Remembering Father James V. Schall, an Old-School Jesuit

Father James Schall in 2012
The faith of the longtime Georgetown professor informed his intellectual work, as his intellect refined his faith.

The most distinguished son of Pocahontas, Iowa, Father James V. Schall, S.J., died at age 91 on April 17, just as Lent 2019 was drawing to a close and Easter was visible on the horizon.

Father Schall was what’s usually referred to as an “old-school Jesuit” — meaning (to my mind) that he was the kind of Jesuit St. Ignatius Loyola imagined when he founded the Society of Jesus in the 16th century. Jim Schall was both a man of rock-solid Catholic faith and a first-rate intellectual, a distinguished political philosopher at home with political theory from Plato through the moderns. His faith informed his intellectual work, as his intellect refined his faith. He was an exceptionally gifted teacher; before he was put out to pasture by Jesuit superiors who didn’t seem to grasp what a magnet he was for the students they ought to be recruiting, his last lecture at Georgetown University was attended by hundreds, who spilled out of venerable Gaston Hall into the surrounding corridors. He was a devoted priest, a masterful spiritual director, and a counselor who encouraged his students to think vocationally, whether about the priesthood or consecrated religious life, marriage, or their professional careers.

He was also an ascetic, whom self-denial, religious disciplines, and — in his last decade, illness — had whittled down, so that in his eighties he looked something like a lean, mean pirate in a Roman collar (which he always wore). But there was no meanness in the man, only a sweetness of temperament wed to a bracing, unblinking honesty about the state of the Church, the world, and the Society to which he had given his life. His suffering from cancer and his being blinded in one eye did make his legion of friends and protégés wonder about God’s ways with his most devoted servants; Father Schall would have said that suffering is good for you, because if you conform your sufferings to those of Christ in his Passion, then God’s grace helps you grow through suffering into the imitation of Christ that every Christian should be.

Father Schall’s life and holy death invite a reflection on the gamble that the Catholic Church took in approving Saint Ignatius’s proposal, during the cultural tsunami of the Reformation, to create an elite corps of priestly guerrillas, formed by his Spiritual Exercises, whom Ignatius would deploy to “set the world ablaze” (as the inscription on the base of his statue at the Jesuit GHQ in Rome reminds us). As my friend Russell Hittinger once put it, the Exercises were a spirituality invented for European intellectuals paddling canoes up rivers in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by what were then known as “savages.” The Exercises were thus very much a me-and-God affair; the gamble was that they would not lead to a radical, delusory subjectivism, because a well-formed Jesuit would also be unshakeable in his commitment to the truth of Catholic faith and to the teaching authority of the Church. Cut that tether to truth and ecclesiastical authority, and trouble would begin.

And then there was that quite deliberate Ignatian elitism. Self-defined and self-constructed elites are almost always trouble within a complex institution. They risk becoming what C. S. Lewis called an “Inner Ring,” which imagines itself composed of superior types to whom others must defer, and who are, because of their superiority, absolved from some of the myriad loyalties that bind others to the institution. The Jesuits’ stern, unbending fidelity – embodied in their famous fourth vow and its promise of radical obedience to the pope and radical availability for any mission the pope decreed – would, it was hoped, prevent this elite corps from decomposing into something akin to its own church, marching to the beat of its own, self-consciously superior drummers.

The Church’s gamble paid off in the life of men such as Father Jim Schall, for whom radical commitment to the full symphony of Catholic truth was liberating rather than confining — especially when that commitment was intellectually refined by a lifelong immersion in the great books of Western civilization. Whether that gamble has paid off in respect of the entire Society of Jesus as the Catholic Church experiences it today is a question that caused Father Schall more than a little anxiety over the course of his long life.

In addition to his asceticism, his brilliance, and that unfailing twinkle in his (remaining) eye, Father Schall was an attractive and compelling human personality — and a great teacher and mentor — because, while he took the spiritual life and the life of the mind with great seriousness, he never took himself seriously. Thus he could poke gentle fun at the intellectual life, at its best and at its contemporary worst, with a book whose double-barreled subtitle alone ought to have won Schall a National Book Award: Another Sort of Learning: 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 Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found.

These are tough days for Catholic priests, whose reputation as a group is being damaged by revelations of the perfidy of some 4 percent of their number. From his present station in the Communion of Saints, I am confident that my friend Father Jim Schall, a priest to the core whose priesthood was indeed an icon of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, is interceding for priests, for the reform of the Church, and for the reform of the Society of which he was an exemplary, if too often unappreciated, member. Thank you, Jim, for being a true man for others. Thank you for your tireless example of priestly holiness and intellectual integrity. Requiescat in pace.

George Weigel is the distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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