Wisdom in the Ruins: Two Catholic Scholars at the End of An Age | Mary Jo Anderson | April 15,
2008 | Ignatius Insight
Wisdom 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
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.
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
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
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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