A Deeper Vision: Catholicism and the Past Century

Most people – even most Catholics – don’t realize it, but the twentieth century, or at least the first two-thirds of it, were a kind of golden age for Catholic intellectual and cultural life

In the summer of 1901, Jacques Maritain (who would go on to become the most influential Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century) and his future wife Raïssa Oumançoff (a Jewish refugee from Russia, later a notable mystic and poet) were walking together in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. They were both studying science at the Sorbonne, and the scientific vision of materialism then dominant seemed so cold and superficial to them that they decided, if they couldn’t find something better and deeper to live for, to die together by committing suicide. In short order, they both discovered Catholicism, and the rest is history.

Many people, great and small, over the last 100 years and more have found in Catholicism an answer to life-or-death questions. By the second half of the twentieth century, it even became a kind of joke. Muriel Spark (another convert) describes a desperate character in her 1963 novel The Girls of Slender Means who could “never make up his mind between suicide and an equally drastic course of action known as Father D’Arcy.” (Father Martin D’Arcy S. J. was a real-life priest at Farm Street Church in London who had guided Evelyn Waugh, and many other prominent English men and women into the Church.) Spark even claimed that it was not until she became a Catholic that she could see life whole and, therefore, could be a novelist.

Catholicism, of course, must be a faith for all God’s people, the ordinary and humble, as well the gifted and prominent. It cannot solely be a faith for philosophers, theologians, scripture scholars, historians, or obvious saints. Some people have consequently come to believe that all this intellectual ferment, the interplay of faith and reason that has always been a unique feature of Catholicity, is really unnecessary. As if, like evangelicals, all we need is our “personal relationship with Jesus.” That relationship is, of course, crucial. And it’s a good principle, even found in the early pages of Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, that few people have the gifts, time, or inclination to do serious theology or philosophy. It’s enough if those to whom God has given the responsibility are capable of doing it.

But we should also keep in mind a certain image. Pope Francis has said, with great resonance around the world, that the Church is a kind of “field hospital.” The world is always pretty much a bloody mess in which one of the first tasks is just to stanch the bleeding and keep people from perishing. This is helpful if it’s rightly understood, harmful wrongly understood. As the pope has said on other occasions, there’s a kind of buonismo – roughly “goody-goodyism” – sometimes among Catholics, who pretend that everything is fine when we’ve just covered up, not really treated, wounds. We might take this a step further: without deep and steady Catholic knowledge, we may become like a doctor with a good bedside manner, but who doesn’t have technical medical knowledge. When you’re sick in bed, he can hold your hand and speak comforting words, but, if he doesn’t also know real medicine, can’t really cure what ails you.

Most people – even most Catholics – don’t realize it, but the twentieth century, or at least the first two-thirds of it, were a kind of golden age for Catholic intellectual and cultural life. In philosophy, theology, scripture studies, culture, literature, and music, Catholics produced some of the most remarkable work across a wide variety of fields as they have in virtually any age in the two millennia of the Church’s existence. That now forgotten fertility is the subject of my most recent book: A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, just published by Ignatius Press.

The title, slightly reworked for the publisher’s purposes, is drawn from the concluding lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great sonnet “God’s Grandeur”: “And for all this, nature is never spent;/ there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” It takes a bit of effort to appreciate how fresh – and creative – Catholicism was in the twentieth century, especially since Vatican II and the widespread impression after the Council that everything before was stale and closed off from the world, that the Church needed to open windows to that world, as St. John XXIII asserted, in order to let in fresh air. True enough, in several ways. But another large part of the truth is that, whatever renewal the Church might experience from contact with the secular world, the Church brought a great deal of vitality to the world in those pre-Conciliar years as well.

Maritain, for example, took seriously to heart Leo XIII’s exhortation in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris to renew Thomism, not merely as an antiquarian “intellectual” pursuit, but as a living tradition that could be brought to bear on the manifold problems of the modern world. In Maritain’s hands, that turned into seminal volumes such as the Degrees of Knowledge, which is the greatest book of Catholic philosophy in the twentieth century. But Maritain also produced seminal studies in political philosophy in response to the murderous ideologies – Fascism, Nazism, Communism – that produced over 100 million corpses.

Along with a very few other Christians, he was one of the inspirations behind Christian Democracy, an important bulwark for freedom and human dignity in Europe and Latin America during the struggles of the Cold War. That vision of man and society helped overcome various social divisions and led to the European Union. Maritain’s work on the proper understanding of the human person (in Centesimus Annus, John Paul II pointed to the wrong view of the person as the single most disastrous error of modern times) also inspired the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite the manifold shortcomings of the EU and UN today, the world might look even worse without them.

Maritain also wrote brilliantly on art, poetry, mysticism. And the secular world appreciated what the Catholic tradition, in his hands and those of other gifted thinkers, had to offer. He was asked to teach at Princeton and the University of Chicago, and his stunning book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry began as a series of A. W. Mellon Foundation lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. He was not the only one so honored by the secular world. Christopher Dawson, the historian of culture, was appointed to a chair at Harvard. Étienne Gilson, perhaps the premier student of the history of medieval philosophy in the twentieth century, also taught there (his lectures became the brilliant The Unity of Philosophical Experience) as well as the University of Virginia (where Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages got its start). He was also invited to help found the Pontifical Medieval Institute at the University of Toronto. Maritain’s student Yves Simon fled France for Notre Dame, but was stolen away by the University of Chicago, where – the joke went – Jewish professors were paid with Baptist money to teach Catholic philosophy to atheist students.

Despite longstanding anti-Catholic prejudices in the modern world, in America at least, there was a great hunger for something only Catholicism seemed able to provide, and not only on the technical, intellectual side. After World War II, when people around the world were looking for fresh inspiration after the widespread material and cultural destruction, one of the things they latched on to was Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, which told in a way reminiscent of Augustine’s Confessions of Merton’s disorderly early life, discovery of Catholicism at Columbia, and subsequent conversion and entry into a Trappist monastery. A runaway bestseller, in 1948 it was sometimes selling 40,000 copies a week in an America with one-third of the population we have today; a British edition, slightly edited by Evelyn Waugh, had similar success. Merton’s tale was so successful and brought so many would-be postulants to the Trappists that the formerly little-known Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky become noisy – and overcrowded.

In a quieter and less public way, what was derisively called by strict Thomists la nouvelle théologie, was quietly opening up a path towards a more personal and communal Catholicism in the highly cultivated work of Romano Guardini, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Louis Bouyer, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, all of whom deeply influenced the two great post-Conciliar Catholic lights, Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger. Had the aggiornamento and ressourcement proclaimed at Vatican II gone down the paths these creative minds had outlined instead of a descent into a much less sophisticated Catholicism, the whole history of the West over the past half-century might have been quite different.

Or then again, for reasons not directly related to Catholicism proper, maybe not. One of the problems in assessing what has happened within Catholicism over the past half century is that the Council coincided with what Francis Fukuyama has called the “great disruption” that began in 1968. (What Joseph Ratzinger once called the “hermeneutic of rupture” about the Council is related to this global phenomenon.) That disruption divided our Western culture from its earlier forms in radical ways that led to cultural decline in the secular world as much as anywhere else. Just consider: at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were creative figures such as Igor Stravinsky in music, Pablo Picasso in painting, James Joyce and Marcel Proust in literature; there were no comparable figures in secular culture in the latter part of the century.

In a similar way, Catholics can point to Hopkins, Belloc, Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Sigrid Undset, and other such world-class cultural figures prior to 1968 (and the Council). Afterwards, both Catholic and secular culture are not nearly as fertile. And that was not only the case in literature. There were a few exceptions: philosophical figures – the convert Alasdair MacIntyre most notably – and the ongoing theological presence of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But few would think the period a particularly fruitful time for the secular world, or Catholicism.

The Great Disruption has left us with a false impression: there’s still a great deal in the mainstream of the Catholic tradition that, creatively presented, would speak once again to Catholics in our postmodern funk, and might even get something of a hearing in a secular world that is, if anything, even more dismal. But you cannot recover what you do not know. It is imperative that Catholics, for the sake of the Church and the world, come to realize once again what a rich tradition we inherit, and to re-appropriate it – and advance it – in a world perishing for lack of its saving truths.

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About Robert Royal 3 Articles
Robert Royal is the president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, DC, and editor of the online column series The Catholic Thing. He is the author, editor, and translator of more than a dozen books, including A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century (Ignatius Press). He writes and speaks frequently on questions of culture, religion, and public life, and his work has appeared in a wide variety of publications in the United States and abroad.