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A New Christian Republic of Letters | Bradley J. Birzer | Ignatius Insight | February 8, 2010
Tom Hoopes has stirred up a lot of good web discussion with
his recent article, "The Catholic Greatness
Void" (Feb. 4, 2010), on the National Catholic Register blog. Certainly, Hoopes makes a number of profound points, and I'm glad he's
optimistic in the end. And, of course, there's no doubt that the article
is thought-provoking in many ways.
But, ultimately, I think he misunderstands what is truly
needed for the future of the Catholic intellectual movement.
Born in the summer of love (1967), I never really trusted
the baby boomers in my church, in my community, or even those who served as my
immediate teachers—although folks such as Fr. Wilson Miscamble, Fr. Brian
Stanley, Barbara Elliott, Mark Brumley, John Hittinger, and some others remain
Okay, let me be very plain about this: I don't consider the
so-called "greatest generation" to be in fact the greatest
generation, in very large part, because I see their children, the baby
boomers—divorced, purposeless, and promoters of gutless consumerism,
mediocrity, and conformity. Frankly, how could the "greatest generation"
be so great if they produced the radicals of the 1960s? But, this is all
probably an unnecessary and self-indulgent aside, and, yes, I know I'm writing
so grossly as to be absurd. But behind my madness, there's a fair point.
What makes a generation great: what it's willing to do on the beaches of
Normandy (itself, a profound act of western sacrifice) or how it raises its
children and passes on the traditions it has inherited? The answer, of course,
is a both/and, not an either/or.
When I think of those just under baby boom age, I see an
astounding array of Catholic intellectuals, such as Joseph Pearce, Adam
Schwartz, Dan McInerny, and others. In the Catholic artistic world, I see
guitarist, classical composer, and poet Kevin McCormick. Or, what about the Balthasarian
architect, Phil Nielsen?
And, what about the post-baby boom Catholics, all excellent
scholars, who don't write specifically, or consistently, on Catholic issues,
such as Paul Moreno, R.J. Pestritto, or John Miller? Or, even fellow
travelers, such as James R. Otteson II?
These few examples should be proof that there is no
"Catholic Greatness Void." There probably never has been, and there probably
never will be. While I couldn't prove this, I would be willing to bet almost
anything that God grants genius—in many forms—to members of any and
every generation. Certainly, as a historian, I see no generation since the
death of Christ that is utterly devoid of brilliance. I see lots and lots of
bad, inhumane choices being made, but I don't see in any people or in any age
the complete lack of the brilliant.
As Catholics, our job is to recognize, encourage, and
nurture such genius as we find in those around us. This is as true today as it
was yesterday and will be tomorrow.
What seems lacking to me in the Catholic world is neither
brilliance nor conviction, but organization. As Catholics, we desperately
need strong Catholic leaders, Catholic networks, Catholic networkers, and
We need a brilliant Catholic of organizational genius to
come forward, to organize, to inspire, and to lead.
There are a number of candidates out there. Winston
Elliott (who sent me the Hoopes article in the first place and is at the very
tail end of the baby boom; and, he's so young in his energy, that I will name
him a post-baby boomer) has done so much to bring solid, dedicated, excellent
faculty together in Texas and elsewhere with the Center for the American Idea.
He is a wonderfully gifted, faithful, and meaningful man; he's also a
What about Jeff Cain and Jeremy Beer's American
Philanthropic; Sam Gregg at Acton; Andrew Seeley at the Institute for Catholic
Liberal Education; Mark Henrie and Jeff Nelson at ISI? All of these
people are excellent at what they do, and they are already leading a new
generation of Catholic scholars.
But, admittedly, there's a long way to go, for all of us.
Our enemy in this whirligig of post-modernity is either a
decentralization of community and fragmentation of friendship, or a slide
toward a tapioca pudding of conformity. As Catholics, of course, we must
discover, leaven, and celebrate the uniqueness and gifts of each human person
as a finite reflection of the Infinite, elevating humanity as a
whole—through Grace—into the City of God. In other words, we must
promote the singular qualities of each person while never losing sight of the
universal elements of humanity. Neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor
female, neither bond nor free.
On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, historian Christopher
Dawson called for the formation of an ecumenical religious and academic order,
dedicated to the Christian intellectual life in history, art, and culture.
My wife and I once outlined such an order for fun: The St. Cecilia
Institute for Catholic Renewal. This, of course, is essentially the
equivalent of fantasy baseball for the ubergeeks among us. We placed this
little imagined community in Atchinson, Kansas, home of the sane and very
Catholic Benedictine College (endowed with such good folks as Kim Shankman,
Lloyd Newton, and, the fine author of the NCR
piece, Tom Hoopes). It would promote liturgical renewal, art and
architecture, and the liberal arts. Located just north of the Kansas City
airport, but far enough away from the urban sprawl of the fountain city, it
would continue the tradition of St. Benedict, preserving and renewing the best
of western culture and civilization. The St. Cecilia Institute would lead
seminars, publish journals, and encourage new, innovative scholarship, being diverse
thinkers together, but the whole mission would remain rooted in truth, beauty,
and goodness. [If anyone has access to potential funding for such an
Institute, let me know!]
Perhaps Father Donald Nesti's Center for Faith and Culture
at St. Thomas University in Houston will be such a place, and I'm sure there
are others out there.
In Dawson's private letters to John Mulloy, now housed at
the University of Notre Dame, the English Roman Catholic worked out his own
ideas for a Christian republic of letters. "I think the elite we have to reach
is best represented by the teachers in the non-Catholic American universities.
I judge this first by the poets, who are a very important group and who can be
influential, as we see in the case of T.S. Eliot; secondly, the medievalists,
of whom there were in the past men like Laistner and Rand and (in Canada)
Cochrane and Gilson. Thirdly, the anthropologists of whom Redfield is a good
example. There are also the literary historians like A.O. Lovejoy and many
Clearly, Dawson did not envision a sectarian order. In the
long run, Dawson believed that the creation of any such order would
outlast—in importance, significance, and permanence—any single book
"There is of course a danger that the narrower and more
dogmatic minds will take up the idea and then the more cultured and liberal
ones will be antagonized," Dawson feared. Should the study become "too
apologetic and sectarian," potential allies would balk at promoting it.
As proof of the power of a Christian republic of letters,
Dawson offered us this example in 1961: without a republic of letters, "there
would have been two completely separate cultures in the Protestant North and
the Catholic South, divided by an iron curtain of persecution and repression
which would have made the two parts of Europe as alien and incomprehensible
from one another as Christendom was from Islam. It was the influence of the
humanist education that saved Europe from this fate. . . . [Melanchthon]
establish[ed] a sound tradition of Protestant education . . . . Calvin himself
fully appreciated the importance of education and study. Wherever the
Calvinists went, from Transylvania to Massachusetts, they brought with them not
only the Bible and Calvin's Institutes, but the Latin grammar and the study of
If we are to challenge the problems of an ideological age,
Dawson argued, we—Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, and women and
men of good will—must fight as a republic of letters, avoiding a "civil
war of rival propaganda."
Dawson, I think, understood the problems and the solutions
quite well, and we would be wise to follow his teachings.
Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings (perhaps the model group
of the twentieth century), argued in 1940 that there would be only one way to
defeat the growth of the radical ideologies of the modern world. One must
"build up and maintain a common stock of thought rather than
. . . startle with a series of sparkling individual contributions—like a
commonwealth of the spirit, in which there is no copyright."
To the thoughts of this Anglican, I can only write: Amen.
Barfield's argument might very well be more true now than it was on the eve of
the second world war.
In his Notre Dame mysteries, Ralph McInerny imagined a "Chair
of Catholic Studies," housed, appropriately enough, in the Brownson Center,
near Sacred Heart Basilica and the burial spot of Orestes Brownson. What if
the holder of such a "Chair of Catholic Studies" possessed intellectual as well
as leadership abilities? What if he could—with money and encouragement
from the institution at which he was a member—gather the best Catholics
and non-Catholics around him? What if such a chair could create a small
republic of letters that would then connect with and inspire other republics of
letters in ever expanding concentric circles—in universities, high
schools, home school associations, parishes, churches, etc. What if together,
Christians and even non-Christians of all stripes, under Catholic leadership,
could forge what Dawson called "A Lay Apostolate of the Intellect?" What if
these myriad of associate republics and their patrons understood that real
work—labor that has meaning and lasting significance—takes time and
generations. What if, Catholics took Barfield seriously, creating a
"commonwealth of the spirit, in which there is no copyright"? What might the
world of our post, post, post-baby boomers look like?
One doesn't have to believe in utopian change to realize the
possibilities of the leavening of future generations with hope, love, and
heroism such a small republic of letters might create.
And, even if such leavening fails for the immediate
generations to come, what about a generation born 1,500 years from now? After
all, what hope did St. Benedict have when he founded an order to preserve the
best of Christian and classical civilization? Could he have imagined a
liberal-arts college dedicated to his teachings, situated not on the former
site of a temple of Apollo, southest of Rome, but on the cliffs of eastern
Kansas, overlooking the Missouri River, and endowed with writers and thinkers
such as Tom Hoopes?
As members of the City of God and the mystical Body of
Christ on our temporal pilgrimage in this vale of tears, St. Benedict knew, we
have a duty to serve all men and women, past, present, and future.
There is so much work for all of us to be done. But, as we
think about the future, let us not forget those around us, struggling,
laboring, preserving in the name of and basking in the reflection of the Logos.
Our pilgrimage, even an intellectual one, should never be solitary or covered
May St. Cecilia and St. Benedict and St. Augustine and St.
Boniface and St. John Fisher and St. Maximilian Kolbe and J.R.R. Tolkien and
Christopher Dawson and Ralph McInerny pray for us, those who came before us,
and those yet to come.
Related Ignatius Insight Excerpts and Interviews:
Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
An excerpt from "Christianity and the History of Culture" | Christopher Dawson | From Chapter 2
of The Formation of Christendom
Are We At The End or The Beginning? | Glenn W. Olsen
The Roots of Culture | The Foreword to Josef Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.
His Story and the History of the Church | An Interview with Dr. Glenn W. Olsen
Bradley J. Birzer is Chairman of the Board of Academic Advisors,
Center for the American Idea, Houston, and the author of American Cicero: The Life And Times of
Charles Carroll (forthcoming, 2010); Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of
Christopher Dawson (2007); and J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth (2003).
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