The most influential American philosopher of the 20th century was received into the Church this past December. Those familiar with the trajectory of Mortimer Adler’s work, not just the Great Books Program, should not be surprised. Born December 28, 1902, Mortimer has been a catholic philosopher all his long life, and now he will spend his final years in the arms of the Church.
Mortimer’s conversion must not elicit any Catholic triumphalism. There is no need to besiege him with requests for his conversion story. The story can be written—most of it can be found in his books, especially his two volumes of memoirs. The rest can be filled in by his friends.
I spent three summers with Mortimer at the Aspen Institute in the early 90s, serving as the institute’s first Adler fellow. In addition to assisting with Mortimer’s fabled seminars, I would meet him in the late afternoon and talk shop, and naturally the conversation would turn to Catholicism. Mortimer had been a practicing Episcopalian since 1984, when he was baptized in a Chicago hospital room. He had resisted becoming a Christian, saying he had the “will to believe” but lacked the gift of faith. Finding himself, miraculously he says, repeating the Lord’s Prayer in his hospital room, Mortimer asked for a priest. His wife Caroline, an ardent Episcopalian, helped her husband of many years to join her church.
Mortimer became very active in his Aspen parish and started writing more explicitly about religion, even risking his longtime friendship with Bill Moyers by criticizing his interviews with myth-guru Joseph Campbell. Mortimer was a man of prayer, to the one true God, and a reader of Scripture, about the revelation of His only Son, Jesus Christ, and made no bones about it.
It was clear that Mortimer the Christian was a great gift to the Episcopal community, and his conversion must have deepened his bond with his wife and their two sons. Catholics, like myself, who kidded with Mortimer, in front of his Aspen friends, about failing to “cross the Tiber” were treated with unfailing politeness but slight discomfort.
Only one time did this discomfort with the Catholic question become public. During my third summer at the Aspen Institute, I organized a conference on Mortimer’s legacy to celebrate his 45 years at the Institute. Some names familiar to Crisis readers were there—Ralph Mclnerny, Russ Hittinger, Jeff Wallin, and Otto Bird. During the question-and-answer session, an Aspen Institute official complained that most of the invited speakers were Catholics. I’m still not sure why that was objectionable, but my reply was obvious: Nearly all the philosophers who continue to read his work and pass on his legacy are Catholic. Why? Because they are metaphysical realists in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas! Bird, I remember clearly, was quite eloquent later at the banquet in his explanation of Mortimer as a catholic philosopher. Bird’s tribute, however, left the Aspen audience puzzled.
Mortimer’s fans have forgotten, or never knew, that his entire career was propelled by an initial encounter as a Columbia University undergraduate with Aquinas’ “Treatise on God” from the Summa Theologica. His earliest works were written in a densely scholastic style, and although he learned to communicate with a broad audience, the Thomistic habit of dialectical thinking was infused into everything he touched.
It may have been this dialectical gift that allowed him to be beloved by both relativists and realists. Relativists could revel in his unparalleled gifts for comparative analysis and safely avoid any conclusions. Realists could devour books like How to Think About God and be grateful that there was still a philosopher who followed rational inferences to conclusions about what is real and not another half-baked version of radical doubt.
Why did Mortimer become a Catholic? He followed the path he started at Columbia in the early 20s all the way to the end. Mortimer would not stop, as long as he drew breath, with less than the entire truth. That’s the man I came to know during those memorable summers in Aspen.
At the closing of our final seminar, I noticed Mortimer sitting alone and looking sad. I thought he would be feeling nostalgic, so I went over to say something about his great legacy. He waved these comments aside saying, “Why did all those philosophers listen to Kant?” That’s Mortimer J. Adler, always wrestling with the truth, never looking back. We should know better than to be surprised.