Since 2002 Ken Masugi, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and lecturer in Government at Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, has conducted Advent interviews with James V. Schall, S.J., author of over thirty books on political theory and theology. Here are earlier interviews. Here is his previous. Fr. Schall teaches in the Government Department of Georgetown University. The Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown University has recognized his award-winning teaching with its annual Rev. James V. Schall, S.J. Award for Teaching and Humane Letters. His websites, a portal into his writings and course syllabi, are here and here.
Ken Masugi: We've been having an Advent conversation for seven years now. An earlier one actually made it as an appendix into your latest book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays.
James V. Schall: Actually, I had not thought of including an Interview in the book, but one of the readers, Professor Bradley Lewis, at the Catholic University of America, who had seen the Interview, suggested it. I know we are given to sober and prestigious things in academia as our criterion of what is "important." But, following the themes of many writers from Plato to Robert Sokolowski, it seems that real truth exists only and primarily in conversation, when someone is actually making alive what is "held" and "affirmed."
I have always suspected that that this "Interview" format, though we encounter it as written down, is often a better way to get at the heart of fundamental things, the things that count. Conversations with Eric Voegelin, I sometimes think, tells us as much about the essence of Voegelin as anything else he has written. He wrote: "We all experience our own existence as not existing out of itself but as coming from somewhere even if we don't know where." No place in Order and History is it said better.
In Conversations with Walker Percy, he is asked whether he thinks "scientific humanism" is a religion. "That won't do. A poor show," Percy answered. "Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact, I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less." It is difficult to top that. We live in a culture habituated to "settling" for what is less. From what is "less," we will never find happiness. We are created in abundance. That is the real mystery.
KM: Didn't President Obama's Nobel Speech bring up classical just war theory again?
JVS: As I told you, I have a difficult time listening to anything this president says. His sing-song rhetoric drives me nuts. He always seems to be posturing. Moreover, he seems to be a loose cannon. The Nobel Peace Prize was the last thing he should have received or accepted, but the ideological record of the Nobel Committee's judiciousness surprised no one. Yet, in point of fact, the president said about the opposite of what anyone had been led to expect. How can a man do this and not be considered to lack memory of what he said before? Not only that, he said that he did not really think that he deserved the prize either, though we might have been more impressed if, on this basis, he had just not gone.
I have written scores of things on war over the years, the basis of which was: 1) human nature does not change, 2) the only reason Gandhi's peaceful methods succeeded was because he was up against the British, not the Russians or Chinese, 3) some individuals and movements, notably the Arab jihadists, can only be stopped by much stronger use of force, and 4) we must walk softly and carry a big stick.
So I was astonished to read that the president said pretty much this same thing in his speech in Oslo. Whether we can trust him to carry out his own words, we must at least initially doubt. He seems, in this case, to come up with the opposite of what he said and did before. Several writers think that maybe he is actually learning by experience and seeing the light. His apparent failure to understand the nature and use of legitimate power has been one of the most troublesome issues of our time. No greater danger to world peace can be found than an American president who doe not know that force has legitimate and necessary purposes for the good of everyone.
All one can say at this point is that the president was very ungracious not to acknowledge that he was doing pretty much what President Bush was doing, because it had to be done. This reversal brings us back to the more basic question of what this new president is really about. He has not been forthcoming with us on things like just where was he born, whether he agrees with his long-time radical friends, whether he understands this country that he has apologized for around the globe. None of this is at all clear. In fact, it seems dangerous.
This speech, contrary to all expectations, is the first sign that the president may not do what he has said or implied all along. Maybe he is beginning to worry about his record or the consequences of the impressions he has been making on our enemies that we are a weak and unreliable force.
Moreover, if he senses that he has been wrong on war, perhaps he will understand that he has been wrong on just about everything else from abortion, to the economy, to earth warming, to apologizing all over the place for the American record. Indeed, in Oslo, he finally told the Europeans that it was the Americans who have borne the main burden of freedom, not anyone else. His talk sounded like it was straight out of Augustine on war.
KM: The declining economy is central to people's minds, and the Pope issued an encyclical about economics, which emphasizes the virtue of charity, "Charity in Truth," which seems to be an odd combination, of a moral virtue and an intellectual one.
JVS: The economy, though important, should not be central issue in our country's mind. That we have a major enemy that we do not recognize, this is what should be central. Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, was also devoted to this issue of charity and government, particularly the last half of the encyclical. It was frankly stated there, that no social program, no matter how well devised, could really substitute for a personal element in its actuality that included the notion of charity which looks to the good of the particular person.
The combination, charity and truth, is not so odd. Modern ideology, usually in the name of helping the poor, is often a case of charity gone mad. The latest encyclical, I think, was designed not so much to emphasize charity as to limit it to what it is. Like tolerance and sympathy, charity and love can be oblivious to what it is that we should finally love and help, and to how we bring these things about. Without truth, even charity becomes a form of relativism. We suddenly, in the name of charity, find ourselves funding revolutionary and terrorist organizations.
Love is willing the true good in another, not just any good. The other is not an empty will to power but a real being with its own order and destiny. We can aid men to become worse as well as to become better, especially if we do not know the difference. Unless we know what it is that we deal with, we cannot love it or even help it to the proper good that belongs to it. Almost all evils in the world are initially caused by pursuing a good but in a manner that is out of order. The totalitarian movements of our time have been almost invariably inspired by issues that we could call "charity" or, helping the poor, or, in the case of the jihadists, religion.
KM: The Encyclical has been criticized, in particular by conservatives, who noted skepticism about world government in one place and a seeming embrace of it in another.
JVS: It seems clear that the pope did not write the whole of this document from the beginning as was largely the case of the first two encyclicals. The previous encyclical, Spe Salvi, is by far a superior analysis of modernity. No other document, religious or secular, quite rises to its truth. In the case of Caritas in veritate, it looks like every Roman dicastery was asked to submit what it thought should go into a "social" encyclical. It has all the appearances of a committee written work. Contributing were the earth warmers, socialists, anti-capitalists, proportionalists, pacifists, population controllers, and heaven knows what that wanted into the act.
What the pope did, it seems, was to look at all this material and put it into some sort of order. No doubt, there are rather obviously cases of praising, say world organization in principle, then in warning of its possible excesses.
I was troubled that the pope did not seem to have any problem with the record of labor unions, either that of their corruption, or, more especially, their actions that in effect prevent development, the theme of the encyclical. The Church, when it comes to labor, seems capable at times of only talking about the dignity or "rights" of the worker without examining wide-spread union policies that in effect work against other workers or the good of the economy in general, both local and international.
If I see the word "consumerism" once more in a papal document, I think I will scream. At a time when what is probably most needed by the economy are precisely "consumers" who create demand for jobs that are the basis of families and society well-being, we hear of this abstract sin that no one can define in what it might consist. It makes it sound as if we buy anything more than a piece of bread we are somehow corrupting ourselves. Plato said that unlimited desire is what causes economic growth and its eventual corruption. So I suppose that "consumerism" as a term comes out of this background. It means desire without reason. I would like to see the word simply dropped. The word profit is equally badly used. Profit has a legitimate title and no economy can run without it.
KM: Tocqueville gave a speech, during the 1848 turmoil, in which he argued that democratic republicanism (as he endorsed it) was Christian charity applied to politics. This view contrasts with young Woodrow Wilson's identity of democracy and socialism, just a few decades later. Does this encyclical take the Tocquevillean view or the Wilsonian? It seems to have caused confusion.
JVS: Well, between Tocqueville and Wilson we have Rerum Novarum that was definitely mindful of the dangers of socialism, which in fact came to pass. But I do think that if someone is a socialist, he can find things in this document that would warm his heart, just as there are things in it that seem to be on the side of ecology. Other passages seem to understand that environmentalism too has become an ideology, if not a nature-religion every much at war with Christian principles as socialism. Indeed, I would maintain that environmentalism is the chief agent of socialism in a post-Marxist world, if indeed the world is "post-Marxist."
The reversal of the priority of the creation account in Genesis is almost everywhere preached with considerable zeal. The earth was not created for man. Man is a kind of threat to the ongoing earth, therefore it is man that is the danger and the state must control him. Socialism and totalitarianism have no more valuable new ally than these understandings of the relation of man to earth. Man does not have "dominion" but he is barely here by sufferance and his works threaten some vague man down the ages for whom all previous ages now live.
KM: Please comment on this statement from the Encyclical: "Charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law. It gives real substance to the personal relationship with God and with neighbor; it is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)."
JVS: When I read a passage like this, I am concerned about what is the subject of this "social charity." The human person is the substantial bearer of all human reality. The state is not a person. It is not a substance. It does not have an intellect and will of its own. There is no such thing as corporate guilt or corporate virtue that belongs to some collective "being" that transcends the persons who actually live and die.
The Trinity is the heart of the Church's social teaching. Here we have a multiplicity of persons, a unity of nature, a divine nature. All love is ordered to another person who actually exists. However, there is an order in this relationship. Sometimes it sounds like we are more responsible for those far off beings we do not know than we are for those we do. This is dangerous doctrine. It makes any real charity impossible. It smacks of Rousseau, of loving man but not one's actual neighbor. Sometimes it sounds like we should reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator in the name of the common good. The whole of Aquinas was in the opposite direction. We should bring out the full potential of everyone. That was the "common good" meant, not some kind of collective being. This meant that some are more talented, some will have more than others in a ways that has nothing to do with injustice.
KM: The encyclical becomes a basis for criticizing an overemphasis on rights. "The link consists in this: individual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild, leading to an escalation of demands which are effectively unlimited and indiscriminate. An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties. Duties set a limit on rights, because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become license."
JVS: Now there is no doubt that "rights" have run wild in the modern political world. No word has done more to undermine what was thought to be Catholic social thought. All social encyclicals and letters are filled with rights-talk. It is embarrassing the looseness with which this word is used in the light of its modern history. Actually, the word "duty" also has a tainted origin from Kant.
The popes try to talk a common language, not a technical one if they can. "Rights" seems to be a useful word, why not use it? As best as I can tell, the word "rights" in papal thought is designed to describe what a human being is. It is "right" that he is this way and not that way. Thus, what it is to be a human being is what it is to be right. Thus, there are views of what it is to be human that are wrong, that undermine what it is to be a human being. This undermining has taken place in large part under the aegis of the word "rights." The Church thus finds itself at the same time affirming rights and denying them. No wonder people are easily confused.
While the corrective of "duties" is useful, so that we can say that there are no rights without prior duties, we cannot forget the modern heritage of the word "duties" also can undermine what is the essence of Christianity. Thus, if my relation to any other human being is conceived in terms of "duties," it follows that I really do not concern myself with the other, but primarily with my "duty." If I ask someone why he is helping me, he answers: "It is my duty." This response is hardly consoling. In fact, it is downright alienating. A "duty" oriented morality is, at bottom, impersonal I can never really get to the heart of who and what the other person is for his own sake, for the good that is in him.
The problem with the words "rights" and "values," again common words used all the time as if they were harmless, is that they come out of Hobbes and Max Weber, not out of a metaphysics that is Aristotelian or Thomistic or Christian. By "right," Hobbes and his followers meant an absolute claim to whatever I judged that I wanted or needed. It implied no understanding of a permanent human nature except in the sense of the war of all against all. And "value" meant precisely that there was no content to what it was the primarily desired. Social science was merely a more accurate way of my getting what I wanted, no matter what it was. Rights, values, and duties, in effect, replaced virtues in the classical sense. Virtue talk had the advantage of speaking of real being, itself related to what man was from nature.
Thus, while there is some sense in this encyclical that "rights" have created a major problem, there is less understanding of how "duties" also create major problems, not to mention "values." The discourse on "relativism" that Benedict often comes back to is, of course, at the heart of all these problems. The only "inalienable" right in modern thought is my "right" to whatever I want. The only "duty" I have is to what someone else might equally owe to me. The only "value" I have is the end I give myself. So, I would like to see a more systematic return to virtue language, notwithstanding the fact that Machiavelli took the word "virtue" and made it mean simply power. But then he was but another modern consistently carrying out the principles already implicit in the separation of reason and revelation.
KM: Could you clarify this: "The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly-not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered."
JVS: Any ethical theory, I suppose, would claim that it is "the" ethical theory. Obviously, we have ethical systems which, when spelled out, contradict each other. The fact is that there can only be one "ethics." We cannot logically have an ethics in which what is just and what is unjust are on equal footing. Imagine trying to do business with someone whose "ethics" does not prevent him from lying to you, or whose ethics are based on a claim and reality of superior power. So principles like "Pacta sunt servanda" are necessary if any ethical order is to make sense.
If we go around the world, I think, and examine why some economies "work" and others do not, I think the principal reason has to do with the people's understanding of ethics, of how to live and relate to one another in a fair and just manner. They need laws and institutions in which the exchanges of goods and services can take place in a manner that everyone contributes and is rewarded for what is his positive contribution. Bribery and corruption, much more widespread than we are willing to acknowledge, are drags on markets and the capacity of the world to aid its own.
Politics and ethics should provide an arena in which the exchanges among actual human beings can take place in a definably fair and just manner. Space needs to be provided for giving and for services that are beyond the calls of strict justice. At bottom, though, man's best home is "with liberty and justice for all" in a regime in which virtue is in the acts of the law and in the habits of the people.
KM: The word "development" keeps coming up in a curious way. For example, the Pope writes: "The truth of development consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development. This is the central message of Populorum Progressio, valid for today and for all time." Is this not a very un-Augustinian statement?
JVS: At first sight, the statement certainly sounds utopian. There is no doubt that, in Aquinas, the concern was in principle that each person receives the full fulfillment of the good that he was capable of. It was also hoped that this "development" was designed for everyone. This principles statement was counterbalanced by a realism that said that law was made for the "generality of men" the majority of whom were not "perfect." Most men, most of the time in all ages and polities were imperfect, they lacked physical fullness and moral and intellectual completion. But these were the ones who actually existed, the only ones whom we knew and could love.
Benedict in Spe Salvi was quite attentive to the dangers of thinking we could achieve this complete and full development for every person in this world in some now of the future that made all existing people mere tools to accomplishing something noble down the ages which may never in fact come to be. The whole Platonic and Christian doctrines of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body were in fact directed to the political impossibility or unlikelihood of such a perfect situation ever in fact arising in this world.
But the other side of this issue was that reason and revelation were not indifferent to the conditions of the world or to what was best in the three Aristotelian senses of best for this particular people, best for most men in general, and best absolutely if we could have it. The very exercise of building a city in speech, the Platonic project, meant that we could not but be conscious, if we did not have it, of what was better. Utopianism usually meant being so dissatisfied with one's conditions that he refused to do anything about actual men in the now. The conservative tradition cautioned us always to be content with what we could reasonably expect granted the actual habits, customs, and virtue of any actual person or polity.
Christianity wants to say that we can know how men ought to live, but that we also knows the limits of this world and the limits of human virtue and the extent of human vice. One of the great political tasks of Christianity is constantly to remind us that we have not here a lasting city. All modern ideology, usually cast in terms of rights, duties, and values, claims that we can and that religion is the principal impediment to its being attained soon, in this world.
KM: Are there limits to politics? For instance, how do you read the following passage from Benedict: "Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between man and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is." How do you read such a passage?
JVS: It is interesting in A Guide for the Perplexed, E. F. Schumacher used this very French Revolution addition of "fraternity"-liberty, equality, and fraternity-to show that certain issues like how to balance liberty and equality could be transcended by new concepts, or revelations, like fraternity.
Christian revelation was not given in order to tell us how to organize or run the polity. It did not do this because it assumed or understood that man could figure this arrangement out for himself. Revelation was not designed to take the place of reason. Indeed, it demanded that reason go to the trouble of knowing and learning what it could. Revelation is pretty much closed to dullards, or better, to those with the famous vice of aecidia, of that intellectual laziness that refuses to address itself to the highest things through fear of what might happen if it knew what in fact was expect of man.
The pope here seems deliberately identify "fraternity" with that brotherly love that has its origin in grace, not in natural benevolence. You shall not love one another as you love yourselves, but "as I have loved you," that is, with a sacrificial love that prefers death to doing evil. This sort of sacrificial love is what is new in the world. Christianity has seen its outlines secularized and disemboweled, as it were, in modern ideology. Collectivities replace actual persons, who are the ones that are destined for eternal life.
Augustine remarked that we human beings can quite well understand what justice and kindness are, what temperance is, what courage. It is just that we find that it is very difficult to practice them. All history of all peoples bears this out. Obviously, that fact of our nature and history is perplexing. It was not that reason was not itself reasonable. Everyone knew that it was. Paul's wonderment about not being able to do what he knew that he should is familiar to all of us who are honest with ourselves. Where this leaves us is with Aquinas' "reasons" for the "necessity" of a divine law.
We can look at this "necessity" either as an attack on the dignity or sufficiency of human nature. We can demand a "humanism" without the suspicion that it needs something more than human to be and remain human. Or we can frankly recognize that, as Aquinas said, that homo non naturale sed supernaturale est. That is, we are intended for more than we are by nature. That we are is, in fact, our experience and why we can never be satisfied with anything less than the eternal life to which we are destined and for which we are created in the first place.
KM: But is not the "ethics" the pope talks about open to transcendence, with a basis in faith? Listen to what he says: "Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith: this also holds true for political reason, which must not consider itself omnipotent. For its part, religion always needs to be purified by reason in order to show its authentically human face. Any breach in this dialogue comes only at tan enormous price to human development."
JVS: First, the pope understands what Aristotle and Aquinas understood that any honest examination of our lives, of our understanding our own being, always takes us to an openness beyond ourselves. We cannot love or know even one person, or even one flower, without eventually being opened out to something real within and beyond the other thing we behold. So if revelation is addressed to reason, it is to a reason that already knows that it is not complete and cannot complete itself. The astonishment comes when it realizes that somehow what is revealed does make sense in reason, on reason's own terms.
This is why the most remarkable side of the Benedict's comment was not that reason stands in need of being purified, but that "religion always needs to be purified by reason." And why does it need this? Nothing less than to "show its (religion's) authentically human face." Love seeks the face of the other. Paul says that we seek the face of the Lord. Christianity says that the Lord had a face. If we are not astounded by these parallels, we have not been using our reason, forget the religion part.
KM: Is Benedict responding to the Grand Inquisitor?
JVS: That is quite a perceptive observation. The Grand Inquisitor thought that, in the end, men would beg to live by bread alone. The way that the poor are used in modern ideology, Marxist or liberal, almost always assumes this living by bread alone. Of course, the Grand Inquisitor himself is putting a gloss on Christ's famous phrase: "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every world that comes from the mouth of God." It is these words from the mouth of God that we call grace when they are given to us to think about.
All disorder of polity arises in disorder of soul. Plato still teaches us that, if we would listen. The "development" that appears in this encyclical is not designed to give a Christian take on modern ideology, though many Christians do not seem to know that. Yet, as Josef Pieper says, there is such a thing as Christian worldliness. This worldliness is nowhere more beautifully depicted than in Chesterton's boom Thomas Aquinas. We are to love the world and those in it. We hope that the potential in us can be developed. Yet, we know that myriads of our kind have died as far as we can see by this worldly standards unfulfilled. If we are Platonists, as I hope we are, we cannot live with this sense of injustice and incompletion. So, the whole story of our lives is not completed in politics, though that is the arena of our actions according to which we establish what we are and reveal out souls before our kind.
KM: Today, the rhetoric of the left on social welfare policy has been: Let's do this for our children (the abortion survivors).
JVS: Yes, the world today is populated, as you deftly put it, by "abortions survivors." I remember Camus said somewhere that the world is also filled with those who do not commit suicide. Those myriads of our kind killed by the abortionists and those who permitted their butchery had no "choice." Yet, we find that in fact we need them. This need is one of the great ironies of our time. We need the population that we have dispatched, according to law. This is why I have always thought Paul VI's Humanae Vitae was the most prophetic document of our time. But you are right, the rhetoric of helping the children, like that if helping the environment, is one of the major avenues to a totalitarian mentality that sees no reason why what it is to be human in all its phases is worthy of our complete attention. Socrates said that "it is never right to do wrong." This remains the real answer to the Grand Inquisitor, even to democratic peoples who think the words of the Lord and of the philosopher do not apply to them.
KM: Which brings us back to the title of your book, The Mind That Is Catholic: How are such radically different ways of life, the philosopher and the saint, Socrates and Jesus, somehow a unity?
JVS: Actually, reconciling Socrates and Jesus is not nearly the problem that reconciling most strands of modernity with either one of them is. There really is no intrinsic reason why, in this life, these things will ever be fully reconciled. They have not been for our ancestors. I see no necessary reason why they will be for our posterity. This does not mean that they will not be reconciled. But that depends on the principle that Benedict set down in Spe Salvi in which he said, following two Marxist philosophers, Adorno and Horkheimer, that the concept of justice is the principal philosophic foundation for the resurrection of the body, a doctrine that is ultimately needed if such things will be finally reconciled in human and salvation history.
So, though your last question has a justified tinge of resignation, I think in fact that the truth is that such a thing as charity, the love with which the Persons of the Trinity relate to one another is also present among us. It is not necessarily designed to make this world perfect but to lead each of us to that final end for which we were created, each individually as persons ordered to God and one another. Socrates thought, after he was executed, that he would continue to philosophize with his friends. The only thing that the mind that is Catholic adds to this is that one of our friends will be God Himself. We do not need to read too far in Aristotle to understand the extraordinary implications of such an affirmation addressed as it is to the philosopher doing philosophy.
KM: Thank you, Fr. Jim, and Merry Christmas.