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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., noted political philosopher, dead at 91

Fr. Schall
Sophia Institute Press
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Longtime Georgetown professor remembered for his erudition, love of teaching and prolific output

Fr. James V. Schall, a Jesuit priest and longtime professor of political philosophy, has died at the age of 91. He had been living in the Jesuit residence in Los Gatos, California.

Fr. Schall died April 17, shortly after noon, after a brief hospitalization in Los Gatos.

A prolific author, Fr. Schall published more than 30 books over the years. One of them had a title that took up most of the book’s cover: Another Sort of Learning: Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity To Be Found.

He also wrote essays for Aleteia, the National Catholic Register, Crisis, Gilbert!, the Saint Austin Review, and the University Bookman.

Though he retired in 2012 from a 58-year teaching career, he continued to be active in writing and speaking.

Even after a health scare in late December, the dogged priest and scholar rebounded and began again to publish articles.

“Fr. Schall is cast in the heroic mold of the indefatigable Jesuits who helped to explore and settle the New World—stoically minimizing his own trials, rejoicing in goodness wherever he finds it, teaching and preaching faithfully in season and out, doughtily fighting battles from which many others shy away, sacrificing himself to do the right thing, and bearing suffering courageously,” said Anne Carson Daly, former president of Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y., in early January 2019. “He is a man who expects to sacrifice himself for others, for the common good, and for God’s glory.”

Born January 28, 1928, in Pocahontas, Iowa, James Vincent Schall wasn’t much of a reader in his youth. But while serving in the Army in the years immediately after World War II, he discovered that a library on his base was a good way to pass the time.

After being discharged, he attended Santa Clara University and then entered the California Province of the Jesuits in 1948. In 1960 he earned a doctorate in political philosophy at Georgetown, and three years later he was ordained a priest.

From 1977 to 2012, he was a professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University in Washington. Prior to that, he was on the faculty of social sciences at the Gregorian University in Rome for 14 years and taught in the government department at the University of San Francisco for seven.

He was a member of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace at the Vatican, 1977-82; and of the National Council on the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities, 1984-90.

“The most remarkable feature of Fr. Schall as a thinker is the way he has internalized the Catholic intellectual tradition,” said V. Bradley Lewis, Associate Professor in the School of Philosophy and Fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. “He has often seemed to me to be that tradition incarnate. His erudition is enormous, and his powers of synthesis are extraordinary. He has always been one of the first persons you wanted to hear discuss any significant development because you knew he would be able to think about it in the context of his command of the tradition.”

That was true especially of political matters and issues of political theory, Lewis said. Fr. Schall was “one of the very few really deep explicitly Catholic political thinkers around because he has such a deep knowledge of the history of political philosophy itself, but also of the specifically Catholic political thinkers.”

“Even in retirement, books, columns, and articles have continued to come at a dizzying pace,” said Lewis.

“I think what he’s done best has probably been to make clear the importance of faith for reason and then governance as well, that revelation actually makes a difference to how we conceive of politics and public life,” said David Deavel, editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. “He’s done a lot of things about education as well and the importance of actually thinking again along the lines of faith and reason, but I think in terms of his intellectual gifts it’s thinking about how revelation affects the way we think about how this world operates. And in a way that doesn’t just reduce politics to just a branch of theology, but also in a way that doesn’t separate them such that the world of politics is a sort of amoral sphere.”

Rather, Deavel noted, Schall thought of politics as “sort of a productive collaboration in terms of the way in which people think about how to order their lives together.”

Fr. Schall once said that his field of political philosophy is a discipline that “touches about everything.” And just about any topic could set him off on musing about history, culture and geopolitics. In an interview with Aleteia, about the 16th century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, he made observations about China’s relationship with Christianity.

“It is not difficult to see why China is not more Christian,” he said. “To be so in any meaningful sense would mean a dismantling of the whole bureaucracy. Efforts to get at converting the Chinese communist elites are every bit as daunting as efforts of Ricci to convert the Emperor. Indeed, they are no doubt more difficult. We forget that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Chinese government did not. It changed its ways in one major respect. It decided to learn western science and technology but not its culture or religion. In so doing, China became richer and richer, the labor center of the world. While Ricci could show a connection between science and technology and Christianity in his time, in our time science is popularly thought to support no culture or religion.”

In a 2013 lecture shortly after his retirement, Schall commented, “We are living in a time where the logic of disorder is at work, rejecting systematically the logic of being a human being.”

The culture is “rejecting heavenly answers and replacing them with human answers,” he said. “A will is leading you, and it says there is something wrong with being human. That goes back to the whole drama of the Fall” of Man, in the Garden of Eden. “C.S. Lewis says the ultimate sin, the ultimate disorder, is to say what is good is bad, what is bad is good.”

Daly, who met Fr. Schall some 40 years ago at a convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, said he was a “champion of the complementarity of faith and reason.”

”He has been nothing less than an apostle of Truth—recognizing that the first responsibility of the rational mind, and hence of the intellectual, the scholar, the teacher, the writer, and the priest is to love Veritas—‘What is,’ as Socrates liked to put it.

”For Fr. Schall, God is the heart of ‘What is’ because He is Being Itself and created everything and everyone that exists,” she said. “Another crucial aspect of Fr. Schall’s understanding of reality is that a Trinitarian God, who is Love, created all that is out of the community of love and friendship exemplified by the relationship of the three Persons of the Trinity. In Fr. Schall’s thinking, teaching, speaking, and writing, as well as in his personal friendships, he tries to re-create this divine community of love and friendship. Thus, for many decades before Pope Benedict XVI specified that the goal of the university is ‘intellectual charity’—which he defined as communicating the truth in love—Fr. Schall was a notable practitioner of this virtue.”

”I think his legacy is really as an educator in the broadest sense, one of the greatest educators in American Catholic history,” said Catholic University’s Bradley Lewis.

In a 2013 interview with the National Catholic Register, Ignatius Press CEO Mark Brumley called Another Sort of Learning a “reflection on different aspects of lifelong learning.”

Fr. Schall “once told me, ‘You can’t really learn in school,’” Brumley recalled. “But what he meant is that school is where you get the tools of learning, but for someone who is fully alive, learning is a lifelong endeavor.”

Check the Schall Family website for funeral information. 

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