In the first of a series of interviews with leading minds, the philosopher Fr Thomas White OP discusses apologetics, the coronavirus and the need for deeper conversations.
Fr Thomas Joseph White OP seems tired. When I Skype-call his office in the Pontifical University of the Angelicum in Rome, I ask how he is finding the lockdown. He pauses. “Well, it’s been going on a long time.” Eight weeks at the time of our conversation.
Fr White, though, has not been clamouring for normal service to resume. One of those people who speaks in fully formed sentences with subordinate clauses, White is generally known for being one of the world’s foremost popularisers of the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, as well as being a theologian of substance in his own right. Until recently, the controversies Fr White was most likely to be involved in were about the extent of Jesus’s human knowledge or whether God can suffer.
Recently however, Fr White joined the debate over Covid-19 lockdown measures with an article for First Things defending the decision made by many Catholic bishops to suspend public masses – an article that sharply disagreed with the journal’s editor, RR Reno. He’s received a lot of responses. In our conversation, White is consistently charitable, giving different perspectives their due and making clear that it is important to have a “rich political debate” about the measures taken to address the virus. In a second article for First Things, he wrote that the Church should resist pressure from public officials to “maintain closure for excessively prolonged periods”. But I detect a certain frustration with some of his interlocutors. What’s driving it?
“There is a way,” he says, “of ignoring the current moment in its gravity, both in terms of health and economics, by changing the subject to previously existing topics – of public rivalries or ecclesiastical divisions. And in this context, that has the likelihood of intensifying and exacerbating those divisions for no obvious productive reason.”
He pauses. “It seems to me that that is not the appropriate Christian response when in fact what we are facing is a situation in which many vulnerable people are dying, many people are ill, many people are unemployed and economically compromised.”
He’s also keen to rebut narratives that cast the Church’s response to the virus as weak or timid. “I’ve heard of priests in a very busy parish in California with 4,000 families, where the pastor divided up the telephone listing of every family and the priests are now going through the roster and calling and speaking to every family individually, something they’ve never done before.” The Salesians in India, he tells me, have opened up their parishes and schools as food pantries and are feeding thousands.
White acknowledges that people are right to be frustrated about the lack of access to their loved ones and to the sacraments. “But I think we have to avoid the misguided notion that this is easy for the clergy and that they enjoy this time as a kind of vacation – because that’s quite the opposite of how we feel.”
Is the Church doing enough? “We know that the answer is no because we’re never going to be doing enough to be adequate to the calling of Christ. But a lot is being done in many different ways.”
The COVID controversy might seem different from the sort of thing Fr White is normally involved in. Now lecturing at the Angelicum and acting as director of the theological university’s Thomistic Institute, he previously held the same position in another Thomistic Institute based in Washington DC, which he wryly tells me is “juridically completely separate”. Both exist to promote the study of Thomism and bring it into dialogue with modern philosophy and the sciences. The DC institute particularly focuses on forming links with college campuses, and making talks on Thomistic philosophy and theology available online. Whatever the debate may be, it’s just following the truth where it leads.
Doing that is what led him into the Church in the first place. Born in Georgia state to a Jewish father and Presbyterian mother, he grew up a “sort of generic theist”. As he tells his conversion story in Mind, Heart, and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome, Prof Robert George’s anthology of intellectual converts, he became a Christian after devouring Karl Barth’s Introduction to Evangelical Theology in one sitting under the “atrocious fluorescent lights” of the science library.
He became a Catholic after reading Flannery O’Connor, Joseph Ratzinger, and the Church Fathers, and then feeling as though he had discovered his “tribe” after going on a retreat with English and Scottish Benedictine monks whose “intellectual acumen” and commitment to prayer and work impressed him. He joined the Dominicans after reading theology at Oxford.
His was very much an intellectual conversion of the old school, one in which a growing intellectual curiosity about fundamental questions was the major force pulling him towards the Church. Elsewhere, he’s written that the evangelical work of the Catholic intellectual must start with stimulating this same curiosity.
I find myself wondering about this. He ends his First Things piece on the virus by saying that “the life of the heart is as real as the life of the mind”, but in his work he mostly emphasises the latter. Is there a danger of an excessive intellectualism, of adopting an evangelical strategy that will only work on some people? The University of Chicago philosophy professor Candace Vogler credits him with playing a key role in her conversion to Catholicism. But will an approach so centred on intellectual curiosity work for most people – will intellectuals be the ones to save the world?
In response to my questions, White rejects the idea that interest in ultimate questions, in the meaning of life and the existence of God, is something reserved for the few. The path to giving your heart to Christ requires the involvement of your mind. Without a sense of wonder and curiosity it’s very easy to become trapped in what White calls the “immanentism” of the modern world, a way of seeing reality which shuts out anything, supernatural, transcendent or divine. The life of the heart and of the mind are inextricably linked.
“The immanentism of the intellect is a kind of secular mentality that refuses to allow questions of transcendence to arise. A philosopher friend of mine calls it the ‘gentlemen’s agreement in philosophy departments to not talk about God in polite academic company’.” He’s leaning forward now, the earlier sense of tiredness diminished. “I think there’s a kind of gentlemen’s agreement in the larger secular culture not to allow ourselves to be publicly vulnerable to or motivated by religious questions.” This immanentism of the intellect can act as a barrier to having your heart moved towards faith.
At Brown University, Fr White was struck by just how incurious most of his peers – supposedly among the most inquisitive people in the country – were about the deepest questions. That chimes with my own experience: at university, it often seemed vaguely gauche to bring up anything too existential or fundamental.
That intellectual incuriosity is bolstered in its turn, White thinks, by the “the immanentism of the heart. That’s a kind of strategy for happiness that seeks to find the good or to enjoy human flourishing only within a domain of the world of tangible inter-human realities.” In its more noble forms, that can be an excessive focus on something fundamentally good like the family, or the pursuit of political justice, “but often it’s a far less noble kind of individualism. Hyper-consumerism, sexuality, and really just diversion, a culture of what Pascal would call spiritual diversions.”
These create a sort of shallow contentment that blunts curiosity, and ultimately means that “our hearts are not open to discovering a deeper and perhaps more difficult but ultimately more enriching relationship with God.”
That’s why, he thinks, the mind and heart can’t be neatly separated. On the one hand, “Catholics can’t simply say the truths. They have to pursue both the life of union with God and charity towards others in truth as a way to incarnate or realise that life of the heart, open to transcendence, in the public square.” On the other, trying to reach people without having some kind of grounding in “the deep philosophical, theological and historical culture” of Catholicism can make the faith seem shallow and irrelevant – and often leads to it being defined in opposition to the prevailing culture.
But don’t some of these battles have to be fought? What about his own intervention on the virus? Here he gives a longer pause.
“So let me say first: I’m not saying that people shouldn’t defend the Church, which is the real meaning of apologetics, nor am I saying that they should be apolitical. But what I am saying is that the Christian intellectual life is not constituted first and foremost by having a set of apologetic arguments for whatever the culture at the time perceives to be the difficult teachings of the Church.
“Similarly, if you reduce Christianity to a set of policy positions that are in keeping with the natural law as taught by the Church, but you don’t actually explain the deeper foundations … then often it looks as if you’re simply conducting an exercise in political special pleading for a party or a movement that one identifies with.”
Is he saying that apologetics and politics, if approached in the wrong way, can sometimes themselves act as examples of the “immanence of the heart”: dedications to good causes that can nonetheless act as distractions from growing in our faith?
Catholics, he acknowledges, do need to be cautious about “overly engaging in the immediacy that the media-driven culture of political debate and apologetics provides.” If he had to give advice, he’d say “step back sometimes from the Twitter feed [and] into the library, and the inner cell of reflection and prayer”. And seek out “deeper conversation that can’t immediately be channelled into an electronic output, but that is maintained as a community of friends seeking the truth together”.
That, he says animatedly, will make those public interventions that we make much more likely to lead people towards the truth.
I wonder if Fr White thinks that the virus could represent a turning point for the Church in the rich, Western world. I ask if he shares my sense that we’re waiting for something big to change. If I look at the action of God in the lives of my friends, I see people converting, praying more, getting closer to God. Things look good. But if you look at the wider picture, you still see a Church which, at least in Europe and America, is shrinking every year.
He gives me some “highly speculative” reasons to think it could go either way. People could be more willing to ask the ultimate questions after a crisis which exposed the limitations of the current liberal-capitalist world order – or the increased role of the nation state in the pandemic could give birth to a nationalism that becomes “a kind of surrogate for religious meaning.” He smiles. “But really we don’t know! We’re not masters of history. That’s one of the first things we’re learning right now. We’re very little in control of our own personal lives and collectively we’re very little in control of the future shape of history. We are protagonists within an ongoing drama or narrative, and we are not the authors.”
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