Catholic Intelligence in a Time of Chaos

Egyptian embalmers attributed all emotive response and intelligence to the heart, and so they threw the brain away, assuming that it would not be needed in the afterlife. That life to come was not at all like the Heavenly City that was shown to Saint John, with no need for sun or moon in the Heavenly City, for “the Lamb is the lamp thereof” (Rev. 21:23). The “glorified body”—far freer than the murky existence the Egyptians expected—may enjoy immediate perception, without need for brains; but God expects us to use our brains in this temporal world. They are not like the feather stuffing in a pillow. That is the portent of the parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16: 1-12). Jesus did not commend the steward’s dishonesty and cynicism but commanded that we should use our minds as justly as he did unjustly.

The human brain with its 86 billion neurons is the most complex machine in the universe. A Johns Hopkins neurologist Barry Gordon refuted the claim that people on average use only ten percent of the brains capacity. It is true that only a small fraction is used when at rest, and we may encounter certain characters who give the impression that they always are in mental repose, but the brain uses about twenty percent of the body’s energy, while making up only about three per cent of its weight.

Catholic faith is not a form of brainlessness. It animates reason to defeat credulity, just as reason employs faith to avoid rationalism. What St. John Paul II said about that commerce in the encyclical Fides et Ratio was not new, although he expressed it newly and brightly. Pope St. Pius X’s “Oath Against Modernism” was neglected and even mocked in the adolescent rebellion of post-Vatican II’s cultural climate, but it is a remarkable subject for meditation, as prophetic now as it was reflective in 1910. At its core is this: “…faith is not a blind sentiment of religion welling up from the depths of the subconscious under the impulse of the heart and the motion of a will trained to morality; but faith is a genuine assent of the intellect to truth received by hearing from an external source.” The first Bishop of Rome said that Christians must use their brains: “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). The Church suffers today in consequence of impoverished catechesis, and earnest young people are finding themselves on the front lines of spiritual combat without ammunition for their minds. Even in exalted corridors of the Church there is a remarkably casual neglect of systematic theology when discoursing about the reason for hope.

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Etienne Gilson wrote in Christianity and Philosophy in 1936: “We are told that it is faith which constructed the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Without doubt, but faith would have constructed nothing at all if there had not also been architecture; and if it is true that the façade of Notre Dame of Paris is a yearning of the soul toward God, that does not prevent its being also a geometrical work. It is necessary to know geometry in order to construct a façade which may be an act of love…”

My parish in Manhattan’s “Hell’s Kitchen” has never been distinguished for any prospect of placid life morally or materially, and the present banging of pile drivers in the building of stunning skyscrapers on the ruins of tenements shakes our church and rectory. Recent days, however, have been flagrantly disrupted by irrational behavior. Within a ten minute walk of our altar, a Palestinian named Akram Joudeh ran around Pennsylvania Station with a meat cleaver which he used on a policeman, and Ahmad Rahami, an Afghani dropped off two explosive devices, one of which exploded. In July, Mr. Joudeh had brandished knives as he shouted the name of Allah outside a Brooklyn synagogue but was judged “not a terrorist threat” and was released. Thanks to an efficient use of brainpower by the FBI, Mr. Rahami was captured quickly in New Jersey.

Mr. Rahami dropped off one of his explosives outside Sellis Manor, on West 23rd Street, which is a residence for blind people established through the efforts of Mr. Irving Sellis who died in 1985. He had started a newsstand in 1920 and organized the New York Association of Blind Newsdealers and, with his blind wife Sara, established Associated Blind, Inc. The philanthropy echoed the venerable Institute for the Blind that used to be right next to my church with many famous graduates including Fanny Crosby who wrote eight thousand hymns. William Cleveland and his brother Grover, the future president, taught there 1853-54. One cannot imagine what a terrific bomb burst sounds like to someone blind.

Not mentioned in reports, but evident in photographs, is that the Church of Saint Vincent de Paul is next to Selis Manor. It is a distinguished neo-classical building with a long history, established for the French who first were gathered as a community in the city by the Bishop of Nancy, Count of Forbin-Lanson, an exile of the French Revolution and the July Revolution. There in 1897 was offered the Requiem for the great bass Armand Castlemary who collapsed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera during Flotow’s “Martha.” In 1952 Edith Piaf was married there with Marlene Dietrich as matron of honor (you can see it on Youtube) and Charles de Gaulle attended the dedication of a memorial to the war dead. Masses were said there regularly in French and, if I may indulge reverie, I preached there and did a television series at the shrine of Saint Louis IX. There is poignancy in the fact, of which I suppose Mr. Rahami was ignorant, that Saint Louis died on the Seventh Crusade. The church still stands on 23rd Street, but it was closed in 2013 and it is being sold. Still, its neo-classical façade that was an act of geometry and love serenely withstood the bomb.

Saints who no longer need brains for the Beatific Vision, may perceive dimensions of time that defy what we call coincidence, and know why, by what we call coincidence, Pope Benedict XVI delivered his Regensburg Lecture in 2006 on September 12, the climactic anniversary of the Battle of Vienna launched on September 11, when Christian civilization was saved and became a date seared into the memory of Islamicists. Like all classics, it is a text remembered most by those who have not read it; but to give it the tribute of a reading is to be stunned, for it is one of the most prophetic papal orations of all time. He addressed the voluntarism, that is, the concept of pure will over reason, which typifies Allah of the Qur’an, but which even crept a little into Western theology through the likes of Duns Scotus and the later enthusiasm of Pascal. Although the good man in Benedict could not anticipate the violent reaction of the mindless, he knew that his words would be provocative, though in the lofty sense of academic discourse: “Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: ‘It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being—but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss.’ The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions that underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur—this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.” The Holy Father cited the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus who tried to psychoanalyze the Jihadists of his day: “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God… It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.”

Whatever may issue from such dialogue, if that is possible at all, it would be brainless to deny that irrationality is the very constitutive “reason” for terrorism. It would be doubly brainless to dismiss each terrorist as a “lone wolf” as though he were acting independently of a motive common to many. Lone wolves so numerous hardly seem lonely. When men are roaming about with meat cleavers and pressure cooker bombs, it is not the moment to diagram the importance of logic. It is, however, the duty of those in civil authority to be logical, and they cannot do this without commitment to the Eternal Logos. This is why it was like pulling teeth to get the mayor of New York to name terrorists for what they are. Visiting New York the day after the bombing, the president of the United States did not mention the chaos at all. Without the Logos who orders all things, disorder is morally neutral. Then power eclipses reason, and authority masquerades as truth.

In 1899 William Hughes Mearns wrote about a ghost:
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
Terrorists are not ghosts and they will not go away even if reasonably intelligent people misuse their brains to pretend they are not there.

Editor’s note: In the photo above are NYPD and FBI officers in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in response to bomb explosions detonated by a terrorist suspect on September 17, 2016. (Photo credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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