Christopher Dawson and the ‘Twentieth-Century Catholic Literary Revival – Bradley Birzer

August 10, 2011

Christopher Dawson

Though precious few remember him now, Christopher Dawson stood at the very center of the Catholic literary and intellectual revival throughout the four decades preceding Vatican II. “For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Catholic promoters such as Francis X. Talbot listed Dawson as a select member of America’s “Permanent Gallery of Living Catholic Authors.” Additionally, prominent American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on the thought of Christopher Dawson and other figures of the Catholic Literary Revival as early as the mid-1930s. Dawson’s influence “can be seen on almost every major lay Catholic movement in the American Church between 1930 and 1955,” historian Arnold Sparr has written.

In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.” Six years later, the Jesuit journal, the Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.” In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote that Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”

In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”` Four years later, Frederick Wilhelmsen, himself soon to become a major player in post-war American Catholicism, concluded that Dawson was “the foremost medievalist in the English speaking world.” Further, “this union of genius and Catholic scholarship has put us all in his debt.”

It would be difficult to find a more prominent Roman Catholic scholar not only in the English-speaking world, but throughout the Catholic world and beyond during the forty years preceding Vatican II. As Maisie Ward, the famous biographer and co-founder of the Sheed and Ward publishing house, admitted to Dawson in 1961, “You were, as I said on Sunday, truly the spearhead of our publishing venture.”

Ward put it into greater context in her autobiography, Unfinished Business. “Looking back at the beginnings of such intellectual life as I have had, I feel indebted to three men of genius: Browning, Newman, and Chesterton,” she admitted. “But in my middle age, while we owed much as publishers to many men and women, foreign and English, the most powerful influence on the thinking of both myself and my husband was certainly Christopher Dawson.”

Even among the clergy, none held the reputation that Dawson did by the 1950s. Again, as Ward noted rather bluntly in a letter to Dawson, “There is no question in my mind that no priest exists at the moment whose name carries anything like the weight in or outside the church that yours does.” This is an impressive claim, especially when one recalls the intellect and influence of a Martin D’Arcy, a John Courtney Murray, or a Fulton Sheen, all eminent priests.

It was in the decade prior to Vatican II that Dawson was at his most influential. Throughout the 1950s, invitations for Dawson to speak, write papers, and present his ideas in almost any form arrived from various countries, political institutions, colleges, and religious groups. As the Iron Bloc divided East from West, the citizens of the western world grew intensely interested in the significance of the West and the deeper meanings of western civilization. In the non-academic world, the United Nations and NATO sought Dawson’s advice.

In the spring of 1959, Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune, who had appreciated Dawson’s work since World War II, used the editorial column of the 16 March issue of Life magazine to promote Dawson’s work and theories. The son of Presbyterian missionaries to China, Luce desired something more than the then-common materialist explanations of history. Unlike the Marxists and their materialist views or the then-eminent position of the American Historical Association President Walter Prescott Webb, who had developed all of his views from his life in Texas, Dawson offered the world a broad vision.

The editorial admitted that most readers would find Dawson’s take to be “unfashionable.” Despite this, “such a theory is at least as scholarly as those merely `ideological’ (i.e., political or economic) interpretations which straitjacket many a man’s view of world events.” Thus, Life concluded, one should not readily dismiss Dawson, for his ideas “may well be true.” Additionally, Luce ordered a copy of Dawson’s then latest book, The Movement of World Revolution, for each of his nineteen editors at Time.” The English Roman Catholic Christopher Dawson, not the Marxists or the Texans, would shape Time and Life editorial policy in the late 1950s.

American colleges and religious institutions especially sought his influence, advice, and prestige, whether as a guest lecturer, a visiting professor, or a full-time faculty member. During the 1950s, lecture invitations arrived from St. Paul’s University Chapel of the University of Wisconsin; from the University of Washington; from the University of Loyola-Chicago; from Mercyhurst College of Erie, Pennsylvania; from the University of Portland; from Mount St. Scholastica of Atchison, Kansas; from Marymount College of Salina, Kansas; from the Archdiocese of Boston; from the University of San Francisco; from the University of Illinois Newman Club; from the Newman Club of Ohio State University; from Pennsylvania State University; from Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in New York; from St. John’s University in New York; from Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky; and from the Paulists of Boston. Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, asked him to lead an eight-week seminar for historians and various scholars from all over North America, training them in the meaning of western civilization. St. Benedict’s College of Atchison, Kansas, offered Dawson a one-semester position to teach a course on the meaning of the liberal arts.

The Association of American Colleges requested something similar, hoping that Dawson might speak on “strengthening the intellectual, the religious and the cultural aspects of liberal education in the United States.” However tempting he might have found these offers, Dawson refused to accept any permanent or semi-permanent position at an American university until a letter arrived in early 1958 from Harvard University. Chauncey Stillman, a Harvard graduate and convert to Catholicism, provided funds for an endowed chair in Catholic Studies. Dawson accepted the position and held the chair from 1958 until poor health forced him to resign in 1962.

Dawson also significantly influenced an impressive number of poets, scholars, and public intellectuals throughout his lifetime, many of whom are remembered and who have remained influential long after Christopher Dawson had been forgotten. In his own writings and life, Dawson never failed to use his pen as a mighty sword. Yet he did so in a manner that was so intellectually respectable that even his academic detractors appreciated him, at least to the relative degree of taking him seriously.

Indeed, political views aside, scholars and public intellectuals from many parts of the political spectrum respected Dawson. Lewis Mumford, one of the most prominent public intellectuals on the left, for example, wrote Dawson in 1924, at the beginning of the conservative Englishman’s career, confessing, “I follow your writings with so much pleasure and profit that I cannot forbear to write you at last and make my acknowledgements.”

On the other side of the spectrum, neo-Thomist historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson also acknowledged his profound admiration for Dawson in a 1950 letter to Frank Sheed. Gilson especially appreciated Dawson’s Making of Europe and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. The latter “provided me with what I had needed during forty years without being able to find it anywhere: an intelligent and reliable background for a history of mediaeval philosophy,”

Gilson admitted. “Had I been fortunate in having such a book before writing my [Spirit of the Middle Ages,] my own work would have been other and better than it is.” Further, Gilson assured Sheed, he would be using the book as the background to his new series of lectures at the College de France. Other impressive twentieth-century thinkers, such as Dom Bede Griffiths, Thomas Merton, David Jones, and Allen Tate, also acknowledged an immense debt to Dawson. “In the wider sphere of the relation of Christian thought and culture to other forms of culture and civilization,” Griffiths wrote in his autobiographical reflections, The Golden String, “my guide was Christopher Dawson.” Griffiths, famous and controversial in his own right, was a close friend of C. S. Lewis and a convert to Catholicism. Most Catholics best remember him for his attempt to synthesize Hinduism and Catholicism. American Trappist Monk and author Thomas Merton claimed to have found his purpose in life while reading Dawson’s 1952 book, Understanding Europe.

“Whether or not [Dawson] came too late, who can say? In any case I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time. This is the task that has been given me, and hitherto I have not been clear about it, in all its aspects and dimensions.” Given Merton’s own brilliance and dedication to the Church — despite lingering controversies over his motives and his relationships with those outside of his order — this cannot be considered faint praise.

David Jones, a close friend of Dawson’s and one who shared his Welsh ancestry, wrote his famous epic poem, Anathemata, using Dawson’s theories and works as a background and inspiration. Christina Scott, one of Dawson’s daughters, described Jones as “a very good friend” and “an awfully nice man” in an interview with Joseph Pearce. “My father and he had a lot in common: the Welsh side, the mystical side of religion and history.” Jones devoured everything Dawson wrote, and it shows in his poetic works.

Allen Tate, an American southerner, famous literary critic, and a convert to Roman Catholicism in 1950, first met Dawson in 1953. The two talked immediately following a lecture Dawson had given on the study of Christian Culture at Oriel College, Oxford. Taken with the meeting, Tate afterward cited Dawson frequently in his essays. Tate came away from reading Dawson’s works fully convinced of the sheer corruption of morality and the spiritual life, which Tate believed to have been caused by twentieth-century materialism’s erosion of traditional community. Following Dawson’s lead, Tate argued that the West traditionally possessed a spiritual and material unity — “a peculiar balance of Greek culture and Christian other-worldliness, both imposed by Rome upon the northern barbarians.” But by the mid-twentieth century, the Southern Agrarian lamented, western “civilization is just about gone.”

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