Bernard Kelly and the Vigor of Lay Thought

BOOK PICK: A Catholic Mind Awake


The Writings of Bernard Kelly

Edited by Scott Randall Paine

Angelico Press, 2017

304 pages, $19.95

To order:


This book is a welcome and important act of recovery. Bernard Kelly (1907-1958) was a normal Catholic, living in Windsor with a large family and working as a bank clerk. Yet Kelly had another life.

For over almost three decades, Kelly contributed sophisticated philosophical essays and reviews primarily to Blackfriars, the prestigious journal of the British Dominicans. This collection is the first time Kelly’s writings have seen print since their original publication.

It is unclear from the otherwise excellent introduction by Scott Randall Paine, a professor of philosophy at the University of Brasilia, what initially lead Kelly into this strange double life. Amid the demands of work and his six children — not to mention the tuberculosis that laid him low for two years in the 1940s — clearly some driving force compelled Kelly to write as a way to make sense of the philosophical and religious challenges of his day.   

Kelly was writing at the tail end of the great series of Catholic converts, from John Henry Newman to Christopher Dawson, G.K. Chesterton and Eric Gill, whose apologetics and other work defined English Catholicism for a century. Kelly was the inheritor and defender of this tradition.

Given the period in which he wrote, his writing on the surface displays the philosophical confidence of mid-century Thomism before the convulsions of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet in these pieces, we see more than dry exposition: Kelly has flashes of insight derived from his life in finance and as a family man that connect philosophical concerns with the wider world. There is much more going on here than would first appear.

The book is divided into four main sections, covering topics ranging from Gerard Manley Hopkins (of whom Kelly was an astute and sympathetic critic) to economic justice and what would now be called comparative religion.

In a 1935 essay, “The Bourgeois Position,” Kelly traces the flaws of this perspective to the sin of acedia, which is like a spiritual lassitude. Kelly is not speaking from a monastery or rectory, but from the world of business. He knows the value of a free market and what it takes to raise a family, but also the temptation to think that economic success is all that it takes. But he nonetheless concludes a Catholic cannot fully be “of” the market. From this belief “derives the mode of his burlesque spirituality. ... It makes him feel good to go to church. Seeker of comfort on everything, he imposed upon religion ... the limits of his comfortable feelings, filling out the body of his faith with a warm sentimental glow.”

Kelly wrote during the economic upheavals of the 1930s and he rejected the communist solution because of its atheism and its essentially dehumanizing nature; rather, “the drive of the Christian ethic can’t stop short of qualitative improvement of the nature of industrials tasks and industrial products.”

Drawing on distributist thought, Kelly argued work should be beautiful and of a humane scale; but he was no nostalgist, but sought to explain Catholic social principles in the world as it was.

The other subject that distinguishes Kelly is his layman’s interaction with non-Christian religions.

Kelly, for example, corresponded for years with the distinguished Indian philosopher and historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, who became an interlocutor for Kelly between the Western and Eastern philosophical traditions. This collection contains the results of that lifelong conversation.

This could be a perilous road; other Catholics who sought a “perennial” philosophy underneath the specifics of different traditions ultimately lost the faith. But engagement with these traditions could not, in the modern world, be avoided.

Kelly provides a model of a Catholic unafraid to delve deep into Hindu texts (learning Sanskrit to do so) to understanding non-Christian concepts of the divine, but also not forgetting to bring the Gospel with him. His 1956 speech to the Cambridge Aquinas Society, published as “A Thomistic Approach to the Vedanta,” does just this by discussing Thomistic metaphysics in the context of Hindu scriptures.

All knowledge is given to us to help us in the truth, Kelly believed, and other traditions may help us see God in our own. That he maintained, indeed strengthened, his faith, is obvious, as reflected in a profound meditation on the Stations of the Cross he published in 1956.

As Paine notes, Kelly died before Pope John XXIII announced his intention to call the Second Vatican Council. We do not know how Kelly would have reacted to such a momentous event, though surely he would have welcomed the renewed emphasis on the laity in developing the mind of the Church.

This volume reminds us of the vigor of lay thought when open to both contemporary issues and the mind of the Church.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.