U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Challenge of Catholic Thought

What studies have followed Patrick Allitt’s excellent 1993 book, Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics?  I admire the work of Kristin Heyer who continues to write very interesting stuff on the prophetic witness of the Catholic Church since the mid-1980s.  And there are collections of books, many of them filled with essays on law and natural law, on Catholic critiques of liberalism.  But has there been a book that takes the straight-up intellectual history approach of Allitt’s volume to the period after 1983?

I ask because I am working through questions about the kind of vacuum that Richard John Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square seemed to fill.  In searching for studies that consider the infighting among Catholics in the mid-1980s and the stark difference that appeared to grow between Catholic intellectuals over issues of war and peace; poverty and wealth; and justice and rights, I have yet to find a volume that does what Allitt’s did for the period from Buckley to Michael Novak.  Novak is a case in point: has there been a good study of his transition from the left to the right to the halls of political power?

I pasted a photo of John Courtney Murray in this post because it seems that all post-1945 Catholic thought touches upon his influence in moving Catholics intellectuals toward a new understanding of their relationship to the nation.  Neuhaus seemed to position himself as Murray’s successor, but here again, I can’t find much on this particular connection.

Like my post proposing a bibliography for the New Christian Left, I wonder if we might consider a list on either the New Catholic Right or the schism in Catholic thought.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray: While not his sole focus, Eugene McCarraher, CHRISTIAN CRITICS (Cornell, 2000) has alot to say about Catholic social thought up through the 1980s, although mainly from a leftist persuasion.

  2. Thanks Mark. Do you know of anything that goes beyond McCarraher’s study, which to me is almost the partner to Allitt’s. That is, at least, how I have used both in the past. I like using these historians a great deal because their writing is so strong as well.

  3. In my own study (A Catholic Brain Trust: The History of the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, 1945-1965 [University of Notre Dame Press, 2011]) Murray figures prominently, of course, because he was a founding member of that group. But when he died in the back of a New York taxi cab, no one rushed to fill his shoes. Perhaps his Jesuit confreres at Woodstock, Avery Dulles or Gus Weigel, could be considered immediate heirs. But they had lots of supports that would prop up their candidacies: Thought, America, Theological Studies and the CCICA itself (to say nothing of the reverence given to the reputation of the SJs). Neuhaus was never a member of this group, though he spun in their orbit. As for his commentaries on JCM’s views on church-state relations, I don’t believe he was all that accurate. Almost any remark where he cited We Hold These Truths (JCM’s magnum opus), Neuhaus almost always seemed to make Murray sound more conservative than he was and utterly untethered from his day and age.

  4. The later parts of John McGreevey’s work touches on this a bit and from a rather more educated, but not professional perspective, Charles R. Morris’ book on American Catholicism. Nevertheless, an undercovered topic.

  5. McGreevey’s work is a good starting point for some parts of late 20c Catholic conservatism.

    I would be a bit wary of making Neuhaus your entry into this milieu. He converted to Catholicism in the late 1980s but he brought a lot of baggage and it was always clear that he was filtering parts of the Catholic intellectual tradition through post-war Protestant mainline concerns and sensibilities. No doubt a fascinating guy but sui generis in a lot of ways. Also there is the difficulty that a large chunk of his papers are held in the First Things offices in New York and they aren’t necessarily going to let any old person root around in them. Ditto for Novak, who is still alive and who judging by his reaction to McCarraher’s work on him won’t respond nicely to attempts to re-examine his intellectual journey. Might as well wait until his papers are available at Stonehill College. Nevertheless a biography of either of these individuals that can be both sympathetic and rigorous would be a real contribution.

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