Body and Soul – and Rome

When Michael Novak, Ralph McInerny, George Marlin, Austin Ruse, Bill Saunders, Hadley Arkes, and I were mulling over what to call this then novel, now ancient column series, we were acutely aware that we wanted continuity with the tradition, but to bring tradition, very much untamed, amidst present things. We recalled Belloc’s famous letter to Chesterton right after his conversion: “The Catholic Church is the exponent of Reality. It is true. Its doctrines in matters large and small are statements of what is. . . .My conclusion – and that of all men who have ever once seen it – is the faith. Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”

Reality, then, not just a theoretical construct, like some rationalist philosophical system (though doctrines, as Belloc affirmed, are integral to it). A living body, spread out in time and space, and beyond, into eternity. Organized – into hierarchy, dioceses, parishes, schools, religious orders. Inspired – in philosophy, theology, liturgy, art, sacred music, poetry.

I just spent all of October in Rome for the Synod, and two weeks before that on the papal trip to Cuba and America. Parts of that experience I will never forget, parts I could do without. But over and above all conflict and controversy, most remarkable are the concrete realities: that the Vicar of Christ, for all the confusion he’s created, can draw millions, even on these still wild shores. And can convene the successors of the Apostles from every race and nation, to seek to follow the way of the Lord in an anti-Christian age. And that we can rely on the Holy Spirit, ultimately, despite the many currents to the contrary, to keep our Catholic Thing.

For me personally, this weekend was a sorrowful time to come home from a Synod on the Family. My father died a few years ago, just after midnight on October 31. The connections between parents and children, especially between fathers and sons, is so deep and so varied that no words, no literary genius has ever been able to do more than suggest the reality. Thus, the Bible reveals the Trinity, not in philosophical terms, valuable as they are – abstractions like the One and the Emanations of Neo-Platonism – but via relations both divine and human: Father and Son.

Even in this world, what is true of parents and children overflows in normal circumstances to what some Synod Fathers, especially the Africans, pointed to as a kind of human model: “extended” families, created when two people, themselves embedded in multiple ties in their own families, come together and weave those ties into even richer patterns.

Vergil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, c. 1830 [Art Institute of Chicago]
Vergil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, c. 1830 [Art Institute of Chicago]

A stark contrast to many of us in the “developed” world. I sometimes reflect on how strange it is that I’m likely to be the only one of my whole extended family who will not be buried alongside the others in a hillside cemetery in my hometown. I’m still close enough to the old ways that it feels odd. God calls us to the paths He wants, and He certainly chose mine. Still, there’s some atavistic way in which body and soul are nourished in those networks that, as we know on this All Souls Day, profoundly involve the body and the grave – and what makes the grave not an end.

We’ve embarked on a new experiment as a species, at least in some parts of the world. That face-to-face, birth-to-death embodiment that virtually everyone once knew has broken up. At the Synod, the Africans spoke of how, among them, marriage means the joining of one family to another. Religious vocations, they also said, come from those strong families. By contrast, the Europeans – Germans in particular – lamented, but accepted that “family” will merely mean relations between radically autonomous individuals whose identities are, as a result, so fragile that even to tell them of the goods of real family life may be perceived as judgmental.

What happens at the individual level, of course, affects and then starts to become the norm of the whole culture. Inside a culture of atomized individuals, it’s hard to understand how communities and relations are anything more than bias or limits on individual choices. To their credit, the Synod Fathers grappled with these and other modern problems, though of course that was rarely reported amidst the obsession with the divorced. We need those short-term responses, but even more – because human beings typically take their bearings from family, religion, nation – much larger perspectives.

Let me mention one that may seem odd, but maybe just odd enough also to be fresh. Every few years, I re-read Vergil’s Aeneid, usually in Rome. If you haven’t done so since you studied Latin in high school, or took Western Civ in college, he’s worth tackling again. There are reasons why Dante takes Vergil as his guide for part of his Divine Comedy. One is that Vergil uncannily understood the divine mission of Rome: As we now know, first as a civilizing force, but more importantly because under the pax Romana, in the fullness of time, Christ was born and Christianity spread.

I starting re-reading Vergil as a diversion from the Synod. But in this reading, I was struck by just how much continuity of family, even in troubled circumstances, even in exile and flight towards the unknown, is part of the whole story of the Aeneid. I’ve often said that it’s the pagan equivalent of Abraham setting out from Ur of the Chaldees to establish the Chosen People in the Promised Land. And it’s one of the reasons the early Christians sometimes called Vergil anima naturaliter Christiana (“a naturally Christian soul”). We could use more such just now.

In Vergil, Aeneas undergoes many travails and bloody battles on the way towards uniting himself with the Latins in Italy and preparing the way for Rome (the city, Dante says, that would become both the political and religious seat of mankind). But it’s also a family tale – Aeneas, his father, his son, their descendants – led on by the all-high Jupiter.

Like many other things, like our extended families themselves, our culture has experienced a rupture with those larger, deeper stories that help stabilize our fragile existence: Why a Semitic wanderer, who becomes the father of many? Why ancient Rome? Why still? And yet these are the roots from which our civilization lives – or cut off from – dies.

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.