Father Scalia: Sometimes We're Too Modest in Talking About Faith and Reason

By Terence P. Jeffrey | July 6, 2017 | 3:51pm EDT
Father Paul Scalia

(CNSNews.com) - Father Paul Scalia, a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., writes in a new book that faith and reason are not contradictory but complementary.

He sees this point symbolized by the fact that both shepherds and magi arrived to greet the newborn Jesus Christ.

“At the crib of our Lord we find two groups of people not typically associated with one another: shepherds and magi,” Scalia writes in “That Nothing May be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion.”

“The shepherds represent a simple, humble faith: the magi—or wise men—represent human reason and learning,” continues Scalia, who studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

“We do not usually lump such groups together, because the modern world has established an absolute separation between shepherds and magi—that is, between faith and reason,” says Scalia.

“For the modern mind faith is intrinsically unreasonable, the essence of setting aside one’s thought,” he says. “And reason likewise proceeds on its own, with no need for faith—that is no need to trust in anything other than itself.

“The Catholic mind, however, ought to proceed according to the solution of Bethlehem, where shepherds and magi, faith and reason, adore happily together,” he says.

“Reason that refuses to have anything to do with faith cripples its ability to think,” he writes.

“Faith likewise depends on reason,” he says. “Of course, the truths of faith are beyond (not contrary) to reason. We could not figure out the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the Eucharist on our own. Nevertheless, reason remains essential as both a preparation for faith and an instrument to deepen it.”


In an interview with CNSNews.com, Father Scalia discussed this idea and others he presented in “That Nothing May Be Lost.”

Terry Jeffrey: Father Scalia, thanks for coming in.

Father Paul Scalia: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.

Jeffrey: I really appreciate it. One of the reflections in your book talks about the two very diverse groups that showed up after Jesus was born, one being the shepherds, the other being the magi. What’s so remarkably different about those two groups?

Scalia: Well, I think they bring together two opposites, right. The poor and the unlearned and, then, the learned and the wealthy, the Magi. And there is always the danger of thinking that religion is for one or the other, thinking that religion is some esoteric thing that only the learned can really perceive, or to think that, no, it is just for the hoi polloi or the great unwashed. When, really, the Catholic faith is meant for, is meant to embrace, everybody. It is supposed to appeal to both the childlike, the shepherds, and those who are very learned. And I think in the history of the church that is what you see. You see some of the greatest intellects coming into the church, and then you also see this great, probably the greater part, of course, is going to the poor, people throughout the world who come to it. And, so, the faith has this wonderful paradox of a simplicity but then also a great, great theological and intellectual depth to it.

Jeffrey: And there is a profound symbolism that when Christ was born they were both there.

Scalia: They were both there. Right.

Jeffrey: They were both worshipping Him.

Scalia: Right. Exactly. A great image of how the church should embrace both. Right.

Jeffrey: So, talking about that latter group, I guess, you write in the book: “Many men of faith in the physical sciences—indeed many priests, such as Copernicus—contributed essential research and discoveries. The point is not that these great minds also happened to believe. Rather, it is that such men made such great advances in the intellectual life, not despite their faith, but precisely because of it.”

The Adoration of the Magi by Jacob de Wet

Scalia: Right. Yeah, absolutely. And that is something sometimes we’re too modest in talking about faith and reason. And saying: Well, you know, there really not opposed. It is not just that they are not opposed, it is that they are necessary to one another. This is John Paul II’s great encyclical, Fides et Ratio--Faith and Reason. And he lays this out so beautifully. And the reason that faith is necessary for those intellectual projects, even in the sciences, because you have to trust the world is ordered. It is designed, which, therefore, of course, implies a designer.  And if we don’t have that, then the world is just a jumble of things, and you look at the pagan religions where they are frightened of the world.  We’re not frightened of the world because we know it comes from the hand of a loving Father. It is wounded. It’s damaged. But we can apply our minds to the physical sciences because we know that it comes from one who is wise and has created something that is orderly.

Jeffrey: If everything is just an accident, there can be no science.

Scalia: Exactly. Exactly. And this is why science sort of breaks down in certain cultures and flourishes, really, in a Christian culture. It flourishes.

Jeffrey: So, ultimately, there is no conflict between Catholic faith and science.

Scalia:  Not just no conflict, but they are necessary to one another.

Jeffrey: If science pursues the truth, if science arrives at the truth, that is not going to contradict the Catholic faith?

Galileo by Justus Sustermans

Scalia: No. And I will say this, because people in the secular world will say: Ah, ha! What about Galileo? And it’s sort of a gotcha. First of all, I don’t know that the Galileo case has really been explained to most people very well, but I think the more important thing here is: In the 2,000 years of the church, that’s all you’ve got! Galileo? That’s a pretty good record, isn’t it?

Jeffrey: Right. But there is also the more fundamental, underlying, that there is reason to the way the universe works. The experience of the human race shows that these things follow each other logically.

Scalia: Yes, and human reason is always and ultimately resting on a teaching authority and that implies faith, and if it is not resting on that authority, then reason really fails ultimately, and then you are reduced to just the will and power and whoever has the most power wins.

Jeffrey: And, the ultimate a priori assumptions rest on the idea that there is a logical order to things.

Scalia: Yes.

Jeffrey: When you talk about the humility of Jesus Christ and where he came from, you make a very interesting point about his hometown. You say: “He loved His family and his town. He chose fellow Galileans as His Apostles. He did not shake the dust of His little town off His feet but brought it with Him. He went up to Jerusalem not to ‘make it big’ but to complete the humble work--and the work of humility—begun in Nazareth. May we likewise devote ourselves to the simplicity of those household goods—of hearth and home—that we may in turn find a dwelling in God’s home.”

Childhood of Christ by Gerard van Honthorst

Scalia: Some mistakes that we make in religious thinking is that because God’s big, because he is omniscient and omnipotent, we think that he is really only concerned with big things, and the lesson of the incarnation is that he became for the vast majority of his life obscure and really fascinated with a backwater town in a backwater region of the world and what the Roman’s considered backwater region of the world. I like to joke that if Our Lord had had a chariot it would have had a bumper sticker that said: I love Nazareth. Because there is that love for the particular. And I think a lot of people dismiss that or they forget about it. And they think that charity is these big things. It’s Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, in Dicken’s Bleak House, where she is neglecting her own children but she is very, very concerned about these orphans on the other side of the world. Yeah, we make that mistake. And Our Lord is very concerned with just that simple, that very small town, where he spent 30 years of his life. And just doing the ordinary things. That is what we have to grow in appreciation for. It’s--The boiled down version of it is: Charity begins at home.   

Jeffrey: Jesus really was a small town boy?

Scalia: Absolutely.

Jeffrey: And when he loved his neighbor, it also included literally his neighbor.

Scalia: Right.

Jeffrey: The folks from Nazareth.

Scalia: Right, and compare that to the way most of us live. We may not even know who are neighbors are, our little old neighbors.

Jeffrey: This is an important thing: this sense of community?

Entry into Jerusalem by Fra Angelico

Scalia: The sense of community, and the sense of humility. And you can’t have community without humility, right? That willingness to be small and to be in a small place. And that other point that I make: Our Lord goes up to Jerusalem not because it is sort of the Big Apple of the day and he wants to make it big, but basically what he is doing is bringing humility to Jerusalem. He’s not going there to become like a big city guy, but there to go through the even more humble work of his passion and death.

Jeffrey: And, of course, there is the ultimately shocking thing that this human being is also God.

Scalia: Yes. And it’s God’s humility.

Jeffrey: And when he goes to Jerusalem, this human being who is also God allows himself to be crucified.

Scalia: To be humiliated.

Jeffrey: In the ultimate way.

Scalia: I think we all, probably, would grudgingly acknowledge that we need to grow in humility, but none of us wants to be humiliated. 

Jeffrey: So, in this little town where Jesus grew up, like any little town, there are all kinds of people there, although they shared certain values, right?

The Holy Kinship, c. 1480/1490 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Scalia: There’s a great sculpture in the National Gallery of Art in D.C., and it’s called “Holy Kinship.” I think I might have mentioned it in one of my other essays in the book. It is our Lord’s extended family. And so it is Our Lady, and Our Lord, and Joseph, and then his aunts and uncles and cousins. And it’s wonderful because it is like any other family. You’ve got some of the cousins who are fighting and others who are just not paying attention, and then you have the aunts and uncles who are funny looking on the side. And that’s—his town would have had all of that.

Jeffrey: As does the church itself.

Scalia: Exactly. Exactly. You know, Flannery O’Connor’s line: Here comes everyone.

Jeffrey: In the book, you write this: “In short, the world demands that the Church be human and then complains that she is not divine. Thus in a roundabout way the Church’s critics reveal the paradoxes of the Church: like our Lord, she is both human and divine.”

Scalia: The world sets up these amazing expectations, insists the church just be more human, more down to Earth, and everything like that, and then when the world sees the Church’s weakness in her human members, they say: Well, why aren’t you more divine? Why aren’t you more perfect about things--    

Jeffrey: There are actually flawed human beings in the church—like all human beings.

Scalia: Right. And, so, there is this insistence that you should be more down to Earth, then when our flaws are seen: Well gosh, why aren’t you more divine?  Why aren’t you perfect. I think the most important thing here is that the church is like Our Lord. The church is the extending presence of Our Lord in the world. He did not just set up an institution to continue his ministry—you know, like the Bill Gates Foundation, the Church is the Jesus of Nazareth Foundation to continue His ideas and His work. It is Christ Himself. When Saul is outside of Damascus and Our Lord speaks to him, he says: Why are you persecuting me. Our Lord does not make a distinction between himself and the church. And, so, the church is always the continuing presence of Our Lord. So, we find those same paradoxes of the Lord—that he is both human and divine, he is both humble and almighty. We find these things in the church as well.

Jeffrey: And Christ did give specific and unique authority to Peter?

Scalia: Yes, to the church in general, the power and authority--and this is an extraordinary claim--to teach, to rule and to sanctify in His name--with His authority, His voice.  

Jeffrey: He expressly gave this delegation of authority.

Scalia: Yes, and within the church to Peter especially.

Jeffrey: So, the church is made up of human beings. Do you find it remarkable that it was 2,000 years ago that Christ created this church and delegated this authority and there have been 2,000 years of the human race, flawed human beings, but the church has remained?

Scalia: Right, and a lot of people joke, my father is one of them, that that’s a pretty convincing sign of the church’s divine founding, not that she has survived men like Pius XII or John Paul II or Benedict, who are just extraordinary men by human reckoning. But that she has survived some really rotten men from back in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Jeffrey: They were not able to take away of the truth from the church.

Scalia: Exactly. The quip of Cardinal Consalvi to Napoleon, when Napoleon sought to take over the church, and Cardinal Consalvi resisted—he was secretary of state for the church--when he resisted that, Napoleon said: I will destroy you and your church. And Cardinal Consalvi very calmly replied: All the popes, cardinals, bishops and priests have not been able to destroy the church in 1800 years and you think you will?         

Jeffrey: But in those same 2,000 years, you see many men and women who have given up their lives, who have been martyred to defend those truths.   

Scalia: And, again, that combination of things, right. This is what we see in Jesus Christ himself, as he is carrying the cross. What do we see? We see human weakness. And a lot of people were scandalized by that and they turned away from him. But at the same time what is at work there is a divine power. And, so, also in the church we see human weakness. We see plenty of it, and people are scandalized by it. At the same time, there is a divine work going on in the church, and so we have the greatest example is always the martyrs. And there are perhaps more martyrs today than ever before in history. And Pope Francis has been calling attention to this repeatedly.

Jeffrey: It is something maybe people in the West don’t see enough.

Scalia: Right, we talk about religious persecution. No, no. We’re being harassed, not persecuted.

Jeffrey: Which we are.

Scalia: Sure.

Jeffrey: There are people in the government of the United States who do not respect the free exercise of the religion of Catholics, in particular.  

Scalia: Sure.

Jeffrey: But that’s not the same—

Scalia: That’s not yet persecution. We’re not—

Jeffrey: --as being a Catholic in Syria.

Scalia: We are not being beheaded. How’s that?

Jeffrey: But it is quite remarkable that we live in an era when the very existence of Christians as a community in the Middle East, where Christ himself lived, is threatened.

Scalia: Yeah, although I think perhaps that is more in the nature of the church and Cardinal Ratzinger said something to this effect years ago that it really is in the nature of the Church to suffer. And that’s really where she is most herself, because it is then that she most resembles Jesus Christ in his passion.   

Jeffrey: As long as people stand up for that truth, they will be persecuted.

Scalia: Absolutely. And not even stand up, just living by it, because not everybody can--Thomas More, in “A Man for All Seasons,” makes this great point. Not everybody has the mettle to stand up and speak the truth. Everybody has the capacity to live virtue by way of grace, and to live the truth, and just doing that, will bring about persecution.

Jeffrey: Even in the United States of America.

Scalia: Yes. Harassment, for now.

Jeffrey: It’s not popular?

Scalia: No. And that should not surprise us. Nobody lived a more perfect human life than Jesus Christ, and, well, he was not just persecuted, but crucified.

Jeffrey: Related to this, in your book, you make a point, an ironic point, about freedom and obedience. You write: “To grasp the relationship between obedience and freedom we should understand first that freedom is ordered toward the truth. Freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want. It is the ability to do what we were created to do, what we are supposed to do by our very nature. We are most free when we live perfectly the truth of who we are.”

Scalia: There is nothing more, I think, enslaving for people than to know what they are supposed to do and not be able to do it. And the extreme example I will use is addicts, whether it’s drug addicts, alcoholics, or sex addicts in our culture, increasingly. They know what they need to stop doing and they know what they should do. They can’t do it. And true freedom is when—they know it and they know it very well—that they know that they will be free when they are able to live according to what they know is true.

Jeffrey: They themselves are their own worst enemy.

Scalia: Yes, and it also reveals another canard in our culture which is: Knowledge is Power. No, knowledge is knowledge. Virtue is power. Because you can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you do not have the interior virtue to apply that knowledge than actually it becomes frustrating, doesn’t it?

Jeffrey: So, ultimately, shouldn’t that be what education is about is: teaching people to be virtuous?

Scalia: Exactly. One of the biggest mistakes we make in our culture is to treat education like uploading information into a computer. We think of ourselves as computers, which is really backwards.   

Jeffrey: It is not about math and science and technology, although those things are important.

Scalia: No, those things are very important.

Jeffrey: It’s about living life the right way.

Scalia: Right, and really what’s the point of math, science and technology. We want to see their importance as mastery of the world, but, really, no, the study of those is, first and foremost, so that the student can understand the world better and understand his own place in the world better. But all of that knowledge without the wisdom of the ages, without that patrimony of why was I created, what is my purpose, and how do I live according to that, if we have all the scientism without that other part then it actually becomes very dangerous. And I actually think that is a huge problem in our education system right now.  

Jeffrey: How would you advise parents in America today, who want to raise their children up to be a good person, to be a good Christian to be a good Catholic. What do they need to do?   

Scalia: In terms of education?

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Scalia: Or just in general? Well, that is a pretty big answer, or a pretty big question.

Jeffrey: But it is a concrete, practical question, that parents all over America—especially Catholic parents are asking themselves.

Scalia: No, absolutely.

Jeffrey: How do I get my kid through this society that we have today to be an adult in a way that is right.

Scalia: Right, and it’s going to be multifaceted and it is going to depend on the child. But the essentials there are going to be, of course: A household of prayer. A friend of mine said last night—I think this is absolutely right--three essential things: Observe the Sabbath, pray the rosary, and tithe. And that in a family sets a very good standard. But a household of prayer, reception of the sacraments, but a teaching of the faith. I mean, one of the reasons for my book is—and it has been a constant concern of mine in my priesthood—is there is an ignorance of, or even a disregard for, the content of the church’s faith. Well, people say have faith. Faith in what? And what does it mean to have faith?

We need to communicate these things and to give content to these things. So that, you know, a lot of people are going to stray from the faith, but if we have really given them the content of it, they’ll come back.

Jeffrey: They know what to come back to.

Scalia: Exactly. Exactly. They might lose their way, but they won’t lose their compass.

Jeffrey: So, that should begin in the home with parents teaching their children the truth of the faith.

Scalia: Yes, absolutely.

Jeffrey: Knowing that there’s going to be a lot of struggles along the way, but that is the starting point.

Scalia: And then how do you shelter your children in a proper way. They should be sheltered to a degree. But you also do not want to shelter them completely because eventually they are going to have to go into the big bad world, right. And if they have been sheltered in the wrong way or too much, they won’t know how to integrate things. 

Jeffrey: They need to make decisions on their own.

Scalia: Exactly. Exactly.

Jeffrey: Father Paul Scalia, thank you very much.

Scalia: Thank you. It has been great talking with you.

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