Published in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, CII (May, 2002), 26-30.

 

James V. Schall, S. J.

  Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200

   www.moreC.com/schall

 

                                  CATHOLICISM AND ATHE TRUTH OF THINGS@

 

ABut the man who is willing to taste every kind of learning with gusto, and who approaches learning with delight, and is insatiable, we shall justly assert to be a philosopher, won=t we?@

                                                                                                        B Socrates, The Republic, #475c[1]

 

ATruth is predicated of every being inasmuch as it has being.  And this truth is seen as actually residing in all things, so much so that >truth= may interchangeably stand for >being=.@

                                                                                              B Josef Pieper, The Truth of All Things[2]

 

AAs a hind longs for running streams, so do I long for thee, O God....  Send forth they light and thy truth to be my guide and lead me to thy holy hill, to thy tabernacle....@

                                                                                                                               B Psalm 42:1; 43:3.

 

I.


Catholicism is an intellectual religion.  With reflective insight into the meaning of its denial, it accepts the principle of contradiction as the basic intellectual tool to examine reality, including divine reality.  Except for methodological purposes to show that this principle cannot be rejected, Catholicism does not doubt the existence of things or the validity of reason.  A religion or philosophy founded in doubt has little attraction for those who know that things exist, for those who do not try to prove the obvious.  Reason and revelation, Catholicism maintains, cannot and do not contradict each other.  The human mind is made to know truth and does in fact know at least some truth.  As such, the mind is at least potentially capable of knowing all truth, capax universi. 

The human mind is not, however, to be confused with the divine mind.  Analogously both are minds, both can address each other.  One is not the other.  Revelation and its content are directed precisely to mind.  Catholicism is not Aonly@ a religion of intelligence, of course, just as man is not Aonly@ mind.  Still Catholicism specifically denies that it is itself an ideology, that is, a system dependent solely on human intelligence and will for its content or purpose.  Catholicism maintains that it can show in some intelligible fashion that what is Abeyond@ human intellect is not Aanti-intellect.@  Rather, it is, as it were, super-intellect.  As St. Thomas put it in his Disputed Question on the AVirtues in General,@ homo non proprie humanus, sed super-humanus est  B man is not properly human but super-human.

From the beginning, our very existence is directed to more than could be expected of it by its own powers.  No purely Ahuman@ condition, that is, one un-elevated by grace, ever existed, however much it might have been possible.  The Arestless hearts@ of Augustine and of all those who likewise experience this abiding unsettlement at the core of their being are constant manifestations of the natural inability to satisfy our longings.  Nothing we encounter in nature will do so, even though all things, including ourselves, are good by this same nature.  But that we are called to more than what we are is not an evil or a defect or a denigration of our being but a glory.  AGrace does not destroy nature, but builds upon it,@ to recall a famous phrase from Thomas Aquinas.  Even though it be a risk, it is all right to be what we are, and indeed, by grace, to be more than we are.  At the completion of what we are, we find not Anature@ and things proportioned to ourselves but Agift@ and Asuper-abundance,@ not darkness, but light. 


Modern thought, as Leo Strauss once pointed out, even when it gave up on the specific content of supernatural destiny found in revelation, did not really Alower its sights@ but merely shifted them to an endeavor to produce ultimate happiness in this world by political, economic, or psychological means.[3]  Modern man presumed without acknowledging it the forgotten elevation of grace while, at the same time, he would not admit its necessity for the exalted condition in which he had been created and for which he still sought.  The heart remained restless, lacking that which might cause it to rest.  Revelation in fact remains obscurely Apresent@ in modern philosophy and politics almost by its very absence, through mankind=s constant endeavor to find a perfect society or individual life based upon his own efforts.

In our very act of knowing something, anything, we likewise realize that we are finite, that we are not gods.  We are not the causes of ourselves, nor of any of the powers we possess, including the power to know and to will.  But neither are we nothing.  We are a certain kind of being that is.   We stand outside of nothingness and know that we so stand.  Indeed, such is our lot, we cannot even know ourselves without first knowing something other, something not ourselves.  Some given and particular otherness is what first makes us aware of ourselves.  This other remains itself even in our knowing it.  We know the real being of the other, however, after our own manner of knowing.  Our knowledge does not take something away from the reality it knows, but it does add something to our reality.  We are more while what we know is marvelously not less. 


The mind is the anti-entropic reality in the universe.  Things do not only wind down; they increase with the application of mind to them.  We still share some of the awe that Socrates felt when he came across Anaxagoras=s principle that behind everything there is not water or earth or fire but mind (400a).  The act of knowing something not ourselves, furthermore, enables us reflect back on ourselves, enables us to be luminous to ourselves.  This power of self-reflection is characteristic of a spiritual power, indeed, of a spiritual soul, though a soul whose normal characteristic is not to exist apart from the body but as animating it.  This insight too has enormous implications only fully realized with the Incarnation and Resurrection  -- Athe Word is made flesh@; AI am the resurrection and the life.@

II.

The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is a Greek philosophical idea, not a prime teaching of revelation, though there are traces of it in Scripture.  The philosophical doctrine became important for revelation when the latter sought to explain how the same human being who dies, say Socrates or Mary, is the very person who is resurrected; otherwise we have a problem with our identity both in time and in eternity.  Without this understanding of the immortality of the soul after death, we would not have what Christians call a Aresurrection@ of the same Socrates, but the creation in eternity of a Socrates with no relation to the original.  If that could happen, there would be no need for an original Socrates, probably no need of a world at all. 


The doctrinal point, then, is that we persist in the same being from conception to forever.  This teaching that is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles remains not only more philosophic but also more romantic than any other explication of our ultimate being.  As Aristotle remarked of our friends, we do not want them to become someone else, neither gods nor kings (1159a5-10).  Ultimately, we do not want Socrates or Mary to be merely a soul, nor a god nor anything other than what they are, Socrates and Mary.  Christianity, from the angle of the doctrine on the resurrection of the body, is the ultimate defense of finite human being and the ultimate ground of human dignity.

Christopher Cardinal von Schönbron, in a lecture he gave in Austria, pointed out that St. Thomas Aquinas had the unique distinction of being the first man who was canonized for no other reason than that he thought, and, I might add, thought correctly.  When we praise St. Thomas for thinking, we must not forget that Lucifer was also, after his own manner, condemned for thinking.  We are often reluctant to admit that thinking itself, as a moral activity, depends on whether what we think to be true is true.  All error and yes all sin, I think, arises from our suspecting that what is true, might demand our living this truth.  Therefore, we avert our attention from the truth in order that we may continue to live as we want.  We cannot live this way, of course, when our minds do not support truth so we necessarily erect another, an alternate world for ourselves that prevents us from acknowledging the world that is.  All error, as Aristotle implied, can explain itself, give reasons for itself, but only provided that it be allowed the privilege of not telling the whole truth which it suspects but does not admit.

Thinking, knowing the truth, knowing why the truth is truth, however, is itself a proper activity of the being of man.  This is what it means to define man as precisely the Arational animal,@ the being composed of matter and spirit who thinks.  Thinking does not need to be justified on some grounds alien to itself, for example, that it is Auseful@ for making something or for doing something, even though it properly does these things also.  But our intellectual activities do need to be examined on the basis of the truth of what it is we think.  Much of the excitement of being a human being, and it is considerable, depends on the wonder of seeking the truth, on the delight in finding it, and, indeed, in the ever-present danger of rejecting it.


III.

Catholicism, however, is sometimes, indeed often, charged with being rooted in some identifiable falsity, whether historical, philosophical, scientific, or theological.  But any such accusation of falsity is itself intelligible.  The opposing point can be spelled out and itself examined for its own truth or falsity.  This Aspelling-out@ is at least one of the reasons why we have Aintellectuals@ within Catholicism.  Ultimately, as Plato said, to recall his definition of the truth, we are to say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.  To do this identifying of truth and falsity requires far more courage than we might at first realize.  Most of the disorders in the universe, as I like to say, arise in the minds and hearts of the Adons,@ intellectual and clerical, when they claim, explicitly or implicitly, to be themselves the causes and architects of the distinction of good and evil apart from any relation to what is.

This positive affirmation of the need of what are called Aintellectuals@ in Catholicism, therefore, does not deny  that these same intellectuals, ourselves not necessarily excluded, are probably the ones most tempted to substitute their own Areasons@ for what is called the ratio fidei, the reason of faith.  No Catholic theology can with impunity ever forget that Lucifer was among the brightest of the angels.  Nor can we forget that Chesterton lovingly wrote Heretics before he wrote Orthodoxy, that he came to the latter through the contradictions he found in the former. 


All of this understanding the position of the other recalls the method of St. Thomas, indeed of Plato and Aristotle.  Namely, we must be able to state how something deviates from the truth if we would know the whole truth of anything.  To put it precisely, to know what error is, is itself a high intellectual good  B to know of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.  And we must make every effort to know error and falsity and, indeed, vice.  Almost invariably, what prevents us from knowing the truth of things, including revelational things, is not our limited intelligence.  Rather it is our suspicion that knowing what this truth is will make demands on us according to which we refuse to live or to follow. 

Much of this was already spelled out by Aristotle in the First Book of his Ethics where he indicated the alternatives to a proper definition of our happiness.  Once we choose in our souls some deviant end, even though it have as it must some goodness, all our activities will be directed toward it.  Soon by long habit we will cease to aver to what we have chosen in all that we do.  We will refuse to examine how we live because we do not want to live as we ought.

The honest, objective analysis of any such allegation of falsity in Catholicism, from whatever  source, then, is itself a part of Catholicism=s self-understanding.  Josef Cardinal Ratzinger=s recent Dominus Jesus was primarily the fulfillment of the Church=s teaching about what it itself is.[4]  On knowing what it is, Catholicism necessarily also knows, articulates, and affirms what it is not.  It does not want to be misunderstood about its very being.  At the foundations of Catholicism, we find, not an object of our own making, but something handed down, something we could not possibly have concocted as the purpose of our existence. 


One of the most subtle of the objections to Catholicism, as Chesterton put it, is that it is Atoo good to be true.@  He was right, of course, this mysterious coherence of all things of faith and reason, of desire and reality, of will and intellect, is the most unsettling thing about what is called Catholicism.  It is a dangerous thing to examine honestly and few examine it.  It is unnerving not only to think that it is true in what it says about man, world, and God, but even that it might be true, that its reasons are indeed Areasonable.@

What really annoys many critics about Catholicism, then, is not that it is theologically or philosophically Afalse,@ but that, on examination, it might very well be as true as it claims to be.  It might be capable of grounding and elaborating the basis of its position in a convincing manner, though never in a manner that Aforces@ our freedom.  The truth always must be both known and chosen.  We retain the power to reject it.  Catholicism, again, professes to be true.  It claims that there is a conformity between what it holds and what is.  No doubt, anything making such a claim to truth today, in a climate of pluralism and skepticism, themselves both philosophical problems in their own right, is considered to be Aarrogant,@ or impossibly uninformed. 

But a Catholicism that does not maintain its basis in truth, that does not pass on what was handed down to it as true, would not only betray its own founding, it would also cease to be at all interesting, at all provocative.  A Catholicism that can comfortably adjust itself to the tenets and ideologies of this world, no matter what else it is,  is not Catholicism.  Christ said that He came to cause Adivision@ not peace (Luke, 12:49-55).  But how does this cause of Adivision@ make sense as an argument for the truth of Catholicism?  Only if it did make a difference whether or not what Christ thought about who He is and about how we ought to live was true for everyone, including ourselves.  Catholicism, in other words, has good reason to think that what matters is not only what we do, but what we understand and what we think about the highest things.

IV.


Consequently, a Catholicism that presents itself to be but one among many religions or philosophies, and not as the true religion with a foundation in a valid philosophy, is already untrue to itself.  The Catholic Church, moreover, has absolutely no objection to other religions or systems that claim that they are the truth.  It can deal with such positions on objective grounds.  Who, after all, would really care about a Catholicism that held one thing in one generation and its opposite in another or about a Catholicism that said of itself that Ait might be true, but was not sure?@  Catholicism, in its central understanding of itself, is either true or false; it conceives itself as a whole, as a coherent, unified understanding of the truth about God, man, and the world.  This position is not intended to deny any proven truth found in any other religion or philosophy.  To recall a medieval controversy, there are not Atwo truths,@ one of which can contradict the other.  What Catholicism is quite sure of is that the proposition that Aall intellectual positions are equal@ or that Athere is no truth@ cannot be true.  If the latter propositions are the sole grounds which it must acknowledge to receive political standing or cultural acceptance, it must reject them because they make what Catholicism is to be impossible.

Catholicism does insist on the truth, on the accuracy of its claim as given to it.  But at bottom, Catholicism holds that its central revelational doctrines, properly understood, are not found elsewhere.  By any comparative standard, what it holds is unique.  No other religion or philosophy has really arrived at the same position with regard to the heart of revelation, namely with regard to God  -- Trinity and Incarnation B  and with regard to the world  -- creation, Fall, and redemption.  Catholicism also holds that these same revealed doctrines, though they are not the products of purely human intellect, do address themselves to reason in such a way as to confirm an authentic philosophy and indeed, on examination, to make it more of itself, more philosophical.  The mysteries of revelation are also designed to make us think more clearly, this in order that we might know reality more fully.  They accomplish this clarification when we try to think these truths that are handed down to us.


An old New Yorker cartoon (Breslin) shows a middle-aged couple sitting on a sofa in their mid-town parlor.  On the table in front of them are two cups of coffee.  The gentleman, probably just home from the office, is rather portly, sitting in suit and tie, in a kind of an exhausted trance.  He is staring straight ahead, almost as if he ready to leap up.  His frowning wife at the other end of the sofa is in slacks, one leg crossed over the other.  Her arms are affirmatively folded.  She has blond hair rolled high on her head, heavy eyelashes, large ear-rings..  Looking right at him with a cold stare, she is obviously lecturing her husband.  AWhat do you consider your biggest fault?@ she asks him; then after a pause, she continues, Aand what are you going to do about it?@  We can be sure that the lady already knows his Abiggest fault.@  And she also suspects that, as in the past, he probably will do nothing about it.  But there is no escape for the man.  The passage from acknowledgment of one=s Agreatest fault@ to firm amendment is expected to be immediate, automatic.  No time for confession or repentance.  The sinner has no leeway  B AWhat is your greatest fault?  And what are you going to do about it?@


When I ask myself, Awhy is this cartoon funny?@, I cannot help but thinking that it gets at something about the modern world that is very anti-Catholic.  I do not mean Aanti-Catholic@ in the sense of bigotry, though there is plenty of that around, but Aanti-Catholic@ in the sense that there is little understanding of the perplexing lot of the sinner, an understanding that stands at the heart of classical Catholicism.  When asked why He came into the world, Christ=s answer was a pithy Ato save sinners.@  Spiritual fathers, no doubt, have long told us to seek out our Amain faults,@ as it were.  St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, set down an exacting procedure on how to go about this reform.  The very structure of the sacrament of confession, moreover, has to do with what we are going to do about our faults and sins.  But this stern lady=s philosophy is basically APelagian.@  We can get rid of our major faults by a simple act of command by the will.  The cartoon is also stubbornly mindful of the difficulty of our doing what indeed we ought to do.

It is often said, with some substance, to be sure, that what most impedes the conversion of the world is the bad example of Catholics who do not practice what they claim they hold.  No doubt there ought to be a correspondence between what we think or hold and how we live.  Yet, we also can point to examples of those who do not become Catholics because other Catholics do practice what they preach, as it were.  Only fanatics, they argue, would observe all the commandments and other outlandish practices required of Catholics.  We are more comfortable with lax Catholics, those who do not live up to the Gospel standards.  Even a survey of Catholics elected to public office would confirm this.  A Catholic known to Adisagree@ with the Church is more likely to receive the honor of public office than one who agrees, though, happily, we find exceptions.


Yes, it is a church of sinners.  Christ did not come for the healthy but the sick, not for saints but for sinners.  AWhat is going on here?@ we might ask.  Christ Himself intimated that we do not go to the doctor if we are healthy.  The modern world, no doubt, with its doctrine of frequent check-ups, has changed the point of this ancient wisdom.  I have gone to a dentist for semi-annual examinations for fifty years.  The other morning, I had a terrific pain in one of my teeth.  My dentist was busy, so he sent me to another dentist.  The second dentist tapped the painful tooth with a small mallet. I jumped.  He said, Ayes, there is something there.@  After he drills for a while, he tells me that I have a big cavity.  I think, Aso much for semi-annual examinations.@  What do I conclude from this with regard to Catholicism=s understanding of itself?  AOnly he who preserves tot he end will be saved.@  That is to say, there is no safe place wherein all our teeth will be solid and only virtue will be practiced.  Catholicism does not allow us to think that some political or economic or social program will automatically save us.  In the drama of our purpose, of our understanding what we are, is ours.

V.

What about the social gospel?  What about justice?   What about culture?  All of these questions, I think in conclusion, are themselves subordinate to the first question about the truth of things, about the truth of Catholicism.  The question of truth comes first, even though living the truth follows on knowing what it is.  We will have no social gospel, no justice, no adequate culture if the pursuit and acknowledgment of truth, and truth for its own sake, as the Greeks used to have it, is not also an intrinsic element in their understanding.  As I like to put it, more or less following Plato, we can, and many do, save our souls in the worst of regimes and lose them in the best.  The risk and drama of our existence take place whatever the condition of the world.  The reason that God created and redeemed us is not contingent on our politics, on our social situation.  In the Epistles and the Gospels, slaves were saved, almost as if to say that those who were not slaves might well not save their souls. 


Catholicism, however, is not a religion of withdrawal from the world.  It does think that man has something to do in this world that makes a difference both to the world and to his own salvation.  What else could the giving a cup of water to the thirsty mean?  Indeed, what else could the invention of a pure water system for public consumption mean?   Catholicism thinks things can be better or worse not by themselves but how we stand to them.  It also thinks with Aristotle that, very often, when we claim we are making things better, we are in fact making them worse.  Our Aintentions@ are not entirely independent on the worth or danger of the actions that flow from what we decide to do.  This possibility that what appear to be noble ideas can produce something quite aberrant, again, is why truth matters, why action is not healthy if it is not grounded in contemplation and truth.  And is it possible to construct societies, families, souls on the basis of some untruth, or series of untruths?  Of course it is.  Does there remain some truth even in the errors?  That too is valid but not unless we acknowledge both the truth and the error.. 

So this is the agenda of Catholicism.  It is both contemplative and active, both vividly aware of the city of man and of the City of God.  It professes to accept any truth wherever it is found.  It also holds that its own peculiar truths are designed not just for itself in some isolated enclave but for everyone.  Hence it cannot rest with itself.  Woe to it if the Gospel is not preached.  Catholicism is not true to itself if it presents itself among the nations as simply Aanother@ religion.  But it knows about saints and sinners, knows that each of us, even believers, can potentially be either.  We live in a world that does not want to be bothered by the truth.  We have a religion that insists that only the truth will make us free.  We have minds that are restless and malcontent if they do not find the truth that also seeks them.

Without Catholicism, I think, we could not, ultimately, know who and what we are, men destined to eternity, fallen and redeemed..  The story is told of an aunt coming to visit her sister=s family.  The sister had two small children who eagerly watched their aunt as she opened her suitcase.  They were waiting for the presents that they knew she would bring.  Finally, the aunt fished out two large, handsome bean bags, one blue and one red.  She said to her little niece, AOne of these bags is for Tommy, and the other is for you, which one do you want?@  The little girl promptly replied, AI want Tommy=s.@ 


This little story contains the truth of things, doesn=t it?  We are given gifts we do not deserve, even though we anticipate them.  Catholicism holds that this world exists from nothing, that it need not exist, but does.  Man is the center of the universe and at his center is his will that must choose even to accept the gift of what he is.  The fact that we want Tommy=s gift and not our own reminds us of the Fall, of our ability to reject what we are given and make the world in our image.  We fall and yet we rise again.  The Fall is not the last word.  The truth is the last word.  For this we are made and for this we long.  The laughter of our selfishness  B AI want Tommy=s@ B hints that evil and pride are not the last word in our creation.  Catholicism is an account of how it all fits together, the truth of things.  We may not want to listen to it, we may not want to live it, but it is there, constantly directing itself to our minds so that we might understand what we are.



[1]The Republic, edited and translated by Allan Bloom, (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 155.  ABut the one who readily and willingly tries all kinds of learning, who turns gladly to learning and is insatiable for it, is rightly called a philosopher, isn=t he?@ (Grube/Reeves translation).

[2]Josef Pieper, The Truth of All Things (Living the Truth) (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 35

[3]Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Glencoe, IL.: The Free Press, 1958), 167-68, 281, 296-99

[4]ADominus Jesus is found in L=Osservatore Romano, English, September 6, 2000, Special Insert.  See James V. Schall, AOn Being Faithful to Revelation,@ Homiletic and Pastoral Review, CI (March, 2001), 22-32.