The Catholic Church today, for Father James Schall, is nearly the sole source of a genuinely reasonable—meaning a genuinely realistic—view of “what is.” Most sophisticates these days are inauthentic relativists, diverting themselves from the issue of "what is" and the search for the truth about how they should live.
Schall contends that “what is” is creation, a gift of the Trinitarian God who infused every part of his creation with his rational, relational image, his personal logos. The height of reasonable Catholic teaching can be called Thomism, and in our own time that means the writing of our philosopher-pope emeritus, even though Pope Benedict doesn't follow the word of St. Thomas in every respect. Schall repeatedly declares the encyclicals and books of Pope Benedict XVI to be great, and the greatest or most indispensable of these is Jesus Of Nazareth, which is, in Ratzinger’s own words, his “personal search for the face of Christ”—that is, the incarnate logos.
Why you do you need Schall in addition to Ratzinger? Well, maybe you don't! But there are differences, at least in emphasis, between those two great thinkers, and it is possible to disagree about who is the greater teacher. One, of course, is Schall's understandably more insistent interest in and sympathy for the American project. But there are others too.
Ratzinger is given to emphasizing the differences between the impersonal, giant magnet God of Aristotle and and the personal logos of the early Church Fathers. Schall is mainly about the continuities between Plato and Aristotle and Thomism, showing that what they say about, say, friendship, love, justice, and the immortality of the soul point in a Christian direction, and so that we can affirm Christian revelation as a realistic articulation or elaboration of what Plato and Aristotle had in mind.
Schall says he gives Catholic readings of the Apology, the Gorgias, the Republic, the Laws, Aristotle’s Ethics, and so forth. On the Apology, he says that the real choice is between the way of Socrates and the way of modern technology. For Socrates, the one true progress is toward wisdom and virtue over a particular life. Although Socrates made a point of obeying the law, he also disses it by showing how it is not genuinely open to those who search for the truth about god and virtue.
Socrates doesn’t go as far as to say he disbelieves in the city’s gods, but almost nothing about their claims for the truth survive his searching examination. And he emphatically doesn’t say that only the rare philosopher is exempt from the requirement to be wholly or uncritically devoted to the laws and their gods. In the Apology, he exhorts everyone to care about wisdom and virtue more than money and power. And he says that that he’s undertaken his personal mission on behalf of god because both the law and atheistic, materialistic nature science (and its vulgarization into techno-sophistry) don’t tell him what he most needs to know.
For now, Socrates says, he differs from his critics in knowing he doesn’t know enough to educate others, but that doesn’t mean he thinks they don’t need educating. So the Apology is basically agnostic, and Socrates, unlike the most devoted citizens and the materialist thinkers and technicians, remains a searcher and seeker. For a Catholic reader he remains a seeker because he doesn’t know of the alternative of the personal logos of the Bible, that would connect for the philosopher the law’s just claim for personal virtue and love and the natural scientist’s insight that all of being is infused with reason.
Christians Confused with Atheists
The early Christians, Schall notes, echoing Ratzinger, were confused with atheists, because they denied the existence of the gods of the city. They were much more concerned with the personal truth about than the political utility of theology. For them, nobody is meant to be a citizen above all.
For both Ratzinger and Schall, the fundamental, world-transforming fact about the early Church Fathers is that they chose for philosophy against civic mythology. Fidelity to that choice is what distinguishes Catholic thought from the nominalism and fideism that came with later forms of Christianity that denied that personal, relational, willful, loving, rational Trinitarian God was really possible.
The so-called reformed Christians chose against reason and behalf of unlimited personal will, both for God and soon enough, as their thought got secularized, for themselves. To be personal gradually was separated from being rational and being relational.
Meanwhile, modern readers of the ancients, following Leo Strauss, have done what they can to separate reason and revelation and let us know that personal logos is an oxymoron. To be personal is not to be rational. Neither the philosopher nor the God of the philosopher is any respecter of persons, and in that sense the Straussian effort is to restore the Socratic thought that philosopher is learning to die, to get over any sense one has of one's personal significance. Strauss's one extended discussion of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas is basically a hit job designed to get reasonable men not to take him seriously as a coherent alternative.
For Schall, St. Thomas is the place to go to discover how and why revelation completes what we know through reason about who God and each of us is, to see why being personal is inseparable from both being rational and being relational. The Catholic choice reconciles philosophic with personal being.
Thomism or Atheism
Still, we can return to the way of looking at things that bring Schall and Strauss closer together. For Strauss, the big distinction remains that between the ancients and the moderns. And the Thomists are more ancient than modern. That's finally all that Schall is saying too. He has a provocative essay where he tells us that the contemporary choice is not really between reason and revelation but Thomism and atheism.
The Thomists and atheists each claim there is no alternative but to deploy reason to discover the truth and strive to live accordingly. The big question is which form of realism is more realistic. And the answer begins with the observation that the atheists divert themselves from their deepest personal longings and deceive themselves when they say they have serenity now. In that respect, Schall subtly disses the more Epicurean Straussians, while praising those for whom the search remains real, telling them where to search for the most realistic form of realism.
What we know, Schall explains, through reason points in the direction of both creation and redemption, most of all in the direction of the creation and redemption of particular persons. Our lives as social or relational animals living together in community can’t really be understood realistically without seeing the whole truth about who each of us is. That’s why Schall contends that political science is not a natural science.
God created each of us for a personal destiny that makes each of us more than a merely natural being, a being born to die. We know, when we tell the truth to ourselves, that our longings point beyond our natural satisfactions in the direction of infinite joy, and that what we most long for we can’t provide for ourselves.
See also Peter Augustine Lawler’s James Schall on America, and Against Americanism.