Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome

Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome

Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome

Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome

Synopsis

'An extremely valuable contribution, it makes clear--for the first time--how completely converts dominated the intellectual life of British and American Catholicism....Brisk and lively, eminently readable.' - Philip Gleason, University of Notre Dame

Excerpt

Nearly all the major Catholic intellectuals writing in English between 1840 and 1960 were converts to Catholicism. Having been raised outside the Catholic faith, they enjoyed greater educational advantages than their born-Catholic contemporaries and developed a spirit of intellectual adventurousness. Even the disadvantages of being Catholic in traditionally anti‐ Catholic countries did not deter them from converting, and they continued to write imaginative and controversial work after conversion.

There was a close correspondence between Catholic developments in Britain and the United States, and the convert intellectuals in each nation were aware of and cooperated with those in the other. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, U.S. intellectual life was subordinate to British, and the Catholic element of this story is no exception. In this period the more provincial Americans drew inspiration from their British counterparts, whose work they republished and read widely.

The convert intellectuals wanted to persuade other Protestants, Jews, atheists, and agnostics to follow their example and convert to Catholicism. They generally wrote with this audience in mind and not solely to their fellow Catholics, whereas most born-Catholic writers attended only to the needs of their own flock. As a result the converts' work was generally more likely than that of born Catholics to conform to intellectual standards prevailing outside their church. The converts tried at the same time to raise intellectual standards within the Catholic community. They pointed out to other Catholics that they had too few rigorously educated luminaries and that even in more highly populated fields such as philosophy and theology there was too much emphasis on an ahistorical scholasticism.

Throughout the later years of the nineteenth century converts were eager to show doubting outsiders that their church believed in intellectual freedom and would pursue truth fearlessly. But they soon encountered obstructions from their local bishops and from the hierarchy in Rome, which feared that these convert intellectuals were treading on dangerous or forbidden ground. Converts who tried to embrace evolutionary theory, historical-critical methods of biblical criticism, and comparative religion . . .

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