LOS GATOS, Calif. — Jesuit Father James Schall roams around the room, as he explains the relationship between Revelation and reason before a Catholic group in San Jose, Calif.
“Revelation is addressed to reason,” Father Schall tells his audience.
“God created a being that could share in his Trinitarian life. Our end is not a natural end. It is a supernatural end. The universe follows from that — it was created so that human beings can participate in the life of the Trinity, which is not natural to them.”
His wide-ranging meditation draws on Aristotle and Plato, G.K. Chesterton and Pope Benedict XVI. For the moment, the dining room might as well be his old classroom at Georgetown University, where he served as a professor of political philosophy in the government department and often employed the Socratic method to wake up his students and draw them into the perennial questions of human existence.
But Father Schall won’t be going back to Georgetown next fall to teach his highly rated “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” among other courses.
He retired last December, an event his many former students and admirers marked with great ceremony and sadness. Then, “on the first day of spring,” as he tells it, he moved into the Jesuit retirement home in Los Gatos, Calif.
At age 85, with more than 30 books to his credit, he has reason to sit back and enjoy the routinely perfect weather of California’s Silicon Valley. But this Jesuit’s version of retirement would exhaust many men half his age.
Three new books will be released this fall, and Father Schall regularly tosses off articles and columns for a variety of publications and websites.
“He has an encyclopedic grasp of things Catholic and a penetrating insight into all aspects of the faith, especially those that have to do with political society, Catholic education and Great Books,” noted Mark Brumley, CEO of Ignatius Press, which will publish one of Father Schall’s new books this fall — Reasonable Pleasures, a reflection on the relationship between reason and pleasure.
Pressed to explain how he maintains his output, Father Schall told the Register that his “daily routine is exactly like it has been all my life: Get up; say Mass and [the Divine] Office; go to meals; shoot the breeze; read some more; do what I have to do; and go to bed.
“The only difference in Georgetown was that I was preparing class all the time.”
His arrival at the Jesuit retirement home has been a homecoming of sorts, and he has reclaimed friendships from his early days as a Jesuit novice.
“It’s a house where some people are dying, some are disabled, and some get around okay. But we are all old dogs,” he said, with characteristic good humor.
The retirement center is located on the same property where his old novitiate once welcomed large classes of seminarians.
The shift from Jesuit novitiate to retirement home serves as a reminder that the order no longer attracts an ample supply of vocations. And while Jesuit professors at nearby Santa Clara University, Father Schall’s alma mater, were once steeped in the Western canon, he is among a sharply reduced cadre of 21st-century Jesuits who have maintained this intellectual tradition.
Yet, when pressed to reflect on such changes, Father Schall only expressed gratitude that Georgetown gave him full freedom to teach what he saw fit and a firm contentment with his Jesuit vocation.
“He is extremely humble. I can’t remember a time when I have had an email exchange or phone conference when he has not asked me to pray for him,” said publisher Brumley.
Health Problems and Humor
Like many of his old friends in the novitiate, Father Schall has struggled with health problems, and over the past five years, he has had two cancer operations.
“A good part of my lower jaw was removed and replaced by part of a bone from my leg,” Father Schall recalled in a January 2013 column posted on The Catholic Thing website. “Needless to say, several friends could not resist commenting on Schall’s foot in the mouth.”
Within two years of the jaw surgery, he retired from the classroom.
“I thought it would be reasonable to retire. You make a rational decision, and then you live with it,” he said.
However, his love for teaching remains as strong as ever, and whether he is working on a book or delivering a lecture, a sense of urgency infuses his message.
“The book of his that stands out is Another Sort of Learning. It is a reflection on different aspects of lifelong learning,” recalled Brumley.
“He once told me, ‘You can’t really learn in school.’ But what he meant is that school is where you get the tools of learning, but for someone who is fully alive, learning is a lifelong endeavor.”
In the back of Another Sort of Learning, there is a list of Great Books recommended by the author, and Father Schall routinely distributes such lists whenever he gives an address.
But the heart of his mission is not to force-feed his students, but to draw them into the truth that will set them free.
The Schall Method
“In my class, I read Aristotle, Cicero, Scripture, Augustine, Thomas and Machiavelli,” Father Schall noted during his address in San Jose.
“I teach class by walking around the classroom. There’s a kid sitting in the back: I say, ‘Take your hat off.’
“He says, ‘Why don’t you tell girls to take their hats off?’
“After a while, you look at the kid. And he is looking a different way now. He has got the spark. This is what education is all about,” he told his audience.
“Augustine says: You don’t teach a class to let the student know what you know. You go to the class that takes you both to what is true. It’s not Schall.”
Benedict XVI warned of an emerging “dictatorship of relativism,” and Father Schall echoed that theme in his lecture, as he explained why Catholics must resist efforts to dismantle the legacy of Athens and Rome.
Again, in the characteristic Father Schall manner, “Revelation is addressed to reason.”
But it begs the question: If we reject the intelligibility and goodness of creation, will we still be able to hear God’s voice calling us to our supernatural end?
“We are living in a time where the logic of disorder is at work, rejecting systematically the logic of being a human being,” Father Schall said, noting that growing skepticism about the nature and purpose of the family “is not just an accident.”
The culture is “rejecting heavenly answers and replacing them with human answers,” he said.
“A will is leading you, and it says there is something wrong with being human. That goes back to the whole drama of the Fall,” Father Schall observed. “C.S. Lewis says the ultimate sin, the ultimate disorder, is to say what is good is bad, what is bad is good.”
An Audience Transfixed
Father Schall’s striking vision of the battle between good and evil has transfixed his audience — even though dinner has been delayed, and stomachs must be growling.
“There is simply no American Catholic who has written as profoundly, broadly and prolifically on subjects related to the faith as Father Schall,” said Robert Royal, who has known the philosopher for three decades and still posts his submissions for The Catholic Thing.
“He’s been an inspiration for several generations of university students, primarily because he beats into their heads that they should be seeking ‘what is,’ which is to say: both reality and truth.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.