A Jesuit and His Faith

Author: William Doino, Jr.


William Doino, Jr.

In its long and illustrious history, the Society of Jesus has produced many outstanding figures who have made a unique impact upon Western culture. One thinks of the Society's founder and leader, Ignatius of Loyola; the great missionary and Apostle of the Indies, Francis Xavier; the famed Catholic apologist and Bishop, Robert Bellarmine; St. Isaac Jogues and the North American martyrs; and the eminent poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is undoubtedly true that the twentieth century, with its rampant secularization, has proven less fertile ground for the role of such men. Yet even here, numerous Jesuits have risen to modernity's challenge, and brought the treasures of Christianity to an unbelieving world, One such priest was Father Frederick C. Copleston, S.J., who passed into eternal life at the age of 86, last February 3rd.

Born on April 10, 1907 in Taunton, England, the future Jesuit was the son of Frederick Selwyn Copleston, a distinguished judge, and his demure wife, Nora. Both adherents to the Church of England, they raised their son to be a strict Anglican; so it came as quite a shock to both when Frederick, Jr., soon after reaching his 18th birthday, announced he would be entering the Church of Rome. The elder Copleston was so appalled by this decision that he threatened to disown his son; fortunately, his anger soon passed, and he saw to it that Frederick, Jr. received a proper education at Oxford University. Upon graduating in 1929, the young Copleston entered the Society of Jesus, and was ordained a priest in 1937. Always concerned with the deeper questions about life, Copleston became a professor of philosophy and joined the faculty of London's Heythrop College in 1939. It was there, where Fr. Copleston taught for over thirty years, that he undertook the project that was to forge his reputation: the nine-volume <A History of Philosophy>, which covers the entire span of philosophy from ancient Greece to the present day. So lucid and superb are Copleston's explanations of the most complex intellectual matters that his work is still the first place many philosophy students go to comprehend their subject. Indeed, the nine books which constitute <A History of Philosophy> are as popular today as when they fist appeared, if not more so, As <The Washington Post Books World> recently commented: "Copleton's volumes are still the place to start for anyone interested in following man's speculations about himself and his world." (Quoted in the Spring, 1994 catalog for <Daedalus Books>).

Fr. Copleston's intellectual achievements earned him many accolades and honors throughout his career, including visiting professorships at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (1952-1968), and the University of Santa Clara (1974-1982); selection as a lecturer for the British Council in nine European countries; and membership in the Royal Institute of Philosophy, the Aristotelian Society, and the British Academy. Remarkably, despite a full-time schedule of teaching, lecturing and writing his <History>, Fr. Copleston found time to publish separate studies on <Nietzsche> (1942), <Schopenhauer> (1946), and Aquinas (1955), as well as volumes entitled <Contemporary Philosophy: Studies of Logical Positivism and Existentialism> (1956); <A History of Medieval Philosophy> (1972), <Religion and Philosophy> (1974) <Philosophers and Philosophies> (1976), <On the History of Philosophy> (1979), <Philosophers and Culture> (1980), <Religion and the One> (1982) and <Philosophy in Russia> (1986).

Shortly after his death, Fr. Copleston received the Queens "Commander of the British Empire" Honour (1993), and also published his long-awaited <Memoirs> (Sheed and Ward, 1993). It is in this latter, autobiographical work that we discover Fr. Copleston's profound spirituality, and learn of his life-long commitment to Catholic orthodoxy.

Spanning the greater part of the twentieth century, these <Memoirs> provide a moving and fascinating account of Fr. Copleston's eventful life. He begins by recalling the earliest reservations he had about the Church of England, which coincided with his growing interest in the Church of Rome. "When I was still a boy ... fourteen or possibly fifteen," he writes, "I wrote an essay in which I castigated the Church of England for reducing Christianity to bourgeois mediocrity and for failing to uphold the ideals of the New Testament. I do not remember precisely what I wrote, but I have no doubt that I compared the Church of England with Catholicism to the former's disadvantage. My main point was that though the Church of Rome certainly had its dark aspects (Torquemada, the fires of Smithfield, some of the popes, and so on), it had at any rate upheld ideals of sanctity and other-worldliness and had not equated true religion with being an English gentleman. At the time I had not heard of Kierkegaard, but my line of thought bore some similarity to his in his attack on the state Church of Denmark." (p.31) The reference here to the great Danish philosopher Kierkegaard is relevant, since his famous blasts against his country's Lutheran establishment were frequently contrasted with his high regard for the Catholic Church. Indeed, both Kierkegaard's biographer, Walter Lowrie, as well as Fr. Henri de Lubac, maintain that the officially Lutheran Kierkegaard was in many respects <Catholic>—at least in thought, if not in practice—and that he would have converted had he not died so young, or been placed in different circumstances. As Fr, de Lubac comments:

"In spite of ... a body of thought strongly marked with the heritage of the Reformation, Mr. Paul Petit observes that, in the last years of his short life, Kierkegaard seems to have increasingly followed a course which was clearly taking him towards positions not far removed from Catholicism. He is ready to admit, in the realm of critics like Brandes and Hoffding, that if Kierkegaard had been born later, he would have been a Catholic .... That, with slight shades of difference, is the contention of the Rev. Fr. Przywara also. In his book <Das Geheimnis Kierkegaards> he proposes to show that in Kierkegaard an anonymous Catholicism is to be found; by his call for objective authority and by his views on the ordination of priests as an intermediate objective authority, Kierkegaard is asserted to have crossed the border-line of Lutheranism and pointed the way to `Holy Mother Church'". (From <The Drama of Atheist Humanism> 1963. Meridian Books, p.59).

It was precisely this "objective authority" that Fr. Copleston too found in the Catholic Church, an authority that he eventually recognized as emanating from the will of Christ. He writes: "It seemed to me that if Christ was truly the Son of God and if he founded a Church to teach all nations in His name, it must be a church teaching with authority, as her Master did. Obviously one might deny that Christ was the Son of God, and one might reject the claim that he founded a Church. But if these two claims were accepted, it seemed to me that in spite of all its faults the Roman Catholic Church was the only one which could reasonably be thought to have developed out of what Christ established." (p. 30)

Ultimately, what played a decisive role in Fr. Copleston's conversion was the spiritual pull he felt toward the Catholic Saints and mystics. "St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross opened up for me vistas of a new world, which exercised a powerful attraction on my mind," he writes. "I was indeed aware that some Anglicans had written profoundly spiritual works. At the same time it seemed to me that mystical religion was a foreign body, so to speak, in the Church of England, and that religiosity-inclined Anglicans were inclined to turn to Catholic writings, such as the <Imitation of Christ> and books by Pere Grou. The atmosphere or tone of Anglicanism, as I had experienced it... seems to me to be far removed from the sort of ideals which had been exhibited in a concrete manner in the lives of Catholic Saints." (pp. 31-32)

Fr. Copleston's reflections on the Anglican and Catholic communities call to mind those once voiced by John Henry Newman. Shortly before his conversion, Newman remarked: "If the Roman Catholic Church is not the Church of Christ, there never was a Church established by Him." Later, as an esteemed Catholic prelate, Newman wrote: "From the time I became a Catholic, I have been at perfect peace and contentment. It was like coming into port after a rough sea." Despite such clear and unequivocal statements, Cardinal Newman often had to endure rumors and insinuations—planted by disgruntled Anglicans—that his conversion was insincere. When the London <Globe> published a report suggesting that he had become disillusioned with Catholicism, and was preparing to return to the Church of England, the Cardinal could take no more, and retaliated in kind. In a widely-publicized statement, he declared" "I have not had one moment's wavering of trust in the Catholic Church ever since I was received into her fold. I have no intention and never have had any intention, of leaving the Catholic Church and becoming a Protestant again. And I hereby profess <ex animo> with an absolute internal assent and consent that the thought of an Anglican service makes me shiver, and the thought of the Thirty-Nine articles makes me shudder. Return to the Church of England! No! I should be a consummate fool (to use a mild term) if in my old age I left 'the land flowing with milk and honey' for the city of confusion and the house of bondage." (Quoted, in <Radio Replies> by Rev. Dr. Leslie Rumble and Rev. Charles Carty (1979 TAN Books) Vol. III, p. 341).

In his <Memoirs>, Fr. Copleston makes his commitment to Rome equally clear, albeit in a less combative fashion: "If anyone feels prompted to ask whether I have ever thought seriously of returning to the Church of England, the answer... is a decided no. I have great respect for sincere Anglicans, whether clerical or lay, and I have been much impressed by devoted Nonconformist and Presbyterian Christians whom I have come across. But I still believe that the centre of Christian unity is to be found in the Catholic Church, and that though Anglicanism certainly has a contribution to make to Christian life (as, indeed, have other Christian religious bodies too), this contribution should be made through some form of real communion with the Holy See." (p. 35).