Over the several decades, Catholics in the United States have grown increasingly ignorant of their faith. There are many good ideas and theories about why this is the case, but part of the solution seems clear: an unapologetic return to the fundamentals of Catholic doctrine and practice. Fr. Paul Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, has written a new book that aims to get back to the basics of the faith. Entitled That Nothing May Be Lost (Ignatius, 2017), the book consists of incisive reflections on the tenets of the Catholic Faith. “Fr. Scalia,” says the Most Reverend Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, “has written a book that deepens our faith and leads us closer to God in a hundred different ways.”
A priest for over 20 years, Fr. Scalia has served the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, a stone’s throw away from Washington, D.C., in the increasingly secular northeastern United States. It is not surprising, then, that his book would be a return to basics: as the subtitle says, it is a series of “Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion.”
Fr. Scalia recently corresponded with Catholic World Report by email regarding his recent book.
CWR: You note, in the Introduction, that we live in a time of great spiritual hunger and that people, to quote from the prophet Hosea, are “destroyed for lack of knowledge.” How do these themes shape and inform the essays in your book?
Fr. Paul Scalia: What I did not include in the introduction was that those words from Hosea are part of a larger prophecy against priests:
Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest. You shall stumble by day, the prophet also shall stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children (Hos 4:4-6, emphasis added).
Of course, the prophet is addressing priests of the old covenant. But – mutatis mutandis – the same applies to us priests of the new covenant: one of our fundamental duties is to impart knowledge of the Lord to the people of God. Failure to do so means confusion for the people and…punishment for the priests. Since the essays in the book come from my work as a priest they flow from the serious obligation of priests to teach and they likewise respond to the need of the people of God to be taught.
I don’t know what prompted the failure to teach in Hosea’s day. But in our own I think we can identify various causes. First, we have settled for sentimentality over truth in religion. Yes, this has roots in bad philosophy. But it is really nourished by our therapeutic culture that prompts us to interpret reality on our own terms rather than conforming ourselves to reality. This also brings up the broader “utilitarianization” of religion – that is, the mindset that sees religion as worthwhile because it has good effects here and now. It fosters a moral society, protects life, keeps families together, etc. All true. But again that reduces religious truth to our level rather than raising us to God’s.
Another cause is of course relativism. The air we are breathing, whether we realize it or not, is full of the toxins of relativism. If we do not apply some serious filters, we unknowingly begin to see truth as – perhaps not relative – but at least not that important and, in fact, something to be tweaked and twisted if it becomes inconvenience.
CWR: You also emphasize, at the start, that the book “breaks no new ground” and contains “no fresh ideas or insights.” Why is it important that these fragments be kept—“that nothing be lost”?
Fr. Scalia: Novelty and newness fascinates the world. But it shouldn’t entice Catholics. The Church’s mission is not to create new things but to hand on faithfully what Christ has entrusted to her. She is to keep these things in her heart and hand them down to every generation, in every time and place. This might strike the modern world as boring – the same old thing. But repetition is the mother of all learning. The Church keeps repeating the same truths because only in that way do her children learn them.
Perhaps we can understand the importance of this by considering a deep wound in our human nature: forgetfulness. Throughout Scripture the Lord commands His people to remember and rebukes them for forgetting. Gathering the fragments left over is a way of remembering, preserving, and handing on. It guards us from that forgetfulness that leads to doubting, denying, and finally disobeying God.
Another meaning of the title is that the vital connection of doctrine and devotion must not be lost. Once disconnected, each one becomes dangerous in its own way. Devotion becomes, at best, pure sentimentality and, at worst, the chasing after spiritual experiences…which the evil one is always happy to provide. On the other hand, doctrine without “enfleshment” in devotion becomes a brittle ideology that is irrelevant at best and destructive at worst.
CWR: You write of how fitting it is that the ancient Romans called priests “pontifex,” or bridge builders. How is this notion of bridge building a source of inspiration for your own vocation?
Fr. Scalia: Two pivotal moments in Israel’s history reveal the importance of a bridge and, by extension, the bridge builders – priests. At the Red Sea Moses provides a bridge for the Israelites. Only, in this case the bridge goes through the water, not over it. Likewise when they come to the Jordan, the waters are parted and, in effect, a bridge is established into the Promised Land. And at the Jordan it is done so by the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant into the river. In The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena, God the Father speaks of His Son as the bridge He established between heaven and earth, between God and man. In particular, it is our Lord’s sacred humanity that constitutes the bridge. He is the eternal high priest…the bridge.
So also priests are meant to establish a bridge for the people to walk from earth to heaven, from sin to salvation. Even more, the priests are meant to give surrender themselves, as our Lord did, to be that bridge. In short, priests are supposed to let the people of God walk all over them!
Beginning in college the gap between Catholic teaching and the human heart became more and more evident to me. That gap has always existed, of course. But perhaps it is more pronounced in our culture, when the Church’s teaching is depicted and suspected of being the enemy of human fulfillment – indeed, of anything human. Early in the seminary a priest asked me why I wanted to become a priest. I responded that I wanted to bridge the gap between the truth and the person. “So, you want to be a bridge builder?” he asked. Not knowing what he was getting at, I responded yes.
CWR: Each chapter has a brief introduction by a Catholic of note, including Dr. Scott Hahn, Mary Ellen Bork, and Raymond Arroyo, among others. Why this particular approach? How did you go about choosing each contributor?
Fr. Scalia: This approach not only brings different voices into the conversation but also exemplifies how the same Catholic faith is embodied or lived out in different ways. I chose the contributors on the basis of what I wanted to hear from them or according to whom I thought could speak to a certain topic well. I had heard Mary Ellen Bork speak wonderfully about the saints – so she seemed a logical choice for that chapter. Helen Alvare has not (as far as I know) written or spoken about prayer. But knowing her, I know she has a prayer life and I thought she would have something interesting to say on this topic that she does not get to address a whole lot. And indeed she did.
CWR: Some of these pieces were originally homilies. Would you say that each is, in a way, a sort of homily, or at least indicates how you approach putting together a homily? As a priest and preacher, what do you think are essential qualities of good homily and homilist?
Fr. Scalia: Jesus performed miracles first. He elicited a wonder and amazement that led the people to listen to His words. I think a homilist should do likewise. He should first elicit a wonder, amazement from the people. This is not going to be miracles and must not be grand standing or entertaining. Rather, this might take the form of pointing out a difficulty or a seeming contradiction in the Scriptures, of provoking a question in people’s minds, or of calling their attention to the extraordinary events in the Gospel. This wonder and awe first of all prompts people to think about their faith and not remain passive listeners, mere bystanders in effect. Then the homilist has the opportunity and responsibility to lead the people – on the basis of that wonder – to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the faith. Finally, he needs to make it concrete. There is no word in the Scriptures that we cannot apply to our own lives. It is the homilist’s responsibility to make that clear.
CWR: The book has a section devoted to paradoxes of faith, which is very Chestertonian but ultimately goes back to Christ himself. How would you explain paradox and its importance to someone who was unfamiliar with it? And what are some areas of Catholic life and faith today in which the tension of paradox has been either loosened or become unbalanced?
Fr. Scalia: A paradox is a seeming contradiction or conflict between things, when in reality they are not only compatible but necessary to one another. I like to point to our Lord’s image for Himself and His Passion: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). There is something paradoxical in creation itself: only by dying does a seed become life giving. And this applies broadly. Only by dying to oneself and submitting to a master does a student become an expert. Only by submitting to a coach does an athlete become a champion.
Pope Saint John Paul II spent much of his priesthood and pontificate trying to reconcile in people’s hearts and minds what they so often see as mutually exclusive: truth and freedom. Our Lord’s apply here as well: “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). Truth and freedom are not only not opposed to one another, they are in fact mutually dependent. Without truth, human freedom is an unguided missile and swiftly devolves into license. At the same time, truth is ordered towards freedom and must never be used to control or dominate. As Pope Benedict said, “we do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us.”
Our culture sees freedom as needing to be free even of the truth. Hence genuine freedom requires the rejection of the truth of the body – so that I can be whatever gender I subjectively decide I am. Reconciling these supposed opposites is at the heart of much of the Church’s work.
Another seeming paradox in our culture is the relationship between justice and mercy. Again, we understand them as opposed – either justice or mercy. But they depend on one another. Without justice, mercy is sentimentality at best and indulgence of sin at worst. Justice reveals the severity of sin and suffering that mercy seeks to forgive and relieve. If we do not acknowledge justice, mercy loses its grandeur and importance. At the same time, justice must be ordered towards – open to – mercy. A world of mere justice is unlivable. Man requires more. So justice, to be genuinely human, must always be straining, leaning towards mercy.
CWR: In February 2016 you gave the homily at your father’s funeral, and it became widely viewed on YouTube; it is included as an appendix. How would you describe your father’s impact on you as a man, a Catholic, and a priest?
Fr. Scalia: Unfortunately, this is something one only realizes in retrospect. When loved ones are present to us we do not think as much about what they have done for us – we take it for granted. Now I see quite clearly the virtues my father displayed for us: hard work, intellectual rigor, devotion to the Church. Not that he was perfect, or would want to be hailed as such. And even there – in knowing that dad sinned, repented, and, like everyone else, knelt in the confessional and confessed his sins – there is something that teaches a great deal about being a man and a Catholic.
As regards the faith in particular, what stands out to me are his lessons about truth and beauty. He and my mother made a point of finding parishes that conveyed both the Church’s teaching and the beauty of the Mass. He said to me several times that he was drawn to the intellectual coherence and integrity of the Catholic faith. At the same time, he loved the Church’s liturgical beauty and wider patrimony of the Church’s art. To develop an appreciation for both is essential for Catholics.
CWR: What do you hope readers will gain most from your book?
Fr. Scalia: That’s simple: conversion of life. I hope and pray that the essays – my own and the others – will prompt a deeper desire to know and love Jesus Christ.