|Father Schall on Embracing the Whole of Reality
By Annamarie Adkins
WASHINGTON, D.C., 28 SEPT. 2009 (ZENIT)
Benedict XVI has made the recovery of the mutual interdependence of
faith and reason one of the signature themes of his pontificate.
And no one has been as prolific a commentator on this important
question raised by the Holy Father than Jesuit Father James Schall.
Father Schall, a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown
University, has penned, among many other writings, a book-length
commentary on Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture. The lecture caused an
international sensation for its mention of the presence of violence in
the Islamic tradition, but the lecture's key themes related to the
relationship between faith and reason were left to be unpacked by
writers such as Father Schall.
Now Father Schall has written a new book, "The Mind That Is Catholic:
Philosophical and Political Essays" (CUA Press). The book explores the
habits of being that allow one to use the tools of faith and reason to
explore all things seen and unseen.
Father Schall shared with ZENIT why all people, not just professional
philosophers and theologians, can have a mind that is truly Catholic.
ZENIT: What does it mean to have a mind that is Catholic? What are
its key elements?
Father Schall: The mind that is Catholic is open to all sources of
information, including what comes from Revelation.
Revelation is not opposed to reason as if it were some blind source.
Revelation has its own intelligibility that can be grasped and compared
or addressed to what we know in reason.
Catholicism does not define reason as if it only meant a reason that
follows some methodology where the terms of the method decide what we
are allowed to see or consider.
The very definition of mind is that power that is open to all that
is. We human beings are not gods. But we do know and the object of our
knowledge is all that is.
It is characteristic of the Catholic mind to insist that all that is
knowable is available and considered by us in our reflections on
ZENIT: Are there clear points of distinction between the Catholic
mind and a "Protestant mind" or a "secular mind"?
Father Schall: Monsignor Robert Sokolowski says that the method of
philosophy is precisely to make distinctions. Obviously, the Protestant
mind and the secular mind strive to distinguish themselves on many
things from the Catholic mind.
If no one thought there was any difference between them, Catholicism,
Protestantism and secularism would already be one. This does not deny
that it is quite possible that they agree on some things.
It is the method of Aquinas to find out what these points of
agreement and difference are. I always like the way Aquinas recalls
Aristotle's comment that "a small error in the beginning leads to a
large error in the end."
The ecumenical movement has tried valiantly to find points of
agreement. It has found many. But errors do appear and grow.
I once wrote an essay entitled "Protestantism and Atheism."
("Thought," XXXIX (Dec. 1964) pp. 531-558.) The burden of that essay had
to do with the importance of reason to Catholicism. This stress on
reason is found in Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture, among other
The reason, I thought at the time, that Protestantism led to atheism
was because it evaporated the world of meaning and insisted on
revelation alone. Once the world is there absent reason, it is easy,
following Aristotle's dictum, to conclude that God is not in the world
in any sense.
It was the mind of Aquinas, following the line of the origin of
"existence," to insist that we really did find reality in existing
things, but they did not cause their own existence.
It was from here we could argue to God's existence so that, if
revelation happened, it would be intelligible to us as a response to our
own lack of knowledge of ultimate things.
ZENIT: What are the necessary habits or practices for forming and
maintaining a "mind that is Catholic?" Likewise, where are the primary
sources from which the Catholic mind draws its inspiration?
Father Schall: Of course, one of the good practices will be to know
Aristotle, a great mind who, if I might with some irony put it that way,
was "Catholic" before there was Catholicism.
This is but another way of saying that Catholicism is more than eager
to know what the human mind can know by itself. The mind that is
Catholic in this sense is more than Catholic. Or, to put it another way,
we cannot be Catholic if we are only Catholic.
We think, in the end, that what is peculiar in Catholicism is not
opposed to reason but rather constitutes a completion of it.
It was Aristotle who warned us that the reason we do not accept the
truth even when it is presented to us is because we do not really want
to know it. Knowing it would force us to change our ways. If we do not
want to change our ways, we will invent a "theory" whereby we can live
without the truth.
The "primary" source of the Catholic mind is reality itself,
including the reality of revelation.
We are not primarily students of what other people thought, but of
what is. This is why ordinary and unlearned people are not excluded from
the Catholic mind.
The source of our knowledge is not a book but experience of being and
living, an experience that will often include those whose lives are
already touched by grace.
So I read with great profit everyone from Justin Martyr to Aquinas
and Benedict. But they take me not to themselves but to the truth.
The great "habit," as it were, is that of acknowledging the truth
when we see it. This implies both reason and grace which are not the
same, but neither are they contradictory to each other.
ZENIT: Do you believe that Catholic schools do a good job of
fostering a Catholic mind in young Catholics?
Father Schall: Briefly, no.
No one could think that the curriculum and spirit of Catholic schools
today are based in the tradition of specifically Catholic intelligence.
That requires discipline, study, and virtue.
In the modern world, we find no group more deprived of the glories of
their own mind than young Catholics. This is why those small enclaves
that do address themselves to it are in many ways remarkable.
Catholic institutions of higher learning, as they are called, simply
gave up what was unique about themselves and the reasons for having
Catholic universities in the first place. This lost source was the
active vigor of the Catholic mind read not as an historical phenomenon
or as a social activism, but as a search for and testimony of the truth,
that towards which all mind is directed.
ZENIT: What modern persons, in your opinion, best embody ‘a mind that
is Catholic?' Why?
Father Schall: In most of my books, beginning with "Another Sort of
Learning," I have provided lists of books or reminders of them
books that I think tell the truth.
I always list Chesterton and E. F. Schumacher. I think the present
pope, as well as the previous one, were marvels of the Catholic mind, a
mind that comes to grips with all things, yet with the light of grace
The philosophy department at the Catholic University of America, to
which I dedicated my book "The Mind That Is Catholic," is a perennial
source of wisdom and rigorous intelligence. There is no place quite like
it. I am a great admirer of the work of Monsignor Sokolowski, whose
latest book, "The Phenomenology of the Human Person," is itself the
Catholic mind at work; it is a mind that knows of reason and its limits
as well as of its reaches.
Why do these and many other thinkers "embody a mind that is
Catholic?" I think it is because they take everything into account.
What is peculiar to Catholicism, I have always thought, is its
refusal to leave anything out. In my short book, "The Regensburg
Lecture," I was constantly astonished at the enormous range of the mind
of the present Holy Father. There is simply no mind in any university or
public office that can match his. He is a humble man, in fact.
It is embarrassing to the world, and often to Catholic
"intellectuals," to find that its most intelligent mind is on the Chair
of Peter. I have always considered this papal intellectual profundity to
be God's little joke to the modern mind.
The modern mind has built up for itself theories and ideologies
whereby it prevents itself from seeing the truth that a man like
Benedict XVI spells out for it in lucid and rigorously argued terms –
terms fully aware and familiar with all of modern philosophy itself.
But Benedict XVI is a messenger of the Logos.
We do not get around his mind. We only shy away from considering it.
ZENIT: Is having a "mind that is Catholic" limited solely to
philosophers, theologians, and intellectuals, or is it something that
all Catholics should pursue?
Father Schall: What is unique about Christian revelation is that it
was intended for everyone, including the philosophers.
Aristotle himself recognized that every mind is open to reality and
hence could know
perhaps not in some sophisticated fashion
what is the truth. But the record of philosophers and theologians is not
particularly impressive on this score.
From the admonitions of Paul to the present day, we have been
concerned about the damage that philosophers could do to ordinary
people. This was Socrates' polemic with the Sophists.
Christianity has never canonized the learned in great numbers. I am
fond of citing Cardinal von Schönborn's remark that Thomas Aquinas was
the only man ever canonized simply for thinking.
Great damage can and has come to the little ones through the
aberrations of the philosophers. We do well to take note of it.
But Catholicism, as I have tried to spell out, needs and wants and
delights in its thinkers.
I have always thought it was the function of a teacher to take
students to other minds in which they can find the truth. But the truth
is not in a book. It is in conversation, it is in actively thinking
about what is.
Catholicism knows that all sorts and sources of knowledge flow into
its mind, one of which
the primary one that makes it unique
is revelation. But it is a revelation, in its own terms, addressed to
active reason. That too is the mind that is Catholic.
ZENIT: One notable writer has claimed that philosophy is consummated
in the liturgy. What does this mean? How do the sacraments and spiritual
life contribute to the "mind that is Catholic"?
Father Schall: You are referring to Catherine Pickstock's book,
"After Writing: The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy." I have a
chapter in my book, "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy," entitled
"Worship and Political Philosophy," which is on this same issue.
What the "liturgical consummation of philosophy" means is that
philosophy does not end in ideas or systems but in a reality that
This notion is right out of Plato's "Laws" in which he said
in a phrase that I always delight in citing
we should spend our lives "singing, sacrificing, and dancing." This is
But what is unique about Catholicism is that within it is contained
the one thing that the human race has searched for in vain, namely, what
is the proper way to worship God.
Mankind has come up with many ways; some, like Plato's, are fairly
close. Others, like the Aztec sacrificing of human youth, are far away.
The bottom line is that the only way we could do this worship
properly is if God would teach us. This is what the Mass, with its
reality of the sacrifice of the Cross present, is about
the way to worship God.
Only God, in the end, could tell us this, give us an example of how
to perform the worship of the Father.
So yes, the mind that is Catholic leads naturally to worship and to
the awe of the Triune Godhead into which we are invited to enter if we
accept the divine invitation and live our lives in a way that we do not
The mind that is Catholic seeks the source of what is and to delight
in it. This is its glory.