Michael Williams & the culture wars

Some readers may recall that I have a serendipitous connection with Commonweal’s founding editor, Michael Williams (1877-1950). Williams lived, died, and is buried in Westport, Connecticut, the town where I grew up. Upon learning this, I went on a little expedition to find his grave (see “Our Man in Westport,” February 11, 2001). He’s buried not far from the elementary school I attended, and his funeral Mass was held in the church where I received my First Holy Communion and confirmation. Of all the unlikely occurrences related to my becoming editor of Commonweal, the fact that Williams and I had trod much of the same turf is the oddest.

What I knew about Williams was derived mostly from Rodger Van Allen’s 1974 history, The Commonweal and American Catholicism. According to Van Allen, the bibulous, enormously energetic, but erratic Williams had been forced to resign after he moved the magazine decisively into the pro-Franco camp during the Spanish Civil War. Williams’s actions precipitated the resignation of George Shuster, at the time arguably the magazine’s clearest thinker and most gifted editor. Shuster and others had cautioned against the popular Catholic identification with Franco’s cause. I wanted to know more about Williams, and especially about what had compelled him to compromise Commonweal’s principled support for democratic institutions by backing Franco.

I thought the best way to do that would be to read his spiritual autobiography, The Book of the High Romance, originally published in 1918 and reissued with a new concluding chapter in 1924, presumably to coincide with the launch of The Commonweal. The book is long (406 pages, to be exact), and after reading it one senses that Williams was probably long-winded in person as well. His prose is both sinuous and oracular, with a torrent of subordinate clauses cluttering up nearly every sentence; it’s hard to read him without giving thanks for the arrival of Hemingway on the American literary scene. Despite the labyrinthine style, Williams paints vivid scenes of his boyhood in Nova Scotia, his life as a recovering tuberculosis patient in North Carolina, his experiences during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (he was city editor of the San Francisco Examiner at the time), and his encounters with fellow utopian Upton Sinclair and fellow spiritualist William James. (Intriguingly, Sinclair’s autobiography accuses “Mike,” with whom he collaborated on a book about health food, of running off with the advance money from the publisher, and later of taking “refuge in the religion of his childhood.”)

The High Romance is the story of Williams’s religious conversion. Although baptized a Catholic, he abandoned his faith at fourteen. At thirty-three, after squandering his early years in pursuit of what he calls the “Great Idea-which is, that the Will of Man can make a world fit for Man”-and thanks to the timely spiritual intervention of fellow “consumptive” St. Thérèse of Lisieux, he returned to the church. Not long thereafter he went to work for the bishops’ National Catholic War Council, precursor of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and later, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. By 1924 he had organized the effort to establish Commonweal as a countervailing force to secular magazines like the New Republic and the Nation, which Williams claimed advanced a modern intellectual agenda that was “the opposite, and the nullification... of Catholicism.”

Williams can perhaps be forgiven this bit of overstatement given the dismissive tone of the review his book received in the Nation: “From the Protestant point of view, what has happened is that a Celt with a surplus of his race’s temperament and a minimum of its character quite fails to pull himself out of the human slough by the bootstraps of secular thought or emotion, but finds instant ease and security in accepting the spiritual rule of thumb offered by the Roman faith.”

Before his return to the church, Williams had traveled widely, achieving some success as a journalist and writer of fiction and autobiography, publishing in venues like the wonderfully titled Everybody’s Magazine. He married and had two children, although these crucial relationships remain offstage in his memoir.

At the same time he dabbled in bohemia, socialism, and spiritualism, joining Upton Sinclair’s utopian commune, Helicon Hall, in Englewood, New Jersey, a social experiment financed with the proceeds from Sinclair’s bestselling novel The Jungle. Williams writes amusingly about the “pageant of eccentrics” who populated Helicon, from lecturers on free love to advocates of “Dress Reform” and progressive child training. (It should be noted that Williams’s daughter, Sr. Margaret Williams, RSCJ, survived her brush with utopia, going on to become a distinguished scholar and longtime faculty member at Manhattanville College. She died in 1996 at the age of ninety-three.)

There is something undeniably appealing about Williams’s earnest willfulness, serial enthusiasms, and extravagant literary ambition. With a measure of self-deprecation, he tells of his passionate embrace of one failed faith after another, starting with what he came to see as the “idolatry of art” and culminating in various forms of occult spirituality. Recurrent battles with tuberculosis and alcoholism punctuate this tale of a writer who aspired to be “a voice of the age.” And what a tumultuous, bewildering age it must have been. Williams was born into the era of the horse and buggy and lived long enough to see the advent of jet planes. When he was a child, most Americans lived on farms or in small towns. By the time he became founding editor of Commonweal, most were living and working in cities. Williams notes that as a newsman covering the U.S. military incursion into Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914, he witnessed what he claims to be the first bomb dropped from a plane on noncombatants. He lived long enough to read about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was hardly the only person of his displaced generation to wonder what the world was coming to. Nor was he the only literary type to embrace Catholicism’s indeflectability as the answer to modernity’s assault on inherited tradition and the human longing for the transcendent.

After succumbing to many of the seductions of the modern era-he confessed to being “steeped in the peculiar sins of the age”-Williams came to hold strong opinions about who and what was responsible for the moral anarchy, nihilism, and misery around him. The chief culprit, he writes in The High Romance, is a “new paganism,” evident intellectually in the antireligious biases of fashionable intellectual opinion and politically in the bureaucratic operations and power of the God-less state. “Against this only Catholicity can hope to prevail,” he writes. Only the Catholic Church can “save mankind from the dissolution of all civilization threatened by anarchical forces loose today.”

Moreover, behind the contingent events of war and political upheaval Williams perceives a cosmic struggle. Ruminating on the slaughter of World War I, he directs the reader’s attention to a more abiding reality: “the spiritual warfare of good against evil is the greater and more awful struggle than the one that has ravaged this world; the latter, at its worst, is but a grim and frightful pantomime, a gruesome shadow, cast from the world of spirit in which the warfare of the forces of evil against the everlasting God goes on.”

Despite his worries, Williams discerned a “quickening of religious life,” and a return to the church in the aftermath of the Great War. He considered the presence of 20 million Catholics in the United States providential, believing it would provide the moral clarity needed to save the nation from chaos. “Religion must be recognized as the only force that can keep the world safe and endurable,” he wrote. But safe from what? From the pernicious influence of modern art and literature and the unfettered freedom they, in Williams’s view, embodied and advocated; from the pervasive “commercial exploitation of sex,” and the sexual immorality manifest in the prevalence of divorce and the popularity of Freud’s fanciful theories.
In reading Williams’s description of the new paganism, I was struck by how familiar the litany is. Williams’s denunciations sound remarkably like the jeremiads of both conservative and radical Catholics today who warn of the fundamental incompatibility between Catholicism and liberal democracy, between Catholicism and a decadent, materialistic secular culture. Of course, like Williams, this contemporary Catholic critique is not entirely wrong. There is much that needs resisting, and much that needs changing in American society. Still, too many contemporary Catholic counterculturalists, much like Williams, get the rhetorical emphasis wrong.

As Jeffrey Stout wrote in these pages last year (“Not of This World,” October 10, 2003), the moral dangers we face make the “robust commitment of religious people to democracy” more important then ever. Stout warned that the widespread theological assault on the alleged moral incoherence of liberal democracy, combined with the religious longing for traditional communities and forms of authority, threatens to “undercut Christian identification with democracy.” The paradigm that juxtaposes the church and the culture, the culture of life and the so-called culture of death, is too reductive, and too easily co-opted for nefarious political ends. Like Stout, the philosopher Charles Taylor has written about the uneasy relationship between faith and modernity, and the danger of burdening traditional forms of spiritual life with “the crushing weight of being the right answer which somewhere got lost and whose existence condemns whatever came after.” In balancing the welcome freedoms of modernity and the demands of Catholicism, the best we can do is “tack back and forth between two languages, which on the surface look contradictory and which both can obscure central parts of the gospel.” Catholics must resist arguments that seek to abolish the ambivalence we rightly feel about both the culture and the church.

I think it is evident from Michael Williams’s writings that his embrace of the dichotomy between the new paganism and Catholic truth-his eagerness to proclaim one right answer-led him to conclude that General Franco’s allegiance to Catholic culture and faith should trump concerns over Franco’s murderous and authoritarian rule. “The Catholic Church is the soul of the only tolerable civilization-a civilization of just and authoritative law and order,” Williams wrote in urging his readers to bring about a Catholic Moment at the beginning of the last century. “The one thing, and the only thing, which can prevent the overthrow of all forms of dogmatical, authoritative, moral conventions, habits, customs and beliefs,” he wrote, is “the influence of the Catholic Church.”

If that is the case, if the church is the “only thing,” “the only tolerable civilization,” then our moral responsibilities are suddenly a lot simpler. If our political choices are only a pantomime of the spiritual war between evil and the everlasting God, it’s not hard to choose sides. In contrast to Williams, Commonweal managing editor George Shuster proved loath to sacrifice the magazine’s support for liberal democracy in deference to Franco’s Catholic credentials. He resigned rather than go along with Williams’s pro-Franco stance. (I’m not suggesting that Williams was some sort of crypto-fascist. He wasn’t. As the title of his book indicates, he was a passionate romantic, someone who felt keenly the disappearance of a more personal world under the pressure of an industrializing and rationalizing modernity. I am arguing however that he made the characteristic Catholic mistake of thinking that Catholic truth is the answer to political problems.) Shuster, of course, had no brief to make for socialism or communism. He simply refused to accept the idea that Catholics had to chose either fascism or communism. Given the horrendous crimes of the Communists in Spain, Shuster’s position must have seemed like the worst sort of temporizing to many. Yet he was right.

Shuster’s legacy, I hope, remains alive here at Commonweal. Today we live in a culture whose neopagan excesses surely have Michael Williams spinning in his grave. Faced with the daunting moral challenges pluralistic democracy entails, many Catholics are tempted to despair. Many voices, both clerical and theological, are once again telling us that only Catholicism, or only Christianity, or only faith can safeguard human dignity and freedom. Some claim that the 2004 presidential election offers a choice between one candidate who supposedly embodies the Catholic vision and one who undermines it. But God does not work only through the church, and we should resist the idea that only an “unambiguous” allegiance to the church will do.

History tells us that too many Catholics (and other Christians) refused to rise resolutely enough to the defense of liberal democracy in the last century. It was one of Michael Williams’s more endearing qualities that he held to the idiosyncratic view that the American experiment in religious freedom was at root a Catholic idea. Even if Williams himself was too often tempted to mistake the messy compromises of democratic politics for the trumpets of Armageddon, let’s hope he was right in the first place about the fundamentally Catholic character of liberal democracy.


Published in the 2004-11-05 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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