourselves “inside” this answer that God gives in Christ. What might this mean? Each person, if he be honest with himself, can recognize he is responsible for at least some of the evil in the world. He can thus, as Paul taught us in Corinthians, make up for what is “lacking” in Christ ‘s sufferings. We belong to the “body” of Christ in this sense. The sacrament of penance has a part to play here. It means that we can always pass from evil to what is good. We are not “determined” by sin.

Christ “atoned” for our sins. He did not make them impossible. The divine plan of our salvation initially tried to “save” our first parents by their simple obedience. When that failed, the same divine purpose and love manifested itself in a redemptive plan, in the Incarnation. This plan had one basic purpose: to save us by letting us see in the most graphic way possible what the results of sin were. We can still choose not to see, something evident in the reading of the texts of the Passion. This refusal is what our freedom implies. This is the Father’s one restriction. He cannot “make” us see. He can only let us gaze on the results of what we do and leave it to us to change or not change the direction of our souls. This point is where we are in modernity.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.