A Jesuit and His Faith ~ Frederick C. Copleston, SJ (1907-1994)

This article was taken from the Fall 1996 issue of “Sursum Corda!”
Published quarterly and mailed in December, March, June and September by the Foundation for Catholic Reform.

Francis Phillips recieved this article from the author and I thank her for sharing this article with us.

Frederick_Copleston_1987

by William Doino, Jr.

In its long and illustrious history, the Society of Jesus has produced many outstanding figures who have made a unique impact upon Western culture. One thinks of the Society’s founder and leader, Ignatius of Loyola; the great missionary and ‘Apostle of the Indies,’ Francis Xavier; the famed Catholic apologist and bishop, Robert Bellarmine; St. Isaac Jogues and the North American martyrs; and the eminent poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is undoubtedly true that the twentieth century, with its rampant secularism, has proven less fertile ground for the role of such men. Yet even here, numerous Jesuits have risen to modernity’s challenge, and brought the treasures of Christianity to an unbelieving world. One such priest was Fr. Frederick C. Copleston, SJ, who recently passed into eternal life at the age of 83.

Born on April 10, 1907 in Taunton, England, the future Jesuit was the son of Frederick Selwyn Copleston, a distinguished judge, and his demure wife, Nora. Both adherents to the Church of England, they raised their son to be a strict Anglican; so it came as quite a shock to both when Frederick Jr., soon after reaching his eighteenth birthday, announced he would be entering the Church of Rome. The elder Copleston was so appalled by this decision that he threatened to disown his son; fortunately, his anger soon passed, and he saw to it that Frederick Jr. received a proper education at Oxford University. Upon graduating in 1929, the young Copleston entered the Society of Jesus; he was ordained a priest in 1937.

Always concerned with the deeper questions about life, Copleston became a professor of philosophy and joined the faculty of London’s Heythrop College in 1939. It was there, where Fr. Copleston taught for over thirty years, that he undertook the project that was to forge his reputation: the nine-volume A History of Philosophy, which covers the entire span of philosophy from ancient Greece to the present day. So lucid and superb are Copleston’s explanations of the most complex intellectual matters that his work is still the first place many philosophy students go to comprehend their subject. Indeed, the nine books that constitute A History of Philosophy are as popular today as when they first appeared, if not more so. As The Washington Post Book World recently commented: “Copleston’s volumes are still the place to start for anyone interested in following man’s speculations about himself and his world.”

Fr. Copleston’s intellectual achievements earned him many accolades and honors throughout his career, including visiting professorships at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (1952-1968), and the University of Santa Clara (1974-1982); selection as a lecturer for the British Council in nine European countries; and membership in the Royal Institute of Philosophy, the Aristotelian Society and the British Academy. Remarkably, despite a full-time schedule of teaching, lecturing and writing his History, Fr. Copleston found time to publish separate studies on Nietzsche (1942), Schopenhauer (1946) and Aquinas (1955), as well as volumes entitled Contemporary Philosophy: Studies of Logical Positivism and Existentialism (1956); A History of Medieval Philosophy (1972); Religion and Philosophy (1974); Philosophers and Philosophies (1976); On the History of Philosophy (1979); Philosophies and Culture (1980); Religion and the One (1982) and Philosophy in Russia (1986).

Shortly before his death, Fr. Copleston received the Queen’s “Commander of the British Empire” honor (1993), and also published his long-awaited Memoirs (Sheed and Ward, 1993). It is in this latter, autobiographical work that we discover Fr. Copleston’s profound spirituality, and learn of his lifelong commitment to Catholic orthodoxy.

Spanning the greater part of the twentieth century, these Memoirs provide a moving and fascinating account of Fr. Copleston’s eventful life. He begins by recalling the earliest reservations he had about the Church of England, which coincided with his growing interest in the Church of Rome.

When I was still a boy… about fourteen or possibly fifteen… I wrote an essay in which I castigated the Church of England for reducing Christianity to bourgeois mediocrity and for failing to uphold the ideals of the New Testament. I do not remember precisely what I wrote, but I have no doubt that I compared the Church of England with Catholicism to the former’s disadvantage…. My main point was that though the Church of Rome certainly had its dark aspects (Torquemada, the fires of Smithfield, some of the Popes, and so on), it had at any rate upheld ideals of sanctity and otherworldliness and had not equated true religion with being an English gentleman. At the time I had not heard of Kierkegaard, but my line of thought bore some similarity to his in his attack on the State Church of Denmark.

The reference here to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is relevant, since his famous blasts against his country’s Lutheran establishment were frequently contrasted with his high regard for the Catholic Church.

Indeed, Kierkegaard’s biographer, Walter Lowrie, as well as Fr. Henri de Lubac, maintain that the officially Lutheran Kierkegaard was in many respects Catholic – at least in thought, if not in practice-and that he would have converted had he not died so young, or been placed in different circumstances. As Fr. de Lubac comments:

In spite of… a body of thought strongly marked with the heritage of the Reformation, M. Paul Petit observes that, in the last years of his short life, Kierkegaard seems to have increasingly followed a course which was clearly taking him towards positions not far removed from Catholicism. He is ready to admit, in the realm of critics like Brandes and Hoffding, that if Kierkegaard had been born later he would have been a Catholic…. That, with slight shades of difference, is the contention of the Rev. Fr. Przywara also. In his book Das Geheimnis Kierkegaards he “proposes to show that in Kierkegaard an anonymous Catholicism is to be found”; by his call for objective authority and by his views on the ordination of priests as an intermediate objective authority, Kierkegaard is asserted to have crossed the border-line of Lutheranism and pointed the way to “Holy Mother Church.”

It was precisely this “objective authority” that Fr. Copleston found in the Catholic Church; an authority that he eventually recognized as emanating from the will of Christ. He writes: “It seemed to me that if Christ was truly the Son of God and if He founded a Church to teach all nations in His name, it must be a Church teaching with authority, as her Master did. Obviously, one might deny that Christ was the Son of God, and one might reject the claim that He founded a Church. But if these two claims were accepted, it seemed to me that in spite of all its faults the Roman Catholic Church was the only one which could reasonably be thought to have developed out of what Christ established.”

Ultimately, what played a decisive role in Fr. Copleston’s conversion was the spiritual pull he felt toward the Catholic saints and mystics. “St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross opened up for me vistas of a new world, which exercised a powerful attraction on my mind,” he writes. “I was indeed aware … that some Anglicans had written profoundly spiritual works. At the same time it seemed to me that mystical religion was a foreign body, so to speak, in the Church of England, and that religiously inclined Anglicans were inclined to turn to Catholic writings, such as the Imitation of Christ and books by Pere Grou. The atmosphere or tone of Anglicanism, as I had experienced it… seemed to me to be far removed from the sort of ideals which had been exhibited in a concrete manner in the lives of Catholic saints.”

Father Copleston’s reflections on the Anglican and Catholic communities call to mind those once voiced by John Henry Newman. Shortly before his conversion, Newman remarked: “If the Roman Catholic Church is not the Church of Christ, there never was a Church established by Him.” Later, as an esteemed Catholic prelate, Newman wrote: “From the time I became a Catholic, I have been at perfect peace and contentment. It was like coming into port after a rough sea.” Despite such clear and unequivocal statements, Cardinal Newman often had to endure rumors and insinuations-planted by disgruntled Anglicans-that his conversion was insincere. When the London Globe published a report suggesting that he had become disillusioned with Catholicism, and was preparing to return to the Church of England, the Cardinal could take no more, and retaliated in kind. In a widely publicized statement, he declared: “I have not had one moment’s wavering of trust in the Catholic Church ever since I was received into her fold. I have no intention, and never had any intention, of leaving the Catholic Church and becoming a Protestant again. And I hereby profess ex animo with an absolute internal assent and consent that the thought of an Anglican service makes me shiver, and the thought of the Thirty-Nine Articles makes me shudder. Return to the Church of England! No! I should be a consummate fool (to use a mild term) if in my old age I left ‘the land flowing with milk and honey’ for the city of confusion and the house of bondage.”

In his Memoirs, Fr. Copleston makes his commitment to Rome equally clear, albeit in a less combative fashion: “If anyone feels prompted to ask whether I have ever thought seriously of returning to the Church of England, the answer… is a decided ‘no.’ …I have great respect for sincere Anglicans, whether clerical or lay, and I have been much impressed by devoted Nonconformist and Presbyterian Christians whom I have come across. But I still believe that the centre of Christian unity is to be found in the Catholic Church, and that though Anglicanism certainly has a contribution to make to Christian life (as, indeed, have other Christian religious bodies too), this contribution should be made through some form of real communion with the Holy See.”

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.”


You may also be interested in this video: Frederick Copleston on Schopenhauer


William Doino, Jr. freelances for, among others, National Review, Modern Age and Crisis.


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3 thoughts on “A Jesuit and His Faith ~ Frederick C. Copleston, SJ (1907-1994)

  1. A very good post. Can we have more like this?

    Because the posts recently have been somewhat ‘top heavy’ on what I have been posting. I came to this site as (one of the) protestant(s) expressing a ‘reformed’ point of view, but it was supposed to be part of a mix and the posts were supposed to be producing some sort of dialogue between serious Christians of goodwill, from the whole spectrum. This has been missing.

    This is a very good post, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Francis sent it to me this morning. I enjoyed it as well. I hope some people begin dialogue here as well. Perhaps in time we’ll find folk who are interested in that. For now, we just plod on. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A Jesuit and His Faith ~ Frederick C. Copleston, SJ (1907-1994) | All Around the Western Front - News for Catholics

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