On “Why?”

Friends: Please be sure, after reading the great Father Schall’s column below, to click over to Robert Royal’s latest Synod Report, “On the Verge.” This is the week in which the Synod will close, before which it will issue its final report. Dr. Royal considers the issues at stake (especially the LGBT ones) and the impact they may have on the pope’s response. So, click on the link in this note or go above to click on Events and then, from the drop-down menu, Synod Reports. All Bob’s reporting is there.

We know things. We name them. We ask of them “Why?” This interrogative word reveals much about what we are. We are the beings in the universe who ask of things why they are rather than are not. Why is it this way and not that way? We cannot help ourselves. Even if we have a deterministic view of the universe, we still inquire why things are determined in the way they appear.

Our knowledge of something is complete only when know its “why.” The what of this thing leads us to inquire about the why of this thing. If we come across a lawn mower in a land with no grass, we would not know why the contraption was shaped as it is. We cannot help ourselves. We want to know what things are. We also think that we ought to know why things are. We should strive to know them. We are restless until we know why they are as they are.

We can discover the “whys” of many things. We know why the Sun rises in the morning. Actually, we know that it does not “rise.” The Earth, our home base, tours around the Sun. Once we know this orbit, we want to know what this Sun is, then “why” it is.

We look at ourselves. “Why do I exist?” – this question perplexes us. We know that we exist. Indeed, we seem to exist so that someone in the universe could wonder why all individual entities within it exist. Why is there not nothing? Is it even possible that there be just nothing?

The “why?” question is called the “final” cause. It looks at the reason why the agent that produces or changes something does what he does. The final cause is the first in intention and the last in execution. Everything that exists or that is changed originates in the thought of some being, human or divine.

“Man’s search for meaning” was the title of a much-read 1946 book of Viktor Frankl. Meaningless lives have no transcendent purpose. Their passing makes no difference.


Paul could tell the Galatians (1: 15) that he was “set aside from his mother’s womb.” So it is not too far-fetched to think that each of us leads a “set-aside” life. Whether we lived up to this specific purpose in each of our cases will evidently be the context of any final judgment on our personal lives, how we lived them.

We are beings who can ask “why” questions. We likewise are beings who can grasp answers to why questions. We do not exist simply to seek knowledge. We exist to know things, including the causes of things. Indeed, to know the causes of things is what we mean by knowing them.

Robert Royal has noted (TCT, October 9) the downplaying of intelligence in the Church’s dealings with the young. Plato had long ago warned about fathers imitating their children. This imitation was a sign that the fathers no longer thought of themselves as having anything to teach their children.

In the meantime, one of the remarkable things about recent Christian culture is the growth of homeschooling, of classical programs like the G.K. Chesterton schools, the Cana Academy, the Classical Christian Schools, the online school initiatives at Ignatius Press, the Thomas Center, and those of Peter Redpath and Sean Steel.

Everyone is familiar with the experience of parents of little kids who keep pestering them with “why” questions. Having been newly deposited in this world, they want to know what gives here. Christ admonition to His disciples to let the children come to Him might well have had something to do with answering their “why” questions.

The scene of His own teaching the elders in the Temple suggests that He was an intellectually busy lad in the shop at Nazareth. He seems to have been mostly “home-schooled.”

Leon Kass, in his books The Hungry Soul and Leading a Worthy Life, has carefully drawn attention to the way in which our bodies are configured. Indeed, if we ask why we are built the way we are, the answer seems to be “in order that we might know.”

Why are we upright, why do we have two eyes, why do we hear as we do, the answer seems to be again in order that we might know. We are born with minds that know nothing initially. But step-by-step, we activate this power of knowing through our senses that reveal to us the outside world.

We exist, in short, that we might know what is true about what is out there beyond us. And in knowing this we reflectively learn the truth about ourselves. The “why” of our individual existence is ultimately to know the final cause of our existence. We are made in the image of the Word that is God – nothing less.


*Image: Jesus Found in the Temple by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

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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