The Catholic Thing
Work, Pray – Study Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 20 August 2012

People often ask me what they can do as Catholics in the modern world. What they usually mean is how can they help deal with major public issues like abortion and marriage, poverty and religious liberty. There are many organizations – in addition to The Catholic Thing and the Faith & Reason Institute – that can use a spare hand or a contribution. And there are operations closer to home, too, and no shortage of challenges there.

But I also say that to tackle such matters as Catholics, you have to pray first. When we founded TCT, I used to tell staff not to open the site in the morning before invoking divine aid – which many days we desperately needed. But we also are much in need of something else.


Now, you may think that this comes rather far down the list given the urgency of so many things, especially in an election year. Look, Royal: last week, a guy shot up the Family Research Council in Washington because he didn’t like their traditional values and you want us to study? Besides, many wise men – pagans and Christians alike – have pointed out that great learning is not wisdom, and often blocks the way to becoming wise.

Agreed, but I still believe that, among many other things, we need what only careful study provides. Once upon a time, Catholics didn’t so much need to know a lot as to feel confident that there were people, serious people, who did. Now we run the risk of being overwhelmed long before we get a chance to speak, which is why we need many more knowledgeable Catholics leavening the whole lump.

You don’t – necessarily – have to go back to school. How about, for example, studying with Hadley Arkes without having to go through all the inconveniences of attending a place like Amherst? Or take a look at the website of the Catholic Distance University, an orthodox institution where you can earn undergraduate and graduate degrees, or just take seminars on important topics.

It helps, though, to study along with other people because we gain their insights as well as our own. And let’s face it: committing ourselves to work with others helps keeps us at the task. Jews around the world have just finished a cycle of reading through the entire Talmud – one page a day for seven and a half years – according to a system worked out for anyone interested.

I was admiring this project and wishing Catholics had one like it when it struck me: we do. And I played a small part in spreading the idea several years back. I was reading into the great modern Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, who was an advocate of prayer and study (read his little book Prayer and Intelligence if you can find it).

One of the ways he advanced this twin goal, at the urging of his students, was creating Thomist study circles: initially, a small group of students who met at his home once a month. When I saw that, I wrote a note to our late and great friend Ralph McInerny, one of TCT’s founders, who headed the Maritain Center at Notre Dame, to ask about them and whether the circles still existed.

        Jacques Maritain, teacher

The Internet was then in its infancy, so he sent me – by mail, if anyone still remembers that primitive practice – some pamphlets about the whole phenomenon, which was then still very much alive (I cannot find it on the web now, however.) People all over the world were reading together through the same sections of Aquinas, month by month.

I noodled on this with Fr. Bartholomew de la Torre, O.P., a friend who later became a much beloved chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College in his native California (ah, the web of grace). We hit on reading the Summa contra Gentiles, the Summa Theologiae being just too hard for most people.

Twelve of us set out together: Phil Lawler, the distinguished Catholic journalist who still does great work on the Catholic Culture site; an undersecretary of agriculture in a string tie who looked like a farm boy, but had astute metaphysical insights; a female doctor from the Johns Hopkins Hospital; a retired FBI agent – it’s Washington, and you get the picture.

The Contra Gentiles is five volumes in the translation published by the Notre Dame University Press. That sounds like a lot, but if you calculate over ten months, it means reading only about 170 pages per month. We went through the whole thing that year, and the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae the next.

But Fr. Bart was a pedagogical entrepreneur. While our little band moved on to the second year of readings, he gathered together a new group – thirty-five this time – for the Contra Gentiles. He did it again in the third year and he attracted 125 participants, including luminaries like Mary Ellen and Robert Bork (Bob later became a Catholic, though not because of the reading, which he quite energetically disputed).

I’ve never told this story in print before, but it reflects what I believe is a tremendous hunger for substantive Catholic thought that’s also accessible to a wide swath of ordinary people (It takes a trained guide to get you through some texts, but such persons are not as hard to find as you may think).

In the normal course of things, we would want Catholic schools and high schools, colleges and universities to be doing this job. But we are not in normal times. And while it’s tempting to curse the darkness, we can light a few fires without great investments in buildings and technology.

So if you want to know what you can do, think about it – and then act. There are probably great things you can organize wherever you’re reading this, or even over the Internet. Try it and watch what happens. What have you got to lose? And just think what we might gain.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, August 20, 2012
Thanks for a very nice piece of work,Great insight and very
written by Dave, August 20, 2012
Thank you Dr. Royal for this wonderful post and so close to the beginning of the school year. It reminds me very much of the methodology used in the Cursillo Movement, with its three-legged stool of Piety, Study, and Action, each leg being necessary for the stool to stand properly and be of service to those who want to make use of it. I think of the hours one can spend, and occasionally does spend, whiling away on the Internet supposedly studying and researching; there's still nothing like picking up a real book and drilling down through an idea, rather than chase whatever thought, chimera, or phantasm that occurs to one while zipping through the worldwide web. And the added value of study circles is that they are things people do together, ever-increasingly important in our atomized and isolated age. I'm at the beginning of a new job and not settled into our new home, so organizing a study group might take a little more effort, but I will look seriously into the matter to see if something can be done.

Clusters of worship and learning preserved and converted Western civilization when the barbarian hordes and the enemies of the Faith threatened to overrun it and reduce it to rubble. We laity are not called to form monasteries or ghettoes; but we are indeed still called to be lights shining in the darkness and the preservation and extension of Catholic culture is still the best that we can do, especially since, as Bl. John Paul II noted more than once, evangelization is not complete until the culture is evangelized. By those lights, we have a long way to go; but if we recall Our Lady of Guadalupe, amazing large-scale miracles of conversion are still possible.
written by Grump, August 20, 2012
Well, if you don't have a job, Bob, how about "eat, pray, love?" Will that work?
written by Linus, August 20, 2012
One thing that such people could do if they know a little Scholastic Philosophy is go over to the Philosophy Forum at Catholic Answers and contribute their wisdom to the threads touching on things Thomistic like discussions on the Five Ways, soul, causality, etc. There is desperate need over there for folks who know what they are talking about. The site has been invaded by Atheists.
written by Br. Ambrose, O.P., August 20, 2012
For those who want to study the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas but have a hard time understanding Scholastic language, there is a 4 volume set by Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P., called the Companion to the Summa, which is fantastic. Fr. Farrell goes through the whole Summa Theologiae and attempts to make the ideas accessible to the average person. It is an easier read, but will give one a good grasp of Aquinas' thought and teaching.
written by Edward Radler Rice, August 20, 2012
Just wanted to put in a plug for the Distance Learning Program at Holy Apostles in Connecticut and approved by the Cardinal Newman Society.
written by Lee Gilbert, August 20, 2012
For the truly ambitious student, John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego offers a Masters in Biblical Theology on a distance learning basis. This is a very high caliber program with current lectures available through I-tunes. The presentations are top notch, reflective both of deep Catholic orthodoxy as well as the best in modern biblical scholarship. Perhaps there is a similar program in the U.S. that requires both Hebrew and Greek courses, but I doubt it. Also, it is very reasonably priced for what they deliver. Full disclosure- I am a student there and am pretty well convinced that we are in the vanguard of orthodox Catholic Biblical Scholarship, though no one has said so.
written by gtbradshaw, August 20, 2012
We have belonged to a Communio group which meets every month for the last 5 yrs. This was started by Benedict XVI & von Balthsar in the '70s. Very worthwhile.
written by Achilles, August 20, 2012
Good article, I am surprised that Dr. Royal didn't mention the Institute of Catholic Culture headed up by Deacon Sabatino Carnazzo. I think Dr. Royal has a couple lectures there on Dante. I found that set of lectures very edifying, especially from Fr. Scalia, Dr. Cuddeback and a few other outstanding and brilliant speakers. Do look it up. Pax et bonum, Achilles
written by hmoore, August 21, 2012
You have such wonderful thinkers and writers producing articles for you every day. It would be a interesting extension of your work to create a way by internet or conference calls to have some of your contributors guide your readers through the type of study you suggest.
written by Joe, August 21, 2012

A terrific book to help with your study of the Summa is:

The Summa Simplified for Everyone by Farrell and Healy (1952). Published by the Confraternity Of The Precious Blood.
written by Denverite, August 21, 2012
The Augustine Institute in Denver is turning out tremendous, well-formed men and women of faith for the new evangelization. They have some wonderful opportunities for online /distance learning.

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