A Return to Reason
The University Bookman is delighted to post this interview with Robert Royal, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington D.C. and Editor-in-Chief of The Catholic Thing. He has written, edited, and translated sixteen books, and his books, articles, and comments have appeared in a dozen languages. He lectures frequently on matters of religion, culture, and public affairs here and abroad. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Created and Shaped the West (Encounter). He is currently working on a comprehensive history of the Catholic intellectual tradition in the twentieth century.
Thanks for joining us. Is there a uniquely Catholic perspective into American politics and culture?
If you look at Catholic voting patterns, not much; unfortunately, that seems to me to be a constantly changing reality. If you look at the usual public policy debates, there’s a little more: Catholics primarily, along with a few members of a few other faith groups, still know how to argue about the importance of defending life, marriage, family, and civil society from the Leviathan of the modern state. But if you look at the whole two-thousand-year history of the Church, which its roots in Judaism and the Middle East, Greco-Roman culture, and many other elements, there not only is a distinctive Catholic perspective, but it’s difficult to think what else might save American culture from itself at the present moment. And the prospects are not so great even for that.
Just look at what the relatively modest eighteenth-century “rights” have turned into once the Creator has been removed and the individual put in his place. I’m sorry to say this about a country I love, but unless America finds something like a “new birth of freedom,” in a sense different than Lincoln’s—namely, freedom under a God who makes promises and demands—I don’t know how long we can endure. Our Founders knew that ancient democracies exploded because of untamed popular passions. We’re not quite there yet but the signs are troubling.
Many American Protestants have assumed that Catholicism is incompatible with the American experiment from the beginning. Is this true?
Yes, and no. The Church has co-existed with a lot of quite different political regimes in its long history and can co-exist with America—under certain conditions. For a long time, given the violence and repression Catholics experienced after the French Revolution and the Church’s worries that “Americanism” was in its essence what it’s now starting to turn into, democracy and republican forms looked to be simply opposed not only to Catholic principles, but Catholic existence.
Since Vatican II, of course, the Church has been more supportive of religious freedom in conditions of modern pluralism. But that supposes some sort of converging view of the common good. Lots of us have been trying to think through, from different angles, how Catholicism might recall America first to the saner principles of its Founders, who the American bishops meeting at the First Council of Baltimore described as “having built wiser than they knew.”
But the biggest problem today is culture. Postmodern mass culture has corrupted even the old American standards, and the Church cannot live quietly where there are daily assaults on the unborn, family, and expression of religious views in public. The Church is, if I can put this a little cleverly, more American than America today, and Americans would benefit from the robust view of the human person, a proper notion of rights as a dimension of natural law, and several other Catholic principles.
Do you see the secular left as a more important challenge to Catholics in America than the traditional nativism?
There’s still an anti-Catholic nativism, to be sure, but it’s much reduced I believe because of the Catholic-Evangelical dialogue that began in the 1980s. Evangelicals, I know from personal experience, admired John Paul II and understand that we are allies in a fundamental struggle. The secular left has tried to introduce a non-religious, international universalism by exploiting anti-Catholicism. Just look at how the recently deceased Bernard Nathanson, abortionist turned pro-life champion, confessed to meeting with people and deliberately picking the Catholic bishops—an unpopular group in nativist and other quarters—to make it appear that opposition to abortion was a Catholic thing. There’s not much to choose between a determined Know-Nothingism and a determined We-Know-Everythingism. There’s only the perpetual effort of Faith & Reason.
As a follow-up, can the Catholic perspective be incorporated into civic discourse and be accepted by non-Catholics, or even non-believers?
Not only is it possible, it’s happened. The Evangelicals learned about natural law in dialogue with Catholics and sociological studies are uniform in showing that the kinds of things Catholicism advocates promote personal and social well-being. But there are many people who work three shifts daily in the media and other culture-forming institutions—I think of the universities especially and government schools—determined to make it appear that Catholicism is more fundamentalist than the Fundamentalists, more un-American than the un-American side of the new leftist international brigades. It’s all factually and analytically nonsense, but that’s the situation in most of the media, and they shape our public culture.
The Catholic Church has a long history of teachings on economics and social policy. Are any of those teachings applicable to America’s current economic situation?
Well, this would require a long answer because there are large general principles and some particular details that might be drawn from modern Catholic social teaching. Let me just mention a few and start with the obvious: Greed doesn’t work. Whatever friends of aggressive capitalism may say, we need a discernment of spirits that distinguishes between good, energetic entrepreneurship and greedy efforts to maximize profits and consumption (consumers are at fault here, too). An economy is a tool for human flourishing, an important component of individual and social life. Markets are by and large the best way to conduct economic activity, within moral and prudential bounds.
It beggars belief that our government regulators did not see the Ponzi-like elements in the mortgage crisis; equally, it’s hard to believe that people have grown so complacent that they didn’t realize that economies can go down, as well as up, when they took on debt. There’s a whole set of simple values that people need to be catechized about again.
I also think we are going to have to start talking very soon about what the low birth rate and high illegitimacy rate are doing to the country. We know it will have bad effects on Social Security and other social welfare programs, but how about the effect on our social well-being? This is not a sectarian Catholic concern; it’s a time bomb waiting to go off here and abroad.
Is there a natural political “home” for Catholics?
In my view, no. I grew up in the old Catholic ethnic ghetto. I never met a Republican until I was in the university. We knew such exotics existed. We just didn’t know any. Today, I’m personally Independent, though I usually vote for Republicans because at least they don’t kill babies. But otherwise I’m not convinced Republicans get it much more than Democrats. You see it in the trial balloons like calling a “truce” on the social issues. And the Democrats, who used to be the party of working people—which is to say people who can’t indulge in much fantasy about human nature and society—have had their immune systems degraded: they pick up any nonsense floating through the culture. I guess in my dotage I’m with Dante: it’s best to be a party of one except in rare circumstances.
The Second Vatican Council is viewed by many as the great event that opened the Church to the modern world. Is this a legitimate claim, and if so, are there any insights in particular from the Council that would be beneficial to contemporary America?
Well, the Council took place—unfortunately—just before the cultural upheaval in the late 1960s. Much of what followed had no roots either in the Council or in Catholicism. But I think part of what is usually called the nouvelle théologie (‘the new theology”), the best part, I mean, tried to recover the notion that there is no nature separate from grace. That even in those areas—politics, economics, science, medicine, scholarship—where there may be professional criteria that need to be pursued to achieve human excellence—there’s another dimension. Not just the need for ethics or, God forbid, ethics committees. But recognition that in the cosmos, in every manifestation from string theory to political order to cosmology, a divine dimension lurks. We’re connected even in our mundane pursuits to the great cosmic order that gives meaning to everything we do and situates it within a reality that keeps it from becoming demonic. The spiritual current should have flowed from the religious to the secular, after Vatican II. But as we know, it mostly went in the other direction.
Is it too early to chart the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI?
Well, legacies are influenced by all sorts of factors. Benedict himself is such a gentle and humble soul that he’s even tamed the media sharks in America and Britain. You can’t meet the man and dislike him. After his visits here and to the UK, it was surprising how many stories spoke positively of him. He’s not a world-historical figure like John Paul II, a man of whom Czeslaw Milosz rightly said that, alone of all modern leaders, could be only of Shakespeare’s kings. Benedict is a scholar and a cultivated human being, so much so that I sometimes worry that he’s playing Mozart to a world that can only appreciate “Chopsticks.” But it matters the way he’s put on the agenda that reason showed itself to be murderous in the twentieth century, and that religion can help with a kind of convalescence of reason itself. In a better age, he would be seen as the brilliant and humane man he is, an exemplar of the kind of human being Christianity, at its best, has produced in the past and continues to produce. Whether his good labors will bear much fruit even he knows depends on things far beyond any human being, however great. I’m worried, but hopeful—the perpetual lot of the Christian in the world.
Thanks again for being with us.
Posted: April 10, 2011 in Interviews.
The Misremembered President
John C. Chalberg