A Jesuit and His Faith ~ Frederick C. Copleston, SJ (1907-1994) | All Around the Western Front

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.


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.

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