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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

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.

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