Published in Second Spring (Oxford, #Seven, 2006), 19-25.
James V. Schall, S. J
Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200
ON THE MIND THAT IS CATHOLIC
"The miracles seem in fact to be the great embarrassment to the modern man, a kind of scandal. If the miracles could be argued away and Christ reduced to the status of a teacher, domesticated and fallible, then there'd be no problem. Anyway, to discover the Church you have to set out by yourself.... Discovering the Church is apt to be a slow procedure but it can only take place if you have a free mind and no vested interest in disbelief."
– Flannery O'Connor, July 16, 1957.1
"The mind is an infinity, even if it is an infinity of nonsense. The mind of man is divine, even in the unfathomable nature of its darkness. Men can think of anything seriously, however absurd it is. Men can believe anything, even the truth."
– G. K. Chesterton, "Fancies and Facts," 1906.2
Near the end the sixth of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, entitled, The Magician's Nephew, the young hero, Digory, has been tempted by the witch to take an apple, contrary to the instructions of Aslan, the Christ symbolic character in these stories, back to his home. There, in England, Digory's mother lies seriously ill with no hope of recovery. He wants to give the apple to his mother. The magic apple will give her an inner-worldly immortality. Like the witch, she will not die. The witch uses this devotion to his mother as the bait for Digory to break the law. The witch herself has already broken the law in order to possess a kind of hopeless immortality.
Digory, after much struggle, finally rejects the witch's proposal to give his mother disobedient immortality. When we take something good in the wrong way, Aslan explains to Digory and his friend Polly, "the fruit is good, but those who take it loathe it ever after." Polly thinks that because the witch took the fruit in the wrong way that she could not be immortal. But exactly the opposite is the case, though the witch suffers another kind of punishment. This is how Aslan explains the witch's situation: "Things always work out according to their nature. She (the witch) has won her heart's desire; she has unwearying strength and endless days like a goddess. But length of days with an evil heart is only length of misery and already she begins to know it. All get what they want: they do not always like it."3
The title of this presentation, as we see, is "On the Mind that Is Catholic." Though C. S. Lewis was not a Catholic, I think his mind was. I am not interested here in the oft-discussed question, among Catholics, about why was Lewis not a Catholic. But I am most interested in the observation that "all get what they want: they do not always like it." To understand the import of that principle, we need certain orthodox doctrines on the nature of reality. We need to know that pride is the ultimate sin, the sin of our willing to create our own world. Too, we need the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the subsequent punishment for injustice and reward for good, the theme in the last book of the Republic.
Things work our according to our nature. We are free in our wills. The punishment for our sins, for the wrong use of our wills, is not so much some external pain inflicted by someone else, God, say, or some alien power. Rather it is the internal awareness that ultimately we get what we choose. And when what we choose is not according to what we are, not according to the order of things, we eventually find that we do not like what we choose. We do not really want it What we are is not best explained to us by what we think we are or what we choose to make ourselves to be presupposing only ourselves.
This is, if I might put it that way, the Catholic mind at work. The Magician's Nephew is, in a way, the retelling of the Book of Genesis, the story of the Creation and Fall. May I suggest initially that all of our lives, when we come to recount them, are themselves a retelling of this same story, the story of what we choose, the story of whether we ultimately choose what is or else ourselves to be the central event in our existence.
During my Roman days in the 1960's, a friend of mine knew Morris West. We'd occasionally be invited, as foreign clerics, to his lovely home, as I recall, out in some distant Roman suburb. In thinking of this Australian visit, I wondered if West was still alive. On the web, I found an Interview with him by Ramona Koval on the Australian Broadcasting Company News (1998), about a year before his death in 1999.
Koval asked West, at the time in a hospital, to look back on his own life, "at those times in which you think things are just falling apart." When he thought his own world seemed most confused after his years in the monastery, West realized that it "takes such a long time to learn. And even those who are nearest and dearest to you, you can't teach. You simply have to prepare them, and you have to be there." West concluded that "life is not about doing good" but "being loving, and ... respectful of human nature."4
Of course, on re-reading that passage from Morris West, we know that life is both about doing good and being loving and respectful of human nature, not either one or the other. Though it is a rather popular, catchy notion, the very idea that we can actually love someone without willing his good is simply contradictory. Love means seeking and acknowledging the good in what exists, and so doing for the sake of that good.. We can, to be sure, love some good wrongly, but not because it is not good.
We need to understand that we have a nature, an inner configuration, that we did not give to ourselves, that what we are itself points us to what is good and to the love of what is. The enterprise of actively becoming aware of this record, this uniqueness belonging to no one else, constitutes the inner history of each of us. Whether we like it or not, we have, as Augustine said, "restless hearts." The only thing we cannot do is to deny this truth of ourselves, but even should we try to do so, we know what we deny. The essential content of our intellectual lives is to confront the question of whether there is an object, a good, in which this experienced restlessness ceases.
No one can begin to talk of Catholicism today without first acknowledging the clerical scandals in various places, especially in the States, that have so marred its visage. That similar scandals have happened in the long history of the Church is not particularly consoling, though it needs understanding. Who does not fret about the slowness of Church officials to recognize and do something about what came to public notice not from within the Church but largely from publicity in the world press?
But we can become too discouraged by such events. They may indicate that the essential core of revelation was right about what to expect from human nature at all times and places. We need to recall what I take to be the central point of Mel Gibson's Passion, namely that Christ suffered and died for sinners, prominently numbered among whom we each must first count ourselves. The fact that we are sinners is no comfort, of course. But it also serves to remind us of the purpose of the Incarnation in the first place, namely, to redeem us, to invite us to repent. To my knowledge, there is no place in Scripture or in Catholic teaching that ever suggests that there will be a time in which the need for this acknowledgment and repentance does not exist among us.
If we had no need of redemption, the work and events of the Incarnation and the drama of Christ's life and death, as we understand them, would have been unnecessary. The Catholic mind maintains that, in no area of life, personal, political, or religious, are we immune from the results of the Fall or the hope of the Redemption. A secular mind holds that it has no need to account for anything beyond itself and no necessity to account for itself to any standard higher than any it proposes to itself.
That this latter view is a rather boring and deceptive way to picture the reality and nobility of our de facto existence, I will leave to you to figure out. The main trouble with an atheist humanism is not that it is atheist, but that it is not a humanism. The "ground of our being," to use Eric Voegelin's term, is something already established and that not by ourselves.
The Pharisees in the Gospel were, in one famous incident, engaged in learned debate over the penalty of stoning for the woman caught in adultery. Christ challenged them: "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." With this remark, he taught us a graphic lesson, as did the Pharisees who one by one quietly slipped away leaving Christ alone with the accused woman. The "go and sin no more" admonition that Christ finally directed to the woman is not necessarily a guarantee of our or her never sinning again even after our acknowledging such sins. This is what was the old problem about delaying baptism till the point of death, as the likelihood of sinning again was so great. Such was a misunderstanding of the sacraments but not of the worrisome proneness of mankind to sin again. It is often helpful to be reminded that the effect of the Fall will ever be present among us, even in the highest of places, perhaps especially there.
In his "Dialogue concerning Heresies," Sir Thomas More has a very Augustinian sounding subheading entitled, "Reason, as well as Faith, Is Needed for the Interpretation of Scripture." Here is More's explanation of this heading:
Now in the study of Scripture, in devising upon the sentence (meaning), in considering what ye read, in pondering the purpose of divers comments, in comparing together divers texts that seem contrary and be not, albeit I deny not but that grace and God's especial help is the great thing therein, yet useth he for an instrument man's reason therein. God helpeth us to eat also but yet not without our mouth.5
This is the classic Catholic mind at work. In one sense, Christ multiplied the loaves. But what caused us to be what we are formed us with mouths whereby to eat such loaves. Christ may have healed the lame to walk. We have to free ourselves from determinist ideologies that claim a priori that miraculous events are impossible in order to acknowledge what in fact does happen.
Christ did not teach anyone with no legs to walk, though we moderns have restructured our sidewalks without curbs and put the legless in machines with the help of which they can get about in our cities. Thomas More, in this brief passage, has summarized the whole theological method – that is, we first read the Scripture for what it says, we carefully seek its exact meaning, its words and situation in place. We look at differing proposed understandings of what is said. We compare various texts that apparently are contradictory. Meanwhile, we know that Scripture cannot contradict itself. Our intellectual task is thus to show, on evident grounds, that it does not in fact do so.
Scripture was given to us as a record that once upon a time, certain lame men were healed by a certain evidently unusual Man. It was also given to us, however, so that, in reading of such events, we ask ourselves whether, in theory, they could have happened naturally. We are not exempt from examining whether, in practice, the witnesses were reliable, whether the structure of the world is such that nothing outside its normal cyclic laws can happen? It is, in other words, one thing for us to know that a miracle happened. It is another thing to have a philosophical understanding of the world that permits such things to happen within it. The miracle of the world is not merely that extraordinary things, outside the normal events, such as the lame walking, can happen in it. It is also the intellectual awareness that ordinary things can happen within it. The latter may, at bottom, be more impressive than the former. Sir Thomas More was right, "God helpeth us to eat also, but not without giving us a mouth." This is the Catholic mind at work.
This same Sir Thomas More, himself no mean philosopher, in a Letter to Dons at the University of Oxford, dealt with the relation that we Christians have to Greek philosophy, of which he did not claim to be the "sole champion." This is the reason-revelation question as the Catholic mind sees it, something developed by John Paul II in Fides et Ratio. Many scholars at Oxford, Sir Thomas admitted, did indeed know the usefulness of the Greeks. "For who is not cognizant of the fact that in the liberal arts, and especially in theology, it was the Greeks who discovered or handed on whatever was of value. In the realm of philosophy, with the possible exceptions of Cicero and Seneca, what is there that was not written in Greek or taken directly from the Greeks?"6 Both in this comment about the place of the Greeks in theology and philosophy, and in his comment about heresies, More notes the special place of intelligence, of mind in thinking about what God has revealed to us.
To this emphasis, I might add, More is not ignoring other intellectual systems, past and present, unknown to Hellas. He praised the Greeks not because they were Greeks but because they were mind. I might add, that, as Socrates, perhaps the most Greek of them all, understood, the Greeks themselves, also held this position. Greek philosophy, as Aquinas himself would note, could be wrong on this or that point, but if it was wrong, it was on the grounds that it was philosophy, not that it was Greek. Thus it could be corrected by better philosophy without denying the Greeks their culture. A Catholic mind, reflecting on what is revealed, can see what at times needs philosophic correction. Revelation can make what we already are to be more manifest to us.
Tracey Rowland, in her insightful book, Culture and the Thomist Tradition, has noted what happens when the cultural images and artifacts, the music, the words, the poetry, of Catholicism lose their proportion to their object. Plato had long noted that our souls can become disordered by the music we hear and by the poetry we read
The very purpose of revelation was also not only properly to define God, but to establish forms of response to the divine reality in terms of beauty and order that were worthy of Him. The Mass exists not as a human invention but as a divine one designed to show mankind what it has so long sought to know, namely how God it to be worshipped. This worship includes the right understanding of what goes on in this same Mass.
Both in the Eastern and Western church, we have surrounded the Sacrifice of the Mass with noble and worthy words, gestures, vestments, all designed to express the awe that we experience in beholding the glory that we are given through the Sacrifice of the Cross. Beauty is itself educative in its delight. When it is undermined, when what goes on is no longer worthy, when the great mystery is trivialized, the cultural results are devastating. As Rowland put it:
By depriving people of these riches through the policy of accommodating liturgical practices to the norms of 'mass culture' ... the post-Conciliar Church has unwittingly undermined the ability of many of its own members to experience self-transcendence.... As a consequence, plain persons fall into the pit of nihilistic despair and/or search for transcendence in the secular liturgies of the global economy, whereas the more highly educated pursue strategies of stoic withdrawal and individual self-cultivation which are destined to end in despair, and even madness....7
The Catholic mind understands with Aristotle that a small error in the beginning leads to a large error in the end. The historical alternatives to the proper and dignified worship of God as established by God, ultimately lead to despair and madness. In our inner souls, we are only made for true worship. Nothing less of all there is will give us rest.
A very young boy with the unusual name of "'Rerun' van Pelt" was the brother of Linus van Pelt. His sister's name was Lucy. "Rerun" first appeared in the Peanuts series on March 26, 1973 (United Features). We see Lucy in an unusually generous mood. Both are in the kitchen; "Rerun" is sitting on the floor. He looks to be under three. Lucy sprightly announces to a non-comprehending "Rerun," "Come on, Rerun, I'm going to take you out for a little walk." In the next scene, both are in the yard. We see grass, trees, and sky. "It's about time you got a look at the outside world," Lucy tells her brother, who is clearly wondering what it is all about.
Lucy thinks the scene is all glorious. She spreads her arms, smiling, looking over the outdoor space. She expects "Rerun" to be amazed by what appears to be his view outside his own kitchen. She asks him, "Well, what do you think??" He appears utterly unmoved. In the last scene, Lucy is towering over the little man, glowering down at him, as he tells her, "You mean this is it?" So much for appreciating reality the first time at the behest of one's sister.
In reflecting on this scene, Lucy is normally the grouchy one. Uncharacteristically, she is delighted with the world. She wants her little brother to enjoy it. But he turns out to be a stoic. She cannot pass on her enthusiasm. All Rerun can say is, "You mean this is it?" We suddenly realize that it possible, and it is not a virtue, that we can be unimpressed with reality, that we can miss what is there before us.
At the beginning of the fifteenth and last book of Augustine's treatise on the Trinity, he briefly sums up what he has written in the previous fourteen books. His overall intention in writing this now famous book is not polemic. He wants to account for the Godhead in such a way that it makes sense to the human mind. In order to do this, Augustine again calls our attention to the fact that we have a mind, the reflection on which enables to understand how something can be one and yet within it have a relationship of otherness, how God can be the One God of the Old Testament and the Triune God of the New Testament without contradiction, without absurdity, something the Catholic adamantly holds to be the case What the inner life of God is like, after all, is the highest of questions to which all other inquires are related. The pondering of this doctrine is more likely to teach us what we are than any other topic.
"Wanting to train the reader in the things that were made, so that he might know Him by whom they were made," Augustine begins, "we have now at least arrived at His image, which is man. But it is man in that by which man is superior to other animals, namely, in reason and understanding, and whatever else can be said of the rational or intellectual soul that pertains to that thing which is called 'mind' or 'rational soul.'"8 Catholicism is not afraid of intelligence.
Thinking about the Godhead is, no doubt, a difficult accomplishment. Revelation was primarily directed at our salvation. It was not a treatise or direct explication of what the inner life of God is like. Still Augustine was quite capable of being annoyed at those who refuse to bend their minds on the subject but are content merely to repeat Scripture, which is, indeed, the origin of our understanding of the Trinity in the first place. Augustine could not tolerate intellectual laziness even in ordinary people.
I emphasize this pique of Augustine because, I think, it is another good example of the Catholic mind at work. If someone is not capable of or is not interested in reflecting on his own mind to see what is true there, namely, that mind, will, and being are of one person, yet reveal different powers, why believe Scripture about "the highest Trinity which God is?" No human mind can fully grasp it. Many people believe in Scripture with unshakeable trust. On this basis, with the help of "prayer, study and a good life," surely they can seek "to understand ... that what is retained by faith may be seen in the mind, insofar as it can be seen. Who would forbid this? Nay rather, who would not exhort them to do this?"9
In other words, Augustine is rather impatient with those who do not think about what Scripture sets down. It is not enough just to know it. Augustine does not think our relation to God is completed only by believing. It includes the effort further to understand. "This (combination of soul and body) is a work of such wonder and grandeur," Augustine continues,
as to astound the mind that seriously considers it, and to evoke praise to the creator; and this is true not only as that work is observed in man, a rational being and on that account of more excellence and greater worth than all other creatures, but even in the case of the tiniest fly. It is God who has given man his mind.... The mind becomes capable of knowledge and learning, ready for the perception of truth, and able to love the good."10
The mind can fail in this, Augustine admits, but this failure too is part of its drama, of its drama without which we could not be the kind of beings we are.
In conclusion, Chapter 46 of the third volume of St. Thomas' Summa Contra Gentiles is entitled "Quod Anima in Hac Vita Non Intelligit Seipsam per Seipsam." It is a question related to Augustine's discussion of the relation of the mind to the Trinity. Basically, it states that in this life our mind or soul does not understand itself through itself. The only mind that understands itself through itself is the divine mind. We have a mind, but not a divine one. Aquinas states that "according to Augustine's meaning, our mind knows itself through itself, in so far as it knows concerning itself, that it is. Indeed, from the fact that it perceives that it acts it perceives that it is. Of course, it acts through itself, and so, through itself, it knows concerning itself that it is." In this short epistemological passage, we already have the foundation by which we can reject modern disbelief in the mind's ability to know the truth as itself a justification for deliberately not knowing it.
What has this to do with the mind that is Catholic? These are my conclusions: 1) "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." 2) "All get what they want; they do not always like it." 3) "You mean this is it?" 4) "God helpeth us to eat also, but yet not without our mouth." 5) Even the case of "the tiniest fly" is of "such wonder and grandeur as to astound the mind." 6) "Discovering the Church is apt to be a slow process, but it can only take place if you have a free mind and no vested interest in disbelief." 7) "Men can think of anything seriously, however absurd it is. Men can believe anything, even the truth."
In the end, this is the Catholic mind, to hold the truth because it knows that it is itself mind open to what is, to what is true from whatever source its evidence might arise, even from common sense, even from reason, yes, even from the revelation handed down to us.
1Flannery O'Connor, "Letter to Cecil Dawkins, July 16, 1957," The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Vintage, 1979), 231.
2G. K. Chesterton, "Fancies and Facts," September 22, 1906, The Illustrated London News, Collected Works (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), Vol XXVII, 287.
3C. S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew (New York: Collins, 1955), 174.
5Sir Thomas More, "The Dialogue concerning Heresies," The Essential Thomas More, edited by James J. Greene and John P. Dolan (New York: Mentor, 1967), 200.
6Thomas More, "Letter to the University of Oxford," (March 29, 1518), ibid., 108.
7Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition (London: Routledge, 2003), 168.
8Augustine. On The Trinity, edited by Gareth B. Mathews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 167.
9Ibid., Book 15, ch. 27, 331.
10Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, translated by Henry Bettenson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 1072.