Mr. (Robert) Royal Goes to Thomas More College

Scholar and author holds inaugural St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies.

The seminar Robert Royal is teaching this semester is timely, discussing apocalyptic novels in light of current events. Junior Bridget Ruffing listens in the foreground.
The seminar Robert Royal is teaching this semester is timely, discussing apocalyptic novels in light of current events. Junior Bridget Ruffing listens in the foreground. (photo: Courtesy of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts)

A “much-needed Catholic voice for our times” is now at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, having accepted its inaugural St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies. 

So says William Fahey, Thomas More’s president, of Robert Royal, founder of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., editor of the daily online The Catholic Thing, and a commentator with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s “The Papal Posse.” Royal, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from The Catholic University of America, is also an accomplished author. His latest book is Columbus and the Crisis of the West.

Royal was the logical, obvious choice because he “knows that college well, and we know him,” Fahey told the Register. “He is an informed supporter of our mission. He has led an exemplary life as a Catholic public intellectual. We knew that Robert would be a great figure to lead the program in its first year.” 

 

Timely and Timeless

Royal is teaching a semester-long course to upperclassmen called “Apocalypses, Plagues, Utopias and Dystopias.”

A longtime friend of the college, Royal was especially delighted to be the first to hold this St. John Henry Newman Chair. As a longtime admirer of both St. John Henry Newman and St. Thomas More, he has tried to pattern his own life after them.

“Both of these saints are models of faith and reason,” Royal told the Register, explaining his affinity for these holy heroes, which stretches back at least to his founding the Faith & Reason Institute. “There is neither an abundance of faith or reason in Washington, and I knew they were both growth industries. I would never go out of business,” he joked of his institutional pursuit.

Royal said what he loves about Newman and More “is the depth of their faith, which is remarkable, of course. But it’s a faith that does not deny reason, but affirms reason as a gift from God. God intends us to use reason — but reason to recognize its own limit. And that is what distinguishes both of them. At the same time faith gives something beyond what the human mind can reach. It was singular for More in his day and for Newman.”

Reading one sermon of Newman’s every morning, Royal said, “I  find him such an illuminating figure.” He added that it “just so happened that Fahey was thinking through both these names to apply to the chair. It just clicked when he asked me.”

The idea for Royal’s tutorial for upperclassmen came to him due to current events, as “the riots and the disorder, the virus, the racial problems, hurricanes seemed to be breaking out at once.”

“It struck me: We should look at what Scripture teaches about the end times,” he told the Register. “The very last book of Scripture is the Apocalypse. Although it ends well, there’s a lot of bad stuff that happened before the end of the world.” The course continues to trace out those themes in some more modern works, including Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, Ellison’s Invisible Man, More’s Utopia, Bacon’s New Atlantis and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, plus several other major works. “They’re all kind of apocalyptic,” Royal explained. Even Shelley’s Frankensteinabout scientific monsters is included because of “the desire to know, but [in a] kind of promethean [way] that produced monsters.”

 

Grounded in God

Royal said the readings are “about different aspects of how the drive toward perfection, utopias, leads to dystopia, especially when we’re not in contact with God.” He points out that Lord of the World is “brilliant, prophetic,” as even in 1907 Benson saw euthanasia and totalitarian materialism presenting themselves.

The Apocalypse is the course’s keystone. As Royal explained, “St. John says, ‘Do not take away from this, or add to it.’ These are the last words of all sacred Scriptures. We need to look at that. It does help you realize our progressive [cultural] vision — that we can establish heaven on earth — is not what the Scriptures see. There’s a lot of turmoil, evil spiritual things counterfeiting the Savior at a time like this, when the world is so unsettled. It’s good to remind that Scripture does not expect it to be any different. We can take comfort in the fact God has told us there would be times like this. Once the students got into this, they took hold of it. The program is on that track.”

He believes this course is part of forming young people who will be able to maintain and defend their faith publicly: “That’s the bigger vision for Thomas More College: the way it presents faith and reason.”

“We Catholics are too intimated by the world,” he believes. “We’ve got the richest cultural, intellectual tradition in the world. There’s nothing like it. It embraces science, literature, history, art, and we think of ourselves as almost sectarians.”

How secularists are confronting Amy Coney Barrett about her faith in light of her recent confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court are a case in point, Royal noted.

“Look at the way they’re trying to portray her [Amy Coney Barrett] as some medieval nut,” he said. “But our Tradition is something that is richer than any other and brings a certain confidence in dealing with the world and certain aspects of it.”

 

Creative Minds

Noting how Benedict XVI said that usually it is creative minorities who determine the future, Royal believes places like Thomas More College are “the creative minorities that move history.”

President Fahey explained to the Register that the endowed St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies was created thanks to a generous donor who wishes to remain anonymous. Its purpose is to provide the college with an opportunity to bring in a variety of scholars in a variety of disciplinary areas, including theology, history and literature.

According to Fahey, the donor made an extensive visit and then gifted this chair afterward. The donor told him: “Two reasons: Many claim to be Catholic; your institution is Catholic; second, and most powerful of all, your students are happy. They truly seem to be interested in life and are happy.”

Royal has seen that from his 20-year-long connection with the college that began when Peter Sampo, the founder, asked him to give a lecture to the students on John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. Since then he has been back a number of times for weeklong Fides et Ratio seminars. From the first, he said, “I really loved the students. They’re faithful, they’re eager, and they’re normal. I always had this warm place in my heart for them. I think they’re well-formed intellectually and humanly well-formed here.”

Students are enjoying the course. Senior Patrick Kuplack told the Register how Royal’s “style of teaching is engaging and enjoyable. He always has profound insights into the work at hand but also allows for student discussion and debate.”

Junior Torrey Culbertson feels honored to have the unique opportunity to work with Royal on her “Junior Project,” too. “Through a happy coincidence, I chose Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World before I even knew we would be reading it in the tutorial,” she said. “Dr. Royal has helped me to explore the things that I am passionate about, things that are happening in the world right now, and look at them through Benson’s eyes.”

Another junior, Bridget Ruffing, thinks Royal’s “visits provide an important insight into what the works we study have to say about the times we live in.” She finds herself greatly benefiting from his extensive experience in American politics and thinks “this knowledge lends itself particularly well to our tutorial, since the books we are considering contemplate the meaning of human liberty and how it might be upheld or abused in a society.”

Ruffing highlights how much his experience in the Church and with the study of literature enriches the course. “He points out literary and scriptural parallels that I never would have noticed on my own. He explores and draws from works from any time period, treating the writings of Camus and Eliot with the same amount of care as those of Dante, all the while finding crucial connections between them.”

Royal, she added, “asks just the right questions to spark conversation and takes great pains to make sure that everyone who has something to say gets a chance to speak. It is a joy to take part in his classes, and I greatly value both his insight and his friendly, open teaching style.”

 

Dynamic Scholarship

The faculty is on the same page. Professor Amy Fahey, wife of President Fahey, leads discussions when Royal — whom she calls an influential Catholic public figure and says is incredibly generous with his time— is not able to be there in person. 

Professor Fahey also finds Royal “a gentleman scholar in the tradition of St. John Henry Newman, a truly gracious teacher who doesn’t enter the classroom with airs or an ideological agenda. … He has such a deep and comprehensive understanding of the work being discussed. He asks the right questions and elicits rich responses.”

She, too, sees the course on target for today’s world. “Plagues, natural disasters, euthanasia, racial tensions, social manipulation, creeping Marxism and totalitarianism — unfortunately, these are not just abstractions for our students. Dr. Royal’s selection of this topic and choice of readings couldn’t be more timely, yet the questions these works pose are perennial ones.”

At the same time, “Like Dante’s Virgil [who leads the poet through the underworld into purgatory and, ultimately, to paradise], Dr. Royal has the wisdom and reason to guide us through these complex and engaging works. But more than that, he possesses a deep and lively faith, and he understands what is really at stake. In the course of our discussion of Benson’s Lord of the World, for instance, a student commented on the widespread martyrdom that accompanies the novel’s climax. ‘One of the things that distinguishes the martyrs from other people,’ Dr. Royal commented, ‘is that they’re willing to die for the truth rather than kill for it.’ One can’t take notes fast enough to record all of his profound insights.”

Professor Fahey knows students will come away better equipped to understand and articulate the perpetual struggle between believers and hostile forces in our culture and world. She said Royal reminds the students: “Keep the Apocalypse near at hand when you read these texts. We’re not only dealing with earthly ills, but with principalities and powers.”

This story was updated to correct attribution after posting.

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