Full Steam Ahead

He's president and founder of the newly formed Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., a research organization dedicated to the study of religion and culture. He's written, translated or edited more than a dozen books on Catholic culture, politics and American society. He recently spoke with Register staff writer Brian McGuire.

McGuire: A recent letter issued by the Faith & Reason Institute outlines its mission. At bottom, the institute seems interested in squaring Catholicism with pluralism. Do you think America provides fertile soil for the faith or not?

Royal: Perhaps the most striking feature of America in the 21st century is the widespread, though still unfocused, sense that we need some kind of moral and spiritual renewal. A large majority of the American people senses that something like the Church's authoritative voice is what's missing. We live in a pluralistic nation, yes, and also face some residual anti-Catholicism. But there are enormous opportunities out there as well. Personally, I believe it would be better for Catholics not to begin with worries over pluralism, but to step forward with greater force and a specifically Catholic message. In the natural course of things, pluralism will emerge as others with strong visions of their own make their own contributions to the public square.

The name of your organization calls to mind the Pope's most recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio. Does his vision for a Christian culture inform the work of the institute?

Absolutely. In fact, John Paul II is a model for all of us as to how to deal with modern societies. Because he is confident in the validity of the faith, he has had no hesitations about sifting out the gold from the dross in contemporary thought and politics. Many more of us should follow his lead. Catholicity means universality.

T.S. Eliot once remarked that we all try to be a little more universal than we really are. That may have been true in his day, but I think that it is a great failing on the part of many Catholics that we do not strive more to bring our rich tradition to bear on science, ethics, philosophy, politics and a host of other dimensions of the culture.

The great figures of the Christian past like Thomas Aquinas and Dante did precisely that. There is a lot more information to be mastered today, but unless Catholics at least try to present a comprehensive vision of how the human prospect currently hangs together, who else will do it?

Why, in your view, has the Catholic politician often become almost synonymous with compromise and betrayal of the faith?

For a long time, Catholics in America behaved like second-class citizens. They had to prove their loyalty, quiet Protestant fears and overcome the perception that they belonged to inferior ethnic groups. Hence, some of the unfortunate phenomena you mention. Today, things are quite different. Catholics are among the most successful religious groups in America. We are a large church, larger than the next 15 denominations combined. Quite a few public Catholics still mistakenly believe that pluralism means they cannot “impose their values” on anyone else. It's clear that if we — perhaps in coalitions with others — do not implement good values, then the current lowest-common-denominator cultural standards will triumph.

Pluralism means letting all ideas compete fairly in the society, not that we pre-emptively withhold the fullness of our thinking lest we offend against some democratic etiquette.

One of your projects at the Faith & Reason Institute is an extensive survey of American Catholics — to see whether or not they apply the faith they profess at the voting booth. I'm sure many people would say a survey like this is unnecessary, that it's obvious most Catholics don't vote with their conscience, particularly on life issues. Why the survey?

Surveys can be nothing better than what the old pagan priests did when they consulted the entrails of birds to probe the future. But properly understood, they may have some value. I have to confess that if the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is supporting our program on Catholics and the American Public Square, had not asked for some surveys, they would not have been a high priority for me. But we have already seen that there are some surprising data out there.

Steve Wagner has discovered, for example, that “active” Catholics, by which he means people who attend Mass at least three times a month … have a very different view of America than their passive counterparts. I hope that our surveys and focus groups will probe more deeply into seeing how Americans are formed in the faith.

Obviously, families play a big role. But what about formal schooling? Do Americans who attend Catholic schools still absorb a different ethos? What about Catholic colleges and universities? I suspect that Catholicism grows more diluted at the higher reaches of the Catholic educational system. But I'm curious about where we get our Catholicism from in year-2000 America.

Would a revitalized religious environment make it easier to live the faith? And is this what we want? On the one hand, you say that we should look to the heroic witness of the martyrs as an example of Christian living and on the other hand, that we should work to create a truly Catholic culture. Are these contradictory pictures?

I've just written a 600-page book entitled The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, which will appear this spring. So the heroic virtues of martyrs are fresh in my mind. St. Thomas More once said that the times are never so bad that a good man cannot live well in them. He proved it by his death.

We need to remember that since the earliest times, Jesus and the apostles warned us that persecution and martyrdom are the natural reaction of a world that hates the light. Heroic resistance to pressure, I believe, will become more and more important for anyone who wants to remain Catholic, even in supposedly tolerant modern states. But we cannot be content with that. The Church's social teaching clearly recommends both that we respect the consciences of others but seek to create a civilization of love.

To take just one concrete example: Abortion is hard to combat because when an unwanted pregnancy occurs, women and girls have already been habituated to the idea that killing the unborn is an easy out. Anyone who has ever tried to counsel someone in those circumstances knows that the whole weight of a self-indulgent culture emerges at that point. Students take off a year to go abroad all the time, but no one has been catechized to believe that it might be heroically humane to spare the life of an unborn child by temporarily delaying education and career.

We need to start much further back to reform the society — first by pointing out that extramarital sex is already inviting murder. But then by creating a world that does not put massive temptation in the way of weak people like ourselves. I wish I could say that at the end of our three-year program we will have achieved that and could then look into reforming the rest of the world. But this will be a long, though not impossible, struggle. Libertine England turned into Victorian England in a short period. We in America might do the same.

Peter Kreeft has talked about uniting Catholics, Protestants and Muslims in what he calls an “ecumenical jihad” against the common enemy of atheistic humanism. But aren't there significant differences between Islam and Catholicism that would make this union more contentious than the current one? In other words, doesn't pluralism inevitably lead to conflict among competing orthodoxies?

With all due respect to Professor Kreeft's great contributions, I do not like using military metaphors like “jihads” or “culture wars” for conflicts in civil society. They may take an ugly turn. That said, I'm certainly in favor of any possible work with whatever group. The problem today is that when America was founded, it had a sense that a commitment to virtue has to undergird a self-governing people. Some elements of those of this commitment exist in Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism — the Dalai Lama has recently become a forceful proponent of good political principles, for instance. But there are also some difficult issues: Islamic Sharia law seems to me incompatible with democracy, though some Muslims I know think there are different lessons to be drawn from the Koran. We are only at the start of this global dialogue of religion that the present Holy Father has been encouraging.

What other sorts of projects will the Institute be conducting in the future?

My colleagues and I will spend a lot of time on our program on Catholicism and the American Public Square. But we will also be continuing work, if our funding support allows, on science and the environment, law, education and the environment.

I hope that my next book will be a kind of updating of Christopher Dawson's work on the centrality of religion to Western culture. Dawson was a giant, but I have the impression that most people, even Catholics, can no longer read him. They are just not adequately prepared. I'll try to make this material more accessible without dumbing it down.

Within our broad cultural reach, we're also planning on preparing materials to help colleges and universities, schools, and parishes to teach the faith in a way that engages our situation. We'll also be dealing with some policy issues. But many policy issues today cannot be resolved without shifting the culture to a higher, better place. That's where we will focus the greatest part of FRI's energy.