On Catholic Intelligence

Catholic intelligence is not ordinarily focused on what a given pope might think, affirm, or write, however wise this source may prove to be. Catholicism has a many-faceted tradition that includes what is true while it carefully wrestles with what is not true. During the more recent pontificates of Popes Wojtyla and Ratzinger in particular, much first class thinking originated in the papacy itself. Pope Francis is not, and does not pretend to be, an “intellectual.” Indeed, he often has rather harsh words for academics as well as bureaucrats. No one would confuse his homilies with philosophic tractates. His encyclical on the environment created as much controversy about fact and philosophic presuppositions as we have seen for some time. Fides et Ratio and Spe Salvi, for their part, were monuments of careful intellectual precision.

As in previous eras, some remarkable books, journals, and writers have recently appeared under the broad name of Catholic intelligence. The Church affirms that it has no official philosophy. But it also recognizes philosophic views that, in logic and reason, are incompatible with the truth that it argues to exist in its light. Such current writings indicate an intellectual ferment running through Catholicism in different parts of the world. It is important to know this intelligence is there, whether recognized or not in the world. This vitality is not always located in universities. Indeed, with notable exceptions, Catholic intelligence is not a product of universities that designate themselves as Catholic. The prevailing relativism of the culture was incisively analyzed at a high philosophical level in the sundry papal documents of John Paul II and Benedict. A considerable number of books can be found that would give some sense of this on-going vitality in the Catholic mind.

Catholicism has probably lost the cultural battle, so that it must face the fact of an intellectual world unwilling and, I would say, often incapable of accepting the coherence we find in contemporary Catholic intelligence. This ferment has largely been conceived in terms of inner-western intellectual circles. A rearmed and aggressive Islam, what it is and what it stands for in terms of clear comprehension, has become a necessity in any estimate of the near-future of Catholicism, even in what were once thought to be lands of its own heritage.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Ever since my 1989 book, Another Sort of Learning, I have thought it of some value to call certain books to the attention of students, professors, and that wide range of intelligent readers who rarely come across Catholic intelligence in any meaningful form. My usual lists of ten to twenty items are limited to books that are not too long, though they are well thought out and often brilliantly written.

What I want to do in this brief essay is to call attention to a number of newer books that require more time to come to terms with. Many of my own previously published books contain book listings. I will include here two lists of ten books, more or less divided into older and newer books. By this classification, I do not mean that the older books are any less fundamental or less worthy. Indeed, these older books are profound ones. That is why they are so important. They make it quite clear that there are things that, to be human, we must reckon with, not just things to be done but things to know and know well.

The first list will include relatively short books that are, however, profound, and usually a delight to read. In many ways, truth can be stated clearly and incisively in a few pages. The first list of books will be a selection of those books that I have found to be the best way to introduce and make clear what I have called, “the Catholic mind,” or, as I put it in the title of another book of mine, The Mind That Is Catholic. These books are not necessarily about Catholic things in a narrow sense. Nor are they apologetics. They are about what is true when we include everything and think about it.

Over the years, I sometimes receive a request from a friend or correspondent about “Schall’s List of Longer Books to Keep Sane By.” As most people know, reading any book, even a good book, can be both a chore and a pleasure, probably something of both. To understand a book, we must take time, remember what we have read before, and keep our attention on the thesis as it goes along. We must remember that it is we ourselves who want to know the truth. We ought to try to find it even if it requires our time and careful attention. What I have in mind in this second list is to call attention to books that make a more thorough articulation of Catholic intelligence in general, or in a given area of human reality.

On reading such books, I think that any fair reader will acknowledge that Catholicism does explain itself in the light of what it holds and in the light of alternative views of the world. In this way, the Catholic mind is unique. It not only must know what is specific to itself, but what is proposed by other views of reality. Since it holds that truth is one, it must see what other views are about and how they are developed. It is not just interested in them for curiosity’s sake, but to examine whether they are true. However annoying it might be to a relativist or liberal culture to confront something that claims to be true, the fact is that someone must ask whether this relativist view is itself true. It is, in fact, incoherent on its own terms. The Catholic mind is not based on relativism or on sheer diversity for its own sake. It is grounded in what is that allows all things to cohere.

What I want to do here, then, is to indicate some twenty books that are, as I see it, the Catholic mind at work in doing what it does best; that is, explain the reasons for its claim to truth, and the way it judges other views in view of these reasons. I do not deny that Catholics argue among themselves about some of these things. These two lists of ten books are not necessarily the best or the only ones available for the same purpose. The number of available good books is enormous. These lists are intended simply to put in anyone’s hands a series of intelligent books that leave little doubt that something here must be reckoned with. These books, on reading them, on owning them, on having them on our shelves available to us, will, I think, give a confidence that truth is being honorably and accurately pursued and articulated in the Catholic mind.

Again, what we have here are two lists of ten books. The books in the first list are somewhat shorter; but they are also provocative and profound. The second list contains books of somewhat greater length and scope. I have tried to include books from various angles and to include different aspects of human intelligence. I could easily find other groupings of ten books that would do the same thing. But my purpose here is to provide a guide, a grounding that can stand by itself. Not a few people will already know of these books or ones that might be included. What we have here is simply my judgment about books worth reading.

Here, I am more interested in someone who wants to begin, who does not know where to go. What I would hope is that these books, on reading them, will provide a solid but short “library,” if you will. I assume most of them are also e-books and could compose one apps file. They are designed to make clear to anyone who reads them that Catholic intelligence, in spite of, or perhaps because of, all its own turmoil, is what it says it is, that is, a universal, intelligent, and coherent pursuit of the truth. Catholicism is an intellectual religion. It understands that its revelation is directed to reason and must be met in its light. It must, to be itself, include not only the knowledge it has received from revelation, but that knowledge that comes from experience, philosophical reflection, and other forms of learning.

What follows are the two lists.

The First List
1) J. M. Bochenski, Philosophy—An Introduction
2) G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
3) E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed
4) Robert Spitzer, New Cosmological Proofs for the Existence of God
5) Joseph Pieper—an Anthology
6) Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason
7) Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien
8) Mario d’Souza, Being in the World: A Quotable Maritain Reader
9) Robert Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind
10) Pierre Manent, Seeing Things Politically

The Second List
1) Robert Royal, A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century
2) Robert Sokolowski, The Phenomenology of the Human Person
3) Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 3 Volumes
4) John D. Mueller, Redeeming Economics
5) Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophic Experience
6) Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction
7) David Schindler, A Robert Spaemann Reader
8) Robert Reilly, Making Gay Okay
9) Michael Chaberek, Catholicism and Evolution
10) David Walsh, The Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being

Such are the various books on various topics that I would recommend. When one has finished such short lists, of course, other books come immediately to mind that “should have been included.” I think of Rémi Brague’s The Legend of the Middle Ages, Josef Pieper’s Tradition as Challenge, Daniel Mahoney’s The Other Solzhenitsyn, and Brendan Purcell’s From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution.

Then there is a whole list of other authors—John Finnis, Robert George, George Weigel, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, John Haldane, Peter Redpath, Yves Simon, Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox, Sigrid Undset, Bernard Lonergan, Stanley Jaki, Michael Novak, Mary Ann Glendon, and a host of others.

The fact is that, when it comes to what we can and should read and know, we are always behind. I just came across the Spring and Summer 2016 Catalogue of new books from the Catholic University of America Press. In it are listed about ten books I would like to read tomorrow morning, including my friends Stephen Field’s Analogies of Transcendence and Matthew Lamb’s Theology Needs Philosophy. Bruce Fingerhut at St. Augustine’s Press tells me that he is doing a book by that most active of intellects, Peter Kreeft, on the history of philosophy, and Tracey Rowland in Melbourne is finishing a book on the history of theology. Meantime, the blogs and websites of David Warren, Robert Royal, Jennifer Roback Morse, Maureen Mullarkey, John Vella, Max Weisman, and Carl Olson are enough to while away many informative hours.

Finally, there are those books that we should read again and again by authors like Plato and Aristotle, and Virgil, and Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, and Dante, and Shakespeare, and Samuel Johnson, and John Henry Newman. That is all right. But what I hope these lists will accomplish in the souls of those who might chance to come across them is to provide an intellectual beginning or encouragement, an awareness that Catholicism makes sense when we see it spelled out by those who know what it is all about, who, as they say in baseball, “know what the score is.” One does not have to be a believer to see this coherence in its own terms. Issues like faith and grace are also within this tradition. The final point is that we are not clueless. The Catholic mind is indeed a mind and worth our trouble to know it on its own terms. These suggested books, I hope, might provide a way and a reason for us to understand what we are.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Portrait of a Woman Reading” was painted by Ivan Kramskoy in 1881.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...