The Absolutization of ManFATHER JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J.
No one explains the intellectual patterns and choices of modernity better than Benedict XVI.
"No place of grace for those who avoid the face"
– T. S. Eliot Ash Wednesday.
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."
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.
Father James V. Schall, S.J. "The Absolutization of Man." The Catholic Thing (February 19, 2013).
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Father James V. Schall, S.J., is emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of many books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy; The Order of Things; The Regensburg Lecture; The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking; Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes; Another Sort of Learning, Sum Total Of Human Happiness, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
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