One of Pope Francis’ primary principles, going back to his days in Argentina, is that “People are more important than ideas.” A paradox, that, since the statement itself is an idea, and rightly understood can lead to great good, or wrongly (which often seems to be the case) to great evil. It makes all the difference, to take just a few examples, what ideas we use to define currently prominent notions in the Church such as mercy, discernment, and accompaniment.
Some interpret the pope’s view (and many of his acts) to mean that whatever people today regard as good for them should take precedence, even over and against classical Christian faith and morals, and the words of Jesus himself. Which, whether anyone likes it or not, forces a decision upon us: which ideas or principles, then, will guide us?
Will they largely be a reflection of current popular culture and the pandering populist politics of the advanced nations? Or something else?
We may, for instance, with St. John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, seek to clarify matters by referring not to “people,” but to the Christian idea of the “human person.” He argued there: if you look back at the multiple human disasters of the twentieth century, they mostly stemmed from wrong ideas of the human person.
As I’ve often said, without solid truths, the Church is like a doctor with a good bedside manner who can comfort in the immediate moment, but doesn’t know enough medicine to cure.
That’s the central question I try to look at in my new book A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century , which is being published today by Ignatius Press.
I finished it before the current controversies in the Church emerged fully. And it is not a polemical book, or at least not primarily so. There are lots of very good books of that kind available at the moment, most prominently Cardinal Robert Sarah’s God or Nothing  (also published, in English, by Ignatius Press).
Such books tend to speak effectively only to Catholics or people on the verge of becoming Catholics. That’s a very important function, of course, but I’ve tried to do something different, in a readable narrative.
First, I wanted to speak to everyone, Catholic or not, who want to grasp what Catholic thought in the twentieth century added to global culture. My experiences doing public Catholicism and dealing with secular media figures may have distorted my judgment, but many non-Catholics look at Catholic teachings on moral and social questions, and think we must be fundamentalists of some kind. (While also semi-consciously fearing that there is much more behind it all.) Any fair non-Catholic, reading a few of these pages, will, I think, abandon that bias.
That’s the mission ad extra, so to speak. But there’s another ad intra, to Catholics themselves. As Cardinal Newman frequently affirmed, a Christianity without dogmatic content is impossible. We had a tremendous flowering of Catholic philosophy, theology, Scripture studies, literature, art, cultural analysis, and much more prior to the Second Vatican Council, which continued on in St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI in the much less fertile, post-Conciliar decades.
To be clear, the period after the Council was less fertile both in terms of Catholic culture and world culture more generally. Cultural troughs are common, and quite familiar to anyone who studies history. The twentieth century began – to take only secular examples – with figures like Stravinsky, Picasso, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and many others. Who could you find, however, in the music, art, literature of the last third of the century on a par with such geniuses?
In a similar way, in the Catholic sphere, you can point to philosophers like Jacques Maritain, Josef Pieper, Edith Stein; theologians as different as Romano Guardini, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar; poets like Péguy, Claudel, Hopkins (who wrote in the 19th but was published in the 20th century); novelists like Waugh, Mauriac, even the middle-period (and still Catholic) Graham Greene. There is a spiritual ferment and richness among such figures that it would be difficult to find after 1965 (Wojtyla and Ratzinger, again, excepted).
We can lament the disappearance of such talents and bemoan the ways that the world – and sometimes Rome itself – now seems to discount such a wealth of achievement. Or we can take a page from that nice pagan, Aristotle, and review the past to see where we stand: “it is not possible to untie a knot of which one does not know. . .he who has heard all the contending arguments, as if they were parties to a case, must be in a better position for judging.”
To recognize what existed within the borders of Catholicism – and to see how much that was appreciated even in the non-Catholic world just a few decades ago – can help us to maintain a certain serenity despite the general cultural decline. We can’t know when conditions will allow such a flowering again, but we can be sure such cultural riches will not forever remain without new growth.
This book deals primarily with non-American Catholic figures – though I turn to Avery Dulles, Ralph McInerny, Jude Dougherty, Robert Sokolowski, and other personal friends (some now deceased) for help with certain topics. I am already working on a companion volume that will deal with American Catholicism (more briefly, I hope, than these 615 pages).
My original title – now altered a little by the good people at Ignatius – came from the famous concluding lines of one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great sonnets, which should continue to give us hope even today:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.