Clare Adams: Père Alphonse Joseph Auguste Gratry

Pere Alphonse Joseph Auguste Gratry (1805-1872)

Today’s subject is the charismatic life, scholarship, and apostolic work of Alphonse-Joseph-Auguste Gratry (1805-1872). I acknowledge my indebtedness to Stefan Gigacz for this paperi and to Professor Mary L. O’Hara, CSJ, whose translation, Gratry’s Philosophy, was released by ATF Press in Adelaide, in 2020.ii Originally published in 1972 on the centenary of Gratry’s death by Julián Marías as La filosophia del Padre Gratry, we now mark his 150th anniversary with its publication in English.

Why Gratry? And why here and now? The reason is philosophical, social, and pastoral.

A visitor to the great Cardinal Cardijn’s quarters in 1929, after Cardijn returned full of enthusiasm from a workers’ strike at the Port of London reports that he saw

“. . . Among well worn, well used books Cardijn had been putting up on his shelves were those by Newman, and Gratry” . . . along with others . . . “witnessing to a culture traditional and reformist, positive and idealist.”iii

Gratry’s life, thought, and mission is significant in relation to that of Joseph Cardinal Cardijn (1882-1967), the Cardijn legacy, and other notable figures in the great lay movements which followed as Stefan will discuss. In Gratry we see the same impetus under the Holy Spirit in the development and practice of the lay movements we celebrate today. As a continuing catalyst, Gratry deserves to be well known.

Alike in geography, context, and vocation, the lives of these two men nearly overlapped: Cardijn was born just 10 years after Gratry died. Gratry’s call to priesthood, like that of Cardijn, sprang from a commitment to social justice and to the spiritual and apostolic empowerment of youth. While so engaged, he produced scholarship of immense scope and brilliance, electrified audiences with his dynamic preaching, and stamped his generation. The impact of both men in recognizing and engaging the laity in the primary, pastoral work of the Church, later affirmed in Vatican Council II, link them intrinsically as powerful collaborators. What they began remains vital today in the movements flowing from their inspiration and direction.

My purpose here is to 1) show Gratry’s transformative experience of God and near mystical conversion as the source of all that followed; 2) trace three key points in his philosophical thought which present human beings as rooted in nature, connected to one another, and called to a divine destiny; and 3) to name some final issues confronting his heritage.

Part I: Gratry’s Life and Experience of God

Gratry was born in Lille in northern France just 68 miles from Cardijn’s birthplace near Brussels, a little over an hour’s drive on modern roads.

Gratry was baptized as a child, although his family was non-religious and only culturally Catholic. He had a happy temperament, a loving upbringing, and a positive nurture. He lived, however, in a time of endless revolution. When he was 10, the industrialization of France began in force with its social displacements in a drastically altered economic system. In 1921 when he was 16, Napoleon died, and succeeding decades saw monarchists, republicans, and the working poor pitted against each other in bloody strife such as in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848.

To appreciate the enormous scope and impact of Gratry’s future life in this context, we need to note the depth of this early experience and later conversion.

In a private journal, published after his death, Gratry tells that “his first serious recollection” in 1810 at the age of 5 “was a “powerful and profound impression of God that took the form of an experience of Being.iv I quote:

I repeated, transported! “I am!” “I exist! . . . Being…To be! . . . . “a penetrating light, which I believe I can still see enveloped me: I saw that Being is beautiful, happy, lovable, full of mystery! I still see, after forty years, all these interior facts, and the physical details that surrounded me.”v

Having grown to adolescence unengaged in formal religion, never having spoken to a priest, and with a vivid “contempt and horror of churches and of priests,” Gratry began study at the Lycée of Henri IV at an age in which most young men lost their faith in the atheistic spirit of the Gratry’s struggle had an opposite effect.

In 1822, at age 17, “alienated . . . from religion . . . and with a great zeal for irreligious propaganda," he underwent a series of “interior adventures,” as Julián Marías terms them, that precipitated his conversion, and which he details in the same journal.vii His account stands with the great conversion stories of history such as that of St. Augustine. The power and vividness of his account is available to any reader in Gratry’s Philosophy, Chapter 6. Here is a brief outline from his journal.

The first intimate adventure was of life and death. In a profound, near mystical imagination, Gratry saw his life in all detail unfold with growing happiness until filled with all possible joy on earth. Then a black cloud blocked all light and he encountered his death bed struggling to die, dying, . . .. gone. “God” he says, made me “see, sense, and taste death, as he had made me see feel, and taste life . . . . It is impossible to express with what truth I saw death” (154-5).

He experienced the nothingness and meaninglessness of human life, the depth of which mid-200th century Existentialism speaks. Tossed between an abandonment to absurdity or an automatic appeal to a God—both of which he found inauthentic, Gratry cried out: “O God! O God!” (156). In that cry “he felt that he had not cried in vain, that he had or would have a response” (156). He “emerged from despair” certain that “truth existed”, and that he would “consecrate my entire life to it” (156). In this first adventure, we recognize radical human need for meaning and purpose and the desire for adequate good as the fundamental reality of human nature. Thomas Aquinas calls this “voluntas ut natura,” Nature as will, the most profound drive of the human soul: the thrust of finite being toward the good.

The next adventure was of the threat of annihilation. He experienced his own body “cooked” by an “evil fire,” in pieces, degraded, disintegrated, his reality gone (157).

In the following year of 1823, Gratry had “his first contact with a serious and sincere Christian of living faith and clear mind,” a classmate (158). Under his influence, Gratry “decided to seek a confessor” (ibid). Shortly afterwards, “having revived his Catholic faith, he received communion, and “underwent a third experience, something that would leave its mark more forcefully upon the theodicy of Gratry” (ibid).

The third interior adventure followed the reception of communion which failed to bring the hoped-for effect. But an hour later, he encountered a violent storm in his being, a “combat between complete faith and absolute incredulity, between pure light and absolute darkness” (158). He saw it as in a vision, but he felt nothing, only indifference, and was “held in perfect equilibrium for a quarter of a minute” (158).

It was a moment of choice, he says: “that was perhaps the most solemn moment of my life! I had to choose by my liberty alone” (158-9). While he leaned” toward the side of absolute incredulity, a “very difficult movement of my free will, . . . almost imperceptible, inclined me lightly to the other side . . . transported . . . stretching out my arms to God, “he said: “It is you whom I desire!” (ibid). “It was his last serious temptation against faith,” and it determined the future course of his life (ibid).

In his translation of Gratry’s The Well-Springs,” Stephen J Brown recounts that Gratry went on to study at the distinguished scientific institute, the Ėcole Polytechnique resolving “to devote himself to the study of science with the idea of using this knowledge in the defense of religion and the apostolate of truth.viii

He completed a doctorate on the scientific method in Strasbourg, and was ordained a priest. Later he obtained a doctorate in letters and a licentiate in theology. Still, with this extensive learning, he devoted himself to the education and spiritual guidance of youth, teaching in high schools, seminaries, and working as a chaplain. Student accounts of his life and death witness resoundingly to the depth of his faith, wisdom, and immense kindness and charity.

Revealing of this thrust of Gratry’s vocation and integration of spirit is the fact that it was in the revolutionary year of 1848 and only at age 43, that he published his first work: an original social catechism, on the necessity for a systematic response to the needs and moral obligations in society.ix

A few years later in 1852, in a parallel initiative to that of John Henry Cardinal Newman in England, he relaunched the Congregation of the Oratory in Paris with Père Pététot to raise intellectual standards among the clergy after the Revolution. He became famous as a distinguished logician, theologian, social thinker, and outstanding educator, publishing some 30 major philosophical works in the 1850’s. He taught Moral Philosophy at the Sorbonne, served as chaplain in the French Senate, and the French Academy recognized his genius with election to the chair held a century earlier by Voltaire.

Part II: Gratry’s Philosophy of the Human Person

Gratry’s systematic and beautiful writings, include a critical history of philosophy and volumes on the Knowledge of God, the Knowledge of the Soul, and a metaphysical Logic. He claimed that he was only expressing the golden thread in the whole tradition, but he stands among major figures of the 19th century as the greatest Catholic thinker, and, in contrast to most, a holistic one. Whole as in complete. Whole as reflecting integration of mind, body, and consciousness. I will focus here on his analysis of the human person, fundamental to his thought, for it is within the dynamic of the individual consciousness that Gratry uncovers evidence of the rootedness of the human being in God. First some historical notes.

Two thousand years of Greek science and philosophy elevated by Christianity had produced a well-rounded view of the human being, rooted in nature and destined for eternal life. Classically and scientifically educated, Gratry was heir to this tradition.

In a little over 150 years before Gratry, however, this tradition, used by the Fathers of the Church to formulate doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, was displaced by the work of René Descartes who sought to begin philosophy from scratch apart from it. Descartes defined human beings as dualistic: primarily minds, and only secondarily bodies somehow linked. Here began in idea, soon to be implemented in fact, a modern alienation of the self, mind, and soul from one’s own body and from consciousness itself—evident in the wokism of the 20th and 21st century, and the addiction to the world of social media.

This definition evolved to dominate intellectual life, including the social sciences, and in our day, public education, global politics, and life issues in a detrimental dualism. For example, when I asked my college students to name three important aspects of being human, they immediately named ‘the mind.’ It took a great deal of prodding to get them to include the body, and rarely did they include emotions. This astonished me, but the causes were clear.

In the face of this dualistic turn, Gratry reclaims a complete view of human nature. At its basis, he articulates in a profound and systematic way, the notion of an innate 3-fold human sense: 1) an external sense which connects us to nature; 2) an intimate sense (sens intime) which connects us to self and others; and 3) a divine sense which intuits the existence of God. These points serve as an introduction to his philosophy of the person.

Sense as first power of the soul implies the other two powers of mind and will. Plato speaks of a “root” of the soul, while others use different names.x “The soul feels all there is; everything that acts upon our sense.”xi It is sense that grasps the three-fold mode of reality: bodies, soul, and God,

This “sense” is instinctive, obscure, passive,” but it is the primary, original organ by which we receive reality.”xii Because we have sense, we can know and will. The majority of philosophers have noted this function but without describing it sufficiently.

The External Sense We have, claims Gratry, an external sense by which we sense the natural world directly. As part of nature, the natural environment is our home. Aristotle explains systematically in De anima that sensory knowledge is first in experience and first in attaining intellectual knowledge. But dualism places human beings over and above nature, and succeeding industrialization, unlimited by the awareness of who we are and our primary human needs, has degraded this natural home and our relationship to it. This alienation is so great as to merit an encyclical by Pope Francis. In Laudato Si, he strives to reclaim the truth that we are part of nature and must see, judge and act accordingly. Gratry and Cardijn saw this.

The Second Sense The second innate sense, the sens intime, is of self and others. Gratry asserts that we sense the self of others directly. It is not a question of seeing them only bodily. By this intimate sense, I feel/know my neighbor as a “thou, in a primary, radical, and original way,” as much as I do his or her body . . . . and in the same way as I sense myself in an intimate, direct and absolute mode” (110). This is an “indubitable. . . internal experience” (110).

The dualistic view stumbles here. If we are only minds, how can we know directly that we are connected, and, if connected, how can we allow for behaviors that result in not ‘seeing,” or not recognizing others as such. Who sees those entrapped in mines, factories, pollution, dying in the streets or subway tunnels, unemployed–-until a Gratry, a Cardijn, a Mother Teresa—takes notice. Unless we consciously grasp the full truth of our being, we do not see or recognize self or neighbor, judge them adequately, and act according to their truth.

The Third Sense Gratry identifies this third sense as the core of his life and thought: it is the innate, intuitive sense of God. Gratry asserts that we have such a primary, intellectual intuition upon which human beings have always acted. The greatest minds in Western argued to such existence for over 2500 years.

C. S. Peirce, a great 20th century American mathematician, metaphysician, and logician, calls this process abduction, and he posits it as the spontaneous basis for later induction and deduction regarding the existence of God.xiii Dr. Maria Montessori, the outstanding pedagogue of the 20th century, embeds the same pre-disposition in her philosophy.

Gratry argues that these three senses as innate show systems, laws, and institutions that disallow their integration to be radically violent and oppressive.

The first two senses along with the intuitive sense of God, as connatural to human beings, provide a solid basis for seeing the world of nature, oneself, and others in solidarity. Reclaiming them in theory and practice restores the full truth of human nature. This vision brought hope, direction and vitality to the youth whom Gratry taught and guided, as it did to oppressed workers under Cardijn’s influence

Identifying these three innate senses is crucial in the modern world, but Gratry does more than name them. His analysis of sense in relation to human consciousness reveals an existential dynamic at work within each human being, as later 20th century Existentialism discussed though incompletely. Human sense finds its rest in the divine ground of being by natural faith which provides the essential predisposition for supernatural faith.

Gratry examines consciousness with a method somewhat analogous to that of Hegel. He shows that absorption in the natural world in relation to our desires, pleasures, and goals, proves itself in conscious experience as inadequate to satisfy the desire for happiness. Furthermore, such unlimited pursuits result in devastation even of the environment. Driven by desire, the individual turn to seeking satisfaction within the self or in others likewise comes up short. All is finite; our desire is not. This realization within consciousness brings one face to face with the sense of the unlimited, the natural sense of God, natural faith. The basis of being and continued existence is in the infinite good. Here is the place of rest for consciousness and the source of integrated living in relation to nature, self, and others.

Gratry’s analysis of Sense is the foundation of his subsequent work. In his Logique (1855), he reclaims and develops the complete science of intuition that began with Plato (Rep. VII). This science goes beyond the processes of logical induction and deduction. Many who refer to this science fail to understand Plato adequately, but Gratry sees and expounds him clearly. In the Logique, he uses a well-accepted argument from math about the infinitesimal calculus to illustrate by analogy how we reach an ultimate intuition of God’s reality as infinite good.xiv This ultimate intuition forms the basis of his complete metaphysics of soul, life, and law.

Part III. Issues Affecting Gratry’s Heritage

Gratry faced three issues close to the end of his life that have all but obliterated his memory. First, after a life surrounded by needless violence, he joined the International Peace League on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), a movement sorely needed in face of conflicts in Europe which were on a trajectory toward two World Wars. Because of the charged, nationalistic spirit in France in face of the German threat, his effort was considered unpatriotic, and he was personally rejected as a citizen and a person.

Secondly, prior to Vatican I, he opposed an overly broad definition of papal infallibility amid the controversies surrounding this doctrine. Gratry argued that the pronouncement of infallibility should not be isolated from the teaching authority of the bishops in union with the pope. For this he was ostracized from his own prominent place in ecclesial circles. The great Catholic thinker and apostle was vilified as uncatholic. Shortly after however, when Vatican I proclaimed the doctrine in 1870, he formally embraced in obedience the narrower formulation. It took Vatican II to complete the teaching he had vigorously defended, but Gratry did not live to see this. Instead, he took ill with an excruciating cancer, likely brought on by this traumatic period and the accusations about his Catholic faith and loyalty, and he died soon after.

A third issue concerns the bedrock of his metaphysics of nature, human beings, and God. His contemporary, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), a French social scientist and philosopher, who like Gratry had attended the Ėcole Polytechnique, introduced the theory of Positivism to bring the force of reason to bear upon social ills. Others expanded this theory to include all intellectual life, and it took hold in the scientific tenor of the age. According to this expanded theory, empirical science now held the key not only to the renewal of all social institutions, but to knowledge itself. Positivism as a theory replaced metaphysics, ethics, and theology. What was not capable of being tested by the empirical method came to be judged meaning-less and without intellectual substance.

Under the impact of Positivism, which took over like a tsunami and relativized intellectual and moral issues, Gratry’s great works were consigned to near oblivion shortly after his death.

Critical thought has shown the inadequacy of Positivism as a universal theory of knowledge, but its fallout continues to dominate intellectual life as the life-blood of secular American and international institutions, conditioning all quarters of society, importantly in the field of education.

Only one of Gratry’s vast writing, titled “Les sources” in French, The Well-Springs in English translation, remained popular and survived up to WW II. This widely read and reprinted work has two parts: 1) a Plan of Studies and 2) a Plan of Life.xv The Plan of Life, “Counsels for the Conduct of Life.” provides immediate contact with Gratry’s spirit and work. By way of conclusion, let us look at some passages.

From The Well-Springs

“I ask of you, do you will to be good? Do you mean to be that man of good will for whom God longs?

“Are you willing to devote your life to justice and truth? Are you willing to accomplish man’s true mission on earth?

“Would you be proud to become a servant of men, a worker for God? Would you be ready to follow out with unperturbable clearness of vision, with indomitable resoluteness, man’s end, God’s work? (O’Hara, Appendix 3, 203).

From Gratry’s La morale et la loi de l’histoire, 1868,xvi

“What matters to me . . . I want no one to die of hunger” (p. 203).

“It is the freedom in every soul, moral freedom, that alone can give us social freedom. But for that it is necessary to make the will for justice enter into a great number of souls, the will for justice, the science of justice, love for humanity” (p. 27). Selections trans. by M. L. O’Hara.

From The Well-Springs

“Could we not all base ourselves on the evident principle of eternal morality, of infallible and universal religion? To be kind to one another, to be just to one another? To have pity on the vast multitude that suffers and to be willing to wipe away so many tears? . . . . Is not that morally evident and necessarily true? Would not that constitute an unshakeable basis, a starting point that is simple, solid, and universally accepted?” (O’Hara, Appendix 3, Bk I, Ch.1: 204-5).


With the inadequacy of mere empiricism to deal with alienation, violence, and human need today, Gratry’s work is coming to the fore. In 2006, the Colloque Gratry marking the 200th anniversary of his birth, took place in the French Senate Building where Gratry once acted as chaplain. Stefan Gigacz has assembled a full website ( on Gratry, with links to his context, life, primary and secondary works, many of which are being translated into English. In Spain, Julián Marías’ La filosophia del Padre Gratry saw five reprintings in rapid succession witnessing to recent interest and need, and is at last, in 2020, available in English. Gratry himself saw his writings as perhaps several decades ahead of his time. Evidence from the work of Gigacz suggests he was correct.

Gratry provides a well-developed intellectual framework in the wake of Marxism, Positivism and the collapse of political and ethical institutions, the “woke” generation if you will, to advance a sound and fully integrated philosophy absent in our time.

Gratry’s spirit inspired the development of the French Movement, Le Sillon. an early member of which, Peter Maurin, later co-founded a lay movement in America with Dorothy Day during the Great Depression, known as the Catholic Worker Movement. Their houses of hospitality for endless numbers of unemployed continue to serve the poor and homeless in major cities.

In his Cardijn research, S. Gigacz notes that recordings both of Cardijn’s visit to Australia (1966), and that of Dorothy Day (1970) have recently been found.

The full effect of Gratry’s life, spiritual experience, and contemporary wisdom will only be seen and felt in the English-speaking world when his philosophical works on ethics and social justice are absorbed by scholars and his witness made available to the laity responsive to their irreplaceable vocation.­­­

M. Clare Adams


i See website, and Stefan Gigacz’ work on Le Sillon.

ii Gratry’s Philosophy. trans. M. L. O’Hara, CSJ (Adelaide: ATF Press Publishing, 2020); originally published as Julián Marías’ La filosophia del padre Gratry 5th ed.

(Madrid: Ediciones de la revista de occidente, 1972),

iii La Libre Belgique, 21st September, 1929. In Cardijn’sThought. Marguerite Fiévez and Jacques Meert with the collaboration of Roger Aubert, (Preface Dom Helder Camara) (English Translation Edward Mitchinson) Cardijn, Cardijn Media, 2012), Ch. 8. See Italics mine.

The following chart may serve to situate these men in their time:

Napoleon: 1769-1821.

August Comte: 1798-1852,

Alphonse Gratry: 1805-1872.

Karl Marx: 1818-1883.

Vatican I: 1869-1870.

Joseph Cardijn: 1882- 1967.

iv O’Hara, Ch 6: 150.

v O’Hara, 150.

vi Ibid, 152-3.

vii Ibid, 153. The following citations in Part I from Ch. 6 are given by page number in the text only.

viii Gratry, The Well-Springs, trans. Stephen Brown from the French (1931), Intro. I:19; O’Hara, Appendix 3.

ix Catéchisme social ou demandes et réponses sur les devoirs sociaux (Gaume, Paris: 1848) 110 pages.

x O’Hara, 107.

xi Ibid, 108.

xii Ibid.

xiii See Birch, Andrea Croce, “Peirce’s Three Arguments for the Reality of God,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Society Vol 4 (1990) 203-210.

xiv See O’Hara, Chapter 5, Logic: 136-141.

xv O’Hara includes Part II: A Plan of Life from Stephen Brown’s translation of The Well-Springs as Appendix 3 in Gratry’s Philosophy.

xvi La morale et la loi de l'histoire, Douniol, Paris: 1868.