THE CATHOLIC INTELLECTUAL
by Fr. Stanley L. Jaki
The expression, “Catholic Intellectual,” may seem to involve a twofold superfluity, suggestive of some contradiction. Is it not superfluous to write the word “catholic” as “Catholic” if “catholic” truly stands for an appreciation of the whole range of reality and values? And can such an appreciation be truly at work if it is not also the work of the intellect?
The apparent conflict between “catholic” and “Catholic” will especially bother intellectuals who take ideas and not facts for their starting point. Consideration of facts certainly must come first as long as one wants to come up with something tangible about the predicaments, duties, and prospects of Catholic intellectuals. A most relevant fact in this respect can be noticed by the Catholic intellectual if he considers the beginning of the wide usage of the word “catholic,” a Greek word by origin.
Surprising as it may seem, the word “catholic” occurs only here and there in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers. While Aristotle, for instance, often uses the adverb kath’olou (on the whole or in general), he never uses its adjectival form catholikos or its feminine and neutral variants. The reason for this may lie in the Greeks’ contempt for all others, whom they gladly lumped under the term barbaroi. Greek philosophers did not even draw in full the logic of the idea, widely entertained by them, that the individual mind was but a bit from the universal mind into which the former was reabsorbed following the bodily death. For if such was the case, the mind of each individual must have had a truly catholic or universal character, even if in its bodily framework the mind was not Greek but barbarian.
The failure of the Greeks to see this was, of course, rooted in their inability to look beyond the mind to the person-hood of each individual. That personhood revealed its infinite value only within Christianity. In the measure in which Christians surrendered to the incomparable fact of Jesus Christ, as the Incarnate Son of God, they were able to perceive in full what it meant for man to have been “made in the image of God.”
This last expression, so unmistakably Hebrew in its origin, failed to reveal its full catholic sense within the context of the Old Covenant. This is not to suggest that the Old Testament had not contained increasingly more forceful suggestions about a truly catholic future or consummation. But Christ’s very struggle with the Jews of his own time came to a head precisely on the question of whether the rest of the world had to become Jewish, or whether the Jews had to become universal in outlook in order to comply with a divine plan of salvation equally valid for all. The plan was catholic, because it was also Catholic, that is, tied to a very specific individual, who, being a Galilean, was very provincial even within the Jewish perspective.
The universality of Christian perspective became epitomized in Paul’s phrase that in Christ there was neither Jew, nor Gentile, but only the new creature. This was a supernaturally universal or catholic view of man which implied the conviction that there was in man’s nature something universal or catholic. It was on this ground that Nazi racism was denounced by Pius XI and Pius XII as a sheer abomination. In the face of that racism, Darwinist gurus could mutter only some equivocations about individual dignity and human equality. This is a point that cannot be pondered long and deeply enough by Catholic intellectuals who do not wish to trade their Catholicity for its mirage, be it a cosmic sweep toward an omega point, christened Jesus Christ.
The first Christian use of the term katholike comes in a set of writings, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, that have great cohesion and unity considering the fact that he wrote them within a very short span of time, during his journey as prisoner from Antioch to Rome. The one who first uses in those letters the expression katholike ekklesia, meaning the unity of all local churches, also makes it forcefully clear that individual churches exist only because each of them has a bishop who in turn stands for Jesus Christ himself.
This strict combination of catholicity with the individuality of a given human being, the bishop, should make clear that Christians’ understanding of the catholicity of the Church meant from the start something very different from diffuse universalism. Their catholicity was for them something strictly concrete, as all facts and entities are. At the same time that catholicity had a center which was clearly conveyed in the awareness of the bishops that they had a strict duty to be in communion with one another, which emerged as an adherence to a very concrete overall center. These two developments are worth considering for a moment, if one is to gain a firm, concrete basis for considering the status and duties of the Catholic intellectual.
One need not be a believer, it is enough to be an unbiased observer of facts, in order to register something which is without antecedent in history: The sudden emergence inside of the Roman Empire, or the oikumene, of centers of spiritual administration, eventually paralleling the political centers of administration, but totally independent of them, and indeed at times in fierce antagonism to them. Such is the background of the expression “diocesan bishop,” which evokes the main political administrative areas, or dioceses. The political system soon found a fearsome rival in that new set of administrative centers that had a powerful overall center of its own. What some modern students of the early Church are reluctant to recognize was all too clear to the Emperor Decius. He was quoted by St. Cyprian as having remarked that if he could not be emperor he would like to be Bishop of Rome.
Those particular centers were concrete individuals called bishops, whose number ran to about seven to eight hundred in both the Eastern and the Western parts of the Empire by the time Constantine came on the scene. For purely political considerations, even if he had nothing higher, Constantine had no choice but to make peace with that other administration. When the Empire collapsed, civilization survived because those spiritual centers, strangely enough, were not swept away.
Perceptive historians of early Europe (it should be enough to think of Henri Pirenne) have always been aware of the contribution of bishops as sources of cultural stability for their own, at times, very limited regions. And when a historian looked back at the years which in this or that European country saw the introduction of bishops with not even a nominal tie to a Catholic center, he could at least register a marked contrast between two kinds of bishops. The historian who did this most memorably was James Antony Froude. His observation is all the more significant as he became an agnostic after he had briefly sympathized with Newman and even was ordained a deacon in the Church of England. In coming to the moment, in his twelve-volume literary masterpiece, of Elizabeth’s order that set up a new hierarchy in England, Froude made a most “Catholic” observation. He did so as he described Elizabeth’s order as the substitution of an essence with its mere image, in order “to sustain the illusion” that the same sap was still flowing in something that was made to look like the old tree of the unbroken succession of bishops, as so many pivots of a catholicity truly Catholic:
A Catholic bishop holds his office by a tenure untouched by the accidents of time. Dynasties may change—nations may lose their liberties—the firm fabric of society may be swept away in the torrent of revolution—the Catholic prelate remains at his post; when he dies another takes his place; and when the waters sink again into their beds, the quiet figure is seen standing where it stood before — the person perhaps changed, the thing itself rooted like a rock on the adamantine basements of the world. . . . The Church of England was a limb lopped off from the Catholic trunk . . . If not what it had been in its essence, it could retain the form of what it had been—the form which made it respectable, without the power which made it dangerous. The image, in its outward aspect, could be made to correspond with the parent tree; and to sustain the illusion, it was necessary to provide bishops who could appear to have inherited their powers by the approved method, as successors of the apostles.1
Froude also noted that Cecil, the power behind Elizabeth, gathered all the Edwardian bishops who survived Mary’s reign, “to supply in numbers their qualifications.” Those qualifications were defects. Chief among these was the inability of those bishops of knowing with assurance whether they had been validly ordained. Such a dubious transmission of spiritual power could but result in a hierarchy, which, according to Froude, “would have crumbled into sand” had Elizabeth fallen. Clearly, the unquestionable validity of the ordination of Catholic bishops had to be the reason why they, in spite of all their individual failures, could provide the kind of validity which translates itself into permanence and stability.
Whatever the failing of individual bishops, which the media is desperate to keep in the focus, the College of Bishops displays the only force worthy of respect in a morally decaying world. The decay started in the developed or affluent part of the world which is feverishly parting with the last shreds of its Christian intellectual and moral heritage. Perceptive Protestants cannot help noting a huge difference between their predicament and that of their Catholic brethren. While they find themselves ever more forcefully in the grip of shifting fashions, Catholics are still being steadily reminded about unchanging eternal principles. The cause of that difference lies precisely in the fact that the Catholics have bishops, whereas Protestants do not. Those whom Protestants call their bishops are such only in name. A Lutheran bishop or a Methodist bishop, let alone a Calvinist or a Baptist bishop is a conceptual construct to which their respective origins and theologies can assure no more validity than a mathematician can accord to squaring a circle.
What some Protestants, regretful of not having bishops as defined by a two-thousand-year-old tradition, fail to realize is that Catholics have bishops not because they make bishops. It is the other way around: bishops make Catholics. Catholics are believers whose faith is essentially a submission to the voice of given individuals who present themselves with the extraordinary claim that they speak with the authority of Christ himself, and do so two full millennia after Him. They make this claim because they look on their authority as something transmitted to them by individuals who had in turn made the same claim in their own time, and so back to the apostles. These certainly made no secret of their conviction that they were the depositaries of the authority of Christ himself and therefore their authority was indivisible.
Awareness of a need for strict cohesion among bishops was strong from the start. This is a point which the Christian intellectual cannot ponder enough as he stands in the middle of academia where dissent, often dissent for dissent’s sake, readily passes for learning and originality. Nothing shows the strength of the bishops’ awareness of that need more forcefully than the fact, again a fact, that from the earliest times they looked at the sin of heresy as a crime worse than idolatry. Such was the view of Alexander, the martyr bishop of Alexandria. In the West, Augustine of Hippo took the view that there could be no just necessity whatsoever to break the unity of the Church. Augustine also gave a pregnant expression to the concrete criterion of being in unity with the whole or the catholike. In saying that the criterion consisted in being in unity with the actual bishop of Rome as a successor of Peter, the first bishop of that city, Augustine merely echoed a famous phrase of Irenaeus, the martyr bishop of Lyons, about the obligation of all churches to convene around that Church.
That Irenaeus did not voice anything “Western” or Latin as he gave that criterion is clear from two facts. One is that his origins were in the East, and that Lyons was very much an outpost of Greeks in the heart of the West. The other is that Chrysostom, the greatest of all Eastern doctors of the Church, was perhaps the most emphatic defender ever of the primacy of Peter and his successors. This fact remains a thorn in the side of all “ecumenical orthodox” who not only pride themselves in being intellectuals, but also in knowing something of the true history of Eastern orthodoxy.
Here, too, history performed for theology the same role which laboratories perform for science. History brought out in connection with “catholic” too the only meaning which its sane use can have: it must have some specificity in its generality. All those who tried to leave the word catholic in a vague generality or universality were rebuffed by history. The challenges of history proved too much for the gnostics, who set up some studiedly undefined preferences of their intellect for a criterion of catholic or universal truth as against the standard of truth which was the bishops’ concretely authoritative teaching. History rebuffed the esoteric holiness of Cathars and their varieties, and vindicated the externally tangible norms of conduct as preached by the bishops. History unfolded in full the principle of fragmentation which the early Protestants in vain tried to exorcise from their initial presuppositions. History left behind “old Catholics” precisely because they did not want to be concretely young with the ever living Church that could not be confined to a given stage of its history. Those who very recently tried out the stance of “loyal opposition” certainly proved themselves poor logicians, whatever else they have proved to their own and to many others’ spiritual discomfiture.
Those Christians who want to be catholic though not Catholic may well ponder the lessons of two efforts to come up with a universalism which was catholic but not Catholic. One of them, being more than two hundred years old, is largely forgotten though very instructive. In fact its instructiveness was brought by none other than Talleyrand, hardly a paragon of a Christian, let alone of a Catholic, a bishop though he was. One day he was approached by Larevallière-Lépeaux (1753-1824), a member of the Directorate, who had thought up and tried in vain to propagate a new religion, called “Theophilanthropia.” On being told by the founder of the new religion, which seemed to fit perfectly the dictates of pure intellect, that it failed to make converts, Talleyrand remarked: “I do not find your failure surprising. If you want to make converts, perform miracles. Cure the sick, revive the dead, allow yourself to be crucified and rise on the third day.”
Once this remark becomes engraved over the entrance of all departments of “Christian” theology, where each new set of professors starts all over the business of reinventing the Church according to ever new molds of intellectual fancies, one may recall with the hope of some profit, the lesson of the other effort as well. It can be read in an essay “Reflections on Catholicism,” penned about a hundred years ago. It may difficult to find a stylistically more overpowering celebration of catholicism. The author of the essay claimed everything noble. Nor did he insist that the same person should be the embodiment of all “catholic” virtues and perfections. In fact, he warned against such a surfeit: “It is only the fantastic notion that we must eat everything on the table that makes the banquet seem burdensome.” The mere recall of the name of that essay’s author, George Tyrrell,2 should reveal that what he actually advocated was the liberty of choosing from the catholic banquet table according to one’s own preferences, and, if necessary or desirable, not to feed on items that smack of Catholicism. Those items are above all the great, and apparently very provincial, facts of salvation history.
Almost a hundred years later, after a systematic misconstruction of what Vatican II stood for, the president of the American Catholic bishops’ conference had to warn, in connection with the Pope’s visit, that “the Church is not a grocery store, where Catholics are free to take what they want or not.”3 Compared with Tyrrell’s diction, these words are very pedestrian indeed. But precisely because of this they should be within the reach of all Catholic intellectuals, especially of those who pride themselves to be theologians and all too often more ready with phrases than with hard thinking and respect for facts.
For regardless of whether one is an intellectual or not, a Christian or not, facts should control the intellect and not the other way around. This is a point of supreme importance if one is to discourse sanely about the predicament and responsibilities of Catholic intellectuals. Catholicism means above all the surrender to the greatest fact of history, Jesus Christ, or the flesh and blood, and therefore very provincial (Catholic) reality of the incarnation of the Son of God. But an integral part of that reality was His intention to teach with universal authority and, in all evidence, to have that authority of his concretely (that is, very provincially) perpetuated. Therefore the Catholic intellectual’s submission to Christ must be preceded by a submission to those who today are the concrete factual voice of Christ’s authority which renders their teaching strictly authoritative. Only then can the Catholic intellectual begin with the task of unfolding the conceptual implications of the fact of the Incarnation for an understanding of Catholicism in its full range.
The task is undoubtedly a vast one. A sensible approach to that task would be to start from clear definitions derived from that authoritative teaching. But this may not pay off in an age wary of definitions though proud of the intellect. Pride always blinds and makes one most vulnerable. Suffice it to think of the advice which a prominent professor of philosophy gave to a journalist ready to interview Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionism. He advised the journalist, Dinita Smith, not to ask Derrida right away to give his definition of deconstructionism. “Make it your last question because it sends deconstructionists into a paroxysm or rage.”4 The advice is, unfortunately, applicable to many Catholic intellectuals nowadays who are loath to give at the start the definition of some central terms in their discourse about Catholicism.
Instead of definitions it may perhaps be advisable to begin with considerations of facts of history. One such fact is the sad privilege of Rome in remaining, within Christendom, the sole staunch and stubborn upholder of all the Christological dogmas for which so many Catholics, above all Athanasius, had to run for dear life, at times to lay down their very lives. It is enough to consider that in this age of ecumenical largeness the Catholic Church has tolerated for long the Kantian skullduggeries of Hans Küng, but stopped him in his “Catholic” tracks when he tampered with the Church’s authoritative understanding of Christ as the consubstantial Son of the Father.
As a Kantian, Hans Küng had no choice but to feel that Catholic belief in Christ narrows the range of “catholicism.” The belief in question certainly gives Catholicism the kind of vitality that makes no sense in the shadowy world of the Kantian a priori, where facts count for little. Harnack may have been wrong on many a point, but he proved himself an astute appraiser of the logic of history when he remarked, a century ago, that had it not been for that dogma of consubstantiality, Christianity would have quickly transformed itself into an obscure Jewish sect.5
The Catholic intellectual must therefore feed above all on the fact and content of the Incarnation as understood from the start. The Catholic intellectual must eschew reinterpretations of the Incarnation as given by those who think that history is the unfolding of the Absolute Mind as defined by Hegel, which was hardly more reliable than his own mind. Guided by Hegel, Catholic intellectuals will become short on information and also given to that ridiculous blunder of putting the cart before the horse. They should still study Hegel’s incredible miscomprehension and misconstruction of that exercise of the intellect which science is insofar as it has for its first duty to submit to facts.
Catholic intellectuals should also realize that neither did the Church invent itself, nor did it ever invent new dogmas. The Church at Nicaea proposed consubstantiality not as its fresh self-reflection on its self-awareness but as something that it had to preach authoritatively because the Church had already preached it so, even without using the expression itself. The actual awareness of the Church of its duties and powers has always been predicated on the conviction of the latest generation of bishops in union with Rome that this authoritative conviction has been transmitted to them by earlier bishops who had the same conviction of having been entrusted with a most unusual authority. Hans Küng, who preached so volubly on Catholicism as reduced to catholicism, met his Waterloo when not Rome but his own German bishops forced a showdown about his reluctance to endorse Nicaea and Chalcedon. To his great surprise, and this shows how poorly he read Church history (which should not be surprising on the part of a Kantian, who like Kant is bold to dictate in advance what should take place in history), German bishops had a deep appreciation for the need to teach in unison with Rome, the touchstone of living authority in the Church.
The living character of that authority came through with special force in the reaction of John Paul II to the ordination of women in the Church of England. The present Magisterium, he said in his Apostolic Letter, has no knowledge of having been entrusted with the power to ordain women. It was not because the Magisterium had not enough mental power to unfold the contents of some notions about women and ordination, but simply because it had no knowledge of having been entrusted with that power. And in making this reasoning John Paul II quoted a very similar statement of Paul VI, his predecessor twice removed in a chain whose links stretch back to Peter, the head of the Apostles.
The analogy of a chain made up of links is of special importance. The succession of bishops as a college is not something like the juxtaposition of links in a chain, where all links follow one another as distinct, independent lines. In the succession of the college of bishops the links and lines overlap one another. Bishops do not die all at once to be succeeded by another set of bishops. Even the succession of the bishops of Rome is within an ongoing episcopal college, although the latter remains a college only inasmuch as it adheres to its center.
A Catholic intellectual must have for his foremost standard of reasoning an unconditional, total commitment to the voice of Rome as the only factor that puts him in proper contact with the greatest fact which is Christ. The contact is not made by speculations on history, which are in a sense very unhistorical, projecting as they do some present preconceptions into the past. Such a procedure is equivalent to setting up the mind of the individual now living to be the authority over the One who claimed for himself all authority in heaven and earth and entrusted a specific Twelve with the task to carry on with that very authority. These, by laying their hands on specifically chosen others, made it clear from the start that they took it for their essential task to perpetuate that authority, not as a mere idea but as a concrete reality, until the end of time. The chief task of the Catholic intellectual is to feast on this fact of staggering proportions, because it makes the greatest fact, Christ, accessible to him so that he may implement in its supreme form that true activity of the intellect which is to submit to facts.
Herein lies the gist of what in saner times was fearlessly and proudly spoken of as loyalty to Rome. In these increasingly confused times one cannot do better than to fall back on John Henry Newman to suggest something of the ramifications of that loyalty. What he said discredits once and for all the carefully nurtured perception that the Church is but another form of democracy where majority votes, carefully engineered by some with ready access to the media, decide what constitutes truth, if there remains any need for truth at all.
The passage to be quoted is a note which Newman appended to the re-edition of his The Via Media or the Anglican Church, as part of his collected works. Those who had read his Apologia already knew that a chief reason for his having become a Catholic was his finding that the “Via Media” existed only on paper. But, lest he should be misunderstood, he added the following note:
I will but say in passing, that I must not in this argument be supposed to forget that the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ, inherits these offices and acts for the Church in them . . . Christianity, then, is at once a philosophy, a political power, and a religious rite: as a religion, it is Holy; as a philosophy, it is Apostolic; as a political power, it is imperial, that is, One and Catholic. As a religion, its special centre of actions is pastor and flock; as a philosophy, the Schools; as a rule, the Papacy and its Curia (emphasis added).6
Such a loyalty, so unique among all other loyalties, because it ties one to Christ, must therefore have intellectual ramifications that are truly liberating. Once weakened in that loyalty the Catholic intellectual will be seized by doubts that Catholicism is truly towering over everything else as a cultural factor. Here again let Newman’s voice be heard as the voice of one who struggled so hard to shake off the illusions of mere shadows and images of a Church that replaced salvation with cultural propriety and to join the true Church which appeared to be inferior culturally, but in fact made far greater contributions to culture than any other Church or organization. He emphasized this to his nephew, John R. Mozley, professor of mathematics in Manchester, who expressed in a letter his wonderment to his famous uncle (not yet a Cardinal) that such a great intellect could be so blind to the irremediable shortcomings of the Roman Church:
I grant that the Church’s teaching, which in its formal exhibitions is divine, has been at times perverted by its officials, representatives, subjects, who are human. I grant that it has not done so much good as it might have done. I grant that in its action, which is human, it is a fair mark for criticism or blame. But what I maintain is, that it has done an incalculable amount of good, that it has done good of a special kind, such as no other historical polity or teaching or worship has done, and that good has come from its professed principles, and that its shortcomings and omissions have come from a neglect or an interruption of its principles.7
This passage calls for a well nuanced reaction. On the one hand it would be right to make the inference that it is the duty of the Catholic intellectual to probe that incalculable amount of good. Further, it would be right to add that the Catholic intellectual ought to be convinced that the good in question exists and therefore is worth the effort of being discovered and brought to full daylight. The Catholic intellectual too must recognize that “discovery favors the prepared mind,” a phrase aptly coined about the conditions of making scientific discoveries.
On the other hand, such considerations should not imply that only such Catholic intellectuals qualify for being considered Catholic who work on specifically “Catholic” topics. A Catholic intellectual remains not only an intellectual but also a Catholic if he or she investigates purely natural topics. Most areas of inquiry are such. This is all too evident when one considers, for instance, the vast variety of research available in the natural sciences. Most branches of science do not raise the kind of fundamental questions that touch on the basics of epistemology and consequently on metaphysics. Even in fundamental particle physics and in scientific cosmology much research can be done without ever encountering the question about the ontological status of the truly first moment and its relation to the coming into being of the universe, or the creation of all matter out of nothing. The Catholic intellectual makes a mockery of his Catholicism if he countenances conceptual games with that creation, as encouraged by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
The question, whether one can know that there is a universe, which Kant disqualified as a bastard product of the metaphysical craving of the intellect, is of course constantly staring in the face of any and all scientific cosmologists. It will not be avoided by replacing the term universe, this most catholic entity insofar as it stands for the totality of consistently interacting things, with the term multiverse, which is but a verbal cover-up for endorsing cosmic incoherence, a most unscientific perspective indeed. On a different level, work in biology, especially in genetics, brings up with ever greater pressure questions that are ethical, in that supreme sense in which ethics relates to the very catholic core of the personhood.
A Catholic intellectual must be ready to face up to such questions and in a genuinely Catholic sense. And if he has not acquired the ability to cope with such questions, he at least must have a vivid conviction that Catholic answers can be given to such questions, and indeed, have been given time and again. And, most importantly, the Catholic intellectual must not turn the truth of those answers into a function of the measure of their acceptance by secular academia, which is well nigh zero in most cases.
A Catholic intellectual must be ready to swim against the tide which will flow against him until the end of time. He must not dream about a new Middle Ages, partly because those Ages were very mediocre in many ways, and partly because history cannot be replayed. Utopia and history are mutually exclusive notions. The Catholic intellectual cannot meditate often enough on an often overlooked statement in the Documents of Vatican II about the grim struggle between the Church and the world, a struggle that shall never abate. A Catholic intellectual is, of course, fully entitled to wonder about the strange disproportionality between that gigantic struggle and its brief portrayal in those Documents.
The Catholic intellectual must be ready to recognize opportunities for Catholic research in his own field. The case of Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) remains most instructive. He did not dream of what he would eventually find as he started searching for the historical origin of the principle of virtual velocities, a cornerstone of the science of motion. He wanted to do no more than show that historically too, the exact science of physics was an economic co-ordination of data of measurements and therefore unqualified to say anything ontological, let alone metaphysical.
This is not to suggest that a vast portrayal of this point would not have contained a great liberating vision, the prospect of sidelining once and for all the specter of scientism. But when Duhem found that the first intimation of that principle was done in the medieval Sorbonne, he did not hesitate to put everything aside. The result was a portrayal in a dozen or so vast volumes of the medieval Christian origin of Newtonian science.
Duhem himself, a staunch and devout Catholic from childhood, gave a priceless account of his intellectual odyssey in his essay, “Physics of a Believer,” which should be compulsory reading for all Catholic intellectuals, scientists or not. Perhaps the meditative reading of that essay will give them the inspiration to put a great deal aside when even a remotely similar opportunity arises before their searching eyes.
I mentioned Duhem partly because I found in his lifework, combining the task of a physicist and of a historian and philosopher of science, and of an artist to boot, a truly catholic and Catholic inspiration, in more than one sense. Certainly inspiring should seem his resolve not to be discouraged by secular academia’s systematic slighting of him, both during his life and afterwards. He held it to be his greatest satisfaction when he received word about the intellectual support which Catholic university people and students found in his writings.
The fact that some non-Catholic readers of my The Relevance of Physics and of my Gifford Lectures, The Road of Science and the Ways to God, found in them a major incentive to join the Catholic Church, remains for me far more precious than some prestigious prizes. Not that either of those books were apologetics in any sense. They were mere pleas, as any intellectual effort should be, on behalf of truth.
For if a Catholic intellectual becomes ashamed of doing apologetics in that sense, he betrays both his intellect and his Catholicism. He also severs his connection with that long chain of Catholic intellectuals that began with Justin Martyr, author of two Apologias that eventually cost him his life. The next great link in that chain was Augustine’s City of God, an unabashed apologia on behalf of Christian culture as delivered by the Catholic Church. Still another great link in that chain was the Summa contra gentiles of Thomas Aquinas. Surely, these last two worked on many other topics as well, including pure Catholic theology, but they considered the doing of apologetics an essential part of their Catholic task.
And what about Newman? He is all too often played up nowadays as the theologian of Vatican II. This is a strange label indeed, for at least one reason: Newman time and again emphasized that he was not a theologian, but, horribile dictu, a controversialist! He indeed also said that he would never miss the chance to join a good battle! Always kind to persons, he could be cruelly cutting when it came to stating principles. He was no champion of an “ecumenical” smoothness, the recently standardized means of preventing that anyone should appear a plain fool if not a plain intellectual villain.
Soon after his conversion Newman made it clear that he no longer wished to waste time on that mirage of Catholicism, the Church of England. Rather, at the midpoint of his life, he took up as his life’s work the task to battle the agnostic pragmatism of modern educated society. His Apologia was a personal apologetic. His Grammar of Assent is still an unsurpassed treatise of some basic epistemological points to be fully aired if one is to present with effectiveness Catholic doctrine, indeed the Catholic Church, to the modern mind. For let it never be forgotten that the Grammar of Assent comes to a close with a great plea on behalf of the historic Catholic Church, which for Newman was the Church of Rome.
That Church was for him the sole channel to the fact of the Incarnation about which he rightly said that it was the most difficult of all dogmas to accept. But once one surrendered to that dogma as the quintessence of the supernatural, it made no sense, he argued, to be squeamish about the manifestation of the concretely supernatural as found in the Catholic Church. This is why he enthusiastically accepted ever fresh miracles in the Catholic Church. He would have, undoubtedly, greeted word about the miracle of the sun in Fatima, with words anticipating Paul Claudel’s remark that Fatima represented a “colossal intrusion of the supernatural into the natural world.”8
Under no circumstance would he have softpedalled that miracle nor a great many others, lest he should appear “backward” to Oxonian dons and their counterparts at the Sorbonne, at Harvard, at Tübingen and elsewhere. For he knew that regardless of their intellectual refinement, they were also part of a tragically fallen world. Catholic intellectuals, of whom so many have fallen prey to the false optimism of a sweeping upward trend toward a mythical Omega point, would do well to meditate on Newman’s dicta on original sin, that were anything but obiter dicta on his part. And he made those dicta against the backdrop of a nominally Christian society for which the polished gentleman was the true saint.
If a Catholic intellectual wants today a challenge, it is the challenge of Newman, who never shirked being challenged by the concretely supernatural. He therefore keeps challenging, as no other modern Catholic intellectual, those Catholic intellectuals who think that by coping with the challenges of the natural, one lives up to the challenges of a supernatural revelation concretely given in the Catholic Church in its fullness. So much in the way of a hint about the thrust of my book, Newman’s Challenge,9 a collection of a dozen or so essays of mine published over the last ten years on the various aspects of Newman’s thought that were dearest to him, though unfortunately, not necessarily dearest to us.
Finally, we all, Catholic intellectuals, eager to probe principles and basics (and at times thinking that it is still possible to uncover the philosopher’s stone) should never forget Pascal’s wise remarks: “All good principles have already been stated. What remains is to put them in practice.”10 Implementation means concreteness. In reference to the implementation of Catholicism as an intellectual proposition, it must start from that concreteness, extremely narrow in many ways, which Christ himself was in his Galilean reality. This is why no one in the world of the learned paid him any notice while He lived and for some time afterwards. At any rate, they would have laughed at Him, as Domitian laughed when some Galilean peasants, relatives of Jesus, were ushered in his presence in Rome. They clearly appeared to him as the epitome of the narrowest backwardness.
This illustrates the supreme paradox of Catholicism. Insofar as it is truly related to Christ it remains stunningly parochial. But so is any true concrete entity as different from specious figments of imagination, “catholic” as they may appear to very parochial intellects who pride themselves on being “catholic.” True catholic intellects will forever find it a hallmark of truth that “catholic” cries out for “Catholic” as its sole assurance and justification.
Stanley L. Jaki is a Hungarian-born Benedictine priest and winner of the Templeton Prize, 1987.
1 A. Froude, The History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1856-1870), vol. VII, p. 174. This monumental work, which established Froude as one of the foremost English prosewriters, greatly strengthened intellectual biases against the Catholic Church. Hence the special value of Froude’s admission.
2 Tyrell (1861-1909), a convert to Catholicism and subsequently a Jesuit, was excommunicated when he rejected the condemnation which Pius X issued against modernism in 1907.
3 Archbishop Pilarczyk, quoted in The New York Times, Sept. 21, 1987, p. 1, col. 2.
4 Quoted in The New York Times, Sept, 15, 1998.
5 A. Harnack, History of Dogma, tr. E. B. Spears and J. Millar (London: Williams and Norgate, 1898), vol. IV, p. 43.
6 Preface to the Third edition, § 2, 10, or p. XL in the standard Longmans edition of the Collected Works.
7 Letters and Diaries, vol. 27, p. 283. Letter of April 21, 1875.
8 The opening words of Claudel’s introduction to Méditations sur les révélations da Fatima by Ch. Olmi (Le Puys: Mappus, 1944). Newman would have been in the least surprised on finding that a careful reading of the eyewitness accounts of the “miracle of the sun” imposes the conclusion of a colossal meteorological miracle. See my book, God and the Sun at Fatima (Royal Oak, MI: Real View Books, 1998), 381pp.
9 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000, viii + 323pp.
10 Pascal, Pensées.
Catholic Information Center's Periodicals
Catholic Dossier Jan/Feb 2000 Table of Contents