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What Is Catholicism? Questions With Answers | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 1, 2007

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"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." -- Benedict XVI, To Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen, 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 naiveté 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 friends.

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 Tübingen 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 Tübingen.

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 theologian."

"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 is sophistry.

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 Tübingen: 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 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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