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Vargas Llosa with “God in Madrid”

About World Youth Day, Robert Royal wrote that the secular press was uninterested in the million and a half young Catholics there with Benedict XVI. This indifference, he thought, was not a bad thing. The real forces that move the world are usually under the radar screen of the media and often of the universities.

L’Osservatore Romano (English, September 21) reprinted an essay, “God in Madrid,” by the Peruvian novelist and Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, from the Spanish paper El País about the meaning of the papal visit.

Vargas Llosa’s remarks are of considerable import. To establish his credentials, he writes that he is an “agnostic,” though he reads like a “pseudo-agnostic.” As Benedict often hints, the world gets nervous when atheists and agnostics realize that Christianity provides a better explanation of reality than they do.

This event saw the largest gathering of Catholics in Spain ever. It was peaceful. It was young. Was it just a show or was it a sign of an unperceived Church vitality? The Church is declining in numbers in Spain and elsewhere. The World Youth Days, however, under John Paul II and Benedict, reveal liveliness in the Church not her “inevitable decline and extinction.” The secularist mind has a vested interest in explaining this phenomenon away, in not grasping what is occurring.

Vargas Llosa contrasts the personalities of John Paul II and Benedict: the former charismatic, dramatic – the latter shy, intelligent. He underestimates, I think, the intellect of John Paul II, but he is right on Benedict. He is “probably the most cultured and intelligent pope the Church has had for a long time, one of the rare pontiffs whose encyclicals and books can be read without yawning, even by agnostics like me.” Benedict is not just the most cultured and intelligent pope, but the most cultured and intelligent public figure anywhere in recent times.

Vargas Llosa discusses Benedict’s supposed transformation from a liberal to a conservative. He unfortunately does not see the consistency in the pope’s own thinking, which connects the Church with its own traditions, not an old Church against a new one. Under these popes, “the Church is more united and combative compared to the years in which it seemed on the verge of tearing apart and splitting up because of internal ideological strife.”

Vargas Llosa on WYD: “God seemed to exist and Catholicism seemed to be the one true religion.”

Vargas Llosa turns to the crisis now found within the “culture of freedom.” The state that allows freedom of religion cannot itself become a rival religion. It must recognize its limits and its own needs. The state’s institutions must be based on “ethical values.” Any constitutional state needs a “blossoming of rich spiritual life as a permanent antidote to the destructive, disruptive and anarchic forces that tend to govern individual behavior when human beings feel free from all responsibility.”

The notion that freedom means no limit and no order of soul is ancient, and found analyzed already in Plato and Aristotle. Now, it is almost dogma in current political society. Disorders of soul will not cease to undermine the human good, however, even if they are called “rights” or “virtues.”

In modernity, religion was looked upon as a “superstition” that knowledge and democracy would eliminate. This view of religion is itself “another superstition which reality has gradually demolished.” Ordinary people continue to hold that some transcendent meaning of their lives must be found. Current culture has “ceased to be a serious and deep response to the great human question about life, death, destiny, and history as it sought to be in the past.” These ultimate questions are constantly put before the public by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but by few others. This tells us something about who cares for the souls of men.

Contemporary culture is rather vapid, a kind of “light entertainment.” Within it is a “cabal of incomprehensible and arrogant experts, who have taken refuge in unintelligible jargon, light years from common mortals.” Culture has not replaced religion, particularly that religion originating in revelation.

Most human beings suspect that the answers need a “higher order” of existence to locate the center of their lives. Atheism’s self-satisfied defenders no longer stand on the solid ground they once assumed. Science itself is looking like it has to admit that the origin of the universe lies in some transcendent, extra-cosmic, intelligent source even to explain science.

Provided that religion does not become the state and the state ceases to imitate religion, as it increasingly does, a defined, mutually limited relationship that Benedict has well described is possible.

What happened in Madrid was remarkable. Vargas Llosa is right. In those days, “God seemed to exist and Catholicism seemed to be the one true religion.” No wonder much of the world’s press and media did not want to report on “God in Madrid.” They thought God was dead.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019)

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019)

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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