Thursday, 12 September 2013

Review of Literary Converts by Joseph Pearce


Joseph Pearce. Literary converts: spiritual inspiration in an age of unbelief. HarperCollins, 1999


Roman Catholic readers and commenters are probably familiar with the apparently tireless and extraordinarily prolific Joseph Pearce, who has one of the most remarkable conversion narratives of modern times.

I have read quite a few of his books, including two very good biographies of Solzhenitsyn and Belloc - and this is certainly one of the best: pleasant to read, always interesting, and indeed a notably skillfuly-woven tapestry of biographies of some of the major British converts to Catholicism in the twentieth century - mostly Roman Catholicis, but also including some of the then-still-vigorous High Church Anglican/ Anglo-Catholics such as TS Eliot, CS Lewis, Dorothy L Sayers and the like.

Many people are covered, some still famous, like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh; others once extremely influential but now little known, like Ronald Knox, Arnold Lunn, Father Martin D'Arcy and Christopher Dawson.

The thread which runs through it all is GK Chesterton, who opened the century with Heretics and then followed it with probably the most influential book of Christian apologetics of this period: Orthodoxy.


What comes through is that until around 1950 there were real hopes of a widespread and powerful Catholic and Christian revival in England- it seemed like things were building-up quite well, with a stream of impressive and prestigious converts, linking-up and assisting each other, plenty of books being published, and the perception of a kind of momentum.

It is hard not to feel some nostalgia for this era; but of course we know that it didn't last, and England fell away from Christianity of all kinds, to reach an extremely low level - both quantitatively and qualitatively - in present times.

Indeed, matters are notably worse now even than in the late 1990s when this book was written. I approve of the tone of Chestertonian robustness, energy and optimism here; and which is generally maintained by the magazine Joseph Pearce edits: the St Austin Review; but it does by now sound rather hollow, I am sorry to say...


Note added: Virtually all of these eminent converts were, like Tolkien - -  very strongly against the Second Vatican Council and its consequences. This confirmed my prior belief that Vatican II was little short of a catastrophe for the Roman Catholic Church. 


Bonald said...

I used to love reading Chesterton's essays, but living after Vatican II, all the of the optimism about the Church, the "ha ha; Protestantism is dead but Catholicism is going strong" bragging is now pretty painful to read. How bitterly different the future turned out to be for us!

For pretty much the same reason, I'm becoming more and more impatient with most Catholic writers, even conservative ones. I don't know if they're really that delusional or if they think they just need to talk that way to keep the troops from getting discouraged, but it makes me want to grab people and shout "Wake up and face reality!"

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bonald - I know exactly what you mean, although it does not affect me in the same specific way.

I think it hinges on the prophecy that 'the church' will endure to the end - if you are sure that this refers specifically to the Roman Catholic Church, then there is nothing to worry about (in a sense) and every reason for optimism - but if the prophecy is intended to be either more general or more specific than the contours of the RCC, then it is compatible with the total corruption or disappearance of the institution.

As I wrote before, the root problem may be a failure to admit the error of Vatican II.

The current line is that V-II was good, but people misunderstood it and implemented it wrongly... I suppose that is the best that can be managed if the possibility of error is ruled-out a priori; but it is analogous to the modern communists who set aside all previous experience of communist regimes as misunderstandings and corruptions of what was actually a great idea.

Until it is admitted that V-II was an error, indeed worse than an error, a *sin* - how can the RC church undo its many-fold and ramifying damage?

Repentance is absolutely necessary as a prerequisite to effective reform.


The analogous error in the Church of England was to 'revise'/ abandon the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version of the Bible - since the liturgy and its specific language was (it turns out - although this should have been obvious) the only thing holding-together the CoE and indeed the worldwide Anglican communion.

The effect on the Anglican church was rather as if the RCC had replaced the Pope with a committee - gradual, unstoppable corruption and unravelling...

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bonald - My point about V-II was sub-optimally expressed - Virtually all of the major RCC apologists and publicists (intellectuals and writers) were very strongly against it - Evelyn Waugh is a good example; and more (such as Graham Greene) came to regret it as the consequences unfolded.

Presumably this suggests that the RCC either therefore lost the services of and/or failed to recruit the cream of its 'public relations' people as a consequence of V-II.

Agellius said...


When you say V2 was an "error", do you mean that the things it taught were wrong, or that it was a mistake to hold the thing at all?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ag - Both - plus that it was wrongly implemented.

Agellius said...

I tend to agree with you as to the first and the third. It was a dangerous time to be seeming to put everything up for grabs. Then again I'm viewing it from hindsight. I suspect that because the Church had the liberals so well under control before the Council, the Pope underestimated their strength and didn't realize what he was unleashing.

Still, the implementation certainly went way beyond what the Council formally approved. This, again, was because the Council itself was *perceived* as putting everything up for grabs. And so people pushed hard for everything they could get and basically steamrolled the opposition.

They still haven't got the concessions they wanted in terms of changes in the Church's formal teachings. But in actual practice that hasn't made much difference since the Church hasn't been "enforcing" its formal teachings in any case. It teaches one thing formally while allowing its priests, catechists and theologians to teach other things to the faithful; or, more often, simply ignore the things they don't like to talk about.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ag - What this book shows, by citing contemporary letters etc, is that some prominent RCs (such as Evelyn Waugh) foresaw the dangers accurately from the very beginning - although they treed desperately hard to give the Pope the benefit of their doubt.

You get the feeling that Waugh was almost literally killed by the new vernacular Mass - but there was a happy ending. He arranged for a Jesuit friend to come a say a Latin Mass for himself and his family on Easter Day; he was observed to leave the chapel looking happier than he had for a very long time - then he keeled over and died.

Agellius said...

I knew that some like Waugh, and also Wm. F. Buckley, hated the new mass. But I'm not sure they foresaw the dangers of Council itself beforehand. Maybe some did.

I read recently -- I can't remember where or I'd cite the person -- that because lex orandi, lex credendi, changing the immemorial rule of worship led people to think that the immemorial rule of belief was also subject to change. I agree with this and therefore also with Waugh and Buckley regarding the new Mass.

I think if V2 hadn't happened, it would have been far better not only for the Catholic Church, but for Western civilization as a whole, since there would have been at least this one anchor to hold onto against the secularist tide. The anchor is still there, in my view, but not enough people know it since it no longer "advertises" itself as such.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Maritain wrote a book of 400 pages on the subject of Vatican II, The Peasant of the Garonne, and this in the six months immediately following the end of the Council. I just perused the book and read comments from Ralph McInerny and Richard John Neuhaus.

Maritain did not raise any objection against Vatican II teachings and tells the situation in the Church made the Council necessary, thus it was not untimely. The book amounts to a prediction that the implementation would be disastrous, as it explains in detail and clearly that the rampant neo-modernism had already spread to a majority. These worshipers of the World thought themselves the best of Catholics and, as such, entitled to steer the boat, which they did.

The note of hope may be soft, but I think you will like it: Vatican II taught again to Christianity that everyone is called to holiness, not just the monks.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

A comment about the reception of The Peasant of the Garonne: because he approved of Vatican II and its documents, Maritain was accused of modernism by the traditionalists, as the Popes were from the start; while neo-modernists, who saw themselves accused more severely still than the 'immobilists,' accused him of being reactionary. Maritain certainly knew it was to be so, for he wrote that virtue is not at either end of the pendulum's movement.