Sense and Nonsense: A Conversation with Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Crisis Magazine music critic Robert R. Reilly sat down with noted writer, political thinker, and Georgetown University professor Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., to talk about the life of the mind, the future of the West, and lessons learned over a long career in education.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Robert R. Reilly: What is the most important thing you teach?

James V. Schall: One could approach this question several ways: “What is the most important course?” or “What is the most important idea?” or “What is the most important thing that you want students to come away from in your classes having learned?”

For more than 30 years now, I have been teaching the same course every semester, ranging in size from 90 to 100 students. It is called — an old-fashioned title, I suppose — Elements of Political Theory. The title I inherited from the department. In my mind, it is a political philosophy course in the broadest sense of that word.

To do political philosophy right, you have to include things beyond it, like metaphysics and revelation, and things below it, like practical political life and economics. Geography and history come in, as do wars and rumors of war. Politics, as Aristotle said, is the highest of the practical sciences, but not the highest science as such. This means that politics is limited by what it is not: Politics does not make man to be man, but takes him from nature and guides him to be good, as Aristotle also said.

Still, I suspect the most important thing I assume in teaching is that students be themselves docile — that is, as I like to put it, that they be “eminently teachable.” I like the remark of Allan Bloom in Shakespeare’s Politics: “A man is most what he is as a result of what he does; a man is known, not simply by his existence, but by the character of his actions — liberal or greedy, courageous or cowardly, frank or sly, moderate or profligate.” To be teachable means that a student first realizes in his soul that he does not already know too much. Nor is his purpose in learning simply about grades. Aristotle’s notion that there are things worth knowing “for their own sakes” strikes me as the most important thing I have to teach.

But it is not enough to say, “Look here, son, you need to know about, say, Dante or Cicero.” It is alright to say this to him, of course, and a teacher should say it. Authority means something, gives directions. What needs to happen, however, is that a student sees in his own soul that something both can be learned and is worthy of being known. Indeed, he needs suddenly to rouse himself and find delight in something that he now knows. There is a delight in knowing unlike any other delight, the absence of which, as Aristotle also said, is a very dangerous thing, especially for politicians.

What is the hardest thing to teach, in the sense of the receptivity of the students to it?

One is tempted to say “the truth.” Chesterton’s famous quip, which I often cite, is pertinent here: “There is no such thing as an uninteresting subject, only uninterested people.” Yves Simon has a very insightful section in A General Theory of Authority that he titled “Freedom from the Self.” In an age of self, and self-expression, this notion that our very selves can be obstacles to our own freedom comes as a shock. “Freedom from our very selves?” What can this mean? The whole idea of virtue is that we will only see ourselves if we choose a proper end and means to achieve it. The old monks used to speak of “conquering ourselves.” They spoke of this inner war of ourselves against ourselves as the most difficult and perhaps dangerous enterprises of all. It is a Platonic idea, to be sure. All disorder of the world originates in disorder of soul. If we do not learn this truth, nothing else will much matter; we are bound to get it wrong, because we choose to see things wrongly.

Thus, if we do not know we have a soul, if we are just a bundle of emotions and drives, we will never be sufficiently free of ourselves to see what is not ourselves. No freedom is more precious than that of seeing clearly, delightedly what is not ourselves. We are, as it were, self-insufficient. And that, in a way, is the best thing about us. We look to others to know what we really are. We are not merely coupling and political animals, as Aristotle said, but, as he also said, beings who wonder about what it is all about. The beginnings of this wonderment are precious moments in our lives. It often happens through first loves, or through being struck by something we never saw before or even heard of. It can even happen in a university class.

You have said that the one thing of which you can be sure is that all your incoming students at Georgetown will be relativists. What is there left to appeal to in them?

Actually, that was a reference to Allan Bloom, who applied it to most all incoming students in any university. It is what they learned from the culture. Student relativists are often secondhand ones, however. By that I mean that they have heard this mild skepticism from a sharp teacher in high school, or from watching an intellectual program on PBS, or from being frustrated in their own search for explanations of even the simplest of things. I also suspect that it often has some relation to divorce in the family.

What is there left to appeal to? Much, I think. I am rather fond of that famous remark of C. S. Lewis, that the young atheist can never be too careful of what he reads. And this is very true. The really frightening thing for many students is the suspicion that there may well be cogent arguments for the truth of things. They are even more astonished when they begin to suspect that the argument for revelational things has much more to be said for it than anyone ever told them about. We should never forget that 20-year-old students, like ourselves once, are indeed only 20 years old. Each person has a capacity for the adventure that each soul in its very creation stands for: the adventure of seeking to know what it is all about.

All I really ask a student to bring with him to class is himself — not a computer, not even a pencil. I will read with them what I have myself pondered and read over and over again for many years. I am still astonished by these things. A professor can make no student see what is there, but he can call his attention to things that are, in their own ways, remarkably insightful and profound. Often college students are too young yet — 20 is still quite young for intellectual things, as Plato never tires of telling us. We are fools if we think that great things do not mostly require time and growth. Aristotle said that the young are not fit for politics because they lack experience. It is not in politics alone that this condition is present in them. But the whole adventure of being young is that you suspect that you have begun something about whose end you have only the vaguest notion, even when you are fortunate enough to be able to state it in Platonic or revelational terms.

You often quote Socrates in saying that the worst thing a man can do is to lie in his soul about the good. How deeply embedded is that lie in today’s culture from which these students come?

Yes, to have a lie in our soul about what is, this is the very worst thing that can happen to us. No one could put such a lie there but we ourselves. We usually put it there because we want to lie to ourselves in order to continue doing what does not conform to the proper order of our soul. The Socratic phrase is extremely evocative, I think. It is again a theme that we touched on earlier. The ultimate drama is that, while remaining ourselves, we are called out of ourselves, often even through encountering the most pedestrian things, but more often through the fine things like friendship.

What always makes me realize that it is all worthwhile is that I almost never meet students who do not already in their young lives wonder what friendship is about. The greatest treatments of the topic are still in Aristotle and the Gospel of John. This is, ultimately, the topic, when carefully spelled out, that gets to the very heart of the Trinity, if we are willing to pursue it far enough. No one can avoid attending to the meaning of this experience.

Two years ago, the Holy Father spoke of the degree to which habits and customs in a culture could obscure or even eliminate our awareness of the right order of the soul. This recalled Aquinas’s question about whether the natural law could be “blotted out” of the human soul. Aquinas thought it could come pretty close, though not entirely.

In speaking of Machiavelli, I always tell the students that there is nothing in Machiavelli, that is, no horrid deed of man, that is not already in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. The difference between Machiavelli and Aristotle was not that Machiavelli knew something that Aristotle did not. Machiavelli has obviously gotten many of his most troubling precepts from Aristotle, who knew exactly what a tyrant was and told us so. The difference between them was, of course, that Machiavelli held that it was all right to do what Aristotle held that it was not. The difference was choice, not knowledge.

The point I want to make with regard to your last question about the culture is that, however much customs and habits corrupt, there can always remain a spark of light within individual souls. By virtue of chance reading, a tragedy — political or personal, a love, a sacrifice; one can be awakened to act contrary to the disorder in the culture. We still must at least suspect that more souls were actually saved in a concentration camp than in a university faculty, a television office, a business, or government bureaucracy. The latter worlds are not closed off either. However deeply embedded the “lie” is in either our soul or our culture, the adventure of a return to sanity remains possible. In its own way, I suppose, even damnation is an adventure, as stories depicting the devil seem always to remind us. But hopefully they teach us that there are certain adventures on which we do not want to embark.

Can you inoculate students against this influence? How?

I suppose, using your metaphor, I do not want to “inoculate” anybody against anything, except perhaps the flu. What you mean, of course, is to ask if there’s a way for the student to become aware of the inbuilt presuppositions of the culture that affect him almost without his realizing it. Tracey Rowland, in her important book Culture and the Thomist Tradition, has shown that within a culture itself are already operative principles and presuppositions that, if we are not specifically aware of them, will serve to direct our efforts in the way of the habits within the culture. If these habits are disoriented, the person who assumes that the culture is morally neutral will find himself going along with the presuppositions of the culture to his own detriment.

We forget the enormous attraction of prestige. If it is in an important journal, or on a famous television program, or the normal presuppositions of a famous university, we will assume that this view is on the cutting edge. But this is surface. In this area, there is no saving of someone who won’t be saved. What I try to do, rather, is to introduce students to books and authors who are articulate, intelligent, and persuasive, so that they will begin to see that intelligence is not wholly on the side of disorder of soul. Students, I think, are really crying for some guidance or hint of what else is there. They are astonished to find so much whose existence is not even hinted at. But someone has to give them a start. It does not take much to arouse a suspicion in their minds that they have not heard the whole story. An essay of Chesterton or C. S. Lewis is often enough to provoke interest.

Students also need living examples, though often the greatest teachers have long been dead. There are few places, however, in which there are not one or two teachers who are aware of the problem. Eric Voegelin once remarked that we do not have to participate in the disorders of our time. I think this is true. We may not become famous, but we can hold our own counsel about the meaning of things. Thus, the primary way to “inoculate” is to let them know that there is some other source of persuasive argument and knowledge that is not being honestly presented in the university they attend. Once they at least suspect this deficiency and are exposed and understand a few books or essays that make sense, common sense, the student is pretty safe, I think.

How discouraged are you at the degraded level of public discourse in America today? What is the path to recovery? Can it come politically?

A nation has to live with the choices it makes. The country seemingly will not face the fact that it has an enemy that is often much shrewder and more determined than its own leaders. It is not so much that “public discourse” is degraded, but the moral level of the society itself, particularly as this level, is encouraged or reinforced by law.

Nations rise and fall. We are no exception. And the rise and fall usually have rather much to do with the internal moral condition of the souls of the citizens. What we choose to make of ourselves is not immune from external and political consequences. A political recovery is certainly part — though not the most important part — of the problem. We look on public decency and morality as an internal or personal problem. It is that, but much more. No fault or sin can fail to have external consequences, no matter how “private.” The distinction of public and private is useful and has a real basis in fact.

The path to recovery cannot bypass this inner-soul issue. We forget that we are not made for this world, even though we are by nature political animals. No public order is anything but transient, even if it has lasted several centuries, as has ours. Modern ideology has tried to convince us that the main thing that we are here for is to form some future utopia down the ages. What is new is perhaps the rise of Islam, which more or less holds the same thing; namely, that it seeks to conquer the whole world for Allah. But this latter is so inadequate as both an inner-worldly purpose and a description of transcendent destiny that it borders on the same goals as later ideology.

I sometimes think that, above all, we need a proper understanding of heaven. Peter Kreeft has a good book on this topic. (In fact, Peter Kreeft has a good book on just about everything worthwhile.) We sometimes cannot or will not understand that the most fundamental issues are theological. But they are not just any theology. Modern liberalism wants to tell us that we dare not confront theological issues because it will cause fanaticism and war. One suspects that not confronting them will cause even greater fanaticism and war.

Do you think America is misrepresented abroad, especially in the Muslim world, or do they see us as we are, a center of unbelief and corruption?

It is possible that we are both “misrepresented” and that we have considerable “unbelief and corruption.” I am inclined to think that if we were totally pious and virtuous we would be even more misrepresented in the Islamic world. It is not our vices that threaten Islam, but our truth, insofar as we acknowledge it ourselves, which is rather rarely the case.

We may be more deliberately misrepresented in a Europe that is slower to recognize threats to itself than we are. Europe is almost blind in its failure to assist those who have guaranteed its own relative freedom. The current crisis of the world, I think, is more fundamentally in Europe than in Islam. Nothing is more astonishing than the decline in population in Europe. Those who know about Humanae Vitae are not particularly surprised at this decline, which opens Europe to what is, in effect, after Tours and Lepanto, a delayed Muslim invasion. This time, the invasion is not primarily military, which is probably why it is so effective.

We who understand the abidingness of the Fall cannot be overly astonished at widespread unbelief and corruption. We have read our Thucydides, our St. Augustine, and our Burke. The temptation of modern Christians, under the name of social justice, is often to forget or reject Augustine’s “political realism.” The purpose of our presence in this world is not that one generation is sacrificed to another. We are all equally close to the Godhead. Modern liberalism was often constructed as a way to replace original sin. It thought that it could, by its own powers, establish a world without blemish. We who are Christian recognize that the whole point of salvation through Incarnation was that everyone, if he chose in grace, might be saved, no matter what sort of a regime or culture he lived in. Yet we have to acknowledge, on the basis of modern experience, that politics can go a long way in preventing a proper understanding of human destiny from even being considered.

You are one of the great defenders of the paramount status of reason. Is it accurate to say you insist on the standard of reason in judging the intelligibility of faith?

It is not so much that Schall insists on the centrality of reason. It is that the faith itself insists on it. We have intellects but we are not gods. The Greeks used to say that the gods do not philosophize, for they are already wise. The purpose of philosophy is that we become wise. What does this mean, to be wise? It means that we seek to know and affirm “the order of things.” This latter is the title of a book of mine, The Order of Things.

Our intellects are intellects but they are not divine or angelic intellects. This limitation means that by our intellects we seek to know what things are. What we mean by faith, by fides quaerens intellectum, is that faith’s own propositions or structure, as it is revealed to us in scripture and tradition, is itself directed to intellect, to our intellects as they are active in seeking to know things that are. What we have to be careful of is the idea that somehow because we have intellects that therefore we could figure out the transcendent order all by ourselves. If we could do this we would already be gods.

We do not seek to be gods. It is all right that we are what we are. But what we are is a noble and exalted thing once we realize that God wants us to know Him, both through the intelligibility of creation and through seeking to know Him “face-to-face,” something that scripture indicates is in fact our destiny. This seeking suggests that the pursuit of intelligence is not just a pursuit of knowledge but of someone who knows and can be known.

Yet, from our side, we at least need to have grounds provided by reason why any religion or revelation might be credible. If such grounds exist, we must take a further look at what the content of this revelation is. And if we find that somehow, in our pursuit of understanding it, we find ourselves learning more and more about truth and ourselves, we can suspect that there is a relation between this revelation and what we can know by our own powers.

The opposite is the case, as Fides et Ratio suggested. Let us suppose, for example, that our own philosophic presuppositions in epistemology, for instance, did not allow us to affirm that Christ really existed as a human being seen and spoken to by other human beings. If such a philosophic position were true, we could not believe that Christ was as He claimed to be, true God and true man. At this juncture, we have a choice, either to deny the very suppositions of the faith narrative or to question the philosophy that prevents us from affirming what is.

By that standard, how do you rate the chances of Islam reconciling itself with reason in the way Aquinas achieved for Christianity? What happens if it does not?

Actually, to use your phrase, I rate the chances pretty close to zero. Moreover, I consider the project or policy of ‘secularizing’ Islam in the hope of modifying its aggressiveness to be also wrong-headed. Indeed, a good part of Islam, as I understand it, does not think this reconciliation is possible either, if we mean by reason, that foundation of philosophic reasoning founded by the Greeks and carried on by subsequent thinkers. Some of these latter were also Muslim, but their views are mostly rejected because they “limit” the “power” of Allah. That is, reason denies even to the Godhead the possibility of affirming the truth of contradictories. Of course, this inability to contradict itself is not really a ‘limitation’ on God, but the very basis of the Logos that defines what He is.

The classic issue of the so-called ‘two truths’ remains pertinent even as an issue in contemporary politics. In order to save the presumed truths of the Koran, it was proposed that there could be statements of reason and statements of the Koran that contradicted each other, but still could both be true. This view has the effect of dividing the soul of the believer into two parts. What happened is that one group, the philosophers, went one way and the theologians another. Christianity cannot have this problem of conceiving a contradiction between faith and reason. If such a contradiction is true, then clearly Christianity is false, by its own standards.

Is Islam compatible with anything but itself?

The real issue that interests us is rather ‘Is Islam compatible with itself?’ This issue is our main problem with Islam and constitutes the heart of the question of the justice of its expansion and the means used to accomplish it. The pope’s question in his Regensburg Lecture was simply, ‘Is it reasonable to use violence to spread religion?’ If the claim is that it is not reasonable, then we are all in agreement. If the claim that it is reasonable, then we have to find out what understanding of what is ‘reasonable’ could possibly arrive at such a conclusion. The answer is that ‘reason’ is really will. That is, that there really is no such thing as reason.

What we find difficult to understand is that there is an ‘intellectual’ justification for the use of violence in the expansion of religion (or in the attainment of political goals). This justification involves the claim that Allah can do anything including making contradictories compatible. This ‘making’ compatible is not, of course, intellectually tenable, but it is held to be none the less. Thus if Allah is pure will, it is possible for him to will the contradictory of what he willed before. He is bound by nothing, including his own rules. To claim otherwise in this view would be to limit the power of Allah. Hence, it is blasphemy to seek to so limit him.

On first hearing this view, we think it absurd. But if we look at the justifications for abortion, they are logically of the same philosophical basis. Namely, there is no binding principle of reason. Whatever is willed by a majority, a court, or a ruler is law. Reason has nothing to do with it. There is, as the Pope implied in the Regensburg Lecture, a not so strange similarity between current Muslim thought and current western thought.

So logically, Islam is compatible with much modern western thought, that thought which is based in a voluntarist theory of metaphysics, law, and theology. This similarity probably explains the painful reluctance of western liberalism to come to terms with the implications of Islam’s claim to rule the world. Religious believers, following what they hold to be the ‘logic’ of their faith are written off as ‘terrorists’ and ‘fanatics.’ They will never be understood in these terms, I suspect.

Former-President Bush referred to the current struggle with radical Islam as ‘ideological.’ Is that a correct designation?

I think not, or if so, in a very restrictive sense. The struggle with Islam is theological in nature, not ideological. That is, it is not to be understood primarily in terms of western philosophy or sociology. Generally, western books seek to reduce ‘terrorism’ to some characteristics intelligible in ‘scientific’ terms. These scientific terms have their own philosophic presuppositions. They omit religion or identify it with ‘ideology.’ Ideology is the projection onto reality of an idea that has its origin in human confabulation that seeks to explain reality in terms of some a priori intelligence.

Islam has not in fact changed much since its beginning. This inner cohesiveness is its strength, if strength it be. If we seek to understand Islam in ideological terms, we will never grasp what is going on. What is going on? We have the resurgence of a relatively ancient faith that now sees or thinks it sees the possibility of overcoming a centuries old impediment to its expansion. This mandate to world conquest, in its view, is willed by Allah. It depends on constant expansion eventually to include the whole world.

Such is the opportunity that thinkers and actors like Bin Ladin see presented to them in the internal moral disorder and lack of will in the West. This same West, the so-called ‘Crusaders,” are seen as the enemy. They were the ones that, in some regards miraculously, at Tours and Lepanto and Vienna, prevented Islam from conquering Europe much earlier. This obstacle is what must be reversed. The radical Muslim mind sees this revitalized expansion as now possible, with the aid of western laws and its need for labor in the light of its own radically declining birthrate.

Thus, I have often thought that identifying the problem as with ideological terrorists completely misses the boat and prevents western powers from seeing the real nature of the attacks being made against them. On the other hand, it is in Islam’s interest not to provoke actual military expansion too much. It can win on the demographic front if it is patient. Western thinkers conceive ‘terrorism’ to be a kind of ideological construct that can be applied to many societies. Hence, Islam, with its theology, is not itself looked upon as the origin of the problem. The uniqueness of Islam itself is overlooked.

Islam is, I think, consistent with itself. We cannot or will not understand this religion because we think that we can analyze Islam in terms of Western thought which insists that we analyze Islam after the manner of ecumenical or liberal concepts. In this view, understanding of Islam is really an understanding of western categories, not of Islam itself. This fixation on ideology, then, makes it impossible to see the real enemy and his intentions, which are not ideological but religious. What we refuse to understand is a militant religion and the theology behind it. We fail to give it the ‘dignity’ it deserves on its own terms.

Is the West equipped to fight this struggle at the level at which it is taking place?

I do not think so. We do not think that ideas matter. As I have said elsewhere, all wars, including those in the name of religion, begin in the mind, not on the battlefield. The failure of Christianity and Judaism, let alone the other religions and philosophies, to come to terms with the truth claim of Islam and the evidence, if any, on which it is based is where the problem lies. I have often lamented the fact that the Church has never issued an encyclical with the title ‘What Is Islam?’ Islam specifically denies the basic Christian doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity. We do not begrudge them this denial, for that is their position. But the truth status of this denial is not just a question of tolerant discussion with whoever will discuss the issue. I do not think, ultimately, that the truth claim of Islam can be avoided in the name of tolerance or ecumenism. This is where the problem lies.

The liberal notion about the way to deal with Islam is to introduce a doubt into the souls of its believers. This doubt will lower, it is said, religious fanaticism. This approach may work with Christians, but it will not work with Islam. We have never faced up to the question of why Islam is so impossible to convert or deal with. Until this question is faced, discussion of our dealings with Islam will always have a superficial tone to them. One of the obvious signs of lack of “equipment” to “fight” this struggle is that we do not demand a quid pro quo with Islam. Islamic emigrants into western societies quickly learn to use our laws to form themselves into cohesive groups within our societies. These groups do not assimilate; they separate. Religious freedom means setting up one’s own system that was brought with him.

Thousands and thousands of mosques are built in every neutral and western country. No demand is ever forcefully made for reciprocity. When American forces were fighting in the first Gulf War, they were not allowed to have a copy of the bible, even though we were fighting the Saudi battle for them. Nothing better shows our failure to understand what is at stake than these lost opportunities. Since we cannot or will not grant religious motivation over time, we fail to see what is happening. Otherwise, it is a one way street that simultaneously prevents any western presence within Muslim lands and permits Muslim presence in our lands but in its terms, not ours. Our laws can be used not for a Christian but ironically for a Muslim purpose. Muslim laws cannot be used to our advantage. We are the only ones who do not seem to notice this paradox.

Which of your more than twenty books would you recommend as a place to start reading your thought?

Without any question, the place to begin reading Schall is with Another Sort of Learning. This book sets the agenda. It is a book that takes the reader out of Schall and directs him to the things that count. It asks the crucial question: ‘What do we do if we suspect that the highest things were not, are not, being presented in our universities or in our culture?’ We do not, I think, despair. The later books, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, the Life of the Mind, Students’ Guide to Liberal Learning, and the Sum Total of Human Happiness follow and deepen the initial inspiration of Another Sort of Learning.

In some sense, I follow the admonition of Aquinas when he said that those things we have contemplated in our own souls are to be handed over or passed on to others, the famous contemplata tradere, to pass on what one has pondered. My approach is not one through the ‘great books.’ It is, as it were, the great books once removed. I am clearly not hostile to reading the great books. But I am aware that they can confuse if they are not read with a previous realist philosophy. The great books were, in some sense, as Frederick Wilhelmsen once pointed out, invented to substitute for philosophy as an original discipline. My book lists, found in various books, I think, always take the reader back to what is.

I might add, however, that I think that many of the best things that I do are in short essay form. I have written hundreds of these essays. I have often said that Belloc is the greatest essayist in the English language. He is, in this sense, a hero of mine. In addition he is a prophet of the rise of Islam in our time. His short essays, in any case, are gems of travel, insight, walking, humor, nostalgia, philosophy, history, and faith. So I am particularly fond of my essay books, Idylls and Rambles, Schall on Chesterton, Praise of ‘Sons of Bitches,’ and the Distinctiveness of Christianity. I have had several series of monthly or quarterly columns over the years, “Sense and Nonsense,” “On Letters and Essays,” “English Essays,” and several others that come and go. It is the challenge of the mind, as Aquinas taught, to state clearly and succinctly what is, to articulate what is true. No form does this better than the short essay, I think.

My political philosophy books are in their own ways related to the question of learning and the essay. Political philosophy occupies a special place in the order of knowledge. It takes us by being itself into the realm of theory or contemplation, but it also must know history, economics, theology, the various human disciplines, and science itself. The political philosophy booksThe Politics of Heaven and Hell, Reason, Revelation and the Foundations of Political Philosophy, At the Limits of Political Philosophy, Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society, Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, and The Regensburg Lecture — all circle around the same fundamental problem: namely, how does reason address intelligence and how does intelligence address reason, and within these questions what is the place and limits of the city?

Finally, it would not be proper to close these reflections on Schall books without a specific mention of Chesterton. He remains the most remarkable of minds. He is common sense, but he is also a metaphysician. He is at home everywhere. It is this breadth, coupled with humor and logic, that reassures us that the philosophers are not really the last word. I have read few paragraphs in Chesterton that did not lead me from something to everything. He is almost uncanny. That is, he knows what is.

You have frequently remarked that Catholicism has never been intellectually stronger and culturally weaker. Why do you maintain this?

I am a great admirer of the work of Msgr. Robert Sokolowski. His essay on the understanding of the Eucharist in his Christian Faith & Human Understanding is a remarkable analysis of the human mind doing everything it can to prevent itself from understanding or admitting the truth of the Eucharist. Our time is remarkable in the fact that often the most brilliant public leaders are found on the See of Peter. Catholicism, as I often say, addresses itself to intellect and does not hesitate to do so.

Yet, as Tracey Rowland, whom I mentioned previously, pointed out that for all the perceptiveness of Church leaders, they often did not realize the way a culture comes to embody principles of disorder or immorality that are found in the very laws and practices of a culture. In thinking that the mission of the Church was to “open itself to modern culture,” we found ourselves accepting ways of thought and life that were incompatible with what the faith understood God and human destiny to be about. The general decline of faith and practice in Europe and America since Vatican II implies something more basic than merely an ordinary falling away of Catholics that has been present in many eras.

The intellectual strength of the Church does not arise from Catholic universities or seminaries in any cohesive or organized fashioned. On the other hand, there exist many pockets of intelligence, often individuals, sometimes groups, who have managed to get it right, both about the meaning of intelligence and the reasons why it is so difficult to be accepted in the public order. There have been a remarkable number of conversions particularly in the light of the disarray of the main line protestant Churches, but also from among the Evangelicals.

There are no moral, biblical, scientific, psychological, or historical questions regarding the faith and its intrinsic intelligibility that do not have sensible and adequate analyses and answers. The “conflict” of faith and reason is over. There is no conflict. What there is, I think, is a personal and cultural effort not to see that this compatibility not only exists but is the best available explanation of things. The sudden spate of ‘atheist’ apologists strikes me as desperate attempts to avoid the obvious.

But the next decades, I think, will not be concerned so much with the intellectual side of the western soul as with its own unwillingness to face the truth that all the alternatives it has systematically concocted do not work. The effort of the present pope to rediscover reason and natural law is first addressed to the soul of Europe, to remind it that it has not found an alternative to the heritage of Greek logos and Christian caritas. We gradually realize that our most important external problem, rapidly becoming an internal one, is Islam, its claim to truth and its remarkable closed-ness. But beyond that, as Islam itself seems to grasp, is the rest of the world.

The Christian faith, as Ernest Fortin once pointed out, has not really much surpassed the confines of the old Roman Empire and the colonies it sent out in the early stages of modernity. From now on, the intellectual ‘strength’ of Catholicism, to be what it is, will find itself directed precisely to the other cultures, the initial approach to which will be through philosophy, through the fact that there is but one truth to which revelation itself is addressed precisely as a truth that completes truth. There is today a surprising dynamism within Catholicism that transcends its cultural weakness, itself based in one form or another on a denial of the real genius on which the faith is addressed to reason.

All cultures, including our own, need redemption for their sins. The real difficulty is not so much in knowing what the truth is, but in practicing it. The Christian faith does not think that one generation exists so that another generation down the line will be perfect. In that sense, no generation stands closer to God than another. All are judged by what they know and freely choose to do. It is interesting how often recent popes come back to this theme that the one thing God cannot do in pursuing our redemption to everlasting life is to take away our freedom.

The drama of our times can often be stated to mean the specific rejection of the way to salvation through suffering and repentance that has been put into the world with the Incarnation of the Son of God. In Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict often came back to this simple but graphic point, that Jesus was true man and true God, the Son of Man, the Son of God. The reality of this presence is the single most important event in our race’s presence on this earth. In one sense, we have done everything we can to prevent this truth from being recognized. On the other hand — and this is the intellectual strength of Catholicism — all arguments against the proper understanding of this truth themselves prove, in the end, to be inconsistent with themselves. This is more than a paradox. It is an event in history that remains there for us to understand its origins in the inner life of the Godhead.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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