The Absolutization of Man

“No place of grace for those who avoid the face” – T. S. Eliot Ash Wednesday. These words sum up our times. No one explains the intellectual patterns and choices of modernity better than Benedict XVI. Our age knows the truth. It just does not want to admit it. Our intellectual problems are mainly moral problems. They manifest themselves, also among Catholics, in how men choose to understand the Church.

The pontificate of Benedict XVI has given us many blessings. No one has thought his way through our minds and hearts more profoundly than he. He understands that a divine “plan” exists for the cosmos and for the human race within it. This plan includes each individual human person who exists from his conception to death and on to eternity. The plan, as Solzhenitsyn said, passes through “each human heart.” Every person must take a stand before good and evil. To make this choice is why rational creatures exist. It is a choice for or against God. To call good evil, or to call evil good, is the essence of the choice. It is not just choosing what is evil, but also calling it good, taking a stand against truth.

Benedict knows the not always happy German contribution to the modern mind. Perhaps providence put him on the Throne of Peter precisely to straighten out human thinking, to restore the principles whereby it could again see the truth of things for their own sake. For those in error to admit their errors is difficult. Yet that is what is required of them. Our errors, like our sins, need us to acknowledge publicly what is right lest our example continues to propagate what is wrong.

As in the Regensburg Lecture, so in a brief talk [January 19] to the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, Benedict deals with the mind that rejects revelation. In that rejection’s logic, it also proceeds to reject reason. It ends in a voluntarism that justifies anything the powerful want.

“In every age, when man has not sought such a [divine] plan, he has fallen prey to cultural temptations that have in the end enslaved him.” These enslaving powers are the “ideologies.” Benedict names them – cult of nation, race, social class, and reckless capitalism. The irony is that such ideologies hide the truth about man: “Our time also knows the shadows that hid God’s plan.” This hiding is due to a “tragic anthropological reduction.”

      Professor Joseph Ratzinger lecturing at the University of Bonn, c. 1960

This reduction, which excludes what is higher, “re-proposes” materialism and hedonism with a “technological Prometheanism.” Benedict speaks with the whole of our cultural history in mind! Prometheus stole fire from the gods. This union of materialism and technology energizes our present atheism. Man is viewed as a mechanical brain; history has a “destiny of self-completion.” No room for eternity or transcendence is left. No city of speech or City of God remains to judge what men do to themselves.

Thus, a personal relation to God cannot exist. Nothing is left to explain. What is “technically possible becomes morally licit; every experiment is acceptable; every demographic policy permitted.” This passage describes the public order of most modern polities including our own: “The most dangerous snare of this current of thought is in fact the absolutization of man: man wants to be ab-solutus, freed from every bond and from every natural constitution.”

Man rejects his own nature. What now exists is not concrete man – Peter, Mary, John –but “abstract man.” He decides what his “nature” will be with no reference to what he is.

“The human being is not a self-sufficient individual, nor an anonymous element in the group,” Benedict affirms. “Rather he is a unique and un-repeatable person, intrinsically ordered to relationships and sociality. Thus the Church reaffirms  her  great ‘yes’ to dignity and beauty of marriage as an expression of the fruitful and generous bond between man and woman, and her no to ‘gender’ philosophies, because the reciprocity between male and female is an expression of the beauty of nature willed by the Creator.”

Benedict has explained clearly the philosophic origins and practical consequences of the mind that proposes the deviant laws and principles that now charge the political order under the name of “rights” and “aid for humanity.” His logic is clear and forceful. In Spe Salvi, Benedict showed that what we seek to do is nothing less than try to achieve the Christian ends by substituting our own principles for the grace, faith, and reason that really explains what we are.

We will not miss this pope. He is not going away. We can read him. He has explained to us what we are. What our time intends lies in the principles it has chosen. We turn our faces. We reject grace. But it is a choice, not a philosophic necessity. The alternative, now retired, remains: to tell us what we are.

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