Helen Freeh holds a bachelor’s degree in politics and a master’s degree in American studies from the University of Dallas and a doctorate in English Literature from Baylor University. She writes from Lander, Wyoming, where she lives with her husband and two children.
In his most recent work, A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, Robert Royal sets an ambitious goal—which he fulfills very well—to “bring together the main strands that make up the modern Catholic intellectual tradition.”
Royal, the president of the Faith and Reason Institute, and author of The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West (2010), readily admits not being an expert in all the fields he will analyze and states, although daunting, it is possible “to take a synoptic view of the main disciplines informed by Catholic thought.”
Royal fairly presents multiple and conflicting schools of thought. His own position does seem clear in that he returns often to St. John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio in which the saintly Pontiff suggests that all of God’s intellectual gifts to humanity must be used for better understanding God’s relationship to humanity and humanity’s relationship to God, and Royal repeatedly stresses the necessity of the Catholic intellectual life interacting with the secularist and materialist world around it.
Royal examines closely the tradition in Europe, and only briefly notes a few American contributions. In a column by Royal published on The Catholic Thing when the book was released, the author reveals that he is “already working on a companion volume that will deal with American Catholicism.”
Royal’s work gives readers an in-depth look at a few key Catholics in each field, thus allowing the reader to understand their general train of thought and their influence on others and on world events and culture. Royal goes further, though, by naming and summarizing the work of numerous secondary figures to the Catholic intellectual tradition. Obviously, such hierarchy and editing is necessary in a volume of this size and scope and, rather than be a weakness, it is a strength, for Royal offers enough information to awaken interest in the reader for various figures.
Thus, with Royal’s synopsis at hand, a reader becomes acquainted with a large number of authors, thinkers, and intellectual developments in the 20th century, which he or she can then further research. The purpose of this book is not then to explicate fully any one figure, discipline, or movement. Its purpose is to examine the beautiful interplay and influence of the whole of the Catholic tradition on humans and human history specifically within the twentieth century. And, by such examination, Royal hopes that readers will have the intellectual tools and the essential heart of an evangelist to bring the Gospel to a skeptical but needy world.
Royal names “intellectual tradition” as the philosophy, theology, scriptural studies, history, literature, and cultural studies of prominent Catholic thinkers, writers, and poets of the last century. He divides his extensive work into two sections: “Faith and Reason,” and “Creed and Culture,” all of which affect each other. He boldly, and for some controversially, begins his examination of this tradition with the changing currents within philosophy, stating in his introduction that “this represents not a personal choice but the fact that without philosophy there is no theology” (23).
Royal shows the early 20th century’s return in Catholic philosophy to a study of St. Thomas Aquinas, which Pope Leo XIII advocated in the 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris. Royal names Jacques Maritain as the key figure for this school, and focuses closely on Maritain’s work and how it fulfills what Pope Leo had hoped for: a renewed understanding of St. Thomas Aquinas and medieval philosophy specifically to convert modern, atheistic culture. Maritain, as the initial figure of Royal’s work, embodies what Royal himself seems to suggest is essential for a 21st century Catholic intellectual tradition: a man unafraid to interact with hostile secular minds because he is not only well educated, but also in love with his fellow man and with God.
Royal begins the book’s second half, “Creed and Culture,” by examining the work of the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson. Royal describes Dawson’s firm belief that “real existing Catholicism came, primarily, not out of ancient or medieval Christianity [. . .] but from more recent centuries of Christian humanism, which is the true core of Western culture.” Stating what could be the very thesis of Royal’s whole work, he says of Dawson’s own contribution to the “intellectual tradition” that “the best path to a revitalization of the spiritual underpinnings of the West lay in the study of Christian culture. [ . . .] to overlook that Christian humanism—and the role it has played in shaping Western culture, even in its now mostly post-Christian form—would be to misconceive the modern world and to leave it both culturally and spiritually rootless” (363).
This emphasis on Christian humanism leads well to Royal’s examination, then, of key figures of the Catholic literary revival in England (Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, J.R.R. Tolkien), Scandinavia (Sigrid Undset), France (Léon Bloy and François Mauriac), and Poland (Czesłow Miłosz). Royal begins with the early 20th century figures of Belloc and Chesterton showing how each in his unique way brought faith back into the public square because of their shared belief of “the need for Christian renewal to save the world” (397).
Concluding his monumental work, Royal again returns to his overall purpose: the Catholic Faith must continue to find a way to engage and convert the world around it.
As the developments of the 20th century show, such engagement and conversion is very much possible, and yet the ground won in the early part of the last century was also partially lost in the latter half. The current millennium and the Catholic Church within it faces the continued and serious challenge of how to evangelize a world which is skeptical of all truth except a radical scientific materialism and which now promulgates an extremely low, vulgar form of pop culture based in sensationalism.
Royal’s work enables his readers to know the Catholic tradition of the very recent past, to take inspiration from it, and to continue to forge an equally vibrant intellectual, as well as evangelical tradition for the 21st century.