I undertook this assignment and so begin these remarks with the understanding that Catholics might also be Americans, and that they might also be political philosophers in a certain sense, or, at the least, be serious students of political philosophy. I am aware that there are strains of opinion that doubt one or both of these linkages. To speak very broadly and summarily, Ernest Fortin's writings in no way indicate that he is such a doubter. Rather, a primary thrust of his teaching is on behalf of an education of American Catholics that emphasizes learning in political philosophy, from the ancients to the moderns, and that leaves Catholics with open eyes and critical minds respecting the current state of the affairs. One finds in those writings a concern that Catholics might simply slip into being Americans, Americans in a thoroughly contemporary sense, and thus a richly nourishing heritage of faith and learning would be lost or notably compromised. One also finds and this is the dominant refrain in his words for Catholics a perception of a Catholic intellectual and pastoral tradition that has come to be, over the last century or so, much in need of political wisdom, and that could stand to benefit immensely from the renewal of political philosophy that started in America in the mid-twentieth century primarily in the teaching and writings of Leo Strauss.
And that brings us to what is sometimes whispered about, here and there, in Catholic and other circles that Father Fortin is more a Straussian than a Catholic, more a political philosopher than a theologian or that he is perhaps confused in seemingly trying to hover between theologian and man of faith on the one side and zetetic skeptic and man of classical political philosophy on the other, or that in some sense esotericism is at work here in ways that leave at least adherents of Revelation suspicious and concerned. Father Fortin at one point commented on the "coolness" in Christian circles to "Strauss's pioneering work," based in part on "the cultivated ambiguity of Strauss's stance and posture in regard to revealed religion" but also affected by the fact that Strauss has offered no thematic treatment of Christianity or extended commentary on any "unmistakably" Christian author.1 Yet there is in the record of Fortin's own work an unambiguous and profound debt to Strauss and much evidence of Strauss's influence on his understanding of philosophy, Western intellectual history, and more.
So it is not unreasonable in this serious tribute to the teachings of a man who never disappoints in wit and delightful irony that we allow ourselves a plausible reverie. With a debt to St. Jerome's famed dream in which he upon approaching Paradise appears to be confronted with the question, "Are you, Jerome, a Ciceronian or a Christian? more a follower of Cicero than a follower of Christ?",2 friends and some not so friendly can see Father Fortin confronted by St. Peter at the gates of Paradise with the question "Are you a Straussian or a Christian? a follower of Leo Strauss or of Christ?" This much of Ernest Fortin's response to Peter cannot be doubted: he would thank Peter for a very good question and specifically commend him for posing the alternatives so starkly, Straussian (let us say, Socratic skeptic) or Christian. He would ask Peter if the sharp and mutually exclusive posing of the alternatives was due to his reading Leo Strauss.
As the title of this panel, with its focus on Reason and Revelation, could be taken to suggest, the relative standing and relationship of these two ultimate sources for the direction of human life, is the major theme of Fortin's work, and it has received appropriate as well as searching and critical attention by a number of his excellent students and in the published comments of other scholarly friends. I refer to the Forwards by his students to two of the three volumes of his collected essays, to substantial essays on his work, and to the various comments on Father Fortin's teaching spread throughout the recently published festschrift in his honor.3 What if anything might be added to serious and good treatments of that theme is hard to see, but perhaps a certain initial reserve and simple fidelity to the task at hand will bring this little inquiry to a point where useful comment might be made on Father Fortin's stance with respect to the fundamental alternatives of reason or Revelation.
Before deferring direct comment on the fundamental question, a word of explanation is necessary on why that question is brought forward and given prominence in this inquiry into Father Fortin's teaching for Catholics. What is clearly very interesting, if not most interesting, for the thoughtful Catholic, and indeed for the thoughtful person of religious faith, is the fundamental choice. Put in the terms of this effort to state Father Fortin's teaching for Catholics, the ineluctable and most compelling question is why be a Catholic at all? Does Father Fortin explain his own fundamental stance, appreciative as he is of Leo Strauss's insistent caveat that one cannot be both a theologian and philosopher? The choice is, in a certain sense, reason or Revelation. And following Strauss in this, Father Fortin writes that the "tension between the two most noble guides to life that human consciousness at its highest level has brought to light is not necessarily something to be lamented. It can be fruitful as long as one knows how to live it, or as long as philosophy remains open to theology and theology to philosophy"(I, 245). In the light of his Catholicism, what does this actually mean for Father Fortin? What then does Father Fortin teach Catholics by his own basic positioning in the encounter of faith and reason?
These questions press to the very center, to, perhaps, obscure foundations or dizzying heights. Let us, following an oft-commended method, proceed from the surface, from what is most evident and, as it happens, what is most immediate, breaking frequently into the news of the day in the last generation or two. Let us proceed by listening to Father Fortin teaching Catholics with respect to the Catholic Church's engagement of politics in the present and recent past, and then follow, as his thought will lead us, to what direction he seems to give to the scholarship and higher education of Catholics.
The Catholic Church and Salient Issues of Modern Politics
Father Fortin begins a 1988 essay, titled "The Trouble with Catholic Social Thought," by taking note of what he describes as the Catholic Church's "unprecedented involvement in problems of a directly political nature"(III, 303). Note should be taken of his word "unprecedented" and his word "directly." Father Fortin has most immediately in mind the then "widely publicized" pastoral letters from the American bishops on nuclear warfare and the economy, letters on which he has written separate essays. However, one who reads widely in his work would see that he, just as most of the champions of these letters and the development in the Church they reflect, traces the Church's current and extensive engagement of politics through the documents of the Second Vatican Council and back through a line of what is known as the "social encyclicals" to Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum of 1891. Writing on this encyclical during the early 1990s and the various centenary celebrations of the encyclical, Father Fortin described it as marking a "spectacular reentry of the Church" into the political arena (III, 196). Note should be taken of the term "reentry," for it is now possible to grasp the outline of the large background picture Fortin offers thoughtful Catholics and others about the Church's heavy and "unprecedented" engagement with politics in our time. The Church had apparently been attentive to the political dimension at some point earlier but clearly in a different way from what is widely now in evidence. In Fortin's words, the Church came to be excluded as "a major player" in the political realm "by the great intellectual and political events of the Enlightenment and its aftermath." The exclusion plus other obstacles that confronted nineteenth century Catholicism left the Church relatively impoverished in philosophical resources to re-engage the realm of politics and much too disposed to try to win acceptance in the modern liberal and natural rights climate.
The effort to speak to the issues of politics without proper resources produces, at the very least, tensions and ambiguities in authoritative Catholic teaching. Father Fortin highlights and carefully probes these with his great learning and with respect. Traditional Catholic teaching is increasingly attenuated by or complicated with the language of natural rights, including at one point a seemingly absolute property right, and later with strains of Marxism. Themes emphasizing social and political change and even the "sovereign individual" appear more and more in the work of Catholic theologians and in Church documents and drive the "social justice" movement in Catholic and other Christian circles. Father Fortin sees the teaching of the bishops at times as grounded "in a bifurcated anthropology" that "combines traditional Christian doctrine with ideas that once were and may still be fundamentally antithetical to it" (III, 304), and that this "latent bifocalism . . . puts it at odds with itself and thereby weakens it to a considerable extent." A Church ever more politicized on the basis of confused notions of human nature and the political realm is threatened with losing its transcendent character and responsibility, with neglecting the good of the soul in favor of an emphasis on security and freedom, with failing to respect the distinction between moral principles and specific policies and with unduly constraining the proper sphere of prudence in political affairs. Christian faith is no assurance of political wisdom. On one occasion, Father Fortin reminds a putative Christian critic of Strauss that "the freedom that Christ promises when he tells us that the truth will make us free is not primarily freedom from error, which is what the philosopher seeks, but freedom from sin" (II, 325).
On that Pauline and classic Lutheran note of Christian freedom, allow me a necessary clarification about the terms Catholic and Christian as they enter these remarks and the work of Fortin. In the critique of Catholic social teaching and the handling of related issues, quite understandably he writes regularly of Catholic "Church documents," "Catholic theology," "Catholic scholars," and "Catholic ethicists." There is evidence of his awareness of a similar loss of transcendent emphasis and of a poorly informed and overly done politicization in Protestant Christianity, and there is a sense, for reasons not spelled out, that Protestant Christianity overall has passed further along the road on which he fears Catholic Christianity may be headed. Overall and preponderantly so in his writings, Father Fortin uses the terms Christianity and Christians in discussing the relation of politics and faith as well as the relation of philosophy and faith. This too is understandable insofar as he takes his bearings from the Bible, the early Church fathers and the great Christian classics, namely the work of Augustine, Aquinas and Dante, that engaged and incorporated political philosophy, all manifestations of Christian Revelation and Christian thought that preceded the fissures of the Christian Church in the Reformation.
That having been said, it is important to notice what is a very significant aspect of Father Fortin's teaching to Catholics, and one that is especially applicable to Catholics with structures of authority in a hierarchical church. Beyond, or perhaps better, between the lines, as it were, of his teaching to his primary audience of bishops and thoughtful Catholics about their need for political wisdom, for the fruits, if not the activity, of political philosophy, is his teaching by his own example, instructed apparently by the teaching of Aquinas, of how a learned and thoughtful Catholic might raise questions and, in a sense, argue with and publicly counsel the teaching authorities of the Church. It would be mere academic praise to observe that Father Fortin's careful, learned and probing readings of pastoral documents are exemplary as critical, fair-minded readings. More than this is in evidence: he brings a deep and explicit appreciation to the difficulties the papacy and bishops face in applying the Gospel to the moral and political circumstances of the modern world. Despite Fortin's emphasis on Christianity not having a political doctrine or explicit political teaching, he acknowledges that it does bear on the moral issues of human life, now as ever, and that responsible pastors cannot avoid giving counsel and direction on how it bears. Even as he makes his gentle but significant critiques of various pastoral documents, Fortin interprets charitably while not obscuring theoretical clarity and intellectual responsibility, and he quite invariably enumerates positive features of the specific document under consideration.
Let us capture this approach and tone as well as the range of Fortin's concern with the moral and political disarray of modern society by noting some of his observations on Rerum Novarum. He credits Leo XIII and those who assisted him with the laudable intent of aiding Catholics "to develop attitudes that were appropriate to living in the modern world," without capitulating to modernity (III, 209). Father Fortin adds, "After all, there was much to be said for liberal or constitutional democracy, which, of the two viable alternatives" then on the scene, is the one that came closer "to what Christianity had always recommended." Earlier in the same essay he praised the encyclical for never forgetting that those two alternatives, liberalism and socialism, "have much in common, grounded as they are in a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human existence," sharing "the same animosity toward pre-modern thought, the same obsession with economic factors, the same 'scientific' or non teleological conception of the universe, . . ." (III, 195). He welcomes the encyclical's "bold" attack on "the modern view of life" and especially welcomes that it is not done "in a spirit of romantic sentimentality or Traditionalist conservatism." Enumerating what the encyclical stresses, Fortin singles out man's natural sociality, the defense of private property that is to be used for the good of all, fair prices and just wages, the rejection of Marxist class conflict, the importance of decent working conditions for laborers, mindfulness of "special obligations" toward the "'lowly and destitute,'" the encouragement of private trade unions whose goals are consistent with the larger society, the importance of the family and human dignity, respect for religion and a call "for the moral regeneration of society through the cultivation of virtue and the pursuit of the common good." In a "nutshell," adds Fortin, "what the encyclical calls for is nothing short of a wholesale return to a premodern and, by and large, Thomistic understanding of the nature and goals of civil society, . . . ."
We see in these remarks but a sampling of what this most learned and likely most noted Catholic critic of the Catholic social teaching of recent times appreciated in that teaching. Though that appreciation was especially strong in the case of Rerum Novarum, it is reflective of how he approaches the questioning, critical remarks which he senses an obligation to provide in this and other instances. The model for him could well be Thomas Aquinas, whom Fortin on at least two different occasions (III, 65, II, 367-68) calls upon as an advocate of "not only the right but the duty to criticize an ecclesiastical superior, as long as he does so with internal respect, external deference, and discretion." In that spirit, Father Fortin sought to bring to bear on recent Catholic social teaching and on the Church's future mission in this sphere the understanding he derived both from the study of premodern Christian classics like the works of Augustine and from his study of and with Leo Strauss. He exemplified then, in another sense, Thomas Aquinas in that he reached outside of the Catholic/Christian tradition in order to renew and strengthen that tradition and to enlarge its capacities to be true to its mission in the modern world. His questions and critiques of Catholic social thought are a small by-product of what seems to be his larger task, that is the renewal of Catholic intellectual life and Catholic higher education.
A "New Flowering of Christian Political Wisdom"
Nothing is emphasized more in Father Fortin's writings than the "apolitical," or to use the term he comes to prefer, the "transpolitical" character of the Christian religion (e.g. II, 113, III, 3ff., 263). The Christian difference, in one important sense, from the other religions of the Book is found in its "transpolitical" character (II, 154); its Scripture and early spirit do not show it to be a religion of laws, giving quite direct guidance on how to live in the world. Father Fortin sees most early heresies as challenges to this transpolitical character of Christianity. This dimension of Christianity means that Christian truth and political power will ever be at odds (II, 131). In emphasizing a transpolitical solution to the problems of human society, Christianity is akin to classical philosophy (II, 27). Two important strands of Father Fortin's thinking come together in his incisive observation "that the philosopher is the man who comes closest to Christianity and at the same time the one who remains furthest away from it" (II, 18).
Early Christian thinkers, by definition theologians and most notably St. Augustine, the founder of Christian political theology and the most formative source for Fortin, are fully aware of Christianity's transpolitical character and therefore of Christianity's neediness with respect to political understanding and political guidance. Like Augustine and in various forms, better and worse, Christian thinkers through the Middle Ages and Renaissance turn to classical philosophy and specifically to classical political philosophy and to the teachings of Plato and Aristotle in the effort to fill the lack in Christianity, to work out a synthesis with the political wisdom of these sources and Christianity's transpolitical orientation (e.g. III, 238, 240 and 269).
It is this earlier rich engagement of Christianity with classical political wisdom that Father Fortin seeks to restore to importance in Catholic scholarship and in Catholic universities. He seeks to check and reverse the past century's drift of Catholic theology away from its ties to classical philosophy (II, 288). Catholic scholars and leaders can only bear their present responsibilities well if they "go to school" to those who have a sound understanding of modernity and the challenge modern science poses to Catholicism (III, 71, 107-08), and if they benefit from insights in how to read classical texts. This is above all to go to school, as Ernest Fortin did, to the teaching and work of Leo Strauss. Strauss contributed decisively to Father Fortin's understanding of the Catholic tradition's struggle with modernity and of the forms of various self-defeating compromises with modernity. Strauss not only pointed back to pre-modernity where Fortin's initial scholarly interests were anchored, but he also specifically highlighted the importance of political philosophy as the central and especially fruitful dimension of classical philosophy, an emphasis that was new to Fortin. Strauss equipped Father Fortin with new capacities for careful reading, sensitive to esoteric dimensions, and thus prepared him for his major interpretive work on Augustine, Aquinas and Dante. Fortin then did the work on Christian classics that was not publicly and explicitly part of Strauss's own range.
Fortin's understanding and work almost necessarily brought him to envision universities where the Socratic question would be central (III, 59), and Catholic universities where the renewal of classical philosophy and thus a better understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition would have a central place and where this key endeavor would be critically assisted by the best scholarship and educators (III, 55-56, 62) of the time, exemplified in Leo Strauss and those he has significantly influenced. This would be the basis for "a new flowering of Christian political wisdom"4 and that in turn the basis for what Brian Benestad has called "new approaches to Christian social ethics and activism" (III, x).
Father Fortin is sometimes criticized for being what one might call hard-edged and uncompromising in his opposition to modernity and natural rights approaches;5 some would say this is where he imbibed too much of Strauss; others say that he goes beyond Strauss in such resistance. In Catholic circles he is apt to be particularly faulted for not appreciating a "living" tradition's need to develop and adapt. Such criticisms would best be fully examined in other contexts and papers and surely in the university Fortin envisions. This at least must be said now. Careful attention to his words, as well as to his life and range of concerns, indicates not unyielding opposition to all dimensions of modernity or to new formulations and applications of pre-modern teachings that may be efficacious in the present situation. It is for him a question of balance and thoroughness on these matters. His emphasis is where the greatest need is. It is the time to hear what is "untimely." To those emphasizing the importance of developing the teaching of the pre-modern Church, Father Fortin writes, "The decisive question . . . is not whether there are changes to be made but whether the proposed changes are compatible with the principles underlying the basic teaching"(III, 229). To those exhorting us to join the choruses cheering modern democracy and the rights doctrine that informs it, Father Fortin eloquently pleads, "Christians ought to be as eager to improve [democracy] it as they sometimes are to praise it"(III, 55).
And Yet the Fundamental Question
Not the least of the philosopher Strauss's gifts to Father Fortin the theologian was a powerful defense in the modern context of the life of a theologian. In Fortin's words, "By showing that modern science has not replaced God and that History has not replaced philosophy, or by showing as no one has done in four hundred years that the claims of Reason and Revelation are inherently untouched by modernity, Strauss may have performed as great a service for theology as he has for philosophy" (II, 295). It is as a theologian, as a leading and learned citizen of the Catholic Church, that Father Fortin acts, writes and appears to think. His work is overall framed in the horizon of Christian Revelation, and aptly then the noun has been well-placed when Daniel Mahoney writes of him as a "Straussian theologian"(II, ix), and the order of priority seems right when Timothy Burns writes that Father "Fortin does not merely follow Strauss but consciously subordinates Strauss's work to his own theological purposes" (Foley & Kries, 145). If one were to think otherwise, to think, in other words, that the Straussian philosopher was to be the dominant characterization it would be because such a large part of Fortin's endeavor as a public teacher in the Catholic tradition has been to turn it back to philosophy. There is more emphasis on what philosophy can do for the theologically formed than the other way around. There is also some uneasiness with the very efforts of harmonization or integration of faith and reason which Fortin is expert at explicating. In Augustine, Fortin finds a "transformed" and "defanged" philosophy behind clear efforts to conceal the tensions between reason and Revelation. Fortin portrays an Aquinas who understood the self-sufficient, simply rational power of Aristotle's thought, yet had a faith too strong to take Aristotle seriously, and did not see his own efforts at harmonization as successful as so many subsequent Thomists have. Father Fortin wants to keep vital a sense of philosophy as a way of life that is a rival of theology and not merely her potential handmaid. Yet as we have seen, he welcomes the latter, insisting that "the best tradition of Catholic theology . . . has prized reason and looked upon it as an ally ..."(II, 302). There seems then good reasons for concluding, not that Fortin is more Straussian than Catholic, but that he is, perhaps, more Straussian than Augustinian, more Straussian than Thomistic.
Why then does he stand as Catholic theologian, looking across the divide, as it were, with docile admiration at Strauss? As others, and notably Mark Guerra have noted, there is a reticence in his work about his Christian commitment; the distinctively Christian elements are "understated." One can, as Guerra does, see this as the mark of "a serious, thoughtful Christian," reserved about explicit public proclamations of his faith in a way rarely seen in our times (Guerra, 262-63). Implicit in this sensible explanation is an acknowledgment of Fortin's respect for the mystery of faith as a gift that transcends man's powers and his ordinary understandings; he writes of Christianity as a "charismatic religion" on one occasion (II, 312).
Father Fortin's writings are not, however, lacking in some observations bearing on the Christian/theological side of the fundamental choice. As to why one would stand on one side of the divide rather than the other, he seems to regard it as a stand-off when one tries to decide solely by theoretical or intellectual considerations; rather, he writes of this choice always being "based at least in part on extratheoretical considerations," and that the truths of theology being "at the same time speculative and practical," knowledge of them "represents the good, not of the mind alone, but of the whole person." They cannot be grasped as "truths" unless one "undergoes a root-and-branch change or a genuine 'conversion'"(I, xii-xiii). Never wanting in the capacity to appreciate the irony of the entire human situation, Father Fortin titles an essay "In Defense of Satan," and therein notes the need for sin. "Revealed religion," he writes, "stands or falls by the notions of sin, guilt, and atonement; . . . "(III, 242). Father Fortin, following Augustine here, finds that pride, "the root cause of all evil," threatens all human endeavor with corruption, and he adds "the remedy is humility, the most fundamental though by no means the highest virtue. Such humility is not synonymous with abjectness and does not entail any lack of dignity or nobility of taste" (III, 249). These comments add to our understanding of Father Fortin's conception of this good of the whole person, what he calls the "salutary and beatifying good" that Christianity, "the religion of love," offers and that seemed at one point to account for all that was good in him (II, 295, 312, Foley & Kries, 290). While reserving judgment on Dante's own Christian faith, Father Fortin finds in the Divine Comedy "the most exquisite testimony" ever given to the "most profound longing of the human soul," a longing that the Christian finds only satisfied in Christianity (I, 265).
It is important to emphasize in concluding that the conception of "the good of the whole person" is not a formula for sacrificing the good of the intellect. The latter is incorporated in the good of the whole person, but for the Catholic tradition that Father Fortin represents it is incorporated in a privileged or elevated position. Father Fortin's turn to Strauss and through Strauss to a renewal of the ties between the Catholic tradition and classical philosophy seems to follow for him on the example of Church Fathers who turned with awareness of "risk," a "noble risk," to classical philosophy. The hope and plan, then and now, was, in Fortin's words about the Fathers, that it would "eventually lead to a better grasp of the Christian faith and of all that a wholehearted commitment to it entails" (II, 294).
1 Ernest L. Fortin, Collected Essays, ed. J. Brian Benestad (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), II, 288. Internal to the text of this paper there are many references to the Collected Essays by volume and page number. href="#footnote1return">(Return)
2 As is traditionally the case, some liberties are taken here with what Jerome literally reports about the dream. See pp. 165-66 in Letter 22 in The Letters of St. Jerome, trans. Charles Christopher Mierow (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1963). href="#footnote2return">(Return)
3 Forewords by Daniel Mahoney and J. Brian Benestad to Volumes II and III respectively of the Collected Essays. J. Brian Benestad, "An Introduction to the Work of Ernest Fortin," Communio 26 (Spring, 1999). Marc D. Guerra, "Living the Theologico-Political Problem: On Ernest Fortin's Essays," Political Science Reviewer 28 (1999). Michael P. Foley and Douglas Kries, eds., Gladly to Learn and Gladly to Teach: Essays on Religion and Political Philosophy in Honor of Ernest L. Fortin (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2002). href="#footnote3return">(Return)
4 The phrase is that of Fredrick Wilhelmsen, and it is embraced by Ernest Fortin at II, 359. href="#footnote4return">(Return)
5 An overall appreciative and probing inquiry along these lines is found in Glenn Tinder's "The Moral Amnesia of Modernity: The Scholarship of Ernest Fortin," Review of Politics 60 (Spring, 1998). href="#footnote5return">(Return)