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"Mystifying Indeed": On Being Fully Human | Part 2 | Part 1

Central to Sokolowski’s discourse is the question of the redemption and the Eucharist. Sokolowski’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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. Sokolowski’s 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. Sokolowski’s 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 bishop’s 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.

Sokolowski’s 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.

Sokolowski’s 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. Sokolowski’s 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.

Sokolowski’s 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 Simon’s great work on authority in this context. But the point is illustrated in the whole of Sokolowski’s 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 Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien, and Ralph McInerny’s 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.


[1] 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.

[2] Ibid., 24.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

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Seducing Minds With the Socratic Method | Interview with Peter Kreeft | Valerie Schmalz
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Philosopher of Virtue | Josef Pieper (1904-1997)

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.

For a full listing of Fr. Schall's essays IgnatiusInsight.com articles, please visit his author page. 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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