Who Will Convert Us? The Life of James V. Schall, S.J.

By | 2019-04-18T08:44:08-07:00 April 18th, 2019|
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At the passing of a priest, age 91, who was also a profound scholar and inspiring teacher, one expects to see praise of his dozens of books, hundreds of writings, 60 years’ worth of lectures, and generations of students.

In the case of Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., the longtime Georgetown University political theorist who passed away on April 17, 2019, such praise will be deservedly legion. More to the crux of the matter, his whole life seemed devoted to rebirth or conversion, the Socratic periagoge, a decisive turning around. As the example shows, such an experience is not limited to Catholics but is fundamental to a fully lived human life.

Indeed, the most striking eulogy of all may be the one by the geopolitical strategist and author known as Spengler. David Goldman wrote on Facebook, a few hours after his passing:

Fr. Schall was a theologian as much as he was a strategist, and brought a deep understanding of mankind’s spiritual condition to bear on geopolitical analysis. I had the privilege to meet him and correspond with him over the past decade and considered myself blessed to engage so luminous a mind. There are few strategic thinkers who understand the primacy of man’s existential condition in the course of world affairs. We cannot forget him; we cannot replace him. We only can mourn.

And earlier a mutual friend, a Chinese immigrant scholar, wrote late last year to Fr. Schall, recalling one of several Chinese dishes they had shared (though Schall was persuaded away from the duckfeet):

We also tried the whole fish dish at a Chinese restaurant in Arlington (walked across the bridge to get there). You did a good job using chopsticks to extract fish from the bones and added green onion slices to go with it. Then, you philosophized over the fish skeleton with its head and tail arching upward.

Using the recollection of the food, she was recalling him to life from what had been presumed was his deathbed.

More modestly, I recall breakfasts with Fr. Jim in Georgetown (I always visualize him in motion from the Jesuit Residence to our rendezvous). At one he exchanged greetings with George Will, noting to me that the columnist had hired former students of his as research assistants. We would discuss questions of political philosophy, theology, current politics, and the university. This would prepare us for interviews in the form of exchanges conducted by email, to be published by the Claremont Institute. The focus of these conversations, which began in 2002 and were typically published during Advent, was on the relationship between theology and philosophy in the study of political philosophy.

One of those conversations reemerged as an Appendix in Schall’s book, The Mind That is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays.

The conversations thus reflect the catholicism (with a small c) of Schall’s teaching. I could recommend for this purpose one of his earlier books, At the Limits of Political Philosophy, in particular the chapter on an enduring theme of his, political friendship, that is, patriotism.  But this catholicism, this defense of the West, is displayed in particular in the book on Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg Lecture which I recommend to my classes on American political rhetoric. In debunking journalistic accounts of Benedict’s analysis of the crisis of the West, Fr. Schall shows the profundity of that crisis for both reason and faith by explicating the text. In repudiating its roots in faith, Schall and Benedict show, that the West also denies reason. Revelation and rationality require each other and belong together. As he put it more recently,

The Church really is the last major bastion in the world that stands for the sanity of normal mankind. Its enemies, and it has enemies, recognize the importance of capturing the “image” of a Church about to change, about to embrace modernity in all its glory and goriness. I think that Pope Francis has learned a lot in his first year in the papacy. What is missing is what Benedict and John Paul II understood, namely, the importance of intellect in this whole analysis of what needs to be done.

This account of this powerful message can be found in a Claremont conversation that occurred just before Easter, almost exactly five years ago. The context I supplied for our exchange was a two-day seminar led by Harry V. Jaffa on his own major books.

While not a participant at that seminar, Schall observed that  

I am in part thinking of Harry Jaffa’s remark at Strauss’s funeral that the importance of Aquinas was that he kept Aristotle alive. Indeed he did, but he also saw how Aristotle and revelation were in fact related. It has been my life work, as I look back on the political philosophy essays and books that I have written, to explain how they belong together. We still must keep the proper distinctions and observations.

Schall repeated this theme in his reflections on his life in January. They are particularly acute as the smoke of the Notre Dame fire still lingers:

We want to say that nothing basic is really going on. Yet too much evidence appears that some huge disconnect it taking place in our midst. That clear line of thought from Aristotle to Aquinas to Benedict seems frayed. Orthodoxy meant a confidence that what was handed down was not itself changing or becoming obscure. It also meant that reason would meet what was revealed to us as compatible with what we could learn by ourselves. The truths of God made reason more itself, when thought out.

Strictly speaking, if what is revealed and what is understood are no longer coherent to each other, then that central promise on which we rely for stability of doctrine and practice cannot be maintained.

Fr. Jim and I had spoken several times of a book collecting  his Claremont conversations, as a complement to another book of conversations he has since published. Our volume might conclude with writings from his last years.

I’ll remember the time of his passing, April 17, 12:48 Pacific Time corresponds to when (albeit in Eastern Time) I was scheduling a Mass to be said for him. About the nearest date available was St. Anthony of Padua’s Feast Day, June 13. Fitting for a world that is losing its mind and for a saint who was a Doctor of the Church. My birthday too, for my conversion seems impossible without Fr. Jim.

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Photo Credit: The Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University

About the Author:

Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, as well as for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of seven books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.