Catholicism: Good for the Great Thinkers

Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome by Patrick Allitt (Cornell University Press, 1997, 343 pp., $35)

At Yale University, there is an informal group of Christian graduate students that meets on occasion to enjoy the life of gentlemen scholars. Attired in bow ties and ensconced in wing-back chairs, they drink scotch, smoke cigars, and deliver papers on appropriately weighty matters.

Last year, one paper was entitled, Why I am Not a Catholic. When the faux-Oxbridge set in the Ivy League gets defensive about not being Catholic, something is happening. It has been happening for more than 150 years.

“To join the Catholic Church meant to put up with rough, makeshift churches and chapels and the company of uncouth Irish laborers,” writes Patrick Allitt about 19th-century Britain and America, “nevertheless, in many cases religious and intellectual conviction won out, and a flow of conversions to Rome began in both countries which continued through the 19th century and well into the 20th.”

Things are different now. Catholicism is no longer wholly disreputable amongst the cultural elite and, with the likes of Richard John Neuhaus, George Rutler, Aidan Nichols, Russell Kirk, Bernard Nathanson, Malcolm Muggeridge, Conrad Black and, mirabile dictu, the Duchess of Kent and a chorus of Anglican clergy, it appears downright fashionable to swim the Tiber. Moreover, the vigor of contemporary Catholic intellectual life in Britain and America is traceable directly to converts.

Perhaps his next book will be about the above names, but here Allitt covers the period 1840-1960, when, with the notable exceptions of Cardinal Wiseman and Lord Acton, “nearly all the Catholic intellectuals writing in English were converts.” The honor roll is impressive: Cardinals Newman and Manning, Orestes Brownson, Isaac Hecker, William Ward, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson, Dorothy Day, Ronald Knox, Arnold Lunn, Clare Booth Luce, Christopher Hollis, Carlton Hayes, Christopher Dawson, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Thomas Merton, Marshall McLuhan, and many others of lesser fame. Perhaps the only reason C.S. Lewis did not convert was to keep Catholics humble.

Allitt wisely does not attempt an amalgam of biographical data on these converts, of which there is already a rich literature, but rather covers the intellectual trends in the English-speaking Catholic world that the converts did so much to shape. It is an academic tale told thoroughly but without tedium—not an easy thing to do. The scholarly apparatus is evident, with ample footnotes where they should be, at the bottom of the page and not exiled to the back. The notes alone comprise a full course on the intellectual history of the period, but the lack of a bibliography is inconvenient.

The main narrative explains why the earlier converts left Anglicanism (or the Episcopal Church in America) for Roman Catholicism, and their ensuing work in their new home to reinvigorate Catholic intellectual life. The disagreements amongst the converts about how the Church should engage modernity are still current today. Indeed, Allitt's book is a good starting point for those interested in different views on how the Church should evangelize cultures steeped in the Enlightenment.

The earlier generation was marked by the conversion of Newman and Manning. Both later made cardinals; they clashed about how the Church should deal with the prevailing intellectual currents in a century of rapid political and economic change. Newman represented the school that favored engagement and flexibility, seeking wherever possible to meet the champions of progress, development, critical history, and science on their own ground. Manning saw the dangers to Catholic doctrine and advocated holding fast to Rome as the best guarantee of the Church's political liberty and doctrinal purity. Manning's view triumphed with the 1870 definition of papal infallibility, which Newman declared “inopportune,” and later, after they were both dead, in the condemnations of modernism by Pius X. That retrenchment, while a bitter blow to intellectuals, may have protected the Church from “the synthesis of all heresies” that has brought the Anglican communion to the brink of collapse.

The Holy Father has observed that the world has grown weary of ideology and is opening itself to the truth.

A second wave of converts joined the Church after Pius X's crackdown, which “segregated Catholic intellectual life for 50 years.” Yet the atrocities of the first world war and the Bolshevik revolution put an end to the 19th-century belief in progress, and the very intransigence of the Church attracted converts who saw around them the collapse of Western civilization.

“We Catholics may be unable to arrest the world's progress to self-destruction,” wrote Arnold Lunn to Ronald Knox in 1949, “but at least we understand what is destroying us. We have at least the melancholy satisfaction of not being simultaneously bewildered and annihilated.”

Allitt is clearly impressed by his convert subjects, but he too is melancholy. Given that the converts failed to establish a distinctive school of thought and grew less influential as the decades passed, Allitt classifies his book as the “history of a momentous and protracted failure.”

If the criteria of success is the healing of Reformation schisms, triumphing over secularism, or imitating the Catholic intellectual explosion of the 13th century, then of course the convert intellectuals failed. But the spirit of Newman breathes strong in Vatican II, and in postconcilar documents such as Ex Corde Ecclesiae. While the declaration on religious liberty would have shocked Cardinal Manning, Vatican II went further in asserting papal primacy than anything dreamed of by the Fathers of Vatican I.

The Church after Vatican II was marked by a strong and very busy Magisterium which sought engagement with the modern world, whether on human rights or the legitimate autonomy of economics and science. The division between freedom and authority—the perspective from which Allitt describes the two camps in the 19th century—dissolves in John Paul II, who insists upon “truth as a condition for authentic freedom” (Redemptor Hominis 12), and does not trim on the Church's authority to teach that truth.

As for influence, the works of Newman and Chesterton—and Lewis—are as popular as ever. The Holy Father has observed that the world has grown weary of ideology and is opening itself to the truth. Young people are opening the books of converts from Dorothy Day to Thomas Merton and discovering the same splendor of truth that drew them to Rome. A “momentous failure” is too harsh a judgment.

Allitt is interesting even for those who know the period well. He provides four chapter-length inter-ludes on convert women, historians, novelists, and the immediate pre-Vatican II generation that provide fascinating sketches and break up the weight of the main narrative. Readers are also introduced to less famous converts such as Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52), an architect who contributed to Gothic revival in Victorian England. He designed the Birmingham and Southwark cathedrals, and in delicious irony—Guy Fawkes and all that—collaborated on the rebuilding of the Parliament buildings in London.

One element missing from Catholic Converts is a chapter on the perennial temptation of the intellectual, and even more so the convert intellectual: The conviction that his own judgment is to be the final arbiter of the truth. The convert is not immune from this temptation, as he may have embraced Catholicism because it teaches what he thinks is the truth, rather than because it teaches the fullness of the truth it receives from God. It is a fine distinction, but the Catholic is first called to accept the authority of Christ and his Church, not his own judgment.

It is possible to become a Catholic and still think like a Protestant. It is also possible to become a Catholic and stop thinking altogether. Many of the disputes covered here result from falling too close to either error. A deeper insight into these converts requires an understanding of the challenge of professing faith in a Church that obliges its followers sentire cum Ecclesia, to think with the Church. It is easier to think on one's own, or let the Church do all the thinking. The challenge of sentire cum Ecclesia is the intellectual adventure of being Catholic.

Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.