The Dangerous Alliances Between Catholicism and Phenomenology

When the 27-year-old Franciscan, Herman Leo Van Breda, set out for Germany in the late summer of 1938, his horizons were set by the world of Catholic philosophy. He had just embarked upon a doctorate at the Thomistic Institut Supérieur de Philosophie in Louvain, Belgium, and thought that he would be able to contribute to an on-going neo-scholastic debate by examining unpublished manuscripts left by the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. Husserl had died earlier that Spring, and Van Breda wrote to his widow, Malvine, to secure access to the papers. When they met, however, Malvine Husserl steered their conversation onto new, and more dangerous paths. Five years into the Nazi dictatorship and in the middle of the Munich Crisis, she worried that her husband’s archives were unsafe in Nazi Germany. She asked Van Breda to help smuggle them out of the country. Drawing on connections at the Belgian Embassy, Van Breda arranged for the papers to be shipped by diplomatic mail to Louvain, Belgium, where they would be hidden from the Nazis during the war. Once that War was over and the threat had subsided, the manuscripts were unveiled to great public acclaim at the inauguration of the Husserl Archives.[1]  

The story of how Van Breda rescued the Husserl Archives is well known. What is less well appreciated is that he participated in a Europe-wide fascination for Husserl amongst Catholics at the time, long before any purported “theological turn in phenomenology.”[2] Van Breda’s teacher in Louvain, Msg. Léon Noël, had written the first article on Husserl in a language other than German in 1910, an article that had set off a rash of interest for phenomenology amongst neo-scholastics in the years leading up to World War I.[3] At that time, the name Husserl was on the lips of Catholics in Krakow and Madrid, Milan and Munich, Paris and Vienna. By the 1930’s and 40’s, a large number of Catholic thinkers had come to dedicate themselves to the study of phenomenology, and its philosophical heir, existentialism. Alphonse de Waelhens (Belgium), Sofia Vanni Rovighi (Italy), Joaquín Xirau (Mexico), and Herman Boelaars (the Netherlands) might not have been considered major theorists at the time, but they were some of the earliest proponents of phenomenology in their respective countries. The first conference on phenomenology outside of Germany was hosted by the Société Thomiste in France in 1932, and in 1946 the Catholic philosopher Enrico Castelli organized the first international conference treating existentialism, which culminated in a Papal audience at the Vatican.[4] Though it is dangerous to read too much from such numbers, a preliminary accounting suggests that self-professed Catholic philosophers produced over 40% of all books and articles on Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler written in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch in the period before World War II. After 1945 Catholics were overshadowed by other phenomenologists, but they continued to play important roles, not least by translating phenomenological texts into French, English, Italian, and other languages.[5] And, whether they wore their confessional affiliations on their sleeve or not, one should not forget the multiple and influential Catholic commentators, such as Henri Duméry and Henri Birault in France, Angela Ales Bello in Italy, Krzysztof Michalski in Poland, Júlio Fragata in Portugal, and Robert Sokolowski and William J. Richardson in the United States. Phenomenology stands out amongst modern schools of thought in that it can count not one, but two saints: Karol Wojtyła (the future John Paul II) wrote his thesis on phenomenological ethics in 1950’s Poland; and Edith Stein, who was Husserl’s student and then assistant, sought in the 1930’s to reconcile phenomenology with Aquinas’s philosophy.

The initial enthusiasm for phenomenology before World War I can be understood as a response to a sense of isolation amongst Catholic philosophers. After Leo XIII’s Encyclical Aeterni Patris in 1879, scholasticism had been promoted as a quasi-official Church philosophy. A new or “neo”-scholasticism promised a productive engagement with modernity; many thought that its realism and rationalism would show that it, and by extension Catholicism, was compatible with modern science. And yet, it was precisely these characteristics that put scholasticism out of step with the philosophical mainstream, which was dominated by idealism. Neo-scholastics sought a way to demonstrate to their secular peers that their ideas should be taken seriously.

That is why neo-scholastics responded so positively to Husserl’s two-volume Logical Investigations (1900/1901). There, Husserl had argued that a careful description of experience demonstrated the intentionality of consciousness: consciousness was always “consciousness of” something. [6] As such, phenomenological intentionality seemed to bypass the distortions of modern idealism and provide access to the mind-independent real. In Noël’s terms, Husserl was a “convert,” a philosophical insider who had come to embrace scholastic ideas.[7] Importantly, these early Catholics did not think that Husserl had been converted to Catholic theology. Indeed, for them, Husserl was attractive precisely because he was not a member of the Church. His work provided evidence for their conviction that an unprejudiced examination of the world would reveal the truth of scholastic realism, and that, eventually, this might guide secular thinkers to the Catholic faith with which that realism had been coupled since Aquinas. Neo-scholastics were encouraged in this hope by the unusually large number of personal religious conversions that punctuate the history of phenomenology. Of the circle around Husserl, many came to embrace Catholicism, including Edith Stein, Max Scheler, Siegfried Hamburger, Aurel Kolnai, and Dietrich von Hildebrand.

If phenomenology had simply been a path to religious belief, however, it would probably not have commanded the attention of so many Catholic thinkers over such a long period of time. Rather, phenomenology fascinated them because it led to conversions in both directions: while for some, phenomenology kindled the sparks of faith, for others it snuffed them out. Martin Heidegger’s engagement with phenomenology, for instance, cultivated his skepticism about scholastic doctrines and led him to take an increasing distance from the Church. Such was the connection between Heidegger’s philosophical commitments and changing religious belief that Husserl feared he might be branded a “corrupter of youth” in “arch-Catholic Freiburg.”[8] So too Scheler’s engagement with phenomenology can be used to understand his rejection of the Catholic faith in the 1920’s just as easily as his conversion fifteen years earlier. In fact, numerous figures at the time, from Henry Corbin in France to Ernesto Grassi in Italy, used phenomenology to think through their break with the Church.

Neo-scholastics blamed these developments on innovations first made public in Husserl’s second major work: the 1913 Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology.[9] He had argued there that the ideal of presuppositionlessness [Voraussetzungslosigkeit.], which guided his phenomenological investigations, required the bracketing of our normal assumptions about the real world. For this reason, the intentional objects analyzed by phenomenology could not be explained by worldly processes. Instead, they referred back to a “constituting ego,” which undermined scholastic realism in favor of a transcendental idealism.

The dangers posed by phenomenology were thrust to the forefront of the Catholic mind thanks to a debate over “critical realism.” In a 1930 article the French historian of philosophy Étienne Gilson developed a searing criticism of Noël’s philosophical work, and through him the Louvain school of neo-scholasticism. In his attempt to reach out to the modern critical tradition, Gilson argued, Noël had conceded too much to its idealism. Gilson was unsparing: “critical realism is self-contradictory like the notion of a square circle.”[10] Phenomenology, so closely associated with Noël and the Louvain school, became a crucial piece of evidence in the debate. For many, Husserl’s trajectory after The Logical Investigations showed that the apparent moves in modern philosophy back to a medieval realism were in fact dangerous feints, which could entice the unwary onto the path to idealist heresy or unbelief. In his contribution to the Critical Realism debate, the French Thomist Jacques Maritain argued that phenomenology was a hybrid of Kantian criticism and scholastic philosophy, which demonstrated how the former overwhelmed and denatured the latter.[11]

Over the course of the 1930’s phenomenology became a privileged example in a broader debate about the promise and dangers of engaging with modern thought. That is why Catholics returned to phenomenology so insistently in their articles and books, and why Van Breda decided to set out for Freiburg in 1938. They wanted to work out whether Husserl’s “conversion” back to idealism was a necessary consequence of his phenomenological starting point, and thus, by extension, determine whether it was possible for neo-scholastics to engage productively with modern philosophers. Phenomenology encouraged the dream of a modern home-coming, at once a modernity returned to Catholicism, and a Catholicism updated to the needs of modernity. But it also exemplified the dangers of this development, posing the question whether the neo-scholastics, as Catholic missionaries to the world of modern philosophy, ran the risk of going native. Who really was converting whom?

This question is in large part unanswerable, or rather, it has as many answers as there were philosophical trajectories propelled by the combustible meeting of phenomenology and scholasticism. But its very indeterminacy helped promote the Catholic reading of phenomenology beyond neo-scholastic circles. The very reasons neo-scholastics considered Husserl’s idealism a liability made phenomenology a valuable tool for a range of Christian idealists and spiritualists, like René le Senne and Gaston Berger in France and Augusto Guzzo and Luigi Stefanini in Italy, who sought to stretch Catholic orthodoxy to make room for their thought. In turn it offered leverage to secular thinkers who wanted to challenge the legitimacy of religious philosophy tout court.

The traces of this engagement with scholasticism, both positive and negative, are almost ubiquitous in the phenomenological world. Emmanuel Levinas, for instance, dedicated his 1930 book on Husserl to the Aristotle and Aquinas scholar Henri Carteron.[12] The Czech phenomenologist Jan Patočka wrote one of his first articles on Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God, and wrote one of his last, the famous “Heretical Essays,” for the Polish-Catholic journal Znak.[13] The historian of phenomenology, Herbert Spiegelberg wrote an early essay distinguishing between the meaning of “intentionality” in high scholasticism, Brentano, and Husserl.[14] Much of the early work on phenomenology in Poland was done by members of the Lvov-Warsaw school of philosophy, especially Jan Łukasiewicz, who in the 1930’s built close ties to the neo-scholastic Krakow Circle, due to a shared interest in medieval logic. Paul Ricoeur, the influential translator of and commentator on phenomenology in France, was first introduced to philosophy by the Thomist Roland Dalbiez, and Thomism would act as a consistent counterpoint in his early phenomenological work, above all in his 1949 thesis, The Philosophy of the Will. [15] In addition, two of the leading figures in early American phenomenology, James M. Edie and Joseph Kockelmans were trained in Catholic centers, Louvain and Rome respectively. The former was at one time a member of the Benedictine Order, the latter had studied for the priesthood, but was never ordained.[16] 

The most resolutely atheistic forms of phenomenology and existentialism are no exception. We have seen that Martin Heidegger encountered phenomenology when he was studying scholastic philosophy in Freiburg. Catholics also contributed to the phenomenological awakenings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. De Beauvoir was educated at the Collège Sainte-Marie in Neuilly and the Institut Catholique in Paris, and she probably first read Husserl under the guidance of the historian of Catholic mysticism Jean Baruzi.[17] Sartre studied Heidegger’s Being and Time in depth alongside the Catholic priest Marius Perrin. The latter had arranged for the book to be smuggled into the German Prisoner of War Camp where the two men were detained.[18]

In this way, the Catholic engagement with phenomenology has had an unprecedented impact on the development of philosophical ideas more broadly in the twentieth century. Precisely because Catholic philosophy was not a monolith, because it was wracked by numerous debates—ones that divided neo-scholastics from Christian idealists, or scholastics who promoted an engagement with modernity from those who shunned it—it proved itself to be an enormously fruitful resource for a range of thinkers outside of the Church. It is one of the main reasons why staples of the Catholic philosophical tradition, not least Aquinas and Augustine, crop up so often today in the work of secular, even atheistic, philosophers.

On his return to Louvain, Van Breda began the gargantuan task of transcribing and editing the 40,000 manuscript pages he had saved in 1938. He did not find there what he had hoped; there was no realist Husserl hiding in the archives to challenge the idealist Husserl available in print. Presenting the papers to the Société Philosophique de Louvain in 1945, Van Breda admitted as much: “one will still wonder about the possibility of using all of this in a scholastic Institute.” Noël probably summed up the mood in the room in his laconic response: “less than we thought.”[19] Van Breda never gave up on the project of trying to reconcile phenomenology with scholasticism in his own philosophical work. But that link became increasingly unimportant for the institution of the Husserl Archives, and today there is little that identifies it as a Catholic endeavor. Which might lead one to conclude that Gilson was right: the progressive neo-scholastic project of engaging modern philosophy on its own terms was doomed from the start. But there is another way to look at the history of the Husserl Archives and that of phenomenology more generally. Through their reading of phenomenology in the first half of the twentieth century, Catholics were instrumental in the development of one of the most important philosophical schools in modern times. Catholic philosophy demonstrated its vitality, even, and perhaps especially, when it left Catholicism behind.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Adapted excerpt from CONVERTS TO THE REAL: CATHOLICISM AND THE MAKING OF CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY by Edward Baring, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] See Leo Van Breda, “The Rescue of Husserl’s Nachlass” in Thomas Vongehr ed., Geschichte des Husserl-Archivs (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007).

[2] See Dominique Janicaud et. al., Phenomenology and “The Theological Turn”: The French Debate. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000).

[3] Léon Noël, “Les Frontières de la logique,” in Revue néo-scolastique de philosophie, 17 (1910).

[4] See Rocco Rubini, The Other Renaissance, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2014), 16-20.

[5] To list just the Catholic translators of phenomenology into French: Roger Munier S.J., Quentin Lauer S.J., Joseph Rovan, Maurice de Gandillac, Edmond Gerrer, and Jean Ladrière.

[6] Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations 2 vols, trans. J Findlay (London: Routledge, 2001), 3.

[7] Léon Noël, “Les Frontières de la logique,” 226.

[8] Edmund Husserl letter to Rudolf Otto, 1918, Quoted in Holger Zaborowski, “Herkunft aber bleibt stets Zukunft,” Heidegger Jahrbuch, 1 (2004), 153.

[9] Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Phenomenology, trans W. Boyce Gibson, (London, 2010).

[10] Étienne Gilson, “Le réalisme méthodique,” in Fritz-Joachim von Rintelen ed., Philosophia Perennis II, (Regensburg: J. Habbel, 1930), 751.

[11] Jacques Maritain, Distinguer pour unir; ou, les Dégrés du Savoir (Paris: Desclée, de Brouwer et cie, 1932)

[12] See Marie-Anne Lescourret, Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: Flammarion, 1994), 183-95, Ethan Kleinberg, Generation Existential (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 22-39.

[13] See the bibliography at And Marci Shore, “Out of the Desert” in The Times Literary Supplement, 2nd August, 2013.

[14] Herbert Spiegelberg, “Der Begriff der Intentionalität in der Hochscholastik, bei Brentano und bei Husserl,” Philosophische Hefdevelopmentan of phenomenology, d once hoped,ng thea recognizably Catholic projec alist Husserl in the archives to challenge thete, 5 (1936)

[15] Paul Ricoeur, Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1966), 3.

[16] John Caputo, “Continental Philosophy of Religion Then, Now, and Tomorrow” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 26 (2012), 358 n. 11.

[17] See Margaret Simons, Beauvoir and the Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism (Lanham, Md; Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 199.

[18] See Marius Perrin, Avec Sartre au Stalag 12D (Paris: Opéra Mundi).

[19] “Séance 20 Mars 1945,” in Société Philosophique de Louvain, in Groupes d’Étudiants, Archives of the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie, in Louvain-la-neuve.

Featured Image: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Multiple self-portraits in a mirror, Saint Petersburg, 1915–1917; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-75.


Edward Baring

Edward Baring is Associate Professor of Modern European History at Drew University and was a Guggenheim Fellow. He is author of Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy.

Read more by Edward Baring