From Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 20 (Fall,
-- James V. Schall, S. J.
IS CATHOLICISM SERIOUS ABOUT ITSELF?
The question in the title of this essay obviously implies at least the possibility of a negative answer -- that is, "No, Catholicism is not serious about itself." The evidence for this negative answer would lie in the degree to which we find Catholics acting little differently from any one else. Granted that we are all sinners, including Catholics, perhaps especially Catholics, to be a Catholic should result in some marked difference of soul and action, in things to be done, in things not to be done, in things to be held, in things not to be held.
The negative answer implies, furthermore, that within institutions supported by the Church or in parishes, nothing occurs that would indicate any distinctiveness about Catholics. The dominant Catholic ethos at least since John Tracey Ellis' "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life" in the 1950's and 60's, has been to strive to be pretty much like everyone else in all things of public and academic life. The divisions found within Catholicism come mainly from political, not religious, sources.
Tolerance, which still retains the notion that something tolerated is wrong even though it could be let alone, has passed into multi-culturalism, in which a multiplicity of different "right" positions is contemplated. As a result, little or no effort is made in the direction of conversion, both because it does not seem to make much difference and because it is unseemly to claim important some possession that others do not acknowledge. I have even seen Chesterton, Lewis, Kreeft, and Hahn criticized because they were making converts when Vatican II, so it was said, was about letting everyone alone. It was unseemly to disturb anyone's subjective view.
Christian doctrines, detached from their balanced place within an overall understanding that includes both faith and reason, however, are found running riot through society. Take the notions, "judge not, lest thou shalt be judged," or "let him who is without sin cast the first stone," or "be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful." In context, these admonitions are proper, revolutionary guides to remind us that we are all sinners, though not all sinners in the same way. They recall that justice can be harsh and that judgment is the Lord's.
On the other hand, such precepts, with some stretching, to be sure, can be taken to mean that, for all practical purposes, no criterion exists for judging anything to be right or wrong, or for indicating that anyone has done anything at all questionable, no matter what. Nobody can cast any stones at anything. There are no targets to be hit. The operative principle is not, "let him who is without sin cast the first stone," but "since we are all sinners, it makes no difference what we do." Everything is permitted because we really cannot know anything about another. No one can find any objective norms in reality -- something for which most scholars thank Kant, though there are other candidates. In any case, sincerity, what I call "the most dangerous virtue," covers every act with a pall of subjectivity that excuses any objective declination from what is good or right.
To be merciful, moreover, comes to mean to be "compassionate," something rather different. To be compassionate today means not "to suffer with," its literal meaning, but rather not to impute anything to anyone. It means to accept someone else's principles whatever they might be. We ask no questions; we silently "suffer with" whatever anyone does or holds. We suspend all judgment. To be compassionate means to accept someone else's liberty, no matter what it is. To be compassionate thus means that there are no distinctions within reality, or at least none that we can detect. Everything is accepted. The only sin conceivable is to imply that something is wrong, that someone did something worthy of objective blame. That insinuation of praise or blame we cannot tolerate. All definitions and judgments indicate "fanaticism," the only real sin. Fanaticism, in a morally disordered society, comes to be identified with orthodoxy, with the life of virtue.
Jennifer Roback Morse makes this point of how compassion is confused with charity in this ecclesiastical reflection:
Vatican II's call for the renewal of moral theology occurred at roughly the same time as the establishment of the Great Society programs in America. Are the two compatible? Superficially, it might seem so, because the Great Society appears to be an increased social commitment to the care of the poor. But at a deeper level, the Great Society substitutes a legalistic, minimalist approach to the Christian precept of charity. For what could be a more minimalistic contribution to the poor than pulling the voting lever for a candidate whose speech writer sounds compassionate? What could be more legalistic than filling out a tax return, and believing we have (thereby) satisfied the Biblical injunction to charity (Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy, 1997).
To what degree, in other words, can a religion that is serious about itself achieve its spiritual goals through its being aided and promoted by state institutions that operate on quite different principles?
The compassionate state that will take care of all our ills verges on the totalitarian state, itself usually a claim to care for the poor. Contrary to its initial good intentions, welfare destroys families and sanctions irresponsibility. Much of the criticism of Mother Teresa, I suspect, arises from the fact that her charity cannot be identified with a political compassion that wants to meet by new laws the very problems she rather addresses with charity.
When a religion becomes non-judgmental, hesitant about identifying anything as right or wrong, even against its own stated principles, when it becomes so compassionate that anyone can do anything simply because it is rooted in his own choices, it risks disappearance as an identifiable organization. Paul Johnson's exasperated words make the point in their own way: "Is the Church of England coming to the end of the road? It looks like it. The service for sodomites and lesbians at Southwark Cathedral last Saturday, blessed by Anglican bishops, has brought home to millions of people in this country who have not much thought about the matter before what kind of an institution our national Church has become" (The Spectator, 23 November, 1996).
The question of what kind of habits and institutions churches foster is a vital one for any civil society and cannot be presumed to make no difference. Average people who read the Bible are not so foolish as not to notice when something against its very foundations is presented in its name. Politically it is always difficult to deal with a religion that is what it professes to be. The question today seems to be rather, what to do with religions that are not doing what they profess to be?
The first words of the Gospel are "repent," which means that even before the Gospel came along, sensible people who never heard of Christianity recognized that they had something that needed repentance. If there is nothing that needs repentance, Christianity is certainly outmoded and quite unnecessary. Moreover, what needs repentance ought not to be some subjective guilt feeling, but the violation of a real and object standard of human conduct, something that we can know and know that we are violating. As Russell Gough, writing of Dennis Rodman, the basketball star's inability to control his temper on a playing court, put it, in a very Aristotelian way, "our lives do not ultimately flourish or self-destruct because of our personality traits but because of our habits of character. Habit, not personality, is destiny" (The Washington Post, February 2, 1997). We are responsible for the formation of our habits, good or bad. The fact that we all sin does not mean that the effort to define sin or bad habits, or to provide a means of repentance or change of life, is an utterly useless effort.
Sin is often said to be merely some social mal-adjustment. Rousseau said that man is good; his institutions are wrong. Therefore, rearrange the institutions and, lo, individuals will be good again. Individuals are said to be victims, not agents of their own souls. The fact is, however, that bad institutions arise from bad choices and bad habits. Aristotle had it right. Constitutions follow on the character of the people who choose to foster and preserve their own definitions of right and wrong through how they construct their institutions of rule. If we want to change a republic, for better or for worse, we must first look to changing souls.
Is Catholicism serious about itself? In a lecture at St. Vincent's College, Brian Benestad had it right, "The dependence of justice in society on the order in the individual soul is surely one of the most neglected aspects of Catholic social teaching on the virtue of justice." Again we ought to know that preaching about social institutions and causes, however popular because of the incorporation of Rousseauian ideas into our culture, will never work. We also know that it is not enough to change our souls without our seeking to help those in need. But we need to be careful that the need to be addressed is not itself caused precisely by some sin or habit. Our charity or compassion ought not not simply to reinforce and smooth over what causes the problem in the first place. We look for technical solutions on a societal level -- vaccines for AIDS, say -- that "might" work instead of moral cures on a personal level -- say, self-control -- that will work.
Christianity, moreover, is being rent by distortions of its own egalitarian premises. Equality is another good idea, like compassion, gone riot. At least one origin of the idea of human equality (the other is Stoicism) is the doctrine of the personal creation by God of each human being. "All men are created equal," as a famous document states. Notice, as Chesterton quipped, that the word "created" is operative here, "for they certainly did not evolve equal." For Christians, human equality is not an abstraction. As usual, John Paul II put it well: "Recognition of someone as a human being is never based on the awareness or experience we may have of him, but by the certitude that he has an infinite value from conception, which comes to him from his relationship with God. A human being has primacy over the ideas others have of him, and his existence is absolute and not relative" (December 7, 1996). A human being has primacy over the ideas others have of him.... This is another way of saying that when the Word was made flesh to dwell amongst us, it included the word in which each of us is made to be what we are.
Another Christian source of equality lies in the fact that we are all sinners and in need of redemption, be we pauper or king, scholar or merchant, cleric or gambler. We have all been invited to share in the divine life, but only after the manner of its own definition about how this participation is to come about. We do not set the terms of our own redemption. Though the burden is light, the way is narrow. Thus, the very idea of equality before God implies the freedom and the duty to become, as it were, unequal. We become unequal by freely choosing not to sin, by freely choosing to act virtuously, by freely choosing to repent, even when these choices make us different, make us a minority, even when we may have to suffer for our choices in terms of adverse public opinion, if not by actual persecution, which is in fact more widespread in the world today than we are willing to admit.
News is beginning to filter through, with the help of the latest Kennedy divorces, moreover, about the rather astonishing numbers of annulments that are being granted in various diocesan chanceries. Even though the general divorce rate has somewhat abated, it looks very much as if there is little difference in statistics between Catholics and any one else when it comes to the de facto integrity of marriage bonds. We are tempted to conclude, in fact, that among us very few "indissoluble marriages" take place today. Death is not what does the parting.
Almost all actual marriages, in retrospect, appear to have some now easily defined and proved impediment of knowledge, intention, or psychological status that render them dubiously valid from the beginning. We have no divorces, but myriads of annulments. Maybe that is what we should expect from living in culture degraded in almost every aspect of its understanding and practice about sex and marriage. Marriage itself is no longer able to be defined in the public forum as what it is, the permanent union of a man and a woman that looks, in the heart of their own relationship, to the begetting and caring for their own children. Begetting is more and more turned over to science, while "unwanted" children, sooner or later, are turned over to the state or destroyed in the womb. Sex is left as a kind of insignificant plaything, only to be safely undertaken when it can engender no reproductive results, preferably no emotional ones either.
Somehow, I came across an essay in the Boston College Observer (January 31, 1996) by a student there, Adam DeMaro, who discussed the vapid homilies he had heard on campus. I believe the young man's school has no monopoly here. "Why are so many sticky issues avoided and why are so many priests not bolder and more enthusiastic about the Faith?" DeMaro wondered. Sermons evade doctrine as if to imply that there is little relation between what we do and what we think, certainly not a Catholic position. "Many sermons downplay the importance of infallible doctrine in cultivating a genuine personal faith." That the Church would deign to teach something as definitive is downright dangerous in an academic culture where practically nothing is permitted to be definitive.
The sermons also dodge sin. The preachers do not want to upset us. The flock is presumed to be very delicate. "Thou shalt nots" succumb. In their place, we emphasize "the positive," as a priest told DeMaro when he asked him why no sin was mentioned. The lists of what not to do is rarely heard. Sin itself is also culturally relativized. Something is "ok" in Kansas City because it is "ok" in the South Seas, or at least because of what some anthropologist, mirroring his own life, says is "ok" in the South Seas.
Of virtue, it is said, no universal standards exist; we cannot "impose" our dogmas or practices even on believers who "dissent." "Fornication is a case in point," DeMaro adds. "Not once have I heard a sermon preached warning us of the terrible consequences of this act. And a majority of students engage in it regularly." That is a pretty funny, frank observation, in fact. No one, particularly no preacher, wants to interfere with regular student practices, of course. No one mentions any such "terrible consequences" or even imagines out loud what they might be. Modern sex in fact is designed specifically to have no consequences. Emphasize the positive. At least some students, like DeMaro, in spite of all this positiveness, still wonder "what good (is) the good news, being saved by Christ, if there is nothing we need saving from?" This is, indeed, a very good question.
We live in a world, however, in which every year many, many Catholics and Christians die, are murdered, for their faith. Estimates go as high as a hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand. We do not much want to hear about it or try to do anything about it. It implies judging other people about their quaint "customs." We do not want to analyze too closely laws that make Christians second-class citizens, if that. We certainly do not want our culture questioned, even by the Commandments, certainly not by those who kill and persecute fellow Christians. We'll say nothing of their sins if they say nothing of ours.
Fornication is, in fact, more likely to be a topic of sermons than martyrdom. I have been struck recently by the number of Jews who have wondered why Christians are so little concerned about the persecution of their own. Mona Charen (Washington Times, 11 December 1995) put it well: "But above all, American Christians are simply ill-informed. If one major TV magazine program aired a segment on what is actually happening to Christians in the late 20th century, the apathy would be gone in a flash. Child slavery, false imprisonment, torture, murder. It is all happening to Christians in Islamic and other countries. How long will the world's largest Christian community stay silent?" The answer to this last question seems to be "for a very long time." Even though the State Department itself belatedly produced a paper on the extent of the persecution of Christians throughout the world, Christians themselves appear to be little interested in the persecution of other Christians, no matter how widespread. If we can largely take abortion and infanticide in stride, surely we can adjust to persecution as some kind of statistical event that is bound to happen somewhere at any time among diverse cultures, all happily equal.
John Paul II, no doubt, has referred to contemporary martyrdom very often. Probably the best recent study of this very shocking situation is Paul Marshall's Their Blood Cries Out. The fact is that we live in a world in which the sufferings of brothers and sisters in the faith is little emphasized. We do hear of those who want to socialize the world to prevent poverty without ever hearing it mentioned that socialism will not prevent it. The governments and religions that are most often responsible for persecuting Christians are relatively immune from our criticism, often because we think we need them for economic reasons.
Again we wonder whether Catholics are serious about the communion of saints? We seem to have more sympathy for every suffering group in the world, including rain forests, than for our own, not that we should not concern ourselves with any sort of suffering. We even see a huge decline in efforts of evangelization because it is considered impolite or impolitic to insist on legal freedom of religion where it does not in practice exist. "Interfering in the internal affairs of others," it is called. Many even want to maintain that it does not make any ultimate difference what faith or philosophy or lack thereof someone holds. God, it is said, if He exists at all, must be so compassionate that He saves everyone, no matter what he does or says. Again, no serious reading of Catholicism can justify that position.
Another reason for religious and cultural lethargy may well have to do with the relative population decline of once Christian peoples who seem to have lost confidence in begetting and fostering their own in stable families. Studies seem clearly to show that major causes of our familial and cultural crisis are divorce and the lack of a stable, two parent, male and female -- it needs to be specified -- home. Never let it be said that no observable relation exists between faith and children. Except from graphic studies of people like Allan Carlson, we do not hear much said about divorce either. Sermons on divorce are almost as rare as sermons on fornication. The late Allen Bloom, I believe, claimed that he could look at the faces in his college classes and tell which ones came from homes of divorced parents (The Closing of the American Mind). I sometimes believe it.
Professor Lewis Tambs, in a perceptive article in Policy Counsel (Spring, 1997), has detailed the relative loss of population in European countries and in the United States. In both areas, needed population is being recruited or supplied from from areas of the world that have large populations with quite different values.
The megatrends foreseen by futurologists envision a post-modern era in which the West is no longer the dominant culture, but one of many. For the West has been weakened by demographic decline.... Western civil wars (World Wars I and II, the Cold War) also accelerated transfer of modernity to other peoples, a trend of technological transfer hastened by multinationalism, globalism, and economic integration. These peoples of the Third World, moreover, fight in different, non-conventional ways. So called "fourth generation warfare" of post-modern conflict is waged through immigration, tribalism, trade wars, terrorism, and opiates.
The loss of spiritual confidence and certainty manifests itself in a refusal to give life to new generations.
Few Western countries reproduce themselves at rates sufficient to remain even. Italy, I believe, has become something of a model of how rapidly a people could decide not to replace themselves. The death of a people or civilization is the result of a choice against life. A civilization of death is being rapidly formed. The choosing against life in practice is the result of something deeper, some rejection of objective order both in the soul and in the polity in favor of our own self-imposed and self-defined order.
The trouble, as Tom Bethell has recently remarked (The American Spectator, February, 1997), is that there is a war on that Catholics and Christians choose not even to notice. They do not appreciate that the very foundations of their faith, or even its possibility, are being aggressively denied legally, culturally, and philosophically. Our intellectual classes in the Church have thought it their glory in the past half century to accommodate themselves smoothly to the prevailing culture without noticing how the same culture has changed. It is radically undermining the possibility of living a Christian life. In many cases, almost irreparable corruption takes place in children before the age of reason, certainly before the age of driving.
Tom Bethell put the matter bluntly:
The judiciary's assault on religious traditions has coincided with a near vacuum in Christian leadership. For some time now the Christian churches have harbored virulent apostate movements squarely in the enemy camp. The mainline Protestant churches appear to be near collapse.... The American Catholic hierarchy has been preoccupied with leftist causes for a generation and has squandered much much of its moral capital as a result. Heresy is met with diplomacy.
Political compassion has replaced charity and doctrine. We cannot point out traditional teachings because those that practice deviations from them would be offended. Civil rights almost have come to mean the justification of moral disorders. The intellectual effort of accurate moral analysis and conclusion is delegitimized.
Robert Reilly had it right about how this deligitimization works. "The culture of vice," as he called it, (National Review, November, 1996), does not stop until it declares the classical vices to be virtues. It insists further that in the public forum, including the religious sector, that they be called precisely virtuous. Even to cite the list of sins that a St. Paul said were both abnormal and heinous is to violate someone's civil rights to practice them with government aid and protection. "Judge not," under any circumstances.
Reilly rightly begins with Aristotle's observation that "men start revolutionary changes for reasons connected with their private lives." He adds:
For any individual, moral failure is hard to live with because of the rebuke of conscience. Habitual moral failure, what used to be called vice, can be lived with only by obliterating conscience through rationalization. When we rationalize, we convince ourselves that heretofore forbidden desires are permissible. We advance the reality of the desires over the reality of the moral order to which the desires should be subordinated. In our minds we replace the reality of moral order with something more congenial to the activity we are excusing. In short, we assert that bad is good.
This is very well said and explains the mood of the public moral order, or lack of it, that we witness today. Paul Johnson in The Intellectuals and E. Michael Jones in Degenerate Moderns have made a similar point about the relation between the relativism of modern philosophical positions and the moral character of their authors.
In an address he gave to the European Doctrinal Commission in 1989 in Vienna, Josef Ratzinger, in a slightly different manner, made the same point that Reilly stressed:
Key concepts present themselves in the words "conscience" and "freedom" which are supposed to confer the aura of morality upon changed forms of behaviour which, at first glance, would be plainly labelled as a surrender of moral integrity, the simplification of a lax conscience. No longer is conscience understood as that knowledge which derives from a higher form of knowledge. It is instead the individual's self-determination which may not be directed by someone else, a determination by which each person decides for himself what is moral in a given situation.
The Supreme Court, in the Casey decision, pretty well espoused this view of absolute moral self-determination that Ratzinger indicated as the exact opposite of any classical or Christian idea of conscience or freedom.
We live in a strange time, no doubt. In academia today, we do not like to speak of "Roman" Catholicism; each school, even each department, not to mention each individual, under this same doctrine of self-deciding freedom, has its own version of the content of faith, if indeed any is admitted. Yet, the Roman Catholic Church itself has never had at its head a more intellectual and decisive Pope, nor in the case of Josef Ratzinger, a more intellectual head of its doctrinal concerns. I sometimes suspect that there is an uneasy, but grudging realization of this fact not merely in Catholic intellectual circles but in the world at large. Great care is taken not to allow the force of the Catholic statement of itself to be presented accurately and clearly. Dissidents are always preferred when it comes to explaining in the media or academia what Catholicism might mean or intend. If Catholicism is not culturally stronger, it is not because it has not adequately accounted for itself at the highest level in almost every area.
One can interpret the recent American conclusions over Ex Corde Ecclesiae university directives -- themselves now turned back for revision by the Holy See -- in several ways, I suppose. Probably James Hitchcock was not far from the mark when he remarked (The Academy, April, 1997) that from now on, in universities and colleges, Catholicism, what it is, will not be a matter of doctrine, practice, and authority, but of consensus. A different form of Catholicism will be found in each school. No one will be able to say what is or is not orthodox without being accused of violating the bishops' decision not to interfere. Except rarely, bishops will not be consulted nor will they say much of anything.
Something like the General Catechism will not, in practice, serve as a common standard since any standard is subject to varying consensus. This consensus is not generally determined by the university but will be turned over to certain faculties within it. Bishops, whatever the now very obscure confines of their legal standing, will not venture into this, to them, closed world. Students or faculty members who want religious ceremonies or teaching in conformity with the Holy See will be marginalized. They will have to look outside the system. There will be, however, no confrontations, no resolution in terms of a common standard of belief handed down or judged by a religious authority about what it is about. Self-professed Catholics will hold, in effect, opposite positions on everything from precepts of the moral law to the divinity of Christ or the place of Mary or the Eucharist. These will be merely differences of academic views.
All of this, I suggest, is happening while the formal statement of the basic doctrines and moral principles have never been clearer or more coherent. The International Theological Institute was opened in Gaming, Austria, on January 28, 1997, the Feast of Thomas Aquinas. The sermon was delivered by the Viennese Archbishop, Christoph von Schönbrun, himself appropriately a Dominican. In the course of his Sermon, von Schönbrun cited the famous line from the very first question of the Summa Theologiae, "The entire salvation of man depends upon the knowledge of the truth." We should not fail to realize just how revolutionary this single sentence from Aquinas is in our culture. Everything conspires to deny that there can be such a thing as a knowledge of the truth.
But what struck me most about von Schönbrun's sermon was his assessment of the place of Aquinas in the Church. Our culture is dominated by an activist streak that not only denies any standard of virtue or vice but acquires its own morality from what it chooses to enforce. We pass from prohibiting drinking to prohibiting smoking as if there is no irony in the thousands of references that morality cannot be legislated. Morality is identified with the law which itself is based on nothing but its own statement, on will. Law can change tomorrow and a new "morality" will then be in vogue. No appeal from positive law to a natural or revealed law will be tolerated. Hence, whatever the law says is right, until it is changed. To whatever it is changed, this will then become right.
"In the Church, there are all kinds of saints: holy housewives and holy kings, holy fools and holy artists. Among these saints there are also holy thinkers and theologians," von Schönbrun recalled.
Thomas Aquinas is considered the greatest of these. Thomas did not take care of the sick, he did not deliver great sermons. Like few others he only studied, searched, taught, and wrote. And for this he is revered as a saint.... Thomas is only a thinker, philosopher and theologian, so much so that his biography is of comparatively little interest. When one speaks of Thomas Aquinas, one means his work. He is holy in his work.
What struck me about this reflection is that those orders and centers that we have looked to for "thought," for "truth," are rarely places wherein it can be found. Thomas must largely be found on our own.
So how can Catholicism be serious about its truth? I knew a bishop once who told me that many of his college students went to a Catholic college in another diocese. When he found out that all the theological faculty of that college signed a document opposing one of the stated positions of the Church, he told me that he hoped at least some of his students would ask him about it. He said he was willing to write a letter to the university requesting exemption of all his students from any theology class on the grounds that it was a danger to their faith. Alas, he could find no student bright enough or with gumption enough to test it out.
But this story does bring up an issue that I think at least worth suggesting. Even though there is little or no formal relation now between universities and bishops -- most Catholic students are in state or non-Catholic schools anyhow -- still bishops remain responsible in some sense for the spiritual well-being of all their students. They cannot abdicate this responsibility. How might they exercise this responsibility since in practice they can no longer satisfy their consciences that what is taught at the college level is what students need to know about their faith and its intelligence? In Italy, the Holy Father seems to have organized a series of "theological weeks" for students in Italian universities. His world youth days also have been enormously successful. Ralph McInerny has proposed a television university.
I sometimes wonder if bishops should not require, as a matter of grave conscience, that each college student, no matter what college he attends, state, private, or Catholic, read at least the General Catechism and perhaps Crossing the Threshold of Faith during his college years, with a few other books recommended, say Augustine's Confessions and Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Perhaps some sort of video cassette might work also.
The atmosphere into which students are sent requires some positive effort on their part and on the bishops' part. Msgr. Robert Sokolowski put the matter properly:
The secular sciences and academic fields as they are now constituted claim to be independent of any authority external to their disciplines. They claim that their ways of thinking begin within each discipline itself, with principles, methods, and sources of that discipline, independent of an authority outside it. This claim rests on a conviction concerning the nature of human reason: reason is seen as self-authorizing and autonomous, as generating its own principles and not accepting anything on authority, as setting itself up as the beginning and the judge of thinking. In this perspective, accepting things on faith has a tinge of gullibility and uncritical submission, of what Kant called heteronomy, which he saw as the deepest betrayal of reason. ("Church Tradition and the Catholic University," in The Nature of Catholic Higher Education, 1996).
No doubt, this is a factual description of the kind of intellectual atmosphere that most students encounter.
The situation, in conclusion, is not altogether hopeless. Looking at the failure of communism in his Guadalajara address in November, 1996, Josef Ratzinger observed, "The failure of the communist regimes is due precisely to the fact that they tried to change the world without knowing what is good and what is not good for the world, without knowing in what direction the world must be changed in order to make it better. Mere praxis is not light." The world cannot be changed without knowing what is good and what is not good. Changing the world is first a matter of soulcraft.
But we are Christians and know that philosophy itself will not save us. John Paul II remarked precisely to youth preparing for his World Youth Day in Paris, 1997, "Christians are not the disciples of a system of philosophy: they are men and women who, in faith, have experienced the encounter with Christ" (15 August, 1996). This too is well said.
But this fact that Christianity is not a "system of philosophy" does not mean there is no place for philosophy. Josef Ratzinger, again in his remarkable Guadalajara address, had it right: "But Barth was wrong when ... he proposed the faith as a pure paradox that can only exist against reason and totally independent from it. It is not the lesser function of the faith to care for reason as such." The seriousness of Catholicism in the modern world should be precisely this, "to care for reason as such." The degree to which Catholicism is serious about itself, I think, is to be measured both by John Paul's we "are not the disciples of a system of philosophy," and by Josef Ratzinger's remark that "not the lesser function of faith is to care for reason."