Reflections on Pope’s Visit & Message

You can access texts of all of the Pope’s speeches on his recent US trip here.

For this post, I’ll work off an answer Benedict gave to questions posed to him by American Bishops at the National Shrine in Washington D.C. Text of that conversation here.

In responding to a question about the “quiet attrition” (Question #2 in the document) of Catholics from the faith, the Pope answers:

First, as you know, it is becoming more and more difficult, in our Western societies, to speak in a meaningful way of “salvation”. Yet salvation – deliverance from the reality of evil, and the gift of new life and freedom in Christ – is at the heart of the Gospel. We need to discover, as I have suggested, new and engaging ways of proclaiming this message and awakening a thirst for the fulfillment which only Christ can bring. It is in the Church’s liturgy, and above all in the sacrament of the Eucharist, that these realities are most powerfully expressed and lived in the life of believers; perhaps we still have much to do in realizing the Council’s vision of the liturgy as the exercise of the common priesthood and the impetus for a fruitful apostolate in the world.

Second, we need to acknowledge with concern the almost complete eclipse of an eschatological sense in many of our traditionally Christian societies. As you know, I have pointed to this problem in the Encyclical Spe Salvi. Suffice it to say that faith and hope are not limited to this world: as theological virtues, they unite us with the Lord and draw us toward the fulfillment not only of our personal destiny but also that of all creation. Faith and hope are the inspiration and basis of our efforts to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God. In Christianity, there can be no room for purely private religion: Christ is the Savior of the world, and, as members of his Body and sharers in his prophetic, priestly and royal munera, we cannot separate our love for him from our commitment to the building up of the Church and the extension of his Kingdom. To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul.

Having just completed of all things a paper on exorcism and the larger question of deliverance (“Deliver us from evil”), this caught my eye.

A theme repeated throughout the Pope’s sermons, reflections, and addresses during his trip is the notion that true knowledge is personal conversion. Truth in beauty and moral goodness–as opposed to recitation of “facts” (i.e. positivism). Positivism as the Pope correctly points out eventually ends up in relativism and isolation.  Hope fades because alone we are not powerful.  Alone we are scared.  Alone while we may be free politically (if fortunate to live in liberal democracies) we are not spiritually free.

In a world where we are sold “miracle cures”, promises of fulfillment in a bottle, in a person, in an object, what is the notion of deliverance from evil mean?  Does it even make sense?

The Church for too long (and many churches still brought up deliverance from evil by guilt tripping, fire and brimestone, and fear of hell (although mainstream American Roman Catholicism does not).  Fortunately that is largely gone, but  what replaced it in too many quarters was God is Love, airy fairy kinda nice middle-classness.  Non-threatening.

And to the degree, so says Benedict, that spirituality is not a deep personal conversion and encounter in communion with others–discipleship, knowing the Glory of the Lord, working for justice and peace–then it is simply another one of these material magic cures (“spiritual materialism”).

How then do we speak of evil in our churches and its deliverance?  How do we show such deliverance?  In other words, how does talk of deliverance become actually real?  Not creating some make believe scary place you’ll go after you die for sexual sins or whatever.  Without it becoming politicized in the worst sense (as opposed to deeply political)–i.e. the trend of both the religious right and the secular PC left.   Evil isn’t as the President thinks it is some dualistic Manichean battle between civilization and barbarity nor a “cause celebre”, something that is part of the cultural makeup of being a “progressive” person.

This world is hell, is hellish, and yet wonderful.  Preach that I’d say and see what the response is.

This theme he keeps pointing to:  that true knowledge is true conversion, true commitment, encounter in Love:  truly knowing a being and truly being known (in this case by God).

Where I disagree fundamentally with the Pope is the classical notion repeated by the Pope that the truths of reason do not contradict the truths of faith.  What in practice he was saying by invoking that theme (particularly in the context of university setting) is that human inquiry shouldn’t question the Church.  A beautiful (and in some ways very deep saying) sadly used more as a cloak it feels to me.

Insofar as we return to his other theme that the truth is encounter with Love Itself and being freed to participate in the divinization of the cosmos, then yes of course the truths of human rationality do not contradict that reality (faith you can say in that sense is eminently reasonable–faith as trust in the redeeming power of Love).  Where it begins to go off the rails however is when the truth itself is equated so specifically with the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Published in: on April 22, 2008 at 10:41 am  Comments (4)  

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  1. I’m afraid you miss the point entirely about faith and reason. Benedict XVI is speaking with a view to history and tradition that non-Catholics simply do not have reference to. St Augustine and later St Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively about how reason accompanies faith; it does not supplant it. So it’s certainly not a matter of not questioning the Church. God gave us our intellects to use and discriminate with. The problem is , like the rest of Western society, that truth is relative. You have your truth and I have mine, or as you say “…the truths of reason and the truths of faith…” Where you disagree with Benedict is that he genuinely believes in an objective truth. Let’s face it, if there are different truths, then there is no truth at all. Truth cannot contradict truth.

    So what is truth? Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me.” To reject that is to reject truth. Our culture’s response to this is to join with Pilate in asking, “What is truth?”

    So the disagreement is not between faith and reason, it’s between relative and objective truth. The pope’s visit highlights the fact that the Church’s greatest obstacle in the West is moral relativism.

  2. Paul,

    Thanks for the comment.

    From a NyTimes article quoting the Pope

    For faculty members, he said: “I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”

    Now granted he was speaking to a Catholic university faculty, but the point holds nevertheless. In short, sorry Charlie.

    As to what your point about my not believing in objective truth. I agree with you that Benedict and I have a disagreement on this point and he does as you say have an objective understanding of revelation.

    But I’m not promoting relativism, at least not in the way I think you mean it. The real issue isn’t relativism per se (everything is related to everything else) is equalism–each is equal or at least none are better than any other, so we hold off judgment on them all.

    Something I actually think is preposterous and no one actually can or does follow.

    Objectivity. Objectivity makes no sense without subjectivity. They are “relative” as in they are co-necessary to one another. Like left and right feet.

    Within the world of phenomenological experience then I have no problem with objective truth claims–since there are subjects making them that I can have a discussion with them on agreed upon measures of qualification and determination.

    If you hold an Objective version of Revelation, who is the Subject?

    It can’t be “me” by your criterion because then it would just be “my” truth and no different really than anyone else’s truth.

    So it has to be God then I suppose?

    As you yourself point out in your comment: I am the way, the truth, and the life. Reject that and you reject truth. Understood as an objective statement.

    But if God is subject with whom we are in dialogue–this leads back to Benedict’s point (where I find much er uh truth in what he says) that it is a question of encounter.

    I think the dichotomy in other words between objective revelation and relativism is a false one. [Or true but only from a limited pov]. i.e. I disagree strongly with your comment that if there are different truths, then no truth at all.

    I am the way, the truth, and the life, then is true for me but only if you take up the path. Not before. Where I find elements of his comments incorrect is where he is making claims about the truth prior to establishing the position from which they are true and recognizing that there are other paths and vistas that we can never fully understand.

    This is a different cosmology then I’m pointing to–one in which the universe is responsive to our actions and thoughts and is not pre-set and finally established to which then there is one supreme vantage point which gives access to some final objective truth.

    Peace. CJ

  3. Interesting comment, CJ. However, you side step the point with a flurry of words and call it an argument. You raise a number of points, too many to do justice to in one blog post, so I hope you don’t mind if I just choose a couple of them.

    Firstly, as you acknowledge, the Pope was speaking to the faculty of Catholic colleges. There’s a lot of history there. But suffice it to say that to call yourself a “Catholic University” and support professors who teach against the Catholic faith, is at least deceptive and intellectually dishonest.

    The real issue here is “academic freedom.” and I’m sure you and I could go a round or two on that sacred cow. Suffice it for here to say that every form of freedom of speech has its necessary limitations.

    The relativity I am speaking of, and as Benedict would see it, is one that denies any absolutes, specifically absolute truth. If absolute truth exists, then all relative truths are simply opinions. This is the sense in which Jesus declares Himself to be “the truth,” the one and only absolute truth period.

    His words provoke a response from us. We can simply deny it, turn our heads and refuse to think about it further. That has always been the response of the majority of people confronted by His words. Or we can secretly deny it and pay lip service to His words insofar as it is to our advantage to do so. That was a very popular choice not so many years ago, but there is little advantage to it in today’s world.

    Or we can thoughtfully consider His words, taking into account the entirety of His life and His words, and make an informed decision, much as a jury does in a court trial. Take a look at the Gospel of John and notice how he introduces “witnesses” and hears their “testimony.” That’s exactly what he is wanting his reader to do.

    Ultimately, everyone must make that decision, even if it is only to hide from it. Is Jesus Christ the Absolute Truth or not? If He is, then all relative truths or opinions that contradict Him is the result of faulty reason. That is what Benedict (and St Augustine, about whom Ratzinger wrote his first doctoral thesis which formed much of his thought) is saying. If your position contradicts the faith, then your reason is faulty. Reconsider it instead of passing it on as truth.

    You are, of course, free to disagree. That is your God-given right. I never said you couldn’t disagree with Benedict, or with me. But again, it is not an argument between faith and reason. It’s an argument between Absolute truth and faulty reason, or as I described it previously, between objective and relative truth. Nonetheless, truth cannot, by its very definition, contradict truth.

  4. Paul,

    Sorry I’m late in responding to your thoughtful comment.

    On the notion of relative and absolute truth. I come from a tradition that argues that there are two truths (relative and absolute) which does not make relative truth mere “opinion” but rather relative truth. But that the absolute truth never comes across except through the relative.

    The trick comes in regards to our faith, that the absolute truth (Christ) is filtered through many a relative truth–I would say that is incarnational but it’s there whatever term is applied.

    And those relative truths can evolve and change. And do. And my sense is that too often Christian theology is equating the absolute truth with specific kinds of relative truths–usually the ones that were originally the bearers of that revelation. Ecclesially, scripturally, morally, theologically, pastorally, all manner of ways.

    So when I hear the Pope draw lines in the sand around what is questionable and what not (granted it was a Catholic university and for sure there is an integrity question to face), there is a way in which relative truths that need some questioning are not because they have been “absolutized”. i.e. They have confused or equated what is a relative truth with an Absolute truth.



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