The Professor Who Knows Our Names

A tribute to the man who is Schall

“Father Schall cares about where you’re from and how you’re doing. He doesn’t need to do that, but he does. The greatest professor I’ll ever have knows my name.”

— Victoria Edel, former student of Father James Schall

“What, in the end, does a professor most want his students to remember? Not himself but what is true and the search for it. Above all, he wants them to remember the Socratic foundations of our culture, that ‘it is never right to do wrong,’ that death is not the worst evil, that ultimately our lives are about eternal life, as Benedict XVI writes in his great encyclical on modernity, Spe Salvi. The university is a place where truth, all truth, can be spoken, ought to be spoken. Often it is not. It is imperative, as Schumacher said, that a student knows where to turn when it is not.”

— Father James V. Schall, SJ, “The Final Gladness,” December 7, 2012.

I once took a philosophy course in which, at the end of the semester, the professor told us a story about whether or not there was such a thing as a “stupid question.” He said that toward the close of a recent semester at a university in Bulgaria, a young and tepid student raised her hand and asked, “Professor, is there such a thing as a stupid question?” Hoping to relieve the young student of her fear and worry, he quickly shot back, “Of course not. If you have any questions in this class, I want you to come right out and ask them with no worry of rebuke or concern that your question is not worth asking.” The girl breathed a sigh of relief, and then proceeded to ask her question: “Professor, how come you don’t know any of our names?” The professor, with his smile turning to stone, simply responded, “I guess I was wrong: that is a stupid question.”

The point of my telling this story as the introduction for a tribute to Father James Schall will hopefully become apparent. To even attempt to write something in honor of such a man, who the Georgetown University student newspaper calls a “living legend,” will surely fall enormously short of the true pietas that we, as his students, owe to him. Last month, Father Schall gave his last public lecture at Georgetown University, a place that he has been able to call home for the last 34 years. Of course, Father Schall would be quick to remind us, along with Chesterton, that even at home, he still has a sense of being “homesick.” Even in the greatest of places, surrounded with the joy of family and friendship, this life nevertheless leaves us unsettled. We are still restless, since even the good things of this life are simply a prelude to what is to come, whereby the fulfillment of all our desires and pursuits will come to rest in Him who is our end. It is all the more poignant, then, that Father Schall titled his last lecture, “The Final Gladness.” And what precisely is this “final gladness”? Schall tells us that it will ultimately consist “in a meeting in which we, in friendship, at last find ourselves seeing God as we would have it, face-to-face.”

Schall has bequeathed to us a plethora of writings wherein he has explored practically every topic in human affairs. It is important here to call to mind two key, yet rare, qualities that one finds when reading anything Schall has written. Ralph McInerny mentioned the first quality in a lecture in honor of Father Schall back in 2008. In describing what he called the “Natural Law” of Schall, McInerny said, “When a Schall is functioning normally, his great merit is to ground apparently difficult and abstruse discussions in what we and everybody else already know” (“There Was a Man: On Learning to be Free,” Father Schall Lecture). My father expressed the same sentiment in a recent conversation about Schall’s writings, saying that his genius lies in his ability to elevate you to his intellectual level, even though you may have no background knowledge of the subject matter. Is this not the goal of a true teacher, to bring his students and listeners to see the truth about things, handing something on after a long time of interior reflection? This is why Aquinas is one of Schall’s many heroes, not only because he helps us to understand those truths that we have known all along, but also because he calls attention to the fact that, ultimately, it is better to illuminate others with the truth than to be merely illuminated by it.

When reading Father Schall, one also perceives the second key quality of his body of work, what Samuel Johnson said was really the only true purpose for writing: to make the lives of your readers more enjoyable. Like Chesterton, Schall imparts to his readers this simple and yet extraordinary view of the reality of everything (natural and supernatural) whereby we can only respond in gladness and gratitude. Whether it is the next time we read Aristotle or Aquinas, or the next college football game we watch, or that walk we take around the block after dinner, things seem different with the guidance of Schall. Not only are they different, but he has bequeathed to us an interior disposition whereby we become free to view the world as it is, so that we can (to use Schall’s famous phrase) see what is. My own students at the University of St. Thomas have to read many writings from Father Schall, but they always have to begin with his book Another Sort of Learning. Without fail many of them, after reading this book, return to me saying that, contrary to their previous experience, they actually enjoyed reading what this professor wrote. Modern university students have been put in a bleak situation, for not only are they uncertain if such a thing as “truth” exists, but they are completely at a loss as to where they must go to continually pursue it. Bring them to Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Chesterton, Pieper, Belloc—and how about Schall?

Now, in honor of Schall the teacher exemplar, let us ask ourselves—what is it that he wants us to know? What are those truths which he sees that we must also be able to see if we are to live a more fully human existence? While a list of this sort could be quite lengthy, I will emphasize a few insights that Father Schall has called us to remember, and which are all the more necessary in our moral, spiritual, and intellectually malnourished age.

The first is the essential and complementary relationship between the orders of faith and reason. Pope Benedict (and Pope John Paul II) has made it a hallmark of his pontificate to demonstrate the rationality of faith, a point that was at the core of his Regensburg Address and something that Father Schall has also placed at the foundation of his own intellectual life. Catholicism proposes that there are certain truths about God which reason, though wounded by the stain of sin, can attain without the aid of Revelation. The fact that God exists as well as the reality of some of his attributes, what Aquinas called the preambula fidei (“Preambles of Faith”), can be discovered by limited, finite human intelligence. Along with this, we must acknowledge and consider the mysterium fidei (“Mysteries of Faith”), those truths which human reason cannot attain even have knowledge of without the light of Revelation. Here, we see a harmonious meeting point between theology and philosophy, and the reason why, as both Benedict and Schall have said, faith needs philosophy. This does not mean that the faith is insufficient and needs something else due to a lack within itself. Rather, the content of Revelation already contains within it a certain philosophical conception of the entirety of reality that is open to something which exists beyond the material realm. Furthermore, this is precisely why John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, declared that the Church must be able to comment upon philosophical matters, especially those that are incompatible with the faith and closed off to a transcendent world and that therefore reduce man to something less than he ultimately is. The claim is not some mere pietistic assertion, but is the foundation for drawing a clear distinction between the orders and autonomy of faith and reason so as to bring them into a greater integration and friendship. Here is Father Schall:

This approach is not “proving” theology by reason, which would be a heresy and a divine claim on the part of the human mind.… Rather it is preserving what is theology and what is philosophy in a mutual openness, typical of Aristotle’s own philosophy, as Aquinas understood it. This openness would not reject any truth merely on the grounds that it did not come from reason alone. Reason is open to all truth, not just to its own taken in the rationalistic sense. Faith remains a gift, but a gift also to reason that stands curious about itself, about its own questions when it hears at least the outlines of what is said to be revealed to it, to reason.  In wrestling with this unexpected source, reason strangely becomes more itself, more philosophical.  And in this mode, it is, as Aquinas called it, a “handmaid” itself quite needed to prevent theology, without it, from inventing its own groundless ideologies. (The Mind That is Catholic, 176)

The second insight from Schall regards grasping a correct conception of politics, most especially a right understanding of the order of politics and contemplation. We recall in Aristotle that if man is the highest being, then politics will be the highest science, and political rule will become the most complete expression of virtue (cf. Nicomachean Ethics 6.6). A continual striving after political rule can easily lead to tyranny if it is held up to be the summum bonum for human life which, as Schall has shown us, would seem to be the case in politics since the time of Machiavelli. In this light, politics is incapable of achieving its genuine good in relation to man if it becomes super-elevated, for then we would be forced to judge the tyrant as a good man, even though his lust for power and ultimate authority in the city is sought at any cost. However, it is the contemplative life that is most in accord with the type of being that man is, since contemplation is more complete in itself and involves those sorts of studying and ways of thinking which are not for the sake of some use other than itself. Following Aristotle and Aquinas, Schall does not see the goodness of politics as necessitating that it become metaphysics or theology. If this were so, then one would have to pursue the political life as the equivalent of happiness. For Schall, the great achievement of Aristotelian-Thomist political philosophy is the recognition that our political activity must be aligned with the truth of who man is, thereby upholding the goodness and the necessary distinction between the hierarchical order of politics and contemplation. The failure to recognize this point is at the “heart of all contemporary ideological political theory” (here I would recommend Father Schall’s essay “Thomism and Atheism”).

At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned the professor who did not know his students names and declared that it was a “stupid question” to inquire why he did not. I started with a quote from a former student of Schall’s, which I deem worthy of citing again: “Father Schall cares about where you’re from and how you’re doing. He doesn’t need to do that, but he does. The greatest professor I’ll ever have knows my name.” Here is the essence of Schall, who sees the experience of teaching as the great act of intellectual charity, where he humbly leads others to the truth of things. However, what is most important is that we are led by others who are willing to tell us the truth about ourselves, the “final gladness,” not simply out of duty, but primarily from the movement of charity within the soul. Schall well understood and lived the famous axiom of the Catholic novelist Léon Bloy: “The only tragedy in this life is not to become a saint.” At the conclusion of every email from Father Schall, he includes the following request: “Pray for me, jim.” 

This is the essence of Schall, that professor who knows our names, and seeks to lead us to our true happiness, simply because he loves us.

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About Brian Jones 34 Articles
Brian Jones is a Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have appeared in The Public Discourse, Strong Towns, and The American Conservative.