On Catholic Political Philosophy (Part 2)

Father James Schall on Worship as the Consummation of Philosophy

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WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 10, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Father James Schall believes that the consummation of philosophy is rejoicing and delighting in the light of truth — and that truth is manifested in a special way at Mass.

The professor in the department of government at Georgetown University shared with ZENIT some ideas from his new book, «Roman Catholic Political Philosophy» (Lexington Books) and explained why theology and philosophy are distinct but complementary.

Part 1 of this interview appears elsewhere in today’s dispatch.

Q: How do the truths of Revelation, particularly revealed things through the Catholic Church, complement or aid the quest of the political philosopher?

Father Schall: The central thesis of this book is as follows: Philosophy and political philosophy seek to know reality, what is. This seeking is what the human mind is for, to know the truth of things. That is, the mind seeks to be conformed to what reality presents to it.

In the pursuit of this knowledge, certain limits are continually reached that philosophy only has some more or less informed opinion about their truth. But philosophy rightly seeks to formulate questions and possible answers to these questions. It has an awareness of the insufficiency of some of its own answers. It is curious about this insufficiency.

Revelation, on the other hand, when spelled out, does evidently contain its own understanding of at least some of the truths of reality according to its own methods.

When the legitimate questions of philosophy or those encountered in political experience are offered a proper answer to these questions as asked, Revelation cannot be simply excluded from intellectual consideration or discourse on the grounds that its content arises from faith.

The question becomes: Why is it that faith can respond to questions as asked by philosophy? There is a suggestion here of a higher unity or order to which philosophy cannot, on its own grounds, close itself.

Two things need to be remembered:

First, one cannot argue directly from philosophy to the truths of Revelation that cannot be known from that source. Otherwise, philosophy itself would be Revelation or itself a divine claim.

Second, Revelation does not purport to answer every question about every topic, but only those having to do with the inner life of God and the Incarnation of the Son as a means to enable each man to reach the final end designed for him.

This end, though often rightly called «the City of God,» is not a political end. But it does not deny that politics are legitimate. They may indeed assist or harm man in achieving his highest end.

The true insight is provided in Aristotle’s remark that «if man were the highest being, politics would be the highest science. But man is not the highest being. Therefore, politics is limited to this life of mortals as they are mortals.»

Q: If theology provides the answers to the questions political philosophy raises, then is the old saying true that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology?

Father Schall: The word «handmaiden» is a quaint one today. The word «maiden» has also fallen into disrepute.

The phrase was designed to reject the notion that absolutely no relationship can be found between reason and Revelation. It was also designed to protect the legitimacy of both. In the full order of things, Revelation is addressed to intelligence, while intelligence finds itself wondering about why what it knows cannot find complete answers in itself.

In this sense, philosophy is a «handmaiden» to theology as much as theology is a «handmaiden» to philosophy. The point is that both are to be considered in the delicate relationship that each has to the other and both to the truth.

The fact is that Revelation has the indirect effect of making philosophy, when it seeks to ponder what Revelation proposes, to be itself more philosophical.

Q: How is political philosophy ultimately consummated in liturgy and worship?

Father Schall: The phrase «the liturgical consummation of philosophy» comes from the English philosopher Catherine Pickstock in her book, «After Writing.»

It has many overtones in the work of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, particularly in «The Spirit of the Liturgy.» Its remote origins are in Plato. And actually J.R.R. Tolkien came pretty close to the same notion.

Essentially, it means that philosophy in its search for the truth will rejoice when it finds it. Mankind has continually sought to find the proper way to worship God, or to put it differently, to rejoice in the cause and the delight of reality and its origins. Though it has tried many religious and philosophical ways, mankind has been unable to find a proper form of relation to the Godhead.

The essence of Revelation is that it is the guidance of the proper way to worship God. This is the meaning of the Mass. It is not something man-made at all in its core, but is, when spelled out — see for instance Robert Sokolowski’s «Eucharistic Presence» — that to which all philosophy tends. The Mass is not only a quest but a finding and a rejoicing.

Once we understand this centrality, the constant effort of philosophy and politics to find an alternative relation to the highest things — especially in politics itself — comes to be seen as alternatives to God.

The effort to spell out the significance of this relationship is considered in the chapter entitled, «Worship and Political Philosophy,» a topic too rarely treated and understood by the political philosophers or often by the theologians when seeking to explain what is lacking in philosophy or politics.

Q: Which philosophers embody the principles of Roman Catholic political philosophy that you outline in your book?

Father Schall: One finds guidance from many sources, of course, not only Roman Catholic ones. I have learned much from Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss. They served in many ways to open political philosophy to a more serious consideration of reality and what is at issue in understanding it.

Among Catholic writers, I am particularly in debt to my teachers, Professor Heinrich Rommen, Father Charles N.R. McCoy, Father Clifford Kossel, S.J., and Father Ernest Fortin, A.A. I have written a book on Jacques Maritain and consider Yves Simon of fundamental importance, as is Etienne Gilson. Christopher Dawson remains a favorite. I have learned much from David Walsh, John and Russell Hittinger, Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, and my colleagues George Carey and Joshua Mitchell.

What can one say of G.K. Chesterton, who is one of the great minds and most incisive as well as most delightful. I have loved Hilaire Belloc, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, E.F. Schumacher and a host of others.

Several of my books, «Another Sort of Learning» especially, have been guides to reading in these areas. I have long been an admirer of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as first-rate thinkers. And finally there is the abiding debt to Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, to whom I return again and again. There is nothing quite like reading these latter four with students.

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