Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.: On Being Catholic

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By Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., The Catholic Thing, Feb. 27, 2018

James V. Schall, S.J.The basic principle of civilization is the Socratic norm that it is never right to do wrong. The corollary of this principle is that nothing evil can happen to a good man. Death, then, is not the worst evil. Thus, if, even at the hands of the state, one dies upholding the good, he affirms the validity of the original principle. He does not deny it by affirming that what is evil is good.

In numerous ways, revelation simply reaffirms this Socratic principle now deepened in the death of Christ. To be a Catholic, one accepts both reason and revelation as directly related to each other in a non-contradictory manner. To distinguish what belongs to what is a function of the intellect as it seeks to know what is.

To be a Catholic includes the unique principles and promises that are found in revelation, in divine law. To keep these principles alive in ages after Christ, a Church, with a visible and on-going authority, was established.

The standard reading of “the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it (the Church)” meant that the Church’s central authority would not and could not contradict either reason or revelation. It was commissioned to uphold both.

If this authority were to contradict its original mission, what followed was not merely an aberration of a given prelate, but a proof, in its own terms, that the whole revelational project was flawed from the beginning.

In the history of the Church, a couple of much-discussed incidents seemed to embody this contradiction. But sufficient doubt about what was taught in them prevented any proof of contradiction.

In the Church today, many people, quietly or publicly, are concerned with this point. Has the Church, on one or more basic issues, contradicted itself, its own mandate?

While this concern has been in the religious media, the secular media have only lately begun to see what is at stake. This slowness is probably due to the media’s ideological tendencies. The Church suddenly seemed to be systematically approving the same things that are the basic principles of the modern world.

Modern critics of religion have long chastised religion, especially Catholicism, because it claimed a source of authority independent of and transcendent to the state. This abiding authority meant that the Socratic principle that morally limited the state only to use what is good was operative in every state no matter what its configuration or era. The state was limited, not absolute. No world parliament of religions under the sole authority of the state or the U.N. was possible. Freedom for all citizens of any actual state was rooted in the Socratic principle.

What today concerns many observers, both Catholic and non-Catholic, is whether the Church has, in effect, rejected the Socratic principle and the revelational divine law related to it. Many, no doubt, are confused and say so. It is rare that anyone does not, when the subject comes up, wonder about “What is going on in Rome?” The concern comes back to the loyalty of the Church to itself, to what it was assigned to uphold from the beginning.

Several kinds of response are heard. One group thinks the Church is outmoded and should change to a paradigm of modernity. For them, things are going quite well. Another group does not want to say anything, just ignore it. It will go away. Some are deeply upset but maintain that, until something ex officio is so clear that no doubt about its deviation can be sustained, they will continue to think things are all right.

Others pour over discussions of heretical popes in Bellarmine and Suarez. The general conclusion of these earlier sources is that, if a pope is heretical, he is ipso facto no longer pope. It is just a question of who officially points it out.

Frank Sheed, in his discussion of papal infallibility in A Map of Life back in the 1930s, held that the Holy Spirit would prevent a heretical pope from saying anything. Others await a change in the papacy itself, either through death or resignation. Agitation comes from a few bishops about their responsibility to reaffirm the Socratic/divine law tradition.

Being a Catholic in any age is no doubt a dicey thing. Most of us have always assumed that problems would always arise from the outside. But the problems today often seem from the inside. The Catholic Church has, in fact, been about the last bastion of the Socratic principle in the modern world. Clearly, if – in fact – its authority contradicts itself at a deep level, something has gone wrong.

Here, I express no opinion on the facts but seek to clarify what is at stake, namely: 1) the abidingness over time of Socratic/divine law principles as the foundation of civilization, and 2) the integrity of the deposit of faith over time.


*Image: Socrates by Victor Wager, 1931 [University of Western Australia, Crawley]

© 2018 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info@frinstitute.orgThe Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is CatholicThe Modern AgePolitical Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic ReadingReasonable PleasuresDocilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, and Catholicism and Intelligence.