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Are Catholic intellectuals losing touch with the mainstream?

If so, this is bad news for the Church

By on Monday, 9 May 2011

Graham Greene, right, and French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac are shown before a conference at the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, in 1948. It was attended by 3,000 people (PA photo)

Graham Greene, right, and French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac are shown before a conference at the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, in 1948. It was attended by 3,000 people (PA photo)

There is an interesting article in yesterday’s Observer on a subject that gets an occasional outing in the press every now and again, namely, why is it that in Britain intellectuals are not accorded the same respect that they are in France. You can read the article here.

It is illustrated with a hilarious photograph of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir sitting in what I assume is their favourite Left Bank café, in the year 1940; they look impossibly smug, and one can almost hear the rumble of German tanks in the background.

The article is intelligent, interesting and well-reasoned, but most readers will be drawn irresistibly to the accompanying list of the top 300 British intellectuals of our time.

Lists are irresistibly attractive because, of course, they invariably differ from the list we ourselves would have drawn up. There are one or two omissions that struck me – what? No Julie Burchill? – but I confess most of the intellectuals are people I have scarcely heard of. What struck me was the fact that one of the shortest subsections was that entitled “Religious Leaders” – just two names, that of Jonathan Sacks and Rowan Williams. There are, of course, various Catholics scattered about the list – people such as Terry Eagleton and Mark Lawson, but unless you count Eamon Duffy (described here as a historian), not a single Catholic theologian. Whatever happened to the Queen of Sciences?

If this list is a true reflection of the lie of the land, and I realise that that is a big if, then it is seriously bad news for the Church. In France and Italy, thanks to their history of anti-clericalism, there have always been heavyweight Catholics ready to fight the Church’s corner. The Church in this country has a different history, but even so, we too have had people of the calibre of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Malcolm Muggeridge; these were more than just intellectuals, they were cultural leaders. But now, alas, one has the distinct impression that Catholicism lies outside the cultural mainstream in this country. This is bad for Catholicism, and it is bad for the cultural mainstream as well, as it will lead to the impoverishment of both. I can think of one person who would have deplored this situation: the Blessed John Henry Newman, a great Catholic and of course a towering intellectual. But where are the Newmans of today?

  • Terry Minatour

    Are you related to Fr Stephen Langridge? You look similar, in profile at least.

    I suspect modern British Catholic intellectuals are fighting guerrilla-fashion on UK public blogs.

  • Catholic Theology Student

    I think there are some decent intellectuals in the Church today in England but they are overwhelmed by a rationalistic intellectualism that alienates who their theology applies to. An example would be the Jesuits who are filled with intellectuals but their true impact is minimal because parishioners do not even factor in to these theologians’ concepts. Bl John Henry Newman made impact because his life and works were directly applicable to parishes and preachers, they could be used to build the Kingdom in each and every location. From my experience in university level theology (with the Jesuits) there are a lot of theologians who are far too preoccupied with their own ideas or with deconstructing Church teaching that they would never, and sometimes should never, be relevant to anybody. Maybe what we really need are theologians who actually care about parishioners and gear their words for their comprehension and understanding rather than for their confusion and vexation.

  • mholt210

    One British Catholic intellectual is John Haldane Professor of Philospohy at St Andrews University.

  • Basil Loft@ss

    The best philosopher in the World is Alasdair MacIntyre, a Catholic convert and a Scot. Was he invited to Glasgow last year by the hierarchy?

  • Philip

    The Catholic church institutionally is not really interested in mainstream intellectuals – it is very stuck in a 1970s way of thinking and very much fears challenge to that thinking. But, reading that list, I am afraid that one can only conclude that the Observer is some way from the mainstream. On the whole it lists exactly the sort of intellectuals with whom the Church in England does like to have dialogue.

  • Anonymous

    I’m disappointed. I was expecting a good laugh when I turned to the photo of Sartre and de Beauvoir sitting at a cafe, but I cannot see what you find hilarious about it, nor why you think they look smug. To me they look serious and slightly tense, as well they might in 1940. But since you see theology as a science and Julie Burchill as an intellectual, you and I must be looking at the world through very different glasses.

    Perhaps you think Sartre and de Beauvoir look smug because they were atheists. When atheist public figures expess their beliefs with an air of certainty, they are often accused by theists of being smug. (Dawkins and Hitchens get that all the time.) When the Pope expresses HIS beliefs with an air of certainty, Catholics applaud him for being steadfast. The difference is clear. Certainty that you share is steadfast. Certainty that you don’t share is smug.

    You ask where the Newmans of today are. Indeed. Perhaps today’s Catholic Church is not a particularly attractive beacon for many of today’s intellectuals, and perhaps you need to ask why. Perhaps you could also try reversing the question in your headline and ask if the Catholic mainstream is losing touch with intellectuals.

  • TH2

    In general, the age of the “Catholic intellectual” ended around, say, the late 1960s. Gone are the days of Maritain and Gilson. Long gone are the days of Chesterton, Belloc and Dawson. What has emerged in the last four decades is what might be called the Horizontalist Surfacer: pantheists and “process theology” types, nature worshippers and New Agers, “social justice” messiahs and other neo-Marxists, none of them authentically Catholic. With few exceptions, since the 1970s it’s been a steady stream of immanentist vulgarians expounding a “this world” mentality.

  • Roryodonnell

    I noticed between 10 -20 Catholic -active or lapsed – names