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"Mystifying Indeed": On Being Fully Human
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Central to Sokolowskis discourse is the question of the redemption
and the Eucharist. Sokolowskis discussion of what the Eucharist
is becomes particularly important when we see how it relates to everything
else, including creation. He explains how a priest should understand the
basic canon of the Mass as he says its very words. He explains the central
Catholic teaching on what happens in the Mass, including trans-substantiation,
its relation to the Last Supper, to the Crucifixion, and to the resurrection.
There is only one Mass, which is at the center of reality, something that
is here clarified so that we can see both the human and transcendent dimensions
of what is happening. This Mass is the central act of the Church. Indeed,
the Church exists so that the Mass can still be present among us, the
same Mass. It is Gods response to the human search for an adequate
way to be "pious," to respond to the Godhead in adequate terms,
something natural religions and philosophies could never figure out by
themselves. Sokolowski is quite attentive to the relation of a decline
in belief and practice, especially in the contemporary Church, to failure
to understand what the Mass is and to say and participate in it after
the manner of what it is. Indeed, this is the central thesis of this book.
Again, to explain how this Mass is possible, something that we do wonder
about, it is necessary to return again to creation, its original purpose,
which is to invite free and intelligent beings to choose God after the
manner in which God is revealed to us, that is, in the birth, life, death,
and resurrection of Christ. Thus, Sokolowski deals with the question of
precisely who and what Christ is what is the meaning
of the two natures in one divine person. Christ reveals man to himself,
so that he might know and choose to be fully what he is. This choice of
his being fully himself is now within the context of Incarnation and Redemption.
Sokolowski has a rather brilliant section on the history of the Incarnation
in Church history. He argues that the central and recurring heresy in
the Church over the centuries is that of denying, not the possibility
of God, but in denying the possibility of Incarnation and subsequent redemption
through Christ. The affirmation of Christ as God causes much more hatred
than the denial of Gods existence. Most of the early heresies from
Arianism to iconoclasm were astonishing efforts to avoid the significance
of what the Incarnation means: literally that one of the Persons in the
Trinity became man, true God and true man, and this for our redemption,
for our return to the original purpose of creation in the first place.
It is in this sense also that Sokolowski deals with the meaning of the
human person, against the background of creation and redemption. Not only
is a person a rational substance, but he is an absolute unique and singular
being in every instance of its appearance, human, angelic, or divine.
Sokolowskis use of logic and precise thought in defining the meaning
of person is one of the great presentations in this book. This centrality
of the person will found the discussions he develops on politics and natural
law. He grounds in the person not only the life of politics in the virtuous
and free development of human beings in various political regimes, but
indicates why politics, as Aristotle had intimated, "does not make
man to be man." Politics already assumes or understands man to be
what he is, a certain kind of being, neither angel, god, nor beast, who,
reflectively, can know what he is, but know also that he did not make
himself to be what he is. And this rightly causes him to wonder why he
is at all.
As a philosopher, Sokolowski is very attentive to the importance of the
life of thought as a theoretical enterprise. Indeed, on reading this book,
one might very well say that the very front line of defense of all human
dignity is in the hands and minds of those who think things through. The
vocation of the philosopher is, in this sense, often a humble one, however
much it is also open to pride. Christianity has long understood, as Josef
Pieper has remarked, that the political life needs the contemplative
life. Christianity must have within it those who are humble enough both
to think and to think with the aid of what is known from revelation. Unless
this thought is first carried out, the world of action will go on subject
to other ideologies and systems that come up with ever more varied and
dangerous alternatives to what man is. Conversely, revelation has within
itself not merely thought but action, including, as Benedict
XVI states in his recent encyclical, that which originates in charity,
something not wholly accounted for by human reason, but something whose
effects it can recognize and politically account for.
Hence we must know what human action is (a topic about which John Paul
II wrote so well as a young man) and how it relates to thought. Aristotle
is of course a good guide here, as is Aquinas. But the centrality of the
person also indicates that being human includes mind and body, hence concern
for well-being of human beings. Indeed, revelation both tells us to believe
that Christ is Lord and to give a cup of water, both. And the rendering
of things to Caesar tells us that the polity is indeed necessary and natural
to us. That the human person has a transcendent destiny is itself what
limits politics, but also contributes to its dignity. A correct and complete
understanding of what a human person is depends, in part, on an understanding
of what the divine persons are.
But the very drama of revelation includes this understanding of God who
need not create, but who does so out of love and generosity. The world,
Aquinas said, is created in mercy, not in justice, even though there can
and should be justice in the world. But God does not "owe" us
our creation. As Sokolowski shows, this makes us greater, not less. But
we can only see this if we see ourselves against the background of revelation
which explains to us, in terms we can come to understand even philosophically,
why we need not be, yet are.
The last section of this book deals the what is known as practical intellect,
with doing and making. Again in each of these chapters, Sokolowski shows
how the professions of law, medicine, business, military, education, both
university and seminary, relate to intelligence. Previously, Sokolowski
had a very direct chapter on, basically, what is a bishop and how to be
one. No bishop can afford to neglect this chapter, I think. Sokolowskis
discussion of the difference between an intelligent bishop and a theology
or philosophy professor is very insightful. And as in the case of an Augustine
and a Ratzinger, it is useful at times also to have bishops who are themselves
also philosophers. Catholicism is a religion of the mind, but this relation
comes from the content of revelation itself. Even though both Plato and
Aristotle seem to have wondered about it, it is not something concocted
by some thinker except under the stimulus of what is handed down in both
Testaments. The bishop, like the pope, himself a bishop, is to teach,
sanctify, and rule. All three belong together. But the bishops main
responsibility is to know and hand down what he has received. This principle
applies also to the theologian. Whatever great insights bishops and theologians
may have, their purpose in being is not to drum up something never heard
before, except that was never heard before through revelation.
Sokolowski in fact thinks one of the main problems that confronts the
handing down what is taught in the Church is the speed and thoroughness
with which the Mass was changed after Vatican II. He is very careful to
state this problem in accurate terms. He does not think that efforts to
improve the Mass and its understanding were not legitimate, but he does
think that the effect of such radical changes influenced every area of
Catholic life and thought. They have left a heritage of confusion that
needs to be corrected, something to which Benedict XVI seems carefully
to be addressing himself. The heart of this issue again is what the Mass
is and its proper understanding and correct celebration.
Sokolowskis studies on the relation between dogma and social practice
are very insightful. He sees clearly that a downgrading of the centrality
of Mass as a sacrifice results in an upgrading of the Mass as mainly an
expression of a community. The priest begins to see himself as a kind
of actor. What goes on is not the Cross but only brotherhood almost for
its own sake. This section makes sobering reading.
Sokolowskis discussion of the art of medicine and the other professions
is also quite insightful. Following remarks of Francis Slade, whom he
often cites, Sokolowski is careful to point out the difference between
an end and a purpose. An end is something already within something and
indicates what it is and what it is at its perfection. A purpose is a
human choice. The end of medicine and of the medical profession, something
on which all else depends, is the healing of a particular human being
who is sick. The doctor does not invent the human being, or even the healing.
What he does is to intervene for the healing. The professional standing
of the doctor as someone to whom we can trust ourselves depends on his
understanding of the end of his profession. If we think that he thinks
it is all right to kill or impair us, we will not go to him. But the doctor
can still have purposes that may or may not be in direct conformity with
the end of the profession. He may want to be rich or famous. This not
in itself necessarily something that will mean that the doctor is not
also practicing what medicine is.
These same principles apply to other professions. Sokolowskis discussion
of professions of law and engineering, as opposed to craftsmen in the
field, is most useful. And in all of his discussions he always reflects
on how the Christian understanding of man in his supernatural status improves
our understanding of the professions. His discussion of psychoanalysis
is much needed what is it, what does it conceive itself to
be. His basic principle remains that there can be no good profession without
a proper understanding of what human persons are, of what the world ultimately
is. This involves him with an ongoing discussion of those sciences that
more and more prescind from this understanding and think that science
in its formulae is what decides what a human being or the world is.
Sokolowskis discussion of what is the role of philosophy in a seminary
education is the last chapter in the book. It is a gem of clarity, not
merely in its concreteness, but in its scope of what a well-educated priest
(and Catholic and human being) ought to know. Not all Catholic clergy
need to be geniuses, but they need intellect and common sense. I am always
amused at the iconoclasm that I sometimes find in Sokolowski. For instance,
it has been a standing joke in seminary and university education for many
years that textbooks are an impediment to learning, that scholastic texts
are dry and unhelpful. Not at all, Sokolowski replies. They are very useful.
No doubt, they need to be done right this book itself, I suspect,
is the best book on the reform of seminary intellectual life I have seen
but they are definitely useful to go through a wide range of necessary
and fascinating subjects. He even gives a suggested number of courses
and subjects that need to be covered.
In his discussion of Catholic universities, Sokolowski pays considerable
attention to theology departments as key to the whole enterprise. Universities
Catholic ones included have become subject to the "disciplines"
and their professionalism. These all presuppose a kind of rationalist
ideology about what truth is and how to establish acceptable positions
that can be taught within them. Any relation to Church or authority is
looked upon as a threat to this kind of ideology. What needs to be seen
is how the mind works when its very essence is to begin, not with what
the mind is supposedly capable of learning "by its own powers,"
but what it can learn accepting authority. He rightly refers to Yves Simons
great work on authority in this context. But the point is illustrated
in the whole of Sokolowskis works. Seen against the background of
revelation clearly and accurately understood, any discipline is better
in its own order. It not only must use the mind to know things it never
thought of, but must see that its own mind is affected by the Fall and
its own disorders, things that are not merely intellectual but moral attention.
Obviously, then, I like this book. I am in the habit of recommending books.
My column in Crisis (April, 2004) was entitled "Three Books."
In it, I suggested three books that, I think, go a long way to explain
everything, that give that universal "scope" that is peculiarly
Catholic. They are Joseph
Pieper An Anthology, Peter Kreefts The
Philosophy of Tolkien, and Ralph McInernys The Very Rich
Hours of Jacques Maritain. Let me add this fourth book, Christian
Faith & Human Understanding, as a book that will put everything
together and give a new light to everything that we know.
In the beginning, I cited a passage from Sokolowski that remarked on how
odd it is, "mystifying indeed," that man would take such efforts
to deny what he is. If you want to know what modern man is most often
denying, nothing will help you more than this book on faith and understanding.
Sokolowski, referring to the German philosopher, Robert Spaemann, also
cited Socrates and Christ as if they both belonged to the same overall
discourse. He intimates that the understanding of both Socrates, the philosopher,
and Christ, the Word made flesh, is necessary for the wonder of our intellectual
lives, for our knowing the fullness of what is. To be a theologian
means to be able to describe the content of revelation as handed down
in precise and accurate terms. John Paul II said in Fides et Ratio
that one needs also to be something of a philosopher. And to be a philosopher
means to be open to what is, including to the something called
revelation as referring to realities we must confront if we are to neglect
nothing in being. No one in academic life embodies these two aspects of
what a thinker is better than Robert Sokolowski.
 Robert Sokolowski, Christian Faith & Human Understanding: Studies
on the Eucharist, the Trinity, and the Human Person (Washington: The
Catholic University of America Press, 2006), 161.
 Ibid., 24.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
The Dignity of the Human Person | Carl E. Olson
Minds With the Socratic Method | Interview with Peter Kreeft |
of Christ in The Lord of the Rings | Peter J. Kreeft
Philosopher of Virtue
| Josef Pieper (1904-1997)
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
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and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
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