Catholic Literary Revival

When you see a Church that refuses all compromise, all soft sayings in the place of hard truths; when you see a Church that refuses to pander–know then that you see the Church of Christ.
  –  You and Thousands Like You (1949), Fr. Owen Francis Dudley

The Catholic literary revivals began around the time John Henry Newman proclaimed a “Second Spring” in 1852 and they ended about 1960 (bibliography below).  They were in response to dramatic changes in society concerning which Adam Schwartz summarized:

[Virginia] Woolf’s dismissal [in 1928] of belief in traditional Christianity as a distressing obscenity was typical of British intellectuals’ attitudes during her era.  Arnold Bennett to Bertrand Russell, from G. B. Shaw to H. G. Wells, the day’s cultural leaders tended to see dogmatic religion as somewhat shameful hidebound superstition that people must be liberated from for the sake of their own well-being and society’s progress.

Fr. Dudley was among those fighting back.  For example, The Masterful Monk (1929) put into fictional form debates between the Monk and an atheist.  From the prologue:

I would like to mention that “Julian Verrers” in this tale is neither a literary affectation nor an exaggeration.  He is a spokesman delivering faithfully the ideas of certain materialistic scientists, philosophers, and leaders of thought [especially Thomas Huxley, James Frazer, and H. G. Wells], whose names are before the public to-day, and whose writings are everywhere on sale.  He speaks as they speak and says what they say.

These secular attacks were so aggressive that stark opposition seemed the only viable option, and yet mainline Protestant churches avoided “fundamental opposition to the conventional morals, values, and proprieties of the age” (Schwartz quoting Alan Gilbert).  Fr. Dudley in The Coming of the Monster (1936):

From a pulpit of a London Cathedral, on Good Friday, a Doctor of Divinity is preaching in well-modulated tones:  “In these days, when educated reason revolts against dogmas to which it cannot intelligibly subscribe, the doctrine of the Redemption requires restatement in terms of modern thought, and according to the findings of modern Scriptural research.  It is recognized now that Christ did not claim to be the Son of God in a physical sense such as the Gospel narratives of the Virgin Birth affirm, nor in a metaphysical sense such as is required by Nicene theology, and such as it required if we accept the medieval conception of the Atonement.  The once popular doctrine too, of the Fall of Man being no longer tenable, we are compelled to abandon the consequent crude, I might say barbaric, notions with which Catholic theology has invested the Death on Calvary…”

He was referring to William Inge (1860-1954), Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, whom G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc battled for nearly 20 years.  And there were even Anglican Bishops involved in the Eugenics movement.

By way of contrast, the Vatican seemed to actively seek out opportunities for fundamental opposition!  In the 1800’s there was the First Vatican Council, and a whole series of blunt, counter-cultural Papal Encyclicals.  Then Pope Pius X declared all out war against Modernism in 1907 (Lamentrabili Sane and Pascendi Dominici Gregis).  In 1925, Pope Pius XI declared the Social Kingship of Christ (Quas Primas), and followed that up in 1928 (Mortalium Animos) patiently explaining the route to Christian unity:  everybody become Catholic!

The Vatican reaction to the 1930 Anglican Lambeth conference was instructive.  Anglican Resolution 15, passed August 14, 1930, approved use of artificial birth control in limited situations within marriage–the initial break in Christian unanimity.  That did not necessarily call for any action by the Vatican, and you’ve heard that the Vatican moves slowly?  Not this time!  Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii was issued on December 31st—a little over 4 months later!  The Encyclical directly, unambiguously, and strongly opposed artificial birth control–and threw in abortion and eugenics for good measure.  It gave no ground in any respect.

In contrast to Humanae Vitae (the 1968 Encyclical which came to the same conclusion), not only was there no delay but there was also no dissent.  Church discipline was so strong that in 1949 Fr. Dudley could still say with a straight face (in You and Thousands Like You):

Ask any Catholic bishop, priest, or layman in the whole wide world–what does your Church teach, what do you believe? You will get the same answer every time.  It does not matter what nationality they may be, they each and all believe the same…

With the Vatican thundering on high, at the local level Fr. Dudley–and others–could make even strong statements without them seeming especially harsh in that blunt culture.  For example, Fr. Dudley in Pageant of Life (1932):

I have endeavoured to present…an antithesis to that modern cowardice which manifests itself in the vogue for the vague and non-committal; the convenient dilettantism which questions everything, holds nothing, and funks the hard facts of truth.

Indeed, this is how you were to detect those teaching error (Will Men be like Gods?, 1924):

They purr forth soft sayings, for the liking of a soft generation.  Stern facts are not for such as these.  Truth comes, not softly clothed, but clad in mail.  Those who would win her must face facts fearlessly.

By way of contrast, Christ spoke with authority, not like the Scribes, and so did His Church (The Shadow on the Earth, 1926):

… “Look here, Major”–the Cripple suddenly became very serious–“…If Christianity is merely a matter of opinions, I can’t see what good it is to anybody, or why anybody should believe it… If that’s Christianity, then Christianity’s a darn poor sort of thing–afraid to speak out or offend anybody. Christianity can’t be like that.” The Cripple pushed his hair off his forehead.  “Major, I’ve come bang up against the Catholic religion here–I’ve been watching it, and reading about it–and it’s an utterly different kind of thing.  It’s real.  It’s got authority; it’s perfectly certain of itself.  It knows.  It’s not afraid of the world; it doesn’t climb down and pander to you–it doesn’t lick your boots.  It challenges you; dares you to deny!  It’s a terrific thing! …And these Catholics love it–passionately; I’ve seen them at it.  It’s what Christianity would be.  It’s what those martyrs died for, I’m certain…”
The Cripple wiped his lips. His pale face was flushed.
The Major pulled vigorously at his cigarette, embarrassed at the outburst.

Yes, being Catholic could be socially awkward…and more (later in The Shadow on the Earth):

The monk paused.  He wanted to make quite sure that the Cripple understood what becoming a Catholic meant.  “Of course there are thousands who do see the truth and become Catholics, and there are thousands more who would do so if only they would give up things for God.  That’s the Englishman’s curse.  He’s been accustomed to a religion that costs nothing.  To become Catholic costs something–the surrender of your intellectual pride, you self-love, your sins, your friends sometimes. You may lose by it–the things of the world; and so few are prepared to do it–to sacrifice themselves for God.  But I am afraid that is the entrance-price to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Just as Christ spoke regularly of the very real possibility of perdition, so did those who represented Christ on Earth.  The Church was the pearl of great price, and many turned from it…but many did not!  The Church was flourishing, and conversions were pouring in–and often it was precisely that boldly counter-cultural stance that attracted.

This approach–and we are talking here about approaches, not doctrine–tended to widen in appearance the size of the gap between inside the Church and outside the Church.  To highlight the stakes.  To make entering the Church more clearly a Very Serious Thing, and leaving it a more clearly a Very Serious Thing.

But that approach changed.  There were already hints when Fr. Dudley died in 1952.  The new Superior of the Catholic Missionary Society (which Fr. Dudley had headed for 14 years) issued this statement (emphasis added):

Fr. Dudley’s great gift was a mastery of the style of popular journalism, which he used with great effect in the service of the Faith.  [His books] had an immense success, being translated into a score of languages…Since popular taste was formed by the popular press, he was prepared to give the public sound doctrine in the style to which it was accustomed.  His platform and pulpit manner as a missionary was formed in the same mold, deliberately chosen and highly effective.  For nearly thirty years he preached not only indoors but in market places and at street corners from the C.M.S. traveling chapel.  His gift for the trenchant phrase made his apologetic sound sometimes harsher than it was.  But hundreds owe their conversion to his words and to the unwearying kindness and understanding which he showed in personal contacts.

So, he was nice in person, even though perhaps…  From You and Thousands Like You (1949):

If certain things I shall say are resented, please believe me that it is not my intention to hurt, but only to draw attention to the truth.  A quality of truth is that it hurts when refused; when accepted it no longer hurts.

Still, going only by the quotes above, “trenchant” certainly fits!  But those quotes give a very distorted view of his writing:  the kindness, acceptance, humor, and love of beauty in his books rely upon character development for their power, and cannot be briefly illustrated with justice.  This is a short, inadequate sample (The Masterful Monk, 1929):

[Beauty Dethier] had doubted whether he would understand.  Whether a monk could understand the pain of a woman’s love.
She doubted no longer.
She had told him everything…hiding nothing.  He had listened, without comment, until the end.  Then into the grey eyes had come the “tremendous tenderness,” reflecting her pain as if it were his own.

Usually his trenchant phrases are made in general terms, or in connection with public debates in response to trenchant attacks.  On a personal level, this was a more representative example of direct opposition (set during the Battle of Britain in Michael, 1948):

[Brother Anselm] had been watching a Demolition Squad at work on a mountain of debris that had been a house, digging for the living and the dead.  He had whispered the general absolution for the dying beneath it. One of the squad had noticed him and his collar.  The man had sneered over his shoulder, “Why don’t your God stop this bl—– massacre?” and then resumed his struggle with a balk of timber which he was manifestly incapably of shifting.  The monk had bent down, got his shoulder under and lifted it, and answered the questions with another, “Have you asked Him to?”  The man….looked uncomfortable.  “Well, sir, I’m more agnostic like.”  The monk had suggested as politely as possible that agnosticism might be the answer to his question.  To ignore God was hardly to invite His help.

Once you get used to his blunt, period, British style, you then notice that he doesn’t fit the caricature that we often make of the past.  He showed that being a genuine friend to people is the first step to evangelization–even if they never convert.  He recognized the good in people even when they had no religion at all…or were drifting away from the Church.  He was often gentle.  When he did have his Masterful Monk directly confront, that was a mark of respect for that person–or in rare occasions, a final act of desperation for their souls.

Moreover, since the Vatican was busy hurling anathemas at the world, there was a sort of division of labor.  The Vatican would stress doctrine–which, after all, is pastoral too.  But it would not try (in other respects) to find just the right words to touch every human heart in a one-size-fits-all global way.  It would not seek to find the pastoral words that would best speak, at the same time, to the German, Kenyan, Filipino, Brazilian, and Canadian–whose cultures are very different.  More to the point, one statement would not meet the pastoral needs of both the person considering Catholicism for the first time, and perhaps a bit intimidated, and the cradle Catholic wondering if it might be okay to start skipping Mass to play golf:  they need to hear very different things!  And since all Vatican statements are global, the Vatican could not issue separate statements to meet greatly varying needs.  Global pastoral words were left to the Holy Spirit (Scripture) and those writings of the Saints which had stood the test of time.

Rather, pastoral approaches (in the usual sense) were implemented locally by those who knew the people and understood their particular culture–and when strong words were used, they were calibrated to the specific culture, audience, and situation.

Fr. Dudley’s books were about evangelization–as was his whole life–but he never mentioned the identity of the (then) current Pope in his books.  The office was the critical guarantor of unity, but the person in the office at the moment was not relevant (after all, there had been bad Popes in history as well as good).  Rather, you became Catholic to join the Church that Christ founded…thus submitting in love to Christ’s will.  The personality of the current Pope did not enter into it:  eternal matters were not determined by transient matters.  When Pius XI died in 1939, and was replaced by Pius XII, there was no change at all in Fr. Dudley’s approach–nor was there even a hint that there was a new Pope.  That was the norm during this era (and throughout Catholic history).

The approaches of these literary revivals were not perfect–nothing on Earth ever is.  Perhaps there really was some clericalism, Jansenism, and over-emphasis on authority.  And while reading old books, one occasionally runs into jarring statements that most certainly did not stand the test of time.  (Jane Austin never wrote about anybody who was other than her own religion, race, and nationality–and so escaped this problem altogether…and her novels seem timeless.)  It is important to learn from history:  both what to do, and what to avoid.

Gradually attitudes started changing during the 1950s (and even before). Whereas being Catholic had been seen (at least by Catholics) as a very great advantage to a writer because it gave a more accurate and deeper understanding of reality, it started to be regarded as a disadvantage…a narrowing of outlook…retreating into a “Catholic ghetto.”  Increasingly Catholics were expected to be good writers–by secular standards–who just happen to be Catholic:  thus de facto placing the secular above the Divine. Having miracles in a novel, or even taking a position on what was true, was seen as bad form:  interfering with the “freedom” of the reader and being “triumphalist.”  This was the beginning of the process of jettisoning Catholic culture.

But surely we can see the point.  There are those whose conversion process started with a book that posed, but didn’t answer, a Big Question…and who would have never picked up a book that had the answer key (so to speak) even if only out of prejudice.  Additionally, we moderns tend not to notice just how really odd it is (going by the Bible and the Church until recent decades) to praise other religions–and yet we do so rather frequently–but perhaps we can imagine how that might provide a bridge to a particular person who otherwise might not have converted?  Finally, Catholics were so noticeably peculiar:  Mass in Latin, no meat on Friday, Ember Days, etc.  So by shrinking the appearance of the gap that had to be crossed…that gap which had been so deliberately kept visibly wide before…perhaps more people would convert?  And some did.

Indeed, Fr. Dudley used this more gradual approach too when warranted. In Last Crescendo, the Masterful Monk was giving a talk entitled “As One Human Being to Another.”  Before the talk:

When the attendant had left, after informing him that the hall was already full…[the Masterful Monk] found himself pondering the mystery of audiences.  If it had been advertised that he was speaking on “God”, in all probability there would have been a half-empty hall; “as one human being to another” had filled it.  The human touch?

And he started slow:

“…I assume, since this is a London audience, that most of you are not practicing any very definite religion.  May I also assume, since you’ve come to hear a monk, that you have at least an interest in religion?  If so, then you sometimes think about religion?”

He went on to speak a lot about the need for, and the power of, love–but then also addressed intellectual dishonesty clearly and emphatically…and directly confronted (politely) a questioner directly confronting his message (impolitely).

Over a decade after Fr. Dudley’s death, Fr. Michael Gallon, editor of the Catholic Gazette (the publication of Catholic Missionary Society), issued a report that was carried as “Church’s Failure” in newspapers.  Fr. Gallon complained:

The Catholic population in England continues to stick out like a sore thumb from ordinary Englishmen…The result is the miserably small percentage of Catholics in Parliament or public affairs.

He was reflecting the common attitude of the time (essentially calling for the end of Catholic culture), but Fr. Dudley would have responded that Catholics are supposed to stick out:  conversions in Fr. Dudley’s books are preceded by the non-Catholic noticing that Catholics really are different. And when Beauty Dethier (in The Masterful Monk) returned to the faith, she had to give up her fashionable friends, because they were engaging in activities in which she could no longer participate.  Being Catholic also meant sometimes taking socially awkward stands–speaking out!

I speak here on the human/natural/communication level, but what seemed often overlooked was this:  if the gap appeared smaller and easier to cross, wouldn’t it also seem easier to leave the Church…and there seem to be less point in joining it in the first place?  Moreover (at least in our own current age), would it even be credible to imply that there is not much difference?  When to become Catholic, you have to reject the very highest secular value of all:  the sexual revolution?

In any event, the facts are clear:  at least in the Western world, Catholics increasingly left the faith, and conversions dropped (including conversions of influential intellectuals).  Vocations dropped and monasteries closed. Granted, during this same time the outside culture was hostile, but it had been contemptuously hostile during the great successes of the Catholic literary revivals:  after all, the Church has always been able to survive and thrive in the face of obstacles when we were faithful…when we remembered that we were in the world, but not of the world…and at war…

The Catholic communications approach changed:  but it changed at the local level long before it changed at the level of the hierarchy…and if it ever changes back, that may well begin at the local level too.

Fr. Dudley’s novels are well worth reading on their own merit, but in this section we run into two additional issues.

First, Fr. Dudley provides a window into an interesting period of history.  He wrote of what he knew:  his novels are heavily autobiographical.  The locations are real, and he reflected the times in which he lived.  He understood the average person in the pew, with whom is writings were wildly popular, and that is whom he addressed.

Second, what should be our approach now?  Should we be as much like everybody else as we can?  Would that even be possible in our aggressively declining culture?

Moreover, is there a natural law of communications too?  To be sure, individuals and cultures vary greatly, but are there nevertheless at least some basic underlying fixed principles?

The communications approach of the Prophets, Christ, the Apostles, and the Saints was often wonderfully kind and gentle–but at other times they were in-your-face bold.  (“Yea brood of vipers!” is my personal favorite, although admittedly I have never found a way to work it into a conversation…and neither did Fr. Dudley.)  It was “both/and”, not “either/or” communication:  love and justice; acceptance and correction; acting out of love for Christ and fear of hell…and so on.  Was this style just idiosyncratic to their times?  Or does our unchanging human nature generally need “both/and”?  If so, “either/or” would be a truncated approach which could only result in a truncated fruits.

We know our story too well:  it is too familiar to shock.  But roughly 2,000 ago, at Pentecost, there were 11 Apostles in an upper room with Mary and some others.  No country was Christian, and they were in disfavor even in their own.  Yet they, and their successors, went on to create Christendom…and it was this variable, “both/and” communications approach that they used.

They constantly ran into other religions which often were willing to compromise:  we’ll just add your God to our list of gods!  Just a pinch of incense for the Emperor!  Their reaction was basically:  “We have a better idea:  you all become Christian.  No, really.”  They believed that the exclusivity claims of Christ and acted accordingly.  They sometimes were killed as a result, but the blood of martyrs only increased the growth of the Church.

True, St. Paul once spoke of the statue dedicated to the “unknown god” to pagans, but that was different from making a statement praising another religion and then stopping at that:  he chose a point of commonality, and then immediately drew the connection to the one true religion–and in doing so, he clearly implied that these pagans were fundamentally mistaken.

Fr. Dudley is but one example of these Catholic literary revival writers, and if you are in the mood to read the broadest genius, read G. K. Chesterton. Poetry?  T. S. Elliot or David Jones.  To understand the broad sweep of history?  Christopher Dawson.  The mostly widely praised novelists?  Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene.

But if you want to understand the local, lived Catholicism of that era…the attitudes and approaches…then Fr. Dudley is the last best example.


These are books which address the Catholic literary revivals (which will be individual reviewed separately):  those in red are particularly relevant to this discussion.

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