“Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation. Others finally belittle the reasonable character of the credibility of the Christian faith.”
— Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, 27 (August 12, 1950)
Sometime in Holy Week, I chanced to watch a report on FOX News of some terrified African children being carted off by a Muslim group for death, forced conversion, or slavery. What struck me about this scene was not its uniqueness—such incidents seem to happen some place in the world most every day. What alerted me was the comment of an unknown reporter or observer who said: “There is no longer any place on the planet that is safe for Christians.”
I mentioned this incident to a friend who added: “It is no longer just a question of physical persecution, but the very ideas and beliefs of Christianity are rejected.” Christian beliefs have no “place” in any public order. The Catholic League noted the number of times that David Letterman mocked the Eucharist on several of his shows. We cannot mock anything black, Jewish, gay, or liberal, but we can ridicule Catholics and Christians.
In this context, it is only fair to say that many Catholics are themselves unclear about many things. Just what Cardinal Kasper understands by “mercy” and “divorce” is a widely controverted and by no means neutral question. The Indiana bishops seem not to have understood what religious freedom might mean for themselves if the government can force us to act against our conscience in order to have presence in a society. A modern version of the Christian Roman soldiers being forced to sacrifice to idols in order to serve the Emperor is taking place in the Hoosier State. Few can admit that the so-called “terrorists”, who seem to be everywhere telling us that they will make our cities run with blood, might well be valid Muslim followers as they think they are.
On reading John Rist’s remarkable book, Augustine Deformed (Cambridge, 2014), which concerns a rethinking of Genesis’ account of the Creation and the Fall, I was reminded of Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, a much controverted document. I was struck by the passage cited above about the “reasonableness” of the “credibility” of the faith. Since the time of Pius XII, the relation of reason and revelation has become a familiar one. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI devoted insightful considerations to this most important relationship. Meantime, the culture has largely gone relativist so that the very meaning of “reason” is undermined. Reason becomes merely a tool for us to make or get what we want, whatever the structure of the world might be.
I think it is fair to say that, with Pope Francis, we do not see as much emphasis on the intellectual side of the faith. To be sure, the faith itself presupposes that an intelligent seeking of truth is found among men prior to or aside from any question of faith. Strictly speaking, faith concerns God’s intelligence directed to our intelligence. Our “submission” to God’s intelligence and love is not apart from our effort to understand what is being presented to us as true. God does not contradict Himself or the laws of what He has created. Revelation, directly or indirectly, fosters and deepens understanding.
Pope Francis has not presented himself as an intellectual pope. He is not unlearned but although he speaks and writes clearly he has a spare scholarly record. Popes do not need to be members of the world’s intelligentia, though some are. Yet they do need some grasp of the importance of ideas in addressing the world they confront. Pope Francis presents himself primarily as a “pastoral” pope, one who is kindly and loving. He does have certain definite opinions about economics, poverty, ecology, war, and culture that are definitely based on ideas that can and should be examined. If we are able to get everyone going back to church, receiving the sacraments, aiding the weak and poor, leading a more simple life—he implies—then we can address ourselves to thinking, if it is still a problem. The people that Pope Bergoglio criticizes most often are, in fact, intellectuals, along with bureaucrats in his own Curia. The Pope seems not to like ivory towers or offices surrounded by machines. He puts cardinals in confessional boxes.
Christianity, in comparison with Islam, liberalism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, is said to be a very complicated religion. It insists on logic, the principle of non-contradiction, facts, and internal coherence. The succinct, brilliant Nicene Creed, that all Catholics, even the least brilliant, are supposed to hear and recite on Sundays, cannot be understood without some philosophical, linguistic, and historical learning. Usually, this complex quality is taken to be a drawback. The fewer principles, the more agreement—or so it is implied. To follow this minimalist advice would only be a drawback, however, if what Catholicism maintains about itself, God, and the cosmos were not true. It is often quite necessary to be clear, precise, and systematic if we are to do justice to the complexities of reality and the effort to understand and express them.
Christianity has discovered, often the hard way, that it is no good to simplify something that is not simple. And even the fundamental doctrine that God is “simple” is not exactly simple when we try to understand that the simplicity of God still grasps all things that are not God. And God is more than all existing things. He could do very well if nothing but Himself existed. When He chose to put the world into existence, with us in it, He added nothing to Himself but everything to us, beginning with our very being.
The Church has long considered itself to be a “body”, a “mystical” body, as the same Pius XII called it. St. Paul spoke of the many different parts of this body to explain the unity of the Church. The foot, the arm, and the heart do not do the same things. If they did, we could not have a body. Often, modern equality theory makes it seem that we are all replaceable, that anyone can do what anyone else can do. This view represents a confusion between the notion of equality of being with equality of talent and purpose. We often notice that those with great talent to do or make something are also very lazy, undisciplined, or corrupt so that they really accomplish very little of their potential for good. On the other hand, the famous story of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke, a very menial act in itself, was what was needed to save the countryside from flooding.
The notion of a “common good” does not mean that everyone receives the same benefits or contributes the same talents. They do not, and it is no injustice to anyone. Rather it means that all sorts of things are there to be done by those willing and able to do them. The only way that they can be confronted is if different people spend their lives and talents on doing them. If someone is not willing to spend fifteen years learning to be a doctor, we will not have good doctors. One of the greatest blessings and freedoms that we all have is that we do not have to do or know everything. The great truth of the division of labor or specialization is that my good depends on someone else doing things I will not do, cannot do, or do not have time to do. It may be quite possible for me to change the oil in my car every few thousand miles. But it may also be true that if I take time to do these chores, I will not be able to do what I do better. So I go to Jiffylube where someone else gladly does what I do not have time to do.
When it comes to thinking, the same general principles hold. The fact that we are rational animals means that we can think. That capacity gives us knowledge of a whole range of things beyond ourselves—things to do, things to make, things just to think about. In a way, thinking is like horseback riding or golfing; to be good at it we need both talent and experience. Some are better than others. And some of those who are more talented use their talents badly. Some can “belittle” the reasons for the “credibility” of the faith. People have “reasons” why they do not want the faith to be true, however credible it may be. These reasons can in turn be thought about, spelled out, and examined.
The Church has long understood that one of the main reasons it needs thinkers is to examine and explain why arguments are leveled against it and whether or not these arguments are valid. Not everyone needs to be wrapped up in this enterprise, but we need some who are.
And as Chesterton wrote in his Heretics (1905) it is an exhilarating experience to see the “reasons” given for not believing—and they are “given”. Catholics are not “fideists” who just believe to believe. Nor are they just rationalists who think they have figured everything out or soon will. They believe because it makes sense to believe and they can give reasons why what they hold is true. They know their reason can grasp some things, indeed many things, but it always leads to a mystery, to something that is reasonably beyond reason. They suspect that God can reveal things to them. They are not overly surprised with claims and evidence that He has are brought forth.
Andrea Tornielli, in his book, Francis: Pope of a New World (Ignatius Press, 2013), cites the Pope, while reflecting on what has happened to him, to remark that we have “A God who comes to seek you before you seek him.” That “being sought” is our real human context, even when we reject God. The rejection is always one-sided. God does not reject us. But He does allow us to live, even forever, with our choices. And our choices always reflect our understanding of what we think reality, including ourselves, is about. The Mystical Body, to be itself, needs all its members, not only those who work and suffer, those who pray and are just and merciful, but also those who think, along with those who think well.
But it does not just exist for itself. The Church also exists for those who think wrongly and those who love wrongly, so that they might have hope. This purpose is why the apostles were told to “teach and baptize”. Neither “eternal salvation” nor the means to attain it are “meaningless formulae”. Why this is so is also worth understanding, however complex and challenging.
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, “Another Sort of Learning”, for more about his writings and work.