This Treasure We Have: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition
By Robert Royal
The Catholic intellectual tradition is the richest, broadest, deepest, and longest-standing in the entire world, and perhaps in all of human history. It addresses all the fields we think of as “intellectual”: theology, philosophy, literature, the arts, history, politics, anthropology, psychology, astronomy, and more—even as it remains a powerful inspiration to ordinary people. If we’re concerned (as we should be) with what we need now, I’m prepared to say that what we need more than anything is the tradition’s full and balanced and sane set of truths and practices.
In America, Catholicism has sometimes been classified with evangelicalism as a kind of fundamentalism. That characterization can’t withstand the barest acquaintance with what the Church has absorbed and fostered over two millennia, while surviving massive changes in culture and politics, and the rise and fall of entire civilizations. The sturdy life of the tradition is obvious from the historical record, where it’s fairly examined. It’s so large and living that no one can know it all or describe it in its fullness. My book on the Catholic intellectual tradition, A Deeper Vision, was 600+ pages on just the 20th century and even then, had to leave out a great deal.
So though in a way it’s an impossible task to speak comprehensively about “the tradition,” let’s try to get you a sense of its general shape by touching on several key points, beginning with a dimension often overlooked. Because even as the Church was engaging the world at the very highest cultural level, we also know that it touches the lives of ordinary people, people who would never be called intellectuals, and quite deeply because the moral and spiritual sanity of the Church has a power that is for everyone—the “universal call to holiness,” as Vatican II formulated it. And that changed the whole course of Western history and social life.
A great figure like Socrates, for instance, might be willing to die for the truth, and inspire the very rarest of philosophers to do the same. (Aristotle is said to have at one point fled lest Athens sin twice against philosophy.) But from the earliest days, Christians have not only been willing to be marginalized and suffer, but to die for the truth—and that includes both great early bishops and distinguished thinkers like Polycarp or Justin Martyr, and simple women like Felicity and Perpetua. The Romans thought—and many of our contemporaries think—this willingness to suffer and die for the truth is fanaticism. But those early witnesses—and there are many new ones being killed even now every day—elevated both the status of truth in society but also the status of each of us as rational beings, created by and destined for the Truth. Socrates chose to die for the truth; Christians believed that God—who is Truth—requires it, when necessary.
But there’s even more in this vein. Christ’s often-simple sayings bulk so large that it’s taken millennia of theologians, philosophers, saints, mystics, martyrs, priests, bishops, and popes even to begin to grasp what He said. And yet, at the same time, His words have spoken to the hearts of average people, and shaped their lives and actions, not only in His day, but over ages, in “diverse” cultures, despite what seemed impossible obstacles. Thomas Aquinas thought that perhaps the greatest of Christian miracles was how a few fishermen and other humble men from a cultural backwater were able to convert the greatest empire (Rome) then in existence. That’s a matter of sheer historical fact—and he lived before the Faith spread across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the whole world.
That all this seems threatened now, and on every front, is reassuring in one way; it suggests that as dark as things seem at present, in both the Church and the world, the Gospel has shown itself to have an unsuspected power that cannot be predicted. It has always exceeded what we might “reasonably” expect. And could do so at any moment, even today.
So it’s worth going back to the most basic of truths about the tradition. The first lines of the old Baltimore Catechism are:
1.Q. Who made the world?
A. God made the world.
And a bit further one:
6. Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.
Put somewhat simply, there are two large questions here: first, how are we to think and act in this world, and second, what—who?—we are to seek in the next world?
The two areas are interrelated, of course. You don’t get to Heaven without knowing, loving, and serving God on Earth. In our intellectual tradition, this understanding has led to an endless and fruitful interplay between faith and reason. Our sense of ultimate things stabilizes reason, which as Hegel said, and as Pope Benedict repeatedly reminded us, has “a wax nose” and can be turned in any direction. This is why we see many seemingly “rational” arguments being made in favor all sorts of insanity, the Trans craze in particular at the moment.
The Church took up two secular traditions as a means of thinking about Jewish and Christian revelation that have served her and all of us in Western civilizations quite well. I mean the philosophies we associate with Plato and Aristotle. Please bear with me in what may, at first, seem a side issue. Neither of these great Greeks believed the first response in the Baltimore Catechism, that God created the world. But they had been able to reason their way to enough sanity, such that it provided a solid logic for two millennia.
Although for the first few centuries, Plato was the main philosophical presence in the Church, I want to talk a bit first about Aristotle who helps, especially as he was later used by Thomas Aquinas and the great scholastic thinkers.
How so? Because he’s a steady hand in clarifying things that most of us absorb (if less so now than in the past) living in a family or at least a stable community that forms us. As Cardinal Newman, not an Aristotelian or Thomist, wrote:
While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being Aristotelians, for the great Master does but analyze the thoughts, feelings, views, and opinions of human kind. He has told us the meaning of our own words and ideas, before we were born. In many subject-matters, to think correctly, is to think like Aristotle, and we are his disciples whether we will or no, though we may not know it. (The Idea of a University)
Behind the technicalities, subtleties, and complexities of Aristotle and Aquinas lie what Chesterton called “sanity,” deeply rooted in reality, not “socially constructed” as the sophists in every age claim, but the essential insights into the nature of the world in which we live and our own natures as rational creatures.
Aristotle’s influence doesn’t emerge very strongly in the Roman Catholic Church until many Greek works were rediscovered in the High Middle Ages, with one exception. Boethius’s translations of Aristotle’s logical work survived—meaning there were many copies in circulation—when many of his other works did not. In the Middle East, Syriac scholars translated Aristotle into Arabic, which led to a brief intellectual burst even there, and when Aristotle’s major works finally made their way into Western thought in the twelfth century, it was initially by translations from the Arabic versions.
While we think of Aristotle as the proponent of sanity—in Inferno, Dante calls him Il maestro di color che sanno (“The master of those who know”)—when he was first re-discovered it was like intellectual dynamite. Thomas Aquinas, who uses the categories Aristotle developed in his logical works and also wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s larger texts like the Politics and Ethics, was thought revolutionary for embracing the new learning. In fact, parts of his work were briefly regarded as possibly heretical by Stephen Tempier, archbishop of Paris, for his daring intellectual flights, though it soon became clear that he was not heretical at all.
Augustine and Aristotle are Thomas’ two main influences, and he balances the older Platonic tradition he found in Augustine, Dionysius the Areopagite, and many of mystical medieval writers who preceded him with the newer Aristotelean studies to such a great degree that when Cardinal Cajetan, himself a formidable philosopher and theologian, wanted to praise Thomas, he said of him that he “seems to have inherited the intellect of all.” Pope Leo XIII, who inaugurated the great Thomist revival as well as modern Catholic social thought, quoted that phrase from Cajetan when he proposed Thomism as the great remedy for modern society in his encyclical Aeterni Patris.
So that Aristotelean/Thomistic clarity and consistent rationality is one large current in the tradition. But how about the Platonism? Platonism too had a complex history both inside and outside Catholicism. In fact, around the time that Jesus walked the earth, Philo—a Jewish philosopher in Alexandria—working from the Greek translation of the Old Testament and the Platonism that was then pervasive in the ancient Hellenistic world had already produced an interesting synthesis between the two modes of thought. It was a clever fusion made somewhat easier by the fact that there’s a passionate spiritual side of Plato in the dialogues. And unlike the deniers of an afterlife in both the Greek and Jewish traditions, Plato’s great hero Socrates calmly drinks the hemlock because, as he tells his friends, he’s going to be with the gods. And there’s an emphasis on love in a cosmic sense in some Platonic dialogues, notably in the Phaedrus. It’s worth reading Joseph Pieper’s (one of our great 20th century Thomistic Platonists) little book on that dialogue to understand how mystical ecstasy could be understood in that context.
The Early Fathers of the Church and even many of the medieval figures—Dante in particular relies on Bernard of Clairvaux at the very summit of Paradiso—spend their energies on seeking “The love that moves the sun and other stars.” Neo-Platonism, which emerged in the century or so before St. Augustine, had even elaborated its own Trinity—the One, Intellect, and Soul—which made the early Christian thinkers’ job easier. It wasn’t long before Platonists were saying that the mythological gods should be regarded as angels, not demons, as a way of meeting the growing challenge from the rational Christian arguments against the classical pantheon, and even against polytheism itself.
Christianity brought something new to philosophical thought, however. It posited a Creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who actually loved His Creation and maintained it in existence at every moment. That was already a great change from the indifferent One in otherwise great philosophers and Platonic mystics like Plotinus and Porphyry. The One knew nothing about the world that had somehow emanated from its Pure Being—and didn’t care to know about it—or anything else. The God of the philosophers could be proven rationally to exist, but other than the mystical effort to see Him beyond the perpetual changes of the world, it wasn’t a very inspiring vision of the world for anything but the very rare philosopher.
Still, it had its power for them. In his Confessions, when Augustine finally got to Milan and met with the circle of neo-Platonic philosophers around the great archbishop St. Ambrose, they helped him a great deal. But one of his objections was that Platonism had its limits. In Confessions VII, he offers this prayer:
Thou procuredst for me, by means of one puffed up with most unnatural pride, certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read, not indeed in the very words, but to the very same purpose, enforced by many and divers reasons, that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . .Again I read there, that God the Word was born not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God. But that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, I read not there.
Our culture, which has lived for centuries with the Christian concept of God, cannot feel the force of this difference, I think, as sharply as Augustine did. But for many people in many different cultures, it comes as a helpful shock. When St. Juan Diego encountered Our Lady of Guadalupe, he was somewhat in the same position as the ancient Platonists. His original culture, the Chichimecs, believed in a supreme god among many lesser gods. But that highest of gods was so high and distant that he never had anything to do with the lowly affairs of earth. When St. Juan Diego saw the pregnant Virgin, however, on her dress, over her distended stomach, was the flower associated with that high god. In other words, it symbolized that the distant god had come close to the people, in this case through a woman of mixed white European and indigenous background. This is a far cry from Augustine among the neo-Platonists, but still a concrete example of the way that Christianity united the high and the low—and in this instance, produced the conversion of an entire continent, a spiritual power without precedent.
There’s much, of course, that recent centuries, based on different emphases within the tradition brought to us, not least the rational investigation of a Creation formed by the logos. But does any of this matter to us today? This is only my own personal reading of the past 150 years—since Leo XIII called for a new, creative Thomism as the basis of renewal for our notions of the human person and human society. As he put it in that encyclical:
For, the teachings of Thomas on the true meaning of liberty, which at this time is running into license, on the divine origin of all authority, on laws and their force, on the paternal and just rule of princes, on obedience to the higher powers, on mutual charity one toward another-on all of these and kindred subjects-have very great and invincible force to overturn those principles of the new order which are well known to be dangerous to the peaceful order of things and to public safety.
We who have seen the murderous rise of communism, Nazism, fascism, and even the “demons in democracy” would do well to take Leo’s words to heart.
The first half of the twentieth century produced an astonishing outpouring of neo-scholastic works. Roughly the second half of the century, though beginning a bit earlier with Henri de Lubac’s 1938 book Catholicism—a book both Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger thought indispensable—was a recuperation of the Early Church Fathers and their more Platonic way of reading Scripture—a more spiritual, personalist, community based, even mystical approach that came to be known as ressourcement at Vatican II.
We’re blessed, however much turmoil currently exists in the Church and the world, to have just behind us, a couple of generations of a renewed Aristotelian/Thomism as well as the personalism and communitarianism in the more Platonic/Augustinian mode. These are many and great contributions to the Church and the world from just a few decades ago that warrant study in our own troubled days. The old foundations are not lost forever because they can’t be. They’re just waiting for us to revive them, with creative adaptations to our moment, to be sure.
And we now have the main challenge clearly before us. Chesterton had already seen it a century ago:
When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.
This accounts for a lot of what we’re currently suffering from. It’s long been part of our understanding of moral questions, for example, that, as Augustine put it, evil is the absence of some good, either something that should be there and isn’t, or it is but to too great or too little a degree. In other words, since God is the Creator of all that exists, and everything He has created is good, what we call evil is a departure in some way from the full order of our universe. The Church is “catholic” precisely because it’s “universal,” Greek kata-holos, “according to the whole.”
The “trans” craze is a perfect counter-example. To begin with, it goes against the simple recognition of reality to believe that disfiguring surgeries or puberty blocking drugs can turn a male into a female, or vice versa. The very first pages of Genesis say, “male and female he created them,” and that’s been the understanding of basically the whole human race until the last few years in a few hyperdeveloped countries. Catholicism, like human nature, is binary.
But there’s more going on than radical groups and individuals pushing the mutilation of children under the guise of “gender-affirming care.” One virtue—compassion for gender-confused young people—has swollen to such monstrous proportions that it has eclipsed everything from the simple facts of biology to thousands of years of human experience. Just think of what it means when trained medical personnel speak of “gender assigned at birth,” as if the ordinary observation that a newborn being is a boy or girl is a mere convention by some unnamed, and perhaps biased, assigner.
This wildly exaggerated compassion, quite indifferent to reality and truth, offers an opportunity for the Catholic intellectual tradition, because with its respect for the totality of reality, our tradition is singularly well positioned to answer radical questions that the general culture cannot, and is in serious peril as a result. Even Rome these days is less committed to clarity and sanity than it needs to be. That will be a challenge within the Church for the foreseeable future. But the way to overcome that problem is clear from our long history.
I think we also have to add to Chesterton’s virtues gone mad that there’s a demonic element, increasingly evident, in all this. The Devil has no goods of his own to sell, so to speak. He can only use the goods created by the Creator to try to make us disordered, to tell lies or conceal truths by overselling other truths. One of the hard tasks assigned to Christians in the present generation is to resist partial truths, to name disordered virtues, to remind the whole world of the order of being and truth that centuries of careful and generous thought have brought to light. And to withstand slurs about bias and hate, by affirming the fullness of truth—and love. No small or easy task. But the one to which Divine Providence has decreed we are called.
I’m painfully aware of how much I’ve not even touched on. The spirituality of the desert fathers, the massive contributions of St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan movement, Hildegard of Bingen, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Blaise Pascal, Chateaubriand, St. Edith Stein, and Catholic art, the great scientists and musicians, poets and novelists, the crucial analyses of culture by Christopher Dawson, and so many and so much more. But that is inevitable in any treatment of “this treasure we have, the Catholic intellectual tradition.”
I’ll close with the word of another great figure in the tradition, Hilaire Belloc, that I often point to when people ask me why I’m the editor of a website with, to some, the ungainly name, The Catholic Thing: “The Catholic Church is the exponent of Reality. It is true. Its doctrines in matters large and small are statements of what is. This it is which the ultimate act of the intelligence accepts. . . . My conclusion – and that of all men who have ever once seen it – is the Faith. Corporate, organised, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”
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. This essay is adapted from the Inaugural MacFarlane Lecture given for the Thomas More Institute (Fort Worth, Texas) in May 2023.
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