Postmortem on a Rebirth: The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance


Beginning in the early part of the twentieth century, a Catholic intellectual Renaissance took place in North America and Europe.

In the summer of 1907, Pope Pius X, later to be canonized a saint, issued two documents, Lamentabili sane exitu (“With Truly Lamentable Effect”) and Pascendi Dominici gregis (“Feeding the Lord's Flock”), both in condemnation of a theological movement which he called modernism. Among the doctrines condemned were denials of the historical reliability of Scripture and the Church's authority to interpret it, and denials of immutable truth. The drift of modernism, as the Pope condemned it, was that religion was an essentially human phenomenon, the product of the evolving consciousness of the human race.

Whether all the modernists held to all the positions condemned has been a matter of debate ever since. It is a judgment which is difficult to make because to some extent the modernists were either supported or condemned for wishing to introduce more historical studies into theology, and it is not clear how far all of them wished to carry the historical method. The principal targets of the condemnation (which, like most such papal documents, did not single out individuals) were undoubtedly the French priest Alfred Loisy and the Irish former Jesuit George Tyrell. The most eminent names associated with the movement were those of laymen — Baron Friedrich von Hügel and Maurice Blondel. Both of the latter were sharply critical of some aspects of the modernists' work, and the degree to which they should be considered modernists has also been the source of continuing controversy.

Conventional wisdom in Catholic intellectual circles of the 1970s holds that the condemnation of modernism brought an end to serious Catholic thought for more than fifty years, ushering in a reign of terror which inhibited intellectuals until the benign pontificate of Pope John XXIII (1958-63) and the dramatic changes of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Oddly, however, an obscure event the year before the modernist condemnation had already signaled the beginning of possibly the brightest period of modern Catholic thought. In June 1906, in Montmartre, the young Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, both former agnostics — he from a liberal Protestant background, she of Russian-Jewish birth — received baptism. To the degree that they were aware of modernism at all (they may not have become aware of it until some time later), they approved Pius X's condemnation. The Maritain conversion can be looked at from one standpoint as another in a series of such occurrences stretching back to the time of Romanticism, a process involving the conscious rejection of the rational skepticism of the Enlightenment. John Henry Newman was the chief nineteenth-century figure in the drama. From another standpoint, however, the twentieth century conversion phenomenon, lasting practically down to 1960, was a distinct phase which owed relatively little to the earlier ones.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Catholic thought in the twentieth century has been precisely the fact that most of its eminent figures were converts. That men suckled in a creed outworn should grow up prepared to elaborate and defend it is not surprising. That brilliant skeptics should ultimately be attracted to it is surprising. Ironically, even in France, the “eldest daughter of the Church”, most of the great twentieth-century Catholic intellectuals — the Maritains, Paul Claudel, Léon Bloy, Charles Péguy, Gabriel Marcel, Edith Stein — were converts, either actually or in the sense of born Catholics who rejected childhood faith but later returned to the Church with a passion. There were also the near-converts, like Henri Bergson and Simon Weil.

England, where the Catholic population, other than poor Irish, was quite small, naturally needed convert thinkers even more, and a supply was always available: G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Ronald Knox, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. Even Anglo-Catholicism gained its principal luminaries — T. S. Elliot, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis — from convert ranks.

Modernism, treated for over fifty years like a minor and altogether uninteresting event, now returns to haunt Catholicism like a repressed desire, and it has become customary to say that the questions which the modernists raised now constitute the present Catholic intellectual agenda. Also customary is the lament that condemnation of the movement cut off the Church's most promising effort to make its doctrines credible to modern skeptics. Yet the remarkable fact is that the distinguished converts of the twentieth century were attracted to the Church, not in spite of the condemnation, but almost, in some cases, because of it. What they found attractive and credible in it were precisely those things which Pius X sought to protect with his condemnation, and they found the characteristic doctrines of modernism either false or uninteresting.

A little-noticed aspect of Modern intellectual history is that although liberal religion, whether Christian or Jewish, was created with the aim of making the old faith credible to modern doubters, it rarely does so. Such liberalizations, rather, appeal primarily to those who were raised in the old creed, have become restive under it, and are often in the process of abandoning it. Intellectual converts are almost always attracted to rather traditional and even rigorous versions of religion, probably because liberalized religion merely confirms the skeptic's suspicion that the traditional faith was false.

For whatever reason, France and England were the centers of this Catholic intellectual revival, quite possibly because of the necessary confrontation with a hostile culture which was a permanent feature of Catholic life in those countries. (France, while nominally Catholic, harbors a continuing tradition of antireligious skepticism dating from the eighteenth century.) The flowerings in Spain and Italy were much less brilliant and, while there was much activity in America, most of it was dependent on European models. The Church in Germany had a brilliant intellectual life, but Catholic energies there were focused primarily on questions of internal Catholic concern and made less contact with the wider culture, at least outside the German-speaking lands (the chief exceptions being Romano Guardini, Josef Pieper, and the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar).

Catholicism inspired by especially fruitful literary creativity, including not only Waugh, Greene, Georges Bernanos, and Francois Mauriac but even a major Catholic novelist in a most unlikely place, Norway's Sigrid Undset. Perhaps only in literature was the American contribution, while modest, nonetheless significant, embracing a generation of writers — Flannery O'Connor, J. F. Powers, Walker Percy — younger than the European masters and essentially independent of them. (Catholic writers roughly contemporaneous with the Europeans, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and James T. Farrell, found largely negative inspiration in their childhood faith.) America has also had its noted literary converts — Robert Lowell, Thomas Merton, and Tennessee Williams — although Catholicism's influence on Williams' writing is scarcely detectable.

That Catholicism should have proved fruitful in the twentieth-century, literary context is not surprising for several reasons, not the least important of which is the fundamental dramatic tensions which it generates: sin and redemption, authority and freedom, tradition and experience. Modern culture, as it grows simultaneously more open and more uniform, takes on a certain flatness which renders novelistic creation in particular quite problematical. For those who took Catholicism seriously, however, there was never any lack of enticing possibilities.

An important measure of Catholicism's spiritual and intellectual collapse sine 1960 is that whatever literary inspiration it now provides is once again a largely negative one (for example, the Americans Tom McHale and Mary Gordon and the Australians Thomas Kenneally and Colleen McCullough), sometimes verging on hate. The classic Catholic novelists of the “preconciliar period” — that is, the period of the “unreformed” Church before the Second Vatican Council — found a resolution of tensions in ways which reaffirmed the essential validity of belief. The suffering endured and the perplexities explored finally yielded an experience of richness and profundity previously only glimpsed. Nowhere, perhaps, did Catholic novelists move more resolutely against the cultural grain than in their willingness to propose the redemptive value of renunciation. Oddly, despite the rich comic possibilities inherent in Catholicism's relationship to modern culture, only Evelyn Waugh, among the major Catholic writers of the classical period (ca. 1930-60), systematically exploited them. He was also the most rigorously orthodox of all and the least accepting of modern secularity.

A major unsolved mystery is why Christianity, and especially Catholicism, has never ceased to inspire composers all the way down to the present, while overtly religious painting, among major artists, virtually ceased in the seventeenth century. In the twentieth century alone, the list of composers who took inspiration from Catholic liturgy includes Bruckner, Stravinsky, Poulenc, Dupré, Duruflé, and Messiaen, alongside Anglicans like Vaughan, Williams and Britten. Among painters, however, Georges Rouault stands almost alone as an identifiably Catholic artist.

A Catholic presence in the arts could perhaps have been predicted in the century of science; at least since the time of Pascal the ground of religious affirmation in the West has been shifting from the objective to the subjective, from formal argumentation to the seemingly ineradicable religious sense which is found in human beings. In the world of imagination, virtually no belief seems impossible, and religious themes have often been used by artists having no belief in the doctrines behind them. (Among major writers of the Catholic revival perhaps only Graham Greene is open to this suspicion, although, as he describes his development, he moved only gradually away from the orthodoxy which he had embraced at the time of his conversion in the 1920s.)

In its most powerful and influential expressions, however, the Catholic revival sought to meet the rationalists on their own ground. While not insensitive to the artistic and the intuitive (both Maritain and Gilson wrote aesthetic treatises), the dominant Catholic thinkers of the age were determined that the phenomenon of belief should be placed on a rigorously constructed foundation. It was scholastic philosophy and theology that would receive the major investment of Catholic intellectual resources.

Despite general impressions to the contrary, the authority of Thomas Aquinas did not dominate Catholic thought through all the centuries following his death. Although his name was revered in the nineteenth century, other thinkers, notably the sixteenth-century Jesuit Francisco Suárez, were probably more influential. The modern Thomistic revival dates essentially from the authoritative exhortations of Pope Leo XIII in the 1880s.

Any number of modern people, beginning with Machiavelli, have asserted that Christianity is useful, and the Romantics managed to restore its respectability by proclaiming its beauty. But to the converts of the early twentieth century one question alone mattered: was it true? The conversion of the Maritains stemmed from their conviction that it was. Their dilemma was the age-old metaphysical one — whether life has meaning —and faith was the only alternative to the fulfillment of a suicide pact they had made with one another. In the skeptical and positivistic atmosphere of the Sorbonne of 1900, religious beliefs alone seemed hopeful and truly humane.

Initially the Maritains may have been what the Church calls “fideists”, a position that is widespread even though officially condemned. It means religious belief which is self-validating; an understanding of belief which is essentially nonrational and even irrational, without philosophical foundations. Groping for something more, the Maritains passed under the influence of Bergson. But it was discovery of Aquinas that proved to be a revelation almost as great as that of Catholicism itself. “Woe unto me if I should fail to Thomisticize”, Jacques Maritain quipped in a paraphrase of Saint Paul. Gilson came to Thomism via a much Popularer and somewhat later route. He discovered the medieval philosophical heritage while researching Descartes's intellectual antecedents.

The scholastic revival predated Maritain and Gilson, but without them it would probably have remained a wholly Catholic thing. Instead, by the eve of World War II, a kind of scholasticism was being taught even in some secular colleges, among them the University of Chicago under Mortimer Adler and Richard McKeon, where the joke ran that atheist professors taught Catholic philosophy to Jewish students. Even where it did not command assent, scholasticism was taken seriously. Gilson, for example, gave his series of lectures on Medieval Universalism and Its Present Value in conjunction with the Harvard tercentenary of 1936 and in 1943 lectured at Rutgers on Dogmatism and Tolerance. His The Unity of Philosophical Experience was also based on Harvard lectures, and Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages was a series of lectures given at the University of Virginia. Maritain was welcome at a number of American universities, notably Princeton. Suggestive of a not altogether positive kind of change which has occurred in American academic circles over the past few decades is the fact that such lectures on such subjects would not be likely to gain sponsorship today and, if they did, would probably attract little interest.

Against the positivistic and skeptical spirit of the dominant American philosophies, the apostles of neo-scholasticism asserted the possibility of genuine metaphysical knowledge, a perennial truth valid and knowable in all historical periods. Toward this end, they proposed Aristotelian logic and epistemology as constitutive of the method, and their ultimate conclusions were also essentially Aristotelian, albeit in Thomistic form. It was a system of thought which began with sense experience, proceeded to a metaphysical understanding of what was experienced, and reasoned through a series of causes, to the Final Cause, God.

The openness which many nonbelievers showed toward neo-scholasticism may have owed something to the religious revival among Western intellectuals that began as early as T. S. Eliot's conversion in 1928 and came to flower after World War II. However, the neo-scholastics were emphatically not calling for a revival of faith, or at least not primarily. They took their stand on the foundation of reason, and their critique of modern thought — put forth most boldly in Maritain's Three Reformers and Gilson's The Unity of Philosophical Experience — was that it either rejected reason or misused it. All forms of irrationalism, whether fideistic, romantic, psychological, or existential, were criticized, as were uses of reason that were merely instrumental or analytic and failed to grasp reality in all its fullness.

At the same time, the neo-scholastics also insisted that a genuine rationality would inevitably lead to God, understood first as the ultimate cause of all things. Reason, while it did not inevitably lead to faith, nonetheless showed that faith was not irrational. The act of believing was itself not unnatural, a recognition finally that reason had been pushed to its limits and that there were more things in the universe than could be dreamed of in philosophy.

The fideistic tradition in Christianity, which also had a long pedigree, was sternly read out of court, and much of Catholic intellectual life came to be characterized by a kind of hyperrationalism in which the passion for logical proof and argumentation was dominant. This led to a strange and ultimately very damaging anomaly in Catholic higher education, whereby theology was often not taught at all or was taught badly, while major effort was concentrated on the teaching of philosophy. In this respect Gilson was far less rigid than some of the lesser neo-scholastics, and he aroused controversy by his insistence that, in Aquinas, philosophy and theology were not distinct disciplines, that Aquinas's philosophical positions had been directly influenced by his religious faith (for example, his assertion of God as “pure being” — having been inspired by God's self-revelation to Moses in the burning bush (“I am Who am”). Maritain, while of deep faith, was more inclined to operate within a strictly philosophical framework. (A probably apocryphal story has Raïssa Maritain asking a woman, “Are you a Thomist?” “No, but I'm a Catholic.” “Well, at least that's a start.”)

The neo-scholastics were naturally vulnerable to the charge of being romantic nostalgists, of being religiously motivated to return to the Middle Ages. Whatever elements of truth there may have been in that charge, it seems likely that they were attracted less by the idea of a perfect age of faith than by a rationally based philosophy which was more comprehensive than anything modernity could offer — reason not primarily as skeptical and analytical but as creative and systematic. Gilson in particular was antiromantic in his repeated insistence that many self-proclaimed Thomists really misunderstood the nature of scholasticism and read it in ways that were subtly corrupted by precisely those modern philosophical errors which they were ostensibly rejecting. (The key point for both Maritain and Gilson was the apprehension of the “act of existence” itself — the question whether or not a thing really exists, and how, not merely the general or abstract conception of it in the mind.)

Gilson was a historian who ventured only occasionally into fields of contemporary controversy. His historical work was monumental; a series of studies of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Héloise and Abelard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, and Dante, culminating in the magisterial History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Rarely has one man dominated a scholarly field as long as Gilson did from the Medieval Institute at the University of Toronto.

The neo-scholastics made a bold and unfashionable but certainly not unreasonable claim: that the process of human thought culminates at certain points in history, arriving at a peak whose achievements are forever valid. Their peak was the thirteenth century and the work of Aquinas, whose synthesis of faith and reason was to be taken as the most profound intellectual account of the depth and complexity of existence. The history of late scholasticism, loosely lumped together under the title of nominalism, was then the history of the disintegration of that synthesis, the prelude to and cause of the modern Western cultural breakdown. (When the scholarly reaction to Gilson set in, it centered primarily on two things — a more positive evaluation of late scholasticism and the charge that Gilson underestimated the influence of Plato on the whole scholastic enterprise.)

Gilson did occasionally venture into battles of the moment. In Dogmatism and Tolerance, for example, he made a case similar to one made by Hannah Arendt — that totalitarianism does not aim to instill, but to destroy, convictions in people—and went on to argue that certain kinds of dogmatically held beliefs would be a bulwark against the modern totalitarian state. (Earlier, in one of his Harvard lectures, he had joked that the spirit of relativism could hardly become more tolerant than to welcome the dogmatist into its midst, a congratulatory remark which would have much less applicability in contemporary academia.)

However, it was primarily Maritain who undertook to demonstrate the relevance of Thomism to the twentieth century, publishing five books on aesthetics and five on politics, as well as formal philosophical works and other assorted projects. For some years he lived in Princeton and for a time served as French Ambassador to the Vatican. In the 1920s he had given his support (as had T. S. Eliot) to Action Francaise, the French movement which, under the atheist Charles Maurras, advocated a revival of the prerevolutionary alliance of throne and altar. But Maritain became disillusioned with the movement even before it was condemned by Pope Pius XI in 1926. By World War II, Maritain had become a convinced democrat and, living in the United States during the Pétain regime, found himself increasingly attracted to the American political system. Unlike in France, democracy in the New World was not contaminated by anticlericalism and official secularist ideology. He thought that separation of church and state had obviated church-state conflict.

In Scholasticism and Politics, written during World War II, Maritain expressed discouragement at the pessimism and lack of self-confidence characteristic of the Western democracies, and in the postwar world he joined enthusiastically in the resurgence of that confidence. While stopping short of asserting that democracy as a political system flowed directly from correct philosophical principles, he nonetheless dismissed Fascism and Communism as inherently irrational. Bourgeois individualism was, however, implicitly immoral and, by breaking down all sense of community and shared moral values, would inevitably end in some form of statism: order imposed from above. In Integral Humanism (1936) and later works, he developed a systematic critique of the prevailing modern political ideologies and argued that a workable political order, which might appropriately be democracy, depended on a correct understanding of human nature and of natural moral law.

Maritain became something of an Americanophile, seeking to counter not only what he regarded as European misconceptions about America but also the Americans' own self-deprecation. In Reflections on America (1958), he argued that Americans were not really materialistic but were the most idealistic people in the world, although theirs was an idealism often unformed and lacking in philosophical base. America, he thought, offered perhaps the best contemporary prospect for the emergence of a truly Christian civilization, based not on governmental decree but on the gradual realization of Christian values on the part of a majority of the population. American saints were coming, he predicted.

But his postulation of a possible Christian civilization in America did not in any way temper his optimistic political liberalism — a facet of his thought which caused him to be held in suspicion by some of his fellow Catholics in the 1950s. The Dominican chaplain at Princeton, for example, refused to allow him to address the Catholic students. (One of the exquisite ironies of recent Catholic history was that Maritain in his last books was acerbically critical of secularizing priests, while the Dominican chaplain resigned from the priesthood and ended his days as a real estate salesman in Florida.)

No doubt in part because of Raïssa's background, Maritain had an enduring interest in anti-Semitism, which he analyzed and criticized in two books, and he was one of the principal influences in the effort to establish better Jewish-Catholic relations. Racism he regarded as America's most severe flaw. As early as 1958 he was praising Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Chicago neighborhood organizer Saul Alinsky.

Maritain and, to a lesser extent, Gilson provided the program for a bold kind of Catholic intellectuality — an appropriation of medieval thought for modern use, not so much a medieval revival as a demonstration of the perennial relevance of the medieval philosophical achievement. The modern mind was to be brought back to its Catholic roots, not by the simple disparagement of modernity or by emphasis on the subjective necessity of faith, but by a rigorous and demanding appeal to reason. In the process, scholastic principles would be applied in new and often daring ways.

In the end the gamble failed. Despite promising signs in the 1940s, secular thinkers did not finally find the scholastic appeal persuasive. And, as is inevitable when an intellectual community is dominated so thoroughly by a single system of thought, a restiveness was building up in Catholic circles. Although Maritain insisted that Catholicism, because of the central importance it gave to the act of existence, was the true existentialism, Catholic intellectuals of the 1950s were attracted to the movement which more usually went by that name; and Gabriel Marcel, a Catholic existentialist of the same generation as Gilson and Maritain, was available to mediate between faith and anguish. Catholic colleges in America were hospitable to existentialist and phenomenological currents at a time when few secular institutions were, and what Catholics sought there was primarily a philosophy which was serious about the metaphysical questions of existence, yet not as rationalistic, rigid, and abstract as scholasticism often seemed to be.

The neo-scholastics were often accused of not taking history seriously — a charge which could not but have a good deal of truth to it, given the fact that medieval philosophy had not recognized history as a properly scientific discipline and given the relentless scholastic urge to discern fixed principles amidst the flux of change.

Although Catholic historians were numerous enough even in neo-scholasticism's heyday, only one major Catholic thinker approached the understanding of his religion from a primarily historical standpoint. Christopher Dawson was, like so many others, a convert. Raised in an apparently serene Anglicanism and entering the Church of Rome while in his twenties, he seems not to have passed through the crucible of doubt. A prolific writer despite a rather late start, he achieved a certain celebrity in both Catholic and non-Catholic circles; and his work in cultural history was praised by, among others, Arnold Toynbee, Harry Elmer Barnes, Crane Brinton, and George Lichthern.

It was customary for neo-scholastics to speak rather patronizingly of Dawson's work, since he was doing mere history, where generalizations were of a lower order of significance than those supplied by metaphysics. Although Dawson was read and listened to, conventional opinion both inside and outside the Church had agreed to treat neo-scholasticism as the single most authentic expression of Catholic thought, and Dawson was thus regarded as an interesting anomaly. Whereas Gilson and Maritain were published almost exclusively by prestigious secular publishers, most of Dawson's books were brought out by the Catholic house of Sheed and Ward. In 1958 he was the first appointee to the new chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard, but by that time he was in ill-health and his influence was rather limited.

While religious faith as such was more overtly present in his work than in Maritain's, Dawson too asked to be judged primarily on scholarly grounds. His central thesis, elaborated with great sophistication and detail through numerous books, was that historically human cultures have always rested on some religious foundation and that the modern West is unique in the history of the world in attempting to dispense with that foundation. As a general thesis it seems close to being indisputable and, if it has not been taken sufficiently seriously by historians, this is probably because of their own discomfort in the presence of religious phenomena.

Yet Dawson did not claim to be only a historian and, although his learning was immense, he rarely engaged in the kind of original research which is the basic stuff of modern historiography. In compensation he demonstrated a formidable grasp of the more diverse cultural phenomena — art, theology, politics, economics, sociology — from practically all of the world's cultures. Long before it had become fashionable in academia to decry narrow disciplinary specialization and Western cultural provincialism, Dawson was showing precisely how a historian could, and indeed had to, account for all available data.

Nonbelievers could not accept Dawson's work, perhaps less because of his assertion of religion's historical importance — a contention that could hardly be denied — than because of his analysis of the likely future consequences of nonbelief. The loss of spiritual roots, he argued, would induce not only moral crises but political and cultural crises as well. Like Maritain, but more systematically and with much greater historical awareness, he predicted that modern bourgeois liberalism, left purely to its own devices, would drift toward some kind of totalitarianism, or else would prove incapable of withstanding totalitarianism's appeal. As early as the 1950s Dawson argued that the end of colonialism would not lead to the revival of native Asian and African cultures but to the beginnings of worldwide political uniformity based on the Western Marxist ideology.

Dawson's characteristic differences from the neo-scholastics were revealed in his treatment of the Protestant Reformation, which he, unlike Maritain, did not see primarily as the breakdown of the theological synthesis and the triumph of an irrational subjectivity; rather, he saw it as the triumph of a new worldliness made possible by the abolition of monasticism. Although he revered the Middle Ages, Dawson was more attracted to the culture of the baroque, the almost miraculous survival of deep and creative religious faith into the modern secular milieu. Both the Protestant north, with its austere religion of individual and interior faith, and a Catholic France, which had resisted the Counter-Reformation, were the seedbeds of modern secularity through their detaching of reason from both faith and imagination, thus liberating it for purely instrumental purposes.

Whereas Dawson for the most part stayed aloof from contemporary political controversies, he was the kind of conservative whose principles could have radical implications. He was Popularly critical of both capitalism and nationalism, for example, seeing them as products of the modern secular bourgeois state, and nationalism in particular as a substitute religion. He advanced these judgments at a time when American Catholics tended to be ardent patriots and when free-enterprise capitalism enjoyed a generally good Catholic press.

If Maritain was politically liberal, professing his fundamental faith in Western democracy while urging a deepening of the moral and philosophical basis of that democracy, Dawson's critique of the political order went a good deal deeper. (Given the religious assumptions of both men, it could also be argued that Dawson was the more clear-eyed and consistent.) Opposed to Fascism and Communism as corruptions of the religious sense, he was Popular toward democracy as based on illusions and as ultimately unable to withstand totalitarianism. Although his criticisms were muted (Dawson was rarely polemical in any overt way), there was a sense of his strong reservations about the American experiment.

His was not a sentimental medievalism, nor even a sentimental evocation of the baroque, but rather a vision of a social order based on explicit moral and religious values deeply embedded in the mental habits of the population and in social institutions. Reared in a quiet rural environment near the border of Wales and Herefordshire, he regretted the passing of the genuinely traditional and closely knit communities of his youth. He did not, however, propose a revival of older values recognizing the impossibility of all such revivals. Rather, like Maritain and Gilson, he proposed the appropriation of certain older values for the purpose of creating a new social order, one which he recognized might look quite different from anything in the past.

If Dawson was held in suspicion in secular circles because of his overt Christianity, he was also held in suspicion by some Catholics because of his refusal to make neo-scholasticism, or indeed any philosophy, the center of the Catholic intellectual enterprise. Most neo-scholastics may have accepted his historical analysis, yet there was a prevalent feeling that, by basing the Christian case on history, he was weakening it. In The Crisis of Western Education (1961), he advocated a reinvigoration of the classical liberal arts tradition, but broadened and deepened by the inclusion both of modern and of non-Western components. Its purpose, he argued, was to put students in touch with the mainsprings of their own civilization, which alone could stem the Western cultural drift. His system stopped short of seeking to inculcate religious belief, although that might well have been one of its by-products. Instead, it aimed to make students appreciate and understand the religious roots of the modern West, and he thought that the Catholic colleges were heirs to a much deeper and richer culture than the secular schools had access to.

Dawson's proposals for educational reform were tried in a few small Catholic colleges but had only slight influence on the major institutions where neo-scholasticism was the heart and soul of the curriculum. In private correspondence during the 1950s Dawson expressed serious doubts about this situation, offering the judgment that philosophy and theology were suitable subjects only for those who were already educated, and suggesting that the medieval universities had ultimately been killed by the dominance of scholasticism. He considered Maritain a Romantic and complained that he approached literary works in an ahistorical way.

When Dawson made these judgments, in 1955, neo-scholasticism appeared to be impregnably self-confident and dominant in Catholic higher education, its attitude toward its critics either haughtily condemnatory or condescendingly tolerant. Many things came together in the next decade to shake that confidence, the most important being a religious event — the Second Vatican Council and what surrounded it. The Council attempted to define a new Catholic relationship to the world, and its pronouncements were also used by some people in much more radical ways than were ever intended.

The initial result was, for the first time, to give respectability to modes of philosophical inquiry other than the scholastic. Like most forms of pluralism, this was not limited to peaceful coexistence. By 1965 the dominance of scholasticism was severely shaken; it found itself retreating from movements which had the advantages of appearing youthful, progressive, and outside the establishment. By 1975, despite occasional flurries of renewed interest, scholasticism had come close to disappearing in most Catholic colleges and universities, and virtually nowhere had it survived as a systematic, methodical quest for truth at the heart of the curriculum.

There are many reasons for this. Among the most important is the fact that the scholastic mode of thinking is probably suitable only for relatively few people; it is a highly technical, subtle discipline, not easily grasped or assimilated. Generations of Catholics, including priests, learned it almost by rote, often ending with a set of abstract propositions which they could not easily relate to the world or to history. Dawson's pedagogy had proposed instead that Catholics (and others too) be drawn imaginatively back into the Christian past. Then, when they had made that past a part of themselves, they could undertake the search for enduring philosophical truth. In retrospect it might be argued that neo-scholasticism, while it gave its disciples a sense of rightness of their position, often failed to impart to them a love for it, something which Dawson's approach to education might have accomplished. Gilson himself, in The Spirit of Thomism (1964), criticized some of its practitioners for fashioning a “static” and “sterile” philosophy.

The Catholic intellectual landscape has been unimaginably changed over a twenty-year period — so changed, in fact, that it can hardly even be mapped. Today eclecticism reigns supreme, not only in the choice of philosophies but in matters of Church doctrine as well. The contemporary Catholic intellectual's relationship to his own traditions is at best confused and ambivalent. The subjectivity which neo-scholasticism held at bay for so long has come rushing forth with a vengeance and Catholics are most receptive to every kind of psychological nostrum. In the process, the institutional supports for Catholic intellectual life have themselves been eroded; colleges have been closing their doors, and most of those that survive face an uncertain future. In the meantime they have, for the most part, ceased even to try to form in their students any distinctive way of thinking about the world. A number of Catholic journals have ceased publication, and most others find their subscription lists declining. In commercial terms, no market for serious Catholic intellectual work is being created, and the outlets to such markets as do exist are constricted. Most of the books of the twentieth-century revival have gone out of print.

As is usually the case when dominant figures die, a reaction has set in against the leading lights of the revival they impelled. Since so many of them were extraordinarily long-lived (Maritain, 1882-1973; Gilson, 1884-1978; Dawson, 1889-1970; Marcel, 1889-1973), the reaction set in even before their deaths. As early as 1965, for example, Sheed and Ward began to be Popular toward publishing Dawson. Maritain's later works that were critical of the “new Church”, especially The Peasant of the Garonne (1968), were sometimes savaged by Catholic reviewers. The present generation of Catholic college students scarcely know Gilson, Maritain, Dawson, Mauriac, Waugh, or Bernanos even as names in a textbook.

Almost without exception the leaders of this revival had no quarrel with basic Catholic doctrine and rarely had any even with Catholic practice — a phenomenon not entirely due to neo-scholasticism. The existentialist Marcel, for example, gave lectures in the United States in the early 1960s in which he offered poetic, almost mystical support to the ideal of noncontraceptive sex. The phenomenologist Dietrich von Hildebrand, another convert, became the most ardent champion of orthodoxy. Most of the great figures of the revival (Graham Greene alone excepted) expressed greater or less degrees of misgivings about the changes that occurred in the Church after the Second Vatican Council — which was also true of most of the leading theologians whose work had prepared the way for the Council, notably Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Louis Bouyer, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

There are several intriguing ironies in this slaying of the fathers which has occurred since the Council. Contemporary Catholicism wishes to be relevant to the world, and not to rest secure in an ecclesiastical ghetto. Yet no recent Catholic thinker has attempted to explore social and political realities with anything like the comprehensiveness and trenchancy of Maritain or Dawson. It wishes to be taken seriously in secular intellectual circles, yet no Catholic thinker alive today has the respectability in those circles which Gilson, Maritain, Dawson, Mauriac, or Waugh enjoyed. It proclaims the age of the laity, emancipated from clerical dominance. Yet the leading lights of the revival were almost all lay people, while the three most influential thinkers in the contemporary Church — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, and Bernard Lonergan (the last still alive) — are Jesuits. (Teilhard's quasi-mystical writings have lent themselves to all kinds of interpretation, and his long-range significance is still uncertain. Rahner and Lonergan represent a branch of Thomism which Gilson and Maritain regarded as inauthentic, since it undertakes a dialogue with Kantianism rather than affirming that Thomistic epistemology escapes Kant's strictures. Called “Transcendental Thomism”, it has been largely a Jesuit movement.)

The Catholic intellectual revival, apart from its specific content, represented a unique twentieth-century cultural phenomenon — an approach to truth based on the supposition of the normative correctness of certain traditions, and intellectual activity directed primarily at a more profound penetration and exposition of those traditions. The dominant style of modern thought has been contestation of all traditions, and it was largely the Catholic intellectual community's belated reception of that mode of operation which led it to declare irrelevant its own richest flowering.


Hitchcock, James. “Postmortem on a rebirth: The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance” In Years of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983, 203-116. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985.

All rights reserved; reprinted with permission of Ignatius Press.


Dr. James Hitchcock is a widely published author on many topics and Professor of History at St. Louis University. James Hitchcock is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1985 Ignatius Press

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