Summer 2011

America's Technological Ontology and the Gift of the Given: Benedict XVI on the Cultural Significance of the Quarere Deum

David L. Schindler

Pope Benedict XVI has made a point during the years of his papacy to affirm the necessity of natural law and the integrity of nature and thus the secular in Christians’ engagement with culture. It was striking, for example, that, on his 2008 visit to France, he said that we needed “a new reflection on the true meaning and importance of laïcité,” or what we might call secularity. On this occasion he also affirmed the “distinction between the political realm and that of religion,” while insisting at the same time on the State’s responsibility “to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to—among other things—the creation of a basic ethical consensus in society.”5 Indeed, I should say more generally in this context that Pope Benedict has affirmed the distinctiveness of America’s form of the Enlightenment, acknowledging the difference between the French Revolution and “Continental” liberalism, on the one hand, and the American revolution and Anglo-American liberalism, on the other.6

It is interesting to note, however, that, at a meeting with cultural leaders on this same visit to France, Benedict stated that monastic culture, with its center in the Benedictine quaerere Deum, the “search for God,” still has something important to say to us. Indeed, he concluded his lecture with the statement that “what gave Europe’s culture its foundation—the search for God and the readiness to listen to him—remains today the basis of any culture.”7

My purpose in this article is to explore the meaning of Benedict’s thought as expressed here, in terms of the problem of secularity and religion, or religiosity, in America; and to consider also in this light the work of the Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, whose arguments apropos of this problem are widely acknowledged to be among the most sophisticated in the history of American Catholicism. The main burden of my reflections will be to provide a reading of America and America’s cultural achievements, vis-à-vis the question of the dignity of human life, and indeed of the truth, goodness, and beauty of all creaturely being, in their original givenness as such.8

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5. Benedict XVI, “Meeting with Authorities of  State,” 12 September 2008, Elysée Palace, Paris.

6. See Joseph Ratzinger’s contribution to Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, co-authored by Marcello Pera (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

7. Benedict XVI, “Meeting with Representatives from the World of Culture” [MRWC], 12 September 2008, Collège des Bernardins, Paris. Reprinted as “The Origins of Western Theology and the Roots of European Culture,” Communio: International Catholic Review 38, no. 2 (Summer 2011).

8. The methodological presuppositions of my argument are indicated in John Paul II’s Fides et ratio, 76, which states the legitimate sense of a Christian philosophy, according to which faith enables one to see better what is available in principle to all human inquirers, that is, while not thereby disqualifying one’s thought as properly philosophical. Much of my argumentation with respect to American culture should be seen in this light: my central claims about man, and the search for God that is implied within the depths of man’s being and consciousness, while to be sure shaped and deepened within Christian faith, nonetheless carry the implication that this search for God operates in every human being, and that every human being has a deep, even if often only ambiguous, sense of this fact.