Uncle, Father, Jesuit, Professor, Giant

Fr James Schall had the capacity to be an intellectual father to many because he was himself a very together alpha male who knew perfectly well that 2+2 =4.

Jerry Schall (left) with his older brother, Fr. James Schall, with Jerry's two young sons, in the early 1960s. (Photo: Fr. James Schall)

The marketing blurb on the book When Jesuits were Giants begins with the statement:

No one in France or the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century doubted that the Jesuits, loved and honored by friends, hated and feared by enemies, were a force to be reckoned with. Scholars, missionaries, educators, adventurers, social innovators – they were Renaissance men, giants.

This Holy Week the Church has lost one of the last sons of St. Ignatius in this mould.

“Uncle Jim” to his vast extended family, “Fr Jim” to his friends, and “Professor James V Schall SJ” to generations of political philosophy students, passed away at 12.48 PDT on Wednesday, the 17th April.

He has been described as “America’s Chesterton” because of the style and humour of his opinion-piece reflections on contemporary ecclesial and social life. He was also a world-class political philosopher. He not only knew what St. Augustine or St Thomas Aquinas had said about some political issue, he could go through the entire Western canon, starting with the pre-Socratics, work his way through the Church Fathers, the medievals and until he finally reached the moderns. The post-moderns he thought were just mad and not worthy of his attention: anyone who thinks that 2+2 might in some alternative universe equal 5 had some kind of mental disability.

As is typical of these Renaissance types he was open to all that classical wisdom had to offer, but argued that there were certain problems beyond the capacities of even the greatest of the Greeks and Romans to solve. These hitherto unresolved issues required the Incarnation – a kind of ontological revolution. Educated people had to be at least open to the possibility that this really did happen, that God really did become incarnate in human form – since it is the only way of making sense of “all that is” – one of his favourite phrases.

It is said that students would enroll at Georgetown University just to “Major in Schall”. In a sense he was his own academic department.

I first came across his name when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s. Instead of reading the books my lecturers had recommended I would spend hours in the library working my way through articles by James V Schall.

On my first trip to the States in 1988 I found my way to Fr Jim’s office at Georgetown. I was in my early 20s and it never occurred to me to send a polite letter before I turned up outside his door. I simply tracked him down and introduced myself as someone who loved his work. He was about to go and deliver a lecture but he told me he would talk to me after the class. I asked if I could stay in his office and look at his library and he agreed to that. I spent a couple of hours taking down references to books on his shelves, and when he reappeared he gave me a cup of tea, we had an academic chat, and then he took me on a tour of his University. I can’t remember anything about our intellectual exchange but I do remember his walking up to students who were smoking and praising them for having the courage to be politically incorrect. Their responses indicated that they knew who he was and that they loved him.

Quite simply he had the capacity to be an intellectual father to many because he was himself a very together alpha male who knew perfectly well that 2+2 =4.

Not only did he not like political correctness, he had an especially mordant view of feminism. This did not mean that he thought women in any sense inferior to men. He had many friendships with intellectual women and was proud of the females he had taught who went on to occupy high professional positions. Those included Jane Haarland Matlary, a Professor of International Relations at the University of Oslo who served as Norway’s State Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1997-2000. However, he thought that women who wanted to be like men, who didn’t value their femininity, or who thought that marriage and family life was somehow beneath them, were victims of an ideology. He also thought that men and women were ‘wired differently’ and he was the chivalrous, dragon-slaying type, who preferred to put women on a pedestal and worship them, rather than virtue-signaling his belief in gender equality.

When I first arrived at Cambridge University he would send me copies of his publications in envelopes addressed to “Mrs Stuart Rowland”. This really impressed the porters at my college who were mostly former military men. They were not much into feminism either. A memo actually went around the porter’s lodge to the effect that all post arriving to “Mrs Stuart Rowland” was to be put in Tracey Rowland’s pigeon-hole, since when Fr Schall’s envelopes first started arriving, no one knew what to do with them. I was later told by the college chaplain that I was one of the porter’s favourite students and I think it was because they loved this little act of politically incorrect chutzpah.

Before I went to Cambridge, and when I was a complete academic no-body, I managed to publish an opinion piece about post-modern philosophy in a secular newspaper. Fr Jim liked it and used a quotation from it in one of his articles, citing “Tracey Rowland” alongside Aristotle and St. Augustine. He then sent me the article with a short covering note saying “Happy St. Valentine’s Day – regards to Stuart, pray for me, Fr Jim!” I took multiple photo-copies of his article and proudly handed out copies to my friends. One of them joked that I was lucky to be mentioned alongside Aristotle and Augustine and not Snoopy and Schroeder. He loved the Peanuts cartoons!

However by far his greatest act of chivalry occurred when my book Ratzinger’s Faith received a two page ‘bad review’ in the Times Literary Supplement. Ratzinger’s Faith actually sold very well and was translated into three other languages and my publisher was not at all concerned about the fact that the reviewer didn’t like my book. The publisher said: “a double-page spread in the TLS is a double-page spread in the TLS” – in other words, all publicity is good publicity. The reviewer however had ridiculed my book by calling it “a papal romance”. He said words to the effect that I was in love with Ratzinger and that my reading was completely unreliable because it didn’t square with the profile of Ratzinger that he had been given in his interviews with Hans Küng.

What annoyed me most about the review was that my book was not a biography in the sense of an attempt to deal with Ratzinger the man, but only with his ideas. Even theological liberals agree with me that Ratzinger was never a liberal, which is one of the points I tried to emphasize.

In any event, when news of the “papal romance” article reached Fr Jim via his friend Monsignor Sokolowski, he was in hospital recovering from an operation for cancer of the mouth. At the time he was being fed through a drip but he still managed to type out an article blasting the reviewer for all manner of intellectual ineptitudes. The reviewer informed Fr Jim that he had friends in the Society of Jesus and Fr Jim’s response was something along the lines of “so what, I am 80-something, in hospital, with cancer, do your worst”.

No doubt many academic articles will be written in the years ahead about Fr Jim’s contribution to Catholic political philosophy. His books and papers will be his legacy to future generations. Unlike so many other Jesuits since the Arrupe era he never went down the path of fostering the rag-bag of Leftist political causes. He had no time whatsoever for Marxism. He believed that there will always be elites and that the best thing that a Jesuit could do would be to ensure that the elites were in both belief and practice Catholic! He thought that if the social leaders were good, holy people, then this would foster the good of all. The idea of allowing Communists a say in the choice of bishops was, for him, an idea from planet Pluto, or maybe even from hell.
When new generations of Catholic students want to study political philosophy the name “Schall” will feature prominently on their book lists. Already his book Another Sort of Learning is well known in Catholic undergraduate circles. It offers extensive reading lists for students who want to immerse themselves in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

For those of us who knew him, who were privileged to be on his mailing list, there is a sense that we haven’t just lost a friend, we have lost one of the last old-style renaissance-men of the Jesuits. We have lost one of the giants!


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About Tracey Rowland 12 Articles
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a Member of the International Theological Commission. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of several books, including Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), and Catholic Theology (2017), and The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (2017).

6 Comments

  1. Professor Rowland,

    I only recently came to know Fr Schall via his CWR essays. I agree with your assessment that he, indeed , was a giant; possessing great courage, clarity, and charity, to accompany his deep Catholic faith and profound learning.

    May he rest in peace,
    Jim Gill

  2. Thank you for your tribute to Fr. Schall. I tell my friends (the ones who don’t know him already) that he is one of the GOOD Jesuits, a rare breed indeed.

  3. I’ve been a fan of Fr Schall since my days in RCIA. His love of God and for His Church always showed in his writings and essays, on CWR and Crisis Magazine. I feel like I have lost a spiritual mentor.

  4. Yes, Father Schall was so great. My husband Bill and I were blessed to know him and he came to visit us at our home several times. I was introduced to the natural law and classical political theory by Heinrich Rommen. I had come to Georgetown as a confused follower of John Paul Sarte. Absolutely love this post so warm and human. all things Schall, we love.

  5. Mrs. Stuart Rowland —

    Thank you for sharing your lovely recollections of a truly exemplary Jesuit and thereby proving that the term is not oxymoronic (apologies to Fr. Fessio).

    And thank God that Fr. Schall was such a prolific author. His passionate, zealous — but ever dignified! — insights will live for generations.

  6. The Church has been blessed with the life and works of Fr. James Schall, S.J. Although as a former Jesuit priest (laicized at my request in 1975 during the reactive post Vatican II era) I never had the pleasure of meeting him, when I came across his writings in recent years I felt that I had indeed found a pearl of great price. What a joy it was! May he rest in the well-deserved Peace of Christ.

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