When Reason and Revelation Meet

Book cover
The Mind That Is Catholicby By James V. SchallThe Catholic University of America Press. 337p $34.95 (paperback)

James V. Schall, S.J., a well-known Jesuit political theorist who teaches at Georgetown University, is the author of numerous books on political thought, philosophy and education. His newest book, The Mind That Is Catholic, is a learned, insightful and stimulating collection of previously published essays, most of which date from the past decade and a half, although a few of them go back as far as the 1960s and late 1950s. The range of topics is wide, including chapters devoted to the political thought of Jacques Maritain, Plato on piety, Aristotle on friendship, the Trinity, medieval political thought, étienne Gilson on reason and revelation, political realism in Augustine and Machiavelli, sports and philosophy, the just war and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

Yet despite their apparent variety, these essays display considerable unity of theme. For the central theme of the book, surfacing in essay after essay, is the traditional Thomistic conviction that faith and reason are fundamentally in harmony and that grace does not destroy, but rather perfects nature. Although human reason is capable to a large extent of grasping the basic structure of reality (what Schall consistently refers to as what is, always in italics), it is nonetheless limited in what it can achieve. Ultimately, reason’s inquiries raise questions that reason, left to its own devices, cannot answer, and awaken longings that it cannot satisfy. It is here that revelation comes into play because it can supply (not unreasonable) answers.


Take, for example, the questions raised by Aristotle’s treatise on friendship in the Nichomachean Ethics, where the possibility that human beings can enjoy friendship with God is denied because the gulf separating them is held to be too vast; or by Aristotle’s conception of God as the Unmoved Mover, the self-thinking thought, a rather remote and aloof figure who seems unconcerned with human affairs. In both cases, we see the power of reason at work at a very high level and achieving great insight. Yet we are nonetheless left with an understanding of friendship and of our relationship to God that leaves us dissatisfied; we feel that something important is missing.

Fortunately, however, Thomas Aquinas took Aristotle’s already rich understanding of the nature of friendship and of God and proceeded to deepen and complete it by relating it to the doctrines of the Trinity (in which God is understood as a community of three persons sharing the same nature) and the Incarnation, which teaches that God united himself with humanity by becoming human (while still remaining God). The result was that Aristotle’s basic insights into the nature of friendship and the divine are preserved even as they are enlarged and elevated.

For Schall, then, the mind that is Catholic is one that is open to truth wherever it finds it, whether from reason or revelation, and that recognizes the pursuit of truth is best served when reason and revelation complement and assist each other. Not surprisingly, Schall believes that this understanding of the relation between reason and revelation has important political implications. For reason tells us, as Aquinas (following Aristotle) recognized, that we humans are political animals and that politics at its best is a noble activity. At the same time, revelation, with its teaching about original sin and its insistence on the supernatural destiny of man, calls much-needed attention, as Augustine saw so clearly, to the limits of politics. Accordingly, any sound political philosophy will be one that acknowledges the transcendent and supernatural destiny of man.

Unfortunately, beginning with Machiavelli and Hobbes, the dominant tendency of most modern political thought has been to deny the transcendent dimension of humanity and to identify human fulfillment in exclusively this-worldly terms. Schall argues that this denial of transcendence encourages people to invest their earthly existence with utopian expectations and to entrust the state with unlimited powers in order to realize these utopian expectations—a danger that found monstrous expression in the fascist and Communist movements of the last century. Moreover, even where it does not lead to totalitarian politics, this closure to the transcendent (often motivated by an exaggerated respect for tolerance) can also lead to a society burdened with paralyzing skepticism and moral relativism, a situation that Schall believes characterizes much of the contemporary Western world.

On the whole, I find myself in fundamental agreement with the basic argument that Schall advances in this book, and I think he does a fine job of showing how faith and reason, when working together, deepen and illuminate our understanding of reality, not least political reality. There are times, however, when his sharply negative stance toward modernity impedes the Catholic mind’s openness to truth wherever it may be found. For example, he tends to be dismissive of post-Vatican II Catholicism’s strong support for global peace and justice, even though this has been initiated and explicitly endorsed by the magisterium. I am thinking especially of his chapter on the just war, in which he not only rejects pacifism (rightly, in my view), but argues instead for a conception of just war shaped by the context of “the clash of civilizations” and the threat of terrorism rather than by recent Catholic teaching on just war. (He disparages, for example, the American bishops’ pastoral on war and peace.)

Similarly, attempts to work toward some sort of worldwide public authority to promote the universal common good are also dismissed, even though Jacques Maritain (one of Schall’s heroes) proposed something along these lines in Man and the State, as did Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris (1963). My concern here is less with Schall’s rejection of church social teaching (troubling though this is) than with his broader contention that church support for peace and justice represents a capitulation to modernity.

These reservations aside, The Mind That Is Catholic will be of interest to scholars, graduate and undergraduate students, and to the intellectually adventurous general reader.

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