The Death of Father James Schall — a Philosopher Who Dared

COMMENTARY: Father Schall dared to be reasonable, faithful and orthodox, no matter how much the secular world might oppose him.

(photo: YouTube screenshot)

Jesuit Father James Vincent Schall, distinguished political philosopher and author of 30 books, passed away April 17, 2019, at the age of 91. The virtues that Etienne Gilson ascribed to St. Thomas Aquinas — intellectual modesty and intellectual audacity, each to a high degree — were evident in this gentleman scholar.

“No evil can happen to a good man,” said Socrates, “either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods.” These were words that Father Schall lived and taught by. He had all his freshman class read Cicero’s famous treatise On Old Age for both political and humanistic reasons. The wise Roman orator believed that “nature gives us a place to dwell in temporarily, not one to make our own. When I leave life, therefore, I feel as if I am leaving a hotel; I feel as if I am leaving a hostel rather than a home.” These were sentiments that the lad from Pocahontas, Iowa, took to heart. At the close of his own chapter “On Old Age” (from his book Idylls and Rambles) he writes: “The sense of personal meaning, of individual death, of a hostel or inn, not a permanent home, of our passingness, is ultimately why we cannot be content either with this world or with those theories that suggest this world and its arrangements are all there is.”

Anne Carson Daly, former president of Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, New York, viewed Father Schall in the “heroic mold of the indefatigable Jesuits who helped to explore and settle the New World.” Her compliment is appropriate. In his scholarly study of the 20th century’s finest Catholic scholar (Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society, 1998), he cites what he regards as the essence of Maritain’s approach to philosophy in a single sentence: “It is a question of attaching oneself to principles of reason and to principle of faith in the most doctrinal synthesis in order to have the most liberal view and to confront, in the most daring manner possible, the problems of our times.”

This sentence characterizes Father Schall, as well. Maritain was his guide and inspiration. He dared to be reasonable, faithful and orthodox, no matter how much the secular world might oppose him. The thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine are perennial. Therefore, there is no need to sacrifice them on the altar of philosophical trendiness. Father Schall, like Maritain, his mentor, was not unduly concerned about “hurting the feelings of the fragile or inciting the animosity of the biased.” Because he loved truth, he was not willing to make accommodations to what happened to be popular. Whereas philosophy requires a passage “through all the doctrines of modern philosophers,” that voyage also includes the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas as the central element of the voyage. Father Schall dared not to be different, but to be faithful to his vocation. And in this he succeeded to the benefit of many. But in being different than the trendsetters, he made an important and lasting contribution to posterity. “Teaching fads come and go,” according to a writer for The Washington Post, “but in Father Schall’s sanctum, only the timeless has a place.”

In her encomium of Father Schall, Daly praised him for “stoically minimizing his own trials.” There were, indeed, many trials. In 1989 he lost sight in his left eye. Five operations proved futile. “One-Eyedness,” as he called it, would be a permanent condition. Then he thought: “I am a Christian. You are given suffering for others, too.” And so, perhaps “stoically,” “the local lens dealer made one lens in my glasses dark, and I have been satisfied with the solution ever since.” His disability, if we can call it that, did not slow him down. As Daly added, “He is a man who expects to sacrifice himself for others, for the common good, and for God’s glory.”

I had the privilege of knowing Father Schall and reviewing some of his books. I was humbled by the fact that he was willing to review some of mine. This Georgetown University professor was not only indefatigable but most generous. He began his review of my book Sex and the Illusion of Freedom with a Baconian flourish: “Some books are useful, some profound. Some are witty, some earnest, some even frightening. Dr. DeMarco’s vivid little book is all of these and something more. It is an indictment of a culture, yet another voice reminding us that Christianity is true though we are mostly too tired, too confused to notice.”

I was with him at several philosophical conferences. He was a true leader, understanding the situation at hand and guiding participants along a productive route. Another philosopher, Mortimer Adler, stated that a leader must have three qualities: ethos (moral value), pathos (a good feeling about others) and logos (convincing arguments). It is not at all an exaggeration to say that Father James Schall had all of these three qualities in abundance.

Father Schall loved reading, and his writings are sprinkled with the thoughts of Samuel Johnson, Hilaire Belloc, Dante, James Boswell, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Sayers, Walker Percy, Josef Pieper and many others. And he would cite Charlie Brown and New Yorker cartoons with equal enthusiasm. He enjoyed writing and took comfort in Chesterton’s remark that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Yet I do not think he really did anything badly (perhaps dancing). But he did have fun in writing, as several of his works amply testify.

In his book On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, he make a serious point, one by which he lived and died: “The end of all things is not that we establish here a lasting city. The end of all things is that, having been first chosen, we still must choose — choose not ourselves, but eternal life.” Sic transit Gloria mundi.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

His latest book is Apostles of the Culture of Life.

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