Recollections of a Good Priest and a True Scholar

Last week, a good and holy priest went to his eternal reward after a long and distinguished life as a teacher and writer. Father James V. Schall, S.J., died of pneumonia at the age of 91 in the company of family on April 17, 2019. A few months earlier he had been hospitalized much to the concern of his friends; he told me the recovery from surgery was slow but such inconveniences would not interfere with his return to writing. Over the years, he would ask me what I was writing. “Do not get out of the habit,” he would say. He followed his own advice. I know of no Catholic author during my lifetime who produced so much “musings and hot air” as Jim Schall. We talked often of his latest projects. In January, he pointed out that “2018 was a productive year” despite the interference caused by his hospitalization—he published four books. “Thus far, the Times Literary Supplement has not noticed!”

As much as Jim loved books, he lamented in recent weeks having to “download” his library. “I have been getting rid of books of a lifetime collection. Sometimes it breaks my heart. But the fact is that one has oodles of books and articles saved that in fact he will never look at again.” This is every bibliophile’s lament. Jim was a great defender of books and libraries. He feared the death of reading and imagined a time when there would be more writers than readers. I once objected to the length of a submission because Internet readers grow impatient if manuscripts are too long. He told me the story of how his column in the print edition of Crisis, “Sense and Nonsense,” was reduced in length from 1,200 to 800 words when Deal Hudson became editor in 1995. He told me this was a good length for a column but I think he preferred more space. He went on to explain why essays have their place by highlighting his introduction to The Classical Moment where he defended the short essay as a distinct literary form, adding: “I have always considered Belloc to be the greatest essayist in the language, as I argue in Remembering Belloc.” He maintained there should always be a place for longer forms of writing because “I suspect there is a loss to the culture when longer things like Dickens and War and Peace are considered ‘too long.’”

The first Schall book I ever bought was Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy, published by LSU Press in 1987. I was an LSU undergraduate at the time and would not meet Jim until years later, though our correspondence began in the mid-1990s. (That book would eventually get autographed in 2008.) Jim knew I had studied under Ellis Sandoz, perhaps the most distinguished American student of Eric Voegelin, a political philosopher who had fled Germany in 1938. On occasion Jim would ask about Ellis (and other mutual friends). He showed genuine interest in people and sought to inspire and encourage those he knew. My experience was not unique. Jim was an intellectual bridge between the Voegelinians and the students of German-born political philosopher Leo Strauss. He thought Strauss was “a first class mind and has to be reckoned with.” According to Jim, Strauss misunderstood Edmund Burke, “but his essential point was that much conservatism and much liberalism came out of the same pot.” A further question he thought scholars should ask is “why Strauss got Aquinas wrong.” He thought David Goldman, an American-Israeli economist, might have the answer.

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When seeking out sound philosophy, the first author that came to his mind was not Pope Francis. This became apparent when Benedict refused to endorse the eleven volumes published on the “philosophy” of the current pontiff. “I find that if you want to talk philosophy, you have to cite Benedict and JPII,” Jim told me. “I sent a copy of my book Roman Catholic Political Philosophy to the then Cardinal Ratzinger. He wrote a very nice response.” Jim thought the “greatest encyclical” was Spe Salvi. For those seeking solid answers to perplexing questions, he said Benedict XVI “is still one of the few Catholic sources you can rely on to know the lay of the land of the mind” and is “a streak of light in the darkness.”

On various occasions, Jim explained why Pope Francis is not a reliable authority on weighty matters: “I have real problems with the pope’s economics, war doctrine, and his view that the main issues in the world are loneliness of the aged and youth unemployment.” Francis appears to have an insufficient appreciation of where wealth comes from and how the system that produces it could better the human race. “He, or Catholic social thought in general, never faces the issue of what causes wealth. All they talk about is the poor, the right to work, and the government providing jobs, socialism…” He thought the problems with the Francis papacy went beyond public policy to matters of doctrine: “We are now dealing with the very credibility of the faith as such, not just opinions… Almost every papal appointment has some problem with fundamentals.” President Reagan once said that personnel is policy. He knew the people whom you appoint to high office will determine how you govern. Jim believed that healthy Church governance is far more important than secular administration: “There is no doubt of a major problem, more serious in the Church than in the state because it undermines the last bastion of sanity and makes [the Church] sound flighty.” When Cardinal Sarah called for ad orientem worship, Jim knew how Francis would react: “If you were a bookie in Vegas, what odds would you offer that the altar turning around by Advent happens??” This would have been a safe bet.

The environment is a favorite topic for Pope Francis, whose views tend to dovetail with critics of “climate change” who call for the drastic regulation of carbon emissions. Jim had a different view: “I have always wondered if we could say that the use of the world’s given resources for our benefit could be called ‘environmental destruction?’” He believed resources are here precisely for our use. “The only real natural resource—or the key one—is the human mind that can see better what a resource is. To keep the world’s resources safe [i.e., unused] is to envision a world in which man does not exist and has no purpose in existing other than keeping the planet as it was.” Islam is another subject where the pontiff and the Jesuit priest parted company: “I have been writing regularly on Islam for at least ten years, and I would be hard pressed to think that dealing with Islam is not our major task. It is just that no one will name the enemy.”

On politics, he knew a priest had to be prudent in his public utterances. Not, however, in private correspondence: Ideologues, whether clerical or secular, “frown on criticism of themselves.” Barack Obama was “a classic example.” Other examples include Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo: “I see the mayor of NY and its governor do not think we are welcome there. Talk about homegrown totalitarians!” What was just as bad for him were politicians who pretend to be athletes. For a philosopher who waxed eloquently about playing and watching sports, the whole Colin Kaepernick fiasco left a bitter taste: “Suddenly, I cannot stand to watch pro football—that’s a misnomer with all those suited up politicians. Alas.” When it came to the 2016 presidential election, Jim saw more clearly than most in his profession: “Nothing could be worse than Hillary. I tend to think that the Democrats have engineered the Trump nomination in the belief that he was the only one she could beat. Hillary’s plan from the beginning,” Jim wrote, “was to repeat ad nauseam Trump’s defects in order to hide her own, which are the real threats to the country and the Church.” It turns out he was right. “I see Trump cut off abortion funding. Good for him. This will make the Amazon ladies furious.”

Even in the midst of serious discussions, humor was never far away. Sometimes it was self-deprecating; at other times it arose out of the ordinary moments of daily life: In 2014, Jim attended the Jacques Maritain Society conference at Providence College. “The highlight of my Maritain trip,” Jim wrote, “was in Newark Airport on my return. We had about an hour and it was lunch time. There was a Gallaghers with tablecloths, so we sat down. The feature of the menu was a 10 oz. steak and a 2 lb. Maine lobster. Cost? A mere 90 bucks, so I had a soup.”

Jim Schall has touched the lives of countless people with his humor, his friendship, and his intellect—reaching many beyond his own students. Thus far, his lectures and books—46 at last count—have inspired two generations of learners. His impact on the Catholic mind will extend far into the future. Scholars will continue to plumb the depths of his thought while his shorter pieces will long have their impact on the popular imagination. Crisis is fortunate to have been a forum for his ideas and insights since 1983. His monthly column is available in our online archive which we encourage everyone to explore along with his more recent longer essays. At a time when confidence in the priesthood is weak and academic corruption is widespread, we can look to Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., as the model of a priest scholar who will inspire others to follow—even if imperfectly—his singular example.

(Photo credit: Intercollegiate Studies Institute)


  • John M. Vella

    John M. Vella served as editor of Crisis Magazine from 2012 to 2019. For over a decade, he was the managing editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Before arriving at ISI, John served as publications manager at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of secular and Catholic publications including Chronicles, Chesterton Review, Modern Age, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, and University Bookman. He earned his Master’s in history at Villanova University in 2010.

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