A New Era of Converts: From Newman and Dawson Until Today

From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, a succession of British and American intellectuals converted to Catholicism. Since the Reformation very few English language writers of any influence had tried to advance the cause of the Catholic Church, but in this age of reassertion converts became its principal advocates. Outspoken and intellectually gifted, they aimed to show up the fallacies of Protestants and religious skeptics, to end the long schism in Christendom, and to place Catholics once more at the center of Western intellectual life. The names of some among these converts are familiar, including John Henry Newman, Orestes Brownson, Isaac Hecker, G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Others remain obscure, but their collective impact upon English-speaking Catholicism was immense.

Many of these converts’ contemporaries regarded the idea of a “Catholic intellectual” as a contradiction in terms, believing that the repressive Roman Church prohibited freedom of thought. The converts were eager to prove otherwise; their work in history, science, literature, and philosophy was designed to show that Catholicism could be intellectually liberating rather than restrictive, despite the Church’s dogmatic style and hierarchical structure. As newcomers to Catholicism, they wrote partly for the Catholic audience but also for their Protestant and skeptical contemporaries, hoping to vindicate their own conversions by convincing others to follow their example. To win more converts they knew that they would have to improve intellectual standards within Catholicism.

As they tried to make a place for themselves in the Catholic Church and a case for the Church in the wider intellectual world, the first generation of converts found that there was little Catholic literature in English on which to build. They had almost to start from scratch in trying to show what Catholic science or Catholic history as serious intellectual enterprises would be like. “We Catholics have no philosophy,” said Lord Acton, an English “cradle” Catholic, in a letter of 1854 to the American convert Orestes Brownson. “You alone can prepare us for the great controversies by founding among us a school and arming it with the principles of a sound philosophy.” Paradoxically, for Brownson and his fellow converts, Catholicism was both old and new: radically new as a part of their own experience yet far more ancient than its Protestant rivals. They set to work, exploring and reinterpreting the Catholic heritage, trying to recover it from both the obloquy of Protestant historiography and the syrup of Catholic hagiography.

This paradox of Catholicism seeming both old and new was complemented by another paradox: the converts’ sense that Catholicism was both very different from their former faiths yet also very similar. They converted as adults, having spent their youth and years of education outside the Catholic fold. In many cases they underwent a long intellectual preparation for conversion in these other churches. For example, the best known British convert, John Henry Newman (1801-1890), converted from Anglicanism at the age of 44 after more than two decades of study and writing in early Christian history. In the 1830s and early 1840s he theorized that the Church Fathers had been the precursors of Anglicanism, but at last, in 1845, he admitted to himself that if they pointed in any future direction it was to Rome. Conversion changed his explicit allegiance and had immense consequences on the course of his life but it did not overturn his pattern of thinking. The continuities between his thought before and after conversion are in many ways more striking than the discontinuities, as his biographer Ian Ker has shown brilliantly. The same was true a generation later of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who converted at the age of 46. His book Orthodoxy (1908), written long before his conversion, became a favorite among his Catholic admirers who in this way obliquely acknowledged the continuity.

Intellectually, then, conversion for these men was often incremental, but institutionally the jump was immense, from the “establishment” into the “wilderness.” Because the Catholic Church thought of itself as embattled against the rest of the world, Church leaders recruited the converts as polemicists. The converts spoke up for Catholicism but retained heavy intellectual debts to their Protestant past and could not obliterate their personal and intellectual heritage. This paradox of Catholicism being both different from and similar to its rivals sometimes caused friction between the new Catholics and the old.

The outcome of the convert intellectuals’ labors was not what they had hoped. Although for three or four generations they were highly influential within the Catholic Church and played a crucial role in transforming English-language Catholicism, they were powerless to halt or reverse the dominant intellectual trends of their era. The Catholic Church generally was unable to resume the central place in Western intellectual life which it had enjoyed prior to the Reformation. While the new Catholics challenged non-Catholic scholars on the vital intellectual issues of the era, the non Catholics rarely deigned even to notice them in return.

The flow of conversions in Britain and America between the mid-1840s and the late-1950s showed the allure of Catholicism for some thinkers but it was not large enough to throw non-Catholic intellectuals into consternation. Though Newman was widely admired, and though by converting he stimulated many other members of the Oxford Movement to follow his lead, he was unable to attract his own brother into the Catholic fold, and most of his Anglican followers, including the other Oxford Movement leaders, Nathan Pusey and John Keble, remained staunch Anglicans. As in Britain, so in America. Orestes Brownson, a noted member of the Transcendentalist circle, carried his family into the embrace of Rome in 1844, but he influenced none of his great contemporaries: Thoreau, Emerson, William Ellery Channing, or Margaret Fuller. In fact, most of Brownson’s New England friends were so accustomed to his frequent changes of opinion that they treated him as a mercurial spirit who had stepped off the edge of the world rather than as a possible role-model. Only the young Isaac Hecker and the group who later founded the Paulist Fathers followed Brownson to Rome.

Periodically events in the British and American Protestant churches prompted new waves of conversion to Catholicism. In the early 1890s, for example, a group of High Church Anglicans led by Lord Halifax raised the question of corporate reunion or the collective readmission of the Church of England into the Catholic Church. Hopes ran high among Anglo-Catholics for a time, but in 1896 Pope Leo XIII declared in his bull Apostolicae Curae that Anglican orders were invalid and that, in effect, there was nothing to discuss. A cluster of Anglican clergymen who had seen themselves as members of the worldwide Catholic communion and had been hoping for a different answer, reacted by resigning from their livings and converting to Catholicism. Similarly, a “push” to Rome came for American “High Church” Episcopal priests in 1908 when their church decided to inaugurate an “open pulpits” policy that permitted all varieties of Protestant ministers to preach in Episcopal churches. The Anglo-Catholics, who denied that they were Protestants at all, revolted at the prospect and the result was a crowd of conversions.

There were, however, plenty of good reasons for not converting, even for those who were inclined to do so. Quite apart from the religious wrench of conversion, becoming a Catholic in Britain or America often prompted accusations of disloyalty to the nation, its Protestant heritage, even its sense of common decency. When Thomas Arnold (Matthew Arnold’s brother) converted, his wife wrote a furious letter to Newman stating that Newman had led her husband “to ignore every social duty and become a pervert.” She added, “from the bottom of my heart I curse you for it.” Conversion usually entailed a jolting loss of social status. George Tyrrell’s biographer notes that though Tyrrell, a young Anglican from a genteel family, was intellectually convinced by Catholic arguments, “he recoiled from ‘the dirt and tinsel, and flashy gew gaws’ in the Catholic chapels, from the ‘essential commonness’ of Romanism,” and that, when he overcame his distaste and announced his conversion to his parents, “what pained his mother was ‘that a son of mine should go to Mass with the [Irish] cook.’ ”

The converts’ position was difficult because those who were born as Catholics tended to treat converts with an uneasy blend of gratitude and disdain. Catholic bishops understandably were glad that brilliant and influential men and women had decided that Rome represented the one true Church, and were delighted to learn that the converts were willing to put their skills at the service of Catholicism. But the bishops soon discovered that converts, intellectually adventurous and unused to clerical censorship, were likely to take speculative excursions which challenged rather than fortified the bishops’ ideas of orthodoxy. One part of the history of these converts is, accordingly, the story of conflicts between converts and bishops over what was or was not intellectually permissible. For example, Newman’s writings on the development of doctrine, the role of the laity, and the nature of religious certainty, made the English bishops distinctly anxious. Newman commented to Lord Acton that, in the British hierarchy’s view, “All converts are dangerous.” His fellow-convert Richard Simpson co-edited The Rambler, the leading liberal Catholic journal of the mid-nineteenth century, and had a long succession of conflicts with the hierarchy, which ultimately ordered it to be closed down. Isaac Hecker, the American Transcendentalist and Brook Farm communard who converted in 1844, also ran into official disapproval when his book Aspirations of Nature (1857) appeared to argue that by nature man was good, thus minimizing the power of original sin and the need for grace well beyond what his superiors found admissible.

By contrast, another group of converts, the Ultramontanes, became fervent “Romanizers.” The convert who is more punctilious in his new faith than the lifelong member is a familiar figure in Catholic lore, and the nineteenth century provided plentiful examples. Henry Manning and Frederick Faber, for example, two more Oxford Movement converts, were among the leaders of the movement to declare the Pope infallible at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) and to defend the Pope’s temporal power from its secular challengers during the Italian unification crisis.

The later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries showed unmistakably that the Catholic Church had decided to climb out of the river of contemporary intellectual life rather than swim along in midstream, despite the hopes of Newman, Brownson, Simpson, Hecker, and many other converts. The papal hammer fell frequently on efforts to “modernize” Catholic thinking, an enterprise in which converts often were deeply involved. For example, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) issued the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, condemning many of the principles upon which contemporary scientists outside the Catholic Church then were working. The condemnation brought the work of several convert intellectuals under scrutiny because it discouraged them from showing the consonance of their work with contemporary natural science. Among those affected by the Syllabus was the English evolutionary biologist and Catholic convert St. George Mivart, who ultimately was excommunicated for his criticism of the doctrine of Hell. The seemingly anti-intellectual animus of the Syllabus also led to disillusionment for some Catholic converts, among them Thomas Arnold, who when he read it reverted to Anglicanism.

Six years later, Pius IX engineered the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1870), and flatly refused to countenance historical evidence (provided by Newman, among other convert writers) which showed that papal supremacy itself, let alone papal infallibility, was based on several centuries of development out of an early church which had been constituted quite differently. Papal infallibility, whatever its other consequences, represented a disastrous reversal for Catholic historians who had dedicated themselves to close textual analysis of early church documents. The pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903) promised some relief to adventurous convert intellectuals but his encyclical letter if Aeterni Patris (1879) encouraged a recovery of learning along scholastic lines, keeping new philosophical approaches at arm’s length. Its successor, Providentissimus Deus (1893) set sharp limits on Catholic participation in historical-critical analysis of the Bible.

A third abrupt check for adventurous Catholic intellectuals came in 1907 when Pope Pius X’s encyclical letters Lamentabili and Pascendi made a sweeping condemnation of “modernism” in theology and prompted one English convert, George Tyrrell, S.J., to court excommunication. In the following years, seminaries and Catholic colleges in Britain and America were purged of all traces of “modernism.” Non-Catholics regarded these episodes as further evidence that Catholic intellectuals were hamstrung by intrusive and censorious authorities. This was the age in which Andrew Dickson White, first president of Cornell University, wrote his influential History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom (1896), casting the scientists as truth-loving heroes through the ages and the Catholic Church as an anti-intellectual villain trying to squeeze the life out of them. White made enormous capital out of the famous Galileo case and treated it as typical of Catholicism in all times and places. Faced by such sentiments as White’s, converts who remained committed to contemporary intellectual trends found themselves walking a tightrope between the guardians of orthodoxy on their right and their former friends and colleagues to their left.

Those who had converted but had not joined the priesthood were less subject to Church discipline in their intellectual work, and some developed an idiosyncratic outlook, blending elements of their old and new worldviews. For example Elizabeth Kite, a Philadelphian from a Quaker family who remained a dedicated eugenist throughout her long life (she died at the age of 90), believing in selective sterilization of the mentally retarded, and seeking ways to elevate the genetic quality of the population. Catholic opinion of the era was fiercely anti-eugenic on the grounds that to tamper with procreation was to meddle wrongfully in God’s design. A typical Catholic editorial from 1910 called eugenists “a host of faddists, experimenters, and latter-day scientists who are in places of trust where their theories can be worked for the unhappiness of those committed to their keeping.” Kite, a devout Catholic, apparently saw no incongruity in these two allegiances. Her example, and others like it, indicate that conversion did not necessarily transform the convert’s outlook in all things.

By comparison, Ultramontanist converts put their faith in Thomism. In an effort to assure intellectual coherence between disciplines, and to establish a foundation for all studies in theology, the Popes of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries placed a renewed emphasis upon the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and his successors. But scholastic philosophy and natural law encountered during this era a succession of powerful challengers, including pragmatism, vitalism, existentialism, and logical positivism, each of which denied scholasticism’s claims to intellectual respectability. Similarly in the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the study of history, the developing academic orthodoxy in Britain and America was strongly empirical and often based on positivist and materialist assumptions; hence it was completely at variance with the scholastic framework. Most secular intellectuals, however, ignored the scholastic criticism of materialism and positivism rather than trying to refute it. The development of a “Catholic ghetto,” especially in America, with its own set of self-segregating schools, colleges, and journals, made ignoring the Catholics easier than if they had been forcing their attention upon their antagonists from the office next door.

After Vatican I, and especially after the anti-modernist decrees and the disgrace of George Tyrrell, British and American convert intellectuals tended to shy away from strictly theological questions and instead to work in the “safer” realms of literature, history, and the social sciences. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, however, they too aimed to draw more converts into the faith which had won them. This was the case with a succession of British converts who tried to dazzle their readers with wit, erudition, and ostentatious orthodoxy, among them Robert Hugh Benson, Ronald Knox, and G.K. Chesterton. The experience of their earlier lives made these converts’ view of the outside world different from that of born Catholics and enabled them to make distinctions which sometimes escaped their co-religionists. For example, because they had relatives still outside the Church, the converts found it difficult to demonize a non-Catholic society with which they still were intimately connected. Of Benson, son of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and a prolific novelist, one admiring reviewer wrote in 1911:

Benson has won for himself a unique position amongst contemporary writers, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The former regard him with pride and satisfaction as a living example of the compatibility of great intellectual keenness with a sincere and humble acceptance of all the claims of faith; the latter are astonished to find themselves, under his attractive guidance, taking an interest in things quite outside their usual concern, and becoming curious to study the inner workings of a religion which they had hitherto despised too much ever to think about seriously.

The reviewer delighted not only in Benson’s literary art but in his work as a “bridge” across the Catholic-Anglican divide of his era.

The train of conversions continued during and after the catastrophic First World War. Men and women disabused of their earlier faith in progress as a force immanent in history found consolation in Catholicism. In the inter-war years, a distinguished group of British novelists, including Compton Mackenzie, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh, converted to Catholicism. In The Idea of a University (1854) Newman had lamented that almost all the classics of English literature were Protestant and that modern English was in effect a Protestant language. Now, for almost the first time since the Reformation, English literature enjoyed a significant Catholic leavening, with Catholic novels like Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940) and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) winning international acclaim. As Waugh’s friend and biographer Christopher Sykes wrote of Brideshead, “Evelyn was doing something which seemed in England to have gone out of fashion for ever; he was making religion the central point of a story about contemporary English life, and approaching his theme with respect and awe.” The 1920s and 1930s also was the era in which the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), a convert and Jesuit priest, was rescued from obscurity and recognized as a brilliant element in the development of English literature.

Several well-born British converts from this generation, among them G.K. Chesterton, Shane Leslie, Arnold Lunn, and Christopher Hollis, toured America, lecturing and debating, sometimes teaching for a few semesters at Georgetown, Fordham, or Notre Dame, and doing what they could to encourage a Catholic literary revival in America. To them, Catholicism was synonymous with urbanity, erudition, and wit. Christopher Hollis who like Hugh Benson was the son of an Anglican bishop, was an Oxford graduate and academic economist. On his first visit to America he remarked the Catholic Church’s lowly status in the United States. “I found America to be a country which, beneath a veneer of egalitarianism, was intensely class conscious, and where Catholicism was looked down upon as a religion of the lower classes.” At home in England, too, Hollis was aware that he and his elite friends were the intellectual leavening in an otherwise poor, largely Irish-immigrant Catholic Church. When in the mid-1930s, he accepted a professorship at Notre Dame, Hollis was dismayed by the students’ lack of intellectual enthusiasm, the poor quality of the faculty, and the university’s glorification of sports. Conceding the immigrant church’s persistence in preserving the faith, he added that, unfortunately, the clergy had “made the Church appear as almost defiantly the enemy of culture,” which, he believed, Notre Dame did little to correct. This situation he and his convert friends — British and American alike — aimed to rectify, but they found it hard to do so. The premier Catholic publisher of this era, Frank Sheed, believed that the converts’ intellectual prominence was attributable to the fact that “converts have studied the faith as grown-ups,” something most born Catholics rarely did. “Converts,” he added, “can hardly be ten percent of the Catholic body [in Britain and America]: that 80 percent of the first-rate writers should come from this ten percent seems to argue either a monstrous articulateness in the converts or a monstrous inarticulateness in the born Catholics.” As Sheed learned from long experience, it was both.

These intellectual differences between born and converted Catholics were exacerbated by social contrasts. Evelyn Waugh (admittedly Britain’s most shameless snob this century) held the leadership of the English Catholic church in low esteem, as his description of Cardinal Bourne suggests:

He knew no life except that of religious institutions; he had no acquaintance that was not professional and official. Moreover, he combined a genuine personal humility with an exceedingly lofty conception of the dignity of his position and with an absolute confidence in all his opinions (which he believed to have been revealed to him in prayer). He was thus singularly disqualified from normal social intercourse.

Waugh’s caustic wit got him into trouble with many of Britain’s old Catholics, just as Richard Simpson and John Henry Newman had come into conflict with their counterparts in the Church a hundred years before. When Cardinal Bourne’s friend and biographer, Ernest Oldmeadow, accused Waugh of morbidity and perverted humor in his novels Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust, Waugh answered that “long employment by a Prince of the Church has tempted [Oldmeadow] to ape his superiors, and, naturally enough, he gives an uncouth and impudent performance.”

The best-known American converts of the inter-war years were the journalist Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and the Columbia graduate student Thomas Merton, who became a Trappist monk. Each gradually won a wide and sympathetic audience in the non-Catholic world, and now they are celebrity figures in the history of American spirituality. Merton’s religious autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), topped the New York Times bestseller list and stimulated further conversions and Trappist vocations.

Less celebrated but no less important, a succession of American academics also converted, and brought greater intellectual respectability to Catholic education in America which – as Hollis’s comments suggest — it had hitherto lacked. Among them were Carlton Hayes, a professor at Columbia University and the founder of the discipline of International Studies, the historian Ross Hoffman, and the sociologist Eva Ross. They were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They had enjoyed an education in America’s leading graduate schools — Hayes at Columbia, Hoffman at the University of Pennsylvania, Ross at Yale — and they exhibited neither the defensive belligerence nor the immigrant anxiety which was still common among their Catholic contemporaries. They were as much a part of the American “Establishment” as the convert sons of Anglican bishops were part of the British Establishment. They brought to Catholic academic life a confidence and flair which it had lacked previously. Hayes, a friend of President Roosevelt, became America’s ambassador to Spain during the Second World War, Hoffman helped found the graduate history program at Fordham, and Ross was one of the founders and an early president of the American Catholic Sociological Association.

After the Second World War this generation of convert intellectuals began to win more sympathetic attention from America’s non-Catholic academics as they demonstrated a high level of technical skill in their disciplines. They also ran graduate programs in which they trained young cradle Catholics to more rigorous standards. Many non-Catholics, among them University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins, found the converts’ critique of science and their philosophical anti-totalitarianism germane to the total war of the 1940s and the Cold War of the 1950s. A hundred years earlier Orestes Brownson had had few but other converts to aid him. From then on, convert scholars could work alongside such born-Catholic luminaries as the Jesuits John Courtney Murray and Walter Ong. Transatlantic converts continued to play a prominent role in American Catholic intellectual life in the 1950s. The best history of American Catholicism up to that date was written by Theodore Maynard, an English convert and immigrant, while the first Stillman Chair of Catholic Studies at Harvard Divinity School went to the English convert and historian Christopher Dawson.

By the 1950s, many Catholic converts believed that their evangelizing effort was gaining ground and that a demoralized secularist enemy was on the verge of capitulation, ready to throw itself into the arms of the Pope. But even as they made such hopeful prophecies, the long Catholic rearguard against modernity began to collapse from within. Many Catholic academics — priests and laity alike — abandoned scholasticism and natural law theory. The Church repudiated its intransigent approach to the outside world during Vatican II and came to look with a new sympathy on Protestants, Jews, agnostics, and atheists, while opening itself to scientific and philosophical systems which for a century it had resisted. By the 1970s many of the special qualities of Catholic scholarship were disappearing or else were confined to an angry handful of traditionalists who refused to forsake the ways of a lifetime. Ironically, some of the intransigents were intellectuals who had converted to get away from modernism in its many guises, only to find that the Church, too, was negotiating with such modernist teachings as evolution, existentialism, the “death of God” movement, new techniques of biblical criticism, and philosophical relativism. The irony was compounded by the fact that converts had done much to pave the way for these changes. They had insisted on higher standards and more rigorous research, and had declined to demonize the outside world, but they had never meant to break down the fortress walls of what was to them the one, true, Catholic faith. By 1970, a few of them, like Ross Hoffman, wondered if they had not taught their lessons too well as they watched the baby of traditional Catholicism being thrown out with the bath water of its more recent accretions.

Post-mortems on the American immigrant church, written during the 1960s and 1970s, usually argued that the age of Catholic distinctiveness had passed. Some observers speculated that, for good or ill, the stream of conversions also was drying up, and noted that the Church no longer devoted much energy to systematic conversion work or domestic missions. Subsequent events have discredited that view, and shown that, right up to the present, Catholicism exercises a fascination over intellectuals. Prominent writers have been drawn to the post-conciliar Church in the most recent decades, and have included Malcolm Muggeridge in England and Russell Kirk, Dale Vree, and Richard John Neuhaus in America. The decline of anti-Catholicism in both countries makes the social consequences of conversion — and the sacrifices — less dramatic than in former years, but the phenomenon itself persists. Each convert, aware of taking a momentous step, has hoped to carry others along into the Catholic faith. Few did it with more gusto than Richard Neuhaus, whose The Catholic Moment (1987) argued that the “moment” for Catholic cultural leadership had arrived. Neuhaus, like a latter-day Brownson or Newman, voted with his feet and was received into the Church in 1990. Whether the nation, and the English-speaking world, will follow suit, however, is as much in doubt now as it was in the 1840s.

  • Patrick N. Allitt

    Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History, an Americanist specializing in religious, intellectual, and environmental history. He graduated from Oxford University, England, in 1977 and earned his Ph.D. in American History in 1986 from the University of California, Berkeley. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Divinity School (1985-1988) and has been at Emory since 1988. Author of six books, he is also the presenter of six lecture series with The Teaching Company (http://www.teach12.com) on aspects of American and British history. His current research and writing project is a history of the intellectual and political opponents of environmentalism, from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...