by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
“To the extent that some current cultural trends contain elements that would curtail the proclamation of these truths, whether constricting it within the limits of a merely scientific rationality, or suppressing it in the name of political power or majority rule, they represent a threat not just to Christian faith, but also to humanity itself and to the deepest truths about our being and ultimate vocation, our relationship to God.”
— Pope Benedict XVI to American Bishops from the Washington Area, January 19, 2012 (L’Osservatore Romano, English, January 25, 2012.)
The ad limina visit of American bishops for January 19th, in L’Osservatore Romano, showed a photo of the Pope with Cardinals McCarrick and Wuerl. In the English edition, the address was entitled: ”Convincing Witness to the Face of Radical Secularism”. As these prelates are from the area where most of the recent direct attacks on Catholic teaching have occurred, and often sponsored by Catholic legislators or bureaucrats working for the President, this particular address of Benedict is of significant meaning.
Like many of the American bishops, the Pope is aware of the threat to Catholic religious freedom and religious liberty posed by the regulations of the Obama administration. While awareness of the seriousness of this threat seems lost on many Catholics, academics, and politicians, it is quite clear that the Pope and the bishops are acutely aware of the rigid logic that has been at work in contemporary secularism and in particularly in this administration.
The Pope recalls his visit to the United States where he reflected on the “American historical experience of religious freedom and specifically the relationship between religion and culture.” As always, Benedict XVI begins with principle. “At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is the consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions of human flourishing.” Agreement or disagreement on the highest things will necessarily affect how we live and how we can or cannot live together. And, looking backwards, how we live will indicate what we hold as true. Benedict understood the worldview coming from the Founding Fathers as a generally healthy one.
“Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.” These are very startling papal words. How many American Catholics (let alone those in other parts of the world) acknowledge this increasing “hostility to Christianity as such?” It is a moment of what Hegel would call “world-historic importance.” No matter, the hostility is there and incrementally increasing, if we are paying attention to what is happening almost daily.
Benedict points out that the source of this attack is “scientific rationalism” but also sheer “political power.” We are now seeing the raw use of political power exercised by a government that is “democratically” elected. We cannot take refuge in “majority rule,“ as that too may be totalitarian; it too may and does at times impose doctrines against reason and faith. If this surprises us, it is only because we have not been paying attention to what has been happening in our political parties, in our media, and in our universities.
What we are now witnessing is the Catholic intelligence focusing on the logical principles and their inevitable conclusions once the first principles of relativism are made operative in a culture and in politics. “When a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of human mystery and to close the doors to transcendent truth, it necessarily becomes impoverished and falls prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionism and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.”
These are particularly strong words, spoken to Americans about America. The Pope does not hesitate to tell us that totalitarian principles are actively at work in our current political leaders. Clearly, the Holy Father has been paying attention to what U.S. bishops have been telling him.
Again we have to understand the whole coherence of the Catholic mind. “Our tradition does not speak from blind faith, but from a rational perspective which links our commitment to building an authentically just, human and prosperous society to our ultimate assurance that the cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reasoning.” The doctrine of creation maintains that an order does exist in things and in human things, an order not simply put there by the human mind but discovered there. God’s essence is not voluntaristic as in the Muslim world wherein no secondary causes can be attributed to God as that would impugn Allah’s power. A science that finds nothing but human intelligence in the world speaks the same voluntaristic language. Science is only possible if the world is real—and real things actually have their own being and order, something open to reason.
Benedict tells us that the Church proposes her understanding of man and the world as a matter of liberty and not of constraint. We are free when we discover and conform to reality. Benedict adds something that he often repeats: “The Church’s witness is of its nature public: she seeks to convince, by proposing rational arguments in the public square.
The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.” What is most disconcerting and dangerous about the recent HHS mandate is precisely this refusal, mindful of Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias, to engage in conversation. It insists on limiting everything to its view of what is legitimate. The Church is merely a private thing for a few pious believers who do not count; its public reasons do not have to be engaged as it has no power.
Thus, “it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize that the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasingly expression in the political and cultural spheres.” Once radical limitations on freedom of religion are in place and freedom of expression is curtailed, the possibility of reversing the imposed laws becomes problematic.
The bishops have been wise to base their claim on the tradition of religious freedom. As Benedict puts it: “Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.” The Pope tells us that many bishops have spoken to him about this situation. It is up to the bishops, of course, to get down to names and numbers, but clearly the Holy Father sees the basic outlines of the issue. As usual, he spells things out clearly and frankly.
The Pope here tells us that this is an issue not primarily for the bishops but for the Catholic laity. At a time when the Church needs articulate and qualified politicians and leaders, it finds that many of the leading proponents of the positions inimical to Church teaching themselves claim to be Catholic. “No one who looks at these issues realistically can ignore the genuine difficulties which the Church encounters at the present moment.” No doubt the Pope is aware of the sorry effect of clerical scandals and the episcopal handling of them.
Yet, we have here a new generation of bishops who are educated more in the models of John Paul II and Benedict, intelligent men who know what they are up against and determined to take as their models the great teaching and acting bishops of our tradition. For this, we might thank the current administration for carrying to its logical conclusion the secularist claim that the only thing that matters is whatever the government says and enforces. It is against this view that we must now fortify ourselves. The “deepest truths about our being” are at stake. We have never really heard them clearly and publicly articulated in our polity. Hopefully, we will hear them from now on.