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On Catholic Political Philosophy (Part 1 of 2)

9/11/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Father James Schall on Faith, Reason and Politics

WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 11, 2005 (Zenit) - Some thinkers have attributed the rise of Western civilization to the unshackling of philosophy and the natural sciences from theology and the burden of religious claims.

Even Thomas Aquinas noted that the natural sciences and philosophy have distinct methods and require a certain degree of autonomy.

But in his new book, Father James Schall claims that philosophy, and political philosophy in particular, can only arrive at the truth it seeks if it allows itself to be open to the truths of Revelation as offered by theology.

Father Schall, professor in the department of government at Georgetown University, shared with Catholic Online why Catholicism offers a distinct and necessary approach to the endeavors of the political philosopher.

Part 2 of this interview will appear on Sunday.

Q: Please explain the title "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy," since Catholicism is not a political movement.

Father Schall: The title is deliberately paradoxical, even provocative. It is, if you will, a countercultural thesis. Two different, known things are juxtaposed. They, I argue, have a relation that, if not spelled out, ends up confusing both political and revelational realities.

Since Catholicism is not a political movement, it frees political things to be political things. It does not encourage them, as so often happens in modernity, to be confused with religion or metaphysics, or become, in effect, substitutes for them.

The book is at pains to define modernity, a movement that sees no cause to explain things, including human things, other than arbitrary human will as their basis. Likewise, attention is given to science and metaphysics to distinguish them from political things.

If politics is not limited to what it is, it tends to claim to be itself the highest thing. It finds itself claiming to define and to establish the whole of the human good on its own terms.

Catholicism is not a political movement, but it is concerned with the highest things. Still it also recognizes that some regimes are better than others and understands principles by which such distinction between good and bad regimes can be established. It likewise recognizes and defends the legitimacy of the philosophical consideration of human things.

Revelation cannot deal with politics until it first knows what politics considers itself to be. Political philosophy must know what it itself is.

By "Revelation" I mean that body of articulated principles and conclusions that Catholic thought has explained in precise terms exactly what it holds about God, man and the cosmos. The origins of this knowledge are the events both in the Old and New Testaments, as they are recorded and handed down in Tradition and Scripture.

But Roman Catholicism understands itself in contrast with alternative views of the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption and the Church. The Church is a means whereby that which is announced to mankind is to be achieved in practice.

The most succinct statement of what Catholicism holds about itself is found in the Nicene Creed; the most recent and elaborate statement is found in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church does not and cannot hold that everyone believes or understands what is presented here without grace. But it does insist that anyone can at least get the point of what it presents.

The Incarnation, for example, may be a mystery […], but anyone who takes the effort can at least understand what it claims it to be. It is part of the very essence of Catholicism constantly to specify and clarify what it means or understands about itself in the light of objections or misunderstandings from whatever source.

Indeed, a good part of what we know more clearly about Revelation was historically hammered out in controversies, many still quite alive, with those who rejected or misunderstood what Catholicism held about itself and about Revelation's content.

Q: What is political philosophy? Why is it incomplete in itself?

Father Schall: In one sense, political philosophy exists because both Plato and Cicero wrote books called "The Republic" and "The Laws," while Aristotle wrote "Ethics," "Politics" and "Metaphysics."

Though both the Old and New Testaments touch upon political things, neither -- but more especially the New Testament -- is directly a treatise on politics, on how to organize the city.

Indirectly, certain things in the New Testament, the "render to Caesar" and the "it is better to obey God than men," together with giving a cup of water and the trial of Christ, have had an enormous impact on our understanding of politics. Still, it was not the direct purpose of Revelation to ...

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