By Carrie Gress
ROME, FEB. 1, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The greatest embarrassment to the world today is that the most intelligent voice it confronts is coming from the papacy, says Father James Schall.
In Part 2 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Schall comments on how Benedict XVI serves both the mind and soul through his explanation of the last things in his recent encyclical, “Spe Salvi.”
Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.
Q: In paragraph 15 of “Spe Salvi,” there is a rich comparison of a monastery and a soul. What is the Holy Father trying to illustrate through the use of this imagery?”
Father Schall: A passage of Josef Pieper, originally based in Aquinas, if not in Aristotle and Plato, addresses this same question. The passage is found in “Josef Pieper — an Anthology,” called “The Purpose of Politics.” It is only a couple of paragraphs long. I always point students to it as the most central of all passages about politics and political philosophy. It basically says both that you cannot understand politics without understanding the transcendent order, and that you cannot have a healthy society in which there is only politics.
Pieper writes, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas: “‘It is requisite for the good of the human community that there should be persons who devote themselves to the life of contemplation.’ For it is contemplation which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use; so it is also contemplation which keeps the true end insight, gives meaning to every practical act of life” (“An Anthology,” 123). This passage is also behind much of what the Pope writes on natural law as the yardstick and measure of human actions.
One can state the issue succinctly: No political order can be itself healthy unless it has within it those who are not devoted to politics. This is not in any way a denial that politics are important, but it is a denial that they are the most important things in a society. Indeed, a society that makes politics the most important thing is already a totalitarian society, as Aristotle had already implied.
When the Pope treats this issue in “Spe Salvi,” he refers to the monastic tradition and to Augustine. The Pope is careful to relate how this contemplative life is not opposed to any proper understanding of the temporal life of this world. He is even attentive to the relation of work to contemplation. Indeed, the elevation of work to a dignity and not a slavery or oppression had to do with the Benedictine notion of “pray and work.”
The Pope cites a certain pseudo-Rufinus who says basically what Pieper did: “The human race lives thanks to a few: Were it not for them the world would perish.” This is a remarkable statement indeed. It not only shows the absolute need of someone who constantly within society shows others that there is something more than this world, but it shows the importance of contemplation itself in keeping our mind straight.
The delicate relation of will and mind is a central drama of philosophy and revelation. This is why it has always been said that the great disorders of soul, as well as the great movements for good, begin in the heart of the dons, academic and religious, long before they appear in the public order. Again this is what “immenantize the eschaton” means.
Q: What are your thoughts about the Pope’s role as a universal voice in the world today, not just for Catholics?
Father Schall: Briefly, the Pope is the only universal voice in the world today. This is the uncanny genius of founding the Church on the Rock of Peter. What is most embarrassing to the world today is that the most intelligent voice it confronts, or deliberately refuses to confront, is that coming from the papacy. We can spend all sorts of time digging up scandals in the Church or things the papacy should have done but did not. What we cannot do is read the basic documents of the Church, particularly those of the recent popes, and claim that they do not strike at the very roots of all that is disordered in all of the public order of the world, not just the West, but Islam, China, India and the rest.
Within Christianity there is a mission to the world. However slowly it has developed and for what reasons it has taken so long we can speculate. What this encyclical does is to show that the movements within modern philosophy and in other religions have certain intelligible purposes that need to be addressed in terms of Christian hope. This encyclical is not merely addressed to Western culture.
What Benedict XVI has shown in “Deus Caritas Est,” as well in this encyclical, is that we can hope for both a better world and for eternal life, but that we cannot confuse one with the other. Another remarkable thing about this document, I think, is how it takes the classic transcendental notions — one, true, good, being and beauty — to show how they each can really exist in a concrete way. None are really abstractions. Charity is not something we can export to the government. Justice is something that is present everywhere. Beauty is the great Platonic category, yet it needs to be grounded in what is good and true.
The encyclical ends with a discussion of suffering and its relation to all of these issues. It is a remarkable section. It is here where the Pope cites the German philosophers who recognize finally that we must deal with evil and justice even in the past, and that it cannot be really dealt with except through the doctrine and reality of the final judgment and the resurrection of the body. Indeed, following Plato himself, it cannot be dealt with outside of the real meaning of forgiveness and vicarious suffering.
So the Pope’s role as a universal voice is one that keeps present within the world that which we need to know about who we really are. We need to know about judgment, suffering and hell. We need to know that if we deny the doctrine of hell, our ideologies will simply reinvent it in this world as something that is really inhuman. The hell of revelation is simply the logical consequences of what we really mean by the wrong use of free will, without which we could not exist.
Suffering, as revelation tells us, is the product of sin and death. Efforts to deny sin and death usually produce something worse. Nonetheless, we should seek to reduce pain and suffering in this world. This is one of the by-products of an understanding of everlasting life from revelation, namely, a more complete understanding of the imperfections of this world.
In the end, we have hope because we can first understand what it ultimately means. For this we must thank this Pope who explains to us what the last things really are and how we are to understand them and, yes, attain them. This service to the mind is also a service to our souls.