A Catholic Brain Trust
Because I spend quite a bit of my working life talking and thinking about the Catholic intellectual tradition, I was more than a little humbled to read Patrick Hayes’ excellent new book, A Catholic Brain Trust, which is the history of the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs (hereafter the CCICA) during its first twenty years of existence from 1945-1965. Who knew? Certainly not me. Yet this organization, which came into existence immediately after the end of the Second World War and was only finally disbanded in 2007, provided a forum where Catholic intellectual leaders, both lay and clerical, gathered regularly to try to engineer a distinctly Catholic influence on American public life. Hayes’ book discusses the founding of the Commission in considerable detail and tracks some of its principal interests. At first it is engaged in war relief and interested in the newly-forming United Nations, then—not surprisingly since John Courtney Murray was an early participant—takes up church and state issues, and later turns to the fall-out from John Tracy Ellis’s 1955 lecture on “American Catholic and the Intellectual Life.” It also was deeply involved in the plans for a New Catholic Encyclopedia and, towards the end of this very active two decades, with the Kirby Seminars, a venue for young Catholic scholars that in some ways anticipated current programs like Collegium. Hayes lays this all out very clearly and ends his book with a brief look at the later history and demise of the commission.
Don’t we still need this kind of organization? We periodically hear complaints about the “decline of the public intellectual” and see articles bemoaning the vacuum left by worthies like Reinhold Niebuhr or John Courtney Murray, but rarely appeals for associations of Catholic intellectuals along the lines of the CCICA. Of course we have some academic organizations of Catholics in theology, philosophy, scripture and canon law, but not the kind of marriage of theological, social, political and economic thought that marked the CCICA. The CCIA was an independent group that owed nothing formally to the bishops, though many clergy participated in it alongside lay scholars and, at least in its later stages, cultural icons like Tim Russert, John Noonan, Walker Percy and Annie Dillard. And here of course is where the Commission helped most with the issue of the public intellectual. Academic silos do not breed intellectuals, though they do produce a fair number of scholars. The mark of the intellectual is the capacity to bridge different realms in the service of public good, and this is the more likely to be aided by associations like the CCICA than the Catholic Theological Society of America (a favorite of mine though it is).
What was it that led to the decline of the CCICA? This seems to have begun to happen after the watershed of Vatican II, though it continued in some form of existence until 2007. Hayes calls the Commission a “brain trust” and quotes favorably the notion that its work was “always done as a constellation of individuals holding to a core belief.” Could it be that the “core belief” isn’t there as solidly as it once was, or that it is harder to articulate the core belief in the years after Vatican II than it was before? Maybe the core belief was a phantasm in any case, at least taken for granted without scrutiny. Something certainly seemed to hold the Commission together in those earlier years, though Hayes shows that there was considerable disagreement and not a few shady maneuvers on the part of some of its members. But you don’t get the sense of an out-and-out ideological divide the way that Catholic intellectuals today would probably illustrate. What kind of joint endeavor on behalf of Catholic intellectual life could be accomplished today by Catholics from Commonweal and First Things? Perhaps the core belief has itself retreated so far into the hinterland of consciousness that retrieving it takes second or third place to the controversies of the day. And perhaps a worthy contribution of Catholic intellectual life might be to recover the core belief so that our differences can be expressed on the basis of at least some consent about fundamentals.
There’s a principle in ecumenical discussions that Ormond Rush has suggested retrieving for theological and ecclesiological discussions in the Church today. Don’t debate about your differences. Instead, show how each of your different positions is faithful to the apostolic faith. This seems to be some of what the “new wineskins” types are pressing for, exchange without entrenchment in ideological wrangling. Surely if the lion can lie down with the lamb, Concilium and Communio ought to be able to manage it. So maybe it’s time for the CCICA to be resurrected. It’s certainly curious that it seems to have gone out of existence just when we needed it the most.