“No Small Matter” | On What the Pope Said in Germany | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | October 26, 2011
“No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Former Augustinian Convent, Erfurt, Germany, September 23, 2011 (L’Osservatore Romano, English, September 28, 2011
The homilies and lectures that the Holy Father gave in his third visit to Germany in September are, as we might expect, outstanding. In his recent provocative book, It's Not the End of the World, It's Just the End of You: The Great Extinction of the Nations, David Goldman wrote that “Benedict XVI ranks by my reckoning as the best mind on the planet.” Surely this “reckoning” is right, Who is to compete with him? But what is especially remarkable about Benedict XVI is the ease and care with which he can illuminate overall things in brief discourses.
As an example, I want to comment on the address the Holy Father gave to representatives of the Evangelical Church of Germany. He was in the Augustinian Convent in Erfurt, where Martin Luther was ordained and where he lived from 1505-1511. Probably better than any of his predecessors, this Pope knows Luther. In general, the Pope stressed what Catholics and Lutherans have in common, not what divided them, the cause of so much strife. We are at a stage in history where we can look at the past much more calmly, but only if we will.
One of Luther’s most powerful concerns, Benedict recalls, is this: “How do I receive the grace of God?” That is a very Augustinian question. Luther was an Augustinian monk; the Pope cites Augustine all the time. Benedict points out, “For Luther theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.” Since God exists and since He is interested in each of us, we cannot avoid the question of how we receive Him, of what happens when we know Him. We also struggle with ourselves, for we are tempted not to know Him.
Luther’s question, the one that drove him, is also the question that Benedict tells us “never ceases to make a deep impression on me.” The Pope then wonders who is concerned with this question today. Are the local Germans in Erfurt, in the Federal Republic, concerned? Very few. Why? “Most even today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues.” This same presupposition could not be said of Luther. But is it a valid presupposition? Do we leave it unexamined?
Modern people rationalize their position. God knows, they assure us, that “we are all mere flesh.” Hence we are to expect sins and disorders. Some people still believe in the afterlife and divine judgment, but, like the people in Plato’s dialogues, they think God does not care about them or they believe that He can be bought off. “For all practical purposes, God is bound to be magnanimous.” He will overlook “our small failings.” The questions of grace and repentance “no longer trouble us.”
Though Benedict does not cite it, this approach sounds like the famous phrase attributed to Luther, pecca fortiter. Luther, of course, added: “Sin forcefully, but more strongly believe in the faith and joy of Christ.” It is something like Rabelais’s witty parody of Augustine’s phrase , “Love God and do what you will.” On his dissolute monastery, Rabelais simply put on the Gates, also parodying Dante: “Do what you will.” And this view is pretty much where we are, as the Pope indicates.
To this easy assumption that all will be well no matter what we do, we can expect the author of Spe Salvi to have something to say. Does nothing “trouble us?” “Are they really so small, our failings?” I have often asked classes, when reading of Augustine, whether Augustine—if he came back to life today and read say The New York Times, Washington Post, and Le Monde—whether anything in its content and headlines would surprise him?” He would read of wars, rumors of war, corruption, drugs, broken families and societies, greed, lust, anger, and about any of the other sins our kind have embraced. In other words, he would not be surprised at all.
Somehow, we cannot see ourselves; we think that what we do is of little import, even our worst sins. The whole doctrine of hell is designed really to tell us that what we do, every day, is of enormous importance because our acts, both little ones and great ones, do affect people.
Benedict is not so sure that what we do makes no difference. “Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small who think only of their own advantage?” he asks. Often we think that only the “great” commit crimes. Often they commit the greatest ones, but the ordinary and the small also sin in their own sphere. This attention to every life is very Augustinian. “Is not (the world) laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and oh the other hand, on craving for pleasure of those who become addicted?”
Of course, if we think human beings are unimportant and their lives meaningless, such things will not much matter to us. But if each person is made in the image and likeness of God, if we think of human dignity and honor, we cannot just shrug our shoulders at these things as if they were really insignificant or as if God does not notice them.
“Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbor—of his creatures, of men and women—were more alive in us?” the Pope asks. He tells us that he could list many more obvious disorders. He concludes: “No, evil is no small matter.” Such evils arise from our thoughts and actions, for not placing God at the “center” of our actions.
So Luther’s “burning” question does stand before us. “How do I stand before God?” This is not an “academic” question. It is something we can still learn from Luther. A second large consideration we can learn from Luther concerns God, the creator of heaven and earth. What about this God? Is he merely an “It?” No, He has a “face” and He has “spoken” to us. “He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ—who is both true God and true man.”
Luther’s thinking had to do with the promotion of God’s “cause.” We read Scripture with this question in mind. The book is not just a piece of intellectual baggage. Christ must be at the heart of our lives. “But is any of this important today?” the Pope fancies someone asking him. The first thing we must remember is how much we have in common. And these questions of sin and grace we do have in common. “It was the error of the Reformation that for the most part we could only see what divided us.”
Benedict is quite conscious that both Catholics and Lutherans can in practice lose or blur what they have in common if they choose. We need to look today at the “geography of Christianity.” Christianity seems to be spreading “with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways.” These are a new kind of evangelical Christians in the light of whom “mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss.”
If we examine these vigorous movements, as we should, they often seem to lack stable institutional structure and dogma. The Pope finds that bishops from all over the world tell him about these movements. These movements bring up again “the question about what has enduing validity and what can or must be changed—the question of our fundamental faith choice.” The Church, after all, is bound by its revelational structure, both of form and belief. What of the common core of faith do the evangelicals leave out?
What also needs to be faced is the growing secularization of society. It is in this atmosphere that many Christians must live. How are they to survive and flourish in such a context? “Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith?” Not a few Christians would like to do this. Faith, however, has to be “thought afresh”—and “lived.” One thing that is striking about both Benedict and John Paul II is their emphasis on the example of saints and martyrs of our own time. People can and do live as Christians. We often do not notice them.
“It is not strategy that saves us and saves Christianity, but faith.” The Pope recalls that it was the “martyrs of the Nazi era” that really brought together Protestants and Catholics, and we might add Jews. What we have in common is a basis for us to examine the issues we do not have in common, whether they are important or whether they are merely passing things, like sins that are said not to concern God, or so we would like to think.
It has often been said the division of Christianity has itself obscured the meaning of faith in the world. But it is not only this division. It is also the sins and disorders of souls of everyone, great and small.
Beyond this stands the issue of who is Christ. Can we really confront the world or our sins if we mistake this fundamental question with which Benedict concluded Jesus of Nazareth? If Christ was not the Son of God, made flesh in this world, we need not worry about Him. If He was, we need to realize that “evil is no small matter.”
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University. He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things(Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.