The following interview is transcribed from an interview conducted virtually on April 8, 2021.
IHE Staff: Thank you so much, Jason, for agreeing to do this interview. First, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your background prior to coming to The Catholic University of America. What did you study in college and what led you to Catholic University’s School of Theology and Religious Studies to study systematic theology?
IHE Graduate Fellow Jason Paone: So, I started out as a philosophy and classics double major at the University of Texas at Austin. I chose those majors with a view to studying theology in the future. I had started reading C.S. Lewis, and he was the gateway drug that got me into theology and philosophy. After college, I did a Master’s in Theological Studies at Duke Divinity School. There I met [IHE Fellow] Dr. Reinhard Huetter. During that time when I was one of his students, I registered for a class of his that he didn’t end up teaching because he was moving to Catholic University. He also wrote letters of recommendation for my doctoral program applications. One of the schools I ended up applying to because of him was The Catholic University of America. So I kind of followed him from Duke to Catholic University.
IHE Staff: How did you become interested in theology in college?
JP: It was really before college. I grew up in an unusual religious movement that was much more evangelical and a bit anti-intellectual. And it didn’t have a lot of exposure to the Christian tradition. It was a much more a sectarian movement that wanted to disconnect itself from the tradition and from ancient Christianity, and, like a lot of Protestant movements, imagined that it was getting behind a lot of historical accretions. But what I found was that this kind of sectarianism impoverished everything — our culture was impoverished, our literature, everything we did.
When I encountered C.S. Lewis, one of the first things that struck me was just how rich his writing was. I remember reading the first chapter of his book Mere Christianity, which discusses the natural law as a clue to the meaning of the universe. And I remember noticing immediately how rhetorically effective it was, and how it was a pleasure to read. And that was a rare thing. We almost never had literature to read that was actually enjoyable. It was also an impressive argument to me and still is. From that book, what I came away with was the recognition of the importance of tradition and that C.S. Lewis had access to a rich world of ideas that we had cut ourselves off from.
It was a stark difference between our theological speculation and the world that C.S. Lewis was drawing from. So that’s part of the reason why I wanted to get into the classics — I wanted to study Greek and Latin to be able to meet a lot of the classic texts that inspired C.S. Lewis. This also made me want to get into a more liturgically rich kind of Christianity. At that point, I joined the Anglican Church, which was sort of a “halfway house” to Roman Catholicism, to use Saint John Henry Newman’s expression. That’s a sort of snapshot of how I developed an interest in theology.
IHE Staff: That’s really fascinating. You mentioned that you followed Dr. Huetter to Catholic University. Do you think that your journey from evangelical Christianity to Anglicanism to Catholicism in any way mirrored Dr. Huetter’s own journey from Lutheranism to Catholicism?
JP: That’s an interesting question. I think you might be onto something there, because although Dr. Huetter was a Lutheran, one of the great inspirations for Dr. Huetter’s work and certainly for his conversion was Saint John Henry Newman. And Saint John Henry Newman also has that kind of progression from a much more Protestant evangelicalism and Calvinism to a kind of High Church Anglicanism, and then eventually to Roman Catholicism.
And so, there may be something of that reflected in my own experience, because Dr. Huetter introduced me to Saint John Henry Newman. It was under his instruction that I read him for the first time. So, it was somehow the combination of Dr. Huetter and Saint John Henry Newman that was very compelling to me, and Saint John Henry Newman is probably a significant part of the story of my conversion. He was the next step from C.S. Lewis.
IHE Staff: So, you came to Catholic University, and now you’re studying systematic theology. Can you talk a little bit about your research interests and how you came to those research interests?
JP: It really caught my eye when I studied Saint John Henry Newman under Dr. Huetter that John Henry Newman thinks that, although our beliefs seem to be intellectual matters, there is nothing that is merely intellectual. Our intellectual life always involves and is a reflection of our moral life and the shape of our character. My research has focused on faith and the role of the will in the act of faith.
Specifically, I’m studying Matthias Joseph Scheeben’s work on faith. In his writing, you find one of the more elaborate accounts of the way the will is involved in the assent of faith, in such a way that faith becomes voluntary in some sense, voluntary and morally significant. It’s voluntary, unlike the things we do that are involuntary, like sneezes and things like that. We don’t regard those things as having any moral significance. They’re not good or bad because they’re not things that we choose to do or have some kind of voluntary control over. But how does the will in the act of faith have voluntary control?
I think Scheeben has one of the best and most neglected accounts of how the will works in the act of faith. And so, I’m studying him partly just to understand what that means, because it’s actually a puzzling idea that you can have a belief that is in some sense the result of a decision of the will. Recent philosophers have explored this problem called doxastic voluntarism. There are some pretty compelling arguments that it’s absurd to think directly voluntary belief is possible. But I think Scheeben avoids that particular problem by understanding faith as fundamentally an act of obedience to God that inevitably entails assent and believing whatever God tells you. For him, the beliefs of faith follow from the act of obedience, which is prior to it logically and chronologically. So that’s a quick overview of the topic I’m exploring in my dissertation.
IHE Staff: That’s really interesting. I have a two part question based on your explanation of your research. First, as academics, we’re studying things that are wonderful in themselves, but do you see your research as an antidote to certain modern blind spots? In his introduction to Saint Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis talks about how it’s important to study tradition because it shows you the blind spots of your own age. Second, how do you see a research playing into your future work or current job? How do you see it bearing fruit outside of academia?
JP: My dissertation topic is not likely to be popular because the idea of obedience is not an attractive idea in the modern age. That’s one way to summarize what we call philosophical modernity: it’s a challenge to the epistemic authority of the Church. But part of what my research is about is the very epistemic authority of the church and how at the same time to understand faith as involving a voluntary component.
That the Church has a claim to this kind of epistemic role calling for this kind of act of faith is really in the Gospel — Jesus is constantly enjoining faith. And you can’t respond to an injunction if it’s not up to you in any sense. So, the Church’s role as magisterium and as teacher does not just offer doctrines, but actually calls its followers to believe. That whole role has kind of been undermined in certain ways by a certain notion of religious freedom where religion is not something you can know about and about which you can speak authoritatively. It’s described as something subjective, rather than as something you’re compelled to conform yourself to in light of the normativity of reality. And, for some reason, people tend to think that religious truths are just not that kind of thing. They’re not hard facts that you have to conform to, and because they’re not hard facts that you must conform to, there’s also no authoritative epistemic institution or community (unlike in the scientific community, where it’s perfectly acceptable to have a kind of epistemic authority).
In my research, I’m not so much going to get into the legitimacy and the epistemic hardness of religious facts or anything like that. A lot of other people have gone there, but my research is aimed at supporting the Church’s role as an epistemic authority. The Gospels have an implicit understanding of faith such that it’s something you can enjoin in other people, and they can respond to the injunction and thereby do something meritorious or neglect to respond in a way that is culpable. My project helps to clarify the nature of such faith and that its nature involves obedience.
I’m hoping that this project has an evangelistic contribution that brings people back to what the Church has been teaching all along about the nature of faith and what the Second Vatican Council reiterates: that the obedience of faith is emphasized when we talk about the assent of faith. It’s definitely not something that the Church has ever backed away from. But it’s not something that is spoken about very much because of the liberalism of modernity.
IHE Staff: Authority becomes a dirty word in the 20th century.
JP: And that’s problematic, I think, on theological grounds, because what is God if not a God who has authority? And the Church is supposed to have that authority in a deputized way. So yes, my goal is to bring us back to the importance of authority, and hence to the importance of obedience in our faith.
IHE Staff: I know that you were recently hired by Word on Fire, which is great. Congratulations! How do you see your work with Word on Fire and with Bishop Barron as completing or encouraging that mission of evangelization you just mentioned?
JP: Word on Fire was a surprise in many ways. It seems like Providence. I never imagined myself working for Word on Fire, and I didn’t really know this kind of job was available. I didn’t know it existed, but it’s in a way more appropriate for me given my story, sensibilities, and interests — even more appropriate than the role of a university professor or researcher. They want me to help lead their academic imprint. And there’s a place for a lot of the things that I’ve learned, but the work I do is going to be much more associated with evangelism. I really like that. It’s important to me.
I’ve always wondered how (and a lot of scholars worry about this) my work will have significance. It’s hard to define scholarship sometimes in relation to our goal of serving the Church and every scholar has to ask how it is contributing to the Church. How is it fulfilling our mandate to preach the Gospel? Things like that. And for me it’s just nice to know in working for Word on Fire that it’s important work in the Church. That being said, Bishop Barron is emphatic that he doesn’t want a dumbed down Catholicism that isn’t informed by a rigorous theological engagement with the best in the tradition. So I think there’s definitely room for me to do things in Word on Fire that are very much like the kind of things I would have been doing as a professor. I’m really glad to be a part of it.
IHE Staff: That’s a really exciting opportunity. So, I’m going to pivot to asking you some IHE related questions now. I was curious about how you saw the Institute as playing a role in your graduate education at Catholic University and in what ways you saw the IHE as enriching your experience. Do you have any favorite lectures or memories associated with the IHE?
JP: The IHE’s been great on so many levels. I mean, obviously, the funding is incredible. It’s huge to be able to have access to theological education at a great institution like Catholic University. That’s no small gift that the IHE offers. In addition, I think the cross-pollination and the kind of culture that the IHE has been fermenting and cultivating has been super enriching for me. I’ve tried to sit in on the different reading groups. The talks and the seminars have been great too. And many times, I’ve gotten to have contact with a question or topic I wouldn’t normally come across as a theologian. It’s nice to be kept abreast of the broader Catholic world.
I’ve really enjoyed the interdisciplinary reading groups that we’ve had. I’m thinking specifically of the Homo Abyssus reading group that I was able to take part in with Dr. Huetter and others, where we had just a huge group of people you wouldn’t ordinarily get together in one room —continental philosophers, analytic Thomists. There was an Italian Dominican, a Spanish Dominican; we had such a great group. So Catholic in all senses — there’s probably no better word for it. Again, it gave me a sense of the richness of our tradition. It helped to round out my education. I think it’s easy for a graduate student to get siloed and become narrow. And I think the IHE provides an opportunity for students to become intensive and delve deeply into their topic but without neglecting extension and exposure to a lot of great conversations that are happening at different places in the Catholic world.
IHE Staff: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that you’ve hit on a lot of the parts of the IHE mission that we want to keep expanding for the graduate fellows. I just have one last question. It’s more about Catholic University in general and your theology program. Why did you choose Catholic University? I’m glad you chose Catholic University in the end, but I’m sure you applied to other graduate programs.
JP: What I liked about Catholic University was also what I liked about the IHE. First of all, D.C. is kind of the hub, not only of the political world, but also of the Catholic world in many ways. At Catholic University, I was able to just make a lot of more acquaintances, meet a lot more people, and get a sense of what the Catholic world is like. I’ve definitely found this as a benefit as compared to, you know, different opportunities that I would have had at, say, Notre Dame. For instance, the Dominican House of Studies is across the street here. I’ve really enjoyed that it’s characteristic of Catholic University to be a bit closer to the center of things.
Second, I feel like the departments are less separated at Catholic University than they are at other places. I never saw a philosophy students or professors at Duke Divinity, and never really made contact with anybody outside the Divinity school. At Catholic University, though, I never felt like I had to stick to a lane or a clique. And I just felt like everybody knows everybody at Catholic University. And there’s a kind of intellectual fertility that comes naturally from that.
Third, I also think that Catholic University has the advantage of not being quite as mired in political and ideological controversy. That can really can distract you as a scholar. You need a quiet space, not just in a literal sense, but in a spiritual sense. You need to be able to concentrate on your work and not on political disputes and all of that. And the university I think has to try harder to foster that calm atmosphere. Catholic University has its own controversies going on, but from my experience, it’s a calm atmosphere in that regard.
IHE Staff: Right. I think you’re exactly correct on that. It’s kind of like a citadel in the heart of D.C. What you just said actually inspired one more question. I’m wondering if you can speak to any particular moment where someone in another discipline inspired or challenged your research.
JP: I don’t know that I can point to a particular moment, but I definitely think of the Homo Abyssus reading group as a moment like that — a strange collection not only different kinds of disciplines and scholars, but different sensibilities. It was really cool to have your Communio people alongside folks from the John Paul II Institute and your analytic philosophers. Dr. Huetter falls somewhere in between those groups, and I really enjoyed experiencing that. I like both sides of the argument. Aristotle said something about how argument is virtuous. And I think that it’s hard to believe that these days, but in that context, it was true. There was a genuine value to these different, sometimes incompatible sensibilities and in hearing both sides. It has made me want to be more broad-minded to make sure that I’m allowing my perspective to integrate what I can. In general, there were just so many different people in that particular reading group that I felt like I learned a lot from, even though I can’t point to a specific argument or conclusion they changed for me.
IHE Staff: Absolutely – that makes a lot of sense. I also really like the point you reiterate from Aristotle about argument being virtuous. It’s a necessary reminder for us all, and a good note on which to end.
Well, thank you so much for doing this interview with us!
JP: I enjoyed it!
Jason Paone is a graduate student in systematic theology at The Catholic University of America. He was recently hired to help run Word on Fire’s new academic press.