Confident Catholicism Revisited

Editor’s Note: Thanks to those of you who replied to yesterday’s end-of-year appeal. We’re getting closer. But we’re still quite a distance from being  there. I don’t often say this, but it worries me about our future. Here you have the great Schall in today’s column. And the rest of the week – I promise – will be almost equally inspiring, ‘almost’ because who can match the great Jesuit? We cannot do what we aspire to do without your participation. Please, make your contribution to The Catholic Thing without delay. – Robert Royal

A column of mine, “Confident Catholicism,” appeared several weeks ago (TCT, 19 October). Here, to ground this confidence, I propose five books to be read by the reasonably curious of whatever philosophical persuasion. The background is the quaint but common opinion that Catholics are fanatics, jaded, or relatively backward. I write in the spirit of Walker Percy. Asked why he was a Catholic, he replied succinctly, “What else is there?”

Brad Miner’s comment on his conversion (TCT, 22 November) is pertinent. “The few other Catholics in our class are long-since lapsed (although fun-loving), and everybody was curious why as smart guy as I am is still a Catholic in this day and age…”

Belloc, I think, quipped that “He who has the faith (not the ‘long-since lapsed’) has the fun.” In “our day and age,” while most of us looked the other way, it is the Catholics who enjoy using their brains. The more interesting problem is: Why, in philosophic terms, are the “smart guys” not Catholics?

The main defender of reason in the modern world is probably the papacy. Moreover, the case for Catholicism has never been stronger. Most just do not know what it is. Culture encourages us not to find out. This short list is proposed in a bemused spirit. If someone doubts what I say, let him carefully read these books. It will take probably six months if diligently pursued, maybe more. All are clearly written. Each demands thinking and honesty.

Much “dialogue” goes on in the world. The Church initiates most of it. But it is almost never about Catholicism itself. We want to find out what truth, if any, can be found in Islam, communism, Hinduism, liberalism, science, or in Lord knows what.

Few want to know what truth is found in Catholicism. The main reason Catholicism is hated in the modern world, and it is hated, is the suspicion that Catholicism might well be true. To mock or misrepresent Catholicism seems permissible if, as it is supposed, it is composed of dunderheads who cannot argue coherently about anything, not even what they believe and the grounds for it.

  Pope Benedict XVI: “My whole life has always been bound by a common thread:
Christianity brings joy.”

Someone’s knowledge of Catholicism, we suppose, comes from a steady diet of reading “dissenting” Catholics. He reads atheists who claim that the world can be explained without God. He studied in a Catholic or secular university in which he never had a basic philosophy class. Theology is a complete mystery as to its grounding and content. He may be a Protestant who thinks that Catholics have no clue about the Bible, or a rationalist who thinks they never heard of Descartes.

Or our critic may have spent his whole life on “social justice.” He never wondered why this virtue’s advocates, supporting lawyers and politicians, end up promoting some ideology designed to make this world a paradise on earth, but usually make things worse.

The five books are mainly addressed to reason, even the one of the pope. Catholicism is aware of the Logos behind all things. The long effort of modernity to maintain that no order can be found in the cosmos, the human city, or the human soul has become less and less tenable. The Catholic mind is not opposed to reason, only to using it stupidly or illogically, of which numerous examples can be found in any era.

The five books are these: 1) Robert Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy; 2) Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 3) Robert Sokolowski, The Phenomenology of the Human Person; 4) George Weigel, John Paul II: The End and the Beginning, and 5) Aidan Nichols, G. K. Chesterton, Theologian.

At first sight, this list may strike the inattentive reader as motley. Each of these books, however, teaches us, in its own way, how to think, indeed, what thinking is. They are, I think, cumulative. Each complements what was found in the others. Other books could be mentioned –Remi Brague’s Law of God or Hadley Arkes’ First Things. But these suffice.

The purpose of this list is precise: To dispel any idea that Catholicism has no solid grounds for its mind. Revelation is not addressed to itself, but to this mind itself engaged in thinking as best it can of God, man, and the universe. Such is the scope of these five books.

On finishing them, I think, it will be apparent why someone might just be both a Catholic and a man of reason “in this day and age.” Walker Percy’s remark was cogent: “What else, indeed, is there?”

Or as Benedict recently said: “My whole life has always been bound by a common thread: Christianity brings joy. It widens horizons.” That it brings this joy and widens our horizons is what these five books are about.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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