Thomas Pfau has created a brand new narrative, not a scholarly book. In the best Christian traditio renovanda (renewing tradition), Pfau’s narrative is an ambitious project to delve into the most loathsome and putrid foundations of modernity and its development. At the same time, Minding the Modern reconstructs an ideal alternative world-to-come based on solid Thomistic solutions. The “road not taken” by the West, which is dooming its own present and its future, appears at its best.
Pfau never portrays modernity as being specifically loathsome and putrid. Instead, he describes modernity as a “catastrophe,” a “shipwreck,” “discontinuous,” “dystopic,” “a failure to remember,” “traumatic,” etc. It is clear from the beginning of the book that Pfau is neither supportive of, nor sympathetic to, modernity. His narrative is not intended to provide a neutral, objective, and academic understanding of modernity, but rather a demolishing and biased critique of it; yet another one from a decidedly Catholic perspective.
What would distinguish a nineteenth-century Catholic apologetic’s work from Pfau’s Minding the Modern? Those written by my fellow Spaniards Jaime Balmes, Juan Donoso, and Antonio Claret would not have been that different, neither in their style, nor their goals. Pfau prefers, however, to reconnect with another, more acceptable, and apparently less contentious Catholic intellectual tradition, especially in its use of authors who were not Catholic. This is the reason he bases his study on a peculiar selection of authors, both modern and “non-modern.” Using Pfau’s Thomistic jargon, let us call this Catholic intellectual tradition “Pfau’s catena aurea” (golden chain).
A golden chain links Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Brad Gregory to Thomas Pfau. In this purported genealogy—as many have pointed out—a new generation of anti-modern Catholics is arising to remember how devastating modernity has been for humanity, and notably the West and its religion. (I shall return to Pfau’s idea of religion.) In Pfau’s vast, encyclopedic narrative of Minding the Modern, this short, twentieth-century intellectual genealogy could certainly appear too restrictive. Pfau needs a better, classical figure as central reference. In this sense, Thomas Aquinas emerges as the central landmark, the alleged patriarch of Catholic anti-modern intelligentsia.
Yet, the catena aurea remains incomplete. From Thomas Aquinas, Pfau jumps to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Henry Newman. Both were Anglican and Romantic. Newman redeemed himself by converting to Catholicism. Coleridge and Newman are the authors that would hypothetically have dominated Pfau’s scholarly study if he had been fully honest with his readers. I speculate that Pfau planned Minding the Modern as an exhaustive and original study of Coleridge’s thought, with a secondary focus on Newman. But the result is not a study of Coleridge and Newman; it is much more ambitious than that, perhaps explaining why between Aquinas and Coleridge, and between Coleridge and MacIntyre, an inexplicable void silences crucial Catholic voices.
I am not very worried about the attacks against modernity, but I am suspicious of these silences. Where are the missing parts of the Catholic catena aurea? Where are the School of Salamanca, Francisco Suárez, John of Saint Thomas, the Tridentine fathers, the Catholic Enlightenment, and Blaise Pascal? Even more, where are Gianbattista Vico, Cesare Cantù, Juan Donoso, Louis de Bonald, Joseph de Maistre, François-René de Chateaubriand, Félicité de Lamennais, Prosper Guéranger, Félix Dupanloup, and Charles de Montalembert? If your field of study is Romanticism, why would you omit such powerful Catholic and Romantic voices from Europe? These Catholic authors are extraordinarily important in their critique of a specific version of modernity. They are also hugely influential in shaping modern Catholicism, to the extent of defining the canon for Catholic apologists against—to put the proper name on it—liberal modernity. Perhaps these old Catholic friends may have complicated Pfau’s narrative.
Nineteenth-century Catholic European intellectuals are an important challenge to Pfau’s narrow explanation of modernity and Catholicism. It becomes not only a philosophical problem, but a theological one, with significant Catholic magisterial implications. Pfau clearly shows his disgust for “the hardening line of the Catholic magisterium, particularly during the later years of Pius IX’s papacy.” As I claim in my forthcoming book on the constitution of Catholic modernity in the nineteenth century, Pius IX embodied an alternative understanding of the modern, based on the theoretical foundations of Latin European Catholic intellectuals—the real, but underrepresented in scholarship—kernel of the Catholic Church. Upon revisiting the figure of Pius IX, this pope appears as the perplexing culmination of the modern from a conservative, religiously orthodox point of view. In Pfau’s case, this “hardening line” calls into question his own theories and his philosophical system. Nineteenth-century Catholic philosophy embraced an alternative, full-fledged modernity; it did not entrench itself against the whole notion of the modern. This Catholic revival was able to adopt and adapt modern thought into Catholicism. From Donoso to Dupanloup, efforts supporting this new form of Catholicism spread all over Europe.
Thus, what Christopher Clark calls “New Catholicism” emerges as the original conservative, orthodox path to modernity. The Catholic struggle was against liberal modernity, not modernity itself. For Pfau, the “hardening line” is not only an embarrassing, militant counter-example, but a problematic philosophical milieu. Perhaps the theoretical assumptions of Catholic Romantics, or the so-called philosophical traditionalism, had little to do with a critical understanding of modernity as a whole. Catholic intelligentsia shared fundamental premises with their liberal rivals. Firstly, they were expecting to thoroughly transform the unpleasant, liberal modernity they hated. Secondly, they were confident of winning the war against their liberal, even secular, enemies.
Twentieth-century Catholicism was rather different. After Leo XIII, Neo-Thomism became fashionable, and new Catholic voices from this new philosophical tradition elaborated a theoretical system in which the modern—even its conservative version—was gradually criticized and condemned. Nonetheless, the intellectual debate was dynamic, sincere, and open, and Catholicism was able to offer the world its most vigorous and positive face with Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, and Romano Guardini. This list could even be expanded to thinkers implicitly or explicitly modernist—suspected to have heretical points of view—such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Karl Rahner. An important exception to this complex portrait would be Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, prince of the Thomists, who still adhered to the nineteenth-century Catholic modernity, with a robust mystical tone.
Pfau is unwilling to compromise his critique of modernity in the light of his own Catholic tradition. He needs to be clearly opposed to everything developed under the sign of the modern. There is no compromise, and dialogue with modernity. In his quest for a wholly antithetic philosophical system, Pfau paradoxically reproduces the intolerant building process of nineteenth-century Catholic modernity. The worst enemy for Vatican II Catholicism becomes the best role model for Pfau. The struggle against modernity justifies Pfau’s lack of dialogue with the other. Pfau makes few concessions to philosophical views outside Thomistic dogma for the sake of “responsible knowledge,” a fancy concept that encompasses ethics, human agency and political theology.
Theology and politics are not missing from this book, but they are entrenched within abstruse philosophical questions. In the end, modernity represents catastrophe, the end of the rule of Good, of Beauty, and of God.
Coleridge is the political voice hidden beneath Minding the Modern’s philosophical narrative. Pfau ascribes his own political ideas to Coleridge as well as to Newman. For example, through Coleridge, Pfau can passionately defend that societies defined by classical liberalism, personal rights, and foundational elements of liberal democracies have “lost sight of reason.” This particular critique is wisely disguised with philosophical reasoning. It powerfully demonstrates how Pfau’s political ideas permeate his narrative.
The issues mentioned above turn out to be unimportant when one realizes that the notion of vera religio (true religion) penetrates every page of Minding the Modern. Single-minded Catholicism is the true challenge of the book. In Pfau’s thought, Catholicism-Christendom-Christianity is the vera religio. There is no other god than God—you know which one—and Thomas Aquinas is his philosophical prophet. Say goodbye to the Judeo-Christian faith, to the shared Scripture. Aquinas is the sole disciple of Aristotle, and there is no room for other disciples. Forget Averroës. Forget Maimonides. Christianity, defined under the unquestionable superiority of Catholic dogma, is religion and philosophy. Patristics demonstrates that Platonic-Christians were the real humanists. What is left for Judaism? Pfau dares to Christianize Martin Buber’s I and Thou, with the help of Coleridge and Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). According to Pfau, Buber’s personhood is not original, because Christians created that idea before him. Even Jewish mysticism has to be somewhat connected to Christianity. Jewish tradition, thought, and mysticism are reduced by Pfau to a mere Christian complement. What Pfau advances in his failed comparative framework would be worth exploring within sound, non-sectarian, objective scholarship.
Do not lose sight of reason. Catholics, and Christians in general, are not the anti-modern portrait imagined by Pfau. Political theology needs to be properly identified in honest intellectual debates, in the framework of religious-secular separation. Christianity is not religion, but a religion. The Christian question deserves better, genuine scholarship.