On Catholic Political Philosophy

Author: ZENIT


On Catholic Political Philosophy

Part 1

Father James Schall on Faith, Reason and Politics


Some thinkers have attributed the rise of Western civilization to the unshackling of philosophy and the natural sciences from theology and the burden of religious claims.

Even Thomas Aquinas noted that the natural sciences and philosophy have distinct methods and require a certain degree of autonomy.

But in his new book, "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy" (Lexington Books), Father James Schall claims that philosophy, and political philosophy in particular, can only arrive at the truth it seeks if it allows itself to be open to the truths of Revelation as offered by theology.

Father Schall, professor in the department of government at Georgetown University, shared with ZENIT why Catholicism offers a distinct and necessary approach to the endeavors of the political philosopher.

Part 2 of this interview appears elsewhere in today's dispatch.

Q: Please explain the title "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy," since Catholicism is not a political movement.

Father Schall: The title is deliberately paradoxical, even provocative. It is, if you will, a countercultural thesis. Two different, known things are juxtaposed. They, I argue, have a relation that, if not spelled out, ends up confusing both political and revelational realities.

Since Catholicism is not a political movement, it frees political things to be political things. It does not encourage them, as so often happens in modernity, to be confused with religion or metaphysics, or become, in effect, substitutes for them.

The book is at pains to define modernity, a movement that sees no cause to explain things, including human things, other than arbitrary human will as their basis. Likewise, attention is given to science and metaphysics to distinguish them from political things.

If politics is not limited to what it is, it tends to claim to be itself the highest thing. It finds itself claiming to define and to establish the whole of the human good on its own terms.

Catholicism is not a political movement, but it is concerned with the highest things. Still it also recognizes that some regimes are better than others and understands principles by which such distinction between good and bad regimes can be established. It likewise recognizes and defends the legitimacy of the philosophical consideration of human things.

Revelation cannot deal with politics until it first knows what politics considers itself to be. Political philosophy must know what it itself is.

By "Revelation" I mean that body of articulated principles and conclusions that Catholic thought has explained in precise terms exactly what it holds about God, man and the cosmos. The origins of this knowledge are the events both in the Old and New Testaments, as they are recorded and handed down in Tradition and Scripture.

But Roman Catholicism understands itself in contrast with alternative views of the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption and the Church. The Church is a means whereby that which is announced to mankind is to be achieved in practice.

The most succinct statement of what Catholicism holds about itself is found in the Nicene Creed; the most recent and elaborate statement is found in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church does not and cannot hold that everyone believes or understands what is presented here without grace. But it does insist that anyone can at least get the point of what it presents.

The Incarnation, for example, may be a mystery [...], but anyone who takes the effort can at least understand what it claims it to be. It is part of the very essence of Catholicism constantly to specify and clarify what it means or understands about itself in the light of objections or misunderstandings from whatever source.

Indeed, a good part of what we know more clearly about Revelation was historically hammered out in controversies, many still quite alive, with those who rejected or misunderstood what Catholicism held about itself and about Revelation's content.

Q: What is political philosophy? Why is it incomplete in itself?

Father Schall: In one sense, political philosophy exists because both Plato and Cicero wrote books called "The Republic" and "The Laws," while Aristotle wrote "Ethics," "Politics" and "Metaphysics."

Though both the Old and New Testaments touch upon political things, neither — but more especially the New Testament — is directly a treatise on politics, on how to organize the city.

Indirectly, certain things in the New Testament, the "render to Caesar" and the "it is better to obey God than men," together with giving a cup of water and the trial of Christ, have had an enormous impact on our understanding of politics. Still, it was not the direct purpose of Revelation to tell us how to organize our polities.

We could figure this political information out mostly by our own powers, by experience and reason. This knowledge is why we still read the classic authors who were not influenced by Revelation.

The more subtle question that Revelation might be said to deal with is why, if we know both how we should live and how the city should be best organized from reason, can we not live that way? Why is the history of our political lives in almost all eras and places so often an account of disorder and failing human institutions?

The answer to this question, summed up in the doctrine of the Fall, or original sin, has always been one of the roots of political realism wherein we are most careful not to expect too much of politics as such.

Philosophy is a quest for knowledge of the whole of reality insofar as this knowledge can be ascertained by human reason open to reality.

Aristotle pointed out that ethical and political questions exist in the universe as a product of human free choosing in achieving the virtues and the institutions in which virtue could be practiced. Man was by nature a political animal because he only became fully human when he set up and lived a full political life as a mortal in this world.

Politics, however, did not deny that there were things "beyond politics." Indeed, politics existed in part so that we could order our lives to pass over into that leisurely or contemplative life in which the theoretical questions were proposed, pondered, and, to some extent, answered.

In one sense, as Leo Strauss pointed out, political philosophy is the effort of the philosopher to convince the politician to let philosophic questions be asked. That is, the politician could always kill the philosopher, which is why the trials of Socrates and Christ remain of fundamental importance for political philosophy and to which it always must return.

Political philosophy was designed to convince the politician to let higher questions be asked. On the other hand, politics was called the highest of the "practical sciences," but not the highest science as such. It dealt with human action in this world, but not with the transcendent questions of being and destiny, without the asking and answering of which human life would be truncated and not worth living.

Q: Why not call what you are describing "Christian" political philosophy, rather than "Catholic" political philosophy? What makes Roman Catholic political philosophy distinct?

Father Schall: The most obvious answer to this question is that the understanding of politics within the various Protestant and Orthodox traditions, and often the very understanding of man and reason, have their own nuances, presuppositions and conclusions at variance with the central line of Catholic thought.

It is not my purpose here to criticize or to speak for them from within their own traditions or within my own. It is their responsibility, as it is with other philosophies and religions, such as liberalism or Islam or Hinduism, to account for themselves before the burden of reason, a bar with which Catholicism is perfectly comfortable.

What makes Roman Catholic political philosophy distinct, I think, is precisely Catholicism's relation to and acceptance of philosophy itself.

Q: How is Roman Catholic political philosophy different from Catholic social thought?

Father Schall: Roman Catholic social thought is a body of particular analyses and responses that the popes and the various hierarchies from the middle of the 19th century have given to central economic and political issues in which Catholics have found themselves involved.

Catholic social doctrine seeks to combine what it knows from natural law, reason, experience and Revelation so that it might address itself coherently to ongoing issues in any sort of polity in which Catholics find themselves. It seeks, too, to elaborate the general principles of these issues but it desires to leave the particular applications to the laity and citizenry.

When it comes to practical matters of politics and economics, most things such as laws and policies could be otherwise, even though we must select some reasonable way to act. This very complexity cautions us not to give more certitude to something than its subject-matter allows, as Aristotle remarked in the first book of the "Ethics."

Roman Catholic political philosophy operates at a more fundamental level. It wants to know what is the reason that Revelation can presume to speak to reason, such that philosophy, on its own grounds, needs to pay attention to what is proposed.

Today, political philosophy is one of the few areas in which all things come together and must be sorted out. To understand political things we need to understand history, religion, ethics, science, manners, and all pertinent aspects of culture. Yet, politics looks at what is to be done but done for a good.

Revelation has long recognized that its most dangerous opponent is the city closed in on itself, using the coercive powers of the state to define reality.

This danger is why Revelation has recognized that it first must deal with politics on its own grounds, grounds which recognize that human disorder can be identified and accounted for.

Contrary to the tradition of Machiavelli, itself already criticized in Plato, politics does not just look to what man does do, but to what he ought to do. And what he ought to do can, in some basic sense, be understood by the philosophers.

This possibility is why Roman Catholicism has regularly insisted that there is such a thing as philosophy and that philosophy can both ask the right questions and propose at least some basic and correct answers. Moreover, it can at least recognize the meaning of answers coming from Revelation. ZE05091001

Part 2

Father James Schall on Worship as the Consummation of Philosophy


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. ZE05091002

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe http://www.zenit.org/english/subscribe.html
or email: english-request@zenit.org with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field