James V. Schall, S.J.: The Embodied Catholic Mind at Work

Midafternoon last Wednesday, on the eve of the Paschal Triduum, I got word that Fr. James Vincent Schall, S.J., had died. The news did not come as a complete surprise; a few days earlier I heard that he was going to be moved from a hospital in Los Gatos, California, to a hospice. My first thought was that this could not be true; he had bounced back from so many serious illnesses over the years that I strangely came to expect that this would always be the case. My second thought immediately went to a line from Anthony’s funeral oration in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man.’” As anyone who knew him could tell you, James V. Schall was undoubtedly “a man.”

Fr. Schall wore many hats. To some, he was a loving uncle. To others, he was a Jesuit brother and priest, a faithful minister of the sacraments who insisted on being a servant, but never a flatterer, of the Church that he loved. To others still, he was a friend, someone who wanted to talk about the news of the day or the happenings in your family or whether Brian Kelly should leave Notre Dame and take a stab at the NFL. To those on his daily email lists, to whom he would cheerfully send articles or interviews he had just read and wanted you to read, too, he was the Catholic sojourner who always signed off, “Pray for me, Jim.”

To an untold many, he was a prolific author of books (over forty), articles and essays (over four hundred), and countless columns that imparted much-needed guidance and timeless Catholic wisdom to a late-modern world that too often seemed dazed and confused. And, of course, to multiple generations of lucky undergraduate students, especially those he taught over his 34 years at Georgetown University, he was a living, breathing, first-rate curriculum, the very embodiment of the Catholic mind at work. Somehow, he calmly managed to combine all these seemingly different elements into a coherent whole that simultaneously reflected and formed the great man that was James V. Schall, S.J.

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Since his death last Wednesday, much has been written about him and much more will appear in a myriad of publications in the days and weeks ahead. Fr. Schall deserves each one of these pieces, and more. I am grateful to Crisis Magazine for giving me this opportunity to say something about Fr. Schall, especially since it was through his long-running column in Crisis, “Sense and Nonsense,” that we first met back in the mid-1990s. Fr. Schall mentioned an article I had published (as a semi-formed graduate student) in one of his columns. I took the occasion to write him a thank you note and tell him how much I enjoyed his then-recent book, At the Limits of Political Philosophy: From “Brilliant Errors” to Things of Uncommon Importance. Shortly after, I received in the mail a two-page handwritten letter—some of which was difficult to make out—that asked a series of questions that my essay had sparked in his mind. I would learn that that was vintage Fr. Schall, ever ready to ask and answer questions and always expecting you to do the same in return. As Aquinas notes, one can never adequately repay another human being who extends you such intellectual charity.

It is difficult to take the true measure of any man, let alone a seemingly indefatigable reader, thinker, and writer who has left so much of himself behind in a mountain of printed words. That Fr. Schall has left us with so many of his thoughts (something he would only half-kiddingly apologize for) illustrates an essential point made in each of his books, from his first book, Redeeming the Time (1968), to his most recent book, At a Breezy Time of Day: Selected Schall Interviews on Just About Everything. The human person as human person is not—nor has he ever been—alone in the world. Created in the image of God, we come out of the womb and inescapably find ourselves placed in a world where intelligence (both divine and human) necessarily speaks to intelligence. Fr. Schall wrote insightfully about many, many things, from the politics of Hell to sports to population control to Chesterton to immigration policy (incredibly he periodically appeared in The Hill) and to the Resurrection.

Yet each one of his writings instantiated a profound point that so much of philosophic modernity—from its ideological substitutes for metaphysics to its triumphant accounts of the self-creating individual—labors to deny: we live in an order of reality where the human mind is continuously addressed by God’s Logos.  Fr. Schall was able to explain to us—with characteristic wit, brains, and strength—how God’s Logos allows us to direct our logos both to God and to other people. With the exception of the Pope Emeritus, I have yet to find another thinker who can get my students to see this point so clearly.

Fr. Schall was famous for inserting lists of books he thought people should read into his own books. (After receiving an unexpected free copy of his Docilitas in the mail, I asked him why he had not included a particular title on the list found at the back of that book. He quickly shot back, “Bruce [the editor of St. Augustine’s Press] would have had to charge you if I included that book.”) In the spirit of Fr. Schall, let me point out three of his books that, when taken together, capture something essential, I believe, about Fr. Schall as a thinker, a teacher, and a priest. If nothing else, I hope this prods some to read, or in some cases reread, these books—and, in the process, get hooked, or hooked again, on reading Fr. Schall. (I should add that Fr. Schall was at his best as an essayist, see especially his 1994 Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays.)

Fr. Schall wrote unabashedly as a Catholic. This is not to say that his view was pinched or narrowly sectarian, far from it. He wrote books with titles like Roman Catholic Political Philosophy and Catholicism and Intelligence. The purpose of these “Catholic” titles was to lay his cards on the table, to let his reader know where he was coming from and what he had in store for them. The distinctive nature of Catholic intelligence is the animating principle of Fr. Schall’s The Mind that is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays (2008). This book brings one of his central themes to the fore, and, in the process, allows one to see the ethos of the mind behind this work. Catholicism works from the premise that “the things that are” ultimately fit together, and that the world, as we know it and think within it, forms a coherent whole. Catholicism requires one to have the courage to think long and hard about all that there is.

Rather than restricting the scope of our vision, as Fr. Schall never tired of reminding us, it challenges us to be open to thinking and learning about “what is.” His preferred name for this kind of mind was simply “Thomist.”  By that term, he did not mean that one must be shoulders-deep in Aquinas’s thought to have such a mind, but that one could not truly see through Saint Thomas’s eyes without such a mind. At the same time, he insisted that “the Catholic mind is open to seeing” that God’s revelation—found in Scripture and Tradition and, most of all, in the Incarnation—sets before us answers to questions that arise out of social and political life that our reason can identify, but cannot finally answer on its own. (This is the great theme that runs throughout Fr. Schall’s books on political philosophy, e.g., The Politics of Heaven and Hell; Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy; and The Philosopher in Society.)

Because he understood that the realm of human affairs has a dialectical relationship with Christian revelation, Fr. Schall, like Augustine, was able to take the political order on its own terms. He was never tempted to make the political order carry more weight than it could bear—to turn it into a “substitute metaphysics.” Nor was he willing to downplay its legitimate virtues and possibilities. As a result, he could speak unambiguously as both a Catholic and an American.  Recognizing the genuine strengths and weaknesses inherent in American democracy, he never succumbed to the exaggerated hopes for a Christianized America like some Neo-Conservative thinkers did in the 1980s and 1990s. For the same reason, in contrast to today’s most vocal advocates of a quasi-theological Benediction Option, he saw the folly (and ingratitude) in denying and depreciating the genuine benefits that American democracy affords Christians and non-Christians alike.

The Mind That Is Catholic speaks eloquently to the Catholic mind’s ability to hold together the seemingly irreconcilable virtues of intellectual magnanimity and intellectual humility. Catholicism requires us to state clearly what we actually can and cannot know on our own. It also demands that we think seriously about the “answers” that revelation proposes to the ultimate questions our reason naturally raises, and be on the lookout for what is truly new in the New Testament revelation. The Catholic mind is not satisfied with “generating endless questions” or content simply to sit pat with unexplored, fully formed answers. We know both questions and answers, and we question precisely “in the expectation of an answer.” One of the great treasures of this book is seeing its author, who seems to embody the Catholic and Western intellectual traditions, bring a Catholic mind to his dialectal reflections on the thought of contemporary political and philosophic thinkers like Eric Voegelin, Charles McCoy, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Maritain, and Leo Strauss.

Seeing Teachers Where Others Do Not
Fr. Schall’s 2012 On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs offers ripened reflections on teaching and education, themes explored in his earlier (and perhaps most widely read book) Another Sort of Learning.  The mind that wants to see how all things hang together in and through God’s grace unsurprisingly is concerned with teaching. At the heart of this book lies a truly illuminating chapter, one that in some ways explains both Fr. Schall’s education and the education he gives the vast majority of his readers, titled “On the Mystery of Teachers I never Met.” God did not give human beings the ability to speak just to speak, but to speak to each other and to use speech to teach each other what we have genuinely come to know ourselves. (This, by the way, was the real reason behind his famous booklists; he used these lists to point others to the words of thinkers who have something of real importance to teach us.) This means that before we can teach, someone else must first teach us. The teacher necessarily is both teacher and student, not, as Leo Strauss suggests, an untaught teacher or, as we increasingly see in our colleges and universities, a great indoctrinator.

Learning about and from others, we gradually become aware of who we truly are and how we fit into the created order around us. Fr. Schall took this point seriously. Consequently, he saw teachers where others failed to see them. This partly explains why, with a straight face, he could claim that Charles Shultz was not simply a cartoonist and the creator of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, but a wise man who had something to teach us about the world, justice, and ourselves.  It is why he could claim that Chesterton could teach us about both the metaphysical significance of the Everlasting Man and the metaphysical significance of taking walks or eating good foods or sharing strong ales with friends. “The highest things only exist in conversation. They only exist when someone knows them and knows that he does.” To be “teachable” is to be open to learning about reality from someone else; it is also to know that once you know something is true, it cannot be otherwise. Sharing, through logos, what you know to be true about reality allows you to learn from those you physically encounter and, as Fr. Schall says, mysteriously to “feel the force of those we never met, often because someone else felt it before us.”

Friendship with God
Let me conclude by making a pitch for Fr. Schall’s 1996 book At the Limits of Political Philosophy. Among other things, the “limits” of political philosophy, Fr. Schall believed, direct our minds to think about the Trinity. As he remarked in an interview with Kathryn Lopez back in January, “the Trinity has always fascinated me.” This book concludes with a splendid chapter on a theme that Fr. Schall came back to repeatedly: friendship and political philosophy. Aristotle arguably has given us the greatest philosophic account of friendship in his Ethics. One of the things that so fascinated Fr. Schall about Aristotle’s account was his suggestion that the highest being, the one truly divine being, might in fact be lonely. Friendship, for Aristotle, required a certain similitude or proportionality between friends. God then seemed to be the limit case when it came to the question of friendship. A solitary, impersonal perfect being not only has no one to be friends with but seems to be incapable of being a friend. In Fr. Schall’s view, friendship, that thing that Aristotle said complements virtue and that lawmakers seem to care more about than justice, appeared to be a good that the human person enjoyed but that God lacked.

Fr. Schall saw that Christian revelation’s teaching on the Trinity gives an intelligible answer to the question of God’s apparent loneliness. The central mystery of the Christian faith, that God is triune, offers an account of the inner life of God that maintains that at no time is God alone: For the Godhead manifests three divine persons who shares one divine nature. Revelation’s claim that God is a Person, not a mere thing or Being, answers the question of God’s loneliness. What is more, Christian revelation’s teaching on the Incarnation further shows how God and man could be friends. The theological virtue of charity could bring about a real relationship that Aristotle could speculate about, but not strictly know. Fr. Schall never tired of pointing out that in the Gospel of John’s account of the Last Supper, Christ establishes the Eucharist and calls the disciples not simply disciples, but his friends.

Friendship with God is what we are called to in the city of God. The natural good of friendship, something that helps complete us as human beings, finds its fulfillment and perfect form not in this life but in the next. As Fr. Schall movingly put it in his last lecture at Georgetown, aptly titled “The Final Gladness,”  “it is clear that human life ultimately is about meeting again, about love and friendship and serious joy, about a final home … with friends … with God who has told us, when we meet again, that we shall see him, as we would want it, ‘face to face.’”

Fr. Schall will be missed, of that there is no doubt. But this man of thoughts and words and laughter and wit and love and friendship has left an important part of himself with us in his numerous writings. For that, we should be grateful. I am sure that many people you met and many people you never met will pray for you, Jim. James V. Schall, S.J., R.I.P.

(Photo credit: Intercollegiate Studies Institute)


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