Note to Charles Rice re: a Forthcoming Book on Notre Dame


I know the book is basically written in your mind, and what you’re looking for are authoritative quotes that will give solidity to it. You want to speak the absoluteness of truth to a nihilistic relativism. You want to use reason to remove obstacles to seeing the absolute. You mentioned the kid in Indiana who worked the relativist mush against the principle of non-contradiction and saw the light.

In that vein, you appreciate Ratzinger’s “Conscience and Truth.” You like conscience as an “anamnesis” of the absolute looking for its concretion in the Magisterium which speaks to it. The Magisterium speaks concepts to an intelligence yearning for absolute answers.

My question: what does Ratzinger mean by “ontological tendency” that yields the “anamnesis of the origin, which results from the godlike constitution of our being [that] is not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents”?

The answer to that – for me – decides what your solution will be? If the whole project is conceptual, then you will talk the absolute in terms of concepts. The answer will be firmness of will in Magisterial teaching. You will be accused of a doctrinal fundamentalism…. But you can take that. You (and I) have taken that before. However, if that is the case, I don’t think it’s the answer. It is neither Ratzinger, the Magisterium, nor where the minds of youth (or the country/world) are.

What does Ratzinger mean by “ontological tendency?” He means the being of the person as constitutively relational. He is not talking Thomism, Aristotle or nature. He is talking person as an action of self-transcendence the way the divine Persons are Self-transcendent: “the godlike constitution of our being.” And by “anamnesis” he is not talking concepts. This is made evident by: “not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents.” “Retrievable contents” are concepts. He is talking “consciousness” which comes from the experience of the “ontological tendency.”

What then is he talking? He is talking faith, prayer, love, service…, whatever way the person is out of self and “for” others. The upshot is that the first step is not Magisterial teaching, but internal ACTION, overcoming “acedia” (lukewarmness), getting off dead center in the self; going to confession [telling the truth about the self]… Of course, that demands preaching the basic ascetical reality conceptually, but the concepts and clarity of ideas is not the key. What is key? Conversion! No one will understand anything without an interior conversion.

Notice, when Ratzinger wants to present the core of catechetics, he present the scene of Christ at the well with the Samaritan woman. Before He can reveal that He is the Christ, he starts a conversation with her. He asks for a drink. She says that He is a Jew (Jews and Samaritans don’t speak) and besides He doesn’t have a bucket. He says that if she knew who He was, she would ask water from Him that leaps to eternal life. She says, “give me this water so that I don’t have to come here every day to draw.” He breaks the entire thread of the rational argument and says: “Bring me your husband.” She says: “I have no husband.” [This is the great moment in which her anamnesis kicks in and she is ready to be told the truth]. He says: “Well said… and of the five you’ve had, none has been your husband.” She says: “I see you’re a prophet.” He says: “Religion comes from the Jews…” She says: “I know that Messiah is coming.” He says: “I’m the Messiah.”[1] He reveals Himself to her as was not able to reveal Himself to the Pharisees and Scribes.

The problem with Notre Dame and the country (and you and me) is the lack of real holiness. If there is humility, silence, purity, mercy… there is no reception of the Word. It doesn’t come to hard-ass teaching – at first.

Let me bore you. From David Walsh:

“It is not enough to assert the rightness of one’s principles. Their rightness must be grasped as an overwhelming truth within the experiential movement toward transcendent reality. This is why Voegelin abandoned his work on the history of political ideas, and sought to penetrate to the underlining experiences behind the symbolic forms. He did not regard a restoration of natural law or of the classical right by nature to be sufficient, because in such dogmatic formulations the link with the engendering experience is no longer present. Instead he emphasized the recovery of that original experience. By reconstructing the infrastructure of classical philosophy he discovered that the science of ethics and politics, which the Greeks invented, was not based on propositions about order. It was rooted in the living experience of the soul making its ascent toward the divine Good, which is ‘beyond being, exceeding it in dignity and power’ (Plato: Republic, 509b). [2]When Socrates was pressed for his definition of justice, one that would provide his young listeners with a reason for following it apart from any calculation of rewards, for its own sake, he invited them to follow ‘a longer and more arduous way’ than the preceding discourse on the parts of the polis. This was the beginning of the parable of the cave that culminates in the vision of the Good. What is significant, Voegelin observes, is that nothing further is said about its content. No definition of the Good is possible because it is a transcendent reality. ‘The vision of the Agathon does not render a material rule of conduct, but forms the soul through an experience of transcendence” (Order of History III, 112).

“The criterion of right order and the formation of the will that enables us to carry it out, is not the result of a train of discursive reasoning. Rather it is the concrete movement of the soul toward the ineffable divine reality that sheds its light over the whole of our existence…Voegelin stresses the centrality of this ‘ontological’ conception of ethics, if we wish to understand the classic understanding of ‘right by nature.’ For classical ethics is never about general propositions or formulas. Whenever there is a question of te rightness of wrongness of action, the appeal is always made to the experience of the spoudaios, the mature man, who contains the authoritative measure within his divinely formed soul. ‘The criterion of rightly ordered human existence… is the permeability of r the movement of being, i.e. the openness of man for the divine; the openness in its turn is not a proposition about something given but an event, and ethics is, therefore, not a body of propositions but an event of being that provides the word for a statement about itself.’ (Anamnesis 65). It is the experience of touching or participating in divine reality that is the self-justifying end of all existence. In that movement we are lifted up beyond ourselves, to share in that higher reality in comparison with which everything else occupies a less real mode of existence. It is the experiential affirmation of Plato’s “God is the measure,’ and the well spring of Greek ethical and political theory.

“No further reasons are required when we experience the truth that contains its own proof within itself. Nietzsche’s question… This is the folly of the attempt to provide morality with an autonomous rational foundation. In the rush to dispense with theological presuppositions and in the conviction that reason alone would be sufficient to justify right action, the modern philosophers from Descartes on have failed to recognize that any such formulation can never be self-compelling. A right formation of the will is necessary before we have the requisite disposition to regard the inferences as right. The predisposition cannot come from the arguments themselves since they are dependent on it for their recognition and implementation. Only the movement toward greater participation in transcendent Being can bring the indefinite regress of justifications to a conclusion…

“Such knowledge through experience is not to be attained by reasoning our way toward it. It is the encounter with a reality that is not a ready-made or predictably accessible dimension of our every day world….” (underlines mine).[3]

All this being true, the point is to write the book as you conceive it. But know that Newman toasts conscience, and therefore the conversion experience of humility, prayer and truth telling on the self, before he toasts the Magisterium. Without making clear that there must be this anterior conversion and softening of the ground, you run the risk of presenting yet another strain of rationalism not unlike our own post-Reformation. Look again at Ratzinger’s “The New Evangelization” of 2000.

Feed this to the dogs or turn it over for scrap paper. Fr. Bob

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Principles of Catholic Theology,” Ignatius (1987) 353-355.
[2] By the way: the Greeks came into contact with this experience of transcendence in the so-called Axial Age which took place in the 5th century B.C. It took place at the exact time that they came in contact with Abrahamic faith during the Exile in Babylon Greek and Jews mixed with the result of the sudden explosion of Greek philosophy in the Anaximander fragment, Thales, Heraclitus, Anaximenes, Empedocles, the Eliatic Parmenides, etc. After being in contact with the Absolute of the “I Am,” the Greeks are after the Absolute as Being, and the Jews translate divine revelation from the narrowness of a tribe to a wisdom literature that becomes universal. Look at Heidegger’s “Early Greek Thinkers” where Plato and Aristotle are already a decay from the previous Ionians 200 – 300 years before.

[3] David Walsh, “Beyond Ideology,” CUA (1995) 194-196.


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