The Mind That Is Catholic
Father Schall on Embracing the Whole of Reality
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By Annamarie Adkins
WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 28, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI has made the recovery of the mutual interdependence of faith and reason one of the signature themes of his pontificate.
And no one has been as prolific a commentator on this important question raised by the Holy Father than Jesuit Father James Schall.
Father Schall, a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, has penned, among many other writings, a book-length commentary on Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture. The lecture caused an international sensation for its mention of the presence of violence in the Islamic tradition, but the lecture's key themes related to the relationship between faith and reason were left to be unpacked by writers such as Father Schall.
Now Father Schall has written a new book, "The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays" (CUA Press). The book explores the habits of being that allow one to use the tools of faith and reason to explore all things seen and unseen.
Father Schall shared with ZENIT why all people, not just professional philosophers and theologians, can have a mind that is truly Catholic.
ZENIT: What does it mean to have a mind that is Catholic? What are its key elements?
Father Schall: The mind that is Catholic is open to all sources of information, including what comes from Revelation.
Revelation is not opposed to reason as if it were some blind source. Revelation has its own intelligibility that can be grasped and compared or addressed to what we know in reason.
Catholicism does not define reason as if it only meant a reason that follows some methodology where the terms of the method decide what we are allowed to see or consider.
The very definition of mind is that power that is open to all that is. We human beings are not gods. But we do know and the object of our knowledge is all that is.
It is characteristic of the Catholic mind to insist that all that is knowable is available and considered by us in our reflections on reality.
ZENIT: Are there clear points of distinction between the Catholic mind and a "Protestant mind" or a "secular mind"?
Father Schall: Monsignor Robert Sokolowski says that the method of philosophy is precisely to make distinctions. Obviously, the Protestant mind and the secular mind strive to distinguish themselves on many things from the Catholic mind.
If no one thought there was any difference between them, Catholicism, Protestantism and secularism would already be one. This does not deny that it is quite possible that they agree on some things.
It is the method of Aquinas to find out what these points of agreement and difference are. I always like the way Aquinas recalls Aristotle's comment that "a small error in the beginning leads to a large error in the end."
The ecumenical movement has tried valiantly to find points of agreement. It has found many. But errors do appear and grow.
I once wrote an essay entitled "Protestantism and Atheism." ("Thought," XXXIX (Dec. 1964) pp. 531-558.) The burden of that essay had to do with the importance of reason to Catholicism. This stress on reason is found in Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture, among other places.
The reason, I thought at the time, that Protestantism led to atheism was because it evaporated the world of meaning and insisted on revelation alone. Once the world is there absent reason, it is easy, following Aristotle's dictum, to conclude that God is not in the world in any sense.
It was the mind of Aquinas, following the line of the origin of "existence," to insist that we really did find reality in existing things, but they did not cause their own existence.
It was from here we could argue to God's existence so that, if revelation happened, it would be intelligible to us as a response to our own lack of knowledge of ultimate things.
ZENIT: What are the necessary habits or practices for forming and maintaining a "mind that is Catholic?" Likewise, where are the primary sources from which the Catholic mind draws its inspiration?
Father Schall: Of course, one of the good practices will be to know Aristotle, a great mind who, if I might with some irony put it that way, was "Catholic" before there was Catholicism.
This is but another way of saying that Catholicism is more than eager to know what the human mind can know by itself. The mind that is Catholic in this sense is more than Catholic. Or, to put it another way, we cannot be Catholic if we are only Catholic.
We think, in the end, that what is peculiar in Catholicism is not opposed to reason but rather constitutes a completion of it.
It was Aristotle who warned us that the reason we do not accept the truth even when it is presented to us is because we do not really want to know it. Knowing it would force us to change our ways. If we do not want to change our ways, we will invent a "theory" whereby we can live without the truth.
The "primary" source of the Catholic mind is reality itself, including the reality of revelation.
We are not primarily students of what other people thought, but of what is. This is why ordinary and unlearned people are not excluded from the Catholic mind.
The source of our knowledge is not a book but experience of being and living, an experience that will often include those whose lives are already touched by grace.
So I read with great profit everyone from Justin Martyr to Aquinas and Benedict. But they take me not to themselves but to the truth.
The great "habit," as it were, is that of acknowledging the truth when we see it. This implies both reason and grace which are not the same, but neither are they contradictory to each other.
ZENIT: Do you believe that Catholic schools do a good job of fostering a Catholic mind in young Catholics?
Father Schall: Briefly, no.
No one could think that the curriculum and spirit of Catholic schools today are based in the tradition of specifically Catholic intelligence. That requires discipline, study, and virtue.
In the modern world, we find no group more deprived of the glories of their own mind than young Catholics. This is why those small enclaves that do address themselves to it are in many ways remarkable.
Catholic institutions of higher learning, as they are called, simply gave up what was unique about themselves and the reasons for having Catholic universities in the first place. This lost source was the active vigor of the Catholic mind read not as an historical phenomenon or as a social activism, but as a search for and testimony of the truth, that towards which all mind is directed.
ZENIT: What modern persons, in your opinion, best embody ‘a mind that is Catholic?' Why?
Father Schall: In most of my books, beginning with "Another Sort of Learning," I have provided lists of books or reminders of them -- books that I think tell the truth.
I always list Chesterton and E. F. Schumacher. I think the present pope, as well as the previous one, were marvels of the Catholic mind, a mind that comes to grips with all things, yet with the light of grace and revelation.
The philosophy department at the Catholic University of America, to which I dedicated my book "The Mind That Is Catholic," is a perennial source of wisdom and rigorous intelligence. There is no place quite like it. I am a great admirer of the work of Monsignor Sokolowski, whose latest book, "The Phenomenology of the Human Person," is itself the Catholic mind at work; it is a mind that knows of reason and its limits as well as of its reaches.
Why do these and many other thinkers "embody a mind that is Catholic?" I think it is because they take everything into account.
What is peculiar to Catholicism, I have always thought, is its refusal to leave anything out. In my short book, "The Regensburg Lecture," I was constantly astonished at the enormous range of the mind of the present Holy Father. There is simply no mind in any university or public office that can match his. He is a humble man, in fact.
It is embarrassing to the world, and often to Catholic "intellectuals," to find that its most intelligent mind is on the Chair of Peter. I have always considered this papal intellectual profundity to be God's little joke to the modern mind.
The modern mind has built up for itself theories and ideologies whereby it prevents itself from seeing the truth that a man like Benedict XVI spells out for it in lucid and rigorously argued terms – terms fully aware and familiar with all of modern philosophy itself.
But Benedict XVI is a messenger of the Logos.
We do not get around his mind. We only shy away from considering it.
ZENIT: Is having a "mind that is Catholic" limited solely to philosophers, theologians, and intellectuals, or is it something that all Catholics should pursue?
Father Schall: What is unique about Christian revelation is that it was intended for everyone, including the philosophers.
Aristotle himself recognized that every mind is open to reality and hence could know -- perhaps not in some sophisticated fashion -- what is the truth. But the record of philosophers and theologians is not particularly impressive on this score.
From the admonitions of Paul to the present day, we have been concerned about the damage that philosophers could do to ordinary people. This was Socrates' polemic with the Sophists.
Christianity has never canonized the learned in great numbers. I am fond of citing Cardinal von Schönborn's remark that Thomas Aquinas was the only man ever canonized simply for thinking.
Great damage can and has come to the little ones through the aberrations of the philosophers. We do well to take note of it.
But Catholicism, as I have tried to spell out, needs and wants and delights in its thinkers.
I have always thought it was the function of a teacher to take students to other minds in which they can find the truth. But the truth is not in a book. It is in conversation, it is in actively thinking about what is.
Catholicism knows that all sorts and sources of knowledge flow into its mind, one of which -- the primary one that makes it unique -- is revelation. But it is a revelation, in its own terms, addressed to active reason. That too is the mind that is Catholic.
ZENIT: One notable writer has claimed that philosophy is consummated in the liturgy. What does this mean? How do the sacraments and spiritual life contribute to the "mind that is Catholic"?
Father Schall: You are referring to Catherine Pickstock's book, "After Writing: The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy." I have a chapter in my book, "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy," entitled "Worship and Political Philosophy," which is on this same issue.
What the "liturgical consummation of philosophy" means is that philosophy does not end in ideas or systems but in a reality that explains everything.
This notion is right out of Plato's "Laws" in which he said -- in a phrase that I always delight in citing -- we should spend our lives "singing, sacrificing, and dancing." This is precisely "liturgy."
But what is unique about Catholicism is that within it is contained the one thing that the human race has searched for in vain, namely, what is the proper way to worship God.
Mankind has come up with many ways; some, like Plato's, are fairly close. Others, like the Aztec sacrificing of human youth, are far away.
The bottom line is that the only way we could do this worship properly is if God would teach us. This is what the Mass, with its reality of the sacrifice of the Cross present, is about -- the way to worship God.
Only God, in the end, could tell us this, give us an example of how to perform the worship of the Father.
So yes, the mind that is Catholic leads naturally to worship and to the awe of the Triune Godhead into which we are invited to enter if we accept the divine invitation and live our lives in a way that we do not reject it.
The mind that is Catholic seeks the source of what is and to delight in it. This is its glory.