It is always hazardous to speak of “a” Catholic intellectual tradition. There are Augustinians, Thomists, Scotists, and perhaps some Ockhamists among the linguistic analysts, not to mention schools of personalism and phenomenology that arose in the twentieth century. Within each tradition some thinkers are primarily indebted to Aristotle, others more to Plato or to neo-Platonism. In his latest book, A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century (just published by Ignatius Press), Robert Royal is aware of all of this as he identifies a “core intellectuality” that may be called Catholic. He brings to his work an exceptional erudition, perhaps unsurpassed by any contemporary author.
A Deeper Vision opens with a description of the nineteenth-century Thomistic revival in philosophy. Pope Leo XIII recognized that philosophy can only be fought by philosophy. So in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris he recommended the philosophy of St. Thomas as an antidote to the then prevailing empiricisms and positivisms. In describing the extent of that movement Royal calls attention to the work of Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Maurice Blondel, Yves Simon, Joseph Pieper, Karl Rahner, and Bernard Lonergan, among many others.
At mid-twentieth century observers on the American scene could speak of Mid-West Thomism, comprised of disciples of Aquinas in university settings at Toronto, Milwaukee, Chicago, River Forest, Bloomington, St. Louis, Notre Dame, and Cincinnati. With the conclusion of Vatican II, the landscape changed. Royal devotes a chapter to, “Catholic Philosophy in a Time of Turmoil,” describing the shift from Thomas and the Scholastic tradition to the eclecticism that seems to prevail today. Interpreters of the Council who put pastoral needs above dogmatic ones in effect ignored the need to philosophically defend the truths on which the faith had always been understood to be based.
Special attention is devoted to the thought of Karol Wojytla. As Royal notes, for most of his life John Paul II did not primarily operate within the Thomistic tradition, even though he wrote a doctoral dissertation under one of the most prominent Thomists of the day, Réginald Garrigou-LaGrange (author of the still relevant, God His Existence and His Nature). Wojtyla’s dissertation was a theological examination of “Faith According to St. John of the Cross.” It was only late in his pontificate that John Paul II explicitly endorsed the study of St. Thomas.
From philosophy, Royal moves to discussions of theology before and after Vatican II. He speaks of theology in the throes of modernity, devotes attention to the shift in biblical studies, and to the impact of both on the liturgy. With constant accuracy and insight, Royal remains objective as he surveys the impact, for good and ill, of Vatican II.
One of the remarkable sections of the book is Royal’s description of the twentieth-century Catholic literary revival. He finds that in England, Christopher Dawson (among many others) played a significant role in fostering that revival. As an historian, and as a convert to Catholicism, Dawson challenged Edward Gibbon’s disparagement of Christianity in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with his own studies, namely, The Age of the Gods: A study of the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and the Ancient Near East (1928), Progress and Religion (1929), and The Making of Europe (1931). Dawson was immediately recognized as a major cultural voice. T.S. Eliot spoke of him as “the most powerful influence in England.”
That influence extended to such literary figures as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ronald Knox, Maurice Baring, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It must be said that all of Dawson’s works are worth revisiting. In a chapter entitled, “The Emergence of Culture as a Protagonist,” Royal finds a passage from Dawson, perhaps more relevant today than when he wrote it: “In the modern state the mind of the average citizen is molded by the government and the popular press, and these afford no genuine substitute for the profound spiritual guidance that was provided by the old religious traditions.”
Dawson is clearly one of Royal’s favorite authors, but another is Charles Péguy whose support he enlists throughout A Deeper Vision. He finds compelling Péguy’s insight when the poet discusses the de-Christianization of Europe. Péguy blamed it not on external forces, as many were inclined to do, but on the internal failure of the Church. Maritain would arrive at much the same conclusion: “the personnel of the Church.” A Deeper Vision ends with the reproduction of a few lines of poetry that Péguy wrote at the end of a pilgrimage in 1912 to Our Lady of Chartres.
Royal’s literary landscape is vast. One will find discussions of authors ranging from, C.S. Lewis, Louis Carroll, and James Joyce to Nikolai Berdyaev and Sigrid Undset. Of Undset’s Kristin Lavansdatter he says it may be “best understood as a kind of modern day Divine Comedy, although one that unfolds wholly on earth, not as his journeys through earth, the mountain of purgatory and the heavens.” Royal recognizes James Joyce for his Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, which may be the most succinct exposition of St. Thomas philosophy of art that one is likely to find. Pages are devoted to Dante, of course and to the enormous poetic vitality of Paul Claudel who differentiates his own spontaneous outbursts from Dante’s “well-reasoned and orderly vision of the world.”
This review has only scratched the surface of this magnificent work, a volume that this writer believes is worthy of a place in the personal library of every serious Catholic.