No Longer Calm, But Alive: Robert Royal’s Catholic Humanism

 
 

Robert Royal makes the case that, despite a twentieth-century period of confusion and fragmentation, Christian humanism has been renewed and revitalized, so that today it is “as alive as it has ever been.”

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Islam pervaded the commentary accompanying the publication of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, and not without reason. The novel portrays the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood—veiling of women, religious takeover of education, the conversion of the not-so-subtly-named Francois—and the outright failure of decadent French society to provide an alternative. Moreover, by sheer happenstance Submission was released on the very day Charlie Hebdo was attacked, and Houellebecq followed up the release with some quite provocative statements. But with rare exceptions, relatively little attention was given to the novel’s portrayal of Catholicism in France, the “eldest daughter of the Church.”

Submission opens with an epigraph from J.-K. Huysmans, the decadent author and eventual convert to Rome, which includes these lines: “I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated by its atmosphere of incense and candle wax.” Francois, an academic writing on Huysmans, his “companion” and “faithful friend,” makes a pilgrimage to Ligugé Abbey where Huysmans had become a Benedictine Oblate, and spends a month in Rocamadour contemplating the Black Virgin, “the same one who for a thousand years inspired so many pilgrimages.” She is “calm and timeless,” full of sovereignty and power. Yet Francois is alienated, “losing touch,” and he “felt her moving away … in space and across the centuries.” The Catholic faith, to quote Huysmans, leaves him “unmoved and dry.”

I often thought of Submission when reading Robert Royal’s excellent new book, A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century. While by no means an exercise in nostalgia, A Deeper Vision captures the sense that the “calm and timeless” Church, with its sheer objective presence a counterweight and challenge to every fad of thought, has slipped away, no longer a “significant part of the cultural dialogue,” with internal rifts “that make it less coherent and effective in making its own case.” The stolidity of the Church, once so confident and massively real, a “thing, not a theory”—as Hilaire Belloc once put it—has been all but “obliterated” since Vatican II “rightly sought to orient herself differently toward the modern world.”

Royal avoids the too-common mistake of merely bemoaning the changes of Vatican II by insisting, clearly and persistently, that the Church “rightly” reconfigured its relations to the modern world. This is no call to return to a world that is no longer, but a sophisticated and wide-ranging exposition of a tradition reappropriating its sources so as to offer its liberating truths anew and revitalized, albeit with some loss and confusion.

A Deeper Vision first outlines Catholic philosophy, theology, and the study of Scripture leading up to, and then following from, the Second Vatican Council. In philosophy, the century begins with Thomas Aquinas, the common doctor, with Leo XIII’s encyclical, Aeterni Patris (1879), fostering a period of renewal in Thomism. Not only were giants like the “sacred monster of Thomism,” Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., writing and teaching, but Leo’s impetus revived historical scholarship on Aquinas, a turn away from the seminary manuals to his actual text, resulting in a lively—sometimes vituperative—clash of readings and schools. As intense as this was, it led to the genuine accomplishments of neoscholasticism, with Catholic thinkers striding confidently into the broader discourse, facing philosophical and political problems of modernity from a position of “calm and timeless” strength—and with significant cultural cachet.

For a time, in philosophy, it almost seemed like a Catholic moment. Jacques Maritain, for instance, boldly claimed that the perennial philosophy of Thomas must be defended and explicated, but in a way demonstrating its eternal youth and inventiveness; so he did, writing on epistemology and metaphysics, existentialism and anthropology, political philosophy and aesthetics, bringing Thomism out of the parochial ghetto and into the lecture halls of the Sorbonne, the University of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, and the United Nations. Maritain’s “true humanism” was that of an urbane, modern intellectual speaking as if Thomism belonged in the conversations that mattered—and it did. So, too, did Maritain’s fellow Thomist Étienne Gilson attain international status, and his Gifford Lectures convey an almost palpable sense of a mature and mighty Thomism surpassing the feeble offerings in philosophy and psychology of the early decades of the past century.

So robust was the Thomistic revival that it resulted in new forms, such as the Transcendental Thomism of Maréchal and Lonergan or the analytic Thomism of Elizabeth Anscombe, although Royal gives rather less attention to these than to the phenomenology of Karol Wojtyla and Edith Stein. Still, while “Thomism was still going strong,” the Second Vatican Council “disrupted many of the old traditions of inquiry, and for some time after, although there was much ferment on the surface, very little appeared that could be characterized as great and enduring Catholic philosophy”—that is, until Alasdair MacIntyre converted and launched a “fresh current,” which became “one of the most influential philosophical projects of the second half of the twentieth century.”

Notably, MacIntyre criticizes the fragmentation of modernity, including the scattered approach of much contemporary Catholic thought and practice, presenting Thomism as not just another tradition among traditions but “as tradition itself, the practice of moral inquiry that coherently responds to the failures of other versions.” In comparison to MacIntyre’s sometimes gloomy outlook, another Catholic notable, Charles Taylor—perhaps MacIntyre’s equal in stature—seeks to balance the genuine accomplishments of modernity with an openness to transcendence absent in the usual stultifying and sclerotic reductionism.

In philosophy, then, the century moved from massive stability—actually a kind of immobility—through confusion and fragmentation and finally into a new period of dynamism with a return to tradition and influence, although with a corresponding pluralism and lack of unity. So, too, in theology and Scripture studies, Royal’s subject moves through several robust and thoughtful chapters. Prior to the Council, he suggests, “the Church occupied a seemingly strong position in the world,” although viewing modern thought and life with some hostility, and yet chose to undergo a piercing self-analysis in order “to engage the modern world more effectively from the standpoint of a richer understanding of the Catholic tradition.”

In Royal’s account—deeply in keeping with the hermeneutic of continuity articulated by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI—the turbulent years prior to the council were a time of enrichment. Ressourcement theologians such as Maurice Blondel, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and (especially) Romano Guardini recovered the depths of the patristic and medieval sources from the dry rationalism of “sawdust Thomism.” While Thomism of the “strict observance” seemed to occupy a position of strength, its dependence and mirroring of “a number of Enlightenment assumptions” resulted in a rationalist theology somewhat thinner, less sacramental, more legalistic, and more fragile than that of Scripture, the Church Fathers, or Thomas himself—although the historical method of recovery was often viewed as flirting with modernism, historicism, and even relativism, with pre-conciliar papal documents giving “the impression of threats everywhere.”

However, as is now well-known, many viewed Vatican II not as an exercise in self-knowledge and revitalization but as a rupture, a break from the past, allowing or even encouraging frightful liturgical experiments, revisionism in moral thought, a Protestant-like rejection of the Church’s mediating and teaching function, and easy capitulation to the spirit of the age. Scholars separated Scripture and theology from the community and its memory, treating many of the central theological and historical claims of the Church as defunct and primitive, incapable of meeting the test of modern thought, however often modern thought turned on itself. Despite decades of labor, especially through the remarkable encyclicals of John Paul II, the mood of rupture remains, perhaps especially among scholars at Catholic universities.

Interestingly, Royal gives much more consideration to the tensions within orthodox thought than to the pervasive heterodoxy of dissenters. Josef Fuchs and other revisionists are largely overlooked, and Karl Rahner’s influence on them downplayed. Similarly, it almost seems that the confusion sown by Edward Schillebeeckx or Luke Timothy Johnson has been tamed by later developments within the Church. In Royal’s reading, the suffering Church has attained a renewed theology and more mature engagement with modern culture, even as revisionist theologians once so dominant have become passé, with the most daring thinkers being those who draw on the deepest wellsprings of our past. Renewal has triumphed, although, again, the calm and timeless atmosphere has turned dynamic, even youthful—something not yet translated fully into the pews or lecture halls. For those familiar with the state of the Church and the shocking loss of faith in her young, Royal’s hopefulness may feel slightly forced, selective, perhaps not sufficiently acknowledging the tragic extent of apostasy.

In the second half of the book, after demonstrating his thorough familiarity with philosophy, theology, and scriptural study, Royal reveals a literate and humanistic mind and spirit in examining the “importance of Christian culture to understanding and restoring the modern world,” although emphasizing literature rather than the arts or music. He’s particularly good with the French, providing essays on Léon Bloy, Charles Péguy (for whom he seems to have a particular affection), Paul Claudel, Georges Bernanos, and Francois Mauriac. While some of my academic friends are sated with these figures, they have by no means been exhausted, with many of the faithful—including students—as yet unfamiliar with them, and these essays are a great service to encourage their reading.

While differing from the high genius of the French in their earthy, “bacon and beer” liveliness, Chesterton, Belloc, and Tolkien, and the gritty, almost sin-sympathetic Waugh and Graham Greene, also grapple with the modern. Sometimes, as in Waugh and Greene, they seem to show ambivalence toward Catholicism, as if knowing firsthand the difficulties of maintaining faith in our time, especially given the turmoil within the Church herself. Their personal biographies are something of a microcosm of the Church—from the ebullient confidence of Belloc, to the weary disgruntlement of Waugh at liturgical innovation, to the “extinction of a great gift” in Greene when turning to political liberation rather than the struggle to save his soul. It has not been a calm century, and yet it is those, like Greene, who rejected the renewed “vision of man held up by John Paul II” who have sunk to “relative inconsequence.”

As in every work attempting to introduce a vast literature, one can quibble with the presentation or interpretation of an author, or wonder why some figures are not discussed: Why is there so little on Jean-Luc Marion? Why are the English-speaking philosophers mostly ignored? What about the remarkable resurgence of natural law? Royal himself admits that this long book, just under 600 pages, could have been much longer, although if it encourages the reading of those neglected thinkers, so much the better. (And he is writing a sequel on American Catholic thought, although that text would do well to devote considerably more attention to Germain Grisez and John Finnis than did A Deeper Vision.) Despite those inevitable questions and gaps, A Deeper Vision is a success, not only in its depth of learning and suppleness of presentation, but in reminding us that the Catholic intellectual tradition persists—despite the sufferings of the last bloody and evil century, and in spite of the crises within the Church. And it more than persists; it thrives, or at least the raw material for thriving exists if the Church rouses herself from distraction. It has developed and matured—admittedly by losing some of its calm assurance and sheer, objective facticity—but by gaining in self-knowledge, awakening itself from a kind of cold and rationalist slumber, discovering anew the human and the divine, and accompanying the confused and intellectually bereft men and women of our sad, joyless, and harried time.

Like Houellebecq’s Francois, our friends and neighbors require a “substantial defense” of the “very humanness of humanity,” as Royal aptly puts it, an explanation of human freedom and purpose. Catholicism may no longer be as significant in the cultural dialogue as in the early half of the twentieth century, and yet it is the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the divine person that it articulates, that “preserve[s] both the truly divine and the truly human things”—or so it seems to me, and to many others who embrace Catholicism as the last best hope of humanity.

Rather than the tired and despairing submission of Houellebecq—one incapable of receiving or offering love, as depicted by Francois’s pornography and impotence—Royal reminds us of the ecstatic pessimism of Czesław Miłosz, who “made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.” Rather than praising nothingness or submission, Royal instead gives us Christian humanism, as alive as it has ever been.

R. J. Snell is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. His latest book is Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.

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