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On Being Roman Catholic: The Great Intellectual Adventure of Our Time



James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 11/01/14

Why Catholic? As writer Walker Percy said, "What else is there?"

“It will not be out of place to consider the ancient tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church, which was revealed by the Lord, proclaimed by the apostles, and guarded by the fathers. For upon this faith the Church is built, and if anyone were to lapse from it, he would no longer be a Christian either in fact or in name.”
–St. Athanasius, Bishop, "Letter to Serapionem," Office of Trinity Sunday.

“From splendor, he (Morgoth/Lucifer) fell through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless. Understanding he turned to subtlety in perverting to his own will all that he would use, until he became a liar without shame.”
–J. R. R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1927), 31.

“After grace had been revealed, both learned and simple folk are bound to explicit faith in the mysteries of Christ, chiefly as regards those which are observed throughout the Church, and publically proclaimed, such as the articles that refer to the Incarnation….”
–Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," II-II, 2, 7.

The title of this lecture is not John Locke’s "The Reasonableness of Christianity," nor is it Ludwig Feuerbach’s "The Essence of Christianity," neither of which treatise had much to do with Catholicism and, consequently, as I would rashly put it, little to do with reason either. Yet, it is more than C. S. Lewis’s "Mere Christianity." The “reason” that properly belongs to Catholicism delights to hear any objections to its truth. Such objections incite us to clarity and distinction. Catholicism is a revelation confident in its own grounding and coherence. If someone “disavows” it or any of its basic tenets, he must give a reason for his disagreements. These given reasons can, in turn, be understood and examined for their own truth content or lack of it. Such objections are likewise indirect teachers of what is true, of what is hidden in what is proclaimed. Thinking erroneously is ever an occasion for thinking correctly. We owe to error the courtesy to find the truth for which it gropes.

Since Catholicism claims to be true, and not just another relativism, it cannot avoid dealing with positions that claim it to be false. The title of a book of mine is, precisely, "The Mind That Is Catholic." It is of the essence of Catholicism to be an intellectual religion. On its own terms, it is not true if a case cannot be made for its validity. The final words in Chesterton’s 1905 book, "Heretics," were that the last defenders of reason in the modern world would be the believers in that distinct revelation that is alone directed to reason at its best. If my understanding of the modern mind is anywhere near accurate, I think that we have already reached the point that Chesterton saw over a hundred years ago. Catholicism almost alone defends reason that is based on what is. We are the last to hold that it is a given world that we do not “create” of our own minds. Yet, we do discover and articulate what it is with these same minds.

In the modern world of institutionalized relativism, any claim to truth is immediately chastised as being “arrogant” or “fanatic.” Catholics will thus seem like braggarts who doubt the modern mind’s basic prejudices. When home television sets were becoming common, Lucy is visiting Charlie Brown in his house. She is in the parlor before the TV set. She boasts to Charlie: “Our television screen is bigger than yours.” Charlie across the room, good guy that he is, responds: “It is? That’s fine. I’ll bet you enjoy it.”

In the next scene, Charlie looks at a book. Lucy continues to provoke him: “My dad makes more money than your dad. Our house is a lot better than yours too.” But before a deflated Lucy, Charlie happily explains: “I realize that and I am very happy for you.” In the final scene, Lucy tightens her fists before an uncomprehending Charlie who just doesn’t get it. She yells at him: “YOU DRIVWE ME CRAZY!”

This claim to truth and the evidence for it, both of reason and revelation, is, I suspect, what most drives the modern world precisely “crazy.” The claim to truth is, as it implies in John’s Gospel, the source of the persecution that Christ told his disciples to expect. Their most reasonable teaching must sound precisely “crazy” in a world that denies any order in nature or in the human being that is not placed there by man alone. But even the word “crazy” has no meaning if there is in fact no order, no norm, to compare it with.

In the Breviary for Trinity Sunday, St. Athanasius (296-373 A.D.) speaks of the inner life of the Godhead. This is the teaching that most challenges our reason to be itself more reasonable. Athanasius told us to “consider the ancient, traditional teaching" of the Catholic Church. This teaching was “revealed” by the Lord, “proclaimed” by the Apostles, and “guarded” by the Church fathers. If we “lapse” from this teaching, we would not be Catholic either “in fact or in name.” We are, no doubt, in a world filled with “lapsed” Catholics, a world that usually rejects any proposition that even claims to be true.

Yet, it does not take a genius to understand why the premises of relativism claim, as true, that there is no truth. With this inescapable contradiction, we must begin our reasoning. It cannot be true that there is no truth if the denial of truth is itself true. Other truths, truth itself, are built precisely on this principle of contradiction, as the classical writers always understood.

We are tempted to maximize Church membership numbers by minimizing what doctrines we are to believe. Catholicism holds that everything essential that we need to know in revelation is present in the beginning, and handed down to us with the guarantee of its integrity. Our understanding of what is revealed can deepen. What is revealed remains the same. What does this insistence that we already have what we need to know mean? It means that thinking about what is revealed makes us more reasonable. This implies that the origin of reason and revelation is identical.

To reject revelation somehow makes us less capable of knowing and seeing what is. From the beginning era, we were told what we needed to know for our salvation, itself the purpose of the Incarnation. God was not negligent in not telling us more, in not revealing every last detail so that there was nothing left for us to figure out for ourselves.. He left wide spaces for us to use our own brains. But in thinking about what is given for us to know about God’s inner life, we also discover that we come to know more than we could have known about everything else had this revelation not been given to us.

We are brought together in the heritage of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas tells us that not only is grace “revealed” but that it is given to both the simple and the learned. Catholicism is not an elitism or a Gnosticism. For every doctor of the Church, there are hundreds of ordinary “saints.” Catholicism does not presupposes that the simple of our kind know nothing. The Apostles were simple fishermen, but by no means stupid.

The mysteries that need to be known by both the simple and the learned are to be “publically proclaimed” by the Church to the world, especially those teachings that have to do with the Incarnation. That is, Christ, the Son of God, as all available evidence shows, actually existed in this world as a human being. This is why we have the Creed, itself a veritable mine of classical thought.

This claim to truth is the conclusion of Benedict XVI’s "Jesus of Nazareth." Catholicism maintains that simple people are important enough to be saved even if they were not philosophers. But it also thinks that they were perceptive enough to have explained to them the truths about God, man, and cosmos that were needed by anyone to realize that it all did make sense, that each person did have a transcendent end that Augustine located in “the City of God”.

We live, as I see it, in a culture in which every effort is made to relativize and render innocuous the real differences that exist among the philosophies and religions of the world. We ask how religions are alike, not how they differ. But they do differ. Many want a “parliament” of religions, not a true Church. This endeavor cows religion into political uniformity and irrelevancy. In one of its strands, religion is downplayed because of what is assumed about the various so-called “wars of religion.” The wars of the early modern period were thought to be caused by religion, specifically by their differences.
The solution, as we read in both Hobbes and Rousseau, is to subject all religion to state power in the name of civil peace and harmony. It is further to elevate economic and material interests so that men will not have time for or interest in any transcendental issues. Yet, Chesterton said somewhere that religions do not differ much in externals. All have garb, music, and gestures that are not that much different. Where they really differ lies in what they hold to be true.

In this context, religion is to be rendered clawless. Freedom of religion, the vaunted premise of liberal democracy, comes to mean merely “freedom of worship.” That is, we can believe whatever outlandish and irrational thing we want inside the walls of our churches, but we cannot act outside of them without permission of the state. The public works of religion must first conform to the laws of the state. These laws, in turn, have no other justification but themselves in their own self-defined statement. The notion of written constitutions limiting government by its checks and balances has been rendered inoperable. Courts. legislatures, and executives are not hampered by constitutions or “laws” that transcend nature itself. 

The notion of a natural or transcendent law that in turn allows appeal of civil law to a higher law is rejected. The state is absolutely sovereign. Maritain, in his "Man and the State," once remarked that the very notion of sovereignty could not be properly applied to the state. The term had to do with the status of God in His transcendence, not the state, which was never “sovereign” as God was sovereign. However, once we grant that no higher appeal can be made to judge state law, the state becomes in effect “sovereign.” That is, it holds the place of God. It becomes the arbiter of good and evil. It is, as Hobbes called it, “the mortal God,” evidently with power, through fear of violent death, to eliminate any appeal to an immortal God.

The second of the passages that I cited in the beginning was from Tolkien’s account of the “First Age,” as he called it. Already before the coming men there was the recounting of the fall of the angel or valar named Morgoth, who would be more familiar to us as Lucifer. We are told of the contempt for all things except for oneself, of turning everything to one’s own purpose, to end in lying about the truth of the things that are. We are to read literature, it is said, so that we will have explained to us what happens in human nature that we do not experience or know directly so that when it happens we will recognize what is at stake. I must confess that I see some relation to the state that implicitly lies to us about the nature of our moral acts, lies that end by making what is evil to be our rights, to be thus good.

But I do not propose a critique of the absolute state into which modern democracies, like other political forms, have fallen, usually by a slow, step-by-step erosion of the good. Catholics are often told in St. John’s Gospel that dire things can and will happen to them because of what they believe about who Christ is. We cannot but be aware that many Christians have died of persecution in recent decades. Many people, especially Jews, often comment on the relative indifference that Catholics seem to show for the fate of their fellow religionists in other parts of the world. Part of this, no doubt, is that we have no armies, no independent force.

We are told by our religious leaders even that violence is always bad, that dialogue is all we can use. Another part of the reason is that our countrymen generally maintain the thesis that all wars are caused by religion, not by greed, envy, or pride. When religion is persecuted, we thus hear very little of it, or if we do, it is usually explained that religion is the cause, not the object, of the persecution.

So, in the light of these sometimes somber reflections, what is it that I want to say about “being Catholic?” Initially, I have always liked the remark of Walker Percy who, when persistently asked by hostile voices why he became a Catholic, responded, briefly, “What else is there?” As I have said earlier, Catholicism is genuinely interested in this “what else is there?” As we learn from Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, Augustine, too, we do not really understand the full truth of something unless we can explain the arguments against its truth.

Sometimes we fear that science, technology, or some other system are real threats to the validity of Catholicism. Most often, however, when examined, we can distinguish between the truth and falsity of some position thought to undermine what Catholicism holds. This effort to understand reasons for its rejection is why Catholicism has always been and must be an intellectual revelation. It recognizes that we do need teachers of wisdom on the human side. Faith is addressed to reason, to a reason that must itself do all it can to be reasonable, to know what is true.

In a recent book of mine, "Rational Pleasures," I argued a point that Benedict XVI made with such insight. The modern world, he said, was in fact little more than a gigantic effort to accomplish the transcendental ends of Catholicism, not by grace and faith, but by our own efforts in this world. The classic Marxist accusation that the reason the world is in such disorder is because believers uselessly spend their time with the next life, not improving this one, seems in practice to be just the opposite of what really happens. Those who are most concerned with the next lives are also those who are most concerned about this one, about what goes on within it. It is Catholicism, along with Plato, that maintains that what we do or do not do in this life is to be judged precisely because of the importance of each actual person in his actual life.

The systems and views that hold that human happiness is ahead of us in this world have become the real end of our technology and politics, The eradication of death, of evil by economic, political and technical means, the preservation of the earth for its own sake, have become the substitutes for Catholicism. These are the idols of our time. It has always struck me as odd, the emphasis that Scripture places on the first commandment, not to worship false idols. But as it turns out, this commandment seems to be the essential one. The unraveling of man’s good and nature itself follows from its denial.

The “being Roman Catholic,” in conclusion, is the great intellectual adventure of our kind. We are invited to participate in it, but we can refuse it. It is a realism of its own kind. It is certainly not liberal as moderns understand it, nor is it conservative. The way that I put it to myself is that it is “Thomist,” that is, it gives full credit to reason and to what it can affirm by its own powers. But it is also aware of the Fall and the consequences of sin. It sees the real drama of our lives to be how we live in whatever polity in which we happen to spend our four score years, if we be given so many. The vastness of the divine plan for us is overwhelming. But it includes us as individual persons who begin to live in time.

Our final end, and this is a blessing, is not in this world, even though we originate in this world. As St. Paul and others tell us, there is a divine plan that is working itself out in the cosmos in which we find ourselves. We are included in this plan. But we are free to reject it. Many seem to do so. We do not underestimate evil, nor make it more powerful than God’s grace. We are told in the Church all we need to know about our final end. And we are told by this same Church that we must use our minds and good sense. We best know that revelation is addressed to us when we realize that we do not know everything by our own powers.

It is in these curious things that we cannot figure out by ourselves that revelation sheds the light on our minds to guide us to what we do not know. We learn that God not only exists, but He exists as three persons, one of whom came and dwelt amongst us. He told us enough to save our souls, and even improve our polities if we would. But we had to live and be open to a gift that we did not merit.

In the end, all is gift. Nothing needs to exist, yet it does. To be a Roman Catholic means to be open to this gift and to be charged by it to understand what we really are, persons invited to live within the inner life of the Godhead. We may accept or reject this invitation in the course of our lives. That, finally, is why we are given our lives, to make this choice. All else perhaps matters, but nothing matters so much.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book isThe Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures  (St. Augustine Press, 2014). This article was adapted from a lecture delivered at the apostolic nunciature in Washington, DC to thealumni and friends of St. Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, California.

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