The Catholic Thing
The Catholic Thing Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Why he entitled this web site precisely The Catholic Thing, I have never asked its insightful editor, Robert Royal. The reason may be found somewhere in early TCT filings. Though I suspect Royal has a lucid explanation for his choice, sometimes it is more fun, if less accurate, to speculate.          

One possibility for the name comes from the expression: “What’s your thing?” Generally, such a question wants to know: What is someone about? What does he hold? Why is he doing the things that he does? What is he trying to sell us? Is there any explanation for his madness?

Some people just dislike Catholicism. Others think it is stupid, curious, or weird. Still others claim that it is old-hat, not modern. But when something seems odd or difficult to get a handle on, most people credit it for standing for something, even if they do not know what it is.

Of course, the Church does not try to hide what it stands for. The basics of Catholicism have been “on-line,” as it were, practically from its beginning with the Apostles. These twelve gentlemen were told to “go forth and teach all nations,” which they and their successors promptly did, however unqualified to perform this service their resumes seemed.

The point of the Church is in fact, that She is “ever ancient, ever new,” to recall a phrase of Augustine’s. If anyone can show that Catholicism is not now teaching what it taught from the beginning, and many have tried, well, we can all pack up our bags and go on our way. The intellectual history of the Church has to do with its dealings with thinkers, religions, and governments which have sought to make it into something it was not intended to be by its initial foundation in Christ.

          Part of the Collected Works of GKC, vol. III (order here)

Thus, early on, it was clear that not everyone, when he once got wind of what the Catholics were talking about, wanted to hear anything further. Drastic steps were (and still are) often taken, to prevent what Catholics maintain and recommended from being known or practiced in peace. Curious that. Others, like Paul of Tarsus, simply put his hands over his ears so he would not hear what Steven, while being stoned, was saying about who Jesus was.

Yet, from the first time I saw the name, The Catholic Thing, I associated it with Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic. This remarkable book was written seven years after his conversion from Anglicanism, in 1922. In Chesterton’s explanation, “The Thing” was the Church. Why on earth was this “Thing” still around?

Since my very first reading of the book, I have remained amused at one of Chesterton’s reasons. Those were the days when we were more concerned with what are now called mainline Protestant churches.

Chesterton investigated the matter. He found that really none of these churches still believed in practice the theology their founders used to separate themselves from Rome. In one way or another, they accommodated themselves to the world or rejected it. This caused him to wonder why the Catholic Church did not likewise go in these directions. The obvious, yet extraordinary, answer seemed to be the papacy.

Hadley Arkes mentioned last week that we have reintroduced a child-sacrifice rite into our public life with the legalization of abortion. Chesterton wrote in 1929:

But for Catholics it is a fundamental dogma of the Faith that all human beings, without any exception whatever, were specially made, were shaped and pointed like shining arrows for the end of hitting the mark of Beatitude. It is true that the shafts are feathered with free will, with therefore the shadow of all the tragic possibilities of free will; and that the Church (having always for ages known that darker side of truth, which the new skeptics have just discovered) does also draw attention to that potential tragedy. But that does not make any difference to the gloriousness of the potential glory. In one sense it is even a part of it, since the freedom is itself a glory.

This is what the Catholic Thing is about.

G.K. Chesterton at work

I am perversely fond of listening to earnest scholars explaining to me “the way it is”: “Men are no exceptions. They have no free will. What they do makes no ultimate difference. They have no final personal end for whose achievement they are responsible. They have no tragedies. Sin is an illusion.”

Advocates of such dull views are already found in the Old and New Testaments, in Augustine and Aquinas, in Plato and Aristotle. All such are formulae for despair, as any sensible skeptic will acknowledge.

Look, the Catholic Thing is about this glory, this freedom, this truth, this dignity with which we are endowed, given as a gift, not something we concoct by ourselves. 

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.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Michael Baker, January 10, 2012
Fr James,

I have always thought the ultimate source of the expression 'The Thing' was Belloc, who exercised great influence over Chesterton's thought. In his Letter to Dean Inge, published in 'The Evening Standard' (& reproduced in 'Essays of a Catholic'), Belloc says this: "One thing in this world is different from all other. It has a personality and a force etc... It is the Catholic Church." Since he wrote out of the fulness of his heart, it is impossible that he had not expressed himself in precisely this fashion in conversations with Chesterton much earlier.


Michael Baker
written by Manfred, January 10, 2012
"What is someone about? What does he hold? Why is he doing the things that he does? What is he trying to sell us? Is there any explanation for his madness?" Great questions, Fr. Schall. May we move from the rhetorical to the practical? The President of the Board at Georgetown U. is Paul Tagliabue, a former NFL Commissione who is an alumnus of G.U. He recently gave a $5 million gift to G.U. with the proviso that $1 million be used to set up the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transsexual, Questioning (LGBTQ) Initiative Resource Center. This is the first one that I am aware of on a "Catholic" University. As I know you are either on faculty or emeritus, Fr. Schall, at G.U., it is not my intention to put you on the spot, but I was wondering what your answers are to the questions at the top of this response vis a vis Mr. Tagliabue and his role at G.U.?
written by Trish, January 10, 2012
Michael Baker,

I think the phrase in English may go back to Belloc, but if you look at the Latin "res catholica", it goes back further, and I think it may even go back to Augustine, if I'm not mistaken.
written by Louise, January 10, 2012
From Hilaire Belloc: Essays. "the New Paganism"

"Our civilization developed as a Catholic civilization. It developed and matured as a Catholic thing."

I found this among lots of references in a search for Belloc: the Catholic thing
written by Grump, January 10, 2012
If He is the Potter and we are the clay, as stated in Romans, then how we are shaped is not in our control. Thus, the idea of "free will" is indeed an illusion because God makes people and things for His own purposes, not ours. In other words, it's a rigged Game.
written by Michael, January 10, 2012
The English word catholic comes from the Greek word katholika meaning universal. The Catholic Thing, the res catholica, the "universal thing" just happens to be...the title of the introduction to Father Robert Barron's recently released oeuvre "Catholicism". I won't spoil it, because I can't do it justice...

At the Amazon site I highly recommend "Look Inside" and reading the entire Introduction "The Catholic Thing" pp. 1 - 8.

Father Schall, I was not properly catechized so the jump to Chesterton's enunciation wasn't as obvious to me, nor as evocative as for someone as literate as you. Being a former Protestant my inclination is to jump right to Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of God, the hypostatic union. Father Barron's arguments make clear that although this distinguishes "the Catholic thing" from every non-Christian religion, the Orthodox (Greek and Russian) and the Protestants share this same distinctive. Therefore, the extension through time of the Incarnation in the mystical body of Christ, (to use a biblical phrase from the apostle St. Paul - as well as the title of an encyclical of Pope Pius XII "Mystici Corporis") - that is, the Church is what was so readily apparent to you. Thank you for your life's sacrifice, your work and your post. And thanks be to God, now and forever for holy men of God like yourself and Father Barron for proclaiming "the Catholic Thing" to this and subsequent generations.
written by Michael, January 10, 2012
@Grump: Your argument is typical of the zero sum game paradigm inherent in Protestant theology as exemplified by Luther's "Bondage of the Will" - that is, there are two wills, within the sphere or range of "Will" that subsumes or positions two competing entities one against another, God's will and man's will. God's being Infinite and man's finite, God's being All Powerful or Sovereign and man's being limited and restricted, God's wins out every time and man's is an illusion.
In contrast, Catholic theology's paradigm is analogical and therefore participatory. God said to Moses when the children of Israel ask who sent you, tell them "I am who I am" (Ex. 3:14). God is "isness" or Being. He positions everything. Out of a graciously generous and loving act He creates, therefor we are. We participate in His "isness" being made in his image and likeness, out of nothing. Because in His "isness" there is free will, we being made in his image had free will. After the fall, having freely positioned our will over and against God's will there is a self imposed inclination to sin. However, the Word was made flesh, divinity took on humanity and humanity was not consumed or subsumed (remember the burning bush?) but restored to its original glory, and further, elevated to be a vehicle of God's continuous loving presence in the world. Does God work in us to will according to His good pleasure...yes, by grace through Christ. However, our wills this side of heaven are not impassible or unchanging. We can and daily do, resist God's will by sinning against his known will - little white lies (lying on our time cards at work or to our families or spouses), pornography, cheating on our taxes, exceeding the speed limit and driving recklessly on the highway as if it were our own private Indianapolis Speedway putting ours and our fellow man's lives needlessly at risk, war, drinking to excess, or consuming illegal drugs, etcetera.
It's not us against him with the last man standing winning the bottom line. It's him having loved us into existence, and having made us, knowing what is best both physically for our bodies, mentally for our minds, and spiritually for our souls. You wouldn't put sugar in your automobile gas tank because you know it is counter productive and destructive. Similarly, when we align our wills with his will, we become fully who we are, by becoming one with Him. However, He never accomplishes this against our will. It is not a "rigged game". When revealing His will to the Blessed Virgin Mary concerning the Incarnation of the Messiah he does not force himself on her. The gentleman par excellence he presents His will, to the will of the Blessed Virgin Mary who freely consents to receive ("Be it done unto me according to Your will.").
written by To B., January 10, 2012
For my 2cts:
thing 2
n. -(Government, Politics & Diplomacy) (often capital) a law court or public assembly in the Scandinavian countries Also ting
[from Old Norse thing assembly (the same word as thing1)]
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

written by Jacob Morgan, January 10, 2012
One of the best parts of GKC's book is when he compares the Protestant churches to fossils, the shape may still be there but the substance is very different from what it was once . As a former Anglican, could not be more true.
written by Tony Esolen, January 10, 2012
God is the causa causarum, the cause of causes, or the cause that there are causes at all. He is the cause of the causes that operate without freedom, and the cause of the causes that operate freely. Because God is immanent, he works by means of the natures he has created; and because He is transcendent, He may in His providence create beings whose causes operate freely, without His determining them to any particular action.

The compatibility of divine foreknowledge and free will is proved by Boethius, in Book Five of the Consolation of Philosophy. What Boethius reminds us of is that we must not conceive, in a surreptitious way, of God as a creature like ourselves, dwelling in space and time as we do, and "seeing the future" as we would see it, if we could peer into future time. God, rather, is the Creator of time itself; it too is a creature that He knows from without and from within. God then sees all events in the eternal presence of His being: He sees those things that are to happen by the secondary causes He has determined; He sees those things that we do, by the secondary cause, our wills, which He has left free.

It is crucial here too to remember that the Fathers and the Schoolmen did not simply define "freedom" as we do -- as an absence of determining causes. Instead, freedom is the full health of a capacity for virtuous action: so that the man who has, by means of his uncompelled decisions, adopted virtue as what Aristotle calls a "second nature," is free precisely to the extent that his virtuous deeds now come to him without effort. Another way to put this -- a more profoundly Christian way, is to say that freedom is the unimpeded capacity to love as God loves.

We cannot talk about human freedom without talking about the essence and the aim of love.
written by Grump, January 11, 2012
@Michael. Nice argument. Tell that to the Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened by God and was merely created to play the bad guy. Or the blind man cured by Jesus who was born blind merely to "show the glory of God." How were these and countless other bit actors to exercise "free will" when their destinies were already cast by the "Director"?
written by Tony Esolen, January 11, 2012

Of the two men you mention, only the Pharaoh is relevant to the discussion, since the blind man's physical condition is but the context for his choices in life, to love or not to love. As for the Pharaoh, plenty of theologians have commented upon that verse. It cannot be lifted out of context and used as a proof-text; since Scripture also says that God wills that all men should see salvation. That is not His absolute will, but His conditional will, whereby, in love -- for love by its very nature does not wish to compel -- He allows His creatures to love Him in turn. The "hardening" of Pharaoh's heart should be viewed as a punishment for his cruelty and pride -- that is, if we read the verse as attributing to God the direct cause of the hardening, rather than the Pharaoh's own stubbornness and anger at having been shown up by Moses. Another thing to consider is that the entire confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh is a battle between the messenger of God and a mere human being who is idolized as a god. The plagues strike to the heart of the Egyptian worship of nature and the state. Pharaoh is shown not only to be no god -- no guarantor of fertility and health -- but a mere creature, the movements of whose very soul are open to God. No such power is ever attributed to Zeus or Moloch or the rest ...
written by Ioannes Andreades, January 11, 2012
According to the OED, the earliest meaning of "thing" in English is "A meeting, or the matter or business considered by it, and derived senses." I have speculated (most idly!) that it was this use of "thing" that was being used.
written by Grump, January 12, 2012
Tony, good rationalization but it does little to explain the "anomalies" of creation.

As Lucretius put it, "If God created the world it would not be as flawed or faulty as we see." There is growing evidence, for example, that homosexuals are born with their orientation already stamped in their DNA. Homosexuality is condemned as sinful. Right out of the cradle, the homosexual is a strike against him or her through no "choice" of his/her own. Repulsive activity made possible only because of the way the actors were made. More bit players in the farce called life.

There are countless "aberrations" and imperfections throughout nature that cannot be explained away. This is not to deny the existence of God, but merely to point out that as the Creator, He has cast some terrible mistakes.

written by Brett, August 11, 2013
Grump: Quite a few years back, the AMA came out with a definitive study that found homosexuality is not genetic.
There is no gay gene. This aberration, homosexuality, is not biological. It is something else, what that is, we do not now know.

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