“Not a Philosophical Speculation”

When Pope Benedict entered Westminster Cathedral for Mass during his English visit in 2010, the Entrance Song was the “Tu es Petrus,” composed by the recently knighted Scot composer, Sir James MacMillan. As the ruins of many cathedrals there still attest, Scotland was once Catholic. Some clans remained so. What was the poignant line of Samuel Johnson in his Journal of a Tour in the Hebrides? –“That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force on the plain of Marathon, and whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.”

MacMillan was awarded the “Catholic Herald’s Catholic of the Year, 2015.” He is an admirer of Benedict XVI, who also places music and beauty at the core of human life. “Beauty is the heart of our Christian faith,” MacMillan wrote. “It should be paramount in our attentions as we approach the throne of all Beauty for our praises.” The Church long understood that men need beauty as much as they need bread, perhaps, in the long run, they need it more.

In The Ratzinger Report (1985), we read: “Christianity is not a philosophical speculation; it is not a construction of our mind. Christianity is not ‘our’ work; it is a Revelation; it is a message that has been consigned to us, and we have no right to reconstruct it as we like or choose.”

Popes and bishops have no more important task than to keep the essential “message” intact. “Philosophical speculations” only follow upon and aid the accurate reception of revelation and its content. Any attempt to “reconstruct” it or tone it down in the light of some fancied “construction” of the mind is itself to reject what has been “consigned” to us. It is this latter consignment, however unpopular or alien to a given culture or era, that God wanted to be kept present in the world down the ages – and entrusted the Church to carry it out.

Sir James MacMillan put it this way: “Many people, believers or not, have invested a lifetime in trying to water down Christianity, seeing a bland uniform secularism as some kind of inevitable next step. We do live in a plural society, but our civilization has been shaped by Judaeo-Christian values and culture. Some of us will continue to celebrate this and live our life of faith as pluralists.” One can hardly doubt that much of modern Protestantism and liberal Catholicism have indeed spent “lifetimes” in “watering down” the basic tenets of revelation and the reality to which they refer.


The effort to “water-down” Christianity into a “bland uniform secularism” would make the Church an agent of cultural uniformity. The things that make Christianity distinct – its very revelation of Trinity and Incarnation – would be eliminated or explained away. This revelation and its distinctness, indeed, are popularly said to be the “cause” of our civil disorders. No one, then, can claim to be bound by anything but what the state allows for public peace. A universal “humanism” or “secularism” endeavors to eliminate any cause of strife. The Church thus can claim no effect outside its own walls. Religious freedom ends at the front door of any religious congregation.

The kind of “pluralism” that Sir James MacMillan follows is a more robust kind than the “multiculturalism” according to which we currently are ruled. Modern “multiculturalism,” the kind that Sir James rejects, is based on skepticism. Nothing in principle is true. All religious ideas are equally wrong. None can claim truth.

In the “pluralism” of Sir James MacMillan, differences in thought and ideas are not to be hidden but to be lived openly and legally. Often, to do so, it takes considerable “courage”—itself, no doubt, an historical Scot virtue. How often have the haunting bagpipes of the Scot regiments conveyed this virtue in many a strange land.

The idea that peace is achieved by the forceful removal of any sign of religion, in effect, establishes “secular humanism” as a mandatory “public faith,” all of this in the name of “multiculturalism.” Such a concept has, as it turns out, proved as lethal and as narrow as almost any past religion. Its justification, again, is the claim that nothing is true.

With Benedict, Sir James understands that his pluralism is rather based on reason. It does not deny the fanaticism in some religions that needs to be met head on. But it likewise affirms that what is revealed is to be known and lived. These are the truths that he will “continue to celebrate” and stand for within the nations, beginning with his own land.

Finally, let me repeat, with Joseph Ratzinger: “Christianity is not ‘our’ work; it is a Revelation.” And with Sir James: “Beauty is the heart of our Christian faith.”

Click here to listen to Sir James MacMillan’s “Tu es Petrus”

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent 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, and Catholicism and Intelligence.

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    I would like to have read this piece and discovered that it was penned by Pope Francis. Fr. Schall does well to have drawn a distinction between what the Church believes and the cultural morass we find ourselves in.

  • Michael DeLorme

    Aquinas said that beauty is “that which, being seen, pleases.” Your article, being read, pleases. Thank you, Father Schall.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Nosferatu more Lucifer than vampire as directed by Werner Herzog says “What is faith but the futile desire for what you know does not exist.” That is the dilemma in a world when faith was once nourished by clergy. Fr Schall pinpoints the cause. Faith is coalesced with revelation and not subject to vagrant philosophies. Philosophy Schall explains should explicate Christian faith not dilute it. Ironically Herzog’s Nosferatu identifies desire, an essential element of faith. Reason has a natural propensity toward truth and faith requires a freely given desire for good. Faith, the revelatory knowledge of that good is a gift. Today faith is shaken. The sheep are crying out, their vision impaired their pain oft self inflicted they wander in all sorts of direction. Christ gave up comfort and need, a warm hearth for the sheep. There is exquisite spiritual joy in suffering for the good of others. The sheep need the faith inspiring example of our gentle guidance and love not disdain.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Bl John Henry Newman makes this very important distinction: “Revelation sets before it [the mind] certain supernatural facts and actions, beings and principles; these make a certain impression or image upon it; and this impression spontaneously, or even necessarily, becomes the subject of reflection on the part of the mind itself, which proceeds to investigate it, and to draw it forth in successive and distinct sentences.”

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Thanks Michael for the to me important thought of Newman. I say for to me not exclusive of others but that I was interested in art when young and my mind constantly reflects on beauty and images. With faith as different from simple belief we are inspired to “draw” from and act upon [I assume distinct sentences] doing God’s will.

  • Alicia

    Fr. Shall, like St. Thomas, you too will hear God saying to you ” You have written well of me, James ”
    St. Ignacio, founder of the Jesuists, must be so pleased and proud when he looks down on you.
    We are blessed to have you always directing us in the right way in such clear, uncomplicated, and beautiful writings. Much like the grandmother who used to say -It is what it is !
    Thank you Father. God bless you.

  • kathleen

    Thank you, Fr. Schall. I recommend TCT to all my friends and email contacts so they can read beautiful articles like yours. Oh, how much we need good preaching and teaching. I watched an old Mother Angelica show this morning (1998) and Mother said when speaking with Dr. Thomas Howard (a convert from Protestantism) that things were so bad (and she was referring to the many abuses at that time with regard to the Holy Mass) that the good Lord would have to intervene. How true, and much more so today.

  • Quo Vadis

    Every now and then there is an article that gives hope. This is one written by a priest who we hope still has influence with others in our church. Benedict XVI, should be compulsory study for any seminarian as they will be the only ones to save the church from the liberal insanity that may be imposed upon the faithful in 2016.

    It is up to the many pastors and priests in the front lines to defend us from Bishops who are losing their way and forgetting the true teachings of Jesus.

  • Elizabeth

    Even someone as problematic as D.H. Lawrence wrote, “The human soul needs actual beauty more than bread.” And Gerardus van der Leeuw, a Dutch historian and religious philosopher saw, or I should say heard, in music “the echo of the eternal Gloria.” Let those who have ears….

  • Maggie McT

    Umm, but it’s “Tu ES Petrus.” No Latinists about, I suppose.

    • Brad Miner

      Our bad. Thanks, Maggie. Now corrected.

    • Brad Miner

      She’s right. I’ve corrected it. (And thanked her.)

      Brad Miner
      Senior Editor, The Catholic Thing Senior Fellow, Faith & Reason Institute

      • Maggie McT

        You’re most welcome.


  • Chris in Maryland

    Mr. Sheehan:
    Men like Fr. Vincent Capodanno are beautiful, because they conform to the beauty of Jesus Christ.
    Women like Laurie Brink, OP are not beautiful, because they have (as she declared) “moved beyond Christ.”
    So…on the contrary…one would not think we would have priestesses.

  • Alicia

    Thank you for the compliment, but how would it look for a woman to stand up there and say – This is my body..?

  • Tom Williams

    Thank you Fr. for sharing your wisdom and insight on the current crisis of the Church and culture.

    My mother was from Scotland, her maiden name was MacMillan, she was protestant in her faith until @ 82 yrs. of age welcomed into The Catholic Church which I had converted to some 15 years earlier. She had a funeral Mass 6 months later.

    I therefore cannot make any claim as to being related to Sir James MacMillan, as he must have been born Catholic. Nice thought though.

    You mention pluralism a few times in your article and quoted a term that Sir James MacMillan used “Judaeo-Christian values.” I would certainly like your take on what that means as to me if there ever was a statement to express opposites, this one would take the cake. Christian values are derived from being a follower of Christ. Judaism is a rejection of Christ. Where is the common value?

  • Father, there is no such animal as “Judaeo-Christian values”. I’m surprised you’ve been conditioned to make such a claim.

  • veritasetgratia

    Father Schall, I too have been re-reading the Ratzinger Report over this Christmas period – and enjoying the precise clarity washing over me. Beautiful too, Father, to have included the soundtrack and filmclip of beloved Benedict XVI. Christianity is Revelation. Believing Revelation is necessary; there is no other way.

  • SJ Man

    Gosh, but I do miss Pope Benedict…..what a magnificent piece of music.