The Uses of Memory

I have been away this week, but returned home to find that President Obama seems to be getting criticized from several quarters for taking today, Memorial Day, as a mini-holiday back home in Chicago instead of staying in Washington to participate in tributes to veterans, living and dead. We really shouldn’t be surprised at this since memory of – and gratitude towards – past benefactors of many kinds, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice, no longer seem to count for much in our society as a whole. Our harried president, like many of us, seems just to want some time alone, which has become harder as government bulks larger in all our lives.

Still, even for those of us who think that state role should be much smaller, it is only right and deeply human to recognize a certain debt for blessings received. If you’ve ever looked into the military campaigns of the Revolutionary War, Civil War, or World War II and tried to imagine how different America might have been without sometimes tiny bands of brave people, you know how much we owe the countless dead, whose very names are often now lost. For all its problems and corruptions today, America was worth fighting for.

This past week, I was on a different mission of memory, but one that honors both what is good in the American past and what I believe are among the most pressing needs of the present – assuming that we hope to have much of a present, or future.

The Faith & Reason Institute, the parent institution for The Catholic Thing, has been hosting the Fides et Ratio Seminars since 2006 to encourage deeper appreciation of the Catholic intellectual tradition at Catholic colleges and universities. At first, we merely got together a group of twenty to thirty like-minded professors and administrators for a week once a summer, primarily to read Catholic books together: Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, and others among the ancients; and Cardinal Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Walker Percy, Joseph Pieper, John Paul II, Benedict XVI – to say no more – among the moderns. Several of our TCT writers, Fr. James V. Schall and the late great Ralph McInerny among them, participated and helped move the project along. Our goal was simple: to get teachers and staff acquainted with the tradition and talking among themselves about it (they normally do little of that, if you can believe it). We also set aside a little time to think through how people might take what they’d learned back to their home institutions and sow seeds of renewal.

What does all this have to do with Memorial Day? The Catholic tradition has always been partly in harmony with what’s best in our nation, but also supplies some crucial things lost to the dissenting Protestant tradition that deeply marks our culture. In that respect, the disappearance of a truly Catholic intellectual tradition has been disastrous, not only for the Church, but for America.

Evangelicals, Jews, and others who still believe in classical religious principles have looked a lot to Catholics lately to help in the public discourse. Knowledgeable people have occasionally pointed out the absurdity of “Catholics to the rescue,” precisely at the time when Catholics themselves are probably more confused than ever in this country and the secular culture has become more militantly anti-Catholic than ever before.

That skepticism is partly justified, but the only alternative to making the effort against all odds is – as the Catholic novelist Walker Percy once put it – to go to Lost Cove, Tennessee, and wait for the End. Put more bluntly: despair.

Our hope is in the One who made heaven and earth, but in more immediate terms, there is some reason for hope in the progress we’ve been making in reaching Catholic institutions. The Fides et Ratio Seminars started and continue thanks to the generosity of two donors: Michele and Donald D’Amour (not incidentally, Donald did a Ph.D. in philosophy under Ralph McInerny). Dr. Patrick Powers, who directs the seminars, has taken the program from quite modest beginnings to impressive proportions. Where once there was a single seminar, this summer there are five: in New Hampshire, New Orleans, Colorado, Wyoming, and Notre Dame. In the beginning, we drew almost exclusively from the small, alternative Catholic liberal arts colleges. But by the end of this summer we will have had more than 350 participants including faculty from the most prominent schools like Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Boston College; from various seminaries; as well as from several foreign countries.

Last week, we started a new two-year sequence, to be held at Thomas More College, a small but dynamic institution in New Hampshire. It’s a comprehensive introduction to the tradition, something I believe is nowhere else to be found, least of all on campuses that talk about “Catholic identity” – too many, these days – as if being Catholic is a kind of ethnicity rather the living people of God organized around a person who claimed to be “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

You may think you know that person, but you’d know more after reading, St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, as we found. Or you may imagine that you know what a Catholic liberal arts education is and what it’s for – but Newman and Alasdair MacIntyre might stimulate a few thoughts you’ve never had. The professors we are engaged with have certainly seen that. And these forays into the past, like our recollections of those to whom we owe our freedoms, are not merely antiquarian. They are the things that really prepare us for our own duties today.

I’m not bragging. It’s a simple statement of fact that no one else is doing this at present, or is likely to, though other efforts at true Catholic renewal are certainly welcome. But we’ve started out in full confidence that, where two or three are gathered together, miraculous things can happen.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.