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A 1980 Post-mortem of a Rebirth

A 1980 Post-mortem of a Rebirth

Thirty odd years after this overview of twentieth century Catholic intellectual culture, the points of James Hitchcock seem even more relevant. Below are some extracts but the, significantly longer, full article repays study. [Post-mortem on a rebirth. The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance, from the review, The American Scholar, Spring 1980].

The neo-scholastics were .. attracted…. 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. …. (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.)

.. [the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson argued that] 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 ... His was not a sentimental medievalism …. 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.

… [He was] held in suspicion by some Catholics because of his refusal to make neo-scholasticism, or indeed any philosophy, the centre of the Catholic intellectual enterprise. … 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.

… 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 …

[Scholasticism] 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.

…  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.

… 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 ...


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.


As we mention in this previous blog post R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, argues, in harmony with Hitchcock we think, that the Nouvelle Théologie, “helped destroy the [scholastic] theological culture that, however inadequate, provided the context for a proper understanding of [their own] lasting achievements.” 

 Here’s a brief reflection on the “mindset” that we, in FAITH movement, think we need more of: 

Faith Magazine

March/ April 2020

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