For some years now there’s been a remarkable surge of interest in religion among European philosophers. We can see this in the raft of new works on St. Paul produced by philosophers who are very far from being orthodox Christians, such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, as well as in Jürgen Habermas’s recent “turn” to religion, including his famous debate in 2004 with the future Pope Benedict XVI. From Michel Foucault’s late interest in medieval confessional practices, to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s exploration of Franciscan spirituality, to the wide-ranging engagement with religious themes on the part of Giorgio Agamben and Jean-Luc Nancy, even the most strenuously secular of philosophers appear to have “found” religion.
This religious turn in European philosophy might seem puzzling, but according to Edward Baring in Converts to the Real, it should not surprise us. That’s because the tradition in which these philosophers work, known as continental philosophy (as opposed to the analytic tradition that dominates in the English-speaking world), was forged in important respects by Catholics in the early decades of the twentieth century. Before that, Baring tells us, European philosophers tended to be siloed in their own national traditions. It was their shared engagement with phenomenology—a careful study of the structures of human experience pioneered by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Max Scheler—that gave birth to a truly continental philosophical tradition. And it did so largely thanks to Catholic philosophers, who transmitted these ideas from their German birthplace to France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, the Iberian Peninsula, and America. In fact, prior to World War II, 40 percent of all books on phenomenology in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch were written by Catholics. With a few notable exceptions, such as Edith Stein and Gabriel Marcel, they were by no means the most famous or most important of phenomenology’s many interlocutors. But Baring argues that these Catholics were nevertheless the “single most important” factor in making phenomenology a truly continental philosophy.
How did this happen? Before phenomenology came into its own, the closest thing to a continental philosophy at the time was a Catholic one: neo-scholasticism. It flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century, after Leo XIII called for Catholic philosophers to return to the insights of Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholasticism. By 1914, thanks to the global reach of the Catholic Church, it had become “by any reasonable measure the largest and most influential philosophical movement in the world.” While the church was engaged in a battle against the forces of “modernism” at the turn of the century, a small group of neo-scholastics sought to bridge the gulf between medieval and modern, Catholic and secular thought. These “progressive neo-scholastics,” as Baring calls them, found their man in Edmund Husserl, who had himself studied with Franz Brentano, a priest steeped in the scholastic tradition. What attracted these Catholics to Husserl was his theory of intentionality—the notion that human consciousness is always consciousness “of” something. This appealed to Catholics because it appeared to open a way beyond the idealism of modern philosophy since Kant, which had threatened to undermine the possibility that human beings could possess an objective knowledge of realities outside the mind, including God.
Husserl’s phenomenology seemed to offer a solution to this problem. His promise to return “to the things themselves” sounded to many Catholics like a vindication of medieval scholasticism, which stressed that human beings have the capacity to objectively know reality independent of the mind. This led some Catholics to dub phenomenology a “new scholasticism.” By pointing “beyond” modern philosophy, they hoped that phenomenology could also serve as a path “back” to medieval thought, so that one might begin from the perspective of modern philosophy and end up somewhere closer to Thomas Aquinas. Husserl’s phenomenology thus opened up the possibility that modern, secular philosophy could be converted to Catholicism.
But these Catholic philosophers were severely disappointed when, in 1913, Husserl’s work took a much more pointed turn toward idealism. The result was a fierce debate, fought out within the transnational and multilingual networks of the Catholic Church, over whether phenomenology could be reconciled with Catholic philosophy. While phenomenology did serve as a conduit to religious faith and conversion for some philosophers, such as Edith Stein, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Max Scheler, there were troubling indications that it could also have precisely the opposite effect. Martin Heidegger was a case in point. He initially approached phenomenology from the perspective of neo-scholasticism and was even a contender for the chair in Catholic philosophy at Freiburg in 1916. But by 1921, he was firmly in the atheist camp. In 1923, Max Scheler also broke with Catholicism.