A learned priest: James V. Schall SJ

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Karl Schmude pays a personal tribute to the life and writings of a notable, but underrated, Catholic thinker of our times.

The death of the American Jesuit priest and author, James Schall, on 17 April at the age of 91, marks the loss of a vital figure in contemporary Catholicism.

For well over half a century, he contributed to the intellectual life of the universal Church. He produced over 30 books and a continuing stream of articles which would test the capacity of any bibliographer to record.

I had the privilege of knowing Fr Schall for the past 40 years, and find it hard to separate an appreciation of the intellectual riches he brought to the Church, and to so many fellow Catholics, from a tribute to what his friendship meant in a personal sense.

He was, by any reckoning, a model of the Catholic mind. He fused faith and reason, divine revelation and human intelligence, in ways that deepened our understanding of ourselves and the world around and beyond us.

A political philosopher of note

His academic profession was political philosophy. He taught for long stints in various universities, in Rome, San Francisco and Washington DC. When I first met him in 1977, he was dividing his academic year between two beautiful cities, Rome and San Francisco, teaching a semester on the campuses of the Gregorian University and the University of San Francisco. But his interests extended far beyond political philosophy, embracing areas as varied as theology, history, politics, literature, spirituality and sports.

Fr James Schall SJ, for decades on of the leading intellectual voices in American Catholicism, gives a lecture at Georgetown University.

Some of his most stimulating essays explored what he called “the seriousness of sports”. He saw these apparent diversions as fundamental rather than marginal – an invaluable way of learning the truths about life, such as obeying the rules of a game as a basis for respecting the rules – and realities – of life.

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His thinking and writing showed a phenomenal consistency. An early essay, for example, in a book he co-edited in 1966, Current Trends in Theology, sounded many of the themes that he addressed throughout the next half-century.

One was the proper balance between action and contemplation, between the outer life of politics and the inner life of prayer. He wrote instructively – in works such as The Distinctiveness of Christianity (1982) – on the crucial value of the monastery and the university. He argued that these institutions countered an undue emphasis on social action that ignored the underlying spiritual and intellectual needs, and eternal destiny, of human beings.

Interpreter of the western intellectual tradition

Fr Schall had a lifelong love of GK Chesterton, the famous English journalist, novelist and writer who converted to Catholicism and became on of its greatest 20th Century defenders. Fr Schall wrote numerous articles on Chesterton and contributed frequently to Chesterton publications.

Another theme rehearsed in the 1966 book was “the permanent things” (one of his favourite expressions) – the truths that finally matter in life. He had a living awareness and knowledge of the foundations of the Western intellectual heritage, forged by the blending of Greek thought and Jewish faith. On the one hand, there was the Greek tradition of all that was conducive to human perfection and happiness; on the other, the Jewish belief in the transcendent power and love of God. These two traditions were dynamically forged in Christianity – in Christ’s call to transform the world in fulfilment of God’s saving plan, and to humanise it in the image of Christ.

One of Fr Schall’s abiding attributes was his ability to explain complex truths in simple language. His books and articles illuminated the mysteries of our faith and the questions about our human existence – questions that he knew will not go away, even if we ignore them. In What Is God Like? (1992), he answered the question in the title thus:

“We learn what God is like primarily by being attentive to how God deals with us. But we will not be able to understand how we are dealt with unless we know how God has dealt with specific people, particularly Christ.”

A love for the common man

Fr Schall had a profound affinity with ordinary people, reflected in his writings as well as his friendships. A typical Schall essay abounds in personal memories and concrete examples. He picked playful titles for some of his books, such as The Praise of “Sons of Bitches”: On the Worship of God by Fallen Men (1978) and On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs (2001).

Yet he was wise and witty at the same time. He combined a popular sensibility with high scholarship and vast reading. He could invoke, in a single essay, a learned quotation from Plato or Augustine, a memory of a recent baseball game, a description of a New Yorker cartoon, or a reference to Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts.

This hospitable literary style was matched by his capacity for friendship and putting people at their ease. I recall the immediate rapport he established with my wife and our four sons (then aged 6 to 12) when he visited us during our stay in Washington DC in 1985. In the hotel bistro, he enthralled the boys at lunchtime with his stories about popular culture in America, conscious that they would have noticed those dining around them, mainly ordinary office-workers and tradesmen.

The joy of human contact informed his observations

As an inveterate walker, he knew these people, not only from personal conversations as he wandered around city neighbourhoods observing their lives, but also from contact with his students, whose affection for him as a teacher extended across the generations.

In 1988 he published one of his most characteristic works, Another Sort of Learning. While addressed primarily to students, it is a detailed guidebook for all those searching for wisdom, many of whom would have felt that present-day education had deprived them – and was denying their children and grandchildren – of access to a priceless intellectual inheritance.

The book is Fr Schall’s version of the Great Books. It contains his reflections on works by ancient and modern authors, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, Newman, Josef Pieper and Christopher Dawson. They were authors who had shaped his life – and, he hoped, would inspire his students.

Prominent among them was G.K. Chesterton, for whom Fr Schall had unbounded admiration. In 2000 he published Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes (2000).

He retired officially in 2012 from Georgetown University, but he never took the idea of retirement seriously. Despite serious bouts of ill-health, he continued to write tirelessly.

His personal letters always closed with a heartfelt request: “Pray for me. Jim”. May we all do so – in gratitude and hope.

Karl Schmude is a co-founder of Campion College and president of the Australian Chesterton Society.