Catholicism: Simply Complex or Complicated Simplicity? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 12, 2005

Catholicism: Simply Complex or Complicated Simplicity? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 12, 2005


Catholicism, in comparison to other religions, especially Islam, is often said to be overly complex.

If we have to be a Thomas Aquinas or a John Henry Newman to understand what it is all about, then most normal folks are left out, or so it is said. On the world stage, in the past century or so, moreover, few political or cultural leaders have matched the intellectual brilliance of a Leo XIII, a Pius XI, a John Paul II, or the present Benedict XVI, and the other popes were no mental slouches. Yet, most people scratch their heads at Humani Generis or Redemptor Hominis. The implication of this criticism is that the more "simple" a religion is, the better it is. We need St. Francis, not St. Dominic, let alone Justin Martyr, Augustine, or Aquinas.

No doubt Catholicism is a religion that does not despise or denigrate what the mind can and should know. It is, and professes to be, a religion that seeks intelligence, seeks the truth. It cannot be Catholicism and fail to know what can be known about anything, even though not everyone needs to know everything about anything. On the other hand, it does not claim that everything that is worthy of being known is found in religious sources. It is perfectly comfortable with natural knowledge known by its own experience or method. It does not see the human soul as radically split because it is able to focus attention now on reason, now on the teachings of revelation.

Thus, Catholicism cannot be and does not announce itself to be a religion that seeks simplicity and easy intelligibility at any cost. To be overly simple is to be neglectful of the distinctions that are actually used by the mind to understand things, in the fullness of what they are and mean. Nonetheless, Catholicism does not disdain simplicity. The famous Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are designed to state the essence of what is held in the most spare and succinct ways. Yet, every word of this creedal simplicity was hammered out in controversy and contains within itself a whole historical and intellectual reflection that is not to be forgotten or ignored.

Many theories of religion would maintain that no religion has an intelligible basis, that none manifest a coherent whole. Religion is therefore a series of "myths" or "ideologies" that explain things according to the believer’s wishes. What is true is what we will to be true. But such "faiths" do not claim to have any basis in "fact." They are articulations of what is beyond reason in the sense that they are not open to any rational reflection or analysis at all.

This view is often called "fideism" or faith-alone-religion. Such a theory, which goes back at least to Epicurus, has been historically attractive to many religions because it apparently protects the content of a particular belief from attacks from reason or science. Since no relation between religion and knowledge can in theory exist, the said faith is immune from all outside criticisms. The Latin expression, credo quia absurdum (I believe it, because it is absurd), was often used to emphasize or justify this position. Just because a view seems silly or absurd is, it is claimed, no reason for not holding it. Indeed, it might be a reason for holding it. In this sense, faith is protected at the cost of the mind’s integrity, even its sanity.

Catholicism, for its part, maintains that it should face such arguments stemming from rational analysis to see what, if any, truths are in them. But if we fear that our religion is not coherent with reality, it is attractive to fall back into a fideist position. We simply deny that any correlation between reality as understood by philosophy or science and that same reality understood by the religion is possible.

Medieval philosophy went through this position under the heading of the "two truths" theory. The "two truths" argument was that a position of religion and a position of reason could be contradictory to each other. Both views could be held by the same mind without discomfort. The Catholic mind could not, of course, accept this position. If reason really does "contradict" a position found in revelation, one must reject the view of revelation. Of course, a seeming contradiction may not really exist. In this case, revelation guides philosophy to a deeper understanding of itself. But anyone who really holds that the truth of reason and the truth of revelation can be "contradictory" must lead a divided life. He still must choose which side of the contradictory he will follow.

Likewise, there is the contrary view that science is the only religion there is. It acknowledges no place for revelation even being considered. Sometimes this position goes under the name of "rationalism." Here, rationalism does not mean reason open to reality whatever it is, but reason deliberately closed in on itself so that it will not admit, even for consideration, any information from outside itself. Rationalism thus is willing to close itself off from claims of intelligence that are found in revelation in order, like fideism, not to have to deal with any problems outside of its definition of itself.


We must therefore be careful when we want religion to be "simple." We do not want religion to be either simple or complex. We want it to be true. If to be true, it must enter into complicated issues and explain them with greater or lesser degrees of subtlety, so be it. This alternative is much to be preferred to making things so simple that their explanation leaves out what is essentially there, what is true about the matter in question.

Chesterton remarked that what was rather uncanny about Catholicism in the matter of intellect was that it seemed to sense the complexity of things when reality indicated that simple explications were not adequate. Take, for instance, the famous notion that God is simple. Clearly, this phrase does not mean that God is "simple-minded." Aquinas devoted much thought to this issue. What Aquinas meant was that things that have to be broken down and divided so that we can understand them. But they exist in God as one. Reality lacks division in God. It means that nothing is lacking of what is. But outside of God things need an almost infinite number of reflections and ways to express what is one in God.

One might charge Catholicism with being "proud" of its complexity. But this is not the point at issue. It might be claimed, for instance, that the Christian notion of Trinity in the Godhead is a very complicated notion. Why cannot we just have Allah or Yahweh in whom, evidently, such complexity does not exist? The answer is not that God is not one, but that in explaining the real unity in the Godhead, we are confronted with the Trinity of Persons who are one in being and nature, while being three in Persons. So this understanding makes it even more complex! Both unity and diversity exist in one being without contradiction.

One might say, "Cannot you simplify this explanation for us?" But that would risk neglecting something vital in the explanation so that it would not explain what it has to explain. Perhaps the point can be understood by recalling the most famous theology book in Catholicism, namely Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. This book is over four thousand large pages in length, but it is proposed as a book for "beginners." Probably not more than two percent of the human race have ever read that many pages in their lifetimes! Here we have Thomas Aquinas telling us that this enormous series of volumes is pared down to the essentials for beginners. Evidently, the more simple the book the longer it took to explain what needed to be explained simply.

Perhaps it is true that the human mind rejoices in "simplicity." But what it looks for is the simplicity of an order. If we see scattered all over the floor of a building all the parts of an automobile, all in chaotic and arbitrary confusion, and if we do not know what the parts are or the order in which they are to go together, we will see a complexity that confuses us. But once we see how things fit together so that the automobile is one piece of working equipment, our mind rejoices both in the multiplicity and in the unity.

What is remarkable about Catholicism is that its "parts," which may seem at first so arbitrary or chaotic, when seen in their proper order, do fit together. Catholicism presents itself as a whole in which all its parts are where they are because of a known and principled understanding of how things relate. Thus, the discussion of what God is, what man is, what the world is, what is our purpose are not totally independent of each other. The explanation of the one leads to the explanation of the other.

In the midst of all of this complexity, Catholicism maintains that the explanation of our redemption, when understood for what it is, also fits – it also does not contradict what we know from reason and experience. Yet, Catholicism does not maintain that the things of the inner life of God or of His purposes for the world can be known by reason alone. It does think reason should and does wonder about these things. But Catholicism does hold that it is not impossible for the Godhead to make known to us something of what He is or what we are intended to do or know.

While it recognizes a place for grace in knowledge, Catholicism does not think this revealed knowledge violates the integrity of our minds. Quite the opposite. It thinks that we become more mind by what is offered to us by the divine Mind. But this increase in intelligence only happens when we actually wrestle – intellectually wrestle – with what is presented. This relation to revelation is only seen in the light of what we can know by ourselves. So we must have philosophy. We must seek actively to know what we can know.

Thus, Catholicism is a complex religion because it insists on us actually using our minds to grasp what is. It does not see why our minds should become inert or uncomprehending when the intelligence of God is made known to us. This is a delicate relationship, if you will, part of the very complexity itself. It is not intended to reduce complex things to an inert sort of simplicity that leaves out much of what is important to know. The mind seeks to know the order of things. Once it sees how things fit together in an order, it begins to suspect that things are well made in an almost uncanny simplicity in which all things cohere, each in its own place.


Other recent IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:

The One War, The Real War
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Suppose We Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness of Christianity
On Teaching the Important Things



Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.



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