Reviewed by Richard BALDASTY, Spokane Falls Community College, SPOKANE, WA 99224
Historians have learned to appreciate back lanes and cul-de-sacs, and Patrick Allitt's admirable history of English-speaking intellectuals who converted to Catholicism between 1825 and Vatican II is such a side story. Allitt restores the often uneasy experience of converts from John Henry Newman to Marshall McLuhan in a fluent, finely researched narrative of "a momentous and protracted failure" (16).
In nineteenth century England and the United States Catholicism still ran hard against the grain of national history and popular opinion. Catholics were few, largely ill educated, predominantly immigrants distant from the social center. When Protestant or Anglican intellectuals crossed over to the Church of Rome, they became a minority within a minority, for they came from the large world into an insignificant one. Allitt well conveys the pathos of their situation. Welcome at the moment of their conversion, almost as trophies, they found their reception quickly cooled. The restless questing of their minds, the force that had impelled them toward Catholicism, occasioned suspicion among their new co-religionists. Frequently the door behind slammed shut with anger as family and associates recoiled from an act seen as an incomprehensible betrayal. William Gladstone, future prime minister, took the conversion of Henry Manning, future cardinal, as if his friend had murdered his mother (58).
Despite the anomaly of their situation, by 1850 converts dominated the intellectual life of English-language Catholicism. Allitt shows what an interestingly mixed lot of thinkers they were. The Oxford Movement produced Newman, grounded in scripture and patristics, attracted to Catholicism as the guarantor of apostolic succession. Manning decided for Rome when the British government, in the Gorham case of 1850-1851, placed politics above doctrine in reinstating a vicar who rejected the efficacy of baptism. Then there were Gothic revivalists nostalgic for "luxurious medievalism" (45). These aesthetes suffered from what were, for them, the aesthetic horrors of a church mostly peopled by Irish laborers. They sacrificed much for faith but not their habits of class.
Converts conversant with developments in historical and scientific studies tried to make a home for them in the church. They accepted evolution in nature and in doctrine, initiatives that reached dead-end after the Syllabus of Errors, the declaration of infallibility, and encyclicals against Americanism in 1899 and modernism in 1907. It was, Allitt follows historian James Hennesey, the start of a half-century "deep freeze" (116).
If the intransigent chill of the pre-Vatican II church now seems to have been purely benighted, Allitt provides a corrective in his sympathetic but critical investigation into American and English converts of the twentieth century. In the crisis of culture which followed the two world wars, the church's antagonism to Darwinian eugenics, to the Leninist state, to unalloyed capitalism-to all violence against tradition-appealed not only to reactionaries. G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, among others, took to Catholicism as antidote to drift or despair. They brought with them gifts of thought and style that did much to raise the level of Catholic discourse. Allitt understands how they taught the laity to think, as Wilfrid Sheed said, without clerical permission, how they refused, in Waugh's phrase, to write "advertising brochures" for a church they loved with eyes wide-open (166/279). In America and England, they helped it emerge from being a subculture. By the time it did so, their influence already seemed slightly dated, their crochets fussy amid Sixties optimism. They'd been exotics, pioneers, explorers ambivalently received or resented for their genius, irking cradle Catholics with their lack of "seasoning" and striking secular critics as piously "ersatz," as Mary McCarthy wrote of Greene (192/304). It's Allitt's scholarship that returns them and their nineteenth century forebears as figures worth knowing and worth working to understand.
Catholic Converts will recommend itself chiefly to those seeking an astute overview. Allitt ranges widely effectively but admits many of his subjects, including luminaries varied as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Clare Boothe Luce, could be given only brief walk-on roles. It's a generous survey rather than an in-depth accounting; Allitt of necessity restricts to glimpses many possibilities for further studies.