The Papal Agenda

Two recent essays – one “The Pope of the West” by Sandro Magister at his website Chiesa, the second by Jean Sevillia, “Le penseur de Dieu,” in Le Figaro (09/12/08) – have brought up the question of the pope’s overall agenda. What is Benedict up to? Of course, the best any outside, or inside, observer can offer is an opinion or even a hunch.

Still, this man is not just putting in his time. Benedict is, if I might put it graphically, at the jugular vein of the world, not to kill it, but to open it up to the true life of man from which he is so often cut off. Rest assured, Benedict is probing the world. We have never really seen anything like it, a pope who really does think in what Hegel would call “world historical” terms.

Thus far, Benedict has visited Germany, Austria, Turkey, Brazil, the United States, Spain, Australia, Paris, and numerous Italian cities. On a regular basis, he meets leading political, ecclesiastical, and intellectual leaders from all over the world. He meets ordinary people, again, from everywhere. He has written two encyclicals, a book, numberless addresses and homilies. By now, he has looked over most religious orders and dioceses. He already knew about the curia. He had a good bead on the theologians, being one of them.

We are wont to say that Benedict is not as much out front as his famous predecessor, John Paul II, but he is beginning to give his old friend a run for his money. I try to read everything the pope writes. It is a full-time occupation. Everything he says shows true class and learning. The pope of Rome is probably the only really international figure in the world. Moreover, he knows history and philosophy. No public figure anywhere in the world comes anywhere even close to his erudition. Any politician who visits him had best do his homework, about his own country.

Benedict is a world-class scholar in his own right, even a member of one of the vaunted French academies. He is completely at home in any university on its own grounds. He is most concerned about Europe. He attends to the internal life of the Church with a critical eye. His book on the liturgy is still the best guide to the future. He is a pastor. He plays Mozart on the piano. He actually seems to enjoy being pope. The best book about him is probably Tracey Rowland’s short study.

To put it briefly, Benedict is pursuing the world with Logos. He is aware that Europe has lost its own connection both with reason and revelation, the two things that originally formed it. He has put Islam on the spot about its own intellectual coherence and the penchant to violence that comes out of it. Benedict addresses the Chinese, who insist on full control of the Church. He knows where the Church members are being persecuted and by whom. He knows what is happening in India. And he actually likes the Americans and admires their version of “secularity.”

The key to Benedict is that God is Caritas, Logos, but not Pura Voluntas. Benedict thought his way through the Old and New Testament, mastering the vast scholarship on the subject. His book, Jesus of Nazareth, tells us that we need not agree with him. But it has one basic conclusion, one that is confirmed, not undermined by scholarship; namely, that Jesus was indeed the Word made flesh.

The fact is that Christ was Who He said He was. This fact means that the world is different; it cannot help but being so if this Logos is a fact. It is not a myth. This concreteness is why Benedict insists on the relationship of Jerusalem and Athens, which was already inaugurated in the Old Testament and confirmed when Paul was called to Macedonia. Christianity thus addresses philosophy, not myth.

The importance of this Incarnational event can hardly be overestimated. Many critics thought that in making this connection between Greek philosophy and revelation explicit, Benedict had the West mostly in mind. He certainly did have it in mind. But his reach is more than Europe and its offspring.

The “going forth” to all nations has been stymied for centuries. The obstacles are largely because China, India, the Buddhist world, and Islam, have used political power to prevent any real dialogue with Christianity on the most fundamental basis, namely, on the truth of their positions, rightly understood. What these systems all have in common is that they have a closed social structure that prevents freedom of religion. They also lack an accurate account of themselves in terms of truth. The watchword of Benedict is Logos. This is the banner under which he greets “all nations.”


James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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