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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

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”.

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