A new study of Catholic converts on both sides of the Atlantic gives far too much prominence to insignificant Americans, says Fr IAN KER
Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals turn to Rome, Patrick Allitt, Cornell University Press
HAROLD MACMILLAN liked to think that Britain's relationship with the United States could be like that of Athens to imperial Rome. Certainly, there is a lot to be said for the analogy when it comes to considering the enormous cultural and intellectual influence that the comparatively tiny Catholic community in this country had on the burgeoning American Church in the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the 20th century. Once English had been decisively established as the language of the new republic, almost all Catholic immigrants apart from the Irish were "ethnic" Americans who found themselves in an Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.
There were and nominally still are "French", "German", "Italian", and "Polish" Catholic churches in America, but, because the Irish could speak English, no "Irish" churches, with the result that American Catholicism came to be largely created by the ecclesiastical traditions of the Irish immigrants. But being a conquered country, with their native culture largely destroyed, the Irish brought no cultural and intellectual inheritance of their own as the other Catholic immigrants could have done, had they not been forced to adapt to an English-speaking society.
Paradoxically, it was Protestant England that very largely filled the vacuum, as the Catholic revival that began in the mid-19th century, most spectacularly with Newman's conversion in 1845, produced an extraordinary array of convert thinkers and writers out of all proportion to the numerically insignificant Catholic community in England. And it was the United States, with its rapidly increasing Catholic population, that provided these English authors and intellectuals with a far larger audience and readership than they could ever have had in their own country.
Made to feel inferior by the Wasp culture of Puritan America, the Catholic immigrants called their chaplaincies on the campuses of state colleges and universities "Newman centers". Newman's name provided intellectual respectability, just as his convert Gerard Manley Hopkins could be claimed as a great modern poet writing unmistakably Catholic poetry but in the English language. Right up until the 1960s, English Catholicism enjoyed a kind of intellectual imperialism over American Catholicism. (Since then, of course, American Catholicism has come of age and
American scholarship and theology are second to none.) American dollars and numbers offered a stage at universities like Notre Dame for English Catholic lecturers, mostly converts, such as they could not enjoy in their own country. The only academic position that Christopher Dawson, for instance, ever held was as the first holder of a newly endowed Catholic chair at Harvard. Over the years the lecture trail was well trodden by English Catholic luminaries and sages; Ronald Knox, who never visited America, was an exception, as was the famously anti-American Graham Greene.
Patrick Allitt has written an interesting and readable, if not very elegant, account of the influence and significance of converts in both America and England. His thesis is that the converts exercised a disproportionate influence on the development of the emerging Catholicism in both countries.
But while he recognises the enormous importance of the British converts on the American scene, he does not stress the contrast with the American converts, who had virtually no influence in this country and whose calibre was distinctly inferior. This omission is not accidental as Allitt, for example, devotes almost as much space to Orestes Brownson as he does to Newman, whose influence he knows was seminal and pervasive, but who gets very skimpy treatment in this book. I suppose it was almost obliga tory for Allitt to give a special chapter to women (all American the novelist Lady Georgiana Fullerton, for instance, is never mentioned), but it is surely absurd that an unknown figure like Elizabeth Kite should feature almost as prominently as Newman, and more prominently than Chesterton!
This lack of balance is consistent with a certain formlessness and lack of focus in the book. As Allitt admits in the preface, the poets Hopkins, Patmore, Meynell, Tate and Lowell are practically ignored, although there is a whole chapter devoted to the novelists. No good reason apart from space is given for the lacuna. As a historian, Allitt is really interested in intellectual ideas rather than literary art, and he might have been better advised to exclude the novelists altogether or, alternatively, not to have tried to pretend that the American converts deserved as much space as the British ones. There are some surprising mistakes, of which the most egregious is the reference to Edward Bouverie Pusey in both the text and the index as Nathan (sic) Pusey!