Review of Roman Catholic Political Philosophy by James V Schall SJ, Lexington Books, 2004



Fr Schall describes his most recent book as, in the French sense, an ‘essay’, an ‘effort’, a relaxed, literate ‘attempt’ to present from various angles a rarely heard argument about how the highest things of philosophy, politics and revelation relate to each other.  Thus each of the 11 chapters deals in one way or another with the interrelation of reason, revelation and political philosophy.


As is typical of the works of Fr Schall, this book makes frequent reference to the ideas of Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin.  However, Fr. Schall describes Charles N.R. McCoy as the most insightful of recent thinkers who have devoted themselves to political philosophy.  This is because he believes that McCoy comes closest to describing in accurate philosophical terms what has gone wrong in the modern era.  In particular McCoy saw that ‘religious thinkers themselves were more and more imitating in their theology philosophical principles and attitudes from modernity that could only transform religious thinking into pious versions of what was going wrong in the secular world’. 


Among contemporary scholars Schall makes special mention of the works of Oliver O’Donovan, Catherine Pickstock, George Grant, Hadley Arkes, Robert Song and Henry Veatch.  Not all of these are ‘Roman Catholic’ but their ideas nonetheless line up with Schall’s vision of how a Roman Catholic political philosophy should look.  Chapter ten on ‘Worship and Political Philosophy’ endorses the criticisms of modernity to be found in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy – a book notoriously difficult for the non-academic but which is nonetheless a seminal work in the field of modernity studies. 


Schall also endorses Cardinal Ratzinger’s understanding of liturgy as something which ought to be celebrated for God, not for spectators, and not for any pedagogical or psychological purpose.  Again, following Pickstock’s analysis, Schall suggests that the reason why modernity has been in such turmoil is that it sought and could not find an alternative to the Eucharist.  Modernity has exhausted all the locales that might propose something else – for example, the state, science, and sex – and has led to nothing but the disintegration of the integrity of the human person and for many a loss of an understanding of what it might mean to be human. 


Like Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Fr Augustine Di Noia OP and many other contemporary Catholic scholars, Schall argues that modernity needs to be understood as both a philosophical and cultural phenomenon.  It is not simply that the philosophies of the various European Enlightenments were hostile to the faith, but that certain principles of these philosophies have become imbedded within the institutional practices of Western cultures, and appear to those who are without a philosophical training as ‘normal’, as simply the ways things are.  To explain the problem Schall refers to the following scene from a Peanuts cartoon:


Charlie Brown is sitting slouched in his Bean Bag Chair watching TV.  Sally comes up behind him to tell him, ‘I have been asked to do a book report on Treasure Island – Do you know what it is about?’  Charlie looks up a bit to inform her, ‘It’s about pirates’.  Looking at the notebook, Sally looks pleased with this sparse information.  ‘That’s all I need to know,’ she replies.  Then she turns away from a totally confused Charlie, to add, ‘I can fake the rest of it’.


Schall then suggests that, in a similar manner, modernity has ‘pirated’ reality away from us and what we have left is a fake world:


The ‘newness’ that our culture finds within itself is a newness that is faked or concocted because we not want to consider the possibility that our reason could be saved if we could consider that revelation was indeed directed at its own legitimate but unanswered questions.



A recurring theme throughout the work is that the principal effect of revelation in politics is to prevent politics from conceiving itself as a substitute metaphysics or an eschatological kingdom in this world.  Like Leo Strauss, Schall understands political philosophy as a defense of the cause of the philosopher before the politician who himself is aware of, though not especially proficient in, philosophical things. 


In the context of the place of natural law within the tripartite relationship of reason, revelation and politics, Schall takes the position that the natural law of St. Thomas was not simply the natural right of Strauss’s Aristotle, and still less the natural law or ‘human rights’ of modernity as in Hobbes or Rousseau.  To the question of why natural law was a ‘law’ and not just a ‘right’, Schall suggests that the whole of the metaphysics of St. Thomas is presupposed.  His approach to this topic is therefore more in line with that of Hittinger, Veatch and the late Ernest Fortin SJ, than to the approach of the New Natural Lawyers, which is to offer a theory of natural law without any reliance upon revelation.


The work will be of value to students of politics, political philosophy and theology, and to those who simply enjoy reading Schall.  This is a vintage crop of Schallian essays.


Dr. Tracey Rowland

Dean, John Paul II Institute (Australia)