Sense and Nonsense: “The Power of Great Minds”

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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.”

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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