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The Catholic Intellectual | Fr. Stanley L. Jaki | Part 2 | Part 1

As a Kantian, Hans Küng had no choice but to feel that Catholic belief in Christ narrows the range of "catholicism." The belief in question certainly gives Catholicism the kind of vitality that makes no sense in the shadowy world of the Kantian a priori, where facts count for little. Harnack may have been wrong on many a point, but he proved himself an astute appraiser of the logic of history when he remarked, a century ago, that had it not been for that dogma of consubstantiality, Christianity would have quickly transformed itself into an obscure Jewish sect. [5]

The Catholic intellectual must therefore feed above all on the fact and content of the Incarnation as understood from the start. The Catholic intellectual must eschew reinterpretations of the Incarnation as given by those who think that history is the unfolding of the Absolute Mind as defined by Hegel, which was hardly more reliable than his own mind. Guided by Hegel, Catholic intellectuals will become short on information and also given to that ridiculous blunder of putting the cart before the horse. They should still study Hegel's incredible miscomprehension and misconstruction of that exercise of the intellect which science is insofar as it has for its first duty to submit to facts.

Catholic intellectuals should also realize that neither did the Church invent itself, nor did it ever invent new dogmas. The Church at Nicaea proposed consubstantiality not as its fresh self-reflection on its self-awareness but as something that it had to preach authoritatively because the Church had already preached it so, even without using the expression itself. The actual awareness of the Church of its duties and powers has always been predicated on the conviction of the latest generation of bishops in union with Rome that this authoritative conviction has been transmitted to them by earlier bishops who had the same conviction of having been entrusted with a most unusual authority. Hans Küng, who preached so volubly on Catholicism as reduced to catholicism, met his Waterloo when not Rome but his own German bishops forced a showdown about his reluctance to endorse Nicaea and Chalcedon. To his great surprise, and this shows how poorly he read Church history (which should not be surprising on the part of a Kantian, who like Kant is bold to dictate in advance what should take place in history), German bishops had a deep appreciation for the need to teach in unison with Rome, the touchstone of living authority in the Church.

The living character of that authority came through with special force in the reaction of John Paul II to the ordination of women in the Church of England. The present Magisterium, he said in his Apostolic Letter, has no knowledge of having been entrusted with the power to ordain women. It was not because the Magisterium had not enough mental power to unfold the contents of some notions about women and ordination, but simply because it had no knowledge of having been entrusted with that power. And in making this reasoning John Paul II quoted a very similar statement of Paul VI, his predecessor twice removed in a chain whose links stretch back to Peter, the head of the Apostles.

The analogy of a chain made up of links is of special importance. The succession of bishops as a college is not something like the juxtaposition of links in a chain, where all links follow one another as distinct, independent lines. In the succession of the college of bishops the links and lines overlap one another. Bishops do not die all at once to be succeeded by another set of bishops. Even the succession of the bishops of Rome is within an ongoing episcopal college, although the latter remains a college only inasmuch as it adheres to its center.

A Catholic intellectual must have for his foremost standard of reasoning an unconditional, total commitment to the voice of Rome as the only factor that puts him in proper contact with the greatest fact which is Christ. The contact is not made by speculations on history, which are in a sense very unhistorical, projecting as they do some present preconceptions into the past. Such a procedure is equivalent to setting up the mind of the individual now living to be the authority over the One who claimed for himself all authority in heaven and earth and entrusted a specific Twelve with the task to carry on with that very authority. These, by laying their hands on specifically chosen others, made it clear from the start that they took it for their essential task to perpetuate that authority, not as a mere idea but as a concrete reality, until the end of time. The chief task of the Catholic intellectual is to feast on this fact of staggering proportions, because it makes the greatest fact, Christ, accessible to him so that he may implement in its supreme form that true activity of the intellect which is to submit to facts.

Herein lies the gist of what in saner times was fearlessly and proudly spoken of as loyalty to Rome. In these increasingly confused times one cannot do better than to fall back on John Henry Newman to suggest something of the ramifications of that loyalty. What he said discredits once and for all the carefully nurtured perception that the Church is but another form of democracy where majority votes, carefully engineered by some with ready access to the media, decide what constitutes truth, if there remains any need for truth at all.

The passage to be quoted is a note which Newman appended to the re-edition of his The Via Media or the Anglican Church, as part of his collected works. Those who had read his Apologia already knew that a chief reason for his having become a Catholic was his finding that the "Via Media" existed only on paper. But, lest he should be misunderstood, he added the following note:
I will but say in passing, that I must not in this argument be supposed to forget that the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ, inherits these offices and acts for the Church in them . . . Christianity, then, is at once a philosophy, a political power, and a religious rite: as a religion, it is Holy; as a philosophy, it is Apostolic; as a political power, it is imperial, that is, One and Catholic. As a religion, its special centre of actions is pastor and flock; as a philosophy, the Schools; as a rule, the Papacy and its Curia. [6]
Such a loyalty, so unique among all other loyalties, because it ties one to Christ, must therefore have intellectual ramifications that are truly liberating. Once weakened in that loyalty the Catholic intellectual will be seized by doubts that Catholicism is truly towering over everything else as a cultural factor. Here again let Newman's voice be heard as the voice of one who struggled so hard to shake off the illusions of mere shadows and images of a Church that replaced salvation with cultural propriety and to join the true Church which appeared to be inferior culturally, but in fact made far greater contributions to culture than any other Church or organization. He emphasized this to his nephew, John R. Mozley, professor of mathematics in Manchester, who expressed in a letter his wonderment to his famous uncle (not yet a Cardinal) that such a great intellect could be so blind to the irremediable shortcomings of the Roman Church:
I grant that the Church's teaching, which in its formal exhibitions is divine, has been at times perverted by its officials, representatives, subjects, who are human. I grant that it has not done so much good as it might have done. I grant that in its action, which is human, it is a fair mark for criticism or blame. But what I maintain is, that it has done an incalculable amount of good, that it has done good of a special kind, such as no other historical polity or teaching or worship has done, and that good has come from its professed principles, and that its shortcomings and omissions have come from a neglect or an interruption of its principles. [7]
This passage calls for a well nuanced reaction. On the one hand it would be right to make the inference that it is the duty of the Catholic intellectual to probe that incalculable amount of good. Further, it would be right to add that the Catholic intellectual ought to be convinced that the good in question exists and therefore is worth the effort of being discovered and brought to full daylight. The Catholic intellectual too must recognize that "discovery favors the prepared mind," a phrase aptly coined about the conditions of making scientific discoveries.

On the other hand, such considerations should not imply that only such Catholic intellectuals qualify for being considered Catholic who work on specifically "Catholic" topics. A Catholic intellectual remains not only an intellectual but also a Catholic if he or she investigates purely natural topics. Most areas of inquiry are such. This is all too evident when one considers, for instance, the vast variety of research available in the natural sciences. Most branches of science do not raise the kind of fundamental questions that touch on the basics of epistemology and consequently on metaphysics. Even in fundamental particle physics and in scientific cosmology much research can be done without ever encountering the question about the ontological status of the truly first moment and its relation to the coming into being of the universe, or the creation of all matter out of nothing. The Catholic intellectual makes a mockery of his Catholicism if he countenances conceptual games with that creation, as encouraged by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The question, whether one can know that there is a universe, which Kant disqualified as a bastard product of the metaphysical craving of the intellect, is of course constantly staring in the face of any and all scientific cosmologists. It will not be avoided by replacing the term universe, this most catholic entity insofar as it stands for the totality of consistently interacting things, with the term multiverse, which is but a verbal cover-up for endorsing cosmic incoherence, a most unscientific perspective indeed. On a different level, work in biology, especially in genetics, brings up with ever greater pressure questions that are ethical, in that supreme sense in which ethics relates to the very catholic core of the personhood.

A Catholic intellectual must be ready to face up to such questions and in a genuinely Catholic sense. And if he has not acquired the ability to cope with such questions, he at least must have a vivid conviction that Catholic answers can be given to such questions, and indeed, have been given time and again. And, most importantly, the Catholic intellectual must not turn the truth of those answers into a function of the measure of their acceptance by secular academia, which is well nigh zero in most cases.

A Catholic intellectual must be ready to swim against the tide which will flow against him until the end of time. He must not dream about a new Middle Ages, partly because those Ages were very mediocre in many ways, and partly because history cannot be replayed. Utopia and history are mutually exclusive notions. The Catholic intellectual cannot meditate often enough on an often overlooked statement in the Documents of Vatican II about the grim struggle between the Church and the world, a struggle that shall never abate. A Catholic intellectual is, of course, fully entitled to wonder about the strange disproportionality between that gigantic struggle and its brief portrayal in those Documents.

The Catholic intellectual must be ready to recognize opportunities for Catholic research in his own field. The case of Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) remains most instructive. He did not dream of what he would eventually find as he started searching for the historical origin of the principle of virtual velocities, a cornerstone of the science of motion. He wanted to do no more than show that historically too, the exact science of physics was an economic co-ordination of data of measurements and therefore unqualified to say anything ontological, let alone metaphysical.

This is not to suggest that a vast portrayal of this point would not have contained a great liberating vision, the prospect of sidelining once and for all the specter of scientism. But when Duhem found that the first intimation of that principle was done in the medieval Sorbonne, he did not hesitate to put everything aside. The result was a portrayal in a dozen or so vast volumes of the medieval Christian origin of Newtonian science.

Duhem himself, a staunch and devout Catholic from childhood, gave a priceless account of his intellectual odyssey in his essay, "Physics of a Believer," which should be compulsory reading for all Catholic intellectuals, scientists or not. Perhaps the meditative reading of that essay will give them the inspiration to put a great deal aside when even a remotely similar opportunity arises before their searching eyes.

I mentioned Duhem partly because I found in his lifework, combining the task of a physicist and of a historian and philosopher of science, and of an artist to boot, a truly catholic and Catholic inspiration, in more than one sense. Certainly inspiring should seem his resolve not to be discouraged by secular academia's systematic slighting of him, both during his life and afterwards. He held it to be his greatest satisfaction when he received word about the intellectual support which Catholic university people and students found in his writings.

The fact that some non-Catholic readers of my The Relevance of Physics and of my Gifford Lectures, The Road of Science and the Ways to God, found in them a major incentive to join the Catholic Church, remains for me far more precious than some prestigious prizes. Not that either of those books were apologetics in any sense. They were mere pleas, as any intellectual effort should be, on behalf of truth.

For if a Catholic intellectual becomes ashamed of doing apologetics in that sense, he betrays both his intellect and his Catholicism. He also severs his connection with that long chain of Catholic intellectuals that began with Justin Martyr, author of two Apologias that eventually cost him his life. The next great link in that chain was Augustine's City of God, an unabashed apologia on behalf of Christian culture as delivered by the Catholic Church. Still another great link in that chain was the Summa contra gentiles of Thomas Aquinas. Surely, these last two worked on many other topics as well, including pure Catholic theology, but they considered the doing of apologetics an essential part of their Catholic task.

And what about Newman? He is all too often played up nowadays as the theologian of Vatican II. This is a strange label indeed, for at least one reason: Newman time and again emphasized that he was not a theologian, but, horribile dictu, a controversialist! He indeed also said that he would never miss the chance to join a good battle! Always kind to persons, he could be cruelly cutting when it came to stating principles. He was no champion of an "ecumenical" smoothness, the recently standardized means of preventing that anyone should appear a plain fool if not a plain intellectual villain.

Soon after his conversion Newman made it clear that he no longer wished to waste time on that mirage of Catholicism, the Church of England. Rather, at the midpoint of his life, he took up as his life's work the task to battle the agnostic pragmatism of modern educated society. His Apologia was a personal apologetic. His Grammar of Assent is still an unsurpassed treatise of some basic epistemological points to be fully aired if one is to present with effectiveness Catholic doctrine, indeed the Catholic Church, to the modern mind. For let it never be forgotten that the Grammar of Assent comes to a close with a great plea on behalf of the historic Catholic Church, which for Newman was the Church of Rome.

That Church was for him the sole channel to the fact of the Incarnation about which he rightly said that it was the most difficult of all dogmas to accept. But once one surrendered to that dogma as the quintessence of the supernatural, it made no sense, he argued, to be squeamish about the manifestation of the concretely supernatural as found in the Catholic Church. This is why he enthusiastically accepted ever fresh miracles in the Catholic Church. He would have, undoubtedly, greeted word about the miracle of the sun in Fatima, with words anticipating Paul Claudel's remark that Fatima represented a "colossal intrusion of the supernatural into the natural world." [8]

Under no circumstance would he have softpedalled that miracle nor a great many others, lest he should appear "backward" to Oxonian dons and their counterparts at the Sorbonne, at Harvard, at Tübingen and elsewhere. For he knew that regardless of their intellectual refinement, they were also part of a tragically fallen world. Catholic intellectuals, of whom so many have fallen prey to the false optimism of a sweeping upward trend toward a mythical Omega point, would do well to meditate on Newman's dicta on original sin, that were anything but obiter dicta on his part. And he made those dicta against the backdrop of a nominally Christian society for which the polished gentleman was the true saint.

If a Catholic intellectual wants today a challenge, it is the challenge of Newman, who never shirked being challenged by the concretely supernatural. He therefore keeps challenging, as no other modern Catholic intellectual, those Catholic intellectuals who think that by coping with the challenges of the natural, one lives up to the challenges of a supernatural revelation concretely given in the Catholic Church in its fullness. So much in the way of a hint about the thrust of my book, Newman's Challenge, [9] a collection of a dozen or so essays of mine published over the last ten years on the various aspects of Newman's thought that were dearest to him, though unfortunately, not necessarily dearest to us.

Finally, we all, Catholic intellectuals, eager to probe principles and basics (and at times thinking that it is still possible to uncover the philosopher's stone) should never forget Pascal's wise remarks: "All good principles have already been stated. What remains is to put them in practice." [10] Implementation means concreteness. In reference to the implementation of Catholicism as an intellectual proposition, it must start from that concreteness, extremely narrow in many ways, which Christ himself was in his Galilean reality. This is why no one in the world of the learned paid him any notice while He lived and for some time afterwards. At any rate, they would have laughed at Him, as Domitian laughed when some Galilean peasants, relatives of Jesus, were ushered in his presence in Rome. They clearly appeared to him as the epitome of the narrowest backwardness.

This illustrates the supreme paradox of Catholicism. Insofar as it is truly related to Christ it remains stunningly parochial. But so is any true concrete entity as different from specious figments of imagination, "catholic" as they may appear to very parochial intellects who pride themselves on being "catholic." True catholic intellects will forever find it a hallmark of truth that "catholic" cries out for "Catholic" as its sole assurance and justification.


[1] A. Froude, The History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1856-1870), vol. VII, p. 174. This monumental work, which established Froude as one of the foremost English prosewriters, greatly strengthened intellectual biases against the Catholic Church. Hence the special value of Froude's admission.
[2] Tyrell (1861-1909), a convert to Catholicism and subsequently a Jesuit, was excommunicated when he rejected the condemnation which Pius X issued against modernism in 1907.
[3] Archbishop Pilarczyk, quoted in The New York Times, Sept. 21, 1987, p. 1, col. 2.
[4] Quoted in The New York Times, Sept, 15, 1998.
[5] A. Harnack, History of Dogma, tr. E. B. Spears and J. Millar (London: Williams and Norgate, 1898), vol. IV, p. 43.
[6] Preface to the Third edition, § 2, 10, or p. XL in the standard Longmans edition of the Collected Works.
[7] Letters and Diaries, vol. 27, p. 283. Letter of April 21, 1875.
[8] The opening words of Claudel's introduction to Méditations sur les révélations da Fatima by Ch. Olmi (Le Puys: Mappus, 1944). Newman would have been in the least surprised on finding that a careful reading of the eyewitness accounts of the "miracle of the sun" imposes the conclusion of a colossal meteorological miracle. See my book, God and the Sun at Fatima (Royal Oak, MI: Real View Books, 1998), 381pp.
[9] Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000, viii + 323pp.
[10] Pascal, Pensées.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier.

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Conservative Bishops, Liberal Results | Dr. James Hitchcock
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Fr. Stanley L. Jaki is a Hungarian-born Benedictine priest, the author of numerous books, and winner of the Templeton Prize, 1987.

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