Book provides a deeper understanding of Catholicism in 20th century

Robert Royal’s "A Deeper Vision" is a great book that provides a map to help readers understand the Catholic intellectual tradition in the twentieth century and grasp its deeper vision so as to make our way into the future.

Robert Royal’s wide-ranging book A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradion in the Twentieth Century is an account of the vitality of the Catholic mind in the twentieth century, engaging both the intellectual (philosophy, theology, biblical hermeneutics) and cultural (particularly, literary arts) realms. These realms are considered in Parts One—Faith and Reason—and Two—Creed and Culture—of this book, respectively. Royal’s chief concern in Part Two may be summed up in the words of John Paul II: “The synthesis between culture and faith is not just a demand of culture, but also of faith. . . . A faith which does not become culture is a faith which has not been fully received, not thoroughly thought through, not faithfully lived out.” In short, culture is a theological problem, and hence Royal sees the need to articulate a theological hermeneutic of culture because culture is a protagonist of worldviews (361-374). Royal provides a historical context throughout Part One for understanding the challenges faced by the Catholic intellectual tradition both prior to and after the Second Vatican Council.

The Thomist revival in the late and early twentieth century faced the challenges of modernism. Modernism brought to the fore the problem of the relationship between truth and human expression. In short, what is the relationship between unchanging truth and doctrinal formulations (130-133)? Modernism had raised a serious question, but its experiential expressivism (the content of revelation is just an expression of religious experience), historicizing of truth, and instrumentalist view of doctrines is untenable.  

This problem was taken up by the nouvelle théologie of, for example, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. They had an appreciation for the historical nature of human expression, but they were all Lérinians in approach in upholding the ‘semper eadem,’ of the full range of Catholic dogma—unlike the modernists. The Lérinian legacy is, arguably, based on the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, truth-content and context, in sum, propositions and sentences, which was implied by John XXIII in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. “For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I, Dei Filius, and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum 23, §28, of Vincent of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.” This growth in understanding toward the fullness of Christian truth is, says Royal, “a kind of conservative innovation or creative traditionalism” (286).

The Lérinian legacy is a hermeneutics of continuity within renewal and reform. It can account for (a) the need for new dogmatic formulations or expressions; (b) explain why propositions of dogmas/doctrines are unchangeable, irreformable, or definitive; and (c) distinguish between content/context, form/content, and the message and the medium. It is in this context that the Church at Vatican II envisioned an aggiornamento—not as an isolated motive for renewal—as well as a ressourcement (170-172).

Vincent’s crucial point here is about meaning-invariance and hence unchanging truth and, as John XXIII put it, “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men.” Here, too, we find with this distinction between unchangeable “affirmations” and changeable “representations” of truth, which John made at the opening of the Council, not only the influence of the nouvelle théologie, suggesting that he wanted the approach begun by the nouvelle théologie to be given continued study,  but also the manner in which the nouvels théologiens, such as Congar, et al., “escaped the accusation of ruinous anti-intellectualism and dogmatic relativism justly brought against the Modernist,” in the words of Congar. In Part One, especially chapters 3-5, of Royal’s book, he helps us to understand the intellectual and historical context for this struggle with Modernism before and after Vatican II.

The sub-title of Robert Royal’s book—both historically and systematically—implies a uniform Catholic intellectual tradition in the twentieth century, but his book shows that this is far from the case. Rather, although encyclopedic in scope, Royal’s book does not lose the trees for the forest because he shows that there is a great deal of rich intellectual diversity within this tradition. There is diversity in terms not only of philosophers and but also theologians. There is diversity in terms of approaches—Thomists, Augustinians, Scotists, Suarezians—but also philosophical schools these thinkers interacted with—Aristotelianism, Platonism, phenomenology (80-89), personalism, existentialism, hermeneutics, and analytic philosophy. Still, unity and uniformity is not the same thing, and so Royal also does an excellent job of showing us the unity of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and hence its pathos in terms of the deeper vision of this tradition. What is this deeper vision?

The depth dimension of this vision is not the both/and we often hear is characteristic of Catholicism, namely, nature and grace, faith and reason, creation and redemption, theology and philosophy. Yes, there is a unity-in-distinctness, a complementarity, of the relation of these sets of terms such that it is erroneous to ignore both the distinction, say, between nature and grace, or faith and reason, as well as their union (118, 152-164). Still, there is something more basic to this vision. There is a “Sign of Contradiction,” and hence an “either/or,” in which we are faced with “a radical call in Catholicism for a personal choice: either a person believes in Jesus as the only begotten Son of God and the Church as the fullest expression of his will for the world, or he does not.” Furthermore, adds Royal, “Consequences,” both intellectual and practical, “flow from that choice” (587). These consequences are not a reflection of narrowness and exclusion. Rather, he says, “A real ‘no’ on some partial question occurs in the context of a ‘yes’ to a fuller, indeed, the fullest truth” (587).

Moreover, pared down for my purpose here, we may identify several features that are constitutive of this vision, according to Royal, by first describing the two-fold set of criteria that are the touchstones for Catholic intellectual work. “It must, of course, be true to itself as an intellectual enterprise, which is to say, it must be able to hold its own in terms of self-consistency, rigor, and human scope, and at the same time—impossible though it may seem—answer to the demand that in its ultimate results it correspond to the simplicity of the gospel itself” (583). Now, as an intellectual enterprise the Catholic tradition has certain fundamental philosophical commitments in addition to these formal criteria. Metaphysical realism, epistemic realism, and a unified and organic vision of human knowledge and action are constitutive of the identity of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

This tradition is then committed to the affirmation of the real existence of God, man, and the world as an objective reality or state of affairs. According to this affirmation, there are true, objectively true, propositions that correspond to reality. Thus, according to a realist view of truth, a proposition is true if and only what that proposition asserts is in fact the case about objective reality; otherwise, the proposition is false. The anti-realism that has gained a wide hold on our culture has resulted in what Royal calls the “pathos of secularism—a sincere desire to respect others and promote human happiness, combined with a radical and painful lack of foundations for belief in the dignity of all men.” He adds, “One consequence of the failure to find metaphysical and ethical groundings for belief in human dignity is an inability to carry that belief into action without falling into a kind of self-contradiction that violates human dignity and freedom” (582).

The Catholic intellectual tradition is also committed to an epistemic realism, such that the knower can know that certain things are true and that he is justified in claiming that these claims are true. Given that our culture faces a crisis of reason, Royal shows that the Catholic intellectual tradition is an advocate for reason’s truth-attaining capacity, over against, skepticism, relativism, and nihilism (257). As the then Cardinal Ratzinger put it in commenting on the epistemic realism of John Paul II’s 1998 Encyclical, Fides et ratio: “Man is not caught in a hall of mirrors of interpretation; he can and must look for the way out to reality that stands behind the words and manifests itself to him in and through the words.”  

Finally, this tradition is also committed to getting at the fullest truth about reality. Royal points us to John Paul II who urged the recovery, in this connection, of “the ‘sapiential dimension’ of all our knowing to come again to a unity within ourselves and with one another. We cannot rest content with the hermeneutics of texts but must go beyond that to the reality and truth of the world” (257).  

Robert Royal has written a great book, an extremely lucid one even when the material is difficult. He provides a map to help us not only to understand the Catholic intellectual tradition in the twentieth century, but also to grasp its deeper vision so as to make our way into the future. 

A Deeper Vision, The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century 
by Robert Royal
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015
Paperback, 619 pages

About Eduardo Echeverria 11 Articles
Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.