Benedict: “From Where Does Evil Come?”

The former students of Pope Benedict have an annual seminar (Ratzinger Schülerkreis) to think about his vast and profound intellectual accomplishments. This year’s meeting was held Castel Gandolfo. On August 30, in the Church of the Teutonic Cemetery in the Vatican, Pope Benedict gave a brief, penetrating homily in German to the group. The general subject of discussion was “How do we speak of God today?” (L’Osservatore Romano, September 4, 2015).

The Gospel reading in the Pope’s Mass was from Mark 7. This passage concerned the Scribes and Pharisees questioning Christ and the disciples about washing hands and utensils in dining. Christ was annoyed with these gentlemen for concerning themselves with external cleanliness when inside they were avaricious and vain. Christ concluded with the famous passage: “Nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him impure; that which comes out from him, and only that, constitutes impurity” (Mk 7:15, 20). In other words, the world’s problems are not external to our souls but originate there. We cannot reconstruct the world in order to reconstruct ourselves. We always have to attend to ourselves first.

At this group’s meeting three years previously, using the same text from Mark, Christof Cardinal Schönborn, O. P., a former student and colleague of Pope Benedict, posed the issue in this manner: Must one first be “purified exteriorly and not only interiorly, and [does] evil only [come] from within?”

Obviously, Schönborn pointed out, we have two separate but related issues here: 1) what do we mean by “exterior” or “interior” purification? And 2) is evil exclusively from “within”? Benedict’s answer to these questions is very insightful: “Truth, love, and goodness come from God, render man pure and are met in the world which frees us from the ‘forgetfulness’ of a world which no longer thinks of God.” The headline of the article in which this session was reported is this: “The Forgetfulness of the World.” A world that does not “think” of God forgets him. This “forgetfulness” is not morally neutral or indifferent. It describes what we are.

 

Notice that Benedict’s answer is that ultimately neither our “outsides” nor our “insides” are at the bottom of reality. A third possibility exists and must be considered if we are to see the real problem. We first receive “truth, love, and goodness” from God. We are not their makers. They do not come from nowhere, or from ourselves, except in the sense that we are created with powers to both know and recognize, and freely accept or reject them.

A world that has forgotten God will jeopardize and undermine truth, love, and goodness. Why? Even the truth, love, and goodness we think we have without God will turn on us, and corrupt our very being if we fail to locate and recognize their ultimate source. We have been given a world that necessarily leads to God.

Truth, love, and good do not exist by themselves in some abstract cloud. We will not be able to grasp the meaning of truth, love, and good with our own reason and insight if we deny their divine origin. This is the great temptation: to redefine reality so as to maximize our own autonomy in defiance of God and nature.

II.

Benedict takes up the question as it is posed. Can evil come from the “outside”? An affirmative answer would be contrary to the words of Scripture, which explicitly say that what corrupts us comes from the “inside.” To answer the question, it is necessary to “broaden” the scope of our thinking. We need to read the Gospel in “its integrity.”

Clearly, some things from the outside can harm us, or embarrass us, as the Pharisees maintained. Washing pots and pans, as well as ourselves, are cleansing actions from the outside. Washing dishes after meals is a daily chore, even with dishwashers. Most hospitals today have signs everywhere urging everyone to wash their hands frequently. In the history of surgery, one of the great discoveries was the simple fact that if doctors and nurses washed their hands, the incidence of infection and disease would decline. Today, almost everyone in hospitals is covered with wraps, coats, gloves, or nets for the same reason.

But, of course, Christ was not giving a lesson in hygiene. We can figure that out by ourselves. Before Christ, both Plato and Aristotle were aware of the advantages of cleanliness to human health. If we consider the Gospel as a whole, it is obvious that external cleanliness is a good thing, and required if we are to deal properly with most human sicknesses or wounds. To have such concern is itself “good so that death does not prevail” when it need not.

But in addition to epidemics of various diseases, many of which we can control, we find such a thing as an “epidemic of the heart.” This disorder is interior. The language is analogous. That is, just as something wrong can happen if we do not follow the rules of hygiene, so something will go wrong if we do not understand our souls, and what corrupts them. Such interior disorder can be avoided when we exercise self-control. Our psychological and spiritual health and our harmonious relationship with others depend on self-mastery, and being accountable for our deeds.

III.

The initial outlines of this self-control are found in Aristotle’s discussion of the virtues, as well as in the Commandments. The epidemics of the disorders of the “heart” are the various vices that we put into ourselves by our sins and failures to rule ourselves. Such “corruptions and impurities” are not neutral. We are naïve to think that one sin or vice does not open us eventually to another, then another, then yet another. Finally, says Benedict, “they lead a man to think only of himself and not of the good.”

Notice in this last passage that Benedict did not say what we might have expected him to say. He did not say that the vice “inside” us makes us think of ourselves, and not of others. He said “of the good,” not “of others.” Why is this important? Obviously, vices can in fact also involve others, and usually do. That possibility is what is so dangerous about them. It is also why we are to be concerned with scandal given to others. Our sins and vices corrupt us, and, through them, we can occasion the corruption of others if we do not first understand that our concern for others must itself already be rooted in “the good.”

For this reason, “interior hygiene” means organizing ourselves habitually, not around “ourselves” but around what is “good,” and, ultimately, around “worship.” Why does Benedict bring worship into this discussion? Because without it, without a real awareness that God is the source of the good, we forget him. We cannot find anything beyond ourselves.

This concern with our “insides” is not self-exaltation, but its opposite—a form of humility. Benedict speaks in classical terms of “purity of heart.” He recalls John 15.3: “You are already made clean by the word which I have given to you.” Benedict then affirms, “One becomes pure by way of the Word.” Obviously, the Word and the Good must be connected. Benedict goes on: “The Word is much more than words, because it is through words that we encounter the Word himself.” Remember, the question being asked is about the relation between “inside” and “outside.” Does evil come only from “inside”? And if someone is virtuous inside, what does that have to do with his “outside”?

The Word, of course, as Benedict says, is “Jesus Christ himself and we also encounter the Word (that is, Christ) in those who reflect him, who show us the face of God and who reflect his meekness, his humility of heart, his simplicity, his kindness, his sincerity.” In our experience, such manifestations will probably come from different people we meet. I recall Benedict saying that we see the real face of the Church, and hence, of Christ, in the saints that it produces over the ages. This is what he is saying here, I think. We meet people whose inside goodness is reflected in their faces, in their outside.

How does Benedict respond? We arrive at the “Word” through “words.” What can this juxtaposition mean? A word, in whatever language we speak, refers to something out there, but it is inside of us. It is how we possess what it is. When we learn something, we change; we become more, but what we know does not change. We are the ones who are enriched.

Why talk about this? It is because Christ is identified precisely as “the Word made flesh.” His truth reaches that truth that is God, or better, as he said, “I am the truth.” Thus, Benedict concludes that he hopes that “the Lord grants us the ‘hygiene of the heart,’ by way of the truth which comes from God: that is, the power of purification.” If it is to be our “insides” that are to be purified, we need to begin on the “outside” with the truth of what we are, and what we are to seek in our lives.

If there is a “truth” in any of us, as there is, it is there, not because we put it there, but because it was given to us. But it was given to us in such a way that we are free to accept it and grow because of it, or reject it, and “forget” God. Once we choose to live in a “godless” and “untruthful” world, once our “words” do not lead us to the “Word,” to the Logos, we are left alone among those who know no “truth” but their own wills. Such is the “forgetfulness of the world” that we see at work in our culture.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (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 including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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