In The Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman writes, “Men whose minds are possessed with some one object, take exaggerated views of its importance, are feverish in the pursuit of it, make it the measure of things which are utterly foreign to it, and are startled and despond if it happens to fail them. They are ever in alarm or transport.”
I write these words a few days or hours or minutes before the crier at the Vatican will call out to the faithful gathering in the piazza below, Annuntio vobis gaudeam magnam! Habemus papam! The spiritual man judges all things, says Saint Paul, but cannot be judged rightly by the world, because the world’s vision is too narrow; the world, granting it all the good will we may, will simply not grasp the essence of what it seeks to judge. We have seen evidence of Saint Paul’s assertion in the last few weeks. Reporters for the media mundi see all things in the light of the politics of celebrity. They make it the measure of the Church, which is in her essence utterly foreign to that pagan cult—one well known to the master propagandist Augustus Caesar, whom Jesus may have had in mind when he observed, dryly, that the rulers of the pagans lord it over them, and have themselves called “benefactors” into the bargain. “But it shall not be so among you,” he warns his apostles.
Many Catholic writers have remarked on the obtuseness of the media mundi—on the teary-eyed secular advisors warning us that the Church must get with the times (evidently The New York Times), taking up Doctor Freud’s Moral Elixir, or she will go on coughing and sputtering to death; as if the Church had not long buried Dr. Freud, and Mr. Hume, and Professor Kant, and Emperor Napoleon, and the humane favorite of well-heeled and citified laymen Arius, and Viking raiders and Madame Blavatsky and apostate nuns and gold-hungry conquistadores and Manicheans addled by sexual license or by celibacy or by each in turn. “You’d best come to terms with the authorities, Cephas,” says the reporter for the Roman Tribune, “or you’ll end up suffering just as your Master did, and then what will happen to your Church? I have only your good in mind.”
But I believe we are encountering something both more pardonable and more problematic than mere ignorance of the Church. We are encountering a broad and deep ignorance generally. Newman had in his sights the quackery of his day, hawked by political economists of the school of Jeremy Bentham, and given institutional potency by the new University of London, a school wherein theology was neither to be preached nor decried, but simply ignored. Bentham the liberal was the perfect type of the illiberal mind, as he cramped the human world into the formulae of the one object of his pursuit, political economy. Yet Bentham still had something of an education. Adam Smith may have been a questionable moral philosopher, but nobody would accuse him of being ill-read. Ernest Renan read the gospels wrong-side-out, but he did read them.
But we have not now to do with a Bentham or a Renan. We have to do with the media mundi, themselves distinguished from the mass only by a superficial facility with words, and very often not even by that. It isn’t just that our reporters do not know the Church. They don’t know the Roman Empire. Do they read Thomas Aquinas? They do not read Alexis De Tocqueville. Can they make their way intelligently through the chapels of Notre Dame de Paris? They are lost in their national monuments; their history is the labyrinth at Cnossos; the grammar of their own tongue is hieroglyphic; Lord Nelson looking out over Trafalgar Square is as blank and mysterious as a monolith on a South Sea atoll.
They lack what Newman championed in his work, the good solid substrate, the foundation of nature upon which theology can build its cathedral—a liberal education. For the man who studies the humane letters is, Newman suggests, seldom surprised. It is not news to him to learn that nations can snatch defeat from victory, by the arrogance of ambitious demagogues; he has read his Thucydides. It is not news to him that license invites, as by violent reaction, the strictures of puritanical restraint; he has read Measure for Measure. He is not going to rave about the intellectual profundity of a scrap of political doggerel; he has read Homer. Such an intellect, says Newman, “cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another.”
Hence it should not surprise us that the new schools and colleges that are most determinedly Catholic are usually also those that are most determinedly liberal, in Newman’s sense of the word. They seek to invite young people to scale the high hill of learning, in history, poetry, the arts, and philosophy, so that they will have at once a clear vantage to survey the all-too-human countryside, and an unobstructed view of the stars above.
And now, between the end of that last sentence and the beginning of this, that great joy has been announced to me and to the Catholic world: habemus papam, who has taken the name Francis. With one stroke he has called to our minds the work of the holy poor man of God, Francis of Assisi, and the work of the great Jesuit evangelizer to whose order he belongs, the Iberian Saint Francis Xavier. Peter, the man of Assisi, the evangelist of India, and a bishop from Argentina: those are the figures we, but not our opinionators, see before us on this day.