Romano Guardini: The Essence of a Catholic Worldview

Summer is at an end. For those of us in the world of education, the new academic year is upon us. As the urgency and pace of preparation builds, it is worthwhile to pause, take a step back, and reflect. When the year is over, what will we have accomplished? This question is especially important for those of us in the world of Catholic education, which offers, or at least ought to offer, something qualitatively distinct. With these thoughts in mind, I turn to Msgr. Romano Guardini (1885-1968), one of the towering figures of Catholic intellectual life in the mid-twentieth century. In the spring of 1923, Guardini began his duties as chair of Catholic Weltanschauung (Worldview) with his inaugural lecture, “The Essence of a Catholic Weltanschauung.” In it, he offered a richly textured account of what it means to bring a Catholic worldview to bear upon the world of education and, indeed, life in general.

First, some background. In 1923, having recently completed his doctoral work in systematic theology, Guardini was offered a chair at the University of Berlin in the Philosophy of Religion and Catholic Weltanschauung.  As the first of its kind, this position posed formidable challenges—not the least of which was its lack of definition. It was relatively easy to say what it was not. It bore no connection to the theology faculty; it was not a sub-field of cultural history or literary studies.  Still, the positive content of this new field lacked definition and, perhaps, even legitimacy. This lack of clarity weighed so heavily upon Guardini that he almost declined the position.

Romano Guardini 1950Decades later, as Guardini reflected upon the struggle to define his position, he recalled a conversation with Max Scheler, who offered the following advice. “You must practice what lies in the word, Weltanschauung: view the world, things, man, work, but do so as one responsible to Christ; and then describe, in a scientific manner, what you see. Examine, for example, the novels of Dostoevsky, and comment on it from your Christian standpoint in such a way that you illuminate both the work that comes to view and the position from which you view it.” Guardini goes on to say, “This is, mutatis mutandis, what I have done, and in doing so it has become clear what the study of Christian Weltanschauung means: the continual encounter between faith and the world.” Guardini wrote approximately seventy books and one-hundred articles exploring this encounter.

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In defining Catholic Weltanschauung, Guardini follows a method that became a trademark of his work. He begins in the realm of natural knowledge, carefully and methodically exploring “the natural” to the limits of its inner depth—to the boundary between nature and the nihil from which it was created. This boundary marks the place of encounter with the face of the living God. We can follow Guardini’s exploration of Catholic Weltanschauung by considering three questions. First what does Guardini mean by the term, Weltanschauung, or worldview? Second, what is the relation between a worldview and an academic discipline? Third, what is distinctive about a Christian worldview?

In the most general terms, a worldview is an intellectual attitude that establishes the conditions for knowledge. Guardini offers the following definition: a worldview is “the gaze upon the totality of existence in its concrete particularity. This existence, however, is not seen indifferently, but as a task, as a demand to work and imitate.” There are two essential components to this definition: the gaze and the task. A worldview “gazes” upon the concrete things of existence from the perspective of totality, or the whole. Although this sounds abstract, it is something familiar to everyday experience. We cannot understand an object until we see it in a context. For example, we can make no sense of a hand until we understand it as part of a body. If we continue in this direction, we reach that ultimate context or whole—the worldview. This worldview is not a consciously articulated theory; rather it is an intuitive grasp of the whole—a network of basic assumptions that we make about the world. It allows us to place the concrete objects of experience in context so that we can begin to understand them in their particularity.

The gaze and the task are inextricably linked. We are, by nature, bearers of moral responsibility. When we encounter the world, we cannot help but ask; what is our responsibility toward it? For example, we often feel ill at ease in an unfamiliar situation, in part because we wonder whether there is something we should be doing. Given our nature as bearers of moral responsibility, the gaze not only contextualizes the object for our understanding; it helps us define our moral responsibility toward it.

We must consider one final characteristic common to worldviews in general. All worldviews are limited by place and time; by the historical, sociological, and cultural conditions of those who hold them. Therefore, when a worldview presents a concrete object—a person or a thing—in the context of “the whole,” it invariably highlights a limited range of that object’s inexhaustible depth—that is, a limited range of ways to understand and respond to it. This will have important implications for the second question.

What is the relation between a worldview and an academic discipline? This question is of particular importance for us in the world of education. Although a worldview is closely related to the practice of individual academic disciplines, it is conceptually distinct. A worldview begins with the whole; academic disciplines begin with the parts. A worldview contextualizes the object; then, an academic discipline studies the object intensively. For example, the natural sciences mark out a range of empirical things for methodological observation and study. The social sciences do the same for social life; the cultural sciences for cultural life and so on.

But there is more. Weltanschauung and the academic disciplines stand in a circular relation to each other. A worldview provides the context in which an object for study comes to view. An academic discipline studies that object intensively; in doing so, it can, in turn, modify the worldview.  For example, the knowledge produced by the natural sciences has given us tremendous power over the world. Largely because of this success, the natural sciences have emerged within the western worldview as a dominant type. From this position, the natural sciences have, in various ways, co-opted other academic disciplines (with their full consent).

This has had far-reaching implications for the social sciences and humanities. Their subject matter—human beings—come to view within a context, or whole, defined by purely physical and biological processes. This limits the range of questions an academic can legitimately ask about human beings. Purely physical and biological processes are not, by nature, bearers of moral responsibility. Moral values are, at best, epiphenomena of physical and biological processes; they have no reality of their own. The result: the world of education contributes in no small way to our contemporary predicament; a breathtaking capacity to exercise power over the world coupled with deep moral confusion about how to use it.

At this limit, we find the distinctive contribution—indeed, the critical importance—of the Christian worldview. It alone is a worldview in the purest sense of the term. It is not simply a view of the whole from within the world. It is the view of Christ, the Word from beyond, who achieves the distance from which to see the world in its true totality. Guardini writes, “To believe means to go to Christ from that place where one stands. It means to see with his eyes; to measure by his norm. The believer stands beyond the world through him, simply by believing.” This view comes from the heart of the Church. “She is the historical bearer of the full vision of Christ over the world. The Catholic attitude of the individual rests herein, that he lives from the Church.”

Can the believer then bypass other worldviews and the academic disciplines? Not at all. This becomes clear when we consider the task that emerges when one sees with the eyes of Christ. Guardini writes, “man’s task is to go to God and to lead the world of things back to Him.” (see 1 Cor. 3:21-23). With this, we come full circle—to the believer’s encounter with the world, which rests at the core of a Catholic worldview. A genuine encounter occurs when each participant in the encounter receives his proper due. When the believer encounters the academic disciplines, two things happen. With the gaze of Christ, the believer can view her discipline in its full integrity and properly measure its relation to the other disciplines—not allowing one to co-opt another. In doing so, she can develop the discipline’s under-realized potential. Likewise, the more the believer practices Christ’s gaze, the more he discovers its power and fullness. Both the discipline and the “view of faith” become fuller. The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) comes to mind.

(Photo credit: Arthur Gröger / Tubingen University Library / c. 1950)


  • David Foote

    David Foote is Associate Professor of History at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His teaching and research focuses on medieval church and society, especially the role of the church in the development of the Italian city-states.

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