Catholic and non-Catholic Southerners alike have reason to mourn the loss of Father James Schall, S.J., who passed away shortly before Easter at the age of 91.
As an erudite representative of an older generation, Father Schall preserved for the benefit of the 21st-Century a perspective that has been largely swept away with the many communities and neighborhoods upon which said perspective stood. A teacher at Georgetown University since the late 70’s, Schall sought to draw everyone he could into a kind of conversation with the greatest minds and spirits of the past.
For those reading this blog, the most particularly striking thing about Father Schall is that he could remember a time when prominent Catholic intellectuals and scholars did not just mindlessly recite the catechism of Americanism. Interested in Straussian thought or not, Father Schall flatly rejected the doctrine that all America’s ills come from the south of the Mason-Dixon line. So while most other Catholic intelligentsia either gave tacit approval or at best looked the other way, he challenged the ignorance and hatred underlying the anti-Southern purge of 2015.
Those who see the Northern conquest of the South as some kind of victory for pure good over pure evil, wrote Schall, ignore the fact that,
Lord Acton, Chesterton, and many others, early on, saw the American Civil War other lights. While they did not condone slavery, neither did they think that slavery was the sole or even the most important cause. Recent top-down impositions by the central state make their concerns, in retrospect, look rather prophetic. The principal concern, in the view of many, was the ability to protect a family or city from a statist ideology or culture that would impose its will on every segment of the country.
Secession, as a constitutional theory, was thought to be the final legal and political defense against the imposition of arbitrary power. The victory of the North, in this sense, settled the issue by blood, not by argument, From this angle, Lincoln was not looked on as a hero but as the harbinger of the absolute state in which presidential directives, not congress or the people, ruled.
Priest that he was, Schall was inclined to look at the matter from the spiritual angle, of course:
We now see movements to remove statues and names given to monuments and schools of southern figures—Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others. What we are witnessing in these actions is the rejection of the honorable and dignified peace that Lincoln, Grant, and others insisted on making to end the war [. . .]
What I see appears to be a vengeful elimination of any memory or dignity in the South, a dignity the peace after the Civil War thought it wise to allow. This same vengeful spirit imposes state law on a society. It was crucial to the peace after the Civil War to leave the South with a sense of dignity, with their lost cause.
I never had the honor of meeting Father Schall. Could I do so, one of the first things I would ask him about would be his opinion of my own theory that the downard spiral of Southern youth into a “white trash” world of drugs, ugliness, and violence might be connected with the fact that such youths have been largely deprived of heroes, which is to say positive historical figures upon whom they might model their lives. I can’t know how Father Schall would have answered; I can rest assured that he would have given me much food for thought.
As it is, we must make do with the insightful writings he left behind. Requiescat In Pacem.