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Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Catholic Writer in the Modern World


It is not possible within the scope of this presentation to give an historical account of the origins of the Catholic Intellectual Renaissance and its influence on modern thought.

Flannery O'Connor

The . . . tradition [of Christian culture] exists today, for though the Church no longer inspires and dominates the external culture of the modern world, it still remains the guardian of all the riches of its own inner life .... If society were once again Christian . . . this sacred tradition would once more flow out into the world and fertilize the culture of societies yet unborn. Thus the movement toward Christian culture is at one and the same time a voyage into the unknown, in the course of which new worlds of human experience will be discovered, and a return to our own fatherland to the sacred tradition of the Christian past which flows underneath the streets and cinemas and skyscrapers of the new Babylon as the tradition of patriarchs and prophets flowed beneath the palaces and amphitheaters of Imperial Rome. [1]

Whenever I have had the chance to visit second-hand book shops in recent years whether they be converted barns in Pennsylvania, decaying mansions in the Corktown section of Detroit, or dank corridors in Oxford or London I have found myself shouting out my discoveries to my friends. More often than not, my finds have been books by Catholic thinkers that have been out of print for twenty or thirty years. On their frayed dust jackets and faded paper covers, the praise of critics whose names are all but forgotten today testifies to the excitement these books once generated. The prices have been hard to beat: Romano Guardinis The End of the Modern World for a dollar, Christopher Dawsons The Historic Reality of Christian Culture for 30 pence, Chestertons Manalive for a quarter. Many of these books come from libraries predominantly Catholic libraries. In fact, I have personally profited from the closing of dozens of seminaries and convents in the Anglo-American world. With a feeling that is at once elated and guilty, I run off with spoils that once lined the shelves of imposing Gothic buildings.

In reflecting upon the topic of this conference, it occurred to me that my book-hunting adventures might serve as a metaphor for the sweeping changes in Catholic intellectual and cultural life over the last twenty-five years. The writers whose works I was collecting were those who constituted what was once called the Catholic Intellectual Renaissance, an outpouring of philosophy, theology, history, and literature which combined fidelity to the ancient teachings of the Church with considerable sophistication of mind and spirit. Here were the works of the minds who dominated Catholic letters for the first half of the twentieth century, gathering dust, rejected by the current establishment, only to be discovered and then hoarded as treasures by a small segment of the younger generation.

The outstanding Catholic historian James Hitchcock has termed the eclipse of these writers in the 1960s and 1970s the slaying of the fathers. [2] But in cocktail parties at most Catholic universities today, the mention of names such as Maritain, Gilson, Mauriac, or Waugh would very likely evoke not so much hostility as an amused condescension for individuals who are considered thoroughly passé. Relegated to that zone of weeping and gnashing of teeth known as the pre-Vatican II world, the Maritains and Mauriacs are thought of as apologists for an order that has been largely left behind in our progress toward a more enlightened dispensation. To be sure, the cocktail chat might go, they were men of cultivation and learning, even of wit, but, you know, they were positively medieval.

Of course, many of the writers of the Catholic Renaissance would have been flattered to be associated with the Middle Ages, a time which to them connoted not barbaric darkness but a remarkably integrated culture, a world of light and grace, where flesh and spirit jointly mounted toward heaven. But leaving the virtues of the High Middle Ages aside for the moment, I would like to suggest that, in the long run, the thinkers who made up the Catholic Renaissance will prove to be the most authentically modern and original of all. Scratch a progressive and more often than not you will find, just beneath the language of liberation and dialogue, notions that made their first appearance during the debates of the patristic era. But show me a thinker who has faithfully grappled with the achievements of Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas, and you will likely find someone who has the ability to grasp the real challenges of the modern world.

As will be evident by now, I am pursuing a paradox about the spiritual and intellectual life of the Church. Chesterton, that modern master of paradox, has come very close to the matter in his discussion of the term reform. For Chesterton, the word reform is both meaningless and dangerous unless we recover its literal definition. The liberal conceptions of reform as either a gradual evolution away from an older doctrine or practice or as a revolution against tradition are woefully misguided. True reform, he says, involves a return to form. Only in subjecting oneself to the rigors of the original form a term that itself reminds us of something ordered, coherent, and specific can the detritus of time and human folly be washed away and vitality return.

But just as one might step in at this point and argue that Chestertons definition is really nothing more than a slavish imitation of the past, notice how the paradox executes its boomerang turn. By returning to the original form from the standpoint of the crisis of the present, the resulting reform might well take on a radically different path when compared with the immediate past. In other words, the return to form may yield results that are startling but that remain true both to the distant past and to the conditions of the present. (Chesterton loved his self-proclaimed role as a conservative radical.) As the brilliant theologian Cardinal Henri de Lubac puts it in his Paradoxes of Faith: To get away from old things passing themselves off as tradition it is necessary to go back to the farthest past which will reveal itself to be the nearest present. [3]

Beyond the paradoxes of intellectual history and institutional reform, of course, lies the fundamental paradox of the divine nature itself, which Saint Augustine described as the beauty that is ever ancient, ever new. [4] It is also the paradox of the Gospels, which remain united with the Old Testament even while ushering in the New. The thinkers we group under the heading of the Catholic Intellectual Renaissance embodied that paradox in their writing. It is what makes them at the same time profoundly traditional and strikingly modern. Few of these

figures could be called tame or timid; ever the servants of the Church, they nonetheless were bold, occasionally shocking, figures, who were suspected by some of their less imaginative contemporaries of being imprudent or even heretical. At times, the accusations of the superorthodox led to excruciatingly bizarre situations, as when Evelyn Waugh, that staunchest of papal Catholics, was accused by a prominent priest-editor of writing a novel that would corrupt the morals of the faithful. Waughs long letter of justification to the archbishop of Westminster, with its patient explanation of his harshly ironic satire against modern secularism, makes for grimly comic reading. [5] But these attacks from the extreme Right balance those of the Left and offer further proof of the wisdom and vision of these great minds.

The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance

It is not possible within the scope of this presentation to give an historical account of the origins of the Catholic Intellectual Renaissance and its influence on modern thought. After a brief sketch of some of the key features of the Renaissance, I will outline three major themes which to me represent some of the greatest achievements of these writers and will conclude with a reflection on their relevance for the present.

In theology, there is a principle which states that the bigger and more mysterious a being is, metaphysically speaking, the harder it is to describe its nature in direct terms. When it comes to understanding God himself, it has often been said that it is better to attempt to say what he is not, and in this way inch closer to a perception of what he is. I would like to borrow this technique to describe the modern Catholic Renaissance.

First, the Renaissance was not an expression of anything that might be called an establishment. The single most striking fact about the majority of its writers is that they were converts. In the earlier generation, one could point out Leon Bloy, Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Paul Claudel, Gabriel Marcel, Charles Peguy, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, G. K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Edith Stein, and Adrienne von Speyr. The younger generation included such converts as Louis Bouyer and Walker Percy. Add to this such near-converts as Henri Bergson and Simone Weil, as well as the Anglo-Catholic converts T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, and you have a picture of a worldview that had the capacity to draw many of the leading minds of the age.

Conversion is an experience that is in some sense unique to every convert, but it inevitably involves a process of discovery the feeling, to quote T. S. Eliot, of arriving home and knowing the place for the first time. Ironically, many of these intellectual converts did not find ready acceptance in official ecclesiastical circles. All this goes to show that the converts were hardly submitting themselves blindly to authority figures in order to assuage their anxieties about sex, guilt, and death (a common charge of their secular critics). Rather, they were engaged in a protracted mental and spiritual struggle that ended in a willing embrace of the central mysteries of the Faith. To all of them, their faith was an asset, a key to understanding both the highest truths and the most pressing problems of the moment. They would undoubtedly share Flannery OConnors belief that there is no reason why fixed dogma should fix anything that the writer sees in the world. On the contrary, dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality. Christian dogma is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery. [6]

If the Renaissance intellectuals were not creatures of any establishment, neither did they form a movement. There were, of course, schools of thought, including the Thomists, the Catholic existentialists, and the neo-patristic theologians, but even within these schools there were widely divergent views. This point may seem a truism, but it is, to my mind, an important corroboration of the intellectual honesty of these thinkers that, while they shared a common faith, their explorations of the world took them down disparate paths.

Finally, it is worth noting that these writers were predominantly laypeople, not clerics. We take the leadership of lay intellectuals in the Church today somewhat for granted, but it has largely been a modern development. It is a development that recent popes and the Second Vatican Council itself have strongly endorsed, seeing it as a necessary consequence of an increasingly secularized society, and also because the specific character of the laity is to know the natural goods of various forms of worldly endeavor. The leading figures of the Catholic Renaissance moved easily and naturally in secular professional circles a fact we may tend to forget. This is a testament not only to the greater openness of secular intellectuals in the earlier decades of the century but also to their positive rejection of the fortress mentality on the part of the Renaissance thinkers. Their place, as they saw it, was on the front lines of culture, and if they encountered some hostility, they also found a great deal of respect. As James Hitchcock has pointed out, the Catholic Thomists helped to spur a neo-scholastic movement that was taken up by such teachers as Mortimer Adler and Richard McKeon at the University of Chicago, where the joke was that atheist professors taught Catholic philosophy to Jewish students. [7]

It has been said that orthodoxy develops only in response to the challenges posed by heresy. But if the great orthodox thinkers have received their impetus from the need to oppose a narrowing and distortion of the faith, it is equally true that they always manage to rise above merely defensive postures to achieve a vision which reawakens in us a sense of the beauty and wonder of the world. One need only think of a work like Saint Augustines The City of God, which was written as a response to the pagans who claimed that Christianity was responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire. This magisterial book not only refuted those charges but became the blueprint for the political and social order of medieval Europe for nearly a millennium. I would like to suggest that the greatest of the Catholic Renaissance writers in the modern era accomplished this twofold mission of critique and imaginative vision. Of the many themes that run throughout their writings, I have chosen to single out three: the recovery of the sacred, the critique of the world, and the assimilation of modernity.

The Recovery of the Sacred

In the age dominated by Darwin, Marx, and Freud, human nature appeared to be determined by evolution, the means of production, or the unconscious, or, in the case of a few creative scholars, a combination of these forces. Few of the thinkers of the Catholic Renaissance dismissed entirely the insights into the workings of the mind and the social order that came in the wake of modern psychology, sociology, and natural science. Catholic existentialists like Gabriel Marcel adapted the Freudian and Sartrean notions of alienation, but he placed them in the context of the traditional Christian understanding of man as a stranger and pilgrim on the earth. Marcel preferred to speak of Homo Viator, Man the Wayfarer.

Like Marcel, the Renaissance writers retained the conviction that mans life, far from being mechanically determined, is inherently dramatic, poised between sin and grace. It should come as no surprise that the Catholic novelist was in a particularly strong position to reawaken the transcendent dimension of human experience. As Flannery OConnor put it:

Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not . . . The novelist doesnt write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. When there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. [8]

Where the Catholic novelists of the twentieth century have succeeded in providing us with intimations of grace, they have revealed it in experiences that seem to confound our normal expectations for revelation. Greene, Mauriac, Bernanos, and OConnor, among others, have depicted grace in the lives of seemingly odious and pitiful individuals, in moments of violence, and in quiet, almost unnoticeable ways. Though these novelists were accused of being obsessed by dark visions of sin, they replied that grace is precisely an irruption of the divine into the fallen creation.

Evelyn Waugh is a case in point. Known primarily for his biting satire, Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited, set himself the ambitious goal of showing the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters. [9] Ironically, the reaction of many readers, including a good number of Catholics, to Brideshead can be summarized by a letter Waugh received from an American reader soon after its publication: Your Brideshead Revisited is a strange way to show that Catholicism is an answer to anything. Seems more like the kiss of Death. [10] A plot summary would certainly seem to support that contention. The agnostic painter Charles Ryder witnesses one member after another of the Catholic, aristocratic Flyte family die or fade away in lives that appear largely futile. Early in the novel, Ryders intimate friend Sebastian Flyte explains:

So you see were a mixed family religiously. Brideshead and Cordelia are both fervent Catholics; hes miserable, shes bird-happy; Julia and I are half-heathen; I am happy, I rather think Julia isnt; Mommy is popularly believed to be a saint and Papa is excommunicated and I wouldnt know which of them was happy. Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesnt seem to have much to do with it, and thats all I want . . . I wish I liked Catholics more. [11]

By the end of the novel, Sebastian and Cordelia are also living stunted and sad lives. But, as happens so often in the fiction of Evelyn Waugh, a throwaway phrase contains the core of the novels meaning: happiness doesnt seem to have much to do with it.

For Waugh, the notion that the life of faith ought to lead inevitably to worldly prosperity and what the pop psychologists call wellness is both unrealistic and dangerous. In a fallen world, afflicted by evil and stupidity, happiness can never be a gauge of fidelity to God. To think otherwise is to confuse happiness, with its bourgeois connotations of comfort and freedom from any burdens, with blessedness, or what Catholics call the state of grace.

Catholics, Waugh believed, have always clung to the foot of the cross, profoundly and intuitively aware of what the Spanish philosopher Unamuno called the tragic sense of life. When Julia Flyte, one of the half-heathens, reaches a moment of crisis in Brideshead Revisited, it is the unexpected memory of the crucifix on the wall of her nursery that shocks her into a recognition of how far she has drifted from God. As the characters in Brideshead enact their fierce little human tragedy, it becomes clear that they are all in some fashion struggling against God and his Church, symbolized by Brideshead Castle, that magnificent baroque backdrop to the novels action. Thomas Howard has spoken of the Church as the unseen character in the novel.

I am convinced that Waugh intended the Church to look like the kiss of death, not out of perversity but because he understood it to be a sign of contradiction. The sufferings that it seemingly inflicts, because of its laws and absolute claims, are the bitter herbs through which the disease of sin is purged. On closer inspection, the lives that the characters lead at the end of the novel, while not happy, are in many ways blessed. Sebastian is a holy fool, a drunken porter for a monastery in North Africa. When he learns of this, Charles asks Cordelia: I suppose he doesnt suffer?

Oh yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering might be, to be maimed as he is no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. Its taken that form with him Ive seen so much suffering in the last few years; theres so much of it coming for everybody soon. Its the spring of love. [12]

Brideshead Revisited is only one example of the ways in which the twentieth-century Catholic writers sought to recover the sense of the sacred. But in its depiction of the Church as a sign of contradiction, it fulfills Flannery OConnors requirements of revealing both a drama of salvation and a way of addressing the particular tragedy of our own times.

The Critique of the World

The second theme, which I call the critique of the world, is admittedly, broad and amorphous. What I wish to focus on is the fact that Catholicism reminds us that we can never allow ourselves to become too closely identified with the order of worldly goods. I have chosen to focus on a less frequently discussed theme, namely, the association of Christianity with bourgeois materialism in the modern age, but I could just have easily explored the Christian critique of totalitarianism, as in Solzhenitsyn, or the reemergence of gnosticism.

We are told in the Gospels to be in the world but not of it. From the time of the apostles down to the present, the tension between Christ and Culture, as the Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr has put it, has remained constant. The writers of the Catholic Renaissance faced strong challenges from modern novelists and political philosophers who accused Christianity of being nothing more than a prop for a decadent bourgeoisie. Philosophers as different as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had railed against a complacent, bourgeois Christianity in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth, novelists like James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence portrayed organized religion as hypocritical, repressive, and out of touch with human needs. Despite attempts to declare such writers anti-Christian, their depictions carried the conviction of experience and cannot be dismissed.

Catholic social thought, both in the tradition of papal encyclicals and in the works of Renaissance scholars such as Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, and, in a later generation, John Courtney Murray, steered a middle course between the extremes of radical capitalism and revolutionary socialism. Stressing the importance of a recovery of the notion of the common good, these thinkers avoided baptizing any current political system. In this sense, they followed the wisdom of returning to form that is, to the Augustinian understanding of the tension between the City of God and the City of Man in order to achieve true reform.

If the problem of a too ready identification between Christian values and the bourgois life seems less applicable to contemporary Europe, it certainly retains its bite for America in the 1990s. Despite our secularized public institutions, America is a nation awash in religion and religious expression. But American Christianity has always suffered from a chameleon like tendency to become identified with civil religion and popular culture. From the gospel of success preached by certain strains of fundamentalists, to the New Age pantheism that characterizes much of progressive Catholic thought these days, the Faith is often of the world but not quite in it, if I may be permitted to reverse the metaphor.

Once again, I would like to draw my illustration from the thing I know best, literature. The French Catholic novelist Léon Bloy, François Mauriac, and Georges Bernanos succeeded in continuing the tradition of the fictional critique of bourgeois society which had been pioneered by Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola. But whereas Flaubert could only see Christianity as a beautiful dream that had been corrupted by complacency and provincialism, the Catholic novelists managed to depict the same symptoms while preserving a vision of the radical transcendence of true faith.

François Mauriacs Vipers Tangle appears to stack the decks against Christianity. Written in the form of a diary, it is the testimony of a lawyer named Louis, who quickly reveals himself to be a thoroughly nasty figure a moral monster, in fact. Nearing death, Louis is a peasant who has risen in the world, becoming a wealthy landowner. Estranged from his wife for over forty years, and possessed of a loathing for his children, Louis masterminds a scheme to disinherit his family, which, he thinks, waits like a pack of vultures to descend on his carcass and divide up his fortune.

Louis frankly confesses to being a hate-filled man. One of his abiding hatreds is for religion itself. Part of this stems from his upbringing. Louis mother represents the kind of smugness to which the peasant mind is often prone. My mother never talked to me about religion, except to say I am quite easy in my mind: if people like ourselves are not saved, then nobody will be. [13] His wife, who comes from a higher social plane, maintains a piety that he finds maudlin and superstitious.

But one fact about Louis soon becomes evident: I have never possessed the power of self-deception which is most mens stand-by in the struggle for existence. When I have acted basely, I have always known precisely what I was doing. [14] Indeed, Louis caustic comments about the world around him are often true; he has a remarkable capacity for sensing hypocrisy and, in a word, sinfulness. In his negation, he often hits targets that deserve to be hit.

As his confessions proceed for that is what they really are chinks in Louiss misanthropic armor begin to appear. His plot eventually breaks down, and the dream of revenge which he had nursed for so many years leaves him vulnerable. His wife dies, without any real reconciliation between them, and he discovers among her papers evidence that her shallow piety had deepened into a sacrificial, even ascetic, form of suffering. He realizes that the one thing he had deceived himself about all these years is his need for love, human and divine love. Just before he dies, he accepts what he once called the sublime lunacies of Christianity.

In summary form, the plot of Vipers Tangle will hardly sound convincing. But the underlying irony of the novel is that, contrary to everyones assumptions, Louis is driven not by the love of money, which he uses merely as a form of insulation, but by a hunger for the absolute. What separates Louis from most of those around him is that he is not lukewarm; his very coldness contains within it the possibility for reversal. The intensity of his desire for something more than riches becomes his path to salvation. Ironically, the book ends with a letter from his son, who plans to use his inherited wealth by investing in a cinema and a new liqueur the two symbolic drugs of the modern materialist world. Only a niece recognizes that Louis was the only truly religious person I have ever met. [15]

François Mauriacs astringent vision offers little comfort to those who seek uplift from art with religious themes, but his lack of sentimentality is precisely what makes him a master of what Flannery OConnor called Christian realism. His depiction of a restless heart is a powerful indictment of culture which has lost touch with the demands of supernatural faith.

The Assimilation of Modernity

The final theme I want to touch upon may appear to be another truism. It is simply this: that these twentieth-century Catholic writers were, in fact, modern men, and that they participated fully in the unique opportunities and difficulties of the modern world. It is worth saying because, among those who consider themselves orthodox, there is a persistent tendency toward nostalgia and a provincialism that brands everything modern as decadent, or even demonic. Flannery OConnor once said that smugness is the Great Catholic Sin, [16] one to which we are all prone. Cardinal de Lubac puts it this way: `Know the moderns in order to answer their difficulties and their expectations. A touching intention. But this way of projecting the `moderns into an objective concept, of separating oneself from them to consider them from the outside, makes this good will useless. [17]

The Church, because it embraces the truth about human nature and human destiny, has always been able to assimilate new ideas and new cultural patterns, finding in them redemptive possibilities. To quote Cardinal de Lubac again:

No longer to believe, in fact, in the assimilating and transforming power of Christianity; to divert the exercise of Christian prudence so as to make of it an entirely negative and defensive prudential system: such is one of the most fatal forms of lack of faith. It is to believe no longer, in fact, in Christian vitality. It is to refuse confidence in the Holy Spirit. It is to justify as if on principle those who think that Christianity has grown old for good. [18]

The leading figures of the Catholic Renaissance did not think this way. Philosophers such as Gabriel Marcel and Dietrich von Hildebrand established a healthy dialogue with existentialism and phenomenology, respectively. The painter Georges Rouault drew inspiration from the fauvist and expressionist movements in art. Even Chesterton, seemingly the most defiantly anachronistic of writers, employed Joycean literary techniques in The Man Who Was Thursday to convey the chaos of modern subjectivism. An apt illustration of this assimilative capacity is the aesthetic theory of this centurys two leading Thomists, Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson. Cultivated and urbane scholars, these men devoted a large portion of their philosophical study to aesthetics. Throughout their careers, they asserted that an appreciation of works of the imagination is essential to the fulfillment of our humanity. Both were unabashed champions of modern art. Maritain maintained a close personal friendship with Rouault; his wife, Raissa, was a poet. Gilsons daughter Jacqueline was a painter in the semiabstract style.

In their description of the history of art, Maritain and Gilson claimed, contrary to most peoples intuition, that painting began to go downhill after Giotto discovered perspective and ushered in the era of representational painting, and only began to recover with Cezanne and the revolution of modern art. The reason for this hinges on the definition of the purpose of art. The common belief is that art should be an imitation of reality, rendered with a faithfulness that approaches that of the camera. But Maritain and Gilson countered that the end of art is not the mere repetition of reality through imitation but the creation of beautiful objects that enable us to see through nature to deeper meaning. No artist creates pure representations of reality: we tend to admire artists precisely insofar as they possess a unique style that moves away from imitation and communicates a penetrating vision of reality.

Gilsons difficult but rewarding book Painting and Reality (the Mellon Lectures of 1955) contains this explanation:

During the long episode that lasted from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the nonpresentational art, painters, instead of remaining firmly established on the ground of nature, progressively or regressively shifted over to the ground of imitation, representation, and, in short, exchanged making for knowing. Imitation that is, representation of reality as it appears to be stands on the side of science or, to use a more modest word, knowledge. Reduced to its simplest expression, the function of modern art has been to restore painting to its primitive and true function, which is to continue through man the creative activity of nature. In so doing modern painting has destroyed nothing and condemned nothing that belongs in any one of the legitimate activities of man; it has simply regained the clear awareness of its own nature and recovered its own place among the creative activities of man. [19]

Based on this line of reasoning, it should come as no surprise that Gilson was also a champion of abstraction, that form of art which so many people assume to be the expression of nihilism and despair about human life. Gilsons use of the word primitive is not accidental either: the modernist painters deliberately returned to primitive cave paintings and tribal masks in order to recover a sense of the mythical and sacred in the midst of an industrial, bourgeois society. Rouault went back to the naive representations of medieval stained glass in his struggle to convey mans spiritual destiny. Great artists have always known that the need to attain freshness and vitality can only be achieved by returning to the farthest past, which, as de Lubac reminds us, will reveal itself to be the nearest present.

The creation of beautiful objects, for their own sake, Gilson insists, is a direct analogy to the creative power of God. Of course, man cannot create something out of nothing, but in making new beings, the artist will know the exhilarating feeling of finding himself in contact with the closest analogue there is, in human experience, to the creative power from which all the beauties of art as well as those of nature ultimately proceed. Its name is Being. [20]

The Relevance of the Renaissance Writers

What, then, is the relevance of the writers of the Catholic Intellectual Renaissance to the present, and to the future? As the twentieth century draws to a close, our situation as Catholics seems even more perilous and uncertain than in the heyday of these thinkers. The Church has been plunged into a crisis of identity and confidence in the upheaval that followed the Second Vatican Council. Those who wish to defend the Faith may naturally feel that in the present we do not have the luxury for novels, paintings, and works of scholarship. Understandably, there is a drive toward activism, to the launching of sorties from a well-defended fortress into the hostile territory of secular culture.

What would these writers advise us to do, were they here today? Though many of them expressed deep concern near the ends of their lives about the direction of certain movements in the Church, I am convinced that they would counsel us to do just as they did. They would exhort us to have confidence in Gods providence, to reach back into the richness of our tradition and find ways to apply it to the present. In the words of the Dominican writer Gerald Vann:

It is for us Christians, then . . . to do these two things. First, to learn to be receptive of life before plunging into activity; to learn to be possessed of life, of truth, of love, to be possessed by God. Then secondly, to learn to face the squalors of life as they come to us and we do not grow into the light by trying to escape the darkness but by meeting it with courage and tranquility, as we shall then be enabled to do; trying to make sure that the deeper our knowledge of it becomes, the deeper also becomes our sense of oneness with the redemptive pity of God, and therefore the less our danger of coming to terms with evil . . . . In that way we shall incidentally integrate ourselves; for we shall find that, in a world which is so largely uncreative and so largely hopeless, we for our part shall find always a renewal of life and of hope, through our sharing, however humbly, however fumblingly and imperfectly, in the re-creative, the redemptive, work of the Word who was made flesh and dwelt amongst us in order precisely that we might have life and have it more abundantly. [21]

In short, our task is to redeem the time, to be inspired by the One who said: Behold, I make all things new.


  1. Christopher Dawson, The Reality of Christian Culture (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), pp. 29-30. Back to text.
  2. James Hitchcock, Post-Mortem on a Rebirth: The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance, in Years of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 116. Back to text.
  3. Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 20. Back to text.
  4. Saint Augustine, Confessions, X.27. Back to text.
  5. Evelyn Waugh, An Open Letter to the Archbishop of Westminster, in The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Mark Amory (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1982), pp. 72-78. Back to text.
  6. Flannery OConnor, Mystery and Manners (London: Faber & Faber, 1972), p. 178. Back to text.
  7. Hitchcock, Years of Crisis, p. 107. Back to text.
  8. OConnor, Mystery and Manners, p.167. Back to text.
  9. My discussion of Brideshead Revisited is based on my essay Evelyn Waugh: Savage Indignation, in the forthcoming book The Reality and the Vision (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1990) Back to text.
  10. The Essays, Articles, and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983) p 304. Back to text.
  11. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (Boston: Little, Brown, 1945), p. 89. Back to text.
  12. Ibid., p. 309. Back to text.
  13. François Mauriac, Vipers Tangle (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1987), p. 28. Back to text.
  14. Ibid., p. 17. Back to text.
  15. Ibid., pp. 204-5. Back to text.
  16. Flannery OConnor, The Habit of Being (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), p 131. Back to text.
  17. de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith, p. 47. Back to text.
  18. Ibid., p 144. Back to text.
  19. Étienne Gilson, Painting and Reality (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), p. 264. Back to text.
  20. Ibid., p. 275. Back to text.
  21. Gerald Vann, Modern Culture and Christian Renewal (Washington, D.C.: Thomist Press, 1965), pp. 28-29. Back to text.


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Wolfe, Gregory. Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Catholic Writer in the Modern World. In The Catholic Writer: The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute 2 (Ignatius Press,1989): 13-30.

Reprinted by permission of The Wethersfield Institute.

The Author

wolfewolfe1Gregory Wolfe is the editor of Image, a journal of contemporary art and literature that engage with the faith traditions of the West. He serves as writer in residence and director of the low-residency MFA in creative writing program at Seattle Pacific University. Wolfe is the author of several books, including Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography. A convert to the Roman Catholic Church, Wolfe is a member of the international lay movement Communion and Liberation.  

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