The Catholic Thing
Confident Catholicism Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Monday, 18 October 2010

A student told me that her father just read a list of the ten “intellectual” universities in the country. “Why was no Catholic school listed among them?” The daughter replied: “If a Catholic school were listed by this criterion, it would no longer be Catholic.” I just laughed. Some Catholic universities, those with the most fame, are now being referred to as “post-Catholic.”

In the interview during the Holy Father’s flight to England, one reporter wanted to know what could be done to make the Church more “attractive.” The bemused pope replied: “A church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power. The Church is at the service of Another.” That is well said.

The great French medievalist, Rémi Brague, was asked in an interview about the scientists who claim that “supernaturalism is based on ignorance.” Brague replied: “Such statements are hopelessly muddled. At the bottom of all that, you find Auguste Comte’s idea that religion can’t explain the world as well as science does. This is very true. But whoever said that explaining the world is what religion is about? The fact that we know more and more things about nature does not prove that there is nothing else than nature.” The real issue is: Why is it that we have a power to know anything at all, including nature?

My old classmate, Father Michael Saso, told me that several Jesuits have been able to teach courses in Christology or Church history in Chinese Universities that they would not be allowed to teach at UCLA or Michigan.

The late Father Richard Neuhaus used to speak of the “Catholic moment,” or at least the missing of it. Somehow, in the back of our minds, we think that finally the scholarly world will come to see the enormous sense and intelligence in Catholicism, “the range of reason,” as Maritain called it. It probably won’t happen, not because this intelligence and good sense are not there, but because of the humility it would take to think modernity through in terms of Catholic orthodoxy, the delicate compatibility of reason and revelation. If we have a model here of how this might be done, it has to be Chesterton.

These comments are entitled “Confident Catholicism.” We used to hear of a Catholic vice called “triumphalism,” actually a pretty good word, as H. W. Crocker, in Triumph, showed. In recent years, I have been struck by the remarkably high quality of study in all fields that can be traced to the Catholic mind. Much of this, more immediately, has to do with the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. But ultimately, I suspect we owe it to the enormous scope of the minds of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. 

John Paul II and then Cardinal Ratzinger: Minds of enormous scope

George Weigel, in his wonderful new book on John Paul II, remarks, as others have, that ironically, today, the leading defender of reason in the modern world is nothing other than the papacy. Thus, Brague: “We should endeavor to get a clearer picture of the reasons why Christians – and not only the pope – have to speak up from time to time. They don’t preach their own stuff, pro domo. They warn of dangers that menace mankind at large, and they have to do so when they think that some behavior, be it individual or collective, is lethal for mankind. The supreme rule in those matters is some sort of duty to rescue.” The duty to “rescue” the mind of man is indeed a great mission of Catholicism. In saving souls, minds too are saved.

I have been long of the opinion that the great aberrations of the world first begin in the turmoil in the minds of the intellectual and clerical dons. They have little to do initially with the condition of the world such aberrations seek to change in the name of a higher humanist good. In 1 Timothy 4, we read: “The Spirit distinctly says that in latter times some will turn away from the faith and will heed deceitful spirits and things taught by demons through plausible liars – men with seared consciences….” Our world often seems full of “plausible liars.” “Seared consciences” are in the daily news.

The fact is, though, Catholicism is confident. It knows about sin and its effects, so it is not overly surprised to meet them, especially among its own. That is the whole point of redemption. But there is an order in things; they do fit together. Almost every day this becomes clearer. The suspicion that it might just be true is the real root of hatred for Catholicism in the modern world.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., October 19, 2010
Dear Fr. Schall,
Several years ago I heard Fr. Saso speak about, among other things, taking Americans on tours of Tibet. I asked him how he was treated as a Catholic priest in Tibet. Obviously sensing the intent of my question, he replied, "Whenever I see one of those bumper stickers that says 'Free Tibet' I want to stand up shout'Free the Blacks and Mexicans'!". Have you ever noted that side of him? From his remark I can only infer that he is an unashamed apologist for the government of Communist China. I know that this is not what your wonderful article is about, but I think we should understand that IF the Chinese Communists would allow a course in Christology to be taught at all it would not be for purposes of bringing souls to Salvation. While Fr. Saso was lavishing praise on the Muslim practice of charity--in contrast to that of us Christians who only give it lip service, I was tempted to ask him if that is what accounted for near disappearance of poverty in the Islamic world, but I kept my peace, having provoked him once.
written by Scott Hesener, October 19, 2010
Dear Father Schall,
Thank you for this excellent article. We Catholics need this kind of encouragement. I especially liked your concluding paragraph.
written by Achilles, October 19, 2010
Another edifying essay, thank you Father Schall! Our public schools and universities are becoming more and more dangerous places. Blinded by artificial light many of us entrust our children to them. Satan is smiling.
written by Pete Brown, October 19, 2010
Father Schall,

You quote approvingly this line, "whoever said explaining the world was what religion was about?"

ouch!!!!! I about fell out of my chair when I read this.

Doesn't this utterly torpedo the great conceit of Thomism, the perennial philosophy of the Church, which does, in fact, purport to explain the world and its true meaning building on the truths of the empirical sciences? And doesn't this pretty much concede that secularists have been right all along--not in the strong form of secularism which denies God-- but the more modest form which files the things of God under "religious questions" pretty well detachable from the actual day to day world in which we live??

If this is "confident Catholicism" count me among the pusillanimous.
written by james v schall, sj, October 19, 2010
With regard to Peter Brown's good comment--this is a citation from Brague, who always speaks carefully. In context, as I understood him and agree with him, Brague was concerned with the Comte thesis that science could explain the world better than religion. Brague's blunt response was that science explains the world, but the world is not everything, even when science explains all that it can explain. Religion has to do also with what is not just the world or matter subject to scientific method. Such realities, of spirit, if you will, are also present in the world of our experience. They are not subject to scientific method which depends on quantity.
With regard to the concern that somehow Brague is against the Thomist enterprise of reason by saying that religion deals with what is not just material (which is what the pope says all the time also), I do not understand Aquinas as saying that faith or religion explains the world the way science does. Rather I understand him to say that science understands it as reason. Faith simply tells reason to be reason. When reason cannot explain everything, there may or may not be a higher explanation, but it does not come from "science." Yet, revelation is also addressed to reason and depends on reason being reason. This is what Aquinas was about, I think. Again, Catholicism wants reason to be reason, and, as we suspect, what comes from revelation comes from the same source as reason does. Aquinas does not confuse the two, but keeps each what it is. This is his greatness. jvssj
written by katie h, October 24, 2012
Dear Fr.James V. Schall, In Cardinal Martini's last interview he is noted as saying Catholics have lost their confidence. Please tell me what you might think he, who was somewhat challenging of the Church of today in that same interview, might have meant by this? Would you tend to agree with some of those statements he made?
Katie h

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