A Man of Culture: Reflections on the Papal Visit

Pope Benedict XVI, the pundits tell us, is not living up to his image as God’s Rottweiler. One almost senses a hint of disappointment in their voice. Admittedly, many recent articles have featured generally positive portrayals of the Holy Father, but they have also given rise to the cliché that Pope Benedict is a “mystery.” This seems to have been the default media position during his recent visit to the United States. How is it, they wonder, that this strict disciplinarian—this former Panzerkardinal—now seems more interested in talking about love and hope—as he has at length in his two first encyclicals—than in hunting down heretics, sinners, and unbelievers? Has he gone soft? Is it a public relations move? So far the media refuse to imagine that the caricature of the pope they themselves created upon his election may have been mistaken in the first place. Moreover, they assume that it was that caricature that attracted the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s supporters, and they conclude that many must be disgruntled now that he has lost his edge. Where these disaffected former supporters are hiding, I do not know—they are mentioned in the media like reports of Bigfoot sightings, but no one seems to have caught a live specimen yet. And so the media continue to scratch their head about Benedict the Mystery, Benedict the hardliner-turned-peacenik, Benedict the doctrinaire who speaks of love and hope.

What the media have failed to fathom is that Pope Benedict does not speak of love and hope because he has become a peacenik—he does so because he is a true radical. Like much of our culture, the popular media have imbibed hollywoodized understandings of love and hope that turn these powerful realities into, at best, little more than warm, innocuous banalities. Love has been subsumed into the culture of me, and thus it is now widely regarded as nothing but a feeling (be it merely fuzzy or fiercely passionate) rather than a free act of the will. Self-sacrifice and self-gift—two essential dimensions of love—now hardly come into the picture, if at all. And because societies are ultimately all about human relations, these variously confused understandings of love inevitably have serious and widespread consequences. We cannot imagine, for example, that such developments are unconnected to the ever more frightening statistics that proclaim a general breakdown of the family. Realities like love and hope, it turns out, are serious business; they lie at the roots of human nature and human society.

And this is the reason I called the pope a radical, for the word radical comes from the Latin radix, meaning root. The Holy Father has shown little interest in lecturing divorcees and shopaholics—the victims of misguided loves and misplaced hopes—because he wants to strike at the roots of what ails so many persons and societies throughout the world. During his visit, the pope affirmed that there is a “need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society,” and that “[t]ruly caring about . . . the future of our civilization means recognizing our responsibility to promote and live by the authentic moral values which alone enable the human person to flourish.” Instead of only addressing the symptoms, Pope Benedict wants to address the root causes of the many challenges facing humanity today. He sees that a deep confusion about the nature of love and an army of false hopes is leading people away from the fulfillment of their humanity in God. He sees that our society as a whole is at risk of ordering itself against human fulfillment. Thus he talks about love and hope, illuminating the good by the light of faith and reason, reminding us of the true roots that can bring nourishment to the soul and life to human communities.

In ancient (and not-so-ancient) times, it was common for philosophers to speak of the law as a teacher of virtue—virtue consisting of those habits and formed faculties that are excellences of the human soul and direct man towards happiness. Given this understanding of virtue, the law was a vital tool for statesmen and political philosophers to order entire societies—in theory, at least—towards human fulfillment. The Politics of Aristotle is a prime example of this. There, Aristotle lays out an argument for how the political community arises as the logical consequence of human nature, since human beings are not self-sufficient and need one another to fulfill their daily and non-daily needs. The polis, Aristotle argues, is what enables man to live well—to live a fully human life in which the capacities of his soul—reason being the foremost among them according to the Nicomachean Ethics—are fully developed and exercised. And a fully human life must be a life of happiness, for we cannot imagine that the happiness of man would consist in a life other than that proper to himself. Thus the political community, and the laws that rule it, will be ordered towards happiness—the final good after which all men strive. While in a Christian system ultimate happiness is not attainable within this world, still a political community ordered according to the natural virtues can provide a groundwork on which the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love can operate. These virtues will complete the process started by the natural virtues, allowing man to fulfill the desires of his heart and his reason in the ultimate Love and Truth who is God. As St. Thomas might say, “grace builds on nature.” In any case, the role of the law as teacher remains essential.

This understanding of the law and the political community, however, has fallen on hard times at least since the advent of Thomas Hobbes, and not always without reason. After all, when the law is an instrument for leading persons to a particular kind of life or ideal, it can easily become an instrument of oppression. One need not look further than the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century to see how this understanding of the law as teacher can easily be twisted to the service of brutal ideologies. Thus the law is widely understood today as merely a means of keeping human beings from doing harm to each other, not as a guide towards the good life. This is in many ways a very prudent conception, but without the law as a teacher, what is to order the political community towards human happiness? Must we give up on the notion that societies can be ordered to the good of man and must exist only as means of preventing a “war of all against all,” as Hobbes suggests in his Leviathan?

These questions bring me back to the subject of the papal visit, for the dilemma of how to order society towards the human good in an environment in which the law’s role has been considerably circumscribed seemed to be at the forefront of the pope’s mind. This topic was prominent during the first major speech of his visit: his address to the American Bishops. In that speech, the Holy Father laid out his vision of the Christian faith as an integral truth that must permeate every aspect of one’s life, and, in doing so, transform the culture. This is a deeply significant insight, for in a society that rightly values personal liberty, culture can become a means of freely proposing a vision of the good life. If the law cannot be counted on as society’s guide to the good, culture—which can grow and develop in accordance with personal freedom—can be a powerful means of illuminating the way.

And, indeed, it is essential that any vision of the good life be freely proposed and freely accepted. After all, the search for an ultimate good is nothing if not a person’s attempt to become more fully human. This is true for the religious mystic and the secular philosopher alike—the difference between them being that the mystic is a skeptic: one who doubts the natural world’s ability to satisfy the infinite longings of his heart. And because the capacity to make free choices is an essential part of our humanity, a state cannot expect to make its citizens fully human by imposing on them a vision of the good life. It then remains for those individuals with an appreciation for, and a vision of, such a life to convince others of its value.

One of the pope’s key messages to the Christian community of the United States was that they can only hope to accomplish this when they have first been reminded of something:

People today need to be reminded of the ultimate purpose of their lives. They need to recognize that implanted within them is a deep thirst for God. They need to be given opportunities to drink from the wells of his infinite love.

But they will not be reminded, he warned, if Christians continue to accept a “growing separation of faith from life: living ‘as if God did not exist,’” and consequently reducing faith to “a passive acceptance that certain things ‘out there’ are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life.” Such an approach can never communicate a vision of the good life for the simple reason that it is not really any sort of life at all; it remains in the realm of the abstract, rarely touching upon the reality of our daily interactions, struggles, pleasures, hopes, and sufferings.

As an alternative to this schizophrenic approach to faith, Pope Benedict repeatedly challenged Christians to let their beliefs inform and inspire every sort of endeavor in which they are involved. Recognizing the power of ideas to transform individual lives and even entire civilizations, the pope especially reached out to Catholic educators, to those responsible for the public communication of the faith (most notably the bishops), and to those involved in the production of works of thought and beauty. “The challenges confronting us require a comprehensive and sound instruction in the truths of the faith,” the Holy Father said during his homily at Nationals Stadium, “[b]ut they also call for cultivating a mindset, an intellectual ‘culture,’ which is genuinely Catholic, confident in the profound harmony of faith and reason, and prepared to bring the richness of faith’s vision to bear on the urgent issues which affect the future of American society.”

This characteristically Catholic emphasis on the harmony between faith and reason is not unconnected to the pope’s rejection of the spiritual schizophrenia mentioned above, for the Catholic mind sees the natural and supernatural aspects of reality as part of a single, coherent whole. It is no coincidence that the Nicene Creed proclaims a Creator of “all that is seen and unseen.” In the midst of a popular culture that often wobbles between the extremes of cold rationalism and untethered emotionalism, this vision of a coherent reality—through which reason and emotion can find their proper object in a God who is both Truth and Love—is an invaluable gift the Church bears for the modern world.

As president of Dappled Things, I must admit it was profoundly inspiring and encouraging to know the Holy Father places such store in the type of work we do. Benedict went so far as to tell the Catholic bishops: “I believe that the Church in America, at this point in her history, is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it, in an engaging and imaginative way.” This is almost a direct challenge to every sort of Catholic artist working today—whether in the literary, visual, musical, or performing arts—for the task of the true artist has ever been to to re-present reality, to embody in his work a vision of what is. I savored these words of the pope, for they are about as close as I’ll ever get to hearing a papal endorsement of Dappled Things.

One final topic of special relevance to Americans upon which the pope reflected during his visit is the question of individualism and the somewhat confused notions of freedom that often derive from it. Pope Benedict made it clear that we cannot hope “to develop a society truly worthy of the human person’s dignity” if we allow ourselves to “lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them.” The Holy Father stated that

[t]his emphasis on individualism has even affected the Church (cf. Spe Salvi, 13-15), giving rise to a form of piety which sometimes emphasizes our private relationship with God at the expense of our calling to be members of a redeemed community. Yet from the beginning, God saw that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). We were created as social beings who find fulfillment only in love—for God and for our neighbor. If we are truly to gaze upon him who is the source of our joy, we need to do so as members of the people of God (cf. Spe Salvi, 14). If this seems counter-cultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture [emphasis added].

Here Pope Benedict agrees with Aristotle that man cannot find fulfillment—cannot be fully man—unless he does so as the member of a community. However, the Holy Father takes the argument further, suggesting that man’s social nature derives from, and aims toward, love as the reality that underlies his being. Because love lies at the core of who and what we are, we cannot hope to achieve happiness in separation from God and from our neighbor. If there is to be a cultural transformation, then authentic love—the kind that is willed, self-sacrificial, and self-giving—must be its guiding principle. Such love must inform the manner in which we think about and exercise our liberty as members of a free society; it must guide how we conduct our personal and professional relationships, how we we treat the most vulnerable among us, how we choose to pursue economic and scientific development, how we seek truth through academic inquiry and engage in public discourse. Moreover, this truth that love underlies reality—that without it we are as cut flowers that slowly shrivel and decay—cannot help but affect how we craft our paintings and our plotlines. In our work as artists, this fundamental insight must not be absent from the vision of reality we seek to re-present.

In the end, the genius of culture as a way of pointing society towards the human good is that it is consistent with a robust love of the fullness and freedom of the human person. If the Christians are right in believing that their vision is consonant with the ultimate human good, then in every age many others should be able to recognize in their example something for which they themselves long. If it is in fact true that the Christian life is something every human being wants—whether consciously or not—then at least to some extent this truth should resonate with others when it is presented to them. If I have never met a woman, I can hardly know that I long to be married, but if that desire is in fact latent within me then I should be able to recognize its object once it has been brought into my consciousness. Such is the case with the good life, and it is up to those who know and love it to foster cultural contexts within a free society through which other citizens may have the opportunity of recognizing the unknown object of their desires. This culture will consist of whatever can serve as either an expression or a teacher of the ultimate good of man, including educational, creative, and religious organizations; informal associations; and works of art and thought. In short, whatever has the ability to direct our gaze towards the God who is Love, Beauty, Goodness, and Truth—which, for the Catholic mind, is just about everything.