At the Close of the Year: Hearing Again the Voice of Fr. Schall

The Ghost of New Years’ past brings back the scene, still vivid with the passing of the years:  watching for the first time the welcoming of the new year on television, on a 10-inch screen, as Ed Sullivan marked the ball descending in Times Square.  And so ended 1949.

The year being welcomed so joyously to mark a new decade would bring us a war in Korea.  And now, at the beginning of another new decade, we know this will be a tumultuous year in our political life, and ever more portentous for the pro-life movement.  For we’ve never seen a moment of this kind in our politics, in which one of our major parties has become cohesive in support of the pro-life cause while the other has become radically opposed to that cause in all of its dimensions.

These final days of the year have stopped me for a moment in my own course in moving along the paths I’ve marked off in my recent columns, for the notion of last days brings back with a jolt the precious friends torn away from us this year.

We recently recorded, in these columns, our loss of Michael Uhlmann, and this past Sunday I attended a Mass to mark what would have been his 80th birthday.  He was one of the “brothers” who joined in writing for Crisis magazine and then carried over to be one of the founding writers in our new Catholic Thing.

He was joined there by our beloved Fr. James V. Schall, whose loss we mourned earlier this year.   As with many others, I miss Fr. Schall’s voice in these pages of ours, and so I wanted to take at least a brief moment at the end of this year to hear the sound of that voice yet again.

As a serious student of theology and politics, Schall was drawn to that problem marked off by my late teacher, Leo Strauss, as the most central problem of the moral and political life:  the tension between revelation and reason as alternative sources in the understanding of moral truths.

Strauss had drawn on both sources, on the Hebrew Bible and the classical Greek authors.  He would appeal to both Jerusalem and Athens.  He would bring out the ways in which both streams converged in their moral teaching, and yet he was convinced that they were two separate realms, which were incapable of refuting or confirming the other.

Years later, John Paul II would soar past that problem as he appealed to Fides et Ratio, to Faith and Reason as the two wings of the Church.   John Paul II thought that, through the connection to classical philosophy, the teachings of the Church could satisfy “the demands of universal reason” and provide “a rational foundation for. . .belief in the divinity.”

Fr. Schall had picked up on these themes in John Paul II and began to draw them out for reflection long before Fides et Ratio appeared.  He would bring his wit into play against the facile tendency to understand religion as a mere bundle of “beliefs,” with no claims to be taken as true by those who didn’t share them.

For Schall, it made a profound difference when the problem was seen from a Catholic perspective:  Not so much the insistence on Christ and revelation, but the Catholic conviction that, behind this deeply serious question, there is a truth to be found.

As Fr. noted, both revelation and reason emanated from the same source, and they were accessible only to the same kind of creature.   In getting at the nature of that creature – and everything else – Fr. persistently raised for his students the “what is” question:  What is a “table”? What is a “man”?  Robert Royal took that problem, so central for Fr., as the theme of a rich essay, earlier this month, as he launched a new series of James V. Schall Lectures for the Catholic Information Center in Washington.

Schall observed that “revelation can be articulated because it contains logos.  What is revealed, on examination, is strangely open to reason.”  But even more strongly:  “If what is said to be revealed is irrational or contradictory, it cannot be believed, even according to revelation.”

The very notion of making a covenant with God already presupposes creatures of reason who are capable of understanding what it means to make a promise and honor a commitment, even when it no longer accorded with their interests.

If Moses came down from Sinai and said, “The Lord, our God, said not to worry overly much about taking what is not yours, and let’s not be too judgmental about lying with other men’s wives” – if that were the report, we would have expected to find many Hebrews scratching their heads and asking, “Are you sure you got that one right?”

Following John Paul II and Aquinas, Schall would point out that revelation too is anchored in the laws of reason:  “The principle of contradiction holds, even for revelation.”   For, “revelation is not contradictory to reason, for if it were we could in no way believe it.”

I had stopped in, a couple of years ago, to visit Father in his retirement in a lovely Jesuit house in Los Gatos, California, and there I could be with him as he did one of his daily Masses, even for the two of us.  Plato thanked his gods that could live in the age of Socrates, when he could have the friendship of such a man.  For my part, I can be grateful now that I was privileged to have in my days the teaching of my dearest friends, of Daniel Robinson, Michael Uhlmann, and Fr. Schall.

And among all the blessings of what he taught, Jim imparted to us the Faith in Reason itself.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.