Putting Pope Benedict into Perspective
If there is one person within or without the Catholic Church who is qualified to place Pope Benedict XVI into a long-term perspective, it is James V. Schall, S.J., professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University. Father Schall has written and edited more than three dozen books and monographs, as well as countless articles (here are links to those published just in Crisis Magazine). Two of my favorites are his book on the paradoxes of G. K. Chesterton, and his book on Benedict’s Regensburg Address.
Even with all of Fr. Schall’s qualifications, his evaluation of the contributions made by Benedict XVI to our age may still come as a surprise. Here is an excerpt from his article, “On the Mind of the Pope”, at The Catholic World Report:
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….
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.
It boggles the mind to think of Benedict’s output equalling or surpassing that of St. Augustine, the most prolific of the Catholic fathers. But what is most significant is the relevance of his vast output to the most pressing issues of today.
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.
Here I think Father Schall has put his finger on the Pope’s chief accomplishment. In bringing us back to the fundamental values that honor the image of God reflected in us, Benedict equips Christians today with the tools and the perspective needed to reject the modern church’s progressive movement, with its emphasis on “rights” stemming from human-grounded “peace and justice.” Benedict has shown that the single-minded pursuit of such objectives leads to the isolation of man from God’s creation—literally, to a hell on earth of man’s own making:
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 Christ Himself.
God be merciful to us, and give us a successor worthy to follow in Benedict’s shoes.
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