A Deeper Vision: Catholicism and the Past Century | Robert Royal | CWR
Most people – even most Catholics – don’t realize it, but the twentieth century, or at least the first two-thirds of it, were a kind of golden age for Catholic intellectual and cultural life.
In the summer of 1901, Jacques Maritain (who would go on to become the most influential Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century) and his future wife Raïssa Oumançoff (a Jewish refugee from Russia, later a notable mystic and poet) were walking together in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. They were both studying science at the Sorbonne, and the scientific vision of materialism then dominant seemed so cold and superficial to them that they decided, if they couldn’t find something better and deeper to live for, to die together by committing suicide. In short order, they both discovered Catholicism, and the rest is history.
Many people, great and small, over the last 100 years and more have found in Catholicism an answer to life-or-death questions. By the second half of the twentieth century, it even became a kind of joke. Muriel Spark (another convert) describes a desperate character in her 1963 novel The Girls of Slender Means who could “never make up his mind between suicide and an equally drastic course of action known as Father D’Arcy.” (Father Martin D’Arcy S. J. was a real-life priest at Farm Street Church in London who had guided Evelyn Waugh, and many other prominent English men and women into the Church.) Spark even claimed that it was not until she became a Catholic that she could see life whole and, therefore, could be a novelist.
Catholicism, of course, must be a faith for all God’s people, the ordinary and humble, as well the gifted and prominent. It cannot solely be a faith for philosophers, theologians, scripture scholars, historians, or obvious saints. Some people have consequently come to believe that all this intellectual ferment, the interplay of faith and reason that has always been a unique feature of Catholicity, is really unnecessary. As if, like evangelicals, all we need is our “personal relationship with Jesus.” That relationship is, of course, crucial. And it’s a good principle, even found in the early pages of Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, that few people have the gifts, time, or inclination to do serious theology or philosophy. It’s enough if those to whom God has given the responsibility are capable of doing it.
But we should also keep in mind a certain image. Pope Francis has said, with great resonance around the world, that the Church is a kind of “field hospital.” The world is always pretty much a bloody mess in which one of the first tasks is just to stanch the bleeding and keep people from perishing. This is helpful if it’s rightly understood, harmful wrongly understood. As the pope has said on other occasions, there’s a kind of buonismo – roughly “goody-goodyism” – sometimes among Catholics, who pretend that everything is fine when we’ve just covered up, not really treated, wounds. We might take this a step further: without deep and steady Catholic knowledge, we may become like a doctor with a good bedside manner, but who doesn’t have technical medical knowledge. When you’re sick in bed, he can hold your hand and speak comforting words, but, if he doesn’t also know real medicine, can’t really cure what ails you.
Most people – even most Catholics – don’t realize it, but the twentieth century, or at least the first two-thirds of it, were a kind of golden age for Catholic intellectual and cultural life. In philosophy, theology, scripture studies, culture, literature, and music, Catholics produced some of the most remarkable work across a wide variety of fields as they have in virtually any age in the two millennia of the Church’s existence. That now forgotten fertility is the subject of my most recent book: A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, just published by Ignatius Press.
The title, slightly reworked for the publisher’s purposes, is drawn from the concluding lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great sonnet “God’s Grandeur”: