One does wonder sometimes about God’s ways with his most devoted servants. Several years back, Father James Schall, S.J., one of the greatest of American Jesuits and the living embodiment of Catholic liberal learning at Georgetown, was struck by an illness that cost him an eye. This summer, Father Schall is recovering from some nasty surgery, which involved removing a cancerous jawbone and its attendant teeth and replacing the jaw with bone taken from Schall’s leg. Father Schall has taken this with his customary faith, good humor, and sang-froid; his convalescence, and his enormous grace amidst suffering, prompt me to pay him long overdue tribute.
He is a deeply learned man, yet he wears his learning lightly. He looks the part of the old-school Jesuit he is: if someone told me that, like the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, Schall uses duct-tape to fix his battered shoes, or that he cut chunks out of old Clorox bottles to make the tab collars for his faded clerical shirts, I wouldn’t be surprised. He is a marvelous teacher and a great spiritual director; and he is both because he is a man at peace with the absurdities of the world, which he knows to be part of a divine plan he doesn’t presume to grasp fully. Yet he is no ambiguist: he would rather thrust his hand into the fire than put a thought not congruent with the truths of Catholic faith on paper. I imagine he would happily die a martyr; the thought of the axeman’s face, confronted with Father Schall’s smiling, one-eyed visage, is worth a meditation.
He is the author of many books: some, exercises in political philosophy of the highest caliber; others of a more popular sort. His scholarly work is finely balanced between Jerusalem and Athens, embracing both revelation and reason. And while he has written on just about everything, from Plato to American sports, he brings to whatever engages his attention that sense of wonder with which all true thinking starts.
The man is also very, very funny. Indeed, he once concocted the greatest book subtitle since Gutenberg. “Another Sort of Learning” is a guide for university students adrift in the vacuities and disarray of so much of contemporary higher education. An insight into Father Schall’s qualities as mentor to those lost in the groves of academe (or to those wondering, years later, what happened to them there) may be gleaned from what follows the invitation to “another sort of learning” on the book’s cover: “Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still at College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Books Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found.”
Were I ever to find anything I had written on a James Schall book list, I would face the final assize confident that I could give a satisfactory answer to the question of what I had done to all those trees.
How did Catholicism get great priests and teachers like Father Schall? That’s perhaps the most urgent question facing Catholic higher education today, as the generation of giants that emerged from the Catholic intellectual renaissance of the mid-20th century passes from the scene.
My hunch is that the giants we have known—and, in the case of Father Schall, hope to know for years to come—combined a distinctively Catholic rootedness in the intellectual tradition of the West with a sense of adventure in engaging a modernity of which they were neither overawed nor afraid. A solid son of the American Midwest (Pocahontas, Iowa, in his case), James Schall could think clearly in the turbulence of the late 20th and early 21st century because he was solidly grounded in the enduring truths, and because he was a man of faith who knew that God’s purposes would, finally, win out in history. May God grant him a swift recovery and many more years of showing us the way.