What’s Wrong with the (Postmodern) World: Catholicism and Intelligence, by Fr. James V. Schall

creation, creator, creature, genesis

creation, creator, creature, genesis


Jesuit philosopher Fr. James V. Schall has been described as “America’s Chesterton,” according to the cover blurb from theologian Tracey Rowland. Like G. K. Chesterton, Fr. Schall has a talent for making philosophy accessible to the average person, the mark not only of the true sophisticate but also of the good teacher. But also like Chesterton, Fr. Schall is very much concerned with the pervasiveness of ways of thinking that run counter to common sense. And in Catholicism and Intelligence (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, $22.95), Fr. Schall, like Chesterton before him, shows us how revelation is necessary for reason to comprehend the cosmos as it really is.

Intelligence and “What-Is”

We should note first of all that Fr. Schall does not treat intelligence as we commonly think of it; that is, as the sum of our raw knowledge and cognitive capabilities. Rather, he gives it the older, broader sense of its root in the Latin verb intellegere — understanding, comprehension, perception, discernment. It also embraces reason as the means by which one makes sense of the world, though Fr. Schall does not commit the modern error of supposing that reason only reaches correct answers.

This last point, that reason does not necessarily lead to truth, can hardly be stated strongly enough. For much of Fr. Schall’s book centers on the fact that modern reason is devoted not to comprehending objective reality — the “what-is”, as he puts it — but to denying it in order to create “realities” more amenable to our wills. “The essence of all ideology is that, at some point in its explication, it does not conform to the way things are. The history of human thought can be seen … as a long and connected series of hypotheses designed to explain why invalid theories are true” (p. 64).

The start of this deviation of modern thought Fr. Schall, as do many other writers working within the Aristotelian/Thomist tradition, traces back to Rene Descartes. “He began in doubt and ended up with himself. … The consequence of doubting our senses and what is connected through them to the world is not the certainty that ‘I am.’ Rather, it is the lack of certainty in anything else but my ‘I’” (p. 2). We can draw a straight line from the damaging Cogito to the incoherent absurdities of transgender theory, a straight line increasingly described as voluntarism: what-is is no more or less than what one wills it to be.

Revelation Makes Reality Intelligible

From Descartes, Fr. Schall goes on to discuss a wide range of modern issues in the light of revelation and its connatural relationship to reason. To the questions that are variants of “Why didn’t Jesus/Scripture say anything about X,” Fr. Schall gives the quite reasonable reply:

Revelation was not designed to tell us what we could know or figure out by our reason. We did not need the Bible to invent the wheel or to know how to build a house. Revelation was not a complete scheme of life as the books of other religions often claim to be. This limitation is why we speak of the things of God and the things of Caesar. … Christ did not need to reveal the contents of Aristotle’s Politics because it was already figured out before He came along. The Gospels were not designed to explain the intricacies of atomic energy. And it was not a defect or an oversight in God if they did not deal with the things we could know by ourselves. What we could find out by reason, we should find out by reason. Catholicism itself affirms this position and rejoices in it. (p. 85; italics in original)

But revelation is not just a special bonus explaining what lies beyond our senses. Through revelation, material reality became intelligible in a way not previously accessible to other cultures at other times. Through the union of Jerusalem with Athens, Catholicism became the key that unlocked the door to what would eventually become the empirical sciences. Catholicism insists on the objective reality of the created order, which modern idealism would retreat from for the sake of various secular utopian visions. And until recent times, Fr. Schall reminds us, the definition of madness was “living in a thought world that did not correspond to the real world” (p. 20).

Indeed, until recently, no one ever thought there was a right not only to live in such a thought world but to force others to live in it as well.

A Chestertonian Narrative

Catholicism and Intelligence is not a philosophical textbook, a treatise on doctrine, or an apology for Catholicism. Rather, we should call it a series of meditations on how the Catholic mind differs from the minds of different movements in the world, as well as why Catholicism is threatened from so many quarters. Most of these meditations were previously published elsewhere. However, Fr. Schall has seamlessly blended them together so the text takes on an almost narrative quality. And to the extent that Fr. Schall does touch on doctrine, his voice is within the narrow tolerances of orthodoxy — to be expected, given the comparison of him to Chesterton.

It is in this near-story-like feature that Fr. Schall most closely resembles Chesterton. He does not display his English precursor’s penchant for paradox or the inverted cliché, nor does he make an obvious attempt to be funny. Like Chesterton, though, his strength is in finding what is essential to a particular thought or worldview, discarding the extraneous fluff and puff in which it is packaged for our consumption, and presenting the remnant nugget so its poison is exposed. At the same time, he never gives you the sense that he is “dumbing things down” for your benefit.

But Fr. Schall does not shy away from controversy, either. In Chapter Nine, “Ongoing Catholic Intelligence”, Fr. Schall takes on remarks about poverty from the current head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cdl. Robert Sarah. In his own book, God or Nothing, Cdl. Sarah made a confusing distinction between poverty and destitution, arguing that the Church did not want financial poverty eliminated. In return, Fr. Schall argues that Cdl. Sarah misconstrued Jesus’ statement that we would always have the poor among us (cf. Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7).

I cannot imagine how Christ’s love of the poor was intended to keep men poor. … Christ also loves the destitute, as do we. But we do not want them to be destitute, that is, poor, if we can help it — and we can. (p. 144)

A Lighthouse of Sanity and Sensibility

Common sense is the shared understanding of things we all (should) know to be true, even if we cannot scientifically prove them true, and even when we labor mightily to prove them false.  Common sense is common not because it is widespread but because it is available to all of us. As Fr. Schall says, the ordinary person does not have to work so hard as Descartes did to know his own reality, and would be stunned into a dropping jaw to read, as this writer has, a neuroscientist who declares that consciousness is a “persistent illusion.” The most paradoxical truth of the postmodern age is that only the very educated and very clever can come to the most foolish conclusions.

Catholicism and Intelligence has this quality of common sense, of explaining things in such a way that you wonder how one could have ever come to think otherwise. Continuing the parallel with Chesterton, one might contend that Schall’s work is comparable to the former’s book Heretics. The significant difference, however, is that while Chesterton named the heresiarchs, Fr. Schall mostly does not. If anything, Catholicism and Intelligence reads more like What’s Wrong with the World updated for the twenty-first century.

But while, as said above, Catholicism and Intelligence is not an apologetics work, Fr. Schall indirectly makes a persuasive case for the truth of the Catholic faith from its insistence on the intelligibility of the universe. There is an “is”, as Chesterton put it, and that “is” is knowable. That there is something real outside our heads that we can come to know is the only justification possible for everything we call knowledge, especially that particular kind of knowledge we derive from science. Through this insistence, Catholicism becomes a lighthouse of sanity and sensibility in a sea of madness and nonsense.

“Our Ideas Make a Difference”

Catholicism and Intelligence, then, is for the reader troubled by the conflict his faith encounters with the “truths” held by the postmodern world. Ideas matter because ideas have consequences. “Conflict arises,” writes Fr. Schall, “when both sides of an issue realize that something basic is at stake, that our ideas do make a difference” (p. 148). And as the consequences of false ideas play themselves out in our society, throughout the world, we can no longer afford the supposition that we can buy peace by setting error on equal terms with the truth. Many errors will offer the truth no such quarter.

What Fr. Schall gives us in this book is the reassurance that Catholicism alone offers us not only heaven but also the real world, because only in Catholicism do reason and revelation embrace. Without reason, revelation is incoherent. But without revelation, reason is lost. If all we seek is what this world offers, we will lose even that. But if we seek the kingdom first, everything will be ours (Matthew 6:31-33).

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