Memories of Bernard Lonergan


When I was 13, I considered entering the Jesuits, but they told me when I inquired that they did not take candidates until they had completed high school. So I went back to a choice that was attractive to me for other reasons, the Congregation of Holy Cross at Notre Dame, Indiana, whose spirituality and activism were a cross between that of the Benedictines and the Jesuits — a strong sense of community, liturgy, and contemplative prayer, along with an unusually broad range of activist vocations, from university professor to foreign (or home) missionary, from Hollywood to inner-city parish. In my time in the seminary (1947-1959), the Holy Cross fathers had a very high standard of intellectual life and sent their willing candidates to the best universities all around the world.

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Thus it happened that when my other U.S. classmates and I arrived in Rome for theological studies in 1956 — David Burrell, Jim Burtchaell, and Nick Ayo from Notre Dame and I from Stonehill College in the Eastern Province — we caught up with a truly distinguished band of older fellow students, such as John Dunne, Jim Doig, Harry Baker, Jim Simonson, and Bob Kruse. These students were already talking with some enthusiasm about Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984), who was in those years teaching dogmatics at the Gregorian University. There was the usual teasing about his flat Canadian accent and inimitable enunciation of Latin. Most of all, there was an unusually deep respect for what all our guys recognized as a truly profound intellect, one of the greatest to appear at the Greg in many a generation.

This high estimation of Lonergan was not entirely shared by our German or French friends, for his style had a distinctive Anglo-Saxon empirical bent, always grounded in experiences accessible to observation. He also had a knack for making subtle distinctions rooted in shades of daily experience. To understand what he meant by these required careful observation and verbal precision. This style was helped by the concreteness of the English language; Lonergan’s ideas were not nearly so clear to those who were used to thinking in the rather more abstract French or German languages.

For example, at one important place in his analysis, Lonergan invited students to note the difference in their own experience between “first awareness” and “second awareness.” The first of these is akin to the kind of simple consciousness that is the opposite of being unconscious: the state of being awake, alert, attentive, noticing, although perhaps at ease and relaxed and not particularly engaged in any concrete object or project. The second is rather more self-conscious: Here one is conscious of being conscious, aware of noticing particular objects or being engaged in a particular project.

Some people are so acutely involved in second awareness that they are constantly self-conscious about what they are experiencing: “Here I am standing on this incredible ridge with the wind in my hair and the sun on my face, looking out on the Pacific Ocean. It’s amazing to find myself here!” (Sometimes the secret to a good party is to serve the sort of beverage that turns second-awareness people into first-awareness people.)

When Lonergan makes this distinction in Latin in De Constitutione Christi, it is not nearly so clear as it becomes when one renders it into English, as above. The distinction is crucial for understanding the consciousness of Jesus Christ in both its human and divine capacities. It is also crucial for understanding Lonergan’s abiding resistance to what he calls “conceptualism,” the mistake of imagining (as Richard Rorty does) that understanding is like “taking a look” or “inspecting an image in a mirror.” That is to confuse the sort of understanding that occurs as second awareness with the sort that occurs as first awareness. The latter — the insight — is far more alive, complex, sweeping, and reflexive than the words in which we may express it, as is shown by the need for more than one expression and the fact that in different languages the expressions may approach the insight from different angles. The French raison d’être, for instance, nails a particular insight in a way that no expression in English or in Italian quite does; and so we tend to slip into the French at that point. “Reason for being” is not quite the same thing.

The difficulty arises in learning how to summon up the living insight, as a resource from which to thematize or to articulate its many aspects, angles, nuances, and shades. The work of conceptual intellect is important, but it is not at the heart of understanding. It is the servant, not the master. The achievement of the blaze of insight, all inarticulate and rich and as-yet-unthematized as it may be, is the living fire of the mind.

Insight is an instance of first awareness — not the only sort of instance but a crucial one. An awareness of experiences that prompt a demand for insight, a noticing of something odd, an incipient questioning, is even prior to insight and also arrives in the mode of first awareness.


When we arrived in Rome in October 1956, Holy Cross College on Via Aurelia Antica was abuzz with the impending publication of Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, due out the following spring. I begged the older students to put me onto other writings of Lonergan, and Jim Simonson suggested starting with the series of articles on St. Thomas’s use of the word Verbum that had appeared in Theological Studies, articles that had by that time been pretty heavily fingered in the Holy Cross library. Then I could try his series on grace in the same periodical; these articles examined St. Thomas’s invention of the various terms for grace and their multiple uses. Here St. Thomas was greatly helped by first having worked out various terms for the phases and types of human action, before the effects of grace had become known. This knowledge, verified in the ordinary experiences of his and his readers’ lives, forced upon him a more extensive exploration of the phases and types of grace than he would otherwise have had to face.

Let me pause to point out here that neither Aquinas nor Lonergan was imagining that there is a two-tier world, nature below like the cake and grace on top of it like the icing, or anything like that. On the contrary, both imagined that there is in reality and history only one world, all of it conceived and created in, by, and through the Divine Word, Verbum, Logos, and all of it redeemed by Him. The theory of grace and nature is a theoretical construct, designed to make sense of human experience both among those, like Aristotle, who knew nothing of the Verbum, and those like St. Augustine, who did know and wrote especially well both about the fall of human beings into sin and their need for healing. Fallen man is like an athlete who breaks his ankle: It needs to heal before he walks again — and he is always in greater danger of reinjuring himself than he had been before he broke it. The theoretical construct of grace and nature should not be reified in such a way as to lead us to imagine two separate realities, nature here, grace “up there.” As Georges Bernanos wrote, and Yeats suggested, “Everything is grace,” and yet grace works in and through nature, which it penetrates as yeast penetrates dough.

I couldn’t understand everything in those articles on the first or second reading, because they presupposed a surer working knowledge than I possessed of the several different books in which Aquinas treated each of these subjects at various times in his short life. What impressed me about Lonergan at that time was his distinctive historical awareness of the state of the question in writers before Aquinas, and then in Aquinas in earlier and later periods of his life. Aquinas’s own approach changed according to what he had been reading and working out in other contexts in between these different treatments

Ever since I had been an undergraduate at Stonehill, where we were taught directly from the Summa itself and not from some derivative textbook (inevitably executed by a mind smaller than that of Aquinas, as one historian has commented), the question had haunted me: What is the starting place of Aquinas? Where do all his key terms and axioms come from? How can I trace them back to beginnings, so as to grasp his thought from inside? Lonergan was the first writer who showed one how to do that historically, key word by key word.

With such words as “insight” and “judgment” (from the uses of Verbum) and “grace” and “freedom” (from the uses of gratia or grace), these two sets of articles alone set me on a path toward a wholly new appropriation of Aquinas. It was exactly what I had been looking for. I couldn’t wait for Insight to appear the next summer and placed my order early.


In one’s first year at the Greg at that time, it was impossible to sign up for a class with Lonergan. In the second year, I would have a chance to hear both of his lecture courses, on the Incarnation and on the Trinity, and we were among the first to have his new treatises on these subjects (in their elegant, economical Latin) in our hands. I would also have a chance to take his advanced seminar on Gratia Operans. That would be a special joy, in a class of about 20, in which my friends and I would be among the youngest admitted.

But before that, toward the end of my first year, I was walking in the passageway outside the Grand Aula of the Greg one morning when I spotted Father Lonergan approaching, head down. My heart jumped as I instantly grabbed the opportunity, cut off his path, and asked, “Father Lonergan?”

He looked up, his eyes friendly from behind clear plastic eyeglass frames of the Anglo-American sort, and, breaking into a smile (one could see tobacco stains on his teeth), said something like “Hi there!” — altogether down-to-earth and familiar.

Breathlessly I rattled out my message: I was at Holy Cross College where he had a lot of admirers, and I had just finished his Verbum and De Gratia articles, and they were terrific, just what I had been looking for. I could see skepticism welling up in his eyes, and a little discomfort. It was obvious that I couldn’t have been reading him for that many years, and it had to be a large question whether I had understood him at all. Still, I blabbered on: “Ever since I read Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry — I’ve read almost everything Maritain ever wrote — I’ve thought I would do a book on the idea of intuition in Aquinas, and now it looks like you’ve done it. From what I see, there’s a lot in common between you and Maritain, but you are more interested in insight in science…”

He cut me off, pulling back his chin a little diffidently, “I suspect there are a lot of differences between me and Maritain.” He said these words out of the side of his mouth. “Yes, he talks more about love and art than you do,” I stupidly blundered on. “And he’s more poetic and less exact, and he doesn’t do the precise history of terms the way you do, but still, there’s a surprising amount in common.” It was clear from some impatience or hurry in his eyes that this wasn’t getting me anywhere, though I thought I also saw a question ignite behind his eyes, and so I tapered off somewhat lamely. “Anyway, I’m really looking forward to Insight this summer, and to taking some classes with you in my second year. Really good meeting you.”
My handshake was a relief to him, and he left me with a wispy smile whose meaning escaped me but didn’t discourage me. I felt a little embarrassed for my outburst but glad that I had at least taken the chance.


The next year, I invited Father Lonergan out to Holy Cross College for an evening of conversation on his work with a half-dozen or so of his most devoted followers at our house. (I really had the impression, probably false, that Holy Cross College supplied him with his most serious and enthusiastic students in the whole city.) In any case, he enjoyed it enough to come back at least once more. I remember that we urged him to turn to a study of insight in love and in the arts. The Holy Cross tradition was heavy in poetry, literature, and the arts. Our guiding theme was “culture” — to plant the seed of the Gospels deep in the culture. That matched a passion of Lonergan’s that, at the time, was not as highly visible in his work as it was later to become. It was part of work he had already done but in manuscripts that neither we nor many others knew of then.

One thing that I remember from his lecture courses was the way his accent and his way of talking out of the corner of his mouth drove the German and French students nuts. They were proud of their Latin, which was supposed to be far superior to that of the tongue-stiff Americans. So it disconcerted them to see that we followed his flat accents better than they did. One day, the entire American section (well, the part that was awake and attentive, not surreptitiously reading the Herald Tribune) erupted into laughter when Lonergan interjected an example that referred to a contest duplicis capitis, meaning a doubleheader baseball game, and the Germans and French and all the others saw immediately that they had entirely missed the allusion. It was perhaps the first time they had experienced what we Americans frequently felt when we missed European allusions.

I remember also submitting the paper I wrote for Lonergan’s Gratia Operans seminar to The Downside Review. Not only was it accepted and published (under the title “St. Thomas in Motion”), but I also received a kind note from Abbott Christopher Butler, O.S.B., who was later to play a significant role at the Second Vatican Council. He told me he shared my view about the historic importance of Lonergan.

One of the maxims I took from Lonergan’s conversations and asides during his lectures was that disciples can be a great danger to an original thinker. He said for example that he himself had gone out of his way to avoid controversies during his long career, so as not to distract himself from plowing ahead on the task he had set for himself, which was to explore the implications of the act of understanding across the whole field of human understanding, and to do so both in the context of reason and in the context of grace. He often stressed the importance of clinging to the insight, without allowing the scaffolding of concepts to hinder one’s roving inquiries. He never downplayed the necessity for doing the hard conceptual and analytical work, and he was anything but romantic about overleaping that work to get to flashy (and perhaps untenable) insights. But he clearly stressed the difference between getting the point and memorizing the conceptual jargon. By faking it, one could almost deceive even a master, but sooner or later the difference would come out. He encouraged his students to think for themselves and to shape for themselves their own vocabulary, not merely to parrot his. He called attention to the fact that this is what he had had to do, so he could hardly discourage others from doing likewise.

It seemed to me then that there is something so captivating about Lonergan’s moves, distinctions, brilliantly chosen terms, and the connective links of his thought from one area to another, that many of his disciples get caught up in a cocoon of precious language. And it seemed to me that he was doing his best to warn us not to allow that to happen. I am quite confident that my friends — John Dunne, David Burrell, and David Tracy, for instance — would back me up in remembering that lesson, which he mentioned quite explicitly in those days. The worst thing, I remember concluding, would be to turn Lonerganism into a form of conceptualism. Of course, such a fate is in some sense almost inevitable.

For this reason, although my own work, from Belief and Unbelief through Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove to The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, owes a great deal to distinctions and moves I learned from Lonergan, I have tried as far as possible to put things in my own words and in my own way. I have tried to show that I mastered important insights without having to repeat his canonical words. Perhaps I did not get those insights quite right; perhaps it would have been better to stick to formulae. But that would have meant betraying his whole point regarding the difference between the insight and its conceptualization, the point about verbum. The freedom that comes from mastery means stepping out on one’s own, taking chances, and offering one’s own reasons for doing so at each point.

I have tried to be faithful to Lonergan and to do honor to his example without becoming a Lonerganian. Lonergan himself gave great honor to St. Thomas without being, in quite the sense Maritain was, a Thomist. Maritain did not lack his own originality, his own poetic gift in rendering Thomistic distinctions in distinctive 20th-century ways. But Lonergan was original in a far deeper and more thorough way. Indeed, not many people have the brain power to take in the full dimensions of what Lonergan achieved. To do so, one must master not only the complex vocabulary of St. Thomas but also the far more widely ranging vocabulary of Lonergan himself, for Lonergan had to contend with seven centuries of scientific and philosophical exploration after Aquinas.


There was one side of Lonergan that did not entirely appeal to me, although I could admire it. He truly was caught up with the Eros of theoretic inquiry. He could delight in tower upon tower of abstraction, inventing a methodology of methods and behind that a set of reflections on alternative principles of methodology. That’s important work, and somebody has to do it. But it is also an area fraught with self-deception and very far from steady verification principles and reality checks. Furthermore, it requires an almost angelic detachment from the concrete things of this world and from fleshly involvement in the daily struggles of the world. I do remember Lonergan protesting from time to time, “Y’know, I have feelings, too!” But the point of that was that he often did seem wonderfully phlegmatic and detached, content with the self-imposed discipline of his own concentration on his work. His emotional tonality was emphatically not Maritain’s. When Bernie (a name I think I never called him to his face, but one which sometimes arises in my mind when I think of him with gratitude and affection) also insisted that love had a great deal to do with the way he lived his life, I had no trouble seeing the love of God in him and the faithful Jesuit’s full commitment — ad majorem Dei gloriam (to the greater glory of God). But even the way he said it had the emotional flatness of one who seemed to shepherd all his passion for his vocation to theoretic inquiry. That was his way of loving God, so it seemed, and I honored it.


Bernie could also be a challenge to his friends when they wanted to introduce him to other distinguished people — to show him off and to win for him some of the fame we all felt he richly deserved. I remember once, sometime before 1980 I think, when James Billington, then director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, decided that it was time to bring Lonergan (about whom he had heard a great deal) into contact with some major economists and contacted me at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to see if I could help arrange this. It wasn’t easy to overcome the natural skepticism of some famous economists who did not consider themselves believers. They weren’t inclined to think that a meeting with a Jesuit theologian who wrote on the theory of economics would be an evening well spent, but I persuaded them to give it a try. We met in the living room of the genial president of AEI, William F. Baroody, a Catholic and a trustee of Georgetown University, a man warmly disposed toward Jesuits.

Poor Bernie! In the company of strangers, he pretty much froze. Baroody, Billington, and I tried to break the ice by feeding him some leading questions. His answers were perfunctory. We had brought him together with a stellar group of economists who had been told all about his theoretical interests, which were so different from their own. They were familiar with the differences between Canadian and U.S. debates on political economy, and they could probably have guessed the predilections of a Jesuit who spent much of the year in Europe. But Father Lonergan could not, or would not, engage them with questions or challenges of his own. He was not a master of small talk. All of us could feel Father Lonergan’s discomfort; it was one of the most painful nights I’ve ever experienced.


Over the years, I have been constantly surprised and pleased by the number of people I run into who have somehow stumbled upon Insight. Many have tried to start small discussion groups so as to deepen their grasp of Lonergan’s method with the help of others. It’s as though in order to find and develop one’s own way of understanding, one must be able to compare it with what others are doing. Besides, there are so many different areas in which understanding occurs, from algebra to calculus to the arts and politics and common sense, that one feels the need for help in areas where one has no direct experience.

Karol Wojtyla recalled how in his own philosophical journey both the ideas of Max Scheler and his own experiences under the Nazis forced him toward a more inward, experience-directed adaptation of Thomistic distinctions. For those moments when he had to do what he had to do, against the screaming rebellion of his own fears and dreads, Wojtyla found Thomas on will superior to Scheler on the sentiments. But Wojtyla found he had to supply for himself the psychological and inward descriptions, which Thomas in his angelic objectivity barely paused to hint at (except on rare occasions). Wojtyla had to invent terms for the “subjectivity” of society and the “subjectivity” of individual human actions.

In an analogous way, Lonergan has provided an inward, descriptive method by which each of us might appropriate the key moves and distinctions of the perennial tradition (from Aristotle through Aquinas to Newman and beyond) in our own conscious experience and our own favorite words. He has taught us how to become aware of these experiences and how to think critically about them.
Power over the good and trustworthy use of one’s own understanding is a very great gift. It is a gift that our good friend and great teacher Bernard Lonergan bequeathed us. And the vistas opened up and, charted by his own powerful understanding, are a gift without price. We’ll be exploring those vistas for many generations to come.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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