On True Knowledge and Apostolic Intelligence

What we most need is not how we can conform to modernity, but how it can conform to the truth of things as they are handed down to us.

"Christ preaches the Apostles" (1308-11) by Duccio [WikiArt.org]

“Today, more and more, individuals are of the opinion that religion is a waste of time, that only social action can make a significant contribution to man’s well-being.” — Joseph Ratzinger, 1980.1

“Men need more than just grasping and holding; they need understanding, which gives power to their actions and their hands; they also need perception, hearing, reason that reaches to the bottom of the heart. And only when understanding remains open to reason, which is greater than it is, can it be genuinely rational and acquire true knowledge.” — Joseph Ratzinger, 1983.2


In Chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel, the Pharisees and Herod were looking for some sign from Christ that would prove to their skeptical minds that He was who He said He was. Later on, Christ is quizzed by the Apostles about not having enough bread. Christ recalls for them an earlier multiplication of loaves. But, they tell Him that they only have a couple of loaves. This is not enough to go around.

With some prodding, the Apostles do remember the seven baskets of leftovers. Implicit in Christ’s logic is His expectation that the Apostles can grasp ordinary evidence. Christ tells them to relax. He will take care of the bread detail. They won’t go hungry.

The Apostles still do not see the point. They missed the analogy: If the crowd of several thousand did not go hungry for lack of bread, neither will the Twelve. Obviously, Christ expected them to grasp what He was driving at without having to drag it out of them. But they didn’t see what He was driving at. Finally, in exasperation, Christ seems to throw up His hands: “Do you still not understand?” Apostles of whatever era are not, I take it, supposed to be slow in catching distinctions and following arguments.

Scenes like this are not uncommon in the Gospels. The Apostles keep being “astonished” by something they ought to be able to figure out by themselves. No doubt the implication being that, if Christ could do the things that they observed, then He really was—on evidence of the deeds performed before them—the looked-for Messiah.

This incident reminds me of Peter Kreeft’s insightful little book The Philosophy of Jesus. Kreeft goes through many events and words in Christ’s life that indicate His realism. He sees the lilies in the field and how they grow. He is not imposing some form in His mind onto an ongoing flux of practically nothing. If He changes water into wine, it is real water and real, good wine. Christ would never call a man a “woman” just because that is what the man claimed he was. And He would think a culture or a state that enforced this sort of self-affirmation had gone a bit mad. “Male and female He created them”—that remains the truth, whatever someone calls himself.


The topic of Catholicism and Intelligence remains a very pertinent one. In fact, Schall has a 2017 book with that very title, Catholicism & Intelligence, as well as an earlier one, The Mind That Is Catholic. What is usually considered peculiar about the Catholic Church is its dogged affirmation of the truth of things, both revealed and figured out with careful reasoning. This affirmation does not mean that those who are slow to get the point cannot be good Catholics. But it does mean that within the Church, even to its highest levels, first class minds are needed to grapple with the truth of what the Church claims of itself and, conversely, of the reality and nature of the many deviations from the truth that exist among men.

Many have the impression that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its German connections, the present papacy is, with the possible exception of John Paul I and his delightful Illustrissimi, the weakest intellectually in modern times. Great efforts have been made to re-center Catholicism on feelings and compassion, not reason. Subtle changes are made in practice that are later said to be dogmatically justified when they are already in place. (The recent 2016 lengthy instruction on the formation of priests did, however, emphasize the significance of their philosophical and theological studies.)

In this emphasis on feelings, compassion, and unlimited mercy, certain intractable issues that are based on absolutes of reason or divine revelation can, seemingly, be mitigated or bypassed. Pastoral solutions become preferable to dogmatic ones. When it comes to God, one official said, much to the surprise of all, that “two plus two can equal five.” Also, we hear that since we do not have the exact words of Christ, we can change the law in our time as Christ did in His time. Consistency with a deposit of revelation designed to abide over time is thereby by-passed.

Some still see the fundamental relation of doctrine and morals. The two belong together. Doctrine cannot live without practice; practice cannot exist without the truths of doctrine. This is the understanding that goes back to Aristotle and Aquinas. But this view is said to be rigid or pharisaical. All the while, in the culture of our times, we see a logical, step-by-step deviation from the goods found in nature and revelation. This decline has now brought the culture to the brink of moral chaos. Our public morality is almost wholly voluntarist. Yelling has too often replaced reasoning. Our standards are almost wholly subjective. If I want it, that is enough to make it moral. We even make it a civil crime to find anything wrong with our self-elevation to the center of reality.


Late last year, Bishop Robert Barron had a chat with some 25 young Jesuit priests in Chicago. During the discussion one of the Jesuits frankly asked Barron about the criticism often heard of the modern Jesuits: “We Jesuits have been criticized a good deal in recent years. Do you think any of these critiques are justified?” Barron thought for a bit. He noted the concern for the poor and justice that was often manifested in Jesuit schools and apostolates. Then he added that, in the 1970s, the 32d Congregation of the Society under Father Arrupe changed the emphasis of the works of the Society to “social justice” and away from more traditional works such as education, spiritual exercises, and the intellectual life.

Barron praised works of justice but pointed out that anyone can work for justice. One does not have to be religious to be just. While not denying the value of justice, Barron thought that its emphasis was a lowering of sights. The attention to things specifically Christian and Catholic was neglected. Not merely were the sacraments and questions of grace more needed, but an intellectual defense of them was lacking. These were the more necessary things today, things that no one else could or would do.

In his new book The Idol of Our Age, Daniel Mahoney argued that about half of the goals of the current papacy seem to have originated in the secular humanist tradition that has roots in Comte and Mill. Here, everything is attributed to man with no space left for even the slightest transcendent glimmering. This view is not based in the tradition of grace addressing human intelligence. It is rather a theory of human intelligence that has no other source or outlet but its own theoretic concoctions. They do not derive their force from the intelligibility found in nature, including the nature of man but (as Leo Strauss once put it) from a reason independent of any relation to an existing order, to a pure reason and a will following upon it, both unrelated to what is. It is in this way that reason claims the power to change men according to one’s imagination. The older notion of virtue as bringing man to full conformity with his already existing being is thus lost.

Joseph Ratzinger in 1983, in the passage cited at the beginning of this essay, stated that human reason is itself part of, or related to, a greater reason as is origin. The Catholic mind can only be what it is if it stands in conformity with that understanding, which is derived from both divine revelation and natural reason. We live not sola fides, nor sola ratio, but et fides et ratio. The major task that immediately faces the Church is to retain the centrality of mind, the mind that is to be handed down from one generation to the next that preserves and calls forth what man is in his ultimate reality. What is most lacking in the Church and the world today is not justice. Nor is it a view of man that he makes up by himself presupposed to nothing but his imagination about what he thinks he wants to be.

What we most need, in other words, is not how we can conform to modernity but how it can conform to the truth of things as they are handed down to us. We need what John Paul II called in Redemptor hominis the full understanding of what man is—created, fallen, redeemed, and, if he chooses, saved. We seem not to hear explained to us this fuller understanding of what man is. It seems to many that this later, confident sense about what we are and about our passage to “eternal life” is lacking. Our brief sojourn in this world is given to us to find out how we choose our final lot.

This understanding is what people in both the Church and in the culture most need to hear—and they sense that they are not hearing much of it. The path to our real transcendent future passes through a past that was handed down for us to keep and against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. Yet, it seems to many today that the gates are shaking. This concern is where we should concentrate our efforts. “Social action” is not enough. Our full reason, in divine revelation, is addressed by the divine reason. Such is our dignity. “Do we now understand?”


1 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Co-Workers of the Truth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1992), 68.

2 Ibid, 54.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).


  1. Another excellent essay by Fr. Schall. While Social Justice is a legitimate end, it has become for many inside and outside a Church a completely new religion, completely divorced from it’s Catholic Christian roots. Social Justice cannot be at the expense if all other goals, such as doctrine, education, and the spreading of the Gospel, and it is precisely when it is separated from both that it becomes a dirty word.

  2. Wow! This essay is amazing! I just got up. I got about six hours of sleep, got up, came to my computer and pulled up Catholic World Report as I normally do each day. Then I read this! Just reading the introduction tells me this is worthy of careful study. The kind that takes all day and the kind that involves much personal reflection. Thank you, Fr Schall! Personal reflection on your essay is a perfect way to begin the Season of Lent in this fallen world we currently live in! God bless you! I do love the Catholic Church, so very much, and the ability of the Church to produce thinkers like you!

  3. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 18:13). He is Truth. Faith and Reason are rightly inter complimentary noted by Fr Schall. Aquinas adds faith is superior whereas Reason must bend to Faith when there in effect seems discrepancy. In fact there is no discrepancy. Reason must itself as the measure of truth not the rule bend to those principles of moral behavior that are revealed by the Holy Spirit and not reachable by reason alone. Similarly all lasting truth are principles that reason as their measure arrives at when apprehended by the intellect [intellect translated from Latin the intellectus as intellect, understanding, apprehension for Aquinas is the final realization of the mind in apprehending truth]. J Ratzinger when commenting as quoted means understanding as equivalent to ideas. Like the ‘idea’ of social justice commented on by Bishop Barron who correctly referenced faith and traditional doctrine on morality, where both Fr Schall and Barron perceive the Lacuna in current moral thinking particularly as implied among Jesuits [but not entirely so]. Now the argument is posed Why should not a reasoned assessment of human need be the basis of morality to wit a new Paradigmatic? Well who is to argue except God who created Man with an Angelic capacity meaning the necessary inherent power to apprehend Truth sans science or reason. If that were not the case reason would meander toward other venues, If there were not principles or truth universal and intuitively [meaning known directly] accessible to all and moreso evident to all. Otherwise anyone’s argument would be as good as another’s. And otherwise I could never deny absolution if the penitent insisted his adulterous affair was ‘situational’, something with meaning and good. That’s precisely the argument made in Amoris Laetitia in respect to circumstances and conscience. Finally what is there to verify that my apprehension of truth is indeed truth. St Gregory Nazianzen taught the now widely accepted doctrine in moral theology of Synderesis, the inherent ‘reflex’ of the mind to scrutinize that apprehension within the principles of Natural Law and of course Faith and the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

  4. Is not “Gesu..consostantziale alla madre” (17xii,A.D.2013),at Santa Marta) only a scandalous or ..even more? By analogy, St.Paul was undermining the arguments of Stoics and Epicureans in Acts 17:18 and what about today’s “pastors” ability to fight an intellectual junk of this world in the form of agnosticism and skepticism ridiculed perfectly already by st.Aristotle in 3th B.C

  5. Intellect and faith combine bringing blessing to the reader. God gives wisdom and peace to the one who studies His word.

    The church has grown because men have sought after God and He has rewarded all who seek Him in spirit and truth.

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