A Transcendent Nature

The 29th section of Caritas in Veritate concerns religious freedom. What is at stake here is not the usual "church and state" hassle. To clear the air, Pope Benedict XVI states that he is not concerned here with fanaticism, in which violence is used to promote the goals of religions. It is self-evident that this is not the way to make religious truths known.
More could be said on this topic of religious terrorism, however. What, for instance, are the names of these "fundamentalists" or "fanatics" of which the pope speaks? Even more, what does one call the effort to stop them from imposing their religion by force on others? Are we helpless here?
Surely, one does not just let this forcible imposition happen and still claim, through one’s inactivity, to be decent and moral. Does one always find it sufficient to turn the other cheek and say, "Let’s dialogue?"
Obviously, in terms of what else was said in this passage, we cannot call the opposition to fanaticism or fundamentalism violence or war. Still, such violent movements and actions are not going to be stopped immediately by demanding "rights" or "dialogue."
What is the political and moral consequence of not stopping fanatics? Are we innocent if we let such fanatics take over? Surely not. This is an issue the modern Church rarely wants to face.
Benedict, furthermore, does not like a version of religious freedom that is little more than religious indifference or practical atheism. He is right. Religious freedom, for many, is based on these positions. Since nothing is true, therefore we are free.
Any claim to any truth is said to be the seed of this same fanaticism. To get rid of fanaticism, we have to eliminate truth. When we so cleanse ourselves of truth, however, we no longer have any grounds on which to object to anything that anyone, especially the state, does to us or others.
Caritas in Veritate was written to show that charity cannot live without truth. Religious freedom today often means precisely that no truth can be found. It does not hold that truth is a thing to be pursued. This denial of any objective order is practical atheism at its best.
The guarantee of man’s development, Benedict says, is God. This position will be a minority opinion in much of the world. Why would he say that? Why is not the guarantee of religious liberty the presumed fact that we cannot know any truth?
Men and women have a transcendent dignity. This fact is what enables them to be more than they might expect. "Man is not a lost atom in a random universe." This suspicion that he, as a human person, is a lost atom is a common view of what man is.
Benedict bluntly comments that states can and do impose on their citizens a form of practical atheism. We are evidently supposed to know which states he speaks of, even if he does not mention them by name. Surely not our own?
If man were merely the fruit of either chance or necessity, or if he had to lower his aspiration to the limited horizon of the world in which he lives, if all reality were merely history and culture, and man did not possess a nature destined to transcend itself in a supernatural life, then one could speak of growth, or evolution, but not of development.
What is the distinction Benedict is making here? Modernity is a question, as Strauss said, of lowering our sights or aspirations to this world.
The word "development" here does not refer to change or even improvement. It refers to the purpose of man from his actual transcendent beginning. One develops not into what one wants to be but into what one ought to be, on the given basis of what he is.
Civilization means the freely choosing of what one ought to be, which is the truth of man’s being. This "ought to be" is why charity needs truth. Within human nature itself, we find what man ought to be. This "ought to be" includes his supernatural destiny or purpose. By denying that this supernatural purpose exists, man becomes a creature of this world alone.
"Man is God’s creature, whom God chose to endow with an immortal soul and whom he has always loved." Man is not man’s creature; he is already better than the best he could conceive himself to be. This transcendent superiority is no insult to man.
What he turns out to be is more than his nature is open to in itself. He also has to choose to accept what he is; otherwise, he would always remain alien to himself. This is why alienation is a specifically modern issue.
God is the guarantor of man’s true development, inasmuch as having created him in His image, He also establishes the transcendent dignity of man and woman and feeds their innate yearning to "be more."
God has always loved each person; this is why He endowed him with an immortal soul. Without it, that divine love would not have an independent response that was free.
Ultimately, this is what our lives are about: namely, whether we will respond freely to what it is for which we are created. The fact that it is not necessary that we respond is the ultimate proof that we are loved for our own sakes, however we respond.

Rev. James V. Schall, S. J., teaches political science at Georgetown University. His latest book, The Mind That Is Catholic, is published by Catholic University of America Press.


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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