The Catholic Mind

What is “the Catholic mind”? One of the leading lights of our time, James V. Schall, S.J., worked out this idea of what a Catholic mind is in a book of essays, “The Mind That Is Catholic.” Throughout this collection of philosophical and historical articles, Fr. Schall continually strove to reach the heart of the matter: what separates the Catholic mind from any other mind?

In an excellent 2009 interview with ZENIT discussing the book, Fr. Schall stated, “The mind that is Catholic is open to all sources of information, including what comes from Revelation.” He also points out differences from a secular, atheistic, or Protestant mind, for example, to what it means to be a Catholic mind.

Fr. Schall is suggesting that the Catholic mind does not enclose itself in limited thinking or superstition, as if Catholicism is a mere religion of rigidity and narrowness, but through an openness toward both faith and reason this mind is led to a new, exciting direction, a direction leading upwards to something greater than the individual—God.

“The ‘primary’ source of the Catholic mind is reality itself, including the reality of revelation,” Fr. Schall said. Any student, then, of Pope Benedict XVI, would know what reality itself is, none other than Jesus Christ. Benedict posited the fundamental question in Jesus of Nazareth, “Is He real, reality itself, or isn’t He?”

In the Catholic mind, the purpose of existence thus becomes crystalized: reality, then, is not just the sole existence of the universe, but a Christocentric, Trinitarian perspective on that universe—as well as every thing and person within it. If reality is God, we live in that reality to know, love, and serve God. Every thought, decision, word, and action from the Catholic mind is from that perspective.

This is why the Catholic mind is so bountiful in curiosity and demanding of knowledge; why it’s so adept in so many different vocational callings and careers; why it embraces the beauty of the world while knowing its goal is in the eternal hereafter with the Beatific Vision. “What is peculiar to Catholicism, I have always thought,” Fr. Schall mused, “is its refusal to leave anything out.”

This is why the Catholic mind is one, when in its state of grace, of living not for itself, but the other. Fr. Schall uses an example to make this point, speaking of the Church’s great spiritual minds, “I read with great profit everyone from Justin Martyr to Aquinas and Benedict. But they take me not to themselves but to the truth.”

“They take me not to themselves but to the truth.”

Such is the great dilemma of our time. How to balance the demands and joys of everyday with the greater task of enduring life’s trials in the quest to become saints? Basically, how to be Catholic in such a world as today?

It is a difficult needle to thread. The war may have been won by Christ on the Cross, but engaging in our own battles remain. As such, there is little doubt “lapsed” or “recovering” Catholics comprise a large part of society. To some, the Catholic perspective, the Catholic mind, may seem unrealistic, antiquated, or downright dangerous. On the other hand, one may see secularization as assaulting the Catholic mind to the point of capitulation. Should the Catholic mind continue to succumb to the homogenization of secularism, what becomes of the endurance of the great Catholic tradition that has defined cultures and shaped civilizations?

“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,” Jesus in Luke 12:48 warns, “and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

What exactly separates the Catholic mind from any another kind of mind?

Fr. Schall, the good Jesuit that he is, understands inherently the Jesuit adage of “finding God in all things” and the Jesuit directive of being “men and women for others.” These also describe the mission of the Catholic mind.

The Catholic mind has:

  • Access to the Sacraments, and is expected to live and think accordingly to the graces prompted by reception of those sacraments
  • A spiritual treasure trove from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and prayers
  • Intimate knowledge of the Mother of God
  • Appreciation for both fides et ratio, faith and reason. Pope St. John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical on the subject quotes Gaudium et Spes: “[O]nly in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” The great pope continues, “Seen in any other terms, the mystery of personal existence remains an insoluble riddle.” The Catholic mind, therefore, demands not a wandering faithful, but a tireless flock, a church militant.
  • Capacity to grasp and articulate universal principles (see another Jesuit’s work, Fr. Spitzer’s Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues)
  • Art, music and aesthetic beauty exemplifying the sensuous Catholic imagination
  • Unparalleled educational resources
  • A powerful bioethical tradition
  • A proud history of global charitable giving
  • The pantheon of saints
  • Appreciation for dynamic cultural traditions
  • The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

Yet, given the Catholic mind’s identity struggles in the contemporary milieu, some of these gifts have not registered as they are intended. The greatest and most tragic loss visible today is a disassociation of a uniquely Catholic identity. Fr. Schall, a longtime philosophy professor, points out a large-scale failure in education, for instance. “Catholic institutions of higher learning, as they are called, simply gave up what was unique about themselves and the reasons for having Catholic universities in the first place,” he said. As a result, he believes, “In the modern world, we find no group more deprived of the glories of their own mind than young Catholics.”

It is the responsibility of the Catholic mind to no longer let that young Catholic be deprived of the eternal promises of the very faith that can separate them from the individualism of today’s world. Kowtowing and accommodation will not suffice; when the young Catholic wonders what is so great about her Catholic faith, how will we respond?

The Catholic mind cannot take for granted it will remain a robust mind—or even a wholly Catholic mind—if it fails to nurture itself as a mind directed towards God, and not the self, no matter whatever noble purpose it think it might be pursuing.

Back, for a moment, to Fr. Schall’s note about reading Catholic writers: “They take me not to themselves but to the truth.” It is a sacrifice to embrace a Christocentric perspective in today’s world. One sacrifices the illusory prospect of “fitting in” to what Fr. Spitzer has called the “in-crowd.” Catholic faithful, then, need to support each other, not unlike the kind of friendship expressed in the support system of Tolkien’s hobbits surrounding Frodo, as we together undergo the harrowing but ultimately salvific journey of authentic Catholic spirituality.

The Catholic mind must identify itself first and foremost as Catholic before any other adjective supplants it.

“The mind that is Catholic seeks the source of what is and to delight in it,” Fr. Schall concluded. “This is its glory.”

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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