Father James Schall on Spe Salvi

Author: ZENIT


Father James Schall on "Spe Salvi"

Part I

Jesuit Scholar Points to Pope's Insights Into True Hope

By Carrie Gress


Even though the modern world talks of the hope in terms of progress and social justice, these concepts are "inhuman" aberrations of the true meaning of the theological virtue, says Father James Schall.

The Jesuit professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University is the author of "The Order of Things," and "Another Sort of Learning," both published by Ignatius Press.

In Part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Schall comments on how Benedict XVI, in his encyclical "Spe Salvi," defends the theological virtue of hope by showing that without God human fulfillment and happiness is impossible.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.

Q: Why do you think that this consideration of the theological virtue of hope is particularly timely?

Father Schall: We might state the issue briefly, but with some irony, by saying that in fact the secular world is itself full of "hope." However, the intellectual origins or implications of the ideas it uses for hope are no longer recognized. The modern words used instead of hope are "progress," or "making the world safe for democracy," "social justice," or the "scientific" eradication of suffering and evil. The theological background for this "secularization" of hope comes from Joachim of Flora and Francis Bacon, among others.

The modern idea of hope always means dissatisfaction with the present in the light of some presumed future that is not only better, but is the man-made answer to what we mean by complete happiness.

Even the word "education" has overtones of hope. Stress on education as a solution also has a Socratic background. Socrates evidently thought that at the origin of all the human disorder we find "ignorance." Thus, education, both general and universal, comes to be considered a universal "cure" for the moral disorders manifest in human nature wherever and whenever it appears in our experience. If we can just eliminate "ignorance," it is "hoped," we will eliminate evil.

This view clearly presupposes that we know and define properly the nature of the evil that we seek to eliminate. Perhaps no ideology is more stubborn than this educational one. The fact is that it is not primarily ignorance that causes evil. Education as an ideology always refuses to face the core problem of evil, its relation to free will, virtue and grace.

Aristotle was clear that, while intelligence was indeed a major factor, there was a recurring element of "wickedness" in human nature. The most intelligent and well-educated were often the ones closest to the greatest evil. The classical tractates on tyranny always presupposed this relationship of the greatest evil to the greatest finite intelligence, angelic or human. Lucifer is one of the most intelligent of the angels, which is why he is so dangerous.

Following Augustine and Aquinas, we understand the place of will, free will, in our lives. Evil is not located outside of us. Aristotle had recognized that virtue and vice are acquired habits based on repeated choices. We do not become virtuous or vicious simply by knowing what virtue or vice is. We have to "do" them repeatedly.

Behind this emphasis on will, we find the doctrine of original sin with its relation to pride.

My point here is simply this: The billions of dollars of wealth that sundry modern states and private charities pour into education in order to improve the world are almost always justified by a version of hope that essentially maintains that what causes human ills is lack of knowledge. Since the whole story of human disorder includes more than knowledge, we must recognize that this modern enthusiasm for "knowledge alone" betrays utopian overtones of a this-worldly solution of ultimate human problems.

The point is not to abandon the valid aspect of education in our lives. No religion — or philosophy — is more dedicated to intelligence than Catholicism. The point is to put it in proper order. We should seek and know the truth. But it does not automatically follow that those who seek education necessarily choose to live by the truth.

What this Pope is able to do, in an almost revolutionary manner, is to sort out the unrecognized theological strands of hope that exist within the secular order.

Modernity's very search for its own self-sufficiency is charged with Christian overtones that exist in the culture, but are not recognized. One of the results of the loss of faith, itself a choice, is the sense of no longer knowing how Christian themes were implicit in the culture.

Students and faculties today, including often those in Catholic institutions, have little notion of the Christian origins and limits of their favorite enthusiasms. Ever since we stopped studying heresies as heresies, we have often adopted them in enthusiastic terms whose origins we no longer recognize. There is not only ignorance, but a willed ignorance.

We do not want to know that our most basic desires are best explained by a reasoned faith, which we have uncritically, without examination and virtue, rejected as untenable.

Q: You have made a connection between Eric Voegelin's phrase "immanentize the eschaton" and the encyclical. What does this phrase mean? How do what connection do you see?

Father Schall: Eric Voegelin was a German political philosopher who came to the United States during the Nazi period. He had begun a distinguished academic career in Germany that he continued at Louisiana State and Stanford Universities. His voluminous and profound writings are published by the Louisiana State University Press and the University of Missouri Press.

After long studies in philosophy, language, scripture, history and theology, Voegelin concluded that the main motivating force behind modern philosophic movements was their effort literally to achieve the transcendent goals found in classical philosophy and Christianity, such as heaven, happiness, but within this world. He called these efforts at systems "ideologies." He explained that their effort was to "immanentize the eschaton."

Realist philosophy and Christian theology are not, in this sense, "ideologies," though this is what they will often be called in universities. This is why, from a Catholic view, the defense of philosophy and revelation as such is so important. Their realism is what distinguishes them from ideologies. Neither philosophy nor revelation is merely a projection onto reality of humanly concocted ideas that have no further justification other than the construct in the mind of some thinker now transformed into political action.

The word "eschaton" refers to the last things. We traditionally call them: death, purgatory, hell, and heaven. We will quickly notice that these are the four things to which Benedict XVI addresses himself in "Spe Salvi." We are so used to writing off any serious consideration of these topics that we can't easily appreciate the depth of what the Pope is about. As I often like to point out, Catholicism is an intellectual religion. We had better be prepared to understand why.

I know the expression "immanentize the eschaton" sounds formidable. It is something only a German academic mind could drum up, I suppose. But it is apt. It has the advantage of accurately identifying what is going on in the modern mind as it seeks to find a human meaning outside of a realist philosophy to which revelation is addressed in a coherent fashion. In other words, it means that modern thought does not escape Christianity even when it tries to do so. What it does is to strive to relocate it within the world as a rejection of Christianity.

The brilliance of the Pope's encyclical is that he is also a German philosopher and reads German philosophy. He knows that the great German thinkers, upon whom, in fact, most of modern thought depends, simply bring back in Christian ideas, only now in some distorted form. They try to locate "eternal life" down the ages. They try to escape death by projecting ages of man to 200 years. They try to imitate paradise by ecological fantasies of eternal earth.

Q: Can you briefly philosophic sketch how our contemporary world has distorted the vision of man? How does this idea of "progress" fit into the Pope's analysis?

Father Schall: In the beginning, modern ideology often proposed a humanism that was supposedly independent of revelation. Now, classical philosophy is independent of revelation, even though, as the Pope said in the Regensburg Lecture, that already in the Old and the New Testaments we find ideas of philosophy and revelation that are directly related to each other, the principle ones being the notions of truth, love, being and happiness.

What revelation argues in the face of modern thought and politics is that "humanism" has gradually become more and more "inhuman." Chesterton often predicted this would happen. The concepts of the length of human life in terms of years, of love in terms of sex, of happiness in terms of individual creation of its own ends are aberrations, much like those found in book five of Plato's "Republic," which in the name of justice sought to eliminate the family and to produce perfect children by a combination of genetics and state education.

"Progress" is an idea coming from post-Enlightenment thought. J.B. Bury's famous book "The Idea of Progress" reads like a book on salvation history. I like your expression, "How our contemporary world distorted the vision of man."

The theological virtue of hope, the subject of this encyclical, is precisely the virtue that most directly involves modern philosophy whose main claim to fame is that it can in fact produce a better "humanism." Taking it at its own word, the Pope systematically shows that without God it is impossible, really, to give actual human men and women any hope for themselves and their kind.

The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, something that has intimations in Aristotle's notion of friendship, is the only real doctrine that addresses itself to the salvation of each individual in his own particular being, but within the notion of a community of love and friends, which is what we all want. What we hope for in the Christian sense is precisely that we see God "face to face." We already seek to know one another '"face to face." There is no guarantee that this condition can ever be realized outside of the hope that God exists and has saved us. We must include our sins and destiny.

The Pope reestablishes the importance of purgatory as a sensible position precisely because he knows, as we do, that few of us die with absolutely pure souls. There is nothing irrational about this much-maligned doctrine that alone addresses the fact of sins of the past and their proper atonement.

One almost has to laugh at this encyclical that boldly takes the eschatological doctrines — heaven, hell, death, purgatory — and shows us that they have direct meaning on our lives and culture. The encyclical is called "hope" but it is also "bold." It is bold precisely because it is intelligent and aware of the meaning of modern ideologies. Modern thought is, as was much of ancient thought after the Resurrection, an effort to avoid the truth of revelation. We cannot ever prevent anyone from rejecting this truth. Nor do we want to do so. This is what free will is about. The truth of God and of his purpose for man in the world must be chosen as well as understood.

What "Spe Salvi" does is spell out in lines too clear to miss the implications of rejecting the "eschaton" as it is presented in Christian faith. It is no doubt true that these doctrines must be understood accurately. Much of the heresy in history arises from a misunderstanding of what is actually taught.

This encyclical is a representation of what is actually taught. This is why it is so astonishing and revolutionary in itself.

Our eyes have not seen what our ears have heard because we do not want to receive what we are as a gift. We want to make what we are. And when we do, we find that we create mostly monsters. The Pope also sketches the monsters in this encyclical.

Part II Says Pope a Universal Voice for the World

By Carrie Gress

ROME, 1 FEB. 2008 (ZENIT)

The greatest embarrassment to the world today is that the most intelligent voice it confronts is coming from the papacy, says Father James Schall.

The Jesuit professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University is the author of "The Order of Things," and "Another Sort of Learning," both published by Ignatius Press.

In Part 2 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Schall comments on how Benedict XVI serves both the mind and soul through his explanation of the last things in his recent encyclical, "Spe Salvi."

Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.

Q: In paragraph 15 of "Spe Salvi," there is a rich comparison of a monastery and a soul. What is the Holy Father trying to illustrate through the use of this imagery?"

Father Schall: A passage of Josef Pieper, originally based in Aquinas, if not in Aristotle and Plato, addresses this same question. The passage is found in "Josef Pieper — an Anthology," called "The Purpose of Politics." It is only a couple of paragraphs long. I always point students to it as the most central of all passages about politics and political philosophy. It basically says both that you cannot understand politics without understanding the transcendent order, and that you cannot have a healthy society in which there is only politics.

Pieper writes, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas: "'It is requisite for the good of the human community that there should be persons who devote themselves to the life of contemplation.' For it is contemplation which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use; so it is also contemplation which keeps the true end in sight, gives meaning to every practical act of life" ("An Anthology," 123). This passage is also behind much of what the Pope writes on natural law as the yardstick and measure of human actions.

One can state the issue succinctly: No political order can be itself healthy unless it has within it those who are not devoted to politics. This is not in any way a denial that politics are important, but it is a denial that they are the most important things in a society. Indeed, a society that makes politics the most important thing is already a totalitarian society, as Aristotle had already implied.

When the Pope treats this issue in "Spe Salvi," he refers to the monastic tradition and to Augustine. The Pope is careful to relate how this contemplative life is not opposed to any proper understanding of the temporal life of this world. He is even attentive to the relation of work to contemplation. Indeed, the elevation of work to a dignity and not a slavery or oppression had to do with the Benedictine notion of "pray and work."

The Pope cites a certain pseudo-Rufinus who says basically what Pieper did: "The human race lives thanks to a few: Were it not for them the world would perish." This is a remarkable statement indeed. It not only shows the absolute need of someone who constantly within society shows others that there is something more than this world, but it shows the importance of contemplation itself in keeping our mind straight.

The delicate relation of will and mind is a central drama of philosophy and revelation. This is why it has always been said that the great disorders of soul, as well as the great movements for good, begin in the heart of the dons, academic and religious, long before they appear in the public order. Again this is what "immenantize the eschaton" means.

Q: What are your thoughts about the Pope's role as a universal voice in the world today, not just for Catholics?

Father Schall: Briefly, the Pope is the only universal voice in the world today. This is the uncanny genius of founding the Church on the Rock of Peter. What is most embarrassing to the world today is that the most intelligent voice it confronts, or deliberately refuses to confront, is that coming from the papacy. We can spend all sorts of time digging up scandals in the Church or things the papacy should have done but did not. What we cannot do is read the basic documents of the Church, particularly those of the recent popes, and claim that they do not strike at the very roots of all that is disordered in all of the public order of the world, not just the West, but Islam, China, India and the rest.

Within Christianity there is a mission to the world. However slowly it has developed and for what reasons it has taken so long we can speculate. What this encyclical does is to show that the movements within modern philosophy and in other religions have certain intelligible purposes that need to be addressed in terms of Christian hope. This encyclical is not merely addressed to Western culture.

What Benedict XVI has shown in "Deus Caritas Est," as well in this encyclical, is that we can hope for both a better world and for eternal life, but that we cannot confuse one with the other. Another remarkable thing about this document, I think, is how it takes the classic transcendental notions — one, true, good, being and beauty — to show how they each can really exist in a concrete way. None are really abstractions. Charity is not something we can export to the government. Justice is something that is present everywhere. Beauty is the great Platonic category, yet it needs to be grounded in what is good and true.

The encyclical ends with a discussion of suffering and its relation to all of these issues. It is a remarkable section. It is here where the Pope cites the German philosophers who recognize finally that we must deal with evil and justice even in the past, and that it cannot be really dealt with except through the doctrine and reality of the final judgment and the resurrection of the body. Indeed, following Plato himself, it cannot be dealt with outside of the real meaning of forgiveness and vicarious suffering.

So the Pope's role as a universal voice is one that keeps present within the world that which we need to know about who we really are. We need to know about judgment, suffering and hell. We need to know that if we deny the doctrine of hell, our ideologies will simply reinvent it in this world as something that is really inhuman. The hell of revelation is simply the logical consequences of what we really mean by the wrong use of free will, without which we could not exist.

Suffering, as revelation tells us, is the product of sin and death. Efforts to deny sin and death usually produce something worse. Nonetheless, we should seek to reduce pain and suffering in this world. This is one of the by-products of an understanding of everlasting life from revelation, namely, a more complete understanding of the imperfections of this world.

In the end, we have hope because we can first understand what it ultimately means. For this we must thank this Pope who explains to us what the last things really are and how we are to understand them and, yes, attain them. This service to the mind is also a service to our souls.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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