What Is Catholicism? Questions With Answers | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 1, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com
What Is Catholicism? Questions With Answers | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 1, 2007
"The University and humanity are in need of questions.
Whenever questions are no longer asked, even those that concern the essential
and go beyond any specialization, we no longer receive answers, either." --
To Theological Faculty of the University of Tbingen, March 21, 2007.
"If all intellectual inquiry is really only questioning,
then it is not even questioning, because unless there is an answer, there
really is not a question. It is something else. It is a kind of intellectual
tourism perhaps, or intellectual debunking. It is essentially the old
sophistry, Plato's opponents." -- Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, Correspondence,
April 17, 2007.
The modern Church, taking up an ancient process, has, it
seems, been talking of little else but "dialogue" for some time. The Church has
endeavored to "dialogue" with everyone, even with those most reluctant to
associate with it. If we look behind the initiatives in recent decades that
arrange formal discussion about the highest of religious and social topics, the
impetus almost always comes from the Catholic side. It is the Catholic Church
in the modern world that, in practice, thinks that differences can and must be
first resolved in reason. It is the faith that professes to be bound by reason.
This is the import of Benedict XVI's "Regensburg Lecture." It insists that
there are no places for either philosophy or religion to hide from the
necessity to explain and justify what one stands for and what one lives by. The
Church wants to know the "reason" why anyone, including itself, will not be
reasonable or why he does not think he is bound by reason.
This term, "dialogue," obviously comes from Greek
philosophy, which speaks of both monologues and dialogues. The term is based on
the notion of dialectics, which is the Socratic process by which we proceed by
argument from what is commonly known to the principles upon which that common
knowledge rests. Dialectic pursues the causes of things to distinguish them, to
clarify them. Dialogue means the exchange of reasoning between two persons
about what a thing is--what it means. It
is generated by and grounded in the principle of contradiction. This means that
there is a process and progress towards knowing with certainty. A human mind
can know. Dialogue, at its best, is based on the idea that it is better to
persuade than to coerce.
However useful coerced agreements may be for a time (and
they have their usefulness), they are unstable without ultimate intellectual
agreement based on principles of reason known to all. The modern notion of
"tolerance" as a principle of relativism is itself based on the philosophic
view that there is no truth. Advocacy of dialogue as a means of practical engagement
does not imply--as it is frequently implied--a dogmatic belief that everyone
will in fact honestly dialogue with each other. They won't. This latter is what
political realism is about. Dialogue ought not to be a formula whereby naivet
is justified by good people, who refuse to understand the darker side of human
nature, which also must be dealt with. Dialogue is not a suicide pact that
turns a blind eye to real threats.
In one sense, politics exists in order that we might have a
place and opportunity to resolve intellectual queries and quandaries at our
"leisure," to use the great Aristotelian word. That such a place might exist
was the theoretical reason for the founding of the academy, to where, as Eric
Voegelin remarked, the mind fled with the execution of the philosopher,
Socrates, by the best existing city. It is also one of the reasons for the
Church, which likewise has a vocation to truth, both theoretic truth and the
truth of how we ought to live. As Plato taught, all disorders are ultimately
disorders of our souls before they are disorders of our polities. The great
medieval Gelesian doctrine of the two swords--the spiritual sword and the
temporal sword--makes rather much more sense in this regard than we sometimes
give it credit for.
Without the "temporal" sword, however it be designated,
there could be, in most instances, little opportunity for any dialogue. Threats
of force against ideas and truths are real threats. And some treats against
ideas originate in ideas and religion. Such attacks on truth are rightly
related to martyrdom. The polity, though indirectly, is in the service of the
mind, of truth, but only after the manner in which truth as such can exist,
that is, in conversation, in argument, beyond politics. Truth, as Aquinas said,
is in the judgment, in the mind, either the divine mind or the human mind, and
nowhere else. The ontological truth existing in things follows from the truth
in the divine mind, as Aquinas also says.
The "agent" of truth, as Monsignor Robert Sokolowski writes
in his Christian Faith & Human Understanding, is the human person actively knowing it--actively knowing that his
mind conforms with what is. The
"polity" as such, as an ordered inter-relation of personal agents, does not
itself know "the truth," as if it were some sort of "super-person." It is not
itself a "person." But the polity, by recognizing, through its own individual
citizens, its own metaphysical limitations, can establish an order of external
law and peace in which the highest things can take place, hopefully among
Joseph Pieper wrote, in his remarkable little essay, "The
Purpose of Politics," found in An Anthology,
that politics is not safe unless it has within itself some few persons who are
devoted to the things beyond politics. "For it is contemplation," Pieper wrote,
"which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and
the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use; so it is also
contemplation which keeps the true end in sight, gives meaning to every
practical act of life." Without the contemplative order grounding it in what
is, the political order, as Aristotle
already understood, would be the highest science. It would be able to "re-make"
man according to any measure or standard he chooses.
We notice that Germans--students, politicians, philosophers,
theologians, sportsmen, and families--are visiting Rome in greater numbers. The
Pope is providing a voice for Germany that that nation has not itself heard in
modern times, a voice of sanity and intelligence, of scholarship and affection,
a voice that constantly reminds the Germans, and they need reminding, that Deus
Logos Est. Modern German philosophy, as
Joseph Ratzigner often sketched it, is a kind of witches dance away from this
principle of Logos.
But the haunting refrain of intellectual order was never
wholly extinguished from the troubled souls of the German nation. As German
citizens become more and more bewildered by their own population decline, by
their loss of the zest for life itself, by the growing presence of Islam within
their cities, by the soul-less European Union ready to absorb it, the Pope
speaks of to a tradition and to an intelligence that makes more and more sense.
When John Paul II appeared, there was something providential about a Polish
Pope. Likewise, something providential hovers about a German Pope.
Pope Ratzinger knows the German academy and it knows him.
His vast learning is readily available to the German professor and student who
care to read it. They begin to think maybe they should. Anyone even slightly
familiar with what the Pope has considered over these past decades, since he
began to teach at the University of Bonn in 1959, knows that he has thought
about the major issues of our time in almost all areas from science to
theology, from literature to politics, from Scripture studies to the fads of
the New Age. The ranting of a Richard Dawkins, the self-designated "apostle" of
atheism, seems almost puerile by comparison to what the Pope writes on the same
subjects. The days of unquestioned scientific mystique are over. Science can no
longer hide behind its own reductionist methodology and claim that the
be-knighted religious mind cannot comprehend it. The religious mind not only
can comprehend it, but critique it in its own order.
Members of the two theological faculties of the famous
University of Tbingen visited Pope Ratzinger on March 21, 2007. Being a good
German himself, the Pope did not fail to give the theologians an insightful
lecture, though L'Osservatore says that
he spoke "extemporaneously." Some extemporaneous lectures are more learned than
others. The Pope touchingly admits that theology has always been "dear" to him.
"How could it be otherwise?" he asks them. "I had considered teaching to be my
true vocation, even if the Good Lord suddenly wanted something else." One
suspects that the Good Lord does not want this Pope to cease teaching us as a
theologian. He is, as it were, his own "papal" theologian.
Benedict begins by reminding the visiting theologians of the
"interior unity between theological research, doctrine and theological work,
and pastoral service in the Church, and thus the total ecclesial commitment for
the human being, for the world and for our future." There is more here than
meets the eye. This attention to both truth and pastoral service is why the
Apostles were not chosen primarily as scholars. Recent interventions of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, some of which were made when Joseph
Ratzinger was its head, emphasize the dangers to the faithful of erroneous
theological ideas. The Church does not need to be told that ideas can undermine
living in the world and to the future.
To prepare for this talk, Pope Ratzinger tells the German
theologians, he reflected back on the "Great Senate" of the German university
through which "all appointments" passed, presumably for rank and tenure
considerations. What struck the Pope in his time in such a Senate was this:
when the appointments were for specialists in technical faculties like
"Assyriology or the physics of solid bodies," there was little debate among the
professors. But when the appointment concerned a "humanistic discipline,"
suddenly "everyone had their say."
"Why was this?" the Pope wondered. No matter what faculty a
professor belonged to, he felt competent to say something about a human issue.
From such debates, it was clear that "theology was the heart of the
University." Theology, understood as dealing with the issues of human purpose
and destiny, concerned everyone in every faculty. The Pope hopes this spirit
still exists at Tbingen.
The modern university "runs a considerable risk of becoming,
as it were, a complex of advanced study institutes externally and
institutionally united rather than being able to create the interior unity of universitas." If there is no common subject to which everyone
can address himself, the university is not really something inclusive of all (universitas). It is but a series of unrelated specialties in
which the members talk only to each other and none considers his discipline in
the light of the whole.
The example of discussion about theological appointments
"demonstrated that the whole forms a unity, and that precisely at its root are
a common questioning, a common task, a common purpose." Interestingly, the
Benedict does not "deduce" the need for theology in the university from a
priori principles. Rather he arrives at the
need from his experience with what happens in a university faculty when human
issues appear. It is not unlike C. S. Lewis's "proof" for natural law found in
the beginning of Mere Christianity,
where he showed that even listening to an everyday argument on the streets
revealed that both sides appealed to a law of reason to justify what they held.
Likewise, if members of every faculty, in practice, act as if they have
something to say about the highest things that are normally what we mean by
theology and philosophy, it means that all recognize a discourse beyond their
own discipline to which they can seen to respond in "reason," for they are
giving reasons out of their field.
Benedict next refers to universities "in the Latin
countries." There state "secularization" has allowed only "universities" to
exist in which "all that has to do with the Church" is omitted. This political
exclusion, however, by pointing to something absent, namely, the "complex
reality which we call theology," cannot claim universality of reason. Without
all questions and answers being included, the complete understanding of the overall
meaning of a subject matter is lost. "In our collection of European situations--however
secular, in a certain perspective, they are and must be--Christian thought with
its questions and answers is present and accompanies them" That is, the
secularized universities ask questions in a vacuum created by what they exclude
from their consideration of all reality.
This very vacuum, the Pope maintains, "shows that theology
itself continues in a certain way to make its contribution and to constitute
what the University is." This is a remarkable insight. Institutes are not
universities. Universities are not universities unless they are places where
all questions and all answers can be considered. The act of exclusion is itself
a theological act and poses the question about the "reason" for the absence.
The Pope does recognize, however, that much current theology is merely an
imitation of the kind of scientific methodology that excludes it. This position
recalls the thesis of Fides et Ratio
about a theology that itself knows no philosophy.
"The intra-university debate makes the University truly what
it is, involving it in a collective self-questioning and responding." We should
notice that Benedict always indicates that questioning is not enough. As Msgr.
Sokolowski said, "Unless there is an answer, there is really not a question." The Pope puts it this way: "The University and
society, humanity, in fact, need questions, but they also need answers." They
do not need just any old answers, of course, but precisely the answers to the
questions as asked in an atmosphere where nothing is politically or
academically excluded. Philosophy is not philosophy if it is not open to the
whole that addresses it on its own grounds. Neither is "theology" theology when
it does not address its truths to the questions that philosophy in its own
order cannot answer. A philosophy that in principle bases itself on the thought
that there are no true answers to its own queries is simply not philosophy.
"I hold that ... there emerges for theology--and not only for
theology--a certain dialectic between scientific rigour and the greatest
questions that transcends it and constantly emerges from it: the question about
truth." The Pope has often said that the modern university and science have
allowed no place for the great religious questions that are the concern of most
of mankind. Thus, the university is a place where everything is brought up
except what most concerns man, a position also argued by E. F. Schumacher in
his great book, A Guide for the Perplexed.
This very exclusion of the most important issues is, among
other things, a sign of a bad conscience. The example that the Pope uses to
illustrate his point here is perceptive. He uses biblical studies that claim to
be "scientific" and nothing but scientific. This scientific rigor is fine as
far as it goes, but how far does it go? Such methodological skill, however
scientifically sophisticated, does not suffice to make a biblical scholar "a
"To be a theologian and to carry out this service for the
University, and I dare to say for humanity ... ," Benedict continues, "he must go
further and ask: but is what is said there true?" This neglect of the truth
question is why courses in the Bible "as literature" usually miss the point of
the Bible itself. The Bible, even in a language style which is a pleasure to
read, does not claims to be given to us as fine art but as truth. Questions
beyond science as a method are also part of theology and are avoided only at
the cost of missing what the whole issue of revelation is about.
"The University and humanity are in need of questions,"
Benedict observes. "Whenever questions are no longer asked, even those that
concern the essential and go beyond any specialization, we no longer receive
answers, either." To place ourselves in a theoretical position whereby we
deprive ourselves, by our theory, of any possibility of true answers being
addressed to us is really the terminal point of any philosophical skeptical. It
Asking questions is, indeed, a "radical" act going beyond
"specialization," Benedict concludes. The fundamental questions "that concern
us all" lie beyond the specialization. They are questions to which every
discipline in some sense feels competent to address itself because the
university is a place where we seek to know all that is. It is a place where we exclude nothing, especially
nothing of the highest things.
We are to be "courageous," the Pope tells us. As Plato
taught, the potential philosopher must also be "courageous." It is dangerous to
seek the truth and to insist that everything be included. That they insisted on
this seeking is why the Polish and the German popes in our decades are
considered especially dangerous.
From whence come answers to the highest questions? Are there
answers to the questions we ask? "We also need the humility to listen to the
answers that the Christian faith gives us; the humility to perceive in these
answers their reasonableness and thus to make them newly accessible to our time
and to ourselves." We are to "perceive" in these answers given to our questions
precisely "their reasonableness." We cannot be proud men who only want to know
the truth we make for ourselves.
I have entitled these reflections on the Pope's
"extemporaneous" talk to the theologians from the University of Tbingen: What
Is Catholicism: Questions with Answers." I
might add, questions with reasonable answers. The Catholic faith does not think that we human
beings have "divine" minds though it knows that we did not make mind to be mind
in the first place. But we do know that we have minds and were intended to have
minds. We use them every day; we need no further proof.
We think, not without reason, that if the divinity were to
define itself as Logos that we might expect
that we would be addressed by it, if it so chose, also through word, reason,
mind. That is to say, there is no question without an answer. If we have not
formulated the question of what the whole is about in our soul, we will not
notice whether an answer has been given to it or not. If we do not want to
listen to the answer, as given, we will choose an alien word to explain the
world we think we want to live in. We will not choose the truth because we do
not really want it.
Or to put it another way, if what is behind the world is
mind addressed to mind, if answers are addressed to our questions, we ought to
think and wonder about them as true. No other discourse, no other dialogue is
worthy of us.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Ratzinger and Regensburg: On What Is a University? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Two (And Only Two) Cities | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"A Requirement of Intellectual Honesty": On Benedict and the German Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Intellectual Charity: On Benedict XVI and the Canadian
Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Why Do We Need Faith? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
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. His most recent books are
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and
The Regensburg Lecture.
Read more of his essays on his
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!