The first impression really was the lasting one in my instance with the Rev. Stanley L. Jaki (1924-2009). More than 20 years later, I vividly see him sitting me down on the porch of a house in Princeton and telling me that religious freedom was the most important teaching of Vatican II and that, in his view, Pope John Paul II’s “Achilles heel” as a philosopher was phenomenology.
Father Jaki was a genius and, as true humility dispenses with modesty, he would not have denied it if someone were rude enough to ask, though he would have thought the question more silly than impolite. Suffering fools gladly was not his charism, nor was debate a genre comfortable to him. More than ruffling feathers, he plucked them, and he could turn callow undergraduates to melted butter when they used non sequiturs.
Like his two surviving brothers, he was a Benedictine of the tenth-century Archabbey of Pannonhalma, where he lived through World War II, being ordained in 1948. After receiving a doctorate in theology in Rome, he came to the United States and taught in Pennsylvania, but that ended when he lost his voice after a tonsillectomy. His speech returned, unforgettably, a few years later, but the voice was raspy and must have been a trial to him. No longer able to teach, he studied at Fordham for a doctorate in physics with Victor Hess, who had received the Nobel Prize in 1936 for his discovery of cosmic rays. Then he founded, with six other Hungarian priests, a priory in Portola Valley, California, where he was bookkeeper from 1957 to 1960. He did further studies at Stanford and Princeton and went on to lecture in universities around the world, publishing some 40 books, including his brilliant Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh.
He died in Madrid at the age of 84 only a few days after having lectured in Rome as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science. It distressed some — including Chauncey Stillman, who had endowed it — that he would not take a chair in Roman Catholic studies at Harvard, for they thought Father Jaki would restore it to its original purpose; but he was loyal to Seton Hall, where he was Distinguished University Professor. All this while he was under obedience to the archabbot of Pannonhalma, whose abbey he helped with the proceeds of the largest monetary award in the world, the Templeton Prize.
Father Jaki’s great lights were Newman and Chesterton, about whom he wrote books from his unique perspective as a philosopher of science, but his intellectual father was Pierre Duhem, mathematician and physicist. He even wrote a book about Duhem’s hobby of painting landscapes. That spectacular French pioneer in thermodynamics and hydrodynamics paved the way for Father Jaki’s perception of the essential role of Christianity, and in particular medieval scholastics such as Oresme, in providing the mental and cultural matrix for the development of modern physics.
“Science lives by hope no less than religion.” The Duhem-Quine thesis, which posits an alternative to Popper’s method of distinguishing science from pseudoscience, was, I am sure, at least in its method of observation, behind Father Jaki’s claim that Gödel’s incompleteness theorem applies to “theories of everything” in theoretical physics.
Father Jaki was the bane of editors, writing brilliantly in English but with thoughts within thoughts and rambling asides that he refused, with the ferocity of a Hungarian hussar, to have retooled. In one book on which we collaborated, he asked permission to add a “small footnote” to one of my paragraphs. Upon publication, I found myself calling Kant a rank amateur in science and recommending Father Jaki’s translation of Kant’s “shockingly incompetent” cosmogony. It was by far my most erudite footnote, though I had not written it. He also highly disapproved of Rahner’s “Transcendental Thomism,” which he called “Aquikantianism,” a neologism that I mentioned to a professor of theology in Oxford who, while poles apart from the Benedictine in most matters, deemed it a brilliant confection.
Father Jaki knelt for a holy hour every day and kept rosaries in his pockets for people to join him in prayer. While only a brave man would challenge points dear to him, I remember Father Jaki on long summer days talking with children as if time did not matter; when, as pianist, he played Chopin and Liszt, he seemed the most docile of men. In electing Newman and Duhem and Chesterton for mental fraternity, he was organizing in subconscious hope what might be a convivium in the heavens of the Savior of Science.