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Fr. Schall: Looking Back, Looking Ahead


In the early 1980s, I was on an extended leave from Amherst, visiting at Georgetown. One unanticipated gift of that stay was a new colleague who would be an enduring blessing, James Schall.


I would take long walks with Fr. Schall through the bricked paths of Georgetown, and we would think aloud, together, on some of those questions in political philosophy that we were both trying to work through — and a find a way of explaining to others.  (See "Walking With Schall," March 16, 2009). 

One of the things we were fascinated to think through were the teachings of my former professor, Leo Strauss.  I discovered that Schall had written on Strauss, and that he had fastened on the problem at the heart of the things: reason and revelation.  Did they mark the hard boundaries between philosophy and theology?  Or did they come together in their moral teaching about the ways of life that were rightful for men?

Strauss brought a striking counter-revolution to political theory: He would stand against the currents of relativism in our time by reasserting the existence of enduring, objective moral truths.  He would stand against modernity by restoring the teaching both of the Biblical tradition and classical philosophy.  He would return us, for our bearings, to Jerusalem and Athens.

Strauss was persuaded that the two domains of reason and revelation were marked by hard boundaries.  Neither could refute the claims of truth offered by the other.  But John Paul II would write in Fides et Ratio of the "two wings" of the human spirit in faith and reason.  John Paul II thought that, through the connection to classical philosophy, the teachings of the Church could satisfy "the demands of universal reason" and provide "a rational foundation for .  .  . belief in the divinity."

Fr. Schall picked up on these themes in John Paul II and began to draw them out for reflection long before Fides et Ratio appeared.  His retirement from Georgetown made me think back to those essays, and as I drew his volumes from the shelf, I could trace his thoughts on this problem from Christianity and Politics (1981), when I first came to know him, to At the Limits of Political Philosophy (1996), and more recently to The Modern Age (2011).

Schall thought that Leo Strauss remained Thomist to the extent that "he did not close off the theoretical possibility that natural law might in fact include what revelation discovered in it."  We see a homeless man living on the street, perhaps because he has broken his own life; and yet even my atheist colleagues quickly affirm that he merits our solicitude, our deep concern.  Even in his broken state he has about him, they say, a certain sanctity.

"Sanctity"?  Of the sacred?  Some of us learned to say that, as broken and unworthy as he might be, he is made in the image of something higher.  But what is there, in the canons of logic alone, that would move us to see this forked creature, in the first place, as a "rights-bearing being"?

But at the same time, as Schall would later say, "Revelation can be articulated because it contains logos.  What is revealed, on examination, is strangely open to reason."  The very notion of making a covenant with God already presupposes creatures of reason who are capable of understanding what it means to make a promise and honor a commitment.

But if things go well, I'll be with my wife and loved ones, and with Jim Schall, and the conversation, blessedly, will never end.

If Moses came down from Sinai and said, "The Lord, our God, said not to worry overly much about taking what is not yours, and let's not be too judgmental about lying with other men's wives" — if that were the report, we would have expected to find many Hebrews scratching their heads and asking, "Are you sure you got that right?"

Following John Paul II and Aquinas, Schall would point out that revelation too is anchored in the laws of reason: "The principle of contradiction holds, even for revelation."

And so Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural that both sides in the Civil War, "read the same Bible and pray to the same God," and yet he was sure that "the prayers of both could not be answered."  Whatever the perplexities of the case, Lincoln was sure that God would not at the same time accept slavery in principle — and reject it.

We are led, in this path, to creatures of reason whose souls must be in a condition to receive revelation.  This point came through in a powerful personal way as we saw Gaston Hall at Georgetown packed, as we have rarely seen it, for Fr. Schall's Farewell Lecture, "A Final Gladness."  What was so moving was the sense of reverence in the eyes and demeanor of those students: Something had prepared their souls to receive the teaching of Fr. Schall, and for many of them, it was the teaching of Schall himself.

Fr. Schall drew, in his lecture, on Chesterton to say that if things worked well, we would all be united in the end with Dickens and that world of vibrant characters he had brought to life.  I couldn't help thinking, that with my luck and my record, I would end up, not with Schall and Chesterton, but in Purgatory .  .  . with Joe Biden.

But if things go well, I'll be with my wife and loved ones, and with Jim Schall, and the conversation, blessedly, will never end.

"A Final Gladness" - A Last Lecture by Father James V. Schall



Hadley Arkes. "Fr. Schall: Looking Back, Looking Ahead." The Catholic Thing (December 18, 2011).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:

The Catholic thing — the concrete historical reality of Catholicism — is the richest cultural tradition in the world. That is the deep background to The Catholic Thing which bring you an original column every day that provides fresh and penetrating insight into the current situation along with other commentary, news, analysis, and — yes — even humor. Our writers include some of the most seasoned and insightful Catholic minds in America: Michael Novak, Ralph McInerny, Hadley Arkes, Michael Uhlmann, Mary Eberstadt, Austin Ruse, George Marlin, William Saunders, and many others.

The Author

Arkes3arkes2 Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of American Institutions at Amherst College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He is a leading expert on American political philosophy, public policy, and constitutional law. He has written numerous books including Bureaucracy, the Marshall Plan, and the National Interest, The Philosopher in the City, First Things: An Inquiry Into the First Principles of Morals and Justice, Beyond the ConstitutionThe Return of George Sutherland: Restoring a Jurisprudence of Natural Rights, and Natural Rights and the Right to Choose.

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