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Catholic Converts:British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome

Patrick Allitt

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.

The flow of conversions in Britain and America between the mid-1840s and the late 1950s was sufficient to indicate the continuing allure of Catholicism, but it was hardly large enough to throw non-Catholic intellectuals into a panic. Although Newman was widely admired and stimulated other members of the Oxford Movement to follow his example, he was unable to lead his own brother into the Catholic fold, and most of his erstwhile followers, including the other movement leaders, Nathan Pusey and John Keble, remained staunch Anglicans. As in Britain, so in the United States. Orestes Brownson, a member of the Transcendentalist circle, carried his family and a few friends into the embrace of Rome in 1844 but not his twin or his other siblings. Most of his New England cronies, accustomed to Brownson's frequent changes of opinion, treated him as a mercurial spirit who had finally stepped off the edge of the world rather than as a role model. Among them, only Isaac Hecker and the group who later founded the Paulist fathers went with Brownson to Rome.

At times events in other churches could prompt a new spate of conversions. In the early 1890s, for example, a group of High Church Anglicans led by Lord Halifax raised the question of corporate reunion, the collective readmission of the Church of England into the Catholic Church. Hopes ran high among Anglo-Catholics for a time, but in 1896 Pope Leo XIII made a categorical declaration in the papal bull Apostolicae Curae that Anglican orders were invalid and that, in effect, there was nothing to discuss. In reaction a cluster of Anglican clergymen who had seen themselves as members of the worldwide Catholic communion and had been hoping for a different answer, resigned from their livings and converted to Catholicism. A "push" came for American Episcopal priests in 1908 when their church decided to inaugurate an "open pulpits" policy, permitting all varieties of Protestant ministers to preach in Episcopal churches. American Episcopalians who saw themselves as Anglo-Catholics revolted at the prospect, and here too the result was a large handful of conversions.

There were, however, plenty of good reasons for not converting. Quite apart from the religious wrench of conversion, becoming a Catholic in Britain or the United States often prompted accusations of disloyalty to the nation, its Protestant heritage, even its sense of common decency. When Thomas Arnold (Matthew Arnold's brother) converted, his wife wrote a furious letter to Newman, accusing him of persuading her husband "to ignore every social duty and become a pervert." She added, "From the bottom of my heart I curse you for it." In 1848 the poet Christina Rossetti refused an offer of marriage from a young artist, James Collinson, because he had converted. She accepted him when he reverted to Anglicanism but canceled their wedding plans when he "went over to" Rome for a second time. Collinson's parents disowned him, and he was reduced to begging from his friends in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Conversion usually entailed a jolting loss of social status. George Tyrrell, a young Anglican from a poor but genteel Irish family, was intellectually convinced by Catholic arguments, but his biographer notes, "he recoiled from `the dirt and tinsel, and flashy gew gaws' in the Catholic chapels, from the `essential commonness' of Romanism," and when he overcame his distaste and announced his conversion to his parents, "what pained his mother was `that a son of mine should go to Mass with the cook.'" Moreover, as David Newsome writes, the convert "became, as it were, an exile in his own land.... In addition to the humiliation of social ostracism, the pain of severed friendships and the torment of past memories, there was the inescapable problem of beginning life again within an alien community," while "recognizing that all one's past distinctions and achievements counted for nothing." It is difficult to find any example of an intellectual who derived either social or monetary gain from conversion. For many, on the contrary, the material and prestige losses were considerable. The many Anglican and Episcopalian priests who converted were especially hard hit. Being, in many cases, married, they were ineligible to join the Catholic priesthood and so faced an economically precarious future. One such married clergyman, T. W. Allies, reported "extreme depression of spirits" due to "the utter destitution of my temporal fortunes." He longed "to produce some work for the glory of God" but was condemned "to the most anxious thoughts as to what I shall eat and what I shall drink, wherewithal I shall be clothed, I and mine, and to the drudgery of teaching dunces." Such cases strongly suggest that the motive for conversion was genuine religious conviction. There are few plausible ulterior motives to explain it, though it may be true that certain character types were more receptive to the demands of Catholic life than others.

The converts' position was doubly difficult because the Catholic Church received them with mixed feelings, an uneasy blend of gratitude and disdain. Catholic bishops were understandably glad that brilliant and influential men and women had decided that Rome represented the one true church, and delighted to learn that they were willing to put their skills at the service of Catholicism. But the bishops soon discovered that converts, intellectually adventurous and unused to clerical censorship, were likely to take speculative excursions that challenged orthodoxy rather than fortifying it. One part of the history of these converts is, accordingly, the story of conflicts with their bishops over what was or was not intellectually permissible. Newman, whose superiors often viewed him with suspicion for his ideas on the development of doctrine, the role of the laity, and the nature of religious certainty, once told Lord Acton that in the hierarchy's view "all converts are dangerous." His fellow Oxford convert Richard Simpson, coeditor of the Rambler, the leading "liberal Catholic" journal of the mid-nineteenth century, had a long succession of conflicts with the hierarchy, which threatened to close the journal down as a hazard to the religion of the faithful. Isaac Hecker, the American Transcendentalist and Brook Farm communard who converted in 1844, also ran into official disapproval when his book Aspirations of Nature (1857) appeared to maintain that by nature human beings were good, minimizing the power of original sin, and hence the need for grace, well beyond what his superiors found admissible.

On the other hand, another group of converts, the Ultramontanes, became such fervent "Romanizers" that they dismayed the pragmatic "Old Catholics" of England. Henry Manning and William George Ward, for example, two Oxford converts, were among the leaders of the movement to declare the pope infallible on questions of faith and morals at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) and some of the most passionate defenders of the pope's temporal power, which was threatened by the unification of Italy. These converts' views dismayed English Old Catholics who, over three centuries or more, had gradually adapted their faith to indigenous conditions. The converts were, then, anything but unanimous among themselves but tended toward radical or extreme positions in one direction or another, arousing resentment from their new coreligionists in either instance.

The later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries showed unmistakably that the Catholic Church had decided to climb out of the river of contemporary intellectual life rather than swim along in midstream, despite the hopes of Newman, Brownson, Hecker, and many other converts. The papal hammer fell frequently on efforts to "modernize" Catholic thinking, an enterprise in which converts were often closely involved. For example, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) issued the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, condemning many of the principles upon which contemporary scientists, social scientists, and biblical critics outside the Catholic Church were then working. It concluded by condemning the proposition that "the Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile himself to, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism, and modern civilization." The condemnation brought the work of several convert intellectuals under scrutiny, and it discouraged them from showing the consonance of their work with contemporary philosophy and science. Among the converts affected was the English evolutionary biologist St. George Mivart, who was ultimately excommunicated for his assertion that the Catholic doctrine of hell was untenable. The seemingly antiintellectual animus of the syllabus also disillusioned some converts, among them Thomas Arnold, who reverted to Anglicanism when he learned of it.

Six years later Pius IX organized the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1870), declining to countenance historical evidence (provided by Newman, among others) which showed that papal supremacy itself, let alone papal infallibility, was based on several centuries of development out of an early church that had been constituted quite differently. Papal infallibility, whatever its other consequences, represented a disastrous reversal for Catholic historians, who had dedicated themselves to close analysis of the early church. The pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903) promised them some relief, but his encyclical letter Aeterni Patris (1879) aimed to revive scholasticism, keeping new philosophical and historical approaches at arm's length. Its successor, Providentissimus Deus (1893), set sharp limits on Catholic participation in historical-critical study of the Bible.

A third abrupt check for adventurous Catholic intellectuals came in 1907 when Pope Pius X's decree Lamentabili (1907) and the encyclical Pascendi (1907) sweepingly condemned "modernism" in theology; in response, one English convert, George Tyrrell, S.J., courted excommunication. In the following years seminaries and Catholic colleges in Britain and America were purged of all traces of "modernism." Outsiders regarded these episodes as further evidence that Catholic intellectuals were hamstrung by intrusive, censorious, and often ignorant authorities. This was the age in which Andrew Dickson White, first president of Cornell University, wrote his influential History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), casting the scientists as truth-loving heroes through the ages and the Catholic Church as an antiintellectual villain trying to squeeze the life out of them. White made enormous capital out of the famous Galileo case and treated it as typical of Catholicism at all times. Converts who remained committed to contemporary intellectual principles found themselves walking a tightrope between the guardians of orthodoxy on their right and their former friends and colleagues to their left.

It should not be supposed that intellectual converts to Catholicism were reliably more "liberal" in their outlook than born Catholics. The convert who is more punctilious in his new faith than the lifelong communicant is a familiar figure in Catholic lore, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provided plentiful examples of such characters. The most notable was Henry Manning, the Anglican archdeacon of Chichester, who converted in 1851 and rose in the next fifteen years to leadership of England's Catholic community, becoming archbishop of Westminster in 1865 (cardinal from 1875). Manning supported papal infallibility, as did Newman's former Oxford colleagues William George Ward and Frederick Faber, and the American convert Augustine Hewit. Subsequent Catholic historians, most of them opposed to the Ultramontane position, have given Manning in particular a bad press and found Newman's antiinfallibilist views much more palatable. But we should remember that to Manning Ultramontanism seemed to be the most liberating position. Like many of the converts, he hated the subordination of the Church of England to the civil state; indeed, he left it in protest over the Gorham case of 1851, in which the state overruled an Anglican bishop and installed as parish priest a man he considered a heretic. Setting up the papacy as a powerful counterweight to the state seemed to Ultramontanists the surest way of assuring themselves of religious and intellectual freedom. Even Isaac Hecker, who had misgivings about infallibility during the Vatican Council, accepted it later as an assertion of the "external" dignity of the church, which could now be ideally complemented by a full development of its "internal" or intellectual life.

Ultramontanists placed their faith in Thomism. In an effort to assure intellectual coherence between disciplines and a foundation for all studies in theology, the popes who reigned in the second half of the nineteenth century placed a renewed emphasis on the work of Thomas Aquinas and his scholastic successors. Scholasticism and natural law theory have many strengths, among them an orderly rationalism and a conceptual framework into which every discrete item of information can be fitted, showing its connection to the whole and to the divine will from which it springs. But scholastic philosophy and natural law encountered a succession of powerful challengers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including pragmatism, vitalism, existentialism, and logical positivism, each of which debunked scholasticism's claims to intellectual respectability. Similarly, in the physical sciences and in the study of history, the developing academic orthodoxy in Britain and America, strongly empirical and increasingly based on evolutionary, probabilist, and materialist assumptions, was at variance with the scholastic framework, which, while granting science some autonomy, linked worldly phenomena to their supernatural origins. The scholastic criticism of materialism and positivism was not so much refuted as blithely ignored by most of the scientists. Protestant conservatives were also polemicizing against the new secular sciences, but for religious and traditional reasons, Catholic and Protestant objectors to secular scholarship were unable to make common cause. Meanwhile, the development of a "Catholic ghetto," especially in the United States, with its own set of self-segregating schools, colleges, and journals, made ignoring the Catholics easier than if they had been forcing their attention upon their antagonists from adjoining offices. Non-Catholics rarely investigated the work of intellectuals in the Catholic Church unless they were searching for polemical ammunition.

After Vatican I, and especially after Pascendi, English and American convert intellectuals tended to stay away from strictly theological questions altogether and work in the safer realms of literature, history, and the social sciences. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, however, they too aimed to draw more converts into the faith that had won them. A succession of British converts, including Hugh Benson, Ronald Knox, G. K. Chesterton, and others, tried to dazzle their readers with wit, erudition, and ostentatious orthodoxy. Even so the experience of their earlier lives made their view of the outside world different from that of born Catholics and enabled them to make distinctions that sometimes escaped their born-Catholic fellows. These converts usually had relatives still outside the church; their own education outside Catholicism had formed their minds; and they found it difficult to demonize a non-Catholic society with which they were still intimately connected. Their chief line of attack was to criticize the premises of non-Catholic philosophy and science, to demonstrate its epistemological vulnerability, and to expose its links to a callow idealization of progress, sometimes with wry admissions that they too had once been deceived by its charms. They also brought their Catholic insight to bear on the political changes of their era, arguing that without the guidance of faith the world was out of control. The First World War gave their critique of progress a new plausibility.

The train of conversions continued during and after the war. Men and women disabused of their faith in progress as a force immanent in history found consolation in Catholicism. In the interwar years a distinguished group of British novelists converted to Catholicism, including Compton Mackenzie, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh, and began to make lasting contributions to the canon of English literature. In the 1850s Newman had lamented that the great classics of English literature were Protestant to the core and that English was in effect a Protestant language. Now for the first time since the Reformation, English literature enjoyed a significant Catholic leavening. Convert writers took turns touring the United States, teaching at Georgetown, Fordham, and Notre Dame and trying to encourage a Catholic literary revival across the sea. They were joined by another group of gifted and prolific controversialists, including Shane Leslie, Arnold Lunn, and Christopher Hollis, who took up the mantle of Chesterton and tried to carry on his message that Catholicism was synonymous with urbanity, erudition, and wit. Aptly enough, the first holder of the Stillman Chair in Catholic Studies at Harvard Divinity School was the English convert Christopher Dawson.

A new generation of converts in the United States joined the Catholic Church in the interwar years. The best known, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, each gradually won a wide and sympathetic audience in the non-Catholic world, eventually becoming spiritual celebrities. Less celebrated but equally important, a succession of converts from the ranks of academia--among them the historians Carlton Hayes, Ross Hoffman, and Elizabeth Kite, and the sociologist Eva Ross--brought a measure of intellectual respectability to Catholic education. This generation of converts was made up of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They had enjoyed an education in the leading American graduate schools--Hayes at Columbia and Hoffman at the University of Pennsylvania, for example--and they felt none of the immigrant insecurities and defensive belligerence still common among their ethnically assimilating Catholic contemporaries. They were as much a part of the American "establishment" as the convert sons of English Anglican bishops were part of the British establishment. They brought to Catholic academic life a new sense of ease and possession. Demonstrating a high level of technical skill in their disciplines, they began to win more sympathetic attention from non-Catholic academics. They also ran graduate programs, training young cradle Catholics to high standards, with the eventual effect of reducing the prominence of converts. Many non-Catholics found their critique of science and their philosophical antitotalitarianism germane to the total war of the 1940s and the Cold War of the 1950s. But whereas Brownson could rely only on himself and other converts, convert scholars a century later worked alongside born Catholics such as the Jesuit luminaries John Courtney Murray and Walter Ong.

By the 1950s some converts had persuaded themselves that their highbrow evangelizing effort was gaining ever more ground and that a demoralized secularist enemy was on the verge of capitulation, ready to throw itself into the arms of the pope. Not for the first time they were indulging in wishful thinking. Even as they made their hopeful prophecies, the long Catholic rear guard against modernity began to collapse from within. Catholic academics, priests and laity alike, began to question the adequacy of a scholastic and natural law approach to all issues. The church reformed itself at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), abandoning its intransigence toward the outside world and looking with a new sympathy both on the Catholic innovations of recent decades and on the non-Catholic branches of Christianity. It belatedly opened itself to scientific and philosophical systems that for a century it had repudiated, and at the same time it surrendered some of the characteristics that had made its outlook distinctive. By the 1970s many of the special qualities of Catholic scholarship were disappearing, or else were confined to the angry handful of traditionalists who refused to forsake the ways of a lifetime. Ironically some of the intransigents were intellectuals who had converted to get away from modernism in its many guises, only to find that their church too was now negotiating with modernist teachings on all sides. It only compounded the irony that converts had done much to pave the way for these changes. They had insisted on higher standards and more rigorous research, had declined to demonize the outside world, but had never meant to break down the fortress walls of what was to them the one, true Catholic faith.

In the first flush of success, Catholic intellectuals who had been pressing for reforms--an end to censorship and the exclusive reliance on sholasticism--celebrated victory over the bad old days. Enough time has now passed since the Second Vatican Council that we can evaluate the rights and wrongs of this history in a new way, temper the exuberance of the modernizers, and pay at least a guarded tribute to the convert intellectuals and their work. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Promethean self-confidence of the new sciences had seemed likely to sweep everything before it. Darwinism and the principle of evolutionary development had been applied widely to other phenomena and appeared irresistibly compelling to several generations of scientists, historians, philosophers, and social scientists. Evolutionists had scornfully dismissed the fixed principles and the unchanging universe of scholasticism and regarded it as easy to refute, if they bothered to look at it at all. Marxism, another developmental theory, which enjoyed its greatest vogue in the English-speaking countries between about 1890 and 1950, was no less scornful of Catholic thought, treating it either as an opiate for the oppressed or as the instrument of domination which a master class wielded against its subordinates. By now, however, these rival orthodoxies have, in their turn, worn thin. Evolution is still a central theory in biology but hardly in economics, anthropology, political science, or psychology, where it once ruled imperiously. From evolution sprang eugenics, the science of population manipulation, whose horrific face Hitler displayed to the world. In the same way marxism, for complex political and intellectual reasons, lost its allure; its predictions were falsified, its scientific pretensions exposed as a sham, and it too became closely linked with a brutal tyrant, Stalin, whose career in "scientific" politics was almost enough to give political science itself a bad name. The failure of the alternatives does not, in itself, demonstrate the "correctness" of the Catholic faith, to be sure, but it lends credence to the Catholic opposition to marxism and eugenics. It seems now that dogmatic Catholics enjoyed an insulation against some of the utopian currents that swept the Western nations in the first half of this century. It would be rash today to say that Catholicism was wrong when its adversaries were right. Our age, more jaded and skeptical in the face of successive disappointments, can pay it at least backhanded compliments, acknowledge its strengths as well as its weaknesses, and recognize that it provided the standpoint from which to make a telling critique of its secular rivals.

A project of this kind, covering more than a century and two nations (with frequent glances at Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, Canada, and Italy), is obliged to move rapidly or become impossibly long. My approach is to single out the most influential figures from each generation and explain their work, rather than attempt to give a comprehensive account of all convert writers, though at times I have tried to rescue from obscurity characters who seem to me to deserve more fame than history has granted them, including Richard Simpson (Chapter 4), Elizabeth Kite (Chapter 7), and Bertram Windle (Chapter 8). "Influence" is, of course, an elusive phenomenon, not really amenable to accurate measurement. Such figures as Newman, Brownson, Hecker, Dawson, and Chesterton get comparatively thorough treatment not because they are typical of anything but because of their exceptional qualities; few of their fellow converts could rival them for insight or write so much and so well. In general I aim to demonstrate qualitative rather than quantitative changes throughout, arguing that the converts, who were never more than 2 or 3 percent of the Catholic population in either nation, were disproportionately represented in the ranks of Catholic writers, lecturers, editors, and professors, that their ideas often set the agenda for other Catholic intellectuals working within the tradition, and that non-Catholics looked to the more persuasive convert writers when they wanted to find "the Catholic position" on a controversial issue.

Another elusive yet important issue for a project of this kind is the question of the relationship between truth and intellectual respectability. The convert intellectuals were aware, in many cases, that what they believed to be true was not regarded by non-Catholics as plausible or reasonable or, indeed, respectable. On some points both groups could agree, of course, and the convert writers' intention was to make a closer fit between "Catholic truth" and "intellectual respectability." At any given moment in the era from about 1825 to 1962, Catholic intellectuals knew that a range of ideas was considered respectable in the two nations. They also knew that some Catholic ideas sat comfortably inside this area and others remained well beyond its boundaries. Their job, as they saw it, was to drag the recalcitrant Catholics into the realm of the respectable, while trying to shift the zone of respectable ideas in the society at large, in order that Catholic truth and respectable ideas might coincide more fully. They wanted to convince Protestant and atheist contemporaries that much of their work was in error or based on fallacious premises, encouraging them to become more Catholic and more intellectually respectable.

But the general trend bore the range of intellectually respectable ideas steadily away from religion in general and Catholicism in particular. This trend, often labeled "secularization," appeared for decades to be unstoppable, so that many convert intellectuals, far from reversing its momentum, found their own views gradually moving outside the realm of what other intellectuals considered plausible. The consequence was marginalization, and convert intellectuals in general lost influence with the passing decades, so that none in the twentieth century could have an effect on his or her non-Catholic contemporaries to match that of Newman and Brownson in the mid-nineteenth. Certain writers, such as Chesterton or Christopher Dawson, could still find admirers, but neither created a major school of thought, and non-Catholic admirers saw their religion as a colorful aberration rather than a central element in their work. In that sense this book is the history of a momentous and protracted failure.

(C) 1997 Cornell University All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-8014-2996-X




Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved