The Catholic Presence

Is there such a thing as “thinking Catholic”? Looking back, I see that my earliest awareness of something called intellectual life came from reading the fierce journalistic battles fought out among Belloc, Chesterton, Wells, and Shaw. They made me aware that the world of science and literature, economics, and politics was a place where ideas mattered deeply and were vigorously contested.

In college I began to appreciate that these polemicists stood within a much larger-often quieter and subtler-intellectual tradition that, while rarely ecclesiastical in character, was unmistakably Catholic. Like Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers wrote detective stories, but also translated Dante. Graham Greene and François Mauriac fashioned fictional universes marked by sin and grace, as did Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Teilhard de Chardin leaped from science to theology in his vision of creation evolving toward God. Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and Yves Simon addressed contemporary philosophical issues through their study of Thomas Aquinas, while Gabriel Marcel and Dietrich Von Hildebrand did the same through existentialism and phenomenology. Thomas Merton, and later Henri Nouwen, spoke to the spiritual conditions of their day from a distinctly Catholic perspective, in a manner accessible to a broad readership.

My list is partial and idiosyncratic, and could be extended almost indefinitely. The point is that all...

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About the Author

Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Two of his most recent books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).