New Study Marred by Old Clichés about Preconciliar Catholic Writers

In 1989, Gregory Wolfe uttered a cri du coeur bemoaning academic neglect of the modern “Catholic Intellectual Renaissance.” He lamented that the “current establishment” treated thinkers like G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, and Evelyn Waugh with “amused condescension” as representatives of “an order that has largely been left behind in our progress toward a more enlightened dispensation”; yet Wolfe detected signs of hope that these authors were being “discovered and then hoarded as treasures by a small segment of the younger generation.” In the ensuing two decades, that segment has grown larger, as a rising generation of critics and historians have made the Catholic literary revival a burgeoning scholarly field. Richard Griffiths’s synthetic study is the latest contribution to it, but it comes from a member of that prior generation and displays many of their proclivities that Wolfe decried. Although The Pen and the Cross provides some insight into British Catholic imaginative writing and its historical context, its sympathies for favored literary critical models and for modernist and progressive theology preclude it from presenting a comprehensive portrait of the Catholic renascence or from appreciating what made it distinctive.

Griffiths focuses on how Roman Catholicism shaped the intellectual and imaginative vision of writers and texts, principally in narrative prose and poetry, with particular concentration on how this religion became the animating spirit of works by recognized notables such as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and the Welsh poet-artist David Jones. Griffiths concedes that this “committed literature written from a Catholic viewpoint” at times degenerated into proselytizing propaganda. But he also shows that, at its best, modern Catholic literature imparted more profound religious insights without sacrificing aesthetic integrity or sensitivity to the complexity of human motivation. In a discerning reading of Brideshead Revisited, for instance, he reveals how Waugh used stock tropes of British Catholic fiction with unaccustomed artistic and psychological acuity to convey the searching theological themes of the ordering of love and the economy of grace.

Griffiths further demonstrates a keen grasp of the modern British Catholic milieu and significant shifts within it. He delineates cogently the circumstances that had made British Catholics a “rejected minority” by the nineteenth century, as well as the growing recovery of their fortunes with Catholic emancipation in 1829, the advent of the Oxford Movement within the Church of England in the 1830s and 1840s, and the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, plus the “No Popery” backlash these developments precipitated. The chief focus of Victorian Catholic literature was thus on differentiating the Church from other forms of British Christianity, particularly the Anglicanism from which many literati had converted, along with subsidiary scrutiny of tensions between cisalpine Old Catholics and ultramontane, often Tractarian, converts. In the early and mid twentieth century, the predominant theme of Catholic writing changed from stressing those interdenominational and internecine debates to accenting the conflict between Roman Catholicism and what R. H. Benson called “dogmatic secularism.” This cohesive paradigm helped inspire some of the revival’s landmarks, such as Waugh’s Sword of Honor, Greene’s Brighton Rock, and Jones’s poetry. In the postwar era, though, a more variegated fiction and verse emerged, especially after the Second Vatican Council, as social assimilation and ideological accommodation fostered the fracturing of a hitherto homogeneous Catholic subculture, and a corresponding greater willingness to challenge the Church’s authority and to adapt to prevalent post-Christian presuppositions.

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As accurate as Griffiths’s descriptions of the nature and history of British Catholic intellectual life are, his analysis of them is marred by his interpretive frameworks. Griffiths shows a marked preference for writers whose work reveals “acceptance of modern trends in literature,” regarding them as a “refreshing departure.” His treatments of novels therefore privilege realistic fiction, which twentieth-century critics typically considered the foremost arena of forward-looking artistry. But this emphasis presents a grave problem for a synthetic investigation of Catholic literature. Although Griffiths claims correctly that realistic fiction has been the “dominant strain” in British Catholic narrative prose, he admits and discusses the substantial Catholic presence in other such genres, including historical fiction, detective stories, and fantasy. Yet his examination excludes utterly the finest Catholic fabulist, J. R. R. Tolkien.

Tolkien’s place in literary history is assured. As a founder of modern fantasy, he has become a touchstone for all subsequent practitioners of this genre, Christian and otherwise. But it is also increasingly apparent that Tolkien’s oeuvre is integral to the history of Catholic literature. In 1953, Tolkien declared that his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” A decade of recent scholarship has substantiated that judgment. As it is now evident that Tolkien’s religion was his imaginative mainspring every bit as much as it was Waugh’s, Greene’s, or Jones’s, omitting him from a plenary account of the Catholic literary revival is no longer tenable.

Griffiths’s religious parti pris produces similar shortcomings. His rendition of the early twentieth century modernist controversy is quite tendentious, as proponents of modernism are cast as those with “a desire for open debate” while Pius X presides over a “repressive regime” engaged in “persecution.” Griffiths compounds this bias by depicting the modernist dispute as the prelude to another aggiornamento that was likewise stifled by repressive reactionaries: “Only in the period after the Second World War did some English Catholic writers begin to exhibit that freedom in thought that was to infuse, for a short time, the Church itself. . . . How grievously they were to be disappointed!” This reliance on clichés not only is a poor substitute for rounded evaluation of weighty episodes in Church history, but it also distorts Griffiths’s approach to related topics.

For example, Griffiths documents convincingly the centrality of the Latin liturgy to modern Catholic literature thematically and formally. Yet he all but ignores the fierce opposition of many of his principals to the liturgical changes associated with Vatican II. The likes of Waugh, Greene, and Jones all feared that the vernacular Mass would erode their faith’s catholicity and continuity they felt enacted in the Tridentine rite. Justified or not, this concern was a crucial element of twentieth-century British Catholic intellectual life that must be grappled with by the comprehensive literary historian.

Given Griffiths’s preconceptions, it is unsurprising that The Pen and the Cross’s hero is David Lodge. Not only does Lodge make “very effective use of the whole gamut of techniques of the modern novel,” but his work also embodies “the changes in Catholic thought in the postwar period.” Lodge is hence able to compose “truly Catholic novels”: they “stimulate real thought” by showing that “a new, vital, more literary Catholic novel can be created on the basis of dialog and uncertainty, which equally reflect Catholic concerns.” Griffiths is correct to see Lodge as the representative postwar British Catholic author. Lodge’s novels nonetheless offer a more textured understanding of traditional Roman Catholicism than Griffiths realizes; indeed, the title of one of them poses the pointed question that Griffiths’s analysis largely elides: How Far Can You Go?

How far can you go in assimilating to and accommodating modernity before Catholics relinquish the qualities that give them a distinctive intellectual and imaginative identity? J. C. Whitehouse and others have suggested that an ethos of otherness enabled British Catholic literature to thrive in the century after 1850, and that the loss of a singular vision of Catholic difference has made postwar and postconciliar Catholic writing a less profound cultural presence, thereby helping to explain the lack of successors to the earlier era’s luminaries. Even Griffiths acknowledges this absence and muses that perhaps the Catholic literary revival “relied more heavily than one might suppose on a specific religious climate, and the new climate fits it less.” Although this possibility prompts Griffiths to repine, it can also encourage the recovery of orthodoxy initiated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This renewal has already spurred the ongoing ressourcement of modern Catholic authors, and it may yet spark further scholarly and artistic ventures that imitate their ability to read fresh signs of the time with the lenses of a faith that is at once ever-new and ever-ancient.

Wolfe concluded wisely in his seminal essay that, despite their disparagement by the fashionable clerisy, “the thinkers who made up the Catholic Renaissance will prove to be the most authentically modern and original of all.” Writers like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and David Jones (and J. R. R. Tolkien) have a lasting claim on the attention of serious minds because they found a credible and creative way of communicating countercultural convictions. Even as they embraced (and pioneered) prevailing literary forms, they imbued them with a unique vitality by articulating what they deemed permanent, if presently unpopular, truths. Their legacy perdures precisely because the signs of the cross they penned were signs of contradiction.

This review first appeared in the University Bookman on June 17, 2012 and is reprinted here with permission of the editor.


  • Adam Schwartz

    Adam Schwartz is the author of The Third Spring: G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). An associate professor of history at Christendom College, his scholarly interests are in the Catholic literary revival and the Inklings.

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