A few months ago, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Robert Royal, founder and president of the Faith & Reason Institute. For the uninitiated, Dr. Royal, in my humble opinion, is one of the most interesting, important, and intelligent Catholic voices in the United States today. For example, almost ten years ago, I read a fantastic article of his in First Things on Albert Camus that inspired me to read several of Camus’s works for the first time. Since then, I’ve been hooked, and have regularly written for his own publication, The Catholic Thing.
Before his lecture, I approached Dr. Royal, and we got to talking about his work, past, present, and future. He told me that his 2015 book A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century—an Ignatius Press work about the Catholic intellectual traditions of the twentieth century—represented some of the best scholarship and writing he would ever do. I was stunned: I had not only not read the book, I had been embarrassingly ignorant about its content and thesis. So I ordered it, read it, and found it to be much as Dr. Royal described it to me.
The book deserves a much wider audience than it elicited when published almost a decade ago, especially because Dr. Royal’s analysis so effectively addresses many of the questions Catholics face in the twentieth-century.
This interview aims to help interested readers understand the deep relevancy of a book written by one of the most important Catholic thinkers in America today.
CWR: Why did you feel the need to write A Deeper Vision?
Robert Royal: It may seem hard to believe, but I wrote those 600-plus pages because I wanted to try to arrive, in my own mind at least—after decades of reading around in Catholic philosophy, theology, Scripture Studies, culture, the arts, literature, etc.—at an overall vision of Catholic thought and culture in the twentieth century. And I wanted as much as possible to do so without being dragged into the polarizing polemics that occupy so much of our attention online and in Catholic publications.
When I looked for general works describing each of these fields, there were a few (critics have sometimes accused me of being unaware of such general treatments, even when I cite them in my text). But they’re usually focused on one line of thought or another without situating them in the larger context of the 20th century. I would ask friends who were philosophers, theologians, literary scholars, and they were as surprised by this general absence of synoptic views of their Catholic disciplines as I was. In part, that’s owing to academic specialization—scholars rightly focused on their own areas of expertise, with little time for looking into other disciplines or even approaches within their own fields.
But I can’t emphasize enough how much our current polarization has also led to fragmentation and divisions in modern Catholic thought. It’s exhausting to have to deal with those while trying to get a calm, balanced view of a subject. I gave a copy of my book to a prominent Roman Cardinal when it came out and explained that it was not a polemical, but a descriptive book. He said to me, “Not polemical? That’s rare these days.”
CWR: Of all the important individuals discussed in your book, who do you think was the most influential Catholic thinker of the twentieth of the century, and why?
Robert Royal: There are—simplifying slightly—two main currents in the 2000 years of Catholic thought. One current comes down to us largely via the influence of Plato: Augustine, Bonaventure, Newman, Guardini, Simone Weil, DeLubac, Ratzinger, and others can classified broadly be in that way. And they feed into the more personalist and communitarian and pastoral side of Catholicism in modern times.
By contrast, we have the more Aristotelean side of Catholic thought in Boethius, Aquinas, Cajetan, Leo XIII, Garrigou-Lagrange, Maritain, Gilson, Edith Stein, and others. Aquinas really belongs in both camps, as does Joseph Pieper; and most Catholic thinkers draw some from both currents. Rather than one single figure, I’d say that the Thomist neo-Scholastics, though they had their limitations, were important in the first half of the century because they offered real firepower at a time when Catholic thought needed a boost. That’s why people like Maritain, Gilson, Christopher Dawson, and others taught at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, and Toronto.
Since the mid-twentieth century, the Augustinians have enriched the picture, but the two sides need one another. Speaking personally, when I was a young man, the Aristotlean/Thomist rigor saved me from the chaos of the 1970s; now that I’m an elder statesman, I find myself turning more frequently to the Augustinians. But this is all a very rich legacy and I know that my book has helped some people realize how varied and useful all of it is.
CWR: Can you explain the influence of Jacques Maritain, both inside and outside the Church?
Robert Royal: Well, if I had to choose one Catholic figure who had an outsized influence in the twentieth century—perhaps with the exception of Karol Wojtyla—it would have to be Maritain. He’s come in for some criticism in recent years, undeserved in my judgment. But if you look for who among the many philosophers, theologians, scholars of all types most carried out Leo XIII’s hopes for a renewal of modern society by a recovery of Thomism (which was not universally valued in the Church prior to Leo), it’s Maritain.
Not only did he write landmark books on philosophy, morals, art, and politics, he was one of the key architects of the Christian Democrat movement around the world. That movement has mostly petered out, alas, by now, but in its day, it was important for keeping Communism out of Italy and Latin America. Maritain’s books Man and the State and Reflections on America (both originally lectures at the University of Chicago) are still very much worth reading.
And despite the sad spectacle of the United Nations these days, Maritain’s work in helping craft the U. N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights laid down a theoretical decency, however much it’s been ignored in practice. Who else among Catholic thinkers (again Wojtyla perhaps excepted) had so great an influence on the Church’s thought and world history in the twentieth century?
CWR: What do you think is the greatest piece of Catholic literature published in the twentieth century?
Robert Royal: I can’t choose because we had a Catholic literary renaissance in the previous century that deserves to be explored in its entirely: Hopkins, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Péguy, Claudel, Chesterton and Belloc, Graham Greene, Waugh, Muriel Spark, Bernanos, Mauriac, Undset, and that’s just for starters. I’m working on a sequel of A Deeper Vision now that will deal with the American Catholic intellectual tradition—something I mostly kept out of the first book.
And when you consider, just in literature, Thomas Merton, Edwin O’Connor, J. F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, even more recent poets like Dana Gioia and James Matthew Wilson, it’s like trying to prefer one or another among your children and grandchildren. You just shouldn’t do it.
CWR: Which encyclical of John Paul II is the most important for Catholics to know today and why?
Robert Royal: They’re all important in their various ways. There’s a lot of emphasis on Veritatis Splendor at the moment because it’s a powerful refutation of the kind of situation ethics that seems dominant in Rome these days. Pope Francis recently invoked Bernard Haring, at one time a huge figure in the post-Vatican II efforts to re-orient Catholic morals. When I was writing A Deeper Vision, I dealt with many similar figures—Karl Rahner, for instance—but Haring and that whole mistaken moral method seemed so dead and buried to me that I only referred to it in passing. I expect it will pass away again, and soon, because it’s not only wrong but easily, demonstrably so—and has disastrous consequences in private and public life.
But I’d also put in a plug for John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, which early on raises the need for a reason “of true metaphysical reach.” Without that kind of anchoring reason, many things quickly become unmoored, and in a time like ours many then get carried out to sea.
CWR: What is phenomenology? And why is it important for the Church?
Robert Royal: Ah, you ask about the word that public Catholics are often counseled never to mention in public. For a fuller answer, you need to go to the work of Msgr. Robert Sokolowski of the Catholic University of America who gave me some good tips when I was writing. He not only knows the field well, but can explain it in terms human beings can understand. Very briefly—and to deal with only one important part of phenomenology—as the name implies, it’s a philosophy that respects the phenomena, how the world appears to us. Ever since Descartes, a central modern problem for philosophy is how does the world inside our head—knowledge being immaterial—reflect or even get in touch with the world outside of us.
A key insight in the movement, which can be traced in Edmund Husserl, a favorite of Wojytla’s, and Edith Stein—Husserl’s assistant. What if it’s the nature of things to “disclose themselves,” and it’s the nature of our minds to be receivers of that disclosure? There are still many things to sort out as to what “seems” to be the case and what “is,” but at least we don’t have the insoluble problem of how the material world outside us gets inside our minds. We’re back in a cosmos where the two are from the first related and we can seek truth.
CWR: How would you respond to those younger, traditionalist Catholics who are increasingly outspoken in their desire to “move beyond” Vatican II?
Robert Royal: Well, we all feel that way now, even we elder statesmen. The day will come—it has to—when we won’t be embroiled in this fruitless effort to distinguish the Church after the Council from the Church before. The Church is the One Body, the Mystical Body, of Christ, and maybe it will take another generation or two to die out before we can think about this unity through time without resorting to sterile polemics. So stay at the task—be faithful and relentless, rooted in a living tradition that, like the many paradoxes of the faith, preserves a beauty that is ever ancient ever new (Augustine’s tam antiqua tam nova).
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!