Inciting Wonder, Remembering a Wise Teacher, Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

(Patrick Semansky/Reuters)

Earlier this year, Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., storied Georgetown professor of government, nearly died. After I saw that he was writing columns again, I asked him if he would do an interview about the near-death experience. Now he has really been gone for two months — there’s a memorial Mass at Georgetown today for those who couldn’t make it to his Christian burial Mass in California — and I realize that even though I broke up our final conversation (over e-mail) into a few pieces here and here and here, I have a little more from our exchange I never published anywhere. I thought some of you who knew and loved the priest and teacher, or read him over the years, might want to read some of his other near-closing thoughts. I also thought some of the people on his mind might appreciate knowing.

Lopez: In a recent e-mail to me, you described Msgr. Robert Sokolowski at (my alma mater) The Catholic University of America as one of the best minds we have today in the Church. Why is that? What do we all have to learn from him?

Fr. Schall: Msgr. Sokolowski is a good friend. I had come across his work only later in life and have often spoken with or written to him. His books and thought reveal a clarity of thought and a carefulness and attention to reality for which he gives a lucid and penetrating account. His life work has been to show how the work of Edmund Husserl relates to Aquinas and the core of western thought.

At first sight, his body of publications is formidable. The best single philosophy book I know, one that step by step takes the reader through every essential phase of human thought is found in his book The Phenomenology of the Human Person. He wanted to entitle this book, “The Agent of Truth,” a far better title, but the publishers (Cambridge) thought it sounded too much like a detective story! He begins with his oft-repeated principle that the first act of the mind is contemplative and wants first to distinguish clearly what is found not first in the mind but in reality. His book breaks every issue down to intelligible parts which build on each other. No book is quite like it.

Sokolowski knows his history of thought, the connection of ideas, and modern thought on basic issues. His book, The God of Faith and Reason is the place to begin reading him. His fundamental idea that God is not “part” of the world develops into an understanding of creation as something that exists but need not and thus requires an origin that is transcendent to the given cosmos in which we find ourselves.

Sokolowski’s book, Christian Faith & Human Understanding, is a series of profound essays on a number of theological and moral principles. His discussion of a vocation like medicine or any of the professions is really outstanding. He also recognizes in his book, Pictures, Quotations, and Distinctions that we do now just learn by words (a central topic of his Phenomenology of the Human Person). His book, Eucharistic Presence lays out the whole issue of the Eucharist in all its philosophical and theological overtones. Each year or so he has taken a class through his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics and its abiding ramifications. All of this is in addition to his work on Husserl, the basic lines of which are found in his book, An Introduction to Phenomenology.

In brief, I would affirm that no one can take us to the heart and essentials of the complete truth of things faster than Sokolowski. But when you finally read him, he demands attention, he incites your wonder. Truth does not exist except when it is actively affirmed in a mind that knows of what is that it is.

Lopez: You gave a “Last Lecture” in Gaston Hall at Georgetown in 2012.

Is there anything you might add?

Fr. Schall: No, I am content with what was found in that lecture. It is not good form to have more than one “last lecture.” That lecture had to do with my life as a teacher midst many of the several thousand students I had in various classes over the years of my tenure at Georgetown. No professor can be indifferent to what his students have taught him. I followed the observation of Frederick Wilhelmsen that a professor is not a professor unless he finally set down for his students and for the public what it is that he has learned in his time in academia. The “Last Lecture” was my effort to fulfill this welcome admonition.

We had one another exchange about the future of the Church and the culture in which he recommended both Jennifer Roback Morse’s The Sexual State and Daniel Maloney’s The Idol of the Age. He cited, too, a John XXIII word of “’Corragio‘; it is not over yet.”

Need any more be said? Not for now. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit to go forward with one less teacher of wisdom, but ever with the God to Whom he dedicated his life. May God be good to him.

And, as I understand it, there’s at least one more Fr. Schall book to come, he had just finished up . . .

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