Book Preview – Catholic Progressives in England after Vatican II by Jay P. Corrin

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This book examines the development of Catholic social philosophy from the end of World War II up through the turbulent 1960s. Vatican Council II can be seen as the culmination of the Catholic liberal or progressive tradition, the earlier history of which was the subject of my previous book Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (2002). Thanks to the ground-breaking work of such Catholics as Jacques Maritain, Virgil Michel, Hans Küng, John Courtney Murray and others, there was in place by the calling of Vatican II a theological platform from which the Church could launch a progressive approach to the secular challenges of the modern age.

[Jay P. Corrin, Boston University, previews his book Catholic Progressives in England After Vatican II (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013)].

This book examines the development of Catholic social philosophy from the end of World War II up through the turbulent 1960s.  Vatican Council II can be seen as the culmination of the Catholic liberal or progressive tradition, the earlier history of which was the subject of my previous book Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (2002).  Thanks to the ground-breaking work of such Catholics as Jacques Maritain, Virgil Michel, Hans Küng, John Courtney Murray and others, there was in place by the calling of Vatican II a theological platform from which the Church could launch a progressive approach to the secular challenges of the modern age.

The promises of the Council were not happily received by more traditionalist Catholics, however, for they viewed the efforts at renewal and a willingness to embrace the modern world to represent a radical opening that could undermine the spiritual dimensions of the faith. The resistance of establishment Catholics to the reforms of Vatican II, namely the Roman Curia and affiliated hierarchies along with conservative lay men and women, was challenged by a younger coterie of Catholics who were convinced that the Council had not gone far enough in satisfying what they saw to be the essential purpose of Christ’s teachings: the creation of a community of humanistic socialism. Such Catholics believed that liberal and progressive reforms were in fact insufficient, indeed counter-productive, since they only served to sustain the status quo and the privileges of those who controlled the levers of political and economic power. These were Catholics of the Left, and their goal was the creation of a genuine Christian community culminating in the Kingdom of God, which they thought could never be realized through the liberal model of institutional reform.  Even with the best of intentions and absent entrenched elites, liberalism rested philosophically on the principle of privileging the individual for maximizing self-advancement, the core dynamic of capitalism.  In the view of the Catholic Left, reformist liberalism as a political philosophy produced social energies that worked against the creation of an egalitarian community of shared cultural values.  Liberalism, according to this scenario, was always willing to offer “progressive” solutions to social problems but never go far enough in overturning the institutional structures that caused such problems in the first place.  Whereas conservatives were dedicated to preserving social structures as they are, liberals were more insidious and thus more dangerous, since they masked the sources of social dysfunction by simply offering the requisite reforms to make prevailing institutions function more efficiently and humanely, thereby eliminating the necessity for more fundamental changes.

I have chosen here to tell the story of the English Catholic New Left, for their critique of the conservative and reformist trajectories of their faith went well beyond mere progressivism, and they expanded their endeavors through an alliance with the secular New Left in Britain to engage in a larger struggle against Western imperialism and corporate capitalism.  Although I carefully examined the plethora of materials published by and about the English Catholic New Left, my assessment of their history would not have been complete without the willingness of those associated with the movement to share their memories of what up to now has been an unappreciated but significant episode in the history of Catholic social and political thought. I am therefore indebted to the many personal interviews that were generously granted me by several of its leading figures.

Much of the leadership and energy of the Catholic New Left came from a generation of Irish immigrant families who, thanks to post-World War II educational reforms, gained access to higher education. These Catholics were intellectually restive and had a far more radical view of how their religion could be used to change the perceived inadequacies of English culture than had either their working-class parents or the aristocratic Catholics who assumed a distinctly paternalistic attitude toward their immigrant co-religionists.

Representative of this more radical Catholic thinking was the English writer Terry Eagleton, who proclaimed that “Christian progressivism” was at root parasitic on the social system that it was intended to oppose.  The liberal Catholic critique, Eagleton asserted, was an exploration that avoided engaging with “outside” sociological and philosophical theories and, even when it attempted to do so, was co-opted by the “liberal or ‘social welfare’ styles of developed capitalism.” This was the process that Eagleton and his associates saw to be currently at work within the Christian Church.  Their objective was to move the Church into more revolutionary channels, thereby pushing to the limits how far one could go and still remain of the faith.

The English Catholic Left had very little in common with their American counterparts, whose attack on the liberal establishment was not grounded on any clear-cut philosophical grid other than a somewhat anarchistic personalism best represented by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, and in the secular realm by the Students for a Democratic Society. The English Catholic Left, on the other hand, succeeded in developing a coherent theological philosophy of revolution based on a synthesis of the “New Theology” that inspired Vatican II and radical economic and social theory, a good deal of which was inspired by the insights of Karl Marx as well as American and European sociologists and literary theorists.

The major platform for launching the Catholic Left’s attack on liberal capitalism and conservative theology was the journal Slant. This enterprise and the young Catholics who wrote for it were inspired by the English Dominicans and one of its leading Marxist theorists, Father Laurence Bright, O. P.  Slant was launched in 1964 by a group of undergraduates at Cambridge University. Within two years it was taken over by the leading Catholic publisher Sheed and Ward. The managing director of the press was Neil Middleton, son-in-law of its founders Frank Sheed and Maise Ward.  Middleton was an ardent supporter of Slant and a leading figure of the Catholic New Left. Sheed and Ward published books by the Catholic Left as well as many of the cutting edge theological works coming out of Europe. The imprimatur of such a respected publishing firm, along with the support of the Dominicans’ journal New Blackfriars assured that the radical views of the Catholic Left would be carried to a national and even international audience. The Slant Manifesto (1966) announced that “Christians can never be conservatives, or liberals or even right-wing socialists; they must fight capitalism as evil; they must align themselves perhaps with all those traditional enemies of the Church, left-wing socialists and atheistic Marxists.”

The English Catholic New Left played important roles in a variety of radical causes, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, PAX (the Catholic peace group), the campaign against America’s involvement in Vietnam, the secular New Left’s drafting of the May Day Manifesto, the promotion of Liberation Theology and the Christian-Marxist dialogues.

It was the effort to merge Catholic social thinking with Marxism that was the most radical and controversial part of their socialist project. What left-leaning Catholics found appealing were Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his justification for revolution on moral grounds. In the Economic and Philosophical  Manuscripts of 1844, Marx described the destructive capacity of capitalism in language that resonated with the social and economic critique of the pioneers of radical Catholic social philosophy, namely, the Frenchman Frédéric Ozanam and the German Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler. Indeed, Ozanam’s analysis of capitalism predated by some eight years the 1848 publication of Marx’s and Engel’s Communist  Manifesto. Ozanam had singled out liberalism as the source of labor’s misery. Its doctrines, he asserted, dehumanized the laborer by relegating his value to the impersonal laws of supply and demand, thereby transforming his person into a mere commodity. Like Marx, Ozanam recognized that the ethos of unbridled capitalism, buttressed by the classical liberal philosophers of the day, was a powerful tool used to justify the rapacity of the economically strong. The Catholic Left emphasized that both Christians and Marx saw man as the center of creation. Christianity and Marxism recognized the necessity of struggling against antihuman forces; both sought to end domination by an oppressive elite and find redemption by a community of the poor.  For all these reasons, the Catholic Left could say that Marxism offered a profoundly serious historical insight.

Slant was able to accommodate Christianity and Marx’s atheistic ideas within the same context. There was nothing in Marx’s critique of nineteenth-century Christianity with which the Catholic Left could disagree. Slant‘s interest in Marxism, Terry Eagleton contended, was its recognition of the unity of theory and practice.  Any serious effort to replace the acquisitive capitalism system with the Christian community of socialist cooperation required the strength of Marxism’s vision and sociological analysis. Indeed, Eagleton’s mentor, Father Herbert McCabe, O. P., the eminent Dominican theologian and editor of New Blackfriars, argued that “Christianity is Marxism carried a great deal further.” Marx, as McCabe pointed out, only dealt with alienation caused by conditions of labor.  Jesus dealt with alienation in both this world and the next one brought by death.  It was this difference regarding the most fundamental form of alienation that divided Marxism and Christianity, since Marx denied the existence of a future beyond this world.  Yet such differences would not preclude a fraternal alliance, since both Marxists and Christians agreed on the causes of alienation and had as their ultimate goal the creation of a community of humanistic socialism. Martin Redfern of Sheed and Ward, writing in the Slant Manifesto, saw Marx’s demand for the emancipation of the alienated class through revolution analogous to the Church’s role in the world: to liberate man from the sin of economic and political oppression that both alienated and disrupted community. The literary scholar J. M. Cameron, one of the pioneers of the English Catholic Left, pointed out that the biblical Fall of mankind was in Marxism the transition from primitive communism to a society of classes.  Redemption comes from the suffering of the proletariat, who, through revolutionary struggle, will move society to communism, representing “a return to man’s primitive integrity but at a higher level.” In this respect, the Catholic Left could claim that its project for transforming modern society was both Christian and Marxist.

The Catholic New Left ultimately failed to achieve their main objective: to mobilize heretofore apolitical or, at best, status quo-minded, middle-class Catholics to push British society toward a humanistic socialism. There were multiple reasons for this. They were, of course, far too radical to win support from English social classes who were generally conservative to moderate in political sentiment. It was a seemingly insurmountable task to convince the Christian community (both Protestant and Catholic) of the value in collaboration with Marxists. Indeed, the mere suggestion that the Left were Christian-Marxists kept the public from a careful reading of their positions. They also had difficulty communicating their ideas to a broader Catholic audience, due in large part to their tendency to write in the specialized vocabulary of literary theory and sociology. To many readers, this came off as ideological jargon delivered with a prolixity that even those sympathetic to the Left found off-putting.  Compounding the problem of recondite language was a contempt for conventional politics. Aside from its association with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the May Day Manifesto, and the student protest movement, the Left found the prevailing political culture so tainted that its members chose for the most part to avoid engaging with it.

Despite its ideological excesses, its daring, perhaps unrealistic objectives, and its disappointments in terms of achieving a Christian humanistic socialism, the Catholic New Left occupies a significant niche in the history of British Catholicism. On one level, their efforts as change agents illustrate the capacity of this religion to reach beyond conventional theological thinking and to speak more immediately and relevantly to the problems of an industrial and postindustrial world.  Their intellectual avant-garde broke from the confines of one of the more conservative religious subcultures of Western Christendom, bolstered at the top by a reactionary leadership structure, to synthesize and integrate Catholic social thinking with some of the most advanced epistemological innovations in the social sciences to produce an ideological paradigm for revolutionary socialism. All this certainly underscores the observation of Fergus Kerr, O. P., Slant fellow-traveler, theologian and current editor of New Blackfriars, who wrote that the Catholic Church “is not the monolithic entity that her enemies and most zealous members believe.”

The sociological matter of making the secular world more intelligible and its problems more amenable to the social teachings of the Gospels was a signal purpose of the Catholic New Left. They, before anyone else of the faith, recognized that the founding fathers of sociology – Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber – could be integrated with Catholic social teachings to offer viable alternatives to the traumatic effects of industrial change.  And in their writings, these Catholics highlighted economic, social and political issues that were decades ahead of the mainstream punditry.  John Challenor, one of the Slant activists, claimed that the strong conservatism of the British and Irish Roman Catholic Churches meant that the Catholic Left, despite its perspicacious perspectives, would always be “marginal, ineffectual, maybe utopian or quixotic – honourable and exciting, but a lost cause before it started.” After all, if the English Catholic Church could not follow through on its own Vatican Council, how would it ever embrace socialism and revolution? And yet, Challenor concluded, perhaps this was a bit too pessimistic: maybe the Catholic New Left was merely a decade too early.

In fact, it now appears that Challenor was wrong in his timing by over two decades.  It seems that it has taken nearly half a century for the leadership of the Catholic world to catch up with some of the core arguments put forth by the English Leftists.  Rather than appeal any longer to reform in the liberal tradition, Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) proposed a rethinking and radical transformation of the prevailing global capitalist system.  The Vatican, it appears, at long last has recognized the human destruction wrought by the dynamics of unfettered free-market economics, a long-established and central theme of the English Catholic Left. This more socially-focused magisterium has been pushed even further by Benedict’s successor, the Jesuit Pope Francis I.

Despite what at the time appeared to be the improbable goal of transforming the Church to serve as the universal vehicle for realizing a humanistic socialism, Terry Eagleton, with far-reaching insight, had good reason to conclude that “what Slant said, in my view, remains just as true as it ever was.”

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