Father James Schall on Faith,
Reason and Politics
WASHINGTON, D.C., 10 SEPT. 2005 (ZENIT)
Some thinkers have attributed the rise of Western civilization to the
unshackling of philosophy and the natural sciences from theology and the
burden of religious claims.
Even Thomas Aquinas noted that the natural sciences and philosophy have
distinct methods and require a certain degree of autonomy.
But in his new book, "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy" (Lexington
Books), Father James Schall claims that philosophy, and political
philosophy in particular, can only arrive at the truth it seeks if it
allows itself to be open to the truths of Revelation as offered by
Father Schall, professor in the department of government at Georgetown
University, shared with ZENIT why Catholicism offers a distinct and
necessary approach to the endeavors of the political philosopher.
Part 2 of this interview appears elsewhere in today's dispatch.
Q: Please explain the title "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy," since
Catholicism is not a political movement.
Father Schall: The title is deliberately paradoxical, even provocative.
It is, if you will, a countercultural thesis. Two different, known
things are juxtaposed. They, I argue, have a relation that, if not
spelled out, ends up confusing both political and revelational
Since Catholicism is not a political movement, it frees political things
to be political things. It does not encourage them, as so often happens
in modernity, to be confused with religion or metaphysics, or become, in
effect, substitutes for them.
The book is at pains to define modernity, a movement that sees no cause
to explain things, including human things, other than arbitrary human
will as their basis. Likewise, attention is given to science and
metaphysics to distinguish them from political things.
If politics is not limited to what it is, it tends to claim to be itself
the highest thing. It finds itself claiming to define and to establish
the whole of the human good on its own terms.
Catholicism is not a political movement, but it is concerned with the
highest things. Still it also recognizes that some regimes are better
than others and understands principles by which such distinction between
good and bad regimes can be established. It likewise recognizes and
defends the legitimacy of the philosophical consideration of human
Revelation cannot deal with politics until it first knows what politics
considers itself to be. Political philosophy must know what it itself
By "Revelation" I mean that body of articulated principles and
conclusions that Catholic thought has explained in precise terms exactly
what it holds about God, man and the cosmos. The origins of this
knowledge are the events both in the Old and New Testaments, as they are
recorded and handed down in Tradition and Scripture.
But Roman Catholicism understands itself in contrast with alternative
views of the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption and the Church. The
Church is a means whereby that which is announced to mankind is to be
achieved in practice.
The most succinct statement of what Catholicism holds about itself is
found in the Nicene Creed; the most recent and elaborate statement is
found in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church does not and cannot hold that everyone believes or
understands what is presented here without grace. But it does insist
that anyone can at least get the point of what it presents.
The Incarnation, for example, may be a mystery [...], but anyone who
takes the effort can at least understand what it claims it to be. It is
part of the very essence of Catholicism constantly to specify and
clarify what it means or understands about itself in the light of
objections or misunderstandings from whatever source.
Indeed, a good part of what we know more clearly about Revelation was
historically hammered out in controversies, many still quite alive, with
those who rejected or misunderstood what Catholicism held about itself
and about Revelation's content.
Q: What is political philosophy? Why is it incomplete in itself?
Father Schall: In one sense, political philosophy exists because both
Plato and Cicero wrote books called "The Republic" and "The Laws," while
Aristotle wrote "Ethics," "Politics" and "Metaphysics."
Though both the Old and New Testaments touch upon political things,
but more especially the New Testament
is directly a treatise on politics, on how to organize the city.
Indirectly, certain things in the New Testament, the "render to Caesar"
and the "it is better to obey God than men," together with giving a cup
of water and the trial of Christ, have had an enormous impact on our
understanding of politics. Still, it was not the direct purpose of
Revelation to tell us how to organize our polities.
We could figure this political information out mostly by our own powers,
by experience and reason. This knowledge is why we still read the
classic authors who were not influenced by Revelation.
The more subtle question that Revelation might be said to deal with is
why, if we know both how we should live and how the city should be best
organized from reason, can we not live that way? Why is the history of
our political lives in almost all eras and places so often an account of
disorder and failing human institutions?
The answer to this question, summed up in the doctrine of the Fall, or
original sin, has always been one of the roots of political realism
wherein we are most careful not to expect too much of politics as such.
Philosophy is a quest for knowledge of the whole of reality insofar as
this knowledge can be ascertained by human reason open to reality.
Aristotle pointed out that ethical and political questions exist in the
universe as a product of human free choosing in achieving the virtues
and the institutions in which virtue could be practiced. Man was by
nature a political animal because he only became fully human when he set
up and lived a full political life as a mortal in this world.
Politics, however, did not deny that there were things "beyond
politics." Indeed, politics existed in part so that we could order our
lives to pass over into that leisurely or contemplative life in which
the theoretical questions were proposed, pondered, and, to some extent,
In one sense, as Leo Strauss pointed out, political philosophy is the
effort of the philosopher to convince the politician to let philosophic
questions be asked. That is, the politician could always kill the
philosopher, which is why the trials of Socrates and Christ remain of
fundamental importance for political philosophy and to which it always
Political philosophy was designed to convince the politician to let
higher questions be asked. On the other hand, politics was called the
highest of the "practical sciences," but not the highest science as
such. It dealt with human action in this world, but not with the
transcendent questions of being and destiny, without the asking and
answering of which human life would be truncated and not worth living.
Q: Why not call what you are describing "Christian" political
philosophy, rather than "Catholic" political philosophy? What makes
Roman Catholic political philosophy distinct?
Father Schall: The most obvious answer to this question is that the
understanding of politics within the various Protestant and Orthodox
traditions, and often the very understanding of man and reason, have
their own nuances, presuppositions and conclusions at variance with the
central line of Catholic thought.
It is not my purpose here to criticize or to speak for them from within
their own traditions or within my own. It is their responsibility, as it
is with other philosophies and religions, such as liberalism or Islam or
Hinduism, to account for themselves before the burden of reason, a bar
with which Catholicism is perfectly comfortable.
What makes Roman Catholic political philosophy distinct, I think, is
precisely Catholicism's relation to and acceptance of philosophy itself.
Q: How is Roman Catholic political philosophy different from Catholic
Father Schall: Roman Catholic social thought is a body of particular
analyses and responses that the popes and the various hierarchies from
the middle of the 19th century have given to central economic and
political issues in which Catholics have found themselves involved.
Catholic social doctrine seeks to combine what it knows from natural
law, reason, experience and Revelation so that it might address itself
coherently to ongoing issues in any sort of polity in which Catholics
find themselves. It seeks, too, to elaborate the general principles of
these issues but it desires to leave the particular applications to the
laity and citizenry.
When it comes to practical matters of politics and economics, most
things such as laws and policies could be otherwise, even though we must
select some reasonable way to act. This very complexity cautions us not
to give more certitude to something than its subject-matter allows, as
Aristotle remarked in the first book of the "Ethics."
Roman Catholic political philosophy operates at a more fundamental
level. It wants to know what is the reason that Revelation can presume
to speak to reason, such that philosophy, on its own grounds, needs to
pay attention to what is proposed.
Today, political philosophy is one of the few areas in which all things
come together and must be sorted out. To understand political things we
need to understand history, religion, ethics, science, manners, and all
pertinent aspects of culture. Yet, politics looks at what is to be done
but done for a good.
Revelation has long recognized that its most dangerous opponent is the
city closed in on itself, using the coercive powers of the state to
This danger is why Revelation has recognized that it first must deal
with politics on its own grounds, grounds which recognize that human
disorder can be identified and accounted for.
Contrary to the tradition of Machiavelli, itself already criticized in
Plato, politics does not just look to what man does do, but to what he
ought to do. And what he ought to do can, in some basic sense, be
understood by the philosophers.
This possibility is why Roman Catholicism has regularly insisted that
there is such a thing as philosophy and that philosophy can both ask the
right questions and propose at least some basic and correct answers.
Moreover, it can at least recognize the meaning of answers coming from
Father James Schall on Worship as the Consummation of Philosophy
WASHINGTON, D.C., 10 SEPT. 2005 (ZENIT)
Father James Schall believes that the consummation of philosophy is
rejoicing and delighting in the light of truth
and that truth is manifested in a special way at Mass.
The professor in the department of government at Georgetown University
shared with ZENIT some ideas from his new book, "Roman Catholic
Political Philosophy" (Lexington Books) and explained why theology and
philosophy are distinct but complementary.
Part 1 of this interview appears elsewhere in today's dispatch.
Q: How do the truths of Revelation, particularly revealed things through
the Catholic Church, complement or aid the quest of the political
Father Schall: The central thesis of this book is as follows: Philosophy
and political philosophy seek to know reality, what is. This seeking is
what the human mind is for, to know the truth of things. That is, the
mind seeks to be conformed to what reality presents to it.
In the pursuit of this knowledge, certain limits are continually reached
that philosophy only has some more or less informed opinion about their
truth. But philosophy rightly seeks to formulate questions and possible
answers to these questions. It has an awareness of the insufficiency of
some of its own answers. It is curious about this insufficiency.
Revelation, on the other hand, when spelled out, does evidently contain
its own understanding of at least some of the truths of reality
according to its own methods.
When the legitimate questions of philosophy or those encountered in
political experience are offered a proper answer to these questions as
asked, Revelation cannot be simply excluded from intellectual
consideration or discourse on the grounds that its content arises from
The question becomes: Why is it that faith can respond to questions as
asked by philosophy? There is a suggestion here of a higher unity or
order to which philosophy cannot, on its own grounds, close itself.
Two things need to be remembered:
First, one cannot argue directly from philosophy to the truths of
Revelation that cannot be known from that source. Otherwise, philosophy
itself would be Revelation or itself a divine claim.
Second, Revelation does not purport to answer every question about every
topic, but only those having to do with the inner life of God and the
Incarnation of the Son as a means to enable each man to reach the final
end designed for him.
This end, though often rightly called "the City of God," is not a
political end. But it does not deny that politics are legitimate. They
may indeed assist or harm man in achieving his highest end.
The true insight is provided in Aristotle's remark that "if man were the
highest being, politics would be the highest science. But man is not the
highest being. Therefore, politics is limited to this life of mortals as
they are mortals."
Q: If theology provides the answers to the questions political
philosophy raises, then is the old saying true that philosophy is the
handmaiden of theology?
Father Schall: The word "handmaiden" is a quaint one today. The word
"maiden" has also fallen into disrepute.
The phrase was designed to reject the notion that absolutely no
relationship can be found between reason and Revelation. It was also
designed to protect the legitimacy of both. In the full order of things,
Revelation is addressed to intelligence, while intelligence finds itself
wondering about why what it knows cannot find complete answers in
In this sense, philosophy is a "handmaiden" to theology as much as
theology is a "handmaiden" to philosophy. The point is that both are to
be considered in the delicate relationship that each has to the other
and both to the truth.
The fact is that Revelation has the indirect effect of making
philosophy, when it seeks to ponder what Revelation proposes, to be
itself more philosophical.
Q: How is political philosophy ultimately consummated in liturgy and
Father Schall: The phrase "the liturgical consummation of philosophy"
comes from the English philosopher Catherine Pickstock in her book,
It has many overtones in the work of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,
particularly in "The Spirit of the Liturgy." Its remote origins are in
Plato. And actually J.R.R. Tolkien came pretty close to the same notion.
Essentially, it means that philosophy in its search for the truth will
rejoice when it finds it. Mankind has continually sought to find the
proper way to worship God, or to put it differently, to rejoice in the
cause and the delight of reality and its origins. Though it has tried
many religious and philosophical ways, mankind has been unable to find a
proper form of relation to the Godhead.
The essence of Revelation is that it is the guidance of the proper way
to worship God. This is the meaning of the Mass. It is not something
man-made at all in its core, but is, when spelled out
see for instance Robert Sokolowski's "Eucharistic Presence"
that to which all philosophy tends. The Mass is not only a quest but a
finding and a rejoicing.
Once we understand this centrality, the constant effort of philosophy
and politics to find an alternative relation to the highest things
especially in politics itself
comes to be seen as alternatives to God.
The effort to spell out the significance of this relationship is
considered in the chapter entitled, "Worship and Political Philosophy,"
a topic too rarely treated and understood by the political philosophers
or often by the theologians when seeking to explain what is lacking in
philosophy or politics.
Q: Which philosophers embody the principles of Roman Catholic political
philosophy that you outline in your book?
Father Schall: One finds guidance from many sources, of course, not only
Roman Catholic ones. I have learned much from Eric Voegelin and Leo
Strauss. They served in many ways to open political philosophy to a more
serious consideration of reality and what is at issue in understanding
Among Catholic writers, I am particularly in debt to my teachers,
Professor Heinrich Rommen, Father Charles N.R. McCoy, Father Clifford
Kossel, S.J., and Father Ernest Fortin, A.A. I have written a book on
Jacques Maritain and consider Yves Simon of fundamental importance, as
is Etienne Gilson. Christopher Dawson remains a favorite. I have learned
much from David Walsh, John and Russell Hittinger, Monsignor Robert
Sokolowski, and my colleagues George Carey and Joshua Mitchell.
What can one say of G.K. Chesterton, who is one of the great minds and
most incisive as well as most delightful. I have loved Hilaire Belloc,
Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, E.F. Schumacher and a host of
Several of my books, "Another Sort of Learning" especially, have been
guides to reading in these areas. I have long been an admirer of John
Paul II and Benedict XVI as first-rate thinkers. And finally there is
the abiding debt to Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine and Thomas
Aquinas, to whom I return again and again. There is nothing quite like
reading these latter four with students. ZE05091002