James SCHALL, SJ: Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading. (Washington DC: Catholic University Press, 2013) P. xiv 281. Reviewed by Vincent WARGO, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, IN 46808.


To read Fr. Schall’s book is both a delight and an invitation to embark on a journey back in time. The 21 essays and lectures that comprise his book stem from the late 1980’s to the early 2000’s. They express a spirit and problematic, though less prominent today in Catholic higher education, one which still needs to be addressed, especially as a new generation of millennials make their way through Catholic colleges.  Although Schall may modestly admit that his book is organized “loosely” into 7 chapters, the attentive reader will appreciate the wisdom and logical development of his argument.

Political Philosophy and Revelation commences with the discussion of reading in general and the great books in particular. Schall is quick to remind us of why we read the great books: not for an antiquarian interest in past ages but to find out what is the truth.  It is through the true that we are able to make contact with the real, or what Schall calls the “what is”. One surmises that the intended audience of many of his arguments is the youthful undergraduate population. Schall challenges his readers to drop their deeply engrained relativism by holding out the promise of achieving a true discourse about the real. However, what is required of the reader is that we don’t shrink back from the charge of judging the true from the false. The combination of truth, reality and judgment become fundamental concepts that work as leitmotiv throughout the rest of the work.

Once the reader can admit to the reality of things existing outside the mind which we can know, Schall can turn his attention to understanding the true nature of human beings. What are human beings and how has modern science and philosophy conspired to hide this fact by conceiving of man as a material that can be shaped and formed to meet exigencies of its own project. Humanity no longer conceived as having an unchangeable nature which can be violated. Modern philosophy, and here Schall is considering political philosophy in particular, conceives of the human person on a purely secular basis. Modern political theory and the conclusions which are derived from it substitute a political solution for a properly theological question e.g., what is the final end of the human person? In other words, modern political thought cuts off man from his true transcendence towards God. However, this situation wasn’t always the case, Schall explains. In its questioning after the “what is”, ancient and medieval philosophy were open to broader sources of evidence. The philosophical thought of Plato and Aristotle and the theological speculations of Augustine and Aquinas become examples of the fruitful integration of revelation and reason.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that Schall simply repeats the answers of the tradition. Schall addresses himself to how religion and politics have been mixed up in contemporary issues of Islamic terrorism, liberation theology and the burgeoning environmental movement. In all instances, Schall’s interest lies in the foundational questions these issues bring forth. For example, in what ways have theological concepts like redemption been wrongly used to bring about political change? Schall writes, “Politics cannot accomplish these spiritual things. It seems ironic, though it is true, the world’s worst tyrannies arise from promising too many political things.” In the end, Schall argues that the Roman Catholic faith can provide an answer to the perennial platonic question: Is the world made in injustice?” The answer takes the form of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. Here again the theme of truth, reality and judgment return. But this time the reality of the world’s injustice and its restitution requires a divine and not human judgment to set it in order.

Schall’s Political Philosophy and Revelation would make a fine addition to any undergraduate course in philosophy, theology or political theory. Its foundational questions and provocative answers are sure to incite healthy debate in the classroom. The expert might have questions for Schall about the apparent dearth of material from contemporary political studies in areas of democracy, diversity, equality and globalization. And how the classical definition of man as a rational animal is used without reflecting on what 24 centuries of Western culture and religion might add to its original Greek formulation. Several times the same familiar Aristotelian catch-phrase, “if man was the highest being in the universe, politics would be the highest science,” is employed throughout the individual essays. Of course this repetition provides continuity to his project but it also invariably gives the impression that this assumption, and all that it implies, is a principle which Schall won’t question. Even with these caveats, Schall’s work should be the first place students, writers and researchers turn if they want to consider foundational issues in political theory and revelation.