On Words and Symbols

I read an interview recently that is worth commenting on. The subject notes:
I was feeling conflicted because my Catholicism is so deeply important to me. It was my sense of connection to the Almighty, to humanity, to my heritage, my upbringing . . . . And my Catholicism informed my view of the world, and the work that I do every day on social justice issues. And yet, so often when I went to church, I was confronted with words and symbols that were anathema to my values.
One hardly knows what to make of such a passage.
The implications of this position need to be spelled out. Let us assume such words were spoken by anyone; what is of concern are the reasons stated. We are all responsible for what we hold, of course, however coherent or incoherent.
The speaker first "feels" in conflict. The verb "to feel," as such, is an emotional, not intellectual, word. Our minds are to rule our feelings in the name of some principle or end. No one can dispute with a "feeling," though we ought to inquire about its validity.
We next want to know what this "conflict" that the person "feels" is about. There are good and bad conflicts. Catholicism is an important personal heritage. No problem exists here unless Catholics are pictured as evil or nutty or both.
Catholicism is a "connection to the Almighty," as with humanity. What one is brought up with, as Aristotle said, provides the habits or virtues (not "values") by which good practical decisions are made.
Just what this "connection to the Almighty" means, or whether the Almighty has any input into the connection, is not obvious. Presumably it means receiving the Sacraments and believing in the essentials of the Creed — or, at least, that is what it means to most Catholics. The Almighty calls the shots for them, not the other way around. If there is a conflict between one’s feelings and the Almighty, the Almighty wins, or at least that is the Catholic view, even granting we remain free to do what we choose and bear the consequences.
Catholicism, we are told, has "informed" this writer’s view of the world. This is good. This expression, however, sounds like Anthony Kennedy in the Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision: We all have our right to our own worldview, whatever it may be. The world that counts comes from us, not from the Almighty. We each explain to the Almighty what it ought to look like.
This same Catholicism informs the writer’s daily work in "social justice." The history of social justice, as Ernest Fortin remarked, is hazy; no concept in the political philosophy has a fuzzier pedigree. It can mean almost anything. But we need to know what constitutes social justice, as almost every ideology in the modern world has triumphantly presented itself as a movement of "social justice" of some sort or another.
But let’s grant the benefit of the doubt: Here, social justice means what the encyclicals mean, or what the Catechism means. But then, evidently, when the writer enters the local church on Sunday morning, sirens go off. The things carried into the church ("social justice") run into what is inside the church, namely, "words and symbols." Presumably, the words are Scripture- and Tradition-based. No Catholic thinks he enters the church to run into mere symbols. The Eucharist is not a mere symbol; it is the Real Presence, the one Mass.
These "words and symbols" found within the church turn out to be "anathema" to the writer’s "values." That is an interesting use of the word "anathema." Normally, it is the Church that, in exercising her authority, pronounces this word to define what is or is not in conformity with what is handed down. If Schall pronounces "anathema" on something, as is his wont, it means little. We still must ask whether our anathema is that of the Church or against it. And if someone’s anathema is not the Church’s, we wonder who should be most upset.
"The words and symbols . . . were anathema to my values." The question becomes: Where did I get my values? And why are my values the ultimate standard of what should go on in Church?
As in discussing rights or social justice, we encounter the exact modern meaning of the word "value," which comes into modern discourse from Max Weber. It means that no ultimate order exists. "Values" are incoherent; all social scientists can do is to tell someone how best to get what he wants, whatever that may be.
So if the writer’s values are what rules when he goes into Church, he can logically anathematize anything he finds there that does not agree with them. This is why the Church talks of being, natural law, and doctrine. It wants to know whether what one holds is what the Church holds.
Otherwise, whoever walks into a church carries in his own "values." He anathematizes anyone else whose values, whose "words and symbols," are different from his. He "feels" conflicted. He pronounces "anathemas."

Rev. James V. Schall, S. J., teaches political science at Georgetown University. His latest book, The Mind That Is Catholic, is published by Catholic University of America Press.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest 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 most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • MT

    I always find Fr. Schall’s columns solid – foundational and true to the Catholic Faith.

    This is another example. If Fr. Schalls were presidents of all our Jesuit universities, these universities would be doing a great service to our Catholic faith and to its students. However, I don’t think we can say that of today’s Jesuit universities – unless the Holy Spirit is operating in a way that I don’t understand.

  • Richard F
  • Jeannie

    Deus caritas est and find out how theology and social teaching are interrelated. He/she has it absolutely backward.

  • Chrissy G

    I attend a Jesuit college in the US and I hear statements like the one analyzed here on a daily basis. Many of my peers here were raised in the Church, believe in “social justice”, and like Catholicism with the exception of two things: its theology and its morality. It’s so prevalent, this idea that Catholicism is basically good but became corrupt/outdated/unnecessary, and hearing it too often and seeing others turn a blind eye of acceptance to it too often sometimes makes it sound reasonable. In my mind, the greatest danger of a nominally Catholic school is not that it will become secular but that a watery, powerless approximation of Catholicism will become such a part of the school’s culture that it will make it difficult for people to recognize the real thing. Fr. Schall, thank you for pointing out the obvious differences between this point of view and the Catholic one. Sometimes the obvious is hard for us to see.

  • Andy K.

    Deus caritas est and find out how theology and social teaching are interrelated. He/she has it absolutely backward.

    Please explain. What in this column is “backwards”?

  • Chrissy G

    Deus caritas est and find out how theology and social teaching are interrelated. He/she has it absolutely backward.

    Please explain. What in this column is “backwards”?

    Andy, I think Jeannie was referring to the unnamed writer of the statement at the beginning of the article (hence the he/she), rather than what Fr. Schall said. Just guessing though.

  • R.C.

    Okay, this statement just jumped out at me:

    I attend a Jesuit college in the US and I hear statements like the one analyzed here on a daily basis.

    I’m someone who grew up Baptist. (Studying the Church Fathers, a “random” topic of reading one day, made me think, “Gee, these folks don’t sound too terribly Baptist.” Dangerous what happens when one stops to consider a thought one hadn’t ever bothered to consider before!)

    I’ve had to adjust and learn my way around, a bit. There’s a lot to the Church, and even more to the Catholic culture surrounding it.

    So I try to make note of the major landmarks and unusual rock formations as I survey this (to me) not-yet-entirely familiar landscape.

    One “unusual rock formation” is this: Am I correct in thinking that an unusually large proportion of Jesuits have some kind of organizational problem with orthodoxy?

    I mean, I hear lots of good things about their educational efforts.

    But I keep hearing Catholic complaints of Jesuits doing or saying oddly screwball things, usually of a politically leftist, even Marxist, nature.

    What’s the deal with that? Is it just because long affiliation with universities has rubbed off on the organization? Is this just one of those peculiarities of the Catholic landscape? Or is my perception mistaken?

  • meg

    They were radicalized in the 60’s/70’s, and became focused on social issues, the Vietnam War, etc. The ones from this era apparently lean very liberal in their ideas. The pre-Vatican II Jesuits and the young Jesuits of today are more orthodox, it’s the middle group you refer to.

    Now that middle group is blamed for really bad liturgical music, and I hate to say it, but a high level of homosexual priests.

    Understand, this is anecdotal – maybe others can supply more substantial information.

  • Richard F
  • Augustine

    I share Fr. Schall’s suspicion of the word “values,” so often is it associated with relativism. However, Dietrich von Hildebrand, solidly orthodox, uses the word “values” quite frequently – at least in English translation; see, e.g., his Transformation in Christ. I assume he’s not using it in the cancerous way of today?

  • Achilles

    Father Schall is not only right on the money, he is charitable in his statements. THese times are massively confusing and exponentially so when those we call “educated” and celebreties have put themselves above the Church doctrine. It seems today we begin to shovel buckets of false pride into our children in our attempts to build their self esteem. The resultat gluttony leaves very little room for healthy shame and less so humility.
    Thank you so much Father Schall