Benedict and the Paradox of Faith

Pope Benedict said the Church’s saints and martyrs showed the difference between ‘atheistic humanism and Christian humanism, between holiness and nihilism.’

The tendency in today’s society to emancipate itself from God’s laws by denying his existence is a concern Benedict XVI has repeatedly expressed, even before he was elected Pope.

He believes such an atheistic worldview is leading societies down a path that increasingly disrespects the dignity of all human life, whether it is in the form of abortion, euthanasia or the killing of human embryos in the name of science.

On Aug. 9, he returned again to the theme in front of a large crowd that had gathered to see him at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo near Rome. Referring to the examples of saints and martyrs, he said they showed through their actions the difference between “atheistic humanism and Christian humanism, between holiness and nihilism.”

The Holy Father drew particular attention to two Church saints: Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan priest, and Edith Stein, a Jew who became a nun. Both of them were martyred at Auschwitz — a camp which, he said, showed in stark terms the hellishness of a place that denies the existence of God.

It was “an extreme symbol of evil,” the Pope said, “of the hell that comes to earth when man forgets God and when he is replaced, usurping from him the right to decide what is good and what is evil, to give life and take life.”

But, the Pope warned, this phenomenon wasn’t confined to the Nazi death camps, nor is it a relic of the last century, but is an ever-growing menace in today’s world.

“On the one hand, there are philosophies and ideologies, but also on an increasing scale, ways of thinking and acting that extol the freedom of man as the only principle, as an alternative to God, and thus transform man into a god, whose system of behavior is of an arbitrary nature,” Benedict XVI explained. “On the other hand, we note the saints, who, practicing the Gospel of love, make reason of their hope, show the true face of God who is love, and at the same time, the true face of man, created in the image and likeness of God.”

Benedict XVI said he believed the examples of these saints “provide a credible and comprehensive answer to the human and spiritual questions which give rise to the deep crisis of the contemporary world: charity in truth.”

In a later Angelus address, on Aug. 23, he noted that following the example of Jesus and the saints is not easy, but vital if one is to be an authentic Christian and show true Christian humanism.

“Jesus in fact is not contented by a merely superficial or formal belonging; an initial and enthusiastic adhesion is not enough for him,” he said. “On the contrary, we must take part in ‘his thinking and his will’ throughout our entire life.” 

Toward the end of Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), the Pope also examines this theme in greater detail.

“Without God, man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is,” he wrote. “Man cannot bring about his own progress unaided, because by himself he cannot establish an authentic humanism. Only if we are aware of our calling, as individuals and as a community, to be part of God’s family as his sons and daughters, will we be able to generate a new vision and muster new energy in the service of a truly integral humanism.”

He added: “The greatest service to development, then, is a Christian humanism that enkindles charity and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God. Openness to God makes us open towards our brothers and sisters and towards an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity.”

However, ideological rejection of God and an atheism of indifference, oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, “constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today,” he said. 

“A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism. Only a humanism open to the Absolute can guide us in the promotion and building of forms of social and civic life — structures, institutions, culture and ethos — without exposing us to the risk of becoming ensnared by the fashions of the moment.”

But the Pope doesn’t believe in imposing this view on others; to do so would contradict the essence of Christian humanism.

Rather he takes an approach in keeping with his scholarly background: by appealing to reason. In his book Without Roots, published when he was a cardinal in 2004, Benedict wrote of his hope that debating the rationality of the Church’s arguments could help “close the gap between secular ethics and religious ethics and found an ethics of reason that goes beyond such distinctions.”

It’s yet to be seen whether Western societies, particularly European ones, have ears to hear these arguments, or if they will increasingly prefer to continue along a destructive path that denies God’s existence.

But one thing’s for sure: Benedict XVI isn’t going to leave this issue anytime soon.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.