- What It Means to Be a Christian Philosopher: A Roycean Odyssey through the Mind of Frank M. Oppenheim, SJ
Fr. Frank Oppenheim’s body of work dedicated to the philosophy of Josiah Royce exhibits a degree of objectivity and admiration not evidenced in philosophical circles since Ralph Barton Perry’s magisterial The Thought and Character of William James.1 Royce once derisively referred to his own system Σ as akin to a Boston attic—a “junk heap” in which everything is there, but best of luck in getting anything out! It is helpful to consider the entire body of Oppenheim’s Royce-work as the combination of a “Boston attic” and the most ideal image of the “kitchen sink”—the contents not only all there, but neatly separated, perfectly arranged, and brilliantly displayed. The purpose of this essay is to situate Oppenheim’s “Roycean Odyssey” within recent events in Catholic philosophy and to identify key similarities between Josiah Royce and Frank M. Oppenheim concerning what it means to be a Christian philosopher.
In a little-known piece entitled “How Can a Philosopher’s Specialization Interdigitate with His or Her Teaching of Philosophy?,” Oppenheim reflects upon “the solid living union between my research and teaching” (“How Can a Philosopher’s Specialization” 27). Oppenheim recognized the “need to grow intellectually and Royce exemplified how to do it. . . . The mind of this mental frontiersman led me into areas of philosophy I might not have entered on my own” (How Can a Philosopher’s Specialization” 30, 32). While a young Jesuit in the early 1960s undergoing doctoral studies at Saint Louis University, Oppenheim begins his Roycean Odyssey with an experience resembling something like a “bolt from the Johannine blue”: [End Page 90]
As a Jesuit, I wanted to examine a philosopher who thought Christianity worth careful philosophical scrutiny. I wanted a philosopher who faced the problem of evil squarely without reducing it to the merely practical question of how to eliminate it. I also found that Royce fit my Jesuit mission because he was not afraid to be prophetically counter-cultural when this seemed to be the best way to offer his witness.(“How Can a Philosopher’s Specialization 30)2
The upshot of this brief, biographical reflection is to show how Royce, from the beginning, represented the ideal of interpretive mediator to the young Oppenheim, taking wise and prudent steps, even atoning ones, on behalf of increasing degrees of communitarian experience. Philosophy must be truthful and, therefore, inclusive when it comes to discerning what is essential. What attracted Oppenheim to Royce was the latter’s ability to serve as a philosophical and religious exemplar—an “undisturbable religious compass” by which all truth seekers might challenge their faith while, at the same time, offering an account of Christian experience “pregnant with metaphysical generalization” (Oppenheim, Royce’s Mature Philosophy 147). Royce demonstrated his philosophical leanings toward Christian sensibilities in his 1903 essay “Pope Leo’s Philosophical Movement and Its Relations to Modern Thought.” Written shortly after the death of Pope Leo XIII, Royce applauded Pope Leo’s clarion call in Aeterni Patris (1879)—the Magna Carta of the neo-Thomistic movement—for a return to the best in Thomas. A philosophical revival of this magnitude is “by no means confined to technical matters of scholastic doctrine” (Royce, “Pope Leo’s Philosophical Movement” 410). The “wisdom” of Thomas lies in his role as “a rational philosophical enquirer . . . an essentially synthetic and harmonizing mind [whose] reflective working over of his massive and often heterogeneous materials was marvelously ingenious and thorough-going” (Royce, “Pope Leo’s Philosophical Movement” 413). Thomas’s work stands as the paradigm case of spiritual intermediation and reconciliation:
Through him scholastic philosophy gained its most perfect expression. He was especially successful in weaving into at least plausible unity some of the most contradictory tendencies of Christian theology. . . . And all these distinctions and unifications of doctrines he states with such clearness of style, with such subtlety of argument, with such serenity of manner, and with such gentleness to all opponents, that both the labors of the thinker and the cruel tragedies of conflicting opinion involved seem, as one reads him, to...