On Turning Around


There is an expression of Platonic origin called "turning around," or sometimes, "conversion." It seems pertinent here in a more Christian context. In Plato, the phrase does not just mean a sudden reaction to something out of the ordinary. More profoundly, it refers to a reorienting of one's very soul on the basis of the new evidence or truth that is presented from outside our closed inner world.

"When a man goes down on his knees in the confessional because he has sinned, at that very moment he adds to his own dignity as a man. No matter how heavily his sins weigh on his conscience, no matter how seriously they have diminished his dignity, the very act of turning again to God is a manifestation of the special dignity of man, his spiritual grandeur . . . the grandeur of the personal meeting between man and God in the inner truth of conscience."

— John Paul II The Sign of Contradiction

Not long ago, I was chatting with a Naval Officer. In the course of conversation, the officer remarked that in any unit of the service or in any business office or school or place of labor, you will generally find a large number of mostly nice men — women too, I suppose — who, though Catholics, are not going to Mass and Communion, who have not been to Confession in years. These same folks offer a hundred, always inadequate, often amusing, reasons for their conduct. Likewise, I had an e-mail from a friend who told me, with some sadness, that his son, now a professional man on the west coast, probably had not gone to Confession or Mass in years. Another friend wrote of going to a wedding held in a country inn, not a church, where several of the wedding party were fallen away from the faith.

By happy contrast, I was visiting friends of mine whom I have known for years. Present were their daughter and her children. The daughter attends what I consider to be one of the best parishes around. In the course of instructing parents about first communion preparation, the local priest told the parents that it was most important that they themselves go to Mass and Communion, not just to send their children. In all humor and humility, really, the daughter told me, something I am sure she had already told her parents, that she had not been to Confession in about fifteen years, but what the priest said seemed right. So she went to Confession. She remarked how simple it was and how relieved she was. She had been putting it off and off, with one excuse or another. She was full of joy about it, almost like the angels in Scripture rejoicing over the return of one sinner. Often the return to active practice of the faith involves such a sensible priest or some good friend or even something seen or read.

As I had just been reading with a class Aristotle's remark on the general "wickedness" of human nature, I was amused at another mother I know who told me that her little two-year-old boy was already showing signs of "stubbornness." I told her to go back and read the account of little Augustine in The Confessions. He showed the exact same signs of "stubbornness." It goes with the territory. Whatever her critics say of Monica, Augustine's good mother, she had it right. Women who have sons — who else can? — have to work and pray for them. As another friend-mother of mine once put it, mothers' vocation is to save their sons' souls. Mothers do not do it all by themselves, of course, but, like Monica, they are often the major influence. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, many a modern son is as morally obtuse as the young Augustine showed himself to be.

By contrast today, it is rare to meet a college co-ed who, at least in public, ever seems to give a thought to anything but some "self-fulfilling" vocation in business, law, medicine, or government. Universities, as far as I can see, give young women almost no information or guidance or intelligence on what it is to be a mother or why that is a central aspect of their lives. They get a lot of guidance on how not to be a mother, all of which guidance is diametrically opposed to motherhood and indeed to fatherhood. Too often today motherhood is conceived as if it had little to do with fatherhood. Another friend keeps repeating that a woman does not know what it is to be a woman until she has children. Chesterton reminds us in What's Wrong with the World that women learn more about reality, including their own, from their children than they ever will from any other source, including universities.

Yet, I am concerned here mostly with men, that much neglected lesser half of humanity. The emphasis on women's "rights," on women's place in Church and society, has, I think, tempted the average male to go off on his own. His individualistic instincts, already strong, have been encouraged by what he has heard from modern women who tell him that they can get along without him. A vital relational link has been severely bent, if not broken. Even though he suspects he is often responsible for many personal and societal aberrations, he is tired of hearing that all the problems of family and religion come from him.

To the average male, the Church itself in recent years, as Leon Poodles has argued, seems almost totally "feminized," and this not because of Marian devotions. Priests, bishops, altars, to the male's critical eye, are surrounded by women. While some young boys can be cajoled or coerced to serve Mass with a bevy of girls, these few usually opt out as soon as possible. The majority want nothing to do with it. The local churches almost seem to have lost any insight into the workings of the mind and heart of the ordinary boy or man. At times, this Pope seems to be the only real man in the world, ecclesiastical or civil, the only one who talks about male and female as if they were different and still intimately related to each other. The ancient wariness about an effeminate clergy is combined with the contemporary suspicion of unacknowledged gay influence in clerical ranks. Such worries jeopardize the normal and healthy companionship of responsible male and female with good priests. The health of the sacrament of Orders depends on the security of the Sacrament of Marriage and vice versa.

Reading George Weigel's biography of the Holy Father, it is clear that the Pope realized early on in his priestly and episcopal career that the serious education of young men and women had to take place in parishes or in various centers wherein the truth about man and woman could be spoken clearly and honestly. But it is also true that under the influence of Karol Wojtyla, the young Poles were taught the whole truth, something we are reluctant to imitate. Karol Wojtyla's was an education in precisely human dignity. It was, if you will, a totally counter-cultural education, an affirmation of the truth that if you want to resist secularist culture, you best have another culture of your own, a religious culture that had done some hard thinking about what man and woman, sin and virtue, truth and falsity really entail.

But what I am mostly concerned with here is the presence in our society of thousands, more probably millions of men and women, in early middle to old age, who have not straightened out their lives, who have not gone to Confession, who have not begun spiritually to face either the immediate or the distant prospect of their death and the right ordering of their lives, however much they prepare their own retirement plans or their own insurance policies. At once, it is necessary to admit that few parishes seem to make this preparation a central feature of their particular apostolate. I have seen little sign of bishops urging, better of demanding again and again that the Sacrament of Confession be readily available. Sin is rarely preached or specifically named. Confessions are minimally held or frequented.

It almost begins to look like the suppression of the old practice of hearing Confession before and during Mass was a big mistake. Nothing on a large scale was ever invented to take its place. Nothing in fact can take Confession's place, certainly not psychiatry or psychology or sociology. So-called "communal penance" services, even when they are structured with private Confession, as they should be, have not served to address the problem. Behind this frequency problem, I think, lies a theological reluctance to admit the seriousness and content of the Lord's admonition to us that we should not sin. Our public disorders, our so-called "social sins," are, as the Holy Father insists, the results of our personal sins. If we fail to grasp the importance of this point, we will fail completely to understand what goes on around us in our public lives. The core problem of our time, negatively speaking, is the failure to observe the commandments; positively put, it is that we do not love one another, but make ourselves center and exclusive cause of our own being and love. We do not accept any law we do not give ourselves. We are tolerant of everything but the evangelical teaching on sin. We write our own gospels in this light. We blame those who teach what Christ commanded us to know.

In the Phaedo (91), Socrates at one point is worried. Concerned with his upcoming death, he finds himself to be acting "self-assertively" rather than "philosophically." What did he mean? "You know," he continues, "how, in an argument, people who have no real education care nothing for facts of the case, and are only anxious to get their point of view accepted by the audience?" This Socratic query makes me think of the myriads of conversations, yes, with death always on the distant horizon, that display little awareness of the "facts of the case." They only present efforts to justify sinful lives, not change them. They deflect attention from any effort to do something about how we ought to live. We spend time explaining why we do not do what is necessary about the important things. We do not allow our minds to center on the real core of the problem. This is the true source of our culpability.

Somehow, this distinction of Socrates about "self-assertion" and "philosophy" gets to the point I want to make. On a given Sunday, perhaps a third of Catholics obliged to attend Mass actually do so. We are loathe to think that two-thirds have a valid excuse not to attend, even if some few do. The "non-goers" almost invariably do other cultural things on Sunday. It is thus a question of priority. The people not going to Mass or Confession or not using the Sacraments are often, however, "self-assertive" or argumentative about their own conduct. Literally, no one, not even God, they explain, can "tell them what to do." They have many "reasons," but they are not, as it were, deeply "philosophical" ones. Very often, for public consumption at least, these reasons have to do with annoying "incidents" in their lives, incidents related to priests, nuns, bishops, and, increasingly, lay staff at parishes, schools, and chanceries.

These people will rarely look at the facts, the objective facts, of their own case, of their own lives. They will not believe it when they are told that the first thing that God looks for from them in this world is the right ordering of their individual souls. Without this, nothing else will be ordered, certainly not "society." They will not call sin, "sin," or evil, "evil." So they offer reasons upon reasons to avoid facing the condition of their own souls. They have guided themselves into such moral and intellectual quagmires that they literally see no way out, even when they suspect that they should change their lives. Their own habits lock them into instinctive efforts to avoid looking at the unique person that stands alone before God. They have little patience with St. Ignatius's famous scriptural question, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose the life of his immortal soul?" They want to think that the "gaining the whole world" is a "reasonable" lifetime project, even though this "gaining" too is seldom achieved and when it is, it does not satisfy them.

At the European Synod, Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne remarked that "collective wisdom, political influence, and cultural institutions," though influential, are not the center of our faith. Prayer is — prayer and a correct understanding of our hope. "We are hopeful because we know from Christ that God forgives sins," Pell continued,

from the crucifixion, [we know] that suffering can produce fruit and meaning, and that in the end time Christ will reward faith and goodness and punish evil. Our faith in Christ is the basis of our hope. We must not be deterred from explaining that our hope and faith also require a Redeemer; that we acknowledge the consequences of original sin in the world, recognize that communion needs institutional support, disciples need discipline and love can only be protected by prohibitions (L'Osservatore Romano, English, 3 November 1999, p. 10).

I cite Pell's incisive remarks because of their combination of realism and doctrine. If our hope does not include the forgiveness of sins, it is not what Christ promised. Indeed, it is not what we really want or need. In faith, goodness will be rewarded. Evil will be punished. We need to be clear on this. The doctrine of the punishment of unforgiven sins, if we would think of it, is a remarkably liberal teaching. It means nothing less than our every action is important, that even our most heinous actions are surrounded by hope.

If we are stuck in our own sins or disorders, we cannot find a way out by therapy or by politics or by ignoring the situation. If there is a way out, we did not ourselves invent it. But we have a basis, Christ. There is no other. We require a Redeemer whom, when given, we are, paradoxically, free to reject. All the gifts of nature and grace must, eventually, be freely accepted. We do not save ourselves, even when we choose to be saved. But this faith, we are sometimes loathe to acknowledge, needs institutions, discipline, and commandments. Love does not remove the need of these things but welcomes within itself their intellectual pertinence. The positive commandment to, say, love our neighbor, does not obviate the need of good habits, good institutions, or the lists of things that, in freely doing, we destroy the possibility or reality of loving. The penalty for not observing the commandments is not, primarily, Hell. It is the objective reality of not loving either ourselves as we are created or our neighbors as they are. The "negative" commandments are in fact positive in effect. By preventing us, if they do, from doing what we ought not, we are left free to see the world as it is, as we ought to see it. This is why these commandments are directed to us in a "command" form. "Do not" so that we might freely "do unto."

There is an expression of Platonic origin called "turning around," or sometimes, "conversion." It seems pertinent here in a more Christian context. Often in Platonic dialogues, in what appears to be an otherwise ordinary conversation, Socrates will say something of startling import. For example, he will off-handedly remark that the soul is "immortal." After this statement has had time to sink in among the listeners, someone will suddenly stop and ask, "What did you say, Socrates?" Something new has come into the thought world that was not expected, that was even astounding. At this point, Socrates will proceed to explain or justify his statement. It is this idea that I have used as the title of this essay, this "turning around."

In Plato, the phrase does not just mean a sudden reaction to something out of the ordinary. More profoundly, it refers to a reorienting of one's very soul on the basis of the new evidence or truth that is presented from outside our closed inner world. It means that at any point in our lives, we can "turn around," if we will. Something can always come into our world with sufficient urgency and light to incite us to see and to choose a way of life that reorients us to the good, to what is right. And one of the things that can and does come into our world is what we call "grace." God is, as it were, an actor in our lives. But his actions can be rejected. The question becomes, then, "are our lives essentially formed by this rejection?" If they are, we establish around us an aura of disorder. We force ourselves to deflect our attention from the true sinful nature of our acts. Because of how we live, we come to deny that what is evil, is in fact evil.

Our society and Church are full of people who need this "turning around," need this redirection of soul to what is good. I ask: "How is it that so many live with disordered souls?" In response, I cannot avoid an Augustinian answer that would remind us of the power of evil, even of its attraction. Beneath it all is a pride that causes us to center the world on ourselves. We have here "no lasting city." We should not expect that by some neat formula or external rearrangement of work, family, or state that we can suddenly find a mechanical means to reverse the course that our soul has already chosen to follow. Our soul will remain as it is if it has conditioned itself by habit to continue a way of life that is in fact contrary to grace and reason, to the commandments.

Aristotle had it right, I think, when he remarked that what things primarily prevent us from knowing and living the truth are the habits of soul — the sins, we would say — those deeds and thoughts by which we have directed ourselves to a false end. Once we have habituated ourselves to a life based on sinful choices, we will subsequently use our intelligence to justify our choices and acts. A good part of modern education, much of the media, and most of our conversation are directed to this endeavor to deceive ourselves about sin, an endeavor that, if it succeeds, renders us precisely in vain, futile.

I wish briefly to take up the idea that most, if not all, the subject matter of public moral and political discourse seeks to articulate the reasons that would justify us in our sins, though not a little is directed to alleviating their consequences. This is not the only image that we can have of the streams of thought and argument that are found in the world. St. Thomas, for example, following Aristotle, held that there is no error of any kind, including moral error, that does not contain some truth. It is this glimmer of truth that allows us to go ahead with our evil deeds. Aquinas argued implicitly then that we should deal with those in sin or error by trying to find the core of the good in what they do that allows their will to deflect them from the whole or right-ordered good. There is no doubt that St. Thomas was right here. There is and must be an identifiable basis of what is good in every deed, no matter how evil in its intention and effect.

The point I want to make here is straight-forward. If we look at the fact of a vast non-practice of the faith in terms of sacraments and public living a graced life, we cannot grant, because it is not true, that there is some issue of truth or good that justifies this failure to live the life intended by revelation. We can grant that Christ came to save sinners. We might also grant that so long as we are in this world, it would be rash to expect that the need for the forgiveness of sins is not the central reason why the Church exists among us. This does not mean we are not a Church of hope or joy. It means we are. But it also does not deny that love, hope, and joy have certain demands, certain relationships with reality, the lacking of which make this love, hope, and joy impossible.

Thus, it is good to remind ourselves that in fact there is no "argument" in the world today that "refutes" the validity of Christian revelation. In Bible studies, science of whatever sort, politics, economics, philosophy, or whatever the area of intellectual life, no sufficiently valid arguments exist to show that the Catholic belief is not true, that it is not reasonable or well expounded. Many Catholics may not know this or take the trouble to find it out. But the reason why there is such a lack of practice of the faith is not because somehow the statement of the faith and what it asks does not make sense and does not respond to what human beings really are and need.

A friend of mine, in conclusion, was telling me the other day of a business colleague of his. The man was in perhaps his late fifties. The two were discussing what Seneca called a "plan of life," that is, what are the objectives one might have laid down about the rest of one's life. The man was a successful businessman, had a family almost grown, by all standards a successful and happy man. He had a habit of writing down in order of importance a list of things that established his priorities. My friend told me that he was struck that the first item on this man's list was "to save my soul." It is this sort of calm and sensible attitude that I think is much needed among us, especially of those who have fallen by the wayside. The Holy Father is not wrong — even though we may not like to hear it — to repeat again and again that the first order of business is internal; it is that we get rid of our sins. I recall somewhere, in his Autobiography, I think, that Chesterton, on being asked why he became a Catholic, responded, "to get rid of my sins."

If I might return to the myriads of offices, departments, and institutions full of Catholics who have neglected to "turn around," to look at themselves, let me say in conclusion that this spiritual task is and ought to be the first order of one's plan of life and of the Church's current preaching and teaching. Sometimes such a change is excruciatingly difficult because it is embarrassing to acknowledge that we have been wrong, that we have lived wrongly, and yet we have given a thousand justifications for our errors, justifications that, on examination, really do not hold water. We live in a time when the conversion of the world probably most depends on our own internal conversion, turning around of ourselves, so that we can acknowledge what we really are. There is no forgiveness without a clear statement that we violated the commandment, that we acknowledge that our sin is before God and not just before ourselves and our society.

This acknowledgment of fault, moreover, is needed to clear the air. But it is also the way that Christ established among us. He might have chosen a different way, but he did not. I think that the immediate effort of the Church needs to be directed to this inner conversion to which the Holy Father has constantly drawn our attention. We need to make it possible to return to the practice of our faith, and this on a large scale. We can be occasions of grace to our friends locked in the habits of sin. But in the end, it is those who know that they need to return, to turn around, who need to move away from those choices that locked them into an habitual way of life that separated them from the normal channels of grace. This is the first and last order of business. The conversion of the world, its turning around, depends first on looking into our own hearts and souls. We are bound together even in our sins, in our disorders.


  1. Cited in George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II (New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999), 224.




James V. Schall, S.J. "On Turning Around." Homiletic & Pastoral Review (June 2000): 29-32 & 47-49.

Reprinted with permission.


Father James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of many books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy; The Order of Things; The Regensburg Lecture; The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking; Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes; Another Sort of Learning, Sum Total Of Human Happiness, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Copyright © 2001 Ignatius Press

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