Liberal education and the priesthood

The winner of the second annual Pastores Dabo Vobis Award in Honor of Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.

“Like all great churches, that are not mere store-houses of theology, Chartres expressed, besides whatever else it means, an emotion, the deepest man ever felt—the struggle of his own littleness to grasp the infinite. You may, if you like, figure in it a mathematic formula for infinity—the broken arch, our finite idea of space; the spire, pointing, with its converging lines, to Unity beyond space; the sleepless, restless thrust of the vaults, telling the unsatisfied, incomplete, over-strained effort of man to rival the energy, intelligence and purpose of God.”
—Henry Adams, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. 1904.

“We wanted to do not only theology in the narrower sense but to listen to the voices of men today. We devoured the novels of Gertrud von le Fort, Elisabeth Langgässer, and Ernest Wiechert. Dostoevsky was one of the authors everyone read, and likewise the great Frenchmen: Claudel, Bernanos, Mauriac. We also followed closely the recent developments in the natural sciences. We thought that, with the breakthrough made by Planck, Heisenberg, and Einstein, the sciences were once again on their way to God. The anti-religious orientation that had reached its climax with Haeckel had now been broken, and this gave us new hope.”
—Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones.

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca suffered an end few of us would envy, ordered to commit suicide by a man whom he tutored in, of all things, philosophy. But then Seneca himself held a philosophy that justified suicide, so there is a certain irony here. This man who got rid of his teacher was, of course, the Emperor Nero, an unsavory character if there ever was one. Yet, if we follow Tacitus’ account, Nero seems to have been a well-rounded and educated man: he endeavored to sing, write poetry, give philosophical lectures, dance, play the lute, as well as rule the Empire. The only problem was that, once Nero entered into a contest, no one could afford to do better than he—that is, if he wanted to live long. So Nero won all the prizes while knowing that no one really opposed him. He never knew, in other words, whether he was any good or not. One could hardly think of a worse condition to be in, especially for a vain man.

Seneca, in his famous essay, “On Tranquility,” gave us one piece of advice that is useful for our topic of a liberal education: “Even in literary pursuits, where expense is in the best of taste, it is justifiable only so long as it is kept within bounds…. What point in countless books and libraries whose catalogue their owner cannot scan in a lifetime? The student is loaded down, not instructed, by the bulk; it is much better to give yourself to a few authors than to stray through many.”  To give ourselves to a few good books rather than stray through many mediocre ones—that is good advice. But still something can be learned even in bad or mediocre books. If we never read a lousy book, we will hardly recognize a great one.


Chapter XX of Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope’s delightful 1857 novel about the Anglican clergy, is entitled, “Mr. Arabin.” “Who is he?” we might ask. “The Rev. Francis Arabin, fellow of Lazarus, late professor of poetry at Oxford, and present vicar of St. Ewold, in the diocese of Barchester, must now be introduced personally to the reader.” In describing Mr. Arabin, we read the following passage: “There is no royal road to learning, no short cut to the acquirement of any valuable art. Let photographers and daguerreotypers do what they will, and improve as they may with further skill on that which skill has already done, they will never achieve a portrait of the human face divine.”  The reality will always contain something that escapes the artist or photographer.

The notion of a liberally educated clergy, I think, is taken for granted in the Catholic Church. Without asking her clergy to be supermen, professors or savants, the Church understands that her clergy need to know more than pastoral theology. They need to be men who know the world in all its range from blatant evil to holiness. A liberal education’s importance clergymen themselves need to understand. The most highly educated and erudite man in any world public office today is Benedict XVI. He has few peers in academia and really none in any public office.

Pontifical erudition may in fact cause more animosity than admiration. Scripture is full of incidents in which knowing the truth itself occasions animosity. Most of the modern popes have been learned men. No doubt, the Catholic Church is not itself an academic institution, but it is an intellectual institution, among other things. Its clergy are to be generally and well-educated. Not all are geniuses, of course. But many are very competent and those who are not are to be well-prepared. The Church, even in knowing the limitations of reason, thrives on it.

Leo Strauss pointed out in his book Persecution and the Art of Writing that the Catholic clergy were educated in philosophy. They were not, like Jewish and Muslim clergy, primarily interpreters of a law. The Catholic clergy were concerned with philosophy because revelation needs to be understood rightly. Unless the human mind knows what it can understand about reality and about itself, it will not recognize what is addressed to it from a source that is, among other things, also intelligent.

In earlier times, we encountered the “gentleman doctor,” the “gentleman lawyer,” the “gentleman naval officer,” and, yes, the “gentleman priest.” These men had a breadth of interest and wisdom that was not merely the normal qualifications to practice their professions. A person possessed solely of professional competency was more of a technician, not really a liberally educated man. By contrast, one thinks of the current pope, who plays Mozart on the piano, or of his predecessor, who snuck out of the Vatican to enjoy some skiing.

In the process of recent medical check-up, my doctor casually mentioned something of Chesterton. At another check-up, he cited William of Occam. I told him that he was the only medical man I ever met who referred to both of these authors as a matter of interest. The same point would be made were he to have cited William Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Bernard of Clairvaux or, yes, Seneca or Marcus Aurelius.

We are to read widely, but judiciously. In the Johnsonian Miscellanies of 1785, Samuel Johnson used to say “that no man read long together with a folio on the table—Books, said he, that you may carry to the fire, and hold readily in your hand, are the most useful after all. He would say, such books form the man of general and easy reading.”  How this advice applies in the days of iPod and Kindle, I won’t comment, but the basic principle holds. A manageable book cannot be replaced. Or better, it can be placed on our shelves, having been read and pondered. The re-reading of good books is itself a sure sign of an educated man.

A good priest carries many lives in his soul, lives that are not his, yet human lives that he knows about. He is like Chesterton’s Fr. Brown who, because he was exposed to them, knew the depths of evil (and of good) far more profoundly than did the undergraduates or professors at Cambridge. A priest’s duties, in any case, will take more than all the time he has. Priests today are often overwhelmed with numbers of parishioners and complexity of issues, all of which must be dealt with, along with the missionary side of Christian life.

Where is a priest to find time to pursue a “liberal education”? My book Another Sort of Learning was in part designed to direct readers to the important things, especially because they were seldom found in academia.  No perfect formula can be found. His prior education and his seminary studies should at least give a priest a start or an awareness of the need. The best book to suggest how to deal with this issue is The Education of a Wandering Man, by the western writer Louis L’Amour. Here L’Amour simply lists what he read, often in his free time, in the course of each year. He offers good advice on how to find time. The fact that we keep track of what we read is itself a help. Our lives include the memory of what we have read, something that will give us a broader insight into human nature than is possible to our own experience alone.

Another author that I recommend is A.D. Sertillanges, the French Dominican. His book, The Intellectual Life, was written in the early 1920s, a much translated and reprinted book. Like the L’Amour book, it addresses the problem of how to lead an intellectual or literary life when one’s days are already full of obligations and responsibilities. This book was written before even the typewriter was in use. Many of the more recent devices can be incorporated in their own way, though I am not convinced of their superiority to the book. The great virtue of this book is not only its encouragement but its practicality on how to go about finding time.

Fundamentally, it is a question of priorities and discipline.

No doubt, much reading competition will come from the “up-dating” insistence that comes with any profession. Not all of our ordinaries will have the literary perception of an Augustine or a Francis de Sales. We must go to liturgical lectures, to seminars in dogma, or review our canon law or moral theology. We will not be asked whether we read the InfernoMoby Dick, or The Cancer Ward. Certainly, we do need to keep up our clerical knowledge. Yet, what we do and read are basically functions of what we want to do or read. And that depends on a prior taste, a prior “turning around,” as Plato would call it. We need to see that certain things are important “for their own sakes,” to recall Aristotle’s memorable phrase.

Walker Percy’s lecture “Another Message in a Bottle” refers to Louis L’Amour’s western novels. Percy imagines being a castaway on some island with an abandoned library, reading novels by Louis L’Amour. “But after ten years (of reading only these novels) a strange thing happens. The Louis L’Amour fan may find that after he’s read all the books he does not go back and reread Louis L’Amour. But he does go back and reread, say, Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn. Why is this?” In some sense, great readings begin when we freely read a thing again and again, because it is a delight to do so.

Percy also warns against just reading things called “Christian literature.” But Percy is quite sure that the novel itself presupposes a Christian background:

The fact that novels are narratives about events which happen to people in the course of time is given a unique weight in an ethos that is informed by the belief that awards an absolute importance to an Event which happened to a Person in historic time. In a very real way, one can say that the Incarnation not only brought salvation to mankind but gave birth to the novel. Judeo-Christianity is about pilgrims who have something wrong with them and are embarked on a search to find a way out. That is also what novels are about.

Few things that a priest will learn will be more pertinent than this notion that every person has a story about him, one that usually is grounded in sin and some way to find his way out of it.

This thought is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ famous remark, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”  A priest’s life at every point deals with immortal persons, be they famous or ordinary. Their story unfolds before his eyes. It is a drama of sin and redemption in time. Benedict XVI recently told members of the Brazilian hierarchy that bishops’ “chief concern must be the salvation of souls, which, moreover, is the fundamental mission of the Church.”  The fate of those who are not “mere mortals” is the most fascinating thing about us, both in our literature and in our lives.

My subject is “liberal education and the priest.” The first thing that I want to get across is that some things exist not for pleasure, wealth, honor, or usefulness, to go through Aristotle’s list, but “for their own sakes.” And though God is the primary being who exists “for his own sake,” he has created a world full of things worthy in themselves in their own order. Life consists in finding God through “all these lovely things,” as Augustine taught us.

This same Aristotle tells us that every human activity, including that of thinking, has its own pleasure. He even warns us that, unless we experience the proper pleasures of things, we will tend to abuse such things by looking to their pleasures and not to their purposes. Pleasure is not primarily something sought but something that is given along with the good it is intended to increase and foster. The fact that, in addition to the things themselves, we have also a pleasure in them is itself a great mystery in things. This Aristotelian principle leads me back to something else that Walker Percy said in the previously cited lecture. In his message in a bottle, he lists the things that a civilized man needs to know, lest they be lost to the barbarians. Percy indicates that the ability to read is itself at the heart of things. But notice how he conceives the meaning of the verb “to read.” The ability “to read” is what makes available to us other times and places, other people and their lives, people about whom we know nothing except what we read of them.

Read! Read: this word is really intended for the students, because it is a secret the teacher probably already knows,” Percy tells us. He expands his advice:

If you do not learn to read, that is, read with pleasure, that is, make the breakthrough into the delight of reading—you are going to miss out. … No matter what you go into—law, medicine, computer science, housewifing, househusbanding, engineering, whatever—you are going to miss out, you are not going to be first-class unless you’ve made this breakthrough. You are going to miss out, not only on your profession, but on the great treasure of our heritage, which is nothing less than Western civilization.

The key passage in Percy’s message is to learn to read “for pleasure.”

Learn to read for the “delight” in the story itself. We add to our experience of what is by those lives and accounts that we could never know except in poetry and literature. We need to know the depths not only of the human good but, as I said earlier, also of human evil. We need to know of Iago, Ivan Karamazov, and Callicles as well as the Good Samaritan. Christianity does not exist only for the very good or the very evil, but for those in-between, for the ordinary, to whom redemption is also offered in the events of their choices in their usually unknown lives.

Recently, I was given a used edition of the 1919 Christopher Morley novel, The Haunted Bookshop. It is something of a mystery story. But it is full of the lore of bookstores, particularly of used bookstores, which are often the final repositories of civilization. The hero of the story owns a bookshop in Brooklyn. One day a young man comes into the store. He tells the proprietor that a book shop is probably a “delightfully tranquil” place. The young man even hints that it might be rather boring.

“Living in a bookshop is like living in a warehouse of explosives,” Mr. Mifflin, the lively bookshop owner, responds. “Those shelves are ranked with the most furious combustibles in the world—the brains of men. I can spend a rainy afternoon reading, and my mind works itself up to such a passion and anxiety over mortal problems as almost unmans me. It is terribly nerve-racking. Surround a man with Carlyle, Emerson, Thoreau, Chesterton, Shaw, Nietzsche, and George Ade—would you wonder at his getting excited?”  It is this awareness that I would have the priest come to appreciate from his liberal education, discovering not only what passes in the souls of men and women, but also the explosive power of words and ideas, of what moves our souls for better or for worse.

Reading “for its own sake,” for the delight of things, may sound frivolous. Why not read something inspiring and useful? This temptation is one particularly appealing to the cleric. We live in an era of “social justice” in which we want to go about “doing good” without analyzing what actually does good. Most of the ideologies of modern times from left to right are proposed in the name of “doing good for mankind.” The greatest of crimes are justified in the name of “doing good.” This tendency is often due to the fact that ideologies, as Chesterton said, are but remnants of Christian thought carried out without the balance that comes with seeing the whole, especially seeing that the end of man transcends this world.

In his biography of Winston Churchill, Paul Johnson wrote: “No English statesman has ever loved them [words] more or made more persistent use of them to forward his career and redeem it in time of trouble.” Johnson tells us something of the sheer volume of Churchill’s writings. “His account of the Second World War is over 2,050,000 words. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by comparison is 1,100,000 words. I calculate his total of words in print including published speeches, to be between eight and ten million. There can have been few boys who made such profitable use of something learned at school.”  We learn from this impressive record not only what can be written in an otherwise busy life, but that the feats of Churchill would not be complete without his own account of them, of what they meant.

Many priest-writers can be found, even some novelists. Newman wrote novels. I think of Robert Hugh Benson’s unsettling The Lord of the World. Ralph McInerny, who wrote the Fr. Dowling mystery stories, in his delightful autobiography, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, spoke about writing:

To entertain a reader for an hour or two with a short story was no small thing. At first, of course, I had to learn the technique required to catch and hold and satisfy the reader’s interest, but from the outset there was, however faint, my own way of regarding human action. A given story is about particular actions, but one is implicitly saying something more; one’s notion of what it all means, the point of deciding and choosing, of being this way rather than that, provides the backdrop for the particular story.

Behind every human life is this backdrop to what it is all about. The liberal education of a priest, to conclude, must include a large dose of intellectual humility.

We will run into people who have “read everything.” This is not the same as reading judiciously, of course, but it is not something to be denigrated either. Recently, a former student of mine told me that she, now a high school teacher, was reading aloud with a class of seniors C.S. Lewis’ classicScrewtape Letters. Though I had a copy of this book and had even read parts of it, I had never read it all. So I decided to read a chapter a day, taking about a month. This is an amazingly insightful book. Screwtape tells a young devil, speaking of someone he is trying to keep corrupted, “A young atheist cannot be too careful of what he reads.” I like that.

My point, of course, is that there are things we should read but never got around to it, or never heard of it. I did not read The Lord of the Ringsuntil my sixties. A liberally educated man, a liberally educated cleric, may indeed have read King Lear and War and Peace, but never touched Madam BovaryThe Scarlet Letter, or The Count of Monte Cristo. But he will have read enough to know the delight of such things, their wisdom and contribution to his own store of what human nature is like. Yet, we are mortals and cannot experience everything. It is all right. Many classics, many good novels and poems we will never get to, but others will. The liberally educated man knows this limitation. He rejoices in the fact that the world is larger than himself.

In Blandings Castle by P.G. Wodehouse, another author who makes a liberal education worthwhile, we read that Lord Eamsworth was agitated over a family altercation with his daughter-in-law. Mulling over how to deal with her, he visited “the flowers at Kensington Gardens, followed by a capital chop and half a bottle of claret at the Regent’s Grill. [This] put him in excellent shape. The heaviness vanished and he felt alert and quick-witted.”  We have to smile at this. That too is what a liberal education enables us to do when we are agitated.

The last thing I have to say about liberal education is that is should make us alert to the extraordinary situation in which we live our lives. We witness their unfolding but they almost never turn out quite like we planned. In Wendell Berry’s novel Andy Catlett, young Andy wants to hear the story of an elderly lady’s girlhood, of her farm home. “When you were a young girl over there [at the farm], did you ever think someday you’d be living here?” he asked her. He went on: “I asked because the question seemed to require thinking about. I had begun to be surprised by the extent to which life consists of surprises. I don’t know, but what it consists of is mostly surprises.”  A liberal education presents us with questions that “require” our “thinking about” them. I think, that in the end, a liberally educated cleric is one who finally realizes that the greatest surprise ever to happen to our kind was the Incarnation itself. When we know this truth, we will finally know where all stories end, and the delight thereof.


Homiletic & Pastoral Review aims to bring the beauty and the richness of the one, true faith to the world in a way that transforms both mind and heart. Each and every day Christ calls his Church to be nourished on his own Body and Blood, to receive the gift of his Holy Spirit and to consecrate his world in truth and in love. Such renewal must be constant and unyielding, an incessant yearning for a holiness that sanctifies our desires and sharpens our intellect.

In the hope of honoring and fostering the renewal of today’s clergy in particular, HPR uses the lengthier, combined August/September issue to highlight the best seminary lecture from the previous academic year. The name of this award calls to mind the great reformer of our own day, John Paul II, and his pioneering encyclical on the need for holy and intelligent priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), recalling God’s promise to Jeremiah—“I will give you shepherds after my own heart” (Jer 3:15). At the same time, this award also seeks to honor the untiring priestly work Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. achieved in these pages over the past forty years. Whenever the times call for exceptional clarity and charity, God never fails to send such laborers into his vineyard.

The winner of the second annual “Pastores Dabo Vobis Award in Honor of Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.” is Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. This address was presented to Roman Catholic seminarians at the Theological College of the Catholic University of America on February 3, 2011.

Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.