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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 278-280
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Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy. By Jay P. Corrin. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2002. Pp. x, 571. $55.00.)
Not the synthesis that one might expect from the title, this book actually focuses on selected Catholic intellectuals influential in Britain and America in the first half of the twentieth century. Taking off from his 1981 work, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc: The Battle Against Modernity, Corrin here pursues a twofold question. Is there something innate to Catholic thought that tends toward authoritarian regimes and hence favored Fascism? Belloc would be a case in point; but the hypothesis limps, as Corrin shows, even for Chesterton and fails completely to account for the likes of Don Luigi Sturzo and the Catholic critics of Mussolini and Franco such as Jacques Maritain. Granting this, however (p. 386), "what was it that made so many leading British and American Catholics political reactionaries and apologists for fascist-type regimes, while only a minority drew on Catholic social teachings to justify an accommodation with liberal politics"? This is the focus that lends consistency to Corrin's study.
In pursuit of an answer, Corrin chooses the Chesterbelloc and some fellow Distributists, along with the editors of the Brooklyn Tablet, Our Sunday Visitor, [End Page 278] and Francis X. Talbot, S.J., of America and The Month, as the foremost apologists for anti-democratic governments of the right. He also devotes three chapters to defenders of human rights and opponents of totalitarianism such as Sturzo, H.A. Reinhold (to whom a short and interesting chapter is devoted), Virgil Michel, Waldemar Gurian, George Shuster, and Maritain (as well as Wilfrid Parsons, S.J., Talbot's predecessor at America). The connection of the liturgical and the social-justice movements in preconciliar Catholicism is stressed repeatedly. Three introductory chapters attempt to provide a broader context in nineteenth-century social Catholicism, Rerum Novarum, and social Christianity in England with a focus on Cardinal Manning, pretty much ignoring the dominant intransigent Catholicism of the Catholic revival.
In this introductory matter and again in the concluding chapter a current but loose and imprecise use of the antithesis "conservative/liberal" bedevils the author's efforts to offer a satisfactory explanation. The terms of his question, "liberal politics" and "Catholic social teachings," are never specified adequately by times and contexts. Continental social Catholics are ranked indiscriminately with liberal Catholics of Anglo-Saxon provenance, admittedly "a broad generalization" (p. 511). Christian democratic movements as such are hardly mentioned (perhaps because of their variance from Distributism?). What is needed is a frank recognition that John Stuart Mill's paradigm is of a different spirit from continental liberalism: anti-democratic, anticlerical (in the strong sense of combating Christian tradition and faith), committed to an individualistic view of society, only tactically capable of an appreciation of the Catholic Church's usefulness as a bulwark against socialism. Conversely, Frédéric Ozanam, Emmanuel von Ketteler, and other heroes of progressive social thought among nineteenth-century European Catholics were not "liberal democrats," not proponents of the atomizing freedom of these liberals, but its opponents. The elements that would go into such necessary distinctions and nuances are present, scattered through the long and detailed text, but are never drawn together clearly enough to influence even the author's own usage.
Shortcomings in scholarly precision aggravate this confusion. The author's method of documentation, for example, leaves one wondering whether material submitted for publication, which he cites only by its archival source, ever found its way into print. The plethora of endnotes (they could have been bundled and edited down) make a tough slog of a close reading. Finally careless errors such as "Eduard Mournier" (p. 287) for Emmanuel Mounier (correct elsewhere) mar the text.
Despite these problems, the book is an interesting read in many parts and does not grievously mislead. The extensive archival work has led to some fascinating connections and revelations. One will not always trust its details, but a discerning reader can enjoy it with...