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Coppleston

This is the second, and concluding part of  William Doino’s article on Fr Frederick C Copleston, SJ (1907-1994). It was first published in the Fall 1996 issue of Sursum Cordaand is reproduced here by kind permission of the author. I reiterate my thanks to Francis Phillips who suggested it and secured the permissions. C451

 

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Copleston’s Memoirs is

his description of how he was able to maintain his religious faith

despite encountering constant challenges against it. Secular

philosophy, by its very nature, is a discipline that lends itself

to doubt, relativism and irreligion. It is a rare scholar who is

able to immerse himself in its precarious world without somehow

being affected-usually for the worse. Copleston acknowledges that

his prolonged study of a wide spectrum of philosophical thought

“could hardly fail to exercise some influence” on his mind. He

admits to having experienced doubts-even serious ones- about his

religion, but realizes that this is a common temptation among

Christian believers, even for the most committed. Indeed, the

saints themselves have not been immune to doubt. One thinks

particularly of St. Therese of Lisieux, who underwent a profound

crisis of faith during her short life. The year before she died,

she told her Mother Superior that the worst kind of atheistic

arguments had entered her mind-specifically, the notion that

science, by making ever-increasing progress, would eventually

explain everything away naturally and would provide a

materialistic answer for all that exists, thus destroying the

basis for Christianity. According to Fr. Guy Gaucher, the foremost

authority on St. Therese, some anti-Christian literature

apparently fell into the hands of the young nun, and when she read

it, her faith was shaken to its core. Only after undergoing an

intense psychological struggle, culminating in a profound mystical

experience, was St. Therese able to secure the peace that

permitted her a tolerable death. (For a full account of the

saint’s religious travails, consult Fr. Gaucher’s definitive

biography, The Story of a Life: St. Therese of Lisieux, Harper &

Row, 1987.)

On a more intellectual level, Fr. Copleston experienced a similar

crisis of faith. Fortunately, he was able to overcome it, as he

tells us-

by employing a distinction, well known to moral theologians and

spiritual counsellors, between doubt and difficulty, a distinction

which had been made by J.H. Newman in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua

(chapter 5), when he stated that “ten thousand difficulties do not

make one doubt.” He had certainly been conscious of difficulties,

but a hundred difficulties, he claimed, do not amount to one

doubt….[This] can be explained easily enough by an example…

Consider a student of theology, who in the course of his studies

is introduced to a number of difficulties or possible objections

to this or that Christian doctrine. The lecturer, let us suppose,

offers solutions of the relevant problems. The student, being a

bright youth, finds the alleged solutions intellectually

unsatisfactory or inadequate. For him, the difficulties or

problems remain unsolved. But it does not necessarily follow that

he therefore doubts the truth of the relevant articles of belief.

For in spite of difficulties, problems or puzzles which can be

brought against certain doctrines, he may still accept the

doctrines on faith, as revealed by God through the mediation of

the Church. Again, many people have seen in the evil and suffering

which permeate human life and history a powerful objection to

belief in the existence of God as conceived in traditional

Christianity. But even if a Christian is quite ready to

acknowledge an inability to provide any complete solution of the

so-called “problem of evil,” he or she may nonetheless cling to

faith in the divine love and providential care.

These reflections are reminiscent of Cardinal Newman’s line of

argument in his famous essay, “Faith and Doubt.” Newman held that

Christian faith is invalid if it does not have the courage of its

convictions, and that no true Christian could believe that his

faith might someday be undermined by a scientific discovery or

scholarly argument. For if he believed such a thing, his faith was

empty to begin with. As the Cardinal remarked:

If it is true that God became man, what is the meaning of my

anticipating a time when perhaps I shall not believe that God

became man? This is nothing short of anticipating a time when I

shall disbelieve a truth. And if I bargain to be allowed in time

to come not to believe, or to doubt, that God became man, I am but

asking to be allowed to doubt or disbelieve what I hold to be an

eternal truth. I do not see the privilege of such a permission at

all, or the meaning of wishing to secure it:-if at present I have

no doubt whatever about it, then I am but asking leave to fall

into error; if at present I have doubts about it, then I do not

believe it at present, that is, I have not faith. But I cannot

both really believe it now, and yet look forward to a time when

perhaps I shall not believe it; to make provision for further

doubt, is to doubt at present. It proves I am not in a fit state

to become a Catholic now. I may love by halves, I may obey by

halves; I cannot believe by halves; either I have faith, or I have

not.

Once in possession of a secure faith, Fr. Copleston waged

intellectual warfare against the errors of his age, engaging the

most influential minds of the twentieth century. The most famous

of these battles was undoubtedly his legendary debate with

Bertrand Russell over the existence of God. Aired by the BBC in

1948, the debate culminated in a technical knockout for the Jesuit

philosopher. In his Memoirs, Fr. Copleston is far too humble to

gloat over his victory, but he does expose Russell’s viewpoint as

morally bankrupt. Commenting on how he cornered Russell into

defending an extreme brand of relativism, Copleston writes:

“Russell agreed, of course, that he felt this way. But he found

some difficulty, he admitted, in squaring the implications of this

admission with his professed ethical theory. He even said: ‘I find

myself in a dilemma. On the one hand I certainly want to condemn

the Nazis’ behaviour towards the Jews as wrong in itself. On the

other hand, my ethical theory does not allow me to say this.”‘

Father Copleston is equally adept at detecting the errors within

his own community-exposing charlatans like Teilhard de Chardin,

and arguing against Modernists who try to “redefine” or “re-

formulate ” Christian doctrine until they empty it of all supernatural

content. But Copleston is at his finest in expounding the

necessity of orthodoxy. Copleston on the ecumenical movement, for

example: “Christians should certainly be prepared to recognize the

values present in other religions. Short of embracing all mankind

there can be no limit to the reach of the out-going love which

lies at the heart of the Christian religion, and which can be seen

as demanding the extension of the ecumenical movement to relations

between Christians and adherents of other religions…. [But] one

should not close one’s eyes to the danger of abandoning Christian

belief in the unique status and role of Christ and treating him

simply as one among other prophets and religious leaders, a danger

which is by no means illusory.”

Copleston on dissenting theologians: “We are sometimes told by

‘progressives’ that we should think of the Church as seeking the

truth, rather than as being in possession of the truth. That the

Church’s theologians seek truth is not a claim which I would

venture or wish to deny. But they discharge this function as

members of the Church, not simply as lone individuals. And the

final court of appeal in doctrinal issues can hardly be anything

but the Church herself, speaking as a teaching authority, through

what is called the <magisterium>… My point is simply that if a

theologian claims to be a ‘Catholic’, he or she should act as

such, operating within the Church, as one of its members.”

Copleston on the afterlife and the reality of Hell: “The ideas of

Heaven and Hell are complementary… if the one idea expresses

revelation, so does the other. The orthodox Christian can be

expected to accept both; and I do accept them…. Possession of

freedom implies that a human being can accept or reject God…. I

do not see how one can exclude the possibility of a human being

persisting in his or her choice against God and so remaining in a

state of alienation from God. Given this possibility, Hell would

be more something chosen by the human being in question, than

simply imposed by a ruthless judge.”

Copleston on the current-and apparently weakened-state of

Christendom: “The Christian is not committed to believing that if

Christianity finds itself widely regarded as moribund and as

unable to act as an effective source of inspiration, this shows

that Christ has failed. Where in the Gospels is He “recorded as

having assured His followers of a triumphal march through history?

Perhaps I may add that Christ did not claim that if His followers

encountered difficulties and opposition they should set to work

revising His teaching and adapting it to the spirit of the age. He

called for persevering loyalty.”

Looking back over his career, Fr. Copleston’s Memoirs express

profound gratitude for a life richly blessed. He had no regrets

about devoting his life to the study of philosophy, despite its

inherent risks. Indeed, Copleston maintained that, far from

weakening or confusing his Catholic faith, his conflicts with

alien philosophies ultimately sharpened and strengthened it. He

also provided a measured defense of historical study, arguing that

“it is rash to assume that the study of the past is necessarily

irrelevant to life and action in the present. After all,

historical study is study of some aspect of the one developing

world in which we live and act.” Yet as valuable as academic

scholarship was to the success of his life, Fr. Copleston never

lost sight of his true goal. For as he movingly states in the last

sentence of his book, “The only really important evaluation of

one’s life and work is God’s evaluation. And in the closing years

of one’s life it is just as well to bear this in mind.”

 

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