Ever Ancient, Ever New

Despite the Byzantine COVID regulations of three separate jurisdictions and woeful understaffing of multiple, formerly reliable airlines, I’m back from Rome, more or less in one piece. After a week following the wearying turmoil in the Vatican, I returned home to find on my desk a package from that Energizer Bunny of Catholic publishing houses, Sophia Institute Press: three thick volumes republishing books by another tireless evangelizer, Fulton J. Sheen. Which got me thinking about what, if anything now, can help us overcome all the divisions and obstacles to returning home to something like Church unity again.

You can predict two partisan reactions, neither helpful and both emblematic of the main divisions, to the republication of Archbishop Sheen’s works. The first, among traditionalists, is a kind of nostalgia for the good old days when the Church was the Church. I admit to a bit of this myself. But though partly true, it overlooks what were already emerging challenges. Indeed, Archbishop Sheen didn’t think he was living in ideal times and was working vigorously to shore up both the Church and a secular world already starting to veer in dangerous directions.

The second reaction, typical of progressives, is to dismiss a figure like Sheen out of hand as representative of everything that the Second Vatican Council tried to overcome: the Church’s overconfidence, clericalism, contempt for the world. And yes, sometimes Sheen’s television style looks corny today (as will our current “hip” media to future generations). But Sheen really knew how to talk to people – Catholic and not. Who even comes close to what he could do today?

Despite occasional corniness, Sheen had a brilliant and powerful mind. He received the Cardinal Mercier Award for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Louvain. Yet he spent six hours preparing every classroom lecture when he taught at the Catholic University of America. He rehearsed his public presentations so thoroughly – even practicing them in French and Italian so that he had utter mastery of the material – that he never had to use a written text. And he often spent whole summers in London studying some subject he wanted to devote special attention to during the coming year: Marxism, science, theology, psychology – whatever seemed most needed at the moment.

Few figures in the Church today exert themselves on behalf of the Gospel with such dedication. And his books show what clarity and forcefulness result.

In better times, we would draw strength from him and many others by looking back at our rich and durable tradition even as we attempt to confront sometimes unprecedented challenges. That’s the “mutual enrichment” that Benedict XVI spoke of, not only the older and newer liturgy reciprocally influencing one another, but the whole Christian past informing our moment, and being called on to deal with current questions.


I’ve been looking into figures like Sheen for my next book – a kind of sequel to my A Deeper Vision, which dealt mostly with modern European Catholic thinkers and writers. The new one focuses on American Catholics. I’m an admirer, as was Sheen, of the Neo-Scholastic project – Pope Leo XIII’s brainchild, and a major influence in the Church prior to Vatican II, which carried out a reappropriation of Aquinas and Aristotle by philosophers like Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. It helped keep sanity – a moderate philosophical realism – alive in Western culture. And it made many converts, including figures like Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Avery Dulles.

At the same time, there’s no question that the nouvelle théologie that came to prominence around the time of the Council added some things to the mix with its more personalist and communitarian focus, especially for the many people who could not manage the technical concepts of the Neo-Scholastics. There’s a remarkable wealth in both camps before and after the Council that needs to be brought into better balance if we’re ever to escape the current polarization that’s tearing up the Body.

For example, I readily admit that – like many of us – I am suffering from what my colleague Brad Miner was first to name “Francis Fatigue. ” It’s tiring to have to keep pointing out when he’s dividing rather than being Pontifex, the Bridge Builder.

It’s not just the unnecessarily harsh and misapplied regulations against the Latin Mass, which are a kind of shorthand for the virtual rejection of “going backwards” instead of seeking what’s mutually enriching in the pre-Conciliar as well as appreciating the unique challenges of the moment.

It’s also leaving things out that go back to Christ Himself. Just the other day he told a group of nuns:  “God’s style is always closeness. . . .God’s closeness is always compassionate and tender.” This sounds so very nice. But the Old and New Testaments, the behavior of Jesus – and of Francis himself – show something sharper and sterner, equally important and once part of the Church, that human beings also need for their salvation.

We’re an ecclesia semper reformanda (“Church always needing to be reformed”) on its all-too-human side. Some Protestant Reformers quickly realized that even the ecclesia reformata semper reformanda – “the reformed church always needs reform.” Any serious Christian can see that, beyond corruption or incompetence, the Church constantly needs to renew itself by ever-deeper adherence to the Gospel because time constantly brings new things.

Getting to a better balance between new and old in the Church is going to be an arduous process after decades of division.  St. Augustine famously wrote in Confessions “Late have I loved thee, beauty ever ancient, ever new. Late have I loved thee.” That it took so great a saint – maybe the most influential mind in all Latin Christendom – so long to come to the fullness of the beauty and truth that were there at the beginning and are always here now in full freshness, should provide us with both a certain patience and sense of urgency, even as we set about the task. Both of which we’ll sorely need, because there’s no alternative now.


*Image: The Legend of St Francis, #4: Miracle of the Crucifix by Giotto di Bondone, 1297-99 [Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi]. From the Crucifix, Christ spoke to the saint: “Francis, go and restore my house, which is in danger of collapsing.”

You may also enjoy:

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller’s On the New TLM Restrictions

Brad Miner’s Francis Fatigue

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.