Sense and Nonsense: On Not Reconstructing Christianity

Following the election of Benedict XVI, Web sites and my e-mails were filled with wonderments about “when is the new pope going to act?” By “act,” writers mean things like, “defining an infallible position, say, no contraception,” or “tossing out an inept or heretical bishop or two (names provided on request),” or “confronting the universities with what they ought to be teaching but aren’t.” I frankly doubt whether we will see these overt actions. The pope has bigger fish to fry.

The first thing the pope must eliminate is the idea that the content of Christianity is something that each new pope is free to rewrite according to his own whims. In The Ratzinger Report, we read: “Christianity is not a philosophical speculation; it is not a construction of our mind. Christianity is not ‘our’ work; it is a Revelation; it is a message that has been consigned to us, and we have no right to reconstruct it as we like or choose.” This is the gauntlet that this new pope lays down—adherence to a revelation that he did not himself create but for whose integrity he is now responsible. Christianity is more exciting for what it already is, not for any newfangled idea that some current pope devises.

We have all pondered the French expression noblesse oblige. Basically, it means that from those to whom more is given, more is expected. Christ said that authority among his disciples was to be expressed in service, not by honors shown to those in power. There is among us today, I think, a sense of betrayal by many of our ecclesiastical leaders.

In his A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen, the great Hans Urs von Balthasar bluntly wrote in 1980, before any of this scandal was publicly recognized (though much of its causes were going on), “All true Catholic Christians suffer today from the confusion within their Church. One can safely say that this unrest which followed the Council came mainly from the clergy and religious.” Such are sobering words for all of us, no doubt.


Within the literature of Christian asceticism, recalling Thomas a Kempis, we are warned that the real warfare for souls initially takes place, in the hearts of clerics and the intelligentsia, over little things—manners, points of ritual, or language—not over the big things, like observing the Commandments. The violation of the latter usually comes from a long record of violating the former.

In a little pamphlet published in 1930 by the Catholic Truth Society in London, Where All Roads Lead, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “By this time it must be obvious that every single thing in the Catholic Church which was condemned by the modern world has been reintroduced by the modern world, and always in a lower form.” The modern world, in rejecting Christianity, does not really get rid of it. It only seeks to do the same thing but in another form, in an unbalanced way, as it has rejected how to do it in the right way.

A Peanuts series shows Lucy standing unawares while a fly ball bounces behind her. From the mound, Charlie yells in agony, “AAUGH!! Not again!” He angrily walks out to center field raising his fists, “Can’t you catch anything! How could you miss it?” Meanwhile, Lucy just stares at him. Charlie kicks his glove: “You’re the worst player in the history of the game!” As she continues to stare at him, completely nonplussed, he adds, “How can you be so bad?” Lucy begins to walk away, baseball hat still on her head, utterly unconcerned. In the last scene, to a completely confused Charlie, she turns around to ask, “Are you talking to me?”

To whom are the pope, von Balthasar, Chesterton, and Charlie Brown talking? Surely it is to us. Christianity is already constructed, revealed. We need to know what it says of itself, not what we concoct on our own hook, even if we be popes.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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