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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!”

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