What is peculiar to Catholicism is that, while it is a religion of intellect, it is also concerned with the salvation of lesser luminaries, of ordinary folks. The aborted fetus has the same transcendent destiny as the greatest philosopher or the greatest sinner. Indeed, the greatest philosopher and the greatest sinner may be, to recall Lucifer, the same person. The distinction between the intelligent and the normal is worthy and not to be disdained, but it is not a distinction of kind. As both the rich and the poor can save their souls or lose them, so the brainy and the slow. We are not Gnostics claiming that our destinies depend on a secret doctrine closed to all but the wise.
Such thoughts are occasioned by a sermon of St. Leo the Great. “For such is the power of great minds,” Leo wrote, “such the light of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eye; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what was visible.” The distinction between what is visible and what is invisible is not a distinction between what is real and what is not real. Many invisible things are real. E. F Schumacher gives as an example the inner life of another person. What I see when I see others is their exterior, but I realize that I know little about that person. To know someone else, I not only have to know myself, but must freely be given access to another’s soul. This access is what freedom, love, and friendship are about.
Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, in his essay “Faith and Theology,” put it well: “If the forms of verification of modern natural science were the only way in which man could arrive at any certainty, then faith would indeed have to be classified in the realm of mere ‘perhaps’ .. . . But just as a person becomes certain of another’s love without being able to subject it to the methods of scientific experimentation, so [with] the contact between God and man . . . .” A scientific method measures only what it is designed to measure. What it does not measure still exists.
In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil remarked that, “we know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does.” The point of this passage, however, depends on the fact that the mind, the intelligence, does comprehend something. It does not begin in nothingness, but with itself and with what is.
We could not be “justified by faith” if everything we needed to know were to be seen by our bodily eyes. When we read such a comment, in thinking about the intellect in general, we are tempted to imagine that the real “me” is essentially an abstract mind. Spiritual beings do exist, but we are not one of these types of being. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body itself forever banishes such positions from our minds. Still, we have minds and we are expected to use them. The mind is a power of our soul. In itself, it is indeed “immortal,” but this bodiless condition is neither its natural nor final condition.
In his Lost Lectures, Maurice Baring wrote an essay on “the Nineties”— meaning the 1890s, the famous “Gay Nineties”: “If you had told people then that in 1931 Verdi would be more popular than Wagner among the young . . . they would not have believed you: ‘believed’ is a mild word; they would have thought you stark staring mad.”
These words “belief,” “intelligence,” and “madness” are related. Leo had no difficulty in relating belief, not to lack of intelligence, but precisely to its presence. Weil, closer to our time, reaffirmed the same. Baring was aware that even unanticipated changes of taste could be called “mad.” Faith, too, is often called “mad” to obscure its real relation to “the power of great minds.”