Wisdom in the Ruins: Two Catholic Scholars at the End of An Age | Mary Jo Anderson | April 15, 2008 | Ignatius InsightWisdom in the Ruins: Two Catholic Scholars at the End of An Age | Mary Jo Anderson | April 15, 2008 (with apologies to Walker Percy)


The first annual Rev. James V. Schall, S.J. Award for Teaching and Humane Letters was presented April 10, 2008, to Professor Ralph McInerny of Notre Dame University. The award was created by the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, a new force for reason and faith on the Georgetown University campus.

Fr. Schall, a frequent contributor to Ignatius Insight, has inspired Georgetown students for thirty years. "We wanted to honor his tremendous influence," said Patrick Deneen, founding director of the Tocqueville Forum, "and so we named this award for his achievements in a time when it is no simple task to teach truth."

The Forum was conceived in 2006 as a response to the need for a resourcement, a rediscovery of the roots of American democratic foundations in Western political philosophy, biblical and Christian tradition. Under the university's Department of Government, but independently supported without university funds, the Tocqueville Forum has already attracted fifty student fellows. Too often students are given coursework heavy on current events and practical politics, but receive a very scant examination of the principles of American constitutional liberty. The Tocqueville Forum bridges that gap.

In large measure, the Tocqueville Forum seeks to become a counterforce to the excesses of political correctness. American culture is at the end of a generation of secular humanist rebellion against Revelation and Tradition. Once somnolent, the advocates of the Western philosophical and religious tradition have begun to push back against the heterodox age.

"America originally understood itself as 'under God'," a power beyond the state, noted Deneen, who taught philosophy at Princeton before his arrival at Georgetown University. The phrase "under God" is rarely unpacked in contemporary classrooms. "The Tocqueville Forum hopes to redress the decline in civic literacy, and even the hostility on campus toward Western philosophical traditions. Our roundtables and colloquia expose today's undergraduates to Georgetown's historic strength in the field of political philosophy. Great names have taught here, including Jeane Kirkpatrick and George Carey. And Fr. Schall," said Deneen.

A Tocqueville Forum committee unanimously selected Dr. McInerny, the Michael P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies at Note Dame, as the inaugural recipient of the Schall award. McInerny is a scholar of enviable energy and wit, the author of dozens of academic volumes, the director of the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame, and a founding publisher of Crisis Magazine. As these pursuits were insufficient to slow his pace, he is also the author of cleverly titled popular mysteries such as Irish Gilt and The Widow's Mate.

After accepting the honor, Professor McInerny entertained guests of the Forum with an endearing lecture on Fr. Schall entitled, "There Was a Man! On Learning to Be Free." His tribute to "this remarkable priest, a career that is informed by the fact that he is first and foremost a priest, a Jesuit, a worthy son of St. Ignatius," delighted the gathering of faculty, seminarians, students and friends.

If secularism casts its menacing shadow over American academia, Fr. Schall is a shaft of light. Professor McInerny recalled Fr. Schall's stature as a priest, philosopher and professor, but chose to highlight Schall the writer, the essayist, the journalist, and the "wise assimilator of the magisterial works of John Paul II and Benedict XVI."

Dr. McInerny's remarks traversed terrain unfriendly to the study of Liberal Arts. Schools today jostle for research grants and desire to be known as premier research universities. Schools compete to "discover something new" and this model of education is the "icon of the age." In such an age Man is no longer pointed toward self-discovery—who he is and from whence he came and to what purpose. Rather, he is reduced to "data to be probed." The aim of Liberal Arts is to "make us free men," the Notre Dame professor reminded his audience. And, the prolific works of Fr. Schall stress precisely this, the discovery of "what is," the given order of things, in which man may find his freedom.

In Fr. Schall's The Life of the Mind we learn something of the goal of education, "Each discipline was worthy of study in itself, but once all were acquired, the student was 'free' to stand before all things as a whole, both to know and to act. Hence the notion associated with 'liberal arts' was 'universal' or 'general'" (p. 32). Further on we are warned, "...it is quite possible not to pay attention to the greatest things of human existence even when they happen right in front of us" (p. 44). Fr. Schall is a philosopher who finds profundity in the mundane, who unwinds the wisdom in Peanuts, a writer of charming essays on sports to lost socks, yet he deftly explains disarming realities in The Unseriousness of Human Affairs. His skill at pointing readers to the interwoven whole of the given order is Schall's achievement.

Too often students of today lack any sense of connectedness, of how things fit together as an integrated whole. Instead, they are primed, wound up and launched forth into the world as atomized technicians. They wander about without wonder, alienated from the whole of things.

But Schall, by his very name, is intrigued by the world before him. Dr. McInerny teased his listeners with the German meaning of the word "schall" which is "curious," and, "one who wonders." It is this delight in the world of "what is," the world not made by us but that can be known that Fr. Schall communicates to all who chance upon his work.

In addition, Fr. Schall is "inconceivable without Chesterton." According to Professor McInerny, "Fr. Schall is undeniably the Chesterton of our era."

Mary Jo Anderson writes for several Catholic publications and is a regular guest on EWTN's "Abundant Life" with Johnette Benkovic. Her monthly radio feature, "Global Watch", can be heard on EWTN affiliates nationwide. She is a popular speaker at Catholic and secular conferences and a frequent guest on talk radio programs nationwide. She is also co-author of Male and Female He Made Them: Questions on Marriage and Same-sex Unions (Catholic Answers), and blogs at "Properly Scared".

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