|Photo Source: The Gregorian Institute|
Cornell University Press
Intellectuals Becoming Catholics
FROM THE MID-NINETEENTH century to the mid-twentieth, a succession of English-speaking intellectuals converted to Catholicism. Since the Reformation almost no English-language writers of any influence had tried to advance the cause of the Catholic Church. When the church began to reassert itself in the nineteenth century, it used converts as its principal advocates. Outspoken, intellectually gifted, and impressed by their own example, Catholic converts said that they would show up the fallacies of Protestants and religious skeptics, end the long schism in Christendom, and place Catholics once more at the center of Western intellectual life.
Some of the names of these convert intellectuals are widely familiar, and among them John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Isaac Hecker, Orestes Brownson, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day have all been the subject of more than one major biography. Around Newman, Day, and Merton, indeed, academic subfields have formed, and the existence of the Chesterton Review suggests that the memory of this prolific Londoner is also well tended. But no one has yet written a study of the general impact of converts on Catholic intellectual life in this era or the distinctive style of Catholicism they helped to create. Nor has anyone investigated the extensive transatlantic contacts among these English-speaking Catholic writers. Such is the purpose of this book.
Many of their contemporaries regarded the idea of a "Catholic intellectual" as a contradiction in terms, believing that the repressive Roman church prohibited freedom of thought. The converts were eager to prove otherwise; their work in history, science, literature, and philosophy was designed to substantiate their belief that Catholicism was intellectually liberating rather than restrictive, despite the church's dogmatic style and hierarchical structure. They wrote partly for a Catholic audience, to be sure, but more for their Protestant and skeptical contemporaries, hoping to vindicate their own conversions by persuading others to follow them. To win more converts they knew that they would have to improve intellectual standards within Catholicism. History written in the form of pious hagiography and retrospective justification of every Catholic position, for example, would never convince Protestants and skeptics; it was annoying rather than persuasive to all but the most devout believer. Catholic history would henceforth have to be deeply researched, impartial in evaluating evidence, stylistically elegant, and vigorously argued. The same would have to be true in all other disciplines too. In urging such changes and in trying to set an example in their own work, however, convert intellectuals did not mean to abandon apologetics. Rather, they introduced a more circumspect apologetics, calculated to attract other intellectuals by appealing to them in their own idiom.
Sharing a common language and literary heritage, the British and American Catholic converts followed each other's progress closely. In both countries Catholics were a numerical minority, more or less resented by the Protestant majority and sometimes victimized by anti-Catholic uprisings, anti-Catholic political organizations such as the Know-Nothings, and a general cultural antipathy to all aspects of "popery." Because Catholicism was a minority religion in the English-speaking nations, its adherents tended to cleave to one another and to respect their clergy. Anticlericalism, a fact of life in Italy, France, and Mexico, was very rare in Britain and America, although English-speaking Catholics had good reason to think that the Catholic hierarchy in Rome did not understand the situation in their nations. They sometimes found it vexing to act upon Vatican directives that had no relevance to their situation. Convert intellectuals responded to their shared problems by encouraging and aiding one another. A regular traffic developed as they crossed and recrossed the Atlantic to confer, teach, and spread the word in each other's nations.
As they tried to make a place for themselves in the Catholic Church and a case for this church in the wider intellectual world, the first generation of converts found little Catholic literature in English on which to build. They had to start almost from scratch in trying to show what Catholic science or Catholic history as serious intellectual enterprises would be like. "We Catholics have no philosophy," wrote John Acton, an English "cradle" Catholic, in a letter of 1854 to the American convert writer Orestes Brownson. "You alone can prepare us for the great controversies by founding among us a school and arming it with the principles of a sound philosophy." For Brownson and his fellow converts Catholicism was something quite new, but at the same time they were aware that it was far more ancient than its Christian rivals and that they had inherited a vast intellectual patrimony. They set to work, exploring and reinterpreting the Catholic past, trying to recover it from the obloquy of Protestant historiography as well as from the syrup of Catholic hagiography.
This paradoxical antiquity and novelty of Catholicism was complemented by another paradox: the converts' sense that Catholicism was both different from their former faiths and yet also very similar. They accepted their new faith as adults, having spent their youth and years of education outside the Catholic fold. In many cases a long intellectual preparation for conversion took place within other churches. The best-known British convert, John Henry Newman, for example, converted from Anglicanism at the age of forty-four after more than two decades of study and writing in Patristics. For many years he believed that the church Fathers were the precursors of Anglicanism, but at last in 1845, he admitted to himself that if they pointed in any direction, it was to Rome. Conversion changed his explicit allegiance and had immense consequences for the course of his life, but it did not overturn his pattern of thinking. The continuities in his thought before and after conversion are in many ways more striking than the discontinuities. The same was true a generation later of G. K. Chesterton, who converted at the age of forty-six. His book Orthodoxy (1908), written while he was still an Anglican, became a favorite among his Catholic admirers, who in this way acknowledged the continuity. Intellectually, then, conversion was often incremental, but institutionally (as well as perceptually, to outside observers), the jump was immense, from the establishment into the wilderness. The Catholic Church saw itself as embattled against the rest of the world and tried to recruit its converts as polemicists, but they, more often than not, retained heavy intellectual debts to their Protestant past and could not repudiate their personal and intellectual heritage. Paradoxically, then, Catholicism was both totally different from its rivals and yet, at the same time, remarkably continuous with them. It was a paradox that frequently caused friction between the new and old Catholics.
The outcome of the convert intellectuals' labors was not what they themselves had hoped. Although for three or four generations they were highly influential within the Catholic Church, playing a crucial role in transforming English-language Catholicism, they were powerless to halt or reverse the dominant intellectual trends of their era. The church was certainly unable to resume the central place in Western intellectual life which it had enjoyed prior to the Reformation. While the new Catholics challenged non-Catholic scholars on the vital issues of the era, the non-Catholics rarely deigned even to notice them in return and made little effort to incorporate their insights into their work. For example, William George Ward, a friend of Newman's and a fiery controversialist, converted in 1845 and later became editor of the Dublin Review, one of the leading British Catholic journals. His biographer (and son) describes at length Ward's fifteen-year correspondence with John Stuart Mill, giving the impression that Ward had a large effect on the utilitarian philosopher's outlook. But no biographer of Mill has found evidence of this supposed influence, and it is likely that the Wards indulged in wishful thinking when they came to assess the importance of the correspondence to Mill's own life and work. Continue Reading here...
Other Interesting Article: America's Greatest Catholic Intellectuals