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On The Intellectual Needs of Ordinary People | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 20, 2006

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"Like many countries, however, Canada is today suffering from the pervasive effects of secularism. The attempt to promote a vision of humanity apart from God's transcendent order and indifferent to Christ's beckoning light, removes from the reach of ordinary men and women the experience of genuine hope. One of the more dramatic symptoms of this mentality, clearly evident in your own region, is the plummeting birth rate." -- Benedict XVI, To Bishops of Canada/Atlantic, May 20, 2006 (Benedict XVI, Ad Limina Visit, Canadian Bishops from the Atlantic Region, L'Osservatore Romano, June 7, 2006, 5.)


The Catholic Church has regularly recognized that a practical distinction, not one of nature, existed between what might be called "intellectuals" and "ordinary" folks, or, to put it more colloquially, between "nerds" and "blokes," or between college deans and truck drivers, all of whom belong to the same human species with their own dignity. This distinction is not similar to the one between men and angels, or between men and beasts. But it does recognize that different levels of intelligence, virtue, energy, choice, and opportunity do exist among men such that some have more talent, interest, or time to devote themselves to what are known as the affairs of intelligence. It is but an aspect of the general division of labor that makes a common good possible. Not everyone can be a professional philosopher, not everyone can be a cook, while some philosophers are also cooks and some cooks philosophers.

However, when it comes to its own mission in the world, the Church addresses itself to both groups, to all groups. The distinction based on intelligence was not the same as that between those who will be saved and those who will not. There are canonized thinkers and beatified beggars. Hell presumably has both thinkers and paupers. Aristotle, likewise, thought that ordinary people were able to see many things of reason just by their native insight, by their common sense, obvious things that the more gifted minds sometimes missed. Generally we assume, moreover--because pride is more apt to be the vice of the intellectual--that it is more difficult to save one's soul if he is an intellectual than if he is, say, a peasant or even business executive. Compared to pride, greed and self-indulgence are relatively mild, though still potentially lethal, forms of vice. Likewise, both intellectuals and poor people can lose their souls in their own contexts of life, if they so choose. Neither have an automatic exemption from responsibility for their own acts.

The danger of recent rhetoric about "options for the poor" is that it tends to deprive the impoverished of their intrinsic human dignity by implying that no wrong perpetrated by them is caused by themselves. Rather, all faults are said to be caused by environment or "structures" of society, whatever they might be. This dangerous theoretical position is a hold over--an intellectual hold over--from the influence of Rousseau in modern thought. To put the issue more positively, we can have saints who are poor, saints who are rich, and saints who are everywhere in-between. The same obviously holds true for sinners. What we cannot have is a saint or a sinner who is automatically made so by his external social condition alone.

Nor, to cover the other extreme, is it true that our political and social institutions make no difference at all in our moral character. Aristotle quite clearly maintains, as does Aquinas following him, that a certain sufficiency of wealth and political participation is advisable for the possibility of virtue for ordinary people. The real issue here is what kind of political, moral, and economic ideas and institutions cause this sufficiency to come into being through the workings of human enterprise itself. Many theories and ideas about helping the poor do not help them, even when it is claimed that they do. Not a few ideas even destroy them. In practice, the intention to help someone, whatever his situation, is not by itself a guarantee that the help will do what it is supposed to do. The poor should not be conceived as objects of one's social experiments.


The ordinary presupposition of St. Thomas' discussion of the need of "divine law," that is, revelation, is that most people either do not have the time or the intelligence to figure out by themselves certain basic truths about their lives and destiny--truths that are really necessary for us to know to be saved. Catholicism does think that ideas make a difference, even for salvation, especially for salvation. The Lord did not neglect the intellect when it comes to our final status before Him. Among other reasons, this recognition of the importance of truth, which is what it really is, is why we recite the Creed at Sunday Mass. What we affirm is meant to be true about the very Godhead. We do not really want to be saved apart from our knowing and assenting to what God and the world are all about.

Common or busy people, of course, might suspect that God exists, might even have certain plausible arguments for it, but they are often bewildered by the intricacies of the various proofs, be they Aquinas' five ways, or any others. They are also confused by the myriads of media, educational, and cultural views that deny any God at all, or any possibility of taking Him seriously. Most normal folks suspect that something is skewered in such seemingly persuasive arguments for atheism or relativism, but they cannot just put their finger on the main problem, which may not be intellectual at all. Nor do intellectuals always get it straight either. This is why Benedict XVI speaks of the effect of revelation as working for the "purification of reason" (Deus Caritas Est, 29). To understand revelation aright requires the prior ability to understanding anything aright.

But in order that everyone might have a fair chance on this score of understanding something solid about God's existence, revelation was given to us--to anyone willing to listen, to affirm the existence of God at least by faith. Chesterton humorously thought this was God's way of being "democratic," of leveling the odds in the direction of the common man against the intellectual. Once we know that God exists, be it by faith or reason or both, our whole outlook on the world will be different and more coherent. If we cannot ourselves reason to God's existence, divine authority, through Christ's presence in the world, has assured us of what minimal things we need to know, one of which is that He exists and has concern for us.

Vatican I held that the existence of God can be demonstrated by reason, though it did not necessarily indicate anyone who so proved it, though Aquinas comes to mind. Some intellectuals still controvert these proofs; other intellectuals still seek to show why they hold. All Vatican I meant by its affirmation that the human intellect could "prove" the existence of God was that our minds as such are not flawed instruments, deceiving us at every stage. Their very workings do not intrinsically prevent us from concluding to God's existence, as would be the case, say, if what we knew was an image of reality and not reality itself.

Our minds are instruments or powers of our souls by which we do know what is. A philosophy that locks us up in our own minds is a flawed philosophy, rather prevalent in modernity. There are, moreover, philosophers and scientists so afraid of the implications of this conclusion about the capacity of our minds to know reality that they invent counter-philosophies maintaining that the mind cannot know anything, except perhaps what it wants or imagines. The mind does not, it is held, reach anything but itself, and this not clearly. So it is concluded to be "logical" that we be concerned only with ourselves--which selves, in turn, have no inner nature or order of their own. This leads to a form of modern liberty that evaporates any distinction between what is natural and what is unnatural, between what is right and what is wrong, between what is and what is not.


Not too long ago, I read a remark of a French "worker priest" who said that the cause of atheism in the modern world was much more fostered by critiques of the book of Genesis than by problematic social conditions, so often said to be its cause by social theorists. Put in other words, ordinary people, from grammar school on, are bombarded from every side by evolutionary premises based, supposedly, on the "undoubted" scientific certainty that God could not possibly have had anything to do with this world's cosmic history, including especially the appearance of man. The recurring flap over "intrinsic design," as even a remote hypothesis, again leaves most ordinary people confused.

Yet, surveys still show that most American people still believe there is a plan or design both in the cosmos and in our history. In his recent Pentecost sermon, Benedict XVI said that "the world in which we live is the work of the Creator Spirit. . . . The world does not exist by itself; it is brought into being by the creative Spirit of God, by the creative Word of God" (Vigil of Pentecost, June 3, L'Osservatore Romano, English, June 7. 2006, 6). Obviously, Christians maintain that an impossible contradiction does not exist between the notion that "the world does not exist by itself" and a science that seeks to explain what the cosmos is all about. Behind proposed theories of evolution "from nothing and for nothing" usually lie moral theories that anticipate and reject the human implications that follow from God's existence. The opposition to "intrinsic design" and other notions of the compatibility of science and revelation is, I suspect, more moral than scientific, an effort to preserve the way one lives rather than an explanation of the world as it is.

What is particularly interesting in Pope Ratzinger's comment to the Canadian bishops, however, is the effect on ordinary people that he sees in removing a "vision of humanity" in which its explanation is God and Christ, the Word in which all is made. Literally, he says, what happens is a widespread loss of hope. From this loss, if we follow population trends, we see "plummeting birth rates." It is fascinating that such a connection is made by the Pope. For some time it has become more and more obvious that the most prosperous countries in the world are dying for lack of their own children. We would have expected just the opposite really. Prosperity should lead to the abundance of more life, not death.

The Holy Father has touched on something fundamental. A connection exists between belief in God and the very continuation of human life on this planet and what it takes, both in terms of will and effort, to do so. Precisely "ordinary men and women" need this hope most as it is from them that most of our future human comes.

What is the conclusion to be drawn from these remarks of the Pope to the Canadians about hope and population? It is that the denial of God and a "transcendent order," which it is the very object of revelation to affirm, has tangible effects at the very core of civilization. A people, as we are seeing in Europe, rather quickly dies as a people once they have no reason other than themselves for which to live. With no hope in something beyond themselves even in this world, a hope normally associated in most societies with children, we are left with neither God or life. .

Ordinary people do have the intellectual needs that faith provides. They need to know that the world is created and that there is an order in it. "Secularism" does have "pervasive effects," visible ones, before our very eyes, if we choose to see them. It is ironic that the reasons given by Aquinas for why it might be "reasonable" to find revelation are also the ones best suited to keep us sane and present in this world. These are the need to have a clear notion that God exists, that He directs our inner thoughts, that He rewards the good and punishes the evil, that we must more clearly know what is right and wrong. These reasons, it turns out, are not just things that deal with our supernatural destiny, as they do, but also reasons we must need and understand, be we intellectuals or ordinary people, even to keep ourselves in existence.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:

• IgnatiusInsight.com author page for Joseph Ratziger/Pope Benedict XVI
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Ratzinger
Author page for Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., with listing of all IgnatiusInsight.com articles
A Short Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
C.S. Lewis books and resources from Ignatius Press

C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
The Relevance and Challenge of C. S. Lewis | Mark Brumley
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
The Thought and Work of C. S. Lewis | Carl E. Olson
Seeking Deep Conversion | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson

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.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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