In one of his informative dispatches from Rome during the Synod on the Family last fall, Robert Royal remarked with regret on the extent to which the synod fathers appeared to have taken their prescriptions for families from a secular playbook instead of from their own Catholic tradition.
Most synod participants, Royal wrote, “seemed to look at problems of marriage and family from the kind of thin rationalist standpoint of politicians in democratic countries. … That shallow rationalism is precisely what gave us contraception, abortion, no-fault divorce, gay marriage and much else that threatens the future of our societies.”
Dismayed though he may have been, Royal, a notably astute observer, nevertheless was hardly surprised. As his important new book “A Deeper Vision” (Ignatius Press) makes abundantly clear, the secularizing of the synod that he observed last fall was only a symptom of something that’s been happening for over a half a century now — the shunting aside of the Catholic intellectual tradition by people in leadership positions and academic life who ought to have absorbed that tradition and worked to promote it.
A prolific author, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, and proprietor of a website called The Catholic Thing, Royal delivers this critique in a volume that is encyclopedic in scope yet at the same time eminently readable — and also entirely realistic about the present state of Catholic culture.
Catholicism, Royal writes, is “no longer a significant part of the cultural dialogue, as it was in the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, rifts have entered the Catholic tradition itself from the secular world that make it less coherent and effective in making its own case.”
Some people will hasten to say Pope Francis is changing this state of affairs, but that remains to be seen. A gifted popular communicator the Holy Father undoubtedly is, but we are a long way from knowing whether his pontificate heralds a cultural resurgence for the Church.
It wasn’t always this way. “A Deeper Vision” sees the past century as divided into two distinct parts: the era up to the 1960s, when Catholicism flourished as a cultural agent, and the years since then, which have been a time of cultural collapse. The causes of that collapse have their roots in the cultural revolution of the ‘60s and its destructive absorption into the Church, abetted by a false but alluring view of Vatican Council II as a definitive break with the Church’s past. (The correct view, Pope Benedict XVI wisely insisted, stressed continuity with the tradition alongside openness to change.)
Royal’s book is not just an analysis of a process, however. More important, it is an attempt — a remarkably successful one — to introduce (or reintroduce) Catholics to some recent high points of their own tradition. Distinguished figures like Maritain, Guardini, Chesterton, Belloc, Greene, Mauriac, Bernanos and others receive close and illuminating attention. Royal’s leanings can be seen in the fact that he considers Evelyn Waugh perhaps the greatest English novelist of the past century and Waugh’s World War II trilogy “Sword of Honor” as the author’s finest work. Since these are judgments I share, I naturally applaud them.
Note that “A Deeper Vision” focuses on Catholic culture in Europe. There will be another volume, Royal tells us, devoted to American Catholic culture. Here is good news, for this first volume deserves to be read not only in its own right but as an exciting introduction to an extraordinary tradition with which many Catholics today have largely lost touch.
Russell Shaw, a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor, writes from Washington, D.C.