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I am greatly indebted to our good friend Francis Phillips for her intercession with the author of this piece, William Doino Jr., through which we have permission to publish it here. 

Frederick C. Copleston, SJ (1907-1994)

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


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.”

part 2 will appear tomorrow