Book review: A Deeper Vision

A Deeper Vision:  The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century
by Robert Royal (2015)

This volume limits itself to European Catholic thinkers during the 20th century, but it includes not only philosophers and theologians, but also novelists and poets.  Supposedly, a sequel on 20th-century American Catholic thought is forthcoming, although I think Royal would have been wiser to have just stuck a paragraph on Thomas Merton into this book and then moved on to a more interesting topic.

20th century Catholic thought is an unwieldy subject, and a writer must find some way to give unity to his subject.  Usually, this is done through the standard narrative, which goes as follows.  The early 20th century Church was ruled by reactionaries whose thoughts, if they are granted to have had any, could not possibly be of interest.  All creative and intelligent Catholics were working to get the Church to “open up to the world”.  At Vatican II, this faction won, and henceforth thinking Catholics were “freed” to submit to the secular consensus, which they promptly did.  The standard narrative is, in a sense, self-defeating, because if it’s true it’s uninteresting, because what could be learned from the story of irrational holdouts reconciling themselves to the obvious?

Fortunately, Royal does not accept the standard narrative.  He only denies it by a peculiar double negative strategy, but readers of average reading comprehension should have no trouble getting the point.  For example, he will pro formal acknowledge some aspect of the narrative about the Church  needing to become less defensive or whatever.  Then, rather than presenting the standard cartoon villain picture, he will honestly present the thought of, say, Pius X or Garrigou-Lagrange, quoting these figures predicting disasters if particular novelties are introduced, all of which later happened exactly as they had predicted.  Royal will  then conclude that their concerns “were not entirely without merit” or words to that effect.  Similarly, discussing the documents of Vatican II, he will briefly acknowledge how good or needed some document was, but when he looks at them in detail, he finds nothing but naivety and ambiguity.  It’s not much of a stretch to suspect that Royal’s true opinion of the trajectory of 20th century Catholicism is closer to this blog’s than he likes to say explicitly.  One exception is that he accepts the childish adulation of Jews that one always seems to find among Americans, and he must disapprove (I think earnestly, but thankfully briefly) when his subjects express more nuanced opinions of our Elder Brothers.

Without the standard narrative, Royal must tell the history of 20th century thought as an attempt to express a credible alternative to the secular worldview, an attempt that by worldly, demographic measures must be judged a failure, albeit with a few impressive blows struck.  This has the virtue of being what actually happened.

There are, nevertheless, some basic problems Royal can’t overcome.  It’s not clear who is the appropriate audience for this book.  For example, since he feels the need to define “epistemology”, he can’t dig very deep into the disputes of Thomists and phenomenologists, and just from his vague descriptions it would be hard for a reader who doesn’t already know about them to see why particular works or movements are interesting.  Alternatively, he could have based the book on personal stories and drama anyone might have understood, but fortunately he didn’t; the book is arranged by discipline rather than chronologically or by characters.  One sometimes gets the impression from his brief treatment that the main danger of 20th century philosophy was Cartesian solipsism, although, to be fair, one often enough gets the same impression from the books of the neo-Thomists themselves.

The other problem Royal can’t overcome is that, once one sees through the claims of the charlatans like Teilhard de Chardin (whom Royal shows good judgement by not even mentioning), the 20th century just doesn’t seem to have been a very impressive century for Catholic thought.  Certainly it doesn’t compare well with the 19th century.  (Then again, as Royal notices, secular culture also went to crap after mid-century.)  The book spends a couple of chapters on Catholic scriptural studies, at the end of which one’s suspicion that no valuable work was done in this field has become a certainty.  After Vatican II, Catholic scriptural studies followed the fashionable academic historical-critical rathole.  Royal is left to focus on some Vatican commission report which, while making generally sensible points, is just a bureaucratic document.  I had hoped to find some figure in this book whose work I would want to learn more about.  I find that I still have no temptation to read Charles, Peguy, Charles Taylor, Francois Mauriac, or any of the transcendental Thomists.  On the other hand, some of Georges Bernanos’ novels do sound interesting.  Also, Thomists like Josef Pieper, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Etienne Gilson have done some good work on ethics and the history of philosophy, although them I already knew about.  Among the writers–fiction or nonfiction–in this book, Chesterton and Tolkien are the two I enjoy re-reading, which may only say something about my lack of aptitude for challenging literature, but can hopefully be expressed as a compliment regardless.

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