Catholic Progressives in England after Vatican II
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In Catholic Progressives in England after Vatican II, Jay P. Corrin traces the evolution of Catholic social and theological thought from the end of World War II through the 1960s that culminated in Vatican Council II. He focuses on the emergence of reformist thinking as represented by the Council and the corresponding responses triggered by the Church's failure to expand the promises, or expectations, of reform to the satisfaction of Catholics on the political left, especially in Great Britain. The resistance of the Roman Curia, the clerical hierarchy, and many conservative lay men and women to reform was challenged in 1960s England by a cohort of young Catholic intellectuals for whom the Council had not gone far enough to achieve what they believed was the central message of the social gospels, namely, the creation of a community of humanistic socialism. This effort was spearheaded by members of the English Catholic New Left, who launched a path-breaking journal of ideas called Slant. What made Slant revolutionary was its success in developing a coherent philosophy of revolution based on a synthesis of the “New Theology” fueling Vatican II and the New Left’s Marxist critique of capitalism. Although the English Catholic New Left failed to meet their revolutionary objectives, their bold and imaginative efforts inspired many younger Catholics who had despaired of connecting their faith to contemporary social, political, and economic issues. Corrin’s analysis of the periodical and of such notable contributors as Terry Eagleton and Herbert McCabe explains the importance of Slant and its associated group within the context of twentieth-century English Catholic liberal thought and action.



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Date de parution 30 novembre 2013
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EAN13 9780268077006
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E-ISBN 978-0-268-07700-6 Manufactured in the United States of America Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Corrin, Jay P., 1943– Catholic progressives in England after Vatican II / Jay P. Corrin. pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-268-02310-2 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 0-268-02310-7 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Catholic Church—England—History—20th century. 2. England—Church history—20th century. 3. Liberalism (Religion)—Catholic Church—History—20th century. 4. New Left—England. I. Title. BX1493.2.C67 2013 282′.420904—dc23 2013029849 ∞ The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources. -->
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To my sister and good friend
PART ONE The English Cultural Setting
ONE . The Church in England
TWO . The Sources of English Catholic Radicalism
THREE . English Catholics and the Establishment
PART TWO The Reformers
FOUR . Reinforcing the Citadel
FIVE . The Role of John XXIII
SIX . The Council
SEVEN . Vatican II Comes to Britain
PART THREE The Revolutionaries
EIGHT . The Catholic New Left
NINE . The Slant Movement
TEN . The Quest for New Community and Culture
ELEVEN . Jesus and Marx: A Christian-Marxist Convergence?
TWELVE . Charles Davis and the McCabe Affair
THIRTEEN . What Must Be Done? The Catholic Left and British Politics
FOURTEEN . Legacy and Impact
Bibliography Index 489 -->
I wish to thank the staffs at Boston College’s John J. Burns Library and Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library for their generous assistance in facilitating my use of their excellent special collections on Catholic history. Bridget J. Burke, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, John J. Burns Library, was especially helpful in creating an archive for my interviews with English Catholic New Left activists, which is now available at Boston College to other scholars.
This book examines the development of progressive Catholic thinking that led up to Vatican Council II and its aftermath in the 1960s. Although I tried to examine carefully the plethora of materials published by and about the English Catholic New Left in its reactions to the Council, my assessment of their history would not have been complete without the willingness of those associated with the movement to share their thoughts on what up to now has been an unappreciated but significant episode in the history of Catholic social and political action. My thanks to the following: Neil Middleton, Bernard Sharratt, Terry Eagleton, Martin Shaw, Angela and Adrian Cunningham, Martin Redfern, Brian Wicker, Fergus Kerr, O.P., Christopher Calnan, and John Callenor.
Bernard Sharratt, Christopher Calnan, and Neil Middleton spent considerable time in going beyond what one would reasonably expect in interviews, providing me with additional and numerous elaborations on the questions I posed. Angela and Adrian Cunningham sent me a number of obscure but important publications that I had not been able to track down on my own. Bernard Sharratt and Christopher Calnan were also generous in offering to read over and correct some of my assertions concerning the history of the Catholic Left. Regrettably, Mr. Calnan and Angela and Adrian Cunningham passed away before the publication of this book. Their friendly and informative correspondence will be sadly missed.
I have been fortunate to have the support of wonderful and dedicated secretaries who always could be counted on to help me through the countless administrative challenges that come from trying to complete a rather lengthy manuscript while overseeing a department of some thirteen energetic faculty members. Thanks to Barbara Storella, Mary Ducharme, and Danielle Vinceguerra. I also wish to express my gratitude to Matthew Hallgren, Boston University’s System Support Specialist, without whom I never could have found my way through the myriad and labyrinthine peculiarities of our computer age. My thanks also go to a former student, Nicholas Epstein, who, after doing research for me on Vatican Council II, claimed to be one of the few Jewish students who could more fully appreciate Catholic social thinking. All this helped to inspire his decision to undertake graduate study in public policy at the University of Chicago. I want to thank Linda Wells, dean of Boston University’s College of General Studies, as well as many supportive colleagues, in particular my teaching teammates and fellow chairs, Peter Busher, Natalie McKnight, Adam Sweeting, and Matthew Parfitt. Their friendship has been crucial for creating a uniquely positive collegial environment that makes both teaching and scholarship rare pleasures. Finally, I have had the good fortune to be blessed with the sharp eye of Rebecca DeBoer, a very kind and forgiving editor who took on the double burden of guiding to publication my previous book with the University of Notre Dame Press as well as the current volume. Of course, any omission and errors that remain in this work are entirely my own.
The purpose of this study is to examine the evolution of Catholic social thinking from the end of World War II up through the 1960s. Vatican Council II signaled the victory of what can be identified as the Catholic liberal or progressive tradition, the earlier history of which was the subject of my book Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (2002). Thanks to the ground-breaking work of such Catholics as Jacques Maritain, Virgil Michel, Don Luigi Sturzo, George Shuster, Godfrey Diekmann, John Courtney Murray, Hans Küng, and H.A. Reinhold, among others, there was firmly in place by the time of the calling of the Council a platform from which the Church might launch a progressive, reformist approach to the secular challenges of the modern age. These Catholics were champions of liturgical reform, which aimed to reintegrate Christians with the Mystical Body of Christ as a means of extending Christianity into the broader realms of the community. 1 They believed that the ills of excessive capitalism and its opposite, collectivism, could be attenuated by reforming the thought processes and values of modern society. But this was to be a social reconstruction that had to be preceded by a renewal of the Christian spirit, where the doctrine of the Mystical Body uniting Christians with Christ could serve as the link between liturgy and sociology. As noted by Virgil Michel, this would “revive and foster determination to carry Christ-life into the social and economic sphere.” 2 As a means to this end, which required a more active participation in the liturgy, these reformers advocated the use of the vernacular in the Mass. This, in conjunction with a number of encyclicals by Pope John XXIII and his successor, Pope Paul VI, encouraged political pluralism, advances in ecumenical outreach, greater participation by the lay community in Church affairs, and religious toleration. The reforms that issued forth from Vatican II marked the high point of Catholic progressivism in terms of engaging the modern world.
However, in the views of more traditionalist Catholics, the Council’s promise of renewal and a willingness to embrace the modern world appeared to open the gates to radical changes that would only disrupt and undermine the spiritual dimensions of the faith. The resistance of establishment Catholics, namely, the Roman Curia and affiliated clerical hierarchies along with conservative lay men and women, was challenged by another, younger coterie of Catholics who believed that the Council had not gone far enough in satisfying what they saw to be the essential objective of Christ’s teachings: the creation of a community of humanistic socialism. Such Catholics were convinced that liberal and progressive reforms were insufficient, indeed even counterproductive, since they only served to sustain the status quo and the privileges of those who controlled the levers of political and economic power. These were Catholics of the Left, and they sought the creation of a genuine Christian community culminating in the Kingdom of God, which they thought could never be realized through the liberal model of institutional reform. Even with the best of intentions and absent entrenched elites, liberalism rested philosophically on the fundamental principle of privileging the individual for maximizing self-advancement, the core dynamic of capitalism. In their view, reformist liberalism as a political philosophy produced social energies that worked against the creation of an egalitarian community of shared cultural values. Liberalism, according to such radical Catholics, was always willing to offer “progressive” solutions to social problems but never to go far enough in overturning the institutional structures that caused such problems in the first place. Whereas conservatives were dedicated to preserving social structures as they are, liberals were more insidious and thus more dangerous, since they masked the sources of social dysfunction by simply offering the requisite reforms to make prevailing institutions function more efficiently and humanely.
Another significant factor that characterized the English Catholic New Left was its membership. Much of the leadership and energy came from a new generation of Irish immigrant families who, thanks to post–World War II educational reforms, gained access to higher education. These Catholics were intellectually restive and had a far more radical view of how their religion could be used to change the perceived inadequacies of English culture than had either their working-class parents or the aristocratic Catholics who assumed a distinctly paternalistic attitude toward their immigrant co-religionists.
Representative of this more radical Catholic thinking was the English writer Terry Eagleton, who proclaimed that “Christian progressivism” was at root parasitic on the social system that it was intended to oppose. The liberal Catholic critique, Eagleton asserted, was an exploration that avoided engaging with “outside” sociological and philosophical theories and, even when it attempted to do so, was co-opted by the “liberal or ‘social welfare’ styles of developed capitalism.” This meant that liberal or progressive Catholicism could never challenge the prevailing orthodoxies of bourgeois society, since it was readily preempted by the ruling establishment in order to “modernise and consolidate a profoundly conservative system.” 3 This was the process that Eagleton and his associates saw to be currently at work within the Christian Church. Their objective was to move the Church into more revolutionary channels, thereby pushing to the limits how far one could go and still remain of the faith.
I have chosen as a case study of such radical Christianity the experience of the English Catholics, in particular those who associated themselves with the New Left. Unlike their American counterparts, the English radical Catholics succeeded in developing a coherent theological philosophy of revolution based on a synthesis of the “New Theology” that inspired Vatican II and radical economic and social theory, a good deal of which was inspired by the insights of Karl Marx and American and European sociologists and literary theorists.
The driving force behind what came to be called the English Catholic New Left was a periodical called Slant. The young Catholics who were affiliated with this publication and several other associated leftist organizations devoted themselves as Christians to the mission of advancing socialism, which they saw to be the ultimate incarnation of the Kingdom of God. Slant as the avant-garde of this radical agenda intended to liberate the post–World War II generation of English Catholics from what its writers considered to be the stultifying and anti-intellectual world of immigrant Catholicism as well as the pusillanimity of the liberal political and economic thinking that served to assure the continuity of corporate capitalism. In this endeavor the Left Catholics put forth a new set of sociological and religious ideas that provided a framework for the emergence of a more sophisticated theological consciousness that would challenge capitalism and all its assorted evils.
Although the English Catholic New Left did not succeed in meeting their revolutionary objectives, the bold and imaginative efforts made in explicating their positive vision were a source of inspiration to many younger Catholics, who had begun to question the relevance of what they saw as an antiquated religion out of touch with modern times. The Catholic Left offered a perspicacious synthesis of the most seminal socioeconomic and philosophical theories of the modern era and demonstrated how this could be integrated within the framework of Western civilization’s oldest religious tradition. All this certainly underscores the observation of theologian Fergus Kerr, O.P., who wrote that the Catholic Church “is not the monolithic entity that her enemies and most zealous members believe.” 4
This book is divided into three separate but integrated parts so as to better explicate the transformation from progressive religious reformism to revolution. Part I, “The English Cultural Setting,” provides the historical backdrop for understanding the nature of Catholicism in England. We see here the roots of a small, conservative, and ultramontane Church that ultimately had to accommodate itself to a Protestant and secularized mainstream culture and, by the early nineteenth century, find space for the influx of Irish immigrants. A considerable gulf developed between the old recusant aristocratic Catholics and their working-class brethren. However, both were culturally conformist and showed no proclivity for challenging the prevailing order. Although they preferred to stay beneath the political radar, in the early decades of the new century a different breed of Catholic emerged, consisting of a more politicized coterie, spurred on in large part by a number of influential converts to the creed (G.K. and Cecil Chesterton, Eric Gill, Christopher Hollis, Arnold Lunn, and Douglas Woodruff, among others). It was this group that sowed the seeds of social activism, some elements of which would later culminate in the revolutionary positions of the Catholic New Left. Yet by the end of World War II and well into the 1950s, this more politicized Catholicism had waned, and the English Catholics once again returned to the earlier preference for conformity, conservatism, subcultural separatism, and religious quietude.
Part II, “The Reformers,” expands the historical context for discussing trends in Catholicism from England to Europe, where there were broader and more systematic theological efforts to bring the Catholic Church into the modern age. The ultimate success of the reformers, reflected in the papacy of John XXIII and Vatican Council II, came after a long and difficult struggle to overcome the legacy of what was anathematized as “modernism” and the influential “integralist” forces that demanded that all public and private life be guided by the authority of Rome. Closely bound up with maintaining the monarchical structures of the Church seen to be challenged by modernism was the Vatican’s battle against all facets of liberalism, which in some ways was considered more lethal than communism itself. This model of Church governance reached its maturation in the papacy of Pius XII.
In order to transform the Church and make its existence more relevant to modern life, it was necessary for reformers to overcome two pillars of papal authoritarianism: the theological monopoly of neoscholastic Thomistic orthodoxy, and the Congregation of the Roman Curia, the bureaucratic agents of Vatican business. What opened the doors to progressive voices was the failure of the Church to provide sufficient leadership through the testing of the fascist totalitarianism that had resulted in world war and the social, economic, and political chaos that followed. Now was the time for a new theology that could more realistically address the changes of the postwar world. This burden was undertaken by a group of theologians, many of whom were associated with the University of Tübingen in Germany, and these were joined by younger Jesuit and Dominican theologians from France and Belgium. Out of their writings emerged the so-called New Theology that initiated a more imaginative and historical understanding of Scripture, an opening up of Church governing structures, and greater lay participation through liturgical renewal. The new theologians and their ideas about reforming Church teachings and institutional structures so as to better serve the needs of the modern era found a sympathetic ear in Pius XII’s successor, Pope John XXIII, who in turned launched the Second Vatican Council.
Finally, Part III, “The Revolutionaries,” describes and analyzes the English Catholic New Left, an increasingly radicalized group of young intellectuals who viewed the liberal reforms of Vatican II as insufficient to achieve what they saw to be the ultimate purpose of the Gospels: a revolutionary transformation of society toward the creation of a humanistic socialism. Their story completes the circle of progressive theological aspirations, which produced a revolutionary reaction, but one that the Left always believed was a turning back to the original intention of scripture.
The English Cultural Setting
The Church in England
British Catholicism after World War II can best be described as authoritarian and paternalistic in structure, leadership, and teaching. The old aristocratic recusant families that had dominated the Church had been obliged to give way to Vatican ultramontane power with the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, and gentry influence was further compromised by the huge infusion of Irish immigrants seeking employment in England’s industrial cities. 1 Since the time of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808–92), one of the main concerns of the English Catholic leadership was to serve the spiritual and communitarian needs of the Irish laboring class, a group fundamentally alienated from mainstream English culture. Catholicism had been more than a religion for the Irish working people; rather, it defined their cultural identity. In an environment that made immigrants feel strange and different, there had been a natural tendency for them to pull inward, embracing those cultural traditions that gave them the comfort of place. Here is where the familiar religion of Catholicism provided both an anchor of certitude and a regular clerical supply of moral leadership. There were two factors that gave shape to Irish Catholic separatism: the discriminatory and alien English culture itself, and a religion with its unique rituals and institutions that supplied a sense of community independent of the larger society in which it was located.
The immigrant Irish subculture of Catholicism, represented by a close network of primary socialization, allowed participants to locate themselves within a meaningful particularistic tradition from which they might find access to the wider English mainstream culture. But this was a subculture conditioned by deference to authority and undergirded by a heavy dose of spiritual trepidation. Cardinal Archbishop John C. Heenan of Westminster highlighted the efficacy of sin through the confessional box for keeping Catholics in line. Catholics attended Mass, he admitted, rather because of fear than the love of God: “knowing the faithful as a mother knows her children,” the Church tells them what to do for their own good. Catholic adults were like children and had to be told what to do. 2 How all this impacted on the consciousness of the individual Catholic was captured by the novelist David Lodge in his book How Far Can You Go? : “Up there was Heaven; down there was Hell. It was like Snakes and Ladders: sin sent you plummeting down towards the Pit; the sacraments, good deeds, acts of self-mortification, enabled you to climb back towards the light. Everything you did or thought was subject to spiritual accounting.” 3 Those who faltered might even be punished by the very means through which they were supposed to communicate with their Savior. One London priest, for example, imposed a collective penance of saying “three Hail Mary’s” when members of his church failed to attend a meeting on Catholic education. 4
The former Jesuit Peter Hebblethwaite related the story told to him by a Mr. John Holland of Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, who described what it was like to attend the local Catholic school. The parish priest who came into the school on Sunday mornings greeted students with his inquisition: “Hands up, those who were at the 9:30 Mass?” There was no communion at the 11:00 service, meaning that only the lazy and less devout attended. The second and devastating question was, “And which of you missed holy mass?” After a pause, the Clegg children raised their hands. The family had no shoes. The MacDermotts and the Haydens also had missed the service. The MacDermotts had a drunken father, and the Haydens had no dad at all. “These were the scholars who were lashed by the priest’s invective,” explained Holland, “who called upon God to witness the disgrace in which they stood. . . . There was nothing for them . . . but eternal punishment for their damned souls unless they mended their ways.” By the time the priest had finished, Holland concluded, each scholar was petrified with fear—not of God but of the priest. 5
Not surprisingly, in the hearts and minds of young Catholics the combination of fear and clerical authoritarianism could inspire grim visions of the Apocalypse. The literary critic Terry Eagleton recalled the school retreats from his youth in the working-class community of Salford, when one of the priests depicted in vivid detail the three dark days of Satan’s rampage, where only holy candles would burn. “Ashen-faced and subdued,” wrote Eagleton, “I lived in constant fear of the Second Coming, which was somehow merged with the threat of Russian invasion—Christ and Khrushchev rolled into one.” There was at least some solace for the young Eagleton, however, since with “low neo-scholastic cunning” he had worked out that it could not happen before 1960, the year when the pope was to open the letter containing the message from Our Lady of Fatima. How could God “blow the whistle before then”? 6
Generally speaking, English bishops and priests had not distinguished themselves as intellectuals. Until recently they had been the products of educational training purposely isolated from the main institutions of higher learning. The clergy who served the Irish community were not trained as administrators, diplomats, or university scholars. Their education took place in Ireland and was geared to parish ser vice. The guiding purpose of the parish priest, as Lodge has observed, was to provide pastoral care to a predominantly working-class and lower-middle-class community who, it was assumed, needed to be shielded from the corrosive influence of modern ideas in the arts and sciences through obedience to clerical authority. 7 In the words of England’s highest-ranking prelate before World War II, Cardinal Archbishop Arthur Hinsley of Westminster, it was the existence of separate Catholic schools alone that could save the young people from the “easy descent into the depths of paganism.” 8
For years the hierarchy had restricted young Catholics in any effort to expand their intellectual horizons through higher education. Cardinal Manning’s successor at Westminster, Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, regarded English universities as centers of infidelity and worldliness. It was not until 1895, nearly twenty-five years after the lifting of religious tests for Catholics at Oxford, that the Vatican (after a reluctant petition by Vaughan) gave permission for Catholics to attend the nation’s elite secular universities. Even as late as the 1960s, Catholic chaplaincies at British universities were unable to receive sufficient support from the Church. 9 For the most part, young Catholics were taught to conform. Yet what they received in return did not linger long on their intellectual palate. Lodge has written that religious instruction consisted of memorizing the Penny Catechism and monotonously recounting the Ten Commandments and the sacraments. He could not recall being exposed to any other religious textbook, and seldom was any reference even made to the Old and New Testaments. 10 Desmond Fisher, editor of the London Catholic Herald during the years of Vatican Council II, noted that Catholics in the 1950s listened to sermons that had no relevance to their real lives, failed to understand the Latin rituals, and only attended church out of habit, fearing the consequences if they did not. 11 Intellectual life itself was an exotic rarity among the working-class Irish. Eagleton pointed out that literacy was not the strong point in his childhood community in industrial Salford, a world “which would no more have understood how you make a living by writing books than how you could make one by picking wax from your ears.” 12
Despite the criticisms of Lodge, Eagleton, and others, it would be a mistake to assume that all Catholics inhabited an intellectual wasteland. A number of English bishops up to the 1940s received at least part of their higher education for the priesthood in Rome. This certainly was a rigorous intellectual experience, yet it served to mitigate national and parochial perspectives, strengthening instead ultramontane tendencies and devotion to the Vatican. As Cardinal Heenan of Westminster put it, “Romanità,” or the Roman spirit, with its encounters with St. Peter’s Basilica, audiences with the Vicar of Christ, and the solemn pontifical ceremonies, “exercise an imperceptible but permanent effect upon the young clerics.” These experiences above all made the priest especially conscious of being “one of the Pope’s men.” 13 The effect of such educational and spiritual conditioning was to bind very strongly the English bishops to a Catholic subculture of separateness, and the ties that bound the hierarchy to Rome partly explain why the English church lagged behind its European and American counterparts in pushing for theological and social reform in the years leading up to Vatican Council II. 14
On the other hand, Catholics had certainly made their mark on British cultural life. The Chesterton brothers, Hilaire Belloc, Eric Gill’s Guild of Catholic Craftsmen, Graham Greene, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Dawson, and many others had greatly enriched the fabric of British arts and letters, but for the most part these men were converts to the altar and embraced the faith because it was exotic and in opposition to the prevailing spirit of modern secularism and English Protestantism. They were part of what the historian Adam Schwartz has identified as the “Third Spring,” a generation of Catholics distinct from the “Second Spring” that John Henry Newman had called his fellow converts W.G. Ward, George Tyrrell, and others. 15 As opposed to Newman’s group, the Catholics of Chesterton’s era were less interested in integrating their faith with the times than in using it as a means of attacking the cultural distortions of modernization. And unlike Newman’s generation, they found comfort in Vatican authority. Although the “Third Spring” intellectuals came to Catholicism from varying backgrounds and experiences, what they had in common was the need to find authoritative spiritual and moral security in a world of vanishing standards and beliefs. Many embraced Catholicism not only because it provided an answer to these personal longings, but also because its ancient verities could serve as the source of rejuvenation for an age rapidly sliding into what they saw as the miasmic confusions of cultural relativism.
These men had an enormous impact on non-Catholics, but some critics question whether their work was of permanent service to the Church itself. 16 Even Schwartz himself, an admirer of the “Third Spring” Catholics and a critic of the secular trajectory of the modern age, laments that the seeds of their fruit seem to have fallen on rocky soil. The British Catholic historian John Lynch at the end of the 1950s wrote that Chesterton, “in spite of flashes of insight,” has presently no influence on the younger generation in or outside the Church and does not have any relevance to the society in which they live. Nor do they go to the idiosyncratic Belloc for an understanding of British history. As for Greene and Waugh, their writings, Lynch claimed, say little about the nature of English Catholicism, and as writers they are sui generis and not at all typically representative of their religious affiliation. Indeed, the romantic conservatism of Waugh, Lynch has argued, with its eccentric devotion to Arcadian aristocratic and antiquated values of privilege, has no meaning whatever to proletarian Catholics. 17 Lodge has asserted that “the world-famous partnership that George Bernard Shaw dubbed ‘the Chesterbelloc’ has had a great fall, and few seem interested in putting it together again”; the ideas for which they labored “have largely lost their relevance.” 18
The Catholic Church had a certain appeal for the converts and the Irish working class because of its separation from mainstream English culture. Brian Wicker, one of the leaders of the Catholic New Left in the 1960s, commented that when he converted in 1950, it felt like “joining something which put a strange gulf between oneself and the world as one knew it.” 19 For those Irish immigrants who felt keenly the boot of English prejudice, the Friday abstinence provided a common sense of community. In the words of the cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, a meatless Friday was no empty symbol: “it means allegiance to a humble home in Ireland and to a glorious tradition in Rome.” 20 Such connections could be a source of pride in the subculture of humiliation and poverty that were the lot of the unskilled Irish worker.
Other writers have also remarked on the intransigent separateness from the world that seemed to define British Catholics. In 1950, Archbishop George A. Beck of Brentwood had posited that “the ‘otherworldliness’ in a Catholic must always be his dominant, if not immediately evident, characteristic.” 21 The Roman Catholic sense of separateness was promoted by such peculiarities as the Latin Mass, prohibitions against eating meat on Fridays, pilgrimages, and devotion to novenas. Indeed, disappointed with the Vatican’s efforts to modernize its liturgy through Vatican II, the writer Arnold Lunn wondered whether he would have even converted to Catholicism if at the time the Church had embraced the vernacular. 22 Bernard Wall wrote to Tom Burns, publisher of The Tablet , scolding him for highlighting the ideas of progressive theologians who gave shape to Vatican II, namely, Hans Küng, Cardinal Leon Suenens, Cardinal François Marty, and others. These men, wrote Wall, were hopelessly out of touch with the modern world. Giving publicity to their alien ideas, he claimed, was “harming our culture and religion at a time when the situation is desperate.” In Wall’s view the prohibition of the old Mass was “a totalitarian action and likely to achieve the very end which it is intended to avoid—namely a schismatic situation.” 23
The endurance of an independent Catholic subculture made it difficult for the Irish to assimilate into mainstream English society. From the outset the strength of the Irish inheritance was a formidable barrier to overcome. Even in the mid-nineteenth century there were working-class districts in the Midlands where the immigrants still spoke Irish routinely. In particular, very few of the women knew how to speak English, and most Irish immigrants who landed in the shipping ports scarcely understood the language. 24 Studies of ethnic assimilation in the United States indicate that the process is expedited when the minority group makes concessions to the linguistic, educational, and social norms of their new environment. The object is to abandon some of the more alien features that mark one as different to facilitate acceptance, yet also to maintain sufficient elements of tradition to sustain personal and community identity. In the case of Jews in both Britain and America, for example, as well as other ethnic minorities coming to the United States, the identity anchor has been religion. 25 Yet what stands out in the case of assimilation regarding Jews in Britain and other ethnics in America is that these groups had a strong desire to become an integral part of their host culture. A conscious desire to assimilate, however, was not initially present in the Irish Catholic community in Britain. As the sociologist John Hickey has shown, getting too close to English culture was considered disloyal to the historical struggles of the Irish homeland, and its state religion of Protestantism was too threatening to the Catholic faith. This isolation, he points out, was “not only endured but deliberately encouraged.” 26 In fact, when Catholics did begin to merge more readily into English mainstream culture after World War II, it was largely the result of the breakdown in religious and social isolation rather than of any conscious effort or positive course of action on their part. 27
Another factor that contributed to the making of Catholic separatism was the Irish working class itself. From the beginning of the large-scale immigration, Irish workingmen showed little interest in social and political reform. For example, they assiduously opposed the Chartist movement of the 1830s, the first effort to emancipate the working class politically through parliamentary reform. When peaceful efforts failed to advance their cause, several prominent Chartists, most conspicuously the Irishman Feargus O’Connor, moved to more direct, even violent, methods to advance the cause. Irish workers remained largely aloof from the Chartists and roundly condemned their insurgency when it became disruptive. In fact, in Manchester, Irish workers broke up Chartist meetings during the anti–Corn Law campaign in the early 1840s and were largely responsible for the defeat of Chartism in that city. 28
The Irish opposition to a working-class movement can be partly explained by the same reason that recent immigrants to America have failed to gravitate to unions: the necessity of finding employment quickly regardless of the level of wages. The conditions from which the Irish workers had fled were far worse than what they found in Britain, and the requisites of subsistence or helping a family back in Ireland compelled them to work for nearly any wage. Thus it was imperative to protect a regular source of income from what was seen to be the reckless behavior of working-class activists.
In addition to the calling of subsistence, there were political reasons for Irish aloofness from the early English working-class movement. The leading champion of the Irish cause, Daniel O’Connell, MP, was himself opposed to both the Chartist disturbances (he believed that its Irish supporters undermined their people’s efforts to earn respectability) and trade unionism. The activities of trade unionists antagonized the managerial classes and compromised O’Connell’s efforts to unite all sections of Irish society in repealing the Act of Union.
Economic and political considerations therefore served to isolate the Irish working class from mainstream English trade-union activism. Whatever political interests they had were essentially channeled into efforts to achieve Home Rule for Ireland and support for the Fenian movement. However, this struggle for Irish independence did not require cooperation or the development of strategic linkages with English trade unionists. 29
There were exceptions to this political separateness from working-class action for social justice, but for the most part they concerned individuals such as Cardinal Manning in the London dock strike of 1889 and the Distributist groups, who threw their support to revolutionary syndicalist action in the pre–World War I years. These were unique cases, largely outside the general Catholic political trajectory, and their influence altogether was not long lasting. Manning’s success in gaining concessions from the employers during the London dock strike made him a hero to the workingmen. However, the exceptionalism of Manning’s actions was noted by one of his Catholic admirers, who wrote that the cardinal’s efforts “lit up as with a splendid, contrasting, solitary flare the long waste of his Catholic contemporaries’ general indifference to the question of social rights.” 30
Such progressive impulses were of short duration. Herbert Vaughan, the successor to Manning (the “People’s Cardinal”), was a son of England’s old Catholic aristocratic tribe with a pedigree that went so far back in time that it lost itself “in the twilight of fable.” 31 This gentry background, along with his education in Continental Catholic colleges, contributed to Cardinal Vaughan’s conservative Tory instincts. Unlike Manning, Vaughan was ill at ease with the immigrant working-class Irish. His view of them illustrated the enormous gap in England between aristocratic perceptions and the laboring masses. To Vaughan the working class appeared to be “broad-backed powerful animals.” With “words of the coarsest, foulest, and most degrading meaning,” the workers “are flesh and blood, and they think and speak of nothing else.” 32 A delegate from the National Committee of Organised Labour, who met with Vaughan to discuss his support for the group’s pension scheme, related how the cardinal was gracious, refined, and regal, yet somehow out of touch with the world of workingmen: “He wanted to be sympathetic, but did not quite know how, and moved uneasily in dealing with our subject, as one who travels on unfamiliar ground.” 33
Although Cardinal Vaughan admitted a moral and intellectual debt to Manning, he openly criticized his predecessor’s public political activity, in particular his role in the London dock strike, and frankly disapproved of many of Manning’s radical social policies. Reflecting the assumptions of the old Catholic traditions, Cardinal Vaughan preferred to address social problems through Catholic institutions under the direction of the official hierarchy, rather than to work for change through public organizations in cooperation with any people who shared his objectives (even Protestants!), a modus operandi with which Manning had been perfectly comfortable.
After Cardinal Vaughan’s death in 1903, there were sporadic attempts to organize Catholics to promote social reform. One of the more long-lasting campaigns was associated with an organization founded in 1906 called the Salford Diocesan Federation, whose mission was to coordinate efforts of the clergy and laity to train Catholics for participation in the political process. The Federation lasted until 1928. One of its major victories was to convince the Labour Party to delete from its platform a clause demanding secular education in public elementary schools. The organization also established a National Conference of Catholic Trade Unionists, which worked to prevent the Labour Party from adopting a socialist agenda.
In the long run, what dissipated Irish Catholic political involvement was the granting of Home Rule in 1922. Afterward, with few exceptions, Catholics remained largely apolitical. The Catholic Social Guild (established in 1909) was dedicated to advancing Catholic social doctrine as outlined in the teachings of the great labor encyclicals. It also founded the Catholic Workers’ College (Plater Hall) at Oxford. The guild and college did not achieve notable success, owing largely to the inability of overcoming deeply ingrained Catholic indifference to political and social questions.
The persistence of a Catholic subculture largely divorced from significant political involvement prevailed up to the end of World War II. It was a subculture of separateness enforced through insistence on marital endogamy, an authoritarian clergy, strict adherence to the Vatican monarchical power structure, and religious socialization in separate schools. The hierarchy was highly sensitive to the need to protect its people, especially the young, from the secularizing forces of the wider culture, which by the 1950s was itself going through massive changes in moral values and social outlook. Here the Church committed itself to charity work in terms of saving souls, but there was less said about putting into practice the social teachings of the Gospels, and any sort of involvement in matters of politics for the most part was avoided. The authoritarian clerical structure of the English Catholic Church also discouraged involvement of the laity in religious affairs. As one observer of the Catholic situation in England noted, John Henry Newman’s essay in the July 1859 issue of The Rambler , “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” had made a case for restoring lay participation, but Newman’s plea was ignored by the hierarchy for well over a hundred years. 34
It must be said that by the early 1960s Catholics had largely failed to make a distinctive mark on either English popular or political culture. There certainly was no clear “Catholic line” on either domestic or international affairs. Catholic members of Parliament were indistinguishable from their fellow party members, or else they did not remain long at Westminster. For the most part, it appears that many Catholics who came of age politically after 1945 simply absorbed the thinking and values of the social class to which they belonged. 35
Catholics were also not well represented in Parliament in proportion to their numbers. In the 1960s, for instance, there were roughly the same number of Jewish MPs as Catholic ones, even though they were less than one tenth of the Catholic population. 36 This may have been a lingering legacy of historical bias against Catholics since the Reformation and of the siege mentality of the recusants, who deemed it prudent to stay below the political radar. Yet another factor that might explain the apolitical tendency of English Catholics related to the theological dualism that pervaded Catholic education (a Platonic separation of the higher spiritual realm from the mundane) and its consequent antiworld attitudes. Bishop George A. Beck, chairman of the Catholic Education Council after World War II, cited H.O. Evennett’s assessment of Catholic education with approval. The hierarchy of values taught by Catholicism, wrote Evennett, runs counter to much of modern social and moral ideology. It teaches that “Life is a preparatory stage and its values are secondary . . . the quintessential that is left by a Catholic education is a lasting consciousness of the fact and meaning of death.” Moreover, “to pass through the gateway of death in the best possible disposition towards God . . . is the very object of life itself.” 37 This does not represent a mind-set especially attuned to addressing the troubles of the secular realm.
Such was the nature of the English Catholic Church and its community up to the 1960s: insular, apolitical or at least politically conformist, highly authoritative, and out of touch with what was transpiring among Catholic theologians on both the Continent and in the United States. The Catholic hierarchy may have succeeded in the task of ministering to the spiritual needs of its growing community and of constructing churches and schools. But it was not equipped to deal with the myriad intellectual and social challenges of a rapidly changing modern culture. Yet there had been a number of lay Catholics who did recognize the imperative of using their religious beliefs as a vehicle for changing prevailing orthodoxies in a progressive, even radical direction. Their legions were small but highly significant in terms of creating an intellectual template from which a later generation might have drawn to advance their own program for transforming the sociopolitical landscape. The roots of this religious radicalism go back to the early twentieth century with the founding of the Christian Socialist Movement, out of which evolved the seminal social and political thinking of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and their followers.
The Sources of English Catholic Radicalism
Although English Catholicism in the post–World War II years was clearly politically and socially conformist, there had been an earlier episode of Catholic-inspired radicalism associated with the Distributist ideas of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc that had fundamentally challenged the English ruling establishment. Chesterton and Belloc were two of the best-known and most prolific writers of their generation; each published more than one hundred books and contributed to nearly every major British periodical of the day. Before 1914 and during the interwar years they launched an unconventional assault on the evils of capitalist-industrial society that had a significant influence not only on Catholic writers but also on the secular political left (G.D.H. Cole, R.H. Tawney, and the Guild Socialists). 1 As such, the ideas of Chesterton and Belloc that formed the core of what was called Distributism established a legacy of radical socioeconomic thinking that might have served as a philosophical grid for those future Catholics who would advocate overturning the corporate capitalist political order. Radical Distributism had its origins in Christian Socialism and the rise of the labor movement in pre–World War I Britain.
English Catholics had never been especially enamored of socialism or radical politics. Although there had been a momentary surge in political and social activism under Cardinal Manning, this changed with the leadership of his successor, Archbishop Herbert Vaughan. Efforts to galvanize Catholics for social action did not take place until after the death of Vaughan in 1903, and the inspiration for this uphill struggle came from laymen rather than from the Catholic hierarchy. Leslie Toke, one of the leaders of the mildly reformist and short-lived Catholic Social Union, claimed that the organization collapsed in no small part due to the fact that “its name was supposed in some occult manner to connect it with that dreadful Socialism.” 2 Toke published a highly critical essay in the Dublin Review (1907) condemning the apathy toward social problems of the old wealthy Catholics as well as their antipathy to anything suggesting socialism. The vast majority of educated Catholics, claimed Toke, not only were ignorant of papal social teachings but were also as benighted regarding political and economic questions as were their French noble counterparts “on the eve of the Revolution.” 3
Leslie Toke, Virginia Crawford, and a few other stalwarts launched the Catholic Social Guild (CSG) in 1909. One of its major projects was to popularize the social principles outlined in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum . The CSG worked closely with the Fabian Society and sought “to permeate” the consciousness of the working classes through Catholic social teachings. Yet the CSG also made it clear that it would follow a moderate course of action and make special efforts to avoid political controversy. 4 This policy was also applied to other organizations that grew out of the CSG. The Catholic Evidence Guild, for example, established to teach the faith to non-Catholics, was forbidden to incorporate politics into its platform: “The rule is extended in practice to the avoidance of controversial questions of a social and economic nature, which though not strictly political yet might easily distract the meeting from its true aim, which is religious.” 5
The laymen chiefly responsible for moving their co-religionists to radical social and political action prior to World War II through the program of Distributism were first nurtured not in Catholic circles but rather in the company of Anglican social activists. Most of the major players in the Distributist movement—Cecil and G.K. Chesterton, A.J. Penty, Maurice Reckitt, Eric Gill, and others—had entered the political arena from the traditions of Christian and guild socialism. The early careers of these writers had been influenced by Christian socialists, referring to a group of activists from across denominations who were inspired by the work of F.D. Maurice to apply the Gospels to Britain’s social problems. Maurice had been a critic of the Victorian churches’ narrow insistence on confining religion to personal morality and salvation. The “Kingdom of God,” said Maurice, includes the whole of His creation, embracing man in all his parts, secular and religious. 6
The economic thinking of the early English Christian socialists (notably J.M. Ludlow, the founder of the movement, and the novelist Charles Kingsley) derived from French Catholic socialists, some of whom were associated with Frédéric Ozanam. Ludlow had studied the teachings of the Catholic convert and socialist P.-J.-B. Buchez in Paris. Like Ozanam, Buchez had worked for a reconciliation between Catholicism and popular democracy. Buchez believed that a major mechanism for essentially “Christianizing” the forces unleashed by the French Revolution would be a clergy prepared in the traditions of “social deaconry” (the recognition that the clergy, in addition to their sacramental responsibilities, had an obligation to perform welfare work to improve the social life of the community). 7 Buchez and other French Catholic socialists preached that capitalism was parasitic and destructive of God’s worldly design. However, they were optimists, firmly believing in the rationality of man and convinced that historical progress was possible through the expansion of democratic, participatory government.
For their part, the English Christian socialists were convinced that such progress could not take place while the working classes were alienated from religion. This problem, they believed, was due to the failure of the Victorian churches, whose leaders, in the words of historian K.S. Inglis, cared less about the material and spiritual welfare of the working classes than the workers allegedly cared about religion. 8
One of the important offsprings of Christian socialist thinking was the Christian Social Union (CSU), founded during the London dock strike of 1889. Its birth was marked by the publication of a book edited by Charles Gore called Lux Mundi: A Series of Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation . The book attempted to explain the importance of Christianity for addressing the central moral and intellectual issues of the day. In addition, the authors, most of whom were radical Anglicans embarrassed by their church’s failure to promote social and economic reform, emphasized the responsibility of owning private property, which, they insisted, must be recognized as a public trust involving explicitly social obligations. It was the book’s insistence on applying Christianity to political and social matters that led to the establishment of the CSU. Its purpose was to study and publicize social and economic problems, and its members were prepared to draw on Pope Leo XIII’s labor encyclical to drive home their arguments.
Another issue that galvanized the energies of the Christian Social Union was British imperialism, in particular, the South African Boer War of 1899–1902. Two leading figures of the CSU, Charles Gore and Scott Holland, were especially disturbed by the jingoism that fueled Britain’s overseas expansion. Their criticisms were joined by those of several other young members of the CSU, notably Conrad Noel, whose powerful sermons against munitions makers led to threats to blow up his church, 9 and G.K. Chesterton. These men believed that the Boer War was the product of a plot carried out by international mining interests. It was a classic example of what the journalist J.A. Hobson at the time called “economic imperialism,” a redolent Marxist argument highlighting the capitalists’ ravenous search for new markets and investments.
G.K. Chesterton gained a large public profile because of the brilliance of his writings on the evils of British imperialism. He soon locked horns with George Bernard Shaw and the imperialist Fabians, who defended the Boer War on the grounds that it would advance civilization. Chesterton asserted that imperialism was the enemy of liberty, since it negated the deepest of democratic principles—it denied the equality of man by imposing “our standards” on another nation, yet learning nothing from them. 10 In addition, Chesterton believed that imperialism destroyed true liberty, which he was convinced could be attained only within a defined sphere of activity and by wielding power over “small things.”
The radical members of the Christian Social Union, including Chesterton and Noel, ultimately became dissatisfied with the failure to move the establishment to social and economic reform through mere speeches and the writing of papers. Out of this frustration was born the Christian Socialist League (CSL) in 1906 by those who wanted a movement primarily devoted to socialist political action and more liberal in matters of religion. Membership in the CSL was now open to persons of all faiths and to those who were willing to commit themselves to a democratic commonwealth founded on “economic socialism,” in which wealth would be owned collectively by the community.
The members of the CSL varied widely in the radicalism of their political and social views and included such diverse people as George Lansbury, the future leader of the Labour Party; Conrad Noel, who would become known as the “red priest” of Thaxted; J.N. Figgis, the father of “political pluralism” and a major influence on the later development of Guild Socialism; and the brothers Cecil and G.K. Chesterton. The CSL soon became involved in the wave of working-class unrest that swept England in the years preceding the outbreak of World War I. Noel, a close friend of the Chestertons and a stalwart warrior in many of the causes for which the brothers so ardently crusaded, was typical of the political militancy of the association when he wrote in 1912 that the main hope of the future was in “the revolt of the people against their ‘leaders’ as manifest in sympathetic strikes and the general labour unrest.” 11
Noel’s views were undergirded by Christian teaching. He claimed that he was an advocate of “Catholic Socialism,” the seeds of which were found in the teachings of the early Church fathers, who, he believed, were radical revolutionaries committed to the sharing of property and full-scale democracy. 12 Perhaps the most radical of the Christian Socialist Leaguers, a group whom the Anglican bishops called “dangerous men,” was Cecil Chesterton. As the leader of the League’s militant wing, Chesterton vigorously opposed the association’s dealings with the Liberal Party and urged that only candidates who were avowedly socialist should be given CSL support. 13
One of these “dangerous men,” G.K. Chesterton, came to have the greatest impact on modern English Catholicism. “G.K.C.,” as he was popularly known, converted to Catholicism in 1922. In his well-known book Orthodoxy (1908), a precursor to his conversion, Chesterton argued that Christian theology was the source from which his own liberal sympathies and orientations had evolved. The book was an explanation of how liberalism as a creed could reach its fullest potential in a democratic environment of limited government (“the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves”) 14 founded on Christian religious principles. Here, Chesterton touched on one of the most salient features of Catholic social theory adumbrated in the teachings of Pope Leo XIII and more formally set down in 1931 in Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno and later in Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris , as well as Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes . This is the principle of subsidiarity. In addition to recognizing that the individual and the family precede the state, subsidiarity affirms that governments and larger organizations should never undertake activities that are better suited to either individuals or smaller social associations.
Chesterton’s politics evolved from a moderate version (Christian socialism) to a radical one (anarcho-syndicalism on the eve of World War I). As early as 1900, however, he recognized a disturbing pattern in parliamentary politics: the parties tended to curb the views of their more unconventional members so as not to disturb the political establishment. 15 Within a few years, Chesterton became disillusioned with the Liberal Party and the entire political system. He noted that once the Liberals were in power, articles critical of the government ceased to appear in the newspapers for which he wrote, even though they had previously led the charge against corruption within the Conservative government. When his own essays were censored, Chesterton concluded that the press, like the political parties themselves, had fallen under the control of a few rich men who were dedicated to the preservation of the status quo.
In addition to the evils of parliamentary government, Chesterton also became alarmed during the first decade of the new century by the threat to individual liberties inherent in the advancement of socialism. He feared that socialism, if followed to its logical collectivist end, would sacrifice the individual to the machinery of the state. This trajectory was manifest in the programs of the Fabian Society, which aimed to centralize the political powers of the state and to turn over governance to bureaucratic experts trained in the science of efficiency. Moreover, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the major forces behind the Fabians, had a lingering distaste for and suspicion of the laboring classes and thought it necessary to discipline them in order to maintain social order. For Sidney Webb, the masses were “apathetic, dense, unreceptive to any unfamiliar idea.” 16 Indeed, the Webbs’ social ideal later became the Soviet Union. In 1935, after a visit to Russia where they saw Stalinism in action, the Webbs published two exuberant volumes on the Soviet system and hailed it as the dawn of a new civilization. Chesterton presciently contended that the Fabians were working not for a classless society but rather for a planned society via the introduction of a bureaucratic form of socialism. His prognostications later materialized in the fulsome disquisitions of the Webbs on Soviet communism. Another of Chesterton’s targets was H.G. Wells, who had complained that Marx’s notion of socialism was “unattractive to people who had any real knowledge of administration.” Wells was grateful for the Fabian Society’s conversion of “Revolutionary Socialism into Administrative Socialism.” 17
Chesterton ultimately condemned socialism for two reasons. First, it addressed the issue of reform from the top, in the form of state bureaucrats deciding for individuals, the little men, what was best for them. Second, as a creed it rested on a false theory of human nature. Social reform imposed from above by the state could never be durable because it did not directly involve those whom it was supposed to benefit. People by nature, Chesterton believed, had the need to participate individually in any programs that would affect their personal lives. Reform directed from above, outside the communities in which the individual associates, would also compromise the democratic process because bureaucratic elites would be usurping initiative from the agents of primary socialization, namely, the family, the workplace, and so forth. In short, collectivist tendencies inherent in socialism would strengthen the state at the expense of the basic social institutions, especially that of the family, which Chesterton viewed as the wellspring of liberty and the source of creativity. His critique of socialism and appreciation of the family as the basic unit of good living—the keystone of all social systems—adhered closely to the principles upon which Pope Leo XIII had drafted his most famous social encyclical, Rerum Novarum .
G.K. Chesterton became acquainted with the Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc because both men had a common interest in attacking the evils of imperialism, socialism, and political corruption. Chesterton’s feelings about the sanctity of private property and the qualities of good living found in small rural communities unsullied by the filth of industrialization complemented Belloc’s idealization of peasant proprietor-ship. Belloc had written about the loss of spirit and independence produced by industrialization and came to champion the virtues of rural living. Belloc believed that he had found in peasant society a respect for tradition and communal cooperation that came from working the land, generating a sense of rootedness, family closeness, and a set of religious mores that gave shape and coherence to the whole social matrix. 18
The social and political philosophy developed by Chesterton and Belloc, called Distributism, was shaped by two factors in particular. The first was Belloc’s service in the House of Commons as a Liberal MP. The second was the labor unrest that brought Britain to open class warfare on the eve of World War I. Both factors came to define the two writers’ outlooks regarding necessary programs to change the system, provided them with important insights into the ways in which politics were influenced by the establishment, sharpened the anarchistic, antistatist dimension of what came to be the Distributist alternative to capitalism and socialism, and generated a wider audience and coterie of activists for the Distributist mission.
Belloc was elected to Parliament in 1906 for the Liberal Party, representing South Salford. He soon discovered that his freedom to act as an independent voice was undercut by the parliamentary bosses of the Liberal Party, “the caucus,” as he called them. After a series of failures in trying to promote reformist causes, Belloc concluded that the legislative powers of Parliament and its executive had fallen under the control of a new financial elite who had replaced the old landed gentry as the major power brokers. He decided not to stand again in the general election of 1910. From this point on, parliamentary politics for Belloc became either the object of cynical jokes or something to be bitterly scorned. 19
Labor activity at the time of the working-class unrest in Britain in 1914 was influenced by the infusion of syndicalism, a variety of anarchist thought that had arrived in Britain from the United States and France. The syndicalists called for workers to employ “direct action” tactics outside the conventional political system to win control of their industries. Their ultimate objective was to create a society in which the workers would control their destiny through trade unions. This was called at the time “industrial unionism.”
Workers who responded to the call of syndicalism had a deep distrust of official leadership and political parties. Those middle-class intellectuals who supported the syndicalist cause were themselves hostile to the political system; they believed it was spawning a new kind of society that would smash the individual for the sake of bureaucratic efficiency. Both these groups shared a common fear of the abuse of state power in the hands of elected officials. Support for syndicalist thinking came from numerous rank-and-file trade unionists; the radical independent labor newspaper, the Daily Herald ; an avant-garde and influential journal edited by A.R. Orage called The New Age ; and two journals owned by Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton, the Eye-Witness and New Witness .
Cecil Chesterton had initially been an activist with the Fabian Society but quickly outgrew its statism and, while writing for Orage’s radical journal, developed a strong distaste for parliamentary politics. He also became highly critical of the Labour Party, which he believed was an inappropriate vehicle for advancing socialism. In 1910 Cecil published a book entitled Party and People , arguing for a strongman to arouse the people against corrupt politicians. The book had an obvious appeal to Belloc, and despite some differences concerning private property and socialism the two became fast friends. Cecil soon accepted Belloc’s criticism of socialism and converted to Catholicism. In 1911, Belloc and Cecil Chesterton published The Party System , which asserted that a plutocratic conspiracy had turned parliamentary government into a sham fight between the two major political parties. Its major thesis was that wealthy contributors to the parties’ funds controlled government without reference to the British electorate. A single coterie of “selected” members of Parliament directed politics for these monied powers, thus making the traditional differences between Tories and Liberals meaningless. The plutocracy allowed each party to have its turn for the sake of public appearances, but in reality this “party system” was a fraudulent game that rendered the House of Commons null and the people of Britain impotent and voiceless in political affairs. 20
The second weapon used by the Chesterton brothers and Belloc to assault parliamentary politics was Belloc’s most influential book, The Servile State , which first appeared in 1912. Here, Belloc first outlined a Catholic alternative to socialism and capitalism, called Distributism. He prophesied that the socialists’ attempts at wholesale nationalization would prove too troublesome, requiring a compromise with capitalists, in which the owners of industry would be allowed to hold the means of production provided that they accepted the responsibility for maintaining their workers in tolerable living conditions. The potentially revolutionary worker would be given security, but at the expense of his freedom, for he now would be a virtual slave to the capitalists and state bureaucrats. This agreement for security would result in a situation where the mass of men would be constrained by law to work for the profit of a minority. As the price of such constraint, the workers would be given the economic protection that capitalism could not provide, but the arrangement would guarantee to the ownership class a monopoly over the devices for producing wealth. Belloc’s proposed remedy to this system of slavery (the “servile state”) was a general redistribution of property into the hands of the broadest number of people (in other words, Distributism, an idea derived from Rerum Novarum ) in place of the current scheme, in which a large proportion of property was concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists.
The working-class distress of the pre–World War I years in Britain as well as elsewhere was the product of many factors, including falling wages, irresponsible displays of wealth by the elites, and the inability of either the trade union leadership or the political parties to improve working-class living standards. Discontent also was fueled by the introduction of centralized industry-wide collective bargaining agreements, which overlooked local variables. Others were convinced that the unrest was directly inspired by revolutionary syndicalist ideas. 21 The growing dissatisfaction with labor’s parliamentary party, the smoldering anger against cautious trade union leadership, and the appeal of syndicalist thinking coincided with the emergence of Cecil Chesterton’s and Hilaire Belloc’s critique of party politics and Fabian collectivism. Both Cecil Chesterton and Belloc, along with many people within the trade union movement, had recognized serious threats to the liberties of every man in the maturation of plutocratic politics.
A number of British newspapers were consistent supporters of the spirit of working-class revolt. The most radical was the labor paper the Daily Herald under the direction of George Lansbury. The Chesterton brothers and Belloc wrote in Lansbury’s paper and thus were able to build bridges into the world of labor for the cause of Distributism. Along with the Daily Herald and Orage’s New Age , Chesterton’s and Belloc’s papers, the Eye-Witness and New Witness , threw their support behind the plethora of strikes throughout 1910 to 1914. They attacked the labor proponents of conventional party politics and waged a constant struggle against legislation such as the National Insurance Act, which was deemed to be contrary to working-class independence. Belloc’s warnings about the impingement of servile legislation led the Daily Herald to rebel against every move to increase the powers of the state. In the words of one of the Daily Herald ’s correspondents, “no one has better claim than Mr. Belloc to claim the honour of being one of the leaders of that revolt.” 22 The syndicalist Leonard Hall, a regular correspondent for the Daily Herald , reviewed The Servile State in November 1912. Although Hall could not accept its Catholic and Distributist conclusions, he agreed completely with its analysis of the prevailing political trends and declared that no better critique of the capitalist system had ever been written. 23
Both the Eye-Witness and its successor, New Witness , were chiefly concerned with exposing the secrecy surrounding the political process and laying bare the dangers involved in the encroachment of state powers. They also gave unwavering support to the demands of the workers for higher wages and more control over their industries. In its lead article of 7 August 1911 the Eye-Witness completely supported the syndicalist demands of the radical labor activist Tom Mann and urged the workers to reject their parliamentary leaders (a thoroughly middle-class set of men divorced from the populace) and to “organize from below.” Rejecting the government’s scheme for conciliation and arbitration committees as a means for settling disputes (as contained in the Labour Disputes Bill), the Eye-Witness insisted that the workers must always have the right to strike rapidly and without notice. Both the Eye-Witness and later New Witness were firm in their support of the strike as a legitimate weapon of labor and regularly condemned the government’s efforts to end strikes through political means. They also lent their editorial voices to the spread of industrial unionism and were sanguine about revolutionary changes arising from it. In the words of Belloc, “If great masses of labour develop the power to organise from below, to insist upon corporate demands, to treat individual delegates as their servant, to mistrust labour ‘representation’ and develop a watchdog agency, then there will be great change in the industrial towns of England.” 24 In a number of articles in various journals and newspapers, Belloc was blunt in his defense of the workers’ use of the strike. In the breach of collective bargaining agreements, he claimed, the strike was a morally justified expedient, a legitimate weapon in what had become an issue of class warfare. Since the circumstances surrounding the drafting of such agreements were unequal, the bargains, said Belloc, should have no binding force. 25
Most important, in Belloc’s view, the increasing industrial turmoil reflected a shift in the consciousness of the English working class. The workers’ hopes and aspirations of earlier times, when thrift and a commitment to diligent labor in one’s calling had provided access into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, had disappeared. The workers now took the condition of industrial society for granted, and this produced in them a new moral outlook: “the proletariat now think of themselves as proletariat.” As Marx himself would have explained it, the recognition of a class enemy had produced a revolutionary consciousness in the English working class. They despised the system that oppressed them and now were committed to its destruction. 26 Belloc went on to condemn the “so-called leaders” of the trade union movement for failing to win satisfactory wage and labor agreements. Nor did he believe workers would be well served by Labour MPs who manipulated trade union officials for their own self-serving purposes. These politicians, in particular J. Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden, were not working class themselves but “theoretically socialists of the regular middle class type,” motivated chiefly by private interests and the advancement of their own careers. They had been “captured by the Liberal machine” through the offer of salaries and the actual payment of public money. 27
One of the more popular proposals made by those who supported the working-class agitation was the introduction of a minimum wage as a vehicle for improving the condition of labor. This was advocated by many socialists and especially pushed by the Catholic Social Guild. It was also given support in the encyclical Rerum Novarum , which advocated a “living wage.” Yet from the outset the Chestertons and Belloc steadfastly opposed the idea as a dangerous subterfuge, an insidious substitute for what labor really needed—ownership of the means of production. 28 This marked a significant rupture in Catholic social thinking, one that advocated a frankly revolutionary solution to the desperate conditions of labor that would later be picked up by the New Left in the 1960s. 29 Belloc disagreed with mandated minimum wages because he feared that such a mandate could become part of a series of legal decisions that turned a minimum wage into a national standard wage: “ compelling the capitalists to pay at least so much for a particular form of labor will involve the growth of a corresponding right to see that the labor is performed.” 30 To the radical Distributists, the promotion of a minimum wage (which was called for in Rerum Novarum ) was mere reformism, a strategy that would never assure upward social mobility for the working orders but only solidify the prevailing power structures by giving labor the impression that they were being liberated. True freedom required a far more revolutionary measure: allowing the workers to be equal partners with management in ownership of the means of production.
Belloc’s brief career in Parliament caused him to despair of reforming England’s political traditions from within. Eventually, after the years of labor unrest, he concluded that the parliamentary system itself, as currently constructed, was unsuited to govern modern Britain. He saw several signs of parliamentary dysfunction: the basic demands of wage earners were being expressed not in Parliament but out on the streets; good and talented men who wished to serve the people were no longer willing to enter the House of Commons (Belloc saw his own abbreviated parliamentary career as a sign of this problem); and finally, he believed, the “spirit of representative government” had vanished. Members of Parliament now marched to the tune of the real power brokers, the money clique who controlled the party funds. Belloc concluded that the only mechanism that could save Britain from the corruption of plutocratic capitalism was authoritarian government in the form of restored monarchical power.
Unlike Belloc, Cecil Chesterton still held out hope that change might be possible through Parliament if labor were willing to take on more militant tactics. In the summer of 1912, for instance, he urged the supporters of labor to develop tactics modeled on the lines of Charles Stewart Parnell’s parliamentary party and the Irish Land League. Parnell’s colleagues coordinated obstructionist measures within Parliament while simultaneously directing the essentially revolutionary action of Irish peasants from without. Parnell won the admiration of the Irish people through his aggressive parliamentary policy; simultaneously, by means of the Land League’s militancy, he had made the business of government nearly impossible and encouraged revolution. The Eye-Witness suggested that labor needed a similar two-pronged approach: a group in Commons to fight the machine and, at the same time, an industrial army of labor animated by the same spirit that moved the Land League. 31 However, as Cecil Chesterton admitted, such a bold program required another Parnell or an autocrat the likes of a Caesar.
All the groups who supported the revolutionary objectives of the working classes in those tumultuous years before the Great War, despite their differences, were conscious of being involved in a common struggle to resist the onslaught of society engineered by adherents of state socialism. A major concern of the syndicalists and the revolutionary press was to stop the drift toward collectivism and, at the same time, to begin building a more democratic society that would allow greater freedom to the individual. This required both the elimination of what was seen to be the sham system of party politics and a restructuring of the political order. A means to this end was the creation of a new style of labor organization in the form of industrial unionism. For many people involved in this activity, industrial unionism was deemed to be a necessary mechanism for unleashing the vital spiritual forces that society needed for its rejuvenation. The collective objective of the radicals who worked toward bringing genuine economic and political power to the trade unions was to build a more balanced political system that would avoid placing excess power in the hands of the state and, at the same time, mitigate bureaucratism. Equally important, industrial unionism was recognized as a way of making the individual worker more productive and independent in order that he might reach his full development as a human being.
The writings of Cecil Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc played a critical role in providing an arsenal from which the other antistatists during these years could draw their weapons. This is evidenced by the considerable number of antiparliamentarian critics who made reference to their ideas and freely borrowed the vocabulary of both The Servile State and The Party System .
After Cecil Chesterton’s death, the battles that he and Belloc had waged against bureaucratism, capitalist exploitation, and political corruption were carried on during the interwar years by G.K. Chesterton and Belloc in the newspaper called G.K.’s Weekly and in its successor, the Weekly Review . Chesterton was determined to continue the feisty journalism of his brother. He said that his paper would “fight every week for Catholic ethics and economics” in the same manner that the New Statesman was fighting for socialist causes. 32 This approach to journalism was partly a response to what Chesterton considered the pusillanimity of the English Catholic hierarchy to engage in religious and political controversy. In fact, many of those who became part of what was called the Distributist circle during the 1930s, in particular Arnold Lunn and Eric Gill, frequently criticized Catholics for their intellectual timidity and for being out of touch with the problems of industrial society. Gill was especially vitriolic on this score, since the clergy failed to support his own well-known experiments in Catholic communal work and living at Ditchling Common. Gill also frequently railed against the hierarchy for lacking the courage to apply the principles of Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclicals to the issues of the day.
Papal social teachings were neither widely appreciated nor always fully understood in Britain. Rerum Novarum , for instance, was greeted with a plethora of conflicting interpretations. One Catholic writer argued that it represented an outright rejection of social democracy, while another viewed it as a justification of Fabian socialism. 33 Since many English Catholics were insufficiently informed about the content of the papal encyclicals on social issues, they tended to oppose trade unionism as much as they did socialism and communism. An exasperated Gill claimed that when it came to discussing matters of labor and the responsibility of workingmen, ordinary parish priests and laymen were either not interested or frankly antagonistic to any reform whatsoever.
Chesterton’s weekly followed a relatively moderate course between 1925 and 1928, voicing concerns about improving conditions for the working class through trade unionism and reforming economic and social life through Parliament. It made significant efforts to move the Labour Party toward Distributist principles and worked diligently to check the government’s efforts to undermine the growing political strength of the trade union movement. The test of its commitment concerning the latter came in the spring of 1926 with the outbreak of the great general strike, a revolutionary trade union reaction to capitalism. The strike was precipitated by years of trouble in Britain’s coal industry. As mines became less profitable, management pushed for longer working hours and a reduction in wages, both of which were bitterly opposed by the miners. Arbitration failed, and in April the Trades Union Congress (TUC) laid plans for a general strike in support of the miners.
G.K.’s Weekly supported the miners throughout the months of negotiations that led up to the strike. But Chesterton and the Distributists disapproved of a key trade union bargaining demand, namely, its insistence on a minimum or living wage. Focusing on the issue of wages, they argued, would only serve to perpetuate the division of property between employer and employee. Wage bargaining rested on the premise that labor was a commodity, and by engaging in such discussions the trade unions perpetuated the worker’s alienation from the products of his labor and his dependence on a dominant class. Wages were part of the “bread and circuses” of the servile state, designed in large part to diffuse labor’s demands for the more important goal of ownership of the means of production. On the other hand, Chesterton saw the wisdom of the mine owners’ offer to gear wages to the prosperity of the mines. This could represent the opening for an eventual joint business partnership, where remuneration for services would be linked to the industry’s profits. The miners were advised to accept the partnership offer along with its logical corollaries: joint cooperation and co-equal power with management in control of the industry and partnership in profits. 34
The essential point in the mining dispute, claimed Chesterton’s news paper, was the need for the workers to move beyond the idea of mere profit-sharing and cooperative production. What was needed was part-ownership in the companies. A key principle of Distributist industrial policy was “the utilisation of the joint-stock principle of industrial organisation for the multiplication of partners.” Or, putting it more blatantly, the present system of capitalism must be smashed so there could be more capitalists. 35
The general strike finally broke out in April 1926, and from the outset G.K.’s Weekly offered the workers its unqualified support. Following the radical traditions of its predecessors, the Eye-Witness and New Witness , the paper asserted that any workman had a right to strike at any time and for any reason. Withholding such rights represented a denial of liberty. 36
A special edition of G.K.’s Weekly was published during the strike, but its position brought considerable criticism from many lay and clerical Catholics far less radically disposed than the Distributists. For weeks the paper received letters bristling with anger from Catholics who pilloried its editors for supporting a revolutionary act. Both the Anglican and Roman Catholic hierarchies condemned the strike. Cardinal Francis Bourne, head of the English Catholic Church, scolded the miners in his Sunday sermon at Westminster and found no moral justification for their behavior. It was a direct challenge, said he, “to lawfully constituted authority and inflicts, without adequate reason , immense discomfort and injury on millions of our fellow-countrymen. It is, therefore, a sin against the obedience which we owe to God.” 37 Britain’s most influential Catholic monthly, The Tablet , supported Bourne’s position. It asserted that the trade unions were becoming too powerful and that the strike was nothing more than a ploy to hold the public hostage in order to win “sectional privileges from the People’s Government.” 38
Many Distributists considered the Catholic Church’s official reaction as yet another example of a congenital reluctance to commit itself to political action, a policy driven by the fear of criticism from the governing establishment. In its special strike edition of May 15, 1926, G.K.’s Weekly accused the industrial combines of goading the workers into calling for a general strike in order to destroy the trade union movement. It also argued that government (thanks to the machinations of Winston Churchill, Lord Birkenhead, and William Joynson-Hicks), with the unofficial support of the organization calling itself the British Fascisti, had worked to create the impression that the trade unions were under the control of Bolsheviks: “The middle and upper classes have been mobilized in defence of the Combines and the rich, and in defiance of the Trade Unions and the poor. The nominal enemy was Moscow and the Red Flag; the real enemy was the Trade Union.” G.K.’s Weekly viewed the general strike not as an act of revolution but rather as a “reasonable defence against plutocracy.” 39
The general strike turned out to be a disaster for the British labor movement. Although the TUC called an end to the strike on 12 May, many angry miners stayed out for another six months. Workers in the long run lost millions of pounds in wages, and thereafter the trade unions experienced a catastrophic decline in membership. The government had been in the mine owners’ camp throughout the struggle, and the aftermath was bitter and vindictive. After the strike was called off, Parliament passed the Trades Disputes and Trade Union Bill, whose proposals included, among other things, outlawing sympathetic strikes, forbidding civil servants from joining TUC-affiliated organizations, and severely limiting the use of trade union political funds.
G.K.’s Weekly campaigned long and hard against this legislation, but once the bill was passed into law in 1927, Chesterton and his friends began to lose faith in the possibility of converting the Labour Party and the trade union movement to Distributist ideals. What turned the tide for Chesterton’s group was the willingness of the TUC General Council to negotiate over long-standing differences between management and labor in order to arrive at some compromises in the interests of industrial harmony. Known as the Mond-Turner talks (Sir Alfred Mond was chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries and Ben Turner was chairman of the TUC General Council), these discussions were purposely kept secret for fear of raising the ire of extremists in both camps. In July 1929 the group issued a report indicating that the employers were willing to make concessions: they would recognize trade unions as the sole bargaining units for workers and accept changes in unemployment insurance in favor of labor. Most significant, the Mond-Turner report recommended the establishment of joint consultative machinery by the Trades Union Congress, the Federation of British Industries, and the National Confederation of Employers’ Organisations. These proposals were vehemently attacked by the Distributists, who regarded such understanding and cooperation between employers and workers as a harbinger of the dreaded servile state.
The TUC’s willingness to participate in the Mond-Turner talks represented, for Distributists, a sign that the trade unions had given up seeking ownership of the means of production. The trade union movement had forsaken economic independence for the promise of security. Chesterton and his supporters also turned their fire on the parliamentary Labour Party. Its politicians, G.K.’s Weekly asserted, had been converted to “respectability”; they had become a “real party” by entering the full political system with the understanding that all the rules laid down by parliamentary precedent would be scrupulously observed. Labor had now earned its badge of respectability; its leaders had graciously become “good parliamentarians,” in violation of the old socialist revolutionary tradition: “In the days of William Morris they had talked of destroying the Houses of Parliament by blowing them up or, more picturesquely, of shelling them from the river. . . . But now their own aim is to preserve Parliament, to make it permanent, to make it safe.” 40 In February 1930, G.K.’s Weekly announced to its readers that it could no longer support parliamentary politics. Henceforth, Distributists would work for revolution from without, since any changes would have to be imposed by forces other than legal, parliamentary actions.
It is of interest to note here that the Chesterton-Belloc analysis of the Mond-Turner agreements dovetailed with that of the leading English Marxist of the day, R. Palme Dutt. In the Labour Monthly , Dutt pointed out that if the trade unionists accepted the Mond-Turner proposals, it would mark their conversion “from organs of class struggle into organs of co-operation in the capitalist organisation of industry.” 41
From this point onward, the Distributists moved further away from conventional politics and sought to gain support for their schemes through a variety of other expedients, including a political alternative proposed by Hilaire Belloc: the restoration of monarchical government. On a more practical and realistic level, throughout the years before the outbreak of World War II, Chesterton’s journal and its successor, along with Belloc and his circle, worked assiduously to arouse the public consciousness to the dangers of political corruption and statist collectivism. Their followers organized the Distributist League, which labored to advance the ideas of Chesterton and Belloc as well as to propose alternative methods of production. Chesterton called attention to Eric Gill’s cooperative experiment at Ditchling Common, the model Distributist community that Gill hoped would serve as a moral and practical inspiration—a “cell of good living”—for building a better society. Here, Gill set up a highly regarded craft guild where workers lived with their families in a self-sufficient, loosely knit commune guided by the religious principles of Thomas Aquinas and the philosophy of Distributism. Chesterton also appealed to the government to give his project a helping hand through a variety of programs. Several proposals were advanced to change the economic system so as to promote the development of wider ownership of property. These included, among other things, differential tax schemes targeting those who abused their wealth; elimination of primogeniture; subsidization of experiments in small property holdings; educational programs for teaching handicrafts and farming; and creation of local market systems to replace the huge marketing centers, such as Covent Garden in London. Finally, Chesterton urged workers to organize special guild associations that would exercise cooperative control of all industry, with the ultimate aim of buying out the capitalists as the owners of the means of production.
The call for a new Distributist order was truly revolutionary, but Chesterton insisted that it could come about only through the voluntary action of the community. It would be counterproductive to coerce people onto the countryside to revive small-scale farming or into trade guilds because such moves would undermine the personal freedom that was the cornerstone of Distributism. Likewise, a draconian confiscation of wealth and property would destroy the love of proprietorship that the Distributists were trying to revive. Unlike socialism or communism, Distributism was not a thing that could be “done” to people; it could be born only through their approval and active participation. To Chesterton, the Distributist new order required a moral transformation: “But it must be done in the spirit of a religion, or a revolution, and (I will add) of a renunciation. They must want to do it as they want to drive invaders out of a country or to stop the spread of a plague.” 42
The death of G.K. Chesterton in 1936 and the rise of fascism ultimately led to a split in the Distributist movement. One group, attracted to the more authoritarian and antiparliamentary thinking of Hilaire Belloc, gravitated to the extremist, anticommunist right. Others who followed the more moderate trajectory of Chesterton (who had himself made a clear break with fascist ideas) denounced the political positions of their fellow Distributists. The reactionary elements eventually gained control of Chesterton’s journal and upheld a philo-fascist line regarding international affairs. A number of writers for the Weekly Review developed ties to British fascist organizations. These included Jorian Jenks, A.K. Chesterton—the intellectual spark plug of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and editor of its two chief propaganda organs, Blackshirt and Action —and J.L. Benvenisti. The Weekly Review dished out a scurrilous screed of anticommunist, anti-Jewish commentaries that served to disgrace the legacy of G.K. Chesterton’s journalism.
Although the Distributist movement fragmented by the latter 1930s, the careers of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc for a generation at least had the effect of breaking down the siege mentality and the timidity of Catholics with respect to English politics. In doing so, they established a legacy of radical social and economic thinking that could be tapped by newer generations to address the problems of both an industrial and postindustrial society. However, this breed of confrontational, politicized, anti-establishment Catholicism went into retreat after World War II. The revolutionary social legacy pioneered by Chesterton and the Left Distributists lost its relevance by that point and, with a notable exception, failed to be fully appreciated or thoughtfully engaged with the revival of political Catholicism in the 1960s. Furthermore, English Catholics of the left never gave the Distributists a fair reading, owing largely to the taint of right-wing extremism and philo-fascism bequeathed to the movement by Hilaire Belloc and his followers. Yet there was a socially and economically radical dimension to Distributist thinking that resonated closely with the views of Catholic radicals of the 1960s and, if sufficiently integrated with their programs, could have broadened the audience and given additional religious heft to their cause. The Distributist phenomenon was the taproot of an English Catholic radicalism; in the larger historical context, it culminated in the ideas of the Catholic New Left of the 1960s.
English Catholics and the Establishment
In contrast to the anti-establishment temperament of radical Distributism, Catholic sentiment after World War II was markedly more supportive of the prevailing cultural and political structures of the English social order. Bishop David Mathew in the third edition of his authoritative study of Catholicism in England (1955) recognized a palpably conservative, Tory inclination among the more prosperous Catholic social strata. This was symbolized, in his view, by the considerable influence of Douglas Woodruff, the rightist owner-editor of the highly respected lay Catholic journal The Tablet . Attached to this broadly conservative frame of mind were what Mathew called those Catholics in the managerial class “who had separated themselves from the Irish nationalismin-England which had so often been their father’s creed.” 1 There was a distinct solidarity of opinion or “corporate quality” to their outlook, said Mathew, that was forged by General Francisco Franco’s struggle against the Communists in Spain’s civil war. The consensus among English upper- and middle-class Catholics, the great majority of clergy, and virtually all members of the hierarchy (with the exception of the bishop of Pella) was that Franco was holding back atheistic Marxism in defense of European Christianity. In short, Mathew concluded that the English Catholic community had been moved to political consensus by accepting the notion that the Spanish imbroglio was a religious war. This was an assertion propounded by the influential Catholic journalist Douglas Jerrold, Woodruff’s paper, and the writings of other right-wing Distributist epigoni of Hilaire Belloc. 2
Those Catholics who had a more nuanced view of the Spanish affair and were critical of Franco’s pro-Fascist policies and unsavory allies (the Dominicans in Blackfriars , Eric Gill, and the left-wing Distributists) were minority voices and had little impact on what Mathew saw as a highly positive solidarity of thought on the political right. What English Catholics learned through the putative “sagacious” editorial guidance of Woodruff and Jerrold was to hold firm against Russian imperialism in foreign affairs and to stand guard against any manifestations of Marxism on the domestic scene. 3
What Mathew identified as a consensus in Catholic thinking given focus by the Spanish Civil War downplays the other, darker side of that political coin, namely, the blindness to the evils of fascism and sympathy toward authoritarianism among English Catholics throughout the 1930s. Those whom Mathew honored were at least partly responsible for this. In 1937, for example, Frank Sheed published a book by J.K. Heydon, Fascism and Providence , that spoke of common ground between the Catholic Evidence Guild and what was considered Catholic-inspired fascist movements throughout Europe: both were parallel forces for righteousness in working for the creation of the corporate state. 4 Catholics throughout the 1930s had the reputation of being philo-fascist. Indeed, in Leeds, Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), was known as “the Pope” due to the large number of Catholics who supported his movement. The BUF noted in its journal that fascists and Catholics had much in common since both were opposed to democracy. 5
Although the English Catholic hierarchy was highly critical of the Nazis after the outbreak of war, it continued to resist condemnation of authoritarian regimes in Spain and Portugal, and it seldom said anything negative about various other movements on the political right. There was a certain irony to this position. For example, throughout World War II, Cardinal Arthur Hinsley of Westminster kept a signed photograph of General Franco on his desk. In a personal note thanking Franco, moreover, Hinsley hailed the dictator as the “great defender of the true Spain” and valued his “likeness as a treasure.” 6 All the while, Franco’s benefactor, Adolf Hitler, had placed Cardinal Hinsley on the Nazi death list. Hinsley’s double standard could be explained by Cardinal John Heenan, who, after visiting Barcelona for the 1952 Eucharistic Conference,, asserted that “Franco’s Spain is a dictatorship with a difference.” 7 This kind of thinking, claimed J.M. Cameron, had essentially crippled the political vision of his fellow Catholics. English Catholics, claimed Cameron in a 1960 discussion of religion and politics, continued to be imprisoned by a number of myths, forms of false consciousness that kept them at the margins of political life. Chief among these was the notion that Franco’s Falangist insurgents were largely responsible for checking the advancement of a Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy to destroy Europe’s Christian civilization. 8
The penchant for authoritarianism and rightist political movements, however, was mostly confined to the Catholic upper and middle classes. It was not a salient trait among their co-religionists in the working classes. There was a sizeable social and mental gulf between the small number of upper-class intellectuals who dominated the journals (Woodruff at The Tablet , Jerrold’s English Review , and Michael de la Bedoyere at the Catholic Herald ) and the larger numbers of urban Catholic workingmen, the latter of whom showed no uniform or zealous sympathy with politics on the right. 9 In later years there would be a resentment and simmering anger over the Catholic establishment’s reactionary political bent. The animus can be seen, for instance, in a review of Cardinal Heenan’s autobiography, Not the Whole Truth , by G. Egner in the Dominican journal New Blackfriars of March 1972. 10 Egner viewed Heenan’s story not simply as the record of one man’s career but as representative of an entire era in English Catholicism. What he discerned in Heenan’s life was an ambiguous emptiness, an absence of moral evaluation regarding the sins of the Church and the political distortions of his day, all of which were encapsulated in a blind obedience to authority. “We have suffered,” wrote Egner, “from the social origins of our bishops.” Rarely had they been recruited from settings that gave birth to England’s working and professional classes. Isolation from English culture and educational institutions produced a religious ruling class committed not to the extension of rights and privileges to the lower classes but to protecting the prerogatives of clerical power. The English Roman Catholic establishment was content “once the channel was crossed” to acquiesce in a complex of ideals and preferences that favored “legitimist, authoritarian, imperialist, nationalist, anti-democratic and . . . anti-Semitic” values. This acquiescence, claimed Egner, was due to a failure to examine the “pre-suppositions upon which the Roman Catholic intrasystematic self-interest” had been built. 11
There was a small but influential group of Catholics during these years who assumed a more progressive stance, especially in matters of liturgical reform and the use of the vernacular. After Michael de la Bedoyere left the Catholic Herald , he founded a journal called Search that opened its pages to Catholics who championed the liberal trajectory of Vatican II as a counter posture to the more conservative Woodruff group. Neil Middleton and Martin Redfern used their positions at Sheed and Ward to provide English translations of Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Hans Küng, the Continental “new theologians” whose writings provided the reformist framework for the Council. Sheed and Ward also published England’s progressive theologians: Charles Davis, Herbert McCabe, Nicholas Lash, and Rosemary Houghton, all of whom promoted Council reforms.
A prominent new journal on the scene was Herder Correspondence , a lay enterprise that specialized in investigative journalism focusing on the latest theological work being published on the Continent. Herder provided in-depth international information about Catholic issues, claiming to speak to the “elite of English-speaking Catholicism” and reaching an audience in some ninety countries. 12 All of these groups and publications, noted Bernard Sharratt, “had assimilated and responded to Vatican II more rapidly and enthusiastically than had the clergy and episcopacy.” 13 They represented a new voice that challenged the establishment groups that heretofore had claimed to speak authoritatively on religious matters.
By the early 1960s there was also a growing educated laity and increasing pressures for reforming the traditional, neoscholastic, and conservative historical curricula of England’s seminaries in order to prepare a clergy more attuned to the needs of a modernizing society. At the Westminster diocesan seminary at Ware, for example, Charles Davis, Hubert Richards, and Peter de Rosa introduced a set of courses that were designed to complement the biblical and liturgical thought that informed Vatican II. Starting in 1967, the Catholic seminaries of Heythrop, Ushaw, and Upholland began integrating their curricula with the Universities of London, Durham, Liverpool, and Manchester. 14
Yet many lay Catholics with distinguished professional careers thought that their input on Church matters was being thwarted by episcopal authority. For example, in the winter of 1966, Herder Correspondence was attacked by Cardinal Heenan as “a poor man’s ecclesiastical Private Eye. ” 15 One of the most outspoken laymen for reform was John Murray Todd, who held an important position as editor at Longmans Green and was one of the founders of the Catholic publishing house Darton, Longman and Todd. To him, Vatican II was rich in possibilities for replacing what he considered the legalistic, “gloomy,” and “disapproving” nature of the Church in England. But Todd lamented that the promise of the Council’s document Lumen Gentium , opening the Church to more lay participation, was being ignored in such matters as the appointment of bishops and opinions on contraception and nuclear weapons. 16 The cautious attitude of the English weekly press on the birth-control controversy required the more radical Catholics to express their views in the national secular newspapers.
At the beginning of the fourth session of the Council, Desmond Fisher, de la Bedoyere’s successor as editor of the Catholic Herald , was recalled from Rome. It was believed at the time that the paper’s directors, fearing a postconciliar “backlash” from the conservative hierarchies, had become nervous about Fisher’s articles promoting ecumenism and laymen’s responsibilities and rights in the Church. Fisher resigned soon thereafter, claiming “policy differences with the board.” The matter was not much commented on in England, but the Dutch Catholic press made a good deal of the affair as a “symptom of the developments in the authoritarian and disciplinarian English Catholic world . . . which has not yet reached the stage of maturity in which dialogue is possible.” 17 In the view of Louis McRedmond, a lead writer for the Irish Independent , the English Catholic press would probably continue to play it safe by assuming a passive posture for fear of the conservative leadership’s crack-down on liberal efforts to actualize the progressive potential of the Council’s rulings. The consequence of this, McRedmond feared, was to lose the loyalty of the new generation of Catholics, who, having moved beyond the limited horizons of their earlier ghetto mentality, expected forward-looking theological policies. The pusillanimity of the Catholic newspapers would only serve to link them increasingly to the clerical and lay forces who wished to retard change rather than implement the Council’s decrees. 18
Although there was growing consternation among a number of liberal-minded Catholic intellectuals regarding ecclesiastical resistance to reform, this was outweighed by a solidarity in sentiment along conservative lines among Catholics in general. As James Lothian has noted, before World War II there was a genuine community of English Catholic intellectuals held together by both close personal relationships and a common ideology. 19 This intellectual consensus, as Lothian outlines, had been forged by Hilaire Belloc’s ideas on government, political economy, and history as well as by the force of G.K. Chesterton’s brilliant writings on all aspects of cultural life. The solidarity of the Bellocian vision was weakened after the war, as the influence of Christopher Dawson (who disapproved, among other things, of Belloc’s radical historiography and unconventional politics) moved a number of Catholic intellectuals away from a focus on economic matters and politics to a greater concern with theology and philosophy. Despite some fracturing of agreement among Catholic intellectuals in the postwar years (triggered in part by a rejection of the Bellocian encouragement of segregation from conventional political culture), it can be said that Catholics in England by the 1960s, on both an intellectual and popular level, had largely joined the mainstream and were no longer at variance with the values of the ruling establishment, even if they were not unanimous in their political loyalties. By this point they had moved from Woodruff’s orthodox conservatism toward more moderate liberal attitudes. The two most prominent political figures were Shirley Williams of the Labour Party and the Tory Norman St. John-Stevas. Both assumed leadership positions in their respective parties, although little divided them in terms of practical politics. The most influential man of labor was the Preston Catholic George Woodcock, who served as general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) from 1960 to 1969.
Under Woodcock’s leadership the TUC came full circle, bringing to completion the agreements adumbrated in the Mond-Turner talks to end class warfare in the interwar years, which had previously convinced the Chesterbelloc that the political system was rigged. Woodcock managed to move his organization away from being a weapon of working-class confrontation with the establishment to that of becoming more of a partner with both government and management for planning industrial policy and thereby salvaging capitalism. The effect of the triangular consultations between these three agencies of power assured relatively conflict-free government through common corporate agreement. The importance of ideology and issues of class conflict were increasingly muted. Election campaigns seemed essentially stage-managed by corporate power brokers to mitigate crises and matters of class differences.
Historian Keith Middlemas has argued that the class conflicts of 1910–1914, followed by the 1926 general strike and the challenges of both communism and fascism in the 1930s, led to a common agreement among Britain’s power brokers to prevent revolution. Middlemas identified a “corporate bias,” which, for the sake of sound governance, produced a quasi-secret agreement between the oligarchs who controlled parliamentary parties, industry, and labor to prevent conflict through compromises. This managerial arrangement has had the effect of blurring class conflict and limiting the power of the people to shape the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats. Middlemas’s thesis would seem to corroborate Hilaire Belloc’s and the Chesterton brothers’ prognostications concerning the erosion of parliamentary democracy and the encroachment of the servile state. 20
A good example of political Catholicism going mainline could be found in the existence of the Catholic Union. The organization referred to itself as a “non-political association” of Catholic laymen (with roughly a thousand members), which monitored government and public actions on both national and local levels to promote Catholic interests. Membership seems to have been reserved for persons who had successful careers or gentrified lineage. The Union preferred to work behind the scenes, using private rather than public measures to satisfy its concerns. The journalist George Scott, in preparing his book on the state of England’s Roman Catholics in the 1960s, discovered that the organization was rather elitist: “We keep the Micks out,” commented one of its aristocratic members. 21 It was cautious about the issues it chose to address and seldom took stands on contentious domestic matters. One issue that did move its members to action on the local level involved a firm’s installation of condom machines outside dance halls, a temptation seemingly designed by Satan himself. The Union put considerable pressure on local authorities, and these nefarious dispensers of sin were soon removed. It also lobbied the Foreign Office on such matters as discrimination against Catholic schools in Ceylon and the persecution of Catholics in southern Sudan. For the most part, it took care to give the impression that it was a force for moderation and good sense. In the words of Sir George Rendel, chairman of the Activities Committee, the Catholic Union defends “all Christian interests” and promotes “Christian morality which is not much regarded today. We don’t expect everyone to agree with us but we have the respect of government because we show that Catholics are now trying to play a responsible part and that we are trying to cooperate.” 22
The Catholic Union did not seem to garner much respect on the Labour side of the House. One Catholic Labour MP reported to Scott that the organization pretended to represent the “Catholic Establishment in England” but had little to offer ordinary Catholics, who, one might deduce, were less concerned about condom sales or schools in southern Sudan than about stagnant living conditions in England. Several others whom Scott interviewed opined that the Catholic Union was wholly unrepresentative (how can the duke of Norfolk pretend to represent most Catholics?), ineffective, and largely inconsequential. 23
One of the major efforts to help Catholics bring some pressure to bear on the labor movement was the creation of the Catholic Workers’ College at Oxford in 1921. Its objective was to train and inspire political and union leaders of the future to advance a Catholic social and economic agenda. Unfortunately, from the outset the college never received adequate financial support from Catholic authorities. By 1965 the school had enrolled only 45 students. Joe Kirwan, its principal, expressed disappointment in his 1963–64 annual report that few students subscribed to courses that dealt with economics and politics, and wrote that there was a general lack of interest in matters of social justice. Although the college had started to develop relationships with the trade union movement, it was not able to draw from its ranks students of high quality. Kirwan urged the clergy to do more to promote social action from the pulpit. Catholics were simply avoiding the issue. As Scott reports, Kirwan said: “The fact of the matter is that in the forty-two years of the College’s life this country has sent only 280 men and women to it. Thirty are still in residence and eighteen are already dead. So small a band spread over so long a time is not going to revolutionise the land.” 24
While Kirwan struggled relentlessly to promote Catholic action, he often faced either a wall of indifference or egregious ignorance. He once recalled a layman in Lancashire, for instance, who should have known better, condemning the Workers’ College as “socialist.” This benighted indifference and occasional outright hostility to the college’s mission contributed to what Kirwan saw as a lack of confidence in the laboring classes’ ability to cope with the complexities of modern social problems. There was an unspoken, perhaps unconscious notion that working men and women should follow the orders of their superiors and not dare think for themselves. 25
There were also some feeble efforts to promote Catholic social justice on the other side of the class chasm. A few years after World War II, the Associations of Catholic Employers and Managers were founded, following an appeal by Cardinal Archbishop Bernard Griffen of Westminster. Their purpose, according to George Scott, who investigated them for his book on English Catholics, was to study industrial problems from a managerial perspective in light of Catholic social teaching. These organizations were autonomous and lacked any national coordination, and their membership always remained small. Several associations offered industrial leadership courses designed to bring Christian ideals to all aspects of industry, from the docks and factory floors to the boardrooms. Scott examined closely the syllabi of one such course offered by the Jesuit community at Loyola Hall. From 1960 through 1965 there was a steady decline of students in attendance. So-called Industrial Leadership Leaflets were used as teaching tools, and one of their major goals was to battle communist influence in the labor movement. The economic problems of the day were presented not as the products of industrial restructuring or the consequences of the ravages of a capitalist drive for profit but rather as the results of a widespread spiritual failing. According to “Leaflet, No. 1,” “We must beware of thinking that man is the slave of economic or industrial forces: he has to bend these to his will and make them conform to the principles of Christ.”
The central message promoted in these courses, according to Scott, was the imperative of achieving a spirit of accommodation and mutual loyalty between manager and employee. This meant that the workingman owed his loyalty not solely to his union but to the larger community as a whole: “The attitude of ‘my union, right or wrong’ is not Christian.” Therefore, strikes should be avoided for the sake of general cooperation and brotherhood. Both managers and workers were reminded that their ultimate employer was God, not the firm. In order to better serve Him, workers were encouraged to be punctual, “not waste God’s time,” not steal the materials and tools of one’s trade, and so forth. Employers also had to follow rules to better serve God, including practicing generosity and charity and encouraging cooperation.
After examining the literature from the Associations of Catholic Employers and Managers’ courses, Scott concluded that they were primarily calculated to benefit the bosses. Management, he argued, seemed primarily inclined to lecture their employees about the virtues of spiritual refreshment. The overall effect was to inculcate a state of docility and compliance to the aims of management. The workers might have sinned through selfishness, but nothing was said about the inhumanity and exploitation wrought by the captains of industry. If there were to be any improvement in the climate of British industry, Scott stated, “our energies should be directed to finding ways of making work itself more tolerable and more ‘personal’, to restoring dignity to labour and, in my view, to changing the structural relationships between employers and workers. But instead of working for change, the Jesuits of Loyola Hall seem to be offering a spiritual tranquilliser.” 26
On the other hand, there was nothing tranquilizing about the Church’s campaign against communism. Besides Pope Pius XI’s root-and-branch condemnation of Marxism in the encyclical Divini Redemptoris (1937), Catholics in Britain were especially vigilant about the dangers of the creed, given the fate of their co-religionists in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern European countries brutalized by Soviet occupation. All Catholic lay movements after the war adopted strong anticommunist agendas.
The Association of Catholic Trade Unions (ACTU) had its roots as a lobby to force the Labour Party conferences to drop from their agendas the annual resolution calling for the secularization of education in the public elementary schools. The organization ultimately succeeded. Later the group formed a permanent body, the National Conference of Catholic Trade Unionists, which took on the mission of educating Catholics about their responsibilities regarding papal social teachings. In addition, it worked assiduously to keep the parliamentary Labour Party with which it was affiliated from becoming an official socialist body. This ended in failure when, in 1918, the Labour Party at its national conference accepted socialism as a central plank of its platform. Disappointed and at loose ends, the National Conference in the same year, at a meeting in Leeds, formally asked the bishops for guidance and general advice on how to proceed. For unclear reasons the group never received a response and ceased to meet after 1918. 27 Members later reorganized as the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (still ACTU). After World War II the ACTU, convinced that Moscow’s agents were trying to take over the trade union movement in Britain, took aim at the threat of communism.
As part of its agenda, the ACTU worked to expose communists in the ranks of labor. It also cooperated with Scotland Yard to help identify communist front organizations. However, some Catholic trade unionists thought that the ACTU had an exaggerated fear of Marxism and that its attacks were largely counterproductive, producing a backlash against Catholics among rank-and-file union members. This was especially the position of General Secretary Woodcock of the TUC. Woodcock was opposed in general to any specific Catholic grouping, since it might have the effect of alienating those people who should be supportive of the kinds of values relevant to all Christians. Also, attempts to force “Catholic influence” on public issues could be seen as further evidence of Catholic “separateness” from the non-Catholic environment, which Woodcock and others active in political life were trying to overcome. Increasingly, the attitude of these Catholics was that the most effective way to be a Christian witness was to be a committed, masterful practitioner of one’s trade or profession.
One of the more prominent ACTU leaders, Bob Walsh, who also served as secretary of the Catholic Social Guild, was critical of the ACTU’s negative attacks on Marxists, believing it more efficacious to spell out the positive, radical side of Catholic social teachings that would replace both communism and capitalism. Said Walsh, “Communists and I part company in the method of attack on these evils and in the system that must replace capitalism.” 28
The main issue for many Catholics by the late 1940s, however, was not Marxist subversion of the trade unions but rather the more furtive communist evil of “big government” through the introduction of welfare state legislation. The vanguard of this scheme was the 1942 Beveridge Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services. Sir William Beveridge was one of the civil servants who had helped to pass the National Insurance Act of 1911, viewed by the Distributists as the precursor of the dreaded “servile state.” He had now drafted a blueprint for full social security and employment. This was followed by Aneurin Bevan’s National Health Service Act of 1946, with its new Ministry of Health. Subscription to the health and social security services was compulsory, benefits were linked to contributions and general taxation, and the scheme was to cover all citizens irrespective of income. By July 1948 the program in large measure was in operation.
In 1944, under the guidance of R.A. Butler, a National Education Act was passed into law. Among other points, the legislation required secondary education for every child (eventually up to the age of sixteen), abolished fee-paying in Local Authority schools, and made nondenominational religious instruction compulsory in state schools. The state granted to religious schools 50 percent of the capital costs for secondary school reorganization mandated by the act. This required Catholics to provide two schools—a junior school and a secondary “modern” school—to replace its traditional all-age schools. This plan was too expensive for most parishes, and in order to address the problem, parishes were obliged to pool their resources and establish a consolidated secondary school for students from several different areas. To administer these reforms, the power and scope of the state bureaucracy was considerably expanded with the creation of a Ministry of Education.
The Beveridge reforms of social security, the Education Act, and the National Health Service Act—three pillars of what came to be recognized as the welfare state—conflicted with Catholic social teaching regarding volunteerism and the preservation of family rights and responsibilities. In general, the scheme was a direct threat to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, and its educational restructuring endangered the financial and moral independence of Catholic segregated schools. Finally, the reforms encouraged the breakup of smaller parish schools for larger regional institutions of learning as cost-saving measures, and this had the effect of weakening the sense of parish unity.
Catholic responses to the welfare state traversed the political spectrum. The bishop of Leeds, for instance, accused Butler of sleeping “with a copy of Mein Kampf under his pillow.” In an address to the Catholic Truth Society, Cardinal Heenan spoke of Britain going National Socialist. On the other hand, the Finchley branch of the Catholic Parents’ and Elector’s Association viewed Butler’s educational reforms as a Marxist-inspired plot to allow the state to assume total control of England’s children. 29 The Catholic Social Guild under the leadership of Father Paul Crane, S.J., who edited the guild’s magazine The Christian Democrat , and the influential economist Colin Clark both argued that the Beveridge and Butler schemes would finalize the construction of Belloc’s servile state. As a means of combating these legislative horrors, The Tablet urged Catholics to vote a Tory slate in the 1945 general election.
Some of the most critical attacks on the welfare-state legislation came from Catholics associated with the Distributist movement, who saw it as the logical outcome of what Chesterton and Belloc had predicted given the growing bureaucratization of British society. Much of the criticism stemmed from the anti-industrial sentiments that were rooted in Distributist thinking, which romanticized the medieval guilds as protecting the creative and cultural independence of craftsmen. Hilary Pepler, editor of the Distributist Weekly Review , writing in the Catholic Times (22 April 1943), warned that the Beveridge Report was a “network of chains from which no man can escape.” The welfare state, he asserted, would permanently destroy any possibility of reviving a social order of stable family communities supported by independent workers. Reginald Jebb, Hilaire Belloc’s son-in-law, wrote in a Catholic Times article that the Beveridge scheme amounted to a “revolution in the sense that it adds political slavery to the present economic slavery of the proletariat. It is a natural development from the past in that it confirms and perpetuates the worst evils of industrial capitalism.” 30
In the long run the majority of Catholics came to terms with Britain’s welfare state. The first to appreciate the kinds of security offered by its national programs were members of the working classes. A Stockport parishioner in a letter to the Catholic Herald explained why this was the case:

As a Catholic working man and head of a family, I am getting rather tired of those no doubt very comfortable gentlemen whose state of life has kept them well cushioned against poverty and want, and whose purpose in life seems to be to maim, and then destroy, the Welfare State by criticism. The National Insurance and Medical Bills were accepted by all three political parties as a means of ensuring that everyone would have the necessary minimum of equipment for their journey through life and an assurance of some help should they fall, if this is not Christian ethics, what is? 31
As the sociologist Peter Coman has shown, by the time of Vatican Council II (1962–1965) the major Catholic journals of opinion had little to say regarding the reality of Britain’s welfare state, although there was a continuing concern about Butler’s Education Act. This was due, in part, to the Church’s fear of losing the ability to guide the moral development of young Catholics and thereby preserve the valued traditions of its subculture. Cardinal Heenan, in an interview with the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano , stated: “Our greatest preoccupation is school building; we place the greatest emphasis on education because young people, when they have matured intellectually, generally remain the best Catholics.” 32 Yet another concern was the increasing financial burden of maintaining voluntary parochial schools. 33
It is Coman’s thesis that Catholics came to accept the welfare state as the lesser of several evils, the most practical way of mitigating the blows of capitalism in the workplace, and a realistic alternative to communism. Traditional Catholic social teaching by this point was proving itself incapable of addressing the challenges of corporate capitalism. This, in conjunction with the weakening of the Catholic subculture and the assimilation of Catholics into Britain’s mainstream society, made it too difficult to sustain a uniquely Catholic way of life. 34 The mission of furthering the potential for private proprietorship regarding land, protecting the small independent craftsman, and promoting worker industrial shareholding while adhering to the principle of subsidiarity was increasingly problematic in an environment of rapid urbanization and growing concentrations of corporate power.
Many Catholics, as they began to leave their subculture and merge into the broader configurations of British secular society, forsook more radical avenues of reform, finding it more convenient to submit to the power structures of the political establishment and its meliorative welfare state. In fact, it was the assessment of Bishop George A. Beck in 1950 that Catholics in general were not actively interested in politics and that the possibilities of achieving anything useful were not worthy of consideration. 35
Catholic assimilation into the broader English society was accelerated by the social changes brought about by World War II, the breakdown of the working-class subculture, and the educational reforms initiated by the Butler Education Act. Young Catholic men who joined the armed forces were exposed to a variety of social and political venues that re-shaped and broadened their sense of the world. The German air assault on Britain also served to break down Catholic parochialism, in that it necessitated a unified front, a coming together of every citizen irrespective of class or religion to do battle with a common enemy. But, most significant, the expanded access to higher education after 1944 resulted in a better informed, more intellectually sophisticated, and more professionally oriented coterie of Catholics. All this had significant sociological consequences. It weakened the commonality of interest and discourse between the working-class generation and their progeny, whose perspectives and prospects for social mobility moved them further away from their traditional communities. The core of Catholic parish life centered on the industrial towns was now transformed by the movement of younger professionals and their families into the new housing estates in the suburbs. Besides isolating the older generations who stayed behind, the migration into these housing developments also required the creation of new parishes, but ones with little vocational homogeneity to weld them into closely-knit social entities.
What could be called the “embourgeoisement” of the Catholic community after the war also had an impact on the status and function of the clergy. Traditionally the parish priest was the “natural leader” of the community, a benevolent and all-knowing father figure whose pastoral training and spiritual guidance gave shelter and succor to an immigrant group that found itself alienated and insecure in a seemingly hostile environment. The immigrant carried with him from Ireland a tradition of clerical respect and thus the custom of deference to the wisdom, authority, and power of his parish priest. Yet the educational training of the parish priest, largely pastoral in nature, did not prepare him to address the needs of an increasingly sophisticated and educated generation of younger Catholics. Indeed, by the 1950s the average priest could not match the educational achievements of many of his communicants.
The intellectual and cultural level of the English Catholic clergy was frequently criticized by younger, highly educated Catholics, who complained of mind-numbing sermons mechanically regurgitated from dated seminary textbooks. Few parish priests were university graduates, having been “trained” in pastoral matters in seminaries rather than “educated broadly” in terms of either general or higher culture. The syllabi of the English seminaries were outdated in theological approach, and thus the seminarians were unprepared for serious scholarship. One priest writing in the journal Search , for instance, pointed out that the increasingly higher literacy of lay Catholics with university educations was establishing cultural standards beyond what their parish priests could match. 36
The Catholic intellectuals who found their voices in the 1960s labored to expose the failings and inadequacies of their subcultural heritage. There certainly was little comfort to be found in this generation from the traditional parochial separatism that had been so appealing to the earlier convert Catholics or, for that matter, to their parents. Terry Eagleton, for example, claimed that being a Catholic made one feel “part of a weird, whispered about minority,” like being “a petty bourgeois black or a homosexual Tory.” 37
The postwar assimilation into English society made those who grew up in what the writer Bernard Bergonzi called the “Hiberno-English” subculture highly sensitive to the intellectual and political singularities of their upbringing. For Bergonzi, the symbolic markers of this working-class and lower middle-class religion were hymns such as “Faith of Our Fathers” and “God Bless Our Pope,” along with bottles of Lourdes holy water and gaudy statues of saints such as St. Philomena (now officially declared never to have existed). 38 The symbolic attachment that Catholics had to such markers had helped them to forge a defensive identity in the midst of a dominant Protestant culture. Adding to this ghetto mentality was the long-entrenched, inward-looking temperament of the old recusant aristocratic families. For these core elements of English Catholicism, the Church was a citadel behind which one could fend off the heresies that threatened the good and the true. This notion of the Church as citadel had also been appealing to convert Catholics.
It was this image of Catholicism under siege and separated from the secular world that the new generation of Catholic intellectuals represented by Bergonzi and others sought to transform. As Bergonzi himself pointed out in an article on English Catholics in the magazine Encounter in 1965, the intellectual face of Catholicism in the United Kingdom had largely been the creation of the “Chesterbelloc,” but primarily of the Bellocian side of that compound beast.
Hilaire Belloc in particular had broken through the siege mentality of the pusillanimous recusant Catholic legacy and given the Catholics of his day a renewed confidence to advance the Roman cause. He provided them with a myth, noted Bergonzi, which asserted that their religion was the seedbed of European culture (“Europe is the faith; and the faith is Europe,” said Belloc) and that Catholics were different from and superior to their Protestant countrymen. Belloc’s triumphalist message was a moral booster to Catholics who for too long had slunk sheepishly in the shadows of English politics, but Bergonzi believed that the influence was damaging in the long run. Belloc’s mythology of the exceptionalism of Catholicism led to what the writer Donald Attwater had called a “Latinophile” mentality, the mistaken notion that countries of Latin heritage—Italy, France, and Spain—could do no wrong because they were rooted in Catholic culture. 39 This mind-set had encouraged English Catholics in the interwar years to embrace uncritically the reactionary and anti-Semitic Action Française of Charles Maurras, Benito Mussolini’s brand of fascism, and the rightist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
The journalistic landscape of English Catholicism in the 1960s also elicited little enthusiasm from Bergonzi, since it largely reflected accommodation with common British bourgeois mentalities tempered by large doses of parochialism. For example, the Universe , wrote Bergonzi, the most widely read weekly, reflected the Hiberno-English image back to its readers without challenge, largely reinforcing their traditional prejudices and the image of the Church as a monolithic society. A more high-brow weekly, The Tablet , appealed to an audience similar to that of the New Statesman and Spectator . Its commentaries were intelligent, judicious, moderately conservative, and dull. The Tablet ’s right-wing editor-ship under Douglas Woodruff had little appeal to Bergonzi’s progressive Catholic friends, who sought more intellectually challenging journalism toward the leftist side.
The only signs of innovation and advanced thinking for Bergonzi were found in a few smaller publications, most notably the Dominican monthly New Blackfriars , which addressed matters of radical social and economic interest. One other source of creativity was a private newsletter published by Michael de la Bedoyere called Search . For many years de la Bedoyere was editor of the Catholic Herald but was suddenly let go for what may have been his controversial editorial decisions. 40 In any case, free from ecclesiastical sanctions, de la Bedoyere became even more willing to take on controversial issues. The purpose of founding Search , he claimed, was to encourage Christians to have more dialogue among themselves concerning radical matters that would not be aired in the mainstream Catholic press. The point, claimed de la Bedoyere, was that “religious journalism can only exist with ‘freedom.’” 41 In order to stimulate discussion, Search published articles and extracts from the foreign Catholic press. The journal was lively and open-ended, containing, in Bergonzi’s view, the most penetrating correspondence columns of any English Catholic publication. Search , he said, “acts as a safety valve for frustrated Catholic intellectuals.” 42
Bergonzi concluded his assessment of English Catholicism in the 1960s on a highly positive note, for he hailed the emergence of a new breed of Catholic intellectual who had finally broken free of hierarchical paternalism and found his voice as an intellectual adult. His counterpart before the war had found little possibility for a disinterested search for truth. Any intellectual quest had to be subordinated to apologetics. The new breed of Catholic was no longer confined to defending or fighting for the spiritual polemic; he was intensely Catholic in conviction but, like other secular English intellectuals, committed to exploring a variety of ideas in the search for truth. Politically, the “new Catholic” was an intellectual on the left who appreciated the complexities of life and was prepared to move beyond the baleful Bellocian myths of the previous era to grapple with ideas that the Church had previously determined were beyond the political pale. This generation represented a completely different kind of open-ended intellectual inquiry. Its members were unwilling to withdraw into the Catholic citadel; they were prepared instead to “move forward from the ‘Chesterbelloc’” to think and act in the world as it actually existed. This was beyond anything that English Catholicism had ever imagined.
The new Catholic intellectuals who caught Bergonzi’s attention were not prepared to accept an old guard Church leadership that was politically and culturally conformist. Their mission was to transform that “corporate quality” of conservatism described by Bishop David Mathew into more revolutionary channels so as to bring about a more equitable and democratic social order. These Catholics were initially encouraged by the reformist liberal impulses that informed the Second Vatican Council. In the face of entrenched resistance, the reforms achieved a major breakthrough in moving the Roman Catholic Church into the modern age. Yet even they would not prove sufficient to satisfy the more revolutionary aspirations of the coterie of Catholic intellectuals who identified with the political left.
The Reformers
Reinforcing the Citadel

From now on the sole aim of my life—and more so than ever—will be to work to break the circle in which, by a bitter irony, the ‘children of light’ have imprisoned the spirit. We are dying for lack of anyone who knows how to die for the truth. . . . So one can no longer even speak of things which are only distantly relevant to religion, and Christians are beginning to find this situation quite normal. Soon we shall ask for nothing better than the régime that the Gospel came to break 2,000 years ago.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 1
The world had altered dramatically in the two decades following World War II. Above all, it was a time of unprecedented social and political change. Europe ceased to play a dominant role in world affairs, the United States and the Soviet Union competed as superpowers to carve out their respective versions of empire, China was now communist, the dangers of a Cold War were exacerbated by a nuclear arms race that threatened to destroy civilization itself, Third World revolutionaries struggled violently to throw off the shackles of imperialism, discoveries in science were bringing humankind into areas of mastery hitherto only the subject of fiction, and, finally, Western cultural hegemony was increasingly challenged by the emergence of countervailing systems of thought and religion. In the midst of such changes, the Roman Catholic Church appeared frozen in time and committed to preserving its version of universal truth behind the walls of medieval orthodoxy.
Although the Leonine social encyclicals had provided a window of opportunity for intrepid Catholic intellectuals to effectively engage the challenges of modernity, 2 the Vatican had also encouraged an ethos of theological and institutional absolutism. The ultramontane and anti-secular model of Church governance and thought had been considerably bolstered by Pope Pius IX’s A Syllabus of Errors (1864), which condemned a litany of “modern” mistakes in matters of politics, social theory, and theology that had been shaped by the rational spirit of the Enlightenment. This was followed by Pius X’s decree Lamentabili and his encyclical Pascendi (1908), which denounced the heresy of what the Holy Office called “modernism.” This was a blanket term coined by the Vatican to identify a compendium of heresies initiated by progressive intellectuals who claimed the mantle of Christianity to act autonomously from Church hierarchical direction in secular matters. The modernist controversy focused on a number of divisive issues, one of which concerned Christian labor and political movements in France, Italy, and Germany that pushed for increased democratic participation. Their efforts drew the ire of influential “integralist” elements in Vatican circles, conservative Catholics who insisted that public and private activity had to be under the authority of the Church. 3
The charge of modernism was also used to condemn Catholic scholars who, like their Protestant counterparts, were seeking a more scientifically based approach to theology and scriptural studies. In 1910, Pius X required Catholic priests to take an antimodernist oath against all beliefs that might serve to privilege science at the expense of the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church). This obligation remained in effect for all newly ordained clergy as well as for professors and lecturers in pontifical and ordinary seminaries until 1967. A secret society called the Sodalitium Pianum was created by the Roman Curia to report to the Holy Office the writings and teachings of Catholics in history, biblical studies, and philosophy, as well as in the physical and political sciences, who breached the forbidden boundaries of modernism. It spied on and harassed scholars who behaved independently, opened and photographed private mail, ferreted out the records of bookshops to see what Catholics were reading, and encouraged professors to identify students whose essays veered too far from orthodoxy. Even Angelo Roncalli, who was to become Pope John XXIII, was secretly denounced for encouraging his students to read a book considered suspicious by the society. 4
Works that strayed over the line were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum . Several prominent scholars were removed from their teaching positions. 5 The antimodernist crusade sent a deep chill through the worldwide Catholic community well beyond errant theologians. In the words of M.D. Petre, a confidant of George Tyrrell, one of the main targets of the Vatican’s antimodernist campaign, even common priests who were primarily concerned about tending to the spiritual needs of their flocks became “so frightened of being bitten by the sheep dogs that they hardly had time to look after the sheep.” 6
The modernist struggle from the outset was intertwined with the Vatican’s assault on liberalism. In some respects liberalism seemed more dangerous than communism itself, for it was believed to be a stealthier enemy in full disguise of its true intentions. As early as June 1871, Pope Pius IX declared: “That which I fear is not the Commune of Paris—no—that which I fear is Liberal Catholicism. . . . I have said so more than forty times, and I repeat it now, through the love that I bear you. The real scourge of France is Liberal Catholicism, which endeavors to unite two principles as repugnant to each other as fire and water.” 7 His successor, Pius X, was himself deeply hostile to intellectualism in general, associating the liberal variety with the greatest excesses of the age. In his first pastoral as patriarch of Venice, for example, he called liberal Catholics “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” As pope, he saw it his duty to “unmask” the disease of liberalism, which he believed infected all Catholic intellectual life. 8 It bears pointing out that the Church had associated the liberal creed with the Jacobean scourge that gave shape to the more extremist dimensions of the French Revolution. Among other things, these denied natural rights against the claims of civic consent, placed unlimited powers in the hands of the state, and sanctioned extreme individualism as a justification for bourgeois political and economic hegemony. This was a Rousseau-inspired liberalism that also declared itself an enemy of Catholicism.
This Continental variety of liberalism, however, had little in common with the Anglo-Saxon version that developed in England and the United States, one that recognized the supremacy of natural law, placed limitations on the powers of state and individual liberty, and was never inherently inimical to Christianity. 9 Here was an important distinction that the Vatican failed to comprehend, and this partly explains its tendency to side far too long with elements of reaction against democratic capitalism, American-style democracy, and the spirit of scientific inquiry. 10 Moreover, the crackdown on modernism and its liberal ideological bedfellow essentially throttled free intellectual inquiry in Catholic seminaries for nearly a century. Any Catholic thinker or publicist who did not appear to conform to the Vatican’s static formulation of teaching was branded a potential heretic.
The ultramontane monarchical model of Church governance reached its apogee with Pius XII (1939–58), whose pontificate coincided with some of the most convulsive social and political upheavals of modern times. Pius’s authority on matters of faith and the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic Church) derived in large part from the First Vatican Council (1869–70). Chapter 1 on the “Institution of the Apostolic Primacy in Blessed Peter,” from The First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ the Lord , had given the successors to St. Peter jurisdiction over the whole Church of God. The Council asserted that the pope was infallible in matters of faith and morals and served as the head of the Church and father and teacher of all Christian people. Thus, the Roman Pontiff, inheriting the powers of the blessed Peter through Christ, ruled and governed the universal Church. Chapter 3, on the “Power and Character of the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff,” declared: “Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.” 11
The issue of infallibility created much controversy among leading Catholics outside the Council and was expressed in a large volume of pamphlets and articles in newspapers and periodicals. The decrees of the Council were ultimately accepted by the dissidents, with the exception of the followers of Johann Joseph Iznaz von Döllinger, a Catholic priest, Provost of the Theatine Church of St. Cajetan in Munich, and professor of church history at the University of Munich. Döllinger and his followers apostatized and formed the sect known as the Old Catholics.
Pope Pius XII endeavored to centralize the Vatican’s institutional powers by tightening authority over the bishops and giving them in return greater authority at the parish levels. His regal penchant for control extended to all important issues concerning theology, politics, and science, even down to the everyday decorum of those who served him. Vatican staff, for instance, were expected to kneel when they answered the phone from his apartments. 12
Roman Catholic theology since the High Middle Ages had been firmly grounded in the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. For centuries all problems of faith and morals could be addressed by reference to and exegetical extrapolation from his great Summa Theologiae and other works from his immense opus. Thomistic scholasticism had become the authoritative grid, an official framework or theologia perennis upon which all religious matters were to be adjudicated. It was treated as the incarnation of divine revelation, solidifying the Church’s infallibility regarding faith and thus having universal validity. Attempts to theologize in a different manner could never earn the imprimatur of the all-powerful Roman Curia. Thus, theological renewals gained acceptance only if they found resonance with the Thomistic system. Acceptable additions to Church theology became institutionalized as “neoscholasticism” or “neo-Thomism.”
There were two powerful institutional forces that solidified the authoritarian dimension of neoscholastic thinking. The first was the governing structure of the Church itself, the central levers of which came to reside in the Congregation of the Roman Curia, whose officials were the administrative agents of Vatican business. Ever since the French Revolution this body had assumed the role of enforcing the absolutist claims of the papacy. It decided on all matters concerning episcopal appointments, controlled religious orders and congregations, oversaw the creation and appointment of dioceses, and monitored faith and morals. What helped to assure its reach was a wide network of apostolic nuncios and delegates to countries throughout the world, who provided the Curia with a steady flow of information on matters political, cultural, economic, and religious. The Curia took on all the characteristics of a highly structured bureaucracy: it was officiously legalistic in observance of protocol, resistant to innovation and change, and protective of administrative and doctrinal prerogatives. The Roman Curia achieved such a degree of supremacy and influence that for a time many of its officials came to see themselves as the embodiment of the Church itself. 13 The Thomistic monopoly of theological truth was a powerful means of legitimizing curial power and authority.
The second force assuring the continued dominance of neoscholastic thought was the pope himself. Pius XII was a remote, austere autocrat whose entire career had been confined to service in the Vatican bureaucracy. His conception of the papacy was almost medieval in terms of governance. He rarely met or consulted with the papal senate or with individual bishops, aside from a small group of selected favorites. He largely ignored the College of Cardinals and never met to discuss or to deliberate with that body. The cardinals were simply there to listen and to approve the pope’s decisions. As Pius himself said, he wanted “executors,” not “collaborators.” 14 Even the powerful Curia, the members of which Pius considered pusillanimous and backward, was short-circuited. Pius XII was also severe with subordinates. He once rebuked his nuncio to France, Bishop Roncalli, for not being available to take one of the pope’s obsessively frequent phone calls. Pius’s aide and confidante, Sister Pascalena, heard him shout into the receiver at the hard-working peripatetic nuncio: “From now on, Bishop Roncalli, you are not to leave the nunciature without my permission. You understand?” Another Vatican official, Monsignor Giovanni Montini, later to become Pope Paul VI, was severely dressed down for delivering to the pope a telegram addressed to someone else. Shouting at Sister Pascalena, Pius harshly ordered the nun to teach Montini how to read: “Take him into the next room and begin by having him recite the alphabet.” 15
Pius XII’s policies and behavior were calculated to maximize the powers of the papacy. Rather than appointing a successor to Cardinal Luigi Magilione as secretary of state when the prelate died in 1944, Pius managed to increase his own authority by taking on the Vatican’s number two post for himself. A man whose vision of the papacy was monarchical and who had the temerity to serve as his own secretary of state was not one to welcome innovative thinking in matters of theology: ideas incubated in a modern, democratic social environment could only undercut the autocratic prerogatives of the Vatican. Pius’s notions of papal governance were made palpably clear in his influential encyclical Humani Generis (1950): “But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.” 16
Despite Pius’s will and intentions, however, it was no longer possible to shield Catholics from the secular influences of the increasingly liberal and democratic cultures that surrounded them. The simple fact was that the “old theology” of the Church, a theory of knowledge lacking sensitivity to historical times and to shifting circumstances, was failing to speak to the needs of a modern world whose people, now better educated, were confronted with difficulties and challenges that eluded antique religious formulations. The inadequacies of neoscholasticism were especially noticeable in France, Germany, and northern Europe, those areas most ravaged by the horrors of the Second World War. Having failed to provide sufficient guidance through the minefields of totalitarianism and its accompanying social, economic, and political upheavals, the Christian churches of Europe were in visible decline in terms of membership and sources of moral authority. There was more than ever a need to adapt theology to the realities of the times so as to present Christian truths in a manner that people of the twentieth century would find relevant and understandable.
A group of Catholic theologians over a number of years had been searching for ways to elicit new meanings from scripture and to open up Church structures for greater lay participation through liturgical renewal. One of the seedbeds for what later came to be called the “New Theology” was the University of Tübingen, where Protestant and Catholic scholars had joined together as teaching faculty. In such close working quarters there occurred a cross-fertilization of religious ideas. Collegial interaction with Protestants also obliged Catholic academics to reexamine the more static neo-Thomistic theological structures in an attempt to increase their humanistic appeal. As early as the 1920s and 1930s, two German scholars, Romano Guardini and Karl Adam, in their search for fresh ways of approaching theology, began to assert that the heart or “essence” of the Church lay not in its dogma and rules but in the human existence of Jesus Christ. Above all, they claimed that the Church had to be understood not as a hierarchical institution privileging bishops and priests but as a community of believers united by the Holy Spirit. Guardini saw the Church as the “Body of Christ,” alive and fully engaged in the world of humankind. His vision was not of a self-enclosed institution focused exclusively on the sacred but rather one that lives and acts in the world of mankind. Karl Adam, in particular, sought an interdisciplinary path to theology, drawing on the works of secular writers who were part of what was called the Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life) movement. These included a variety of existentialist writers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Stefan George, and Max Scheler, who endeavored to bridge the gap between man and the natural world by highlighting the organic unity of all phenomena in nature. 17 It was the mission of those trained in the Tübingen school to create a synthesis between Christianity and contemporary secular thought in order to renew the Church’s vitality as a living organism and thus place it in a better position to relate to the modern world. Hence, early on, Tübingen had a special status among European institutions of higher learning. As the birthplace of historical-critical exegesis, it was the first university where Catholic and Protestant faculty (the former founded in 1817) worked side by side to engage in constructive, critical discussions of each other’s religious traditions. In doing so, Tübingen pioneered the ecumenical effort to unite historical and speculative theology. 18
Additional efforts to bring Christianity closer to the secular life of the community through liturgical reform were carried forward by the Benedictines in the abbeys of Maria Laach and Beuron in Germany, and by the monks Lambert Beauduin in Belgium and Virgil Michel in the United States. Over the centuries the Catholic Mass had steadily moved away from actively involving the lay community and had become the exclusive preserve of the clergy. This fact was symbolized by the interior configuration of the churches, where the altar was positioned away from the congregation with the celebrant’s back to the people. Further separation came through the use of Latin, a language now generally understood only by the clergy. Much like the Chinese scholar-gentry elites who monopolized classical Mandarin, an oracular language and writing system wholly unintelligible to the average person, the transformation of the Mass into an orphic liturgical ritual inaccessible to lay Catholics was a means of asserting hierarchical authority and power. Numerous efforts to employ the vernacular had been steadfastly resisted by papal authorities over the centuries. In the late Middle Ages, for example, Pope Alexander VII forbade the translation of the Missal even for personal reading. Paris de Grassis, in a private letter to Pope Leo X in 1516, bluntly argued for maintaining clerical control of the Mass ritual: “if the secrets of the cult were revealed and ceremonies were made more accessible, the immediate result would be a loss of prestige.” In 1794, Pius VI pronounced ex cathedra that “the use of the vernacular in liturgical prayers is false and foolhardy.” 19
The liturgical reformers sought to involve the laymen more directly in the celebration of their religion by returning to what they saw to be the original, more intimate forms of worship that were practiced by the early Christians. 20 But the reformers’ concerns went beyond prayer and ritual: they aimed to reintegrate Christians with the Mystical Body of Christ, a concept that served as the primary inspiration in the life of the early Christians. The Mystical Body was used as a symbol by St. Paul to illustrate the mutual interdependence of all Christians in a corporate entity united in Christ as the head and body of the Church. For the influential American Benedictine Virgil Michel, liturgical renewal, that is to say, the more direct involvement of each Christian as an active member of the Mystical Body, was also a means of initiating the spiritual revival called for in Pope Paul XI’s Quadragesimo Anno as a prerequisite for reconstructing the social order torn asunder by the twin evils of socialism and capitalism. Since liturgical worship was a visible united action on the part of members of the Church, wrote Michel, it “cannot fail to revive and foster in them a determination to carry their Christ-life into the social and economic sphere.” 21
The desire to make Catholics more active participants in the rituals of the Church convinced the liturgical reformers of the necessity of employing the vernacular in the Mass. Yet there was resistance from the Curia due to a lingering fear that the encouragement of lay participation might diminish the sacramental power of the hierarchy. Lay participation had the strong odor of Protestantism, whereby the important distinction between the priesthood and laity was diminished. However, it was difficult for the watchdogs of orthodoxy to condemn the liturgical reformers since their ideas were grounded in solid historical research and revealed clear spiritual and theological benefits. In 1914 the dialogue Mass was introduced in Germany, where the laity now participated more fully with the priest in the ritual of sacramental celebration. This was followed by a number of Eucharistic congresses after the First World War throughout Europe and the United States. Pius XI in 1928 published A Constitution on Sacred Music , which encouraged active lay participation in the Mass. The Second World War gave further impetus to the popularity of liturgical renewal as Catholics who had experienced the horrors of combat and prison camps found spiritual and psychological comfort in common sacramental worship.
Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (1947) gave official approval to the liturgical movement, but his imprimatur was conditioned by a number of significant caveats: he warned against unorthodox and excessive forms of popular ritual practices, he asserted that liturgical reform was not to be regarded as a panacea for spiritual ills, and he observed that increased lay participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice did not mean a diminution in the sacramental power of the priesthood. At the International Conference on Pastoral Liturgy at Assisi in 1956 he maintained “the unconditional obligation of the use of Latin for the celebrant.” Two years later, Pius reaffirmed the authority of the Holy See and the bishops over all liturgical developments. 22
Reform Catholicism gained its greatest nourishment from theologians in France, where the pioneering work of the German thinkers matured in what came be called nouvelle théologie . The catalyst for progressive Catholic intellectuals to take more personal responsibility for the Church and society was the legacy of their co-religionists’ support for discredited reactionary causes. These included Catholic involvement with the antidemocratic monarchical program of Action Française, the uncritical and enthusiastic support of Catholics for the philo-fascist policies of General Franco of Spain, the French Catholic establishment’s compromises with the puppet Vichy regime, and its failure to sufficiently support the anti-Nazi resistance. It was now time to restore the Church’s unity with the French people, and to do so it was necessary to initiate a dialogue between the Church and the contemporary world so as to allow Catholicism to “join the world evangelically.” 23 The mission was to bring Catholic theologians up to date so they could speak with the modern world. In order to “heal the breach between theology and life,” 24 the reformers needed to find a more relevant language of discourse to break through the notion that Catholicism was a closed, antique system and thereby reveal the linkages between historicity, human experience, and the word of God.
In the view of the Canadian theologian Gregory Baum, the most fundamental insight of these new theologians, which found its ultimate expression in Vatican Council II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World , came from the French lay theologian Maurice Blondel. Although Blondel’s writings were not part of the official syllabi of French Catholic institutions of higher learning, the more progressive theologians were in regular correspondence with him, and they were wrestling with the same problems that were paramount in Blondel’s theological thinking. It was Blondel, asserts Baum, who was the first to recognize that the modern experience of reality required a reevaluation of the problem of God. Blondel realized that the historical experiences of man as expressed through philosophy, psychology, and the corpus of Western culture were a better venue for showing the expression of God’s presence in human life than the more static understandings confined to late medieval patristics. The redemptive message of Christ manifests itself wherever people are present, argued Blondel, and thus the presence of God in human life must be the focal point of Christian thought. It was this essential Blondelian insight that initially loosened the Gordian knot of Cartesian dualism, the concept of a fixed natura humana that insisted on the distinction between the natural and supernatural. It thereby offered new possibilities for Catholic theologians to engage in dialogue with a modern scientific world. 25
The New Theology (a term coined by conservatives who associated such thinking with modernism) emerged more fully from the work of a group of young French Jesuit and Dominican theologians who recognized the need to revitalize Catholicism for a generation that had largely repudiated the old-fashioned faith of their fathers. This coterie included, among others, the two Jesuits Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, and Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu of the Dominican House of Studies at Le Saulchoir. These scholars emphasized the importance of highlighting the relationship between theology and history and called for a reappraisal of how the Church related socially to the world. The notion of the Church embedded in a world of constant movement suggested a modernist recognition of a historical dialectic between the past and present.
Some of these theologians, such as Yves Congar, also criticized the ways in which the laity had increasingly been marginalized by hierarchical authority. To them it was a power grab that could find no claim of legitimacy in the documents of the early Church. History, claimed the new theologians, revealed that the Church was not simply made up of the popes, bishops, and priests but rather was the corporate community of all believers, “the people of God.” Furthermore, they asserted, a return to early scripture and patristics would show that Christianity was above all social. Therefore it was imperative to strengthen the Church’s humanistic mission to improve the social and political organization of society.
Such progressive thinking reached its most powerful and speculative form in the writings of the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Called the “poet of the new theology,” Teilhard has today achieved something close to cult status. The most comprehensive explanation of his ideas on science and religion, contained in his work Le phénomène humain ( The Human Phenomenon ), which he laboriously debated and revised for over ten years, was written in part during his exile in China from 1939 to 1941. It did not see the light of day until after his death. 26 Teilhard was not a theologian but rather a world-renowned paleontologist whose ideas on religion and science were both unique and revolutionary.
Teilhard’s study of fossils and the remains of early humans as well as his observation of geological phenomena had convinced him that the world was in the process of continual evolution. Central to this dynamic was the progressive development of man. Out of each historical crisis, asserted Teilhard, humanity has learned from its errors and pushed civilization to ever higher levels of achievement. Although mistakes were made along the way, accompanied by great suffering and angst, history has shown that humans are making progress.
As a scientist, Teilhard was far removed from the classical formulations and categories of scholastic philosophy. He was instead intimately engaged in a world where nuclear physics had revolutionized the conception of matter, and where biological science had shown that evolution was the most plausible explanation for the configurations of the natural world. Not surprisingly, his language of discourse was unfamiliar to classically trained theologians. Yet as a deeply religious Jesuit, Teilhard was convinced that he must translate his scientific discoveries into metaphysical categories. He believed that the general laws that governed the natural world in matters of what he called “complexification,” evolution, and “socialization” had direct analogies with scripture and were part of the totality of all God’s creation. In order to establish bridges of communication to disparate audiences, and because he thought that the Church’s language was outdated and thus unable to express the science of the day, he employed a myriad of neologisms, amounting in some ways to a complete vocabulary of his own, to give greater facility to his view of the world.
Of all the reform-minded Catholic intellectuals, Teilhard himself was probably the most widely read and broadly educated. He also appears to be one of the most difficult to comprehend and consequently is widely misunderstood. This is due at least in part to the breadth and range of his own exotic experiences, thought, and research. Even his close friend and colleague Sir Julian Huxley admitted that Teilhard’s ideas on the ultimate significance of evolution, called “Point Omega,” remained incomprehensible to him. 27 The Jesuit theologian Pierre Le Roy, who also knew Teilhard intimately, believed that the richness and originality of his thought made it difficult to find expression, and that this accounted for the ambiguity of Teilhard’s statements. 28
A clear and firm grasp of the essence of the man and his ideas requires a complete acquaintance with Teilhard’s personal life and scientific and historical research, for he drew from the broadest opus of Western and Eastern philosophers, scientists, theologians, and historians. After lengthy stays in China (1926–1946), where he lived and worked for years in exile from France, Teilhard became convinced of the necessity of broadening Christianity’s perspectives, “to free our religion from everything that is specifically mediterranean,” as he confessed to his friend Abbé Henri Breuil. 29 Eastern religions, averred Teilhard, might be dated, but Christians had to press the universality of Christ’s message, liberating it from the straightjacket of parochial Western precepts. His sojourns in China exposed Teilhard to the larger scale and quality of the world community and thus to the cosmopolitan dimensions (what he called “cosmogenesis”) of Christ’s teachings.
Perhaps Teilhard’s greatest contribution to the development of a modernized Catholicism was his answer to the central problem upon which all of his work and thought had focused: What was the relationship between one’s love of God and one’s love for the world? Teilhard’s answer to this query finally shattered the philosophical dualistic barrier against which the new theologians had fought and which had so befuddled the Catholic capacity to embrace fully the world of man. Teilhard’s early letters and essays reveal that he was driven to bridge the dualistic gap between what he called “children of heaven,” those people preoccupied with salvation, and “children of the earth,” those whose concerns were primarily with the secular, material world. As a trained scientist and man of the cloth, Teilhard was a child of both, and his professional studies convinced him that there was no inherent conflict between the two:

Situated by circumstances at the heart of two worlds with whose theoretical positions, language, and sentiments I am well acquainted through long experience, I have thus not tried to erect any walls between these two areas of my interior life. . . . I have found that far from destroying each other, each has served to reinforce the other. To-day I probably believe more in God than ever,—and I certainly believe more than ever in the world. Do we not perhaps find here, in terms of the life of a single individual, the outline of a solution to the spiritual problem which at present most disturbs the vanguard of humanity? 30
Teilhard was driven by what he called an “insatiable need for cosmic organicity,” 31 a search for a way of unifying these two seemingly conflictive universes. Taking as his starting point the fundamental doctrinal position of Christianity, the Incarnation and the Redemption, Teilhard sought to understand the meaning of God’s participation in man’s evolving world and His decision to rescue man from perdition. The answer to this quest he found in data of the natural sciences. He believed that the evolutionary process, which affects all living things, suggested a pattern of progress that is converging all matter toward an ultimate unity. The structured evolutionary advancements in the natural world (what Teilhard called the “geosphere”) were in direct parallel with the Christian religion, which promises unity in the Christ who returns at the end of time, thus providing the final completion of life’s journey where man becomes whole by becoming at one with his Savior.
Teilhard’s evolutionary vision, the theory of union créatrice , was one in which Christ played center stage in man’s domain through the Incarnation. God was no external actor who withdrew after the creation but rather was omnipresent through the historical Jesus, who provided man with the mission and “Christic Energy” to master the world. “Christic Energy,” wrote Teilhard, is “the superior and ultimate form of all energies from which the arrangement of the Universe around us emerges.” 32 This, for Teilhard, rendered obsolete, null, and void the older Christian dualism that insisted that spiritual and material matters were in perpetual conflict. Teilhard always had difficulty in accepting the notion that these worlds were enemies. With his first few hesitant steps into an understanding of the “evolutive” universe, Teilhard saw this dualism “disappearing like the mist before the rising sun.” Matter and spirit “were no longer two things, but two states or two aspects of one and the same cosmic stuff.” 33
In the history of man (the “biosphere”), Teilhard found a parallelism with what he observed in the increasing “complexification” of matters in the natural world, namely, a steady evolutionary advancement toward a higher consciousness that had a cosmic and spiritual significance. In this process, claimed Teilhard, matter was evolving into higher levels of development, but so too was the mind of man. Although there were crises and setbacks (the Holocaust and World War II being the most salient examples), Teilhard believed that in such episodes man took stock of his errors and moved on toward higher levels of cognition and social cooperation.
The consistent current of optimism in Teilhard’s thinking is evident. Mistakes would be made along the way, but he was convinced that the achievements of humanity would never be reversed. He believed that the fullest expression of evolutionary life was to be found in the history of man, who has been given the gift of reason as a means of continuing the quest of achieving unity in Christ. As man’s mind matures and reaches higher levels of cognition in what Teilhard called the “noo-sphere,” he discovers the utility of forsaking the extreme individualism of the late nineteenth century as expressed in the yearnings of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch for the virtues of community. This is accomplished through cooperation with others (“socialization”), a more useful way of maximizing energies for achieving greater truth, knowledge, social justice, beauty, and art. In this endeavor, man’s sense of responsibility to others so as to further solidarity in the human community is vastly deepened. The final choice is to live together in mutual cooperation or to use the tools of our power to destroy each other. And Teilhard had no doubt that man would opt for the former, as evidenced in the increased awareness and communal consciousness in humankind as a whole. 34
The drive to create a real community, asserted Teilhard, will ultimately increase man’s capacity to control all the world processes through science and technology, because increased global solidarity will encourage a cross-fertilization of ideas and expand cultural, social, and political practices. In this evolutionary journey, the entire universe ultimately converges and comes together in a state of transcendent communion and unity that Teilhard called the “Point Omega.” This represents the completion of biological and cognitive evolution, where all men not only find solidarity with one another but also finally become at one with Christ. In short, Point Omega is nothing less than God’s promise of redeeming the world. This means, of course, that Christ is central to history and is the power and energy that impels all humankind toward Himself. In making this argument, Teilhard thought that he was not necessarily breaking new ground but rather echoing what Christians had already read in St. Paul and the apostle John that, in Teilhard’s words, “to create, complete, and purify the world is for God to make it one by organically uniting it to himself.” 35 God unifies the world by immersing Himself in it, thus becoming an active “element” giving direction and leadership to the evolutionary process.
Teilhard de Chardin’s difficulties with Roman authorities began in 1921 when, as a lecturer at the Institut Catholique in Paris, he delivered a paper that touched on the matter of transformism and evolution, the latter of which Church officials had purposely avoided discussing for years. 36 Teilhard’s presentation caused a great stir because it suggested that his optimistic view of the universe as a process of growth toward greater complexity gave insufficient play to the problem of evil. It was not a question of Teilhard’s rejecting the existence of evil and sin, for he interpreted the world as growing out of a state of imperfection to more perfect forms; and in such circumstances evil is inevitable, a natural feature in the structure of the world, as he put it. The problem was one of emphasis rather than doctrine. Conservative theologians focused on man as a fallen creature steeped in sin and hence dependent on a higher authority; Teilhard thought it important to highlight the more optimistic promise of redemption. Teilhard’s difficulties also probably stemmed from his scientific training, which made it difficult for him to accept the fundamentalist biblical explanation of the origins of mankind from a single pair of humans. He adhered to the theory that the appearance of Homo sapiens was the outcome of a slow and inconspicuous development. And Teilhard placed his religious beliefs in such a novel and personal perspective that the official keepers of Catholic doctrine were greatly alarmed. 37
Teilhard’s views from the outset were scrutinized by the arch heresy hunter, Cardinal Merry del Val, secretary of the Holy Office. Merry del Val in turn put pressure on the general of the Jesuit order to forbid Teilhard to say or publish anything contrary to the traditional position of the Church on the question of original sin. Other restrictions followed. The chill of the antimodernist crusade was still in the air. Works of Henri Bergson, a major influence on Teilhard’s thinking, had been placed on the Index of forbidden books some years earlier, and the French Dominican journal Études was still reeling from Vatican repression. 38 The Jesuits thought it in the best interests of both the order and Teilhard that he confine himself to scientific research rather than venture into the dangerous waters of theology. Teilhard was asked to leave his teaching post at the Institut Catholique.
The “Teilhard problem” was handled by essentially exiling him to China for his “dangerous” beliefs, where it was assumed that he could undertake his paleontology research in obscurity and keep his theological speculations to himself. Throughout the years of exile, however, Teilhard wrote countless essays and volumes of private correspondences to his friends, in which he painstakingly worked out his ideas on the synthesis of cosmic and spiritual phenomena and their evolutionary trajectory, an organic unity he called the “cosmogenesis.” But none of this would pass the censors. Teilhard hoped that a theological thaw was beginning in Rome. He made several careful revisions of his all-important manuscript, “The Human Phenomenon,” in which an epilogue and a number of theological qualifications were added to satisfy previous censorial objections. He even made a personal journey to the Holy City to plead his case, but Vatican officials still refused permission to publish. Teilhard then stenciled some two hundred copies of the manuscript for friends as he waited for more favorable days, which were never to come in his lifetime. 39 Not only was he not allowed to publish his philosophical and theological ideas; he was also forbidden to teach or address large audiences on such matters. Without the necessary permission to publish, he lamented that his ideas would be disseminated only “by conversation, or as manuscripts passed under a coat.” 40
As a loyal Jesuit, Teilhard accepted and obeyed the prohibitions. It was only on rare occasions that he let his guard down and disclosed disappointment and suffering, and then only to his closest associates. Pierre Le Roy, for one, often found Teilhard depressed and with almost no heart to carry on: “he was at times prostrated by fits of weeping, and he appeared to be on the verge of despair.” 41 But Teilhard always managed to recover, vowing to continue the struggle by going underground if necessary. The Vatican, he asserted, was in the hands of dogmatic integralists and had not moved much beyond the age of Galileo. 42 But while Teilhard proclaimed his fidelity to the Church, its administrators were another matter:

In a kind of way I no longer have confidence in the exterior manifestations of the Church. I believe that through it the divine influence will continue to reach me, but I no longer have much belief in the immediate and tangible value of official directions and decisions. Some people feel happy in the visible Church; but for my own part I think I shall be happy to die in order to be free of it—and to find our Lord outside of it. 43
The ideas of Teilhard de Chardin were a threat to the traditional authority and power of the monarchical model of Church governance on matters of the faith. His new cosmology lifted the future of humanity beyond old religious divisions and conflicts, substituting the virtue of harmony rather than a strict adherence to dogma as a means of achieving the Point Omega. Teilhard’s vision emphasized the necessity of reconciling divisions between those people of varying religious beliefs and bridging the gap between religion and science. His ideas on the cosmogenesis with the immanence of the deity as the force for unity and progress had the potential in the minds of Vatican conservatives of making the Church redundant as the vehicle for salvation. 44
A major attack on Teilhard and the new theologians began in 1946 and was directed by one of the leading theologians in Rome, the French Dominican R. Garrigou-Legrange. He detected the influence of Blondel and modernism as the perverting sources of their theological speculations and was especially concerned that these ideas were gaining wide currency through the circulation of mimeographed papers. Alarm bells had already gone off earlier. Marie-Dominique Chenu’s explication of the theology of Le Saulchoir in his privately published Une École de théologie was placed on the Index, and he was thereafter required to vacate his teaching position. Chenu’s colleague Yves Congar had gotten into serious trouble some years earlier for his works on ecumenism and Church reform. Congar, de Lubac, Karl Rahner, and others were at one time or another condemned by the Holy Office, prohibited from teaching, and sent into exile. But the scourge of Roman orthodoxy weighed more heavily on Teilhard than on the others, with its stifling hand shadowing his travels everywhere in Catholic circles. In the spring of 1937, for example, he was enthusiastically welcomed at Harvard University, but Teilhard knew that the journey across the Charles River to the Catholic Boston College would be a different matter after he was pictured in the local newspaper as “the Jesuit who believes that man descends from apes.” A most embarrassed president of the college informed Teilhard that it had to withdraw the offer to award him an honorary doctorate for fear that American Catholics would believe that the college endorsed his views. 45
The encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 was Pope Pius XII’s warning about the aberrations of the new theologians, which he believed had the potential to undermine the fundamentals of the Catholic faith. Pius listed and condemned a number of problems stemming from their writings, ranging from an overemphasis on the humanity of Christ against His divinity, the “pantheistic” notion that life is in a state of continual evolution, and the uncritical fashion of accepting the veracity of science and secular philosophy, among a litany of other errors. Humani Generis insisted that the teachings of St. Thomas were “in harmony with Divine Revelation, and is most effective both for safeguarding the foundation of the faith and for reaping, safely and usefully, the fruits of sound progress.” 46
The more progressive Catholic thinkers were dismayed and disappointed with what seemed to be a resurgence of integralism at the Vatican, a terreur intellectuelle , as the French spoke of it. Teilhard in private correspondence with his associates urged against defeatism and recommended that they continue the struggle for neohumanism by working underground. In a letter to Madame Simone Beaulieu, a Canadian painter and confidante, he commented: “How curious that the theologians have so much difficulty in understanding that man’s realization of the biological movements of life, and the principles of relativity, are at least as important for our religious attitude to God (and for our very conception of God) as the definition of some new dogma.” 47
The Vatican’s misgivings about the influence of the New Theology culminated in what was called the “worker-priest movement.” Progressive theologians had long criticized the Church’s failure to put into practice the teachings of the soci

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