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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, thennot surprisingly since John Courtney Murray was an early participanttakes up church and state issues, and later turns to the fall-out from John Tracy Elliss 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.Dont 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 isnt 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 dont 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.Theres a principle in ecumenical discussions that Ormond Rush has suggested retrieving for theological and ecclesiological discussions in the Church today. Dont 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 its time for the CCICA to be resurrected. Its certainly curious that it seems to have gone out of existence just when we needed it the most.


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Vatican II may have set off a split that makes intra-faith dialogue all but impossible. There seem to be several distinct Roman Catholic churches out there these days, most, perhaps, little interested in good-hearted conversation with the despised others. Mutual tolerance may have become impossible in the YouTube age, when "out of sight, out of mind" has become meaningless, since nothing is out of sight for long and no small offense goes unreported.

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I thought something like that was going on in the talks inspired by the late, great Cardinal Bernardin. But there must have been something about ecclesiastical approbation or something, and down the memory hole it went. So may good ideas die because they start at the wrong level -- which is why so may ideas that start at the right level die.I see only one Catholic Church "out there," and if it can't talk to itself some of its members should take a remedial class in deportment. They might learn to stop calling other members names. But intellectuals shouldn't have that problem. And why Vatican II should be blamed, after all it did for dialogue, beats the dickens out of me.

If largely unspoken core beliefs are what hold a distinctive Catholic Intellectual culture together (cf. Edgar Schein) then it seems that the CCICA would have necessarily faced a tectonic shift at the time of Vatican II. The emergence of that Council's more pastoral and humans-as-species vision of Church would clearly seem to contrast with the humanity-as-intellect precepts that come through the leading-edge thought that embraced modernism despite the strictures of Vatican I.The collapse of Newtonian certainty in the new physics of the budding 20th Century has presented problem after problem for both the sophisticated and the fundamentalist preservers of the Enlightenment/Protestant paradigms. Messy fuzziness in the form of non-linear complexity (ala evolution to name one example) is hard on the civility that marks what we've been inclined to take as the best of West's intellectual cultures.A re-invigorated tradition of independent thought and critical self-assessment will serve any generation or era well, but what that looks like in the 21st Century may require an unprecedented voyage of discovery. How such a discovery is to be Chartered and provisioned is an important first question.

The ideal, which Cardinal Bernardin attempted, would be to bring such folks together, face-to-face. Unless the Gates Foundation would like to fund it, costs would be prohibitive and thee would be the question of who gets asked, who doesn't and who decides? Although this is my first timid venture into the blogosphere, isn't this a logical meeting-place for a 21st Century CCICA? Most of my personal nominees already write for Commonweal anyway! Perhaps you should follow the adage: "If we build it, they will come." Of course today's Hierarchy will have to get permission, and get their posts cleared by Rome.....

Ronald --Welcome to the blog.Are you suggesting that Commonweal sponsor a conference on dotCommonweal of those favorite thinkers of your or some other group? Sounds like a good idea. But I wouldn't invite this crew to comment. Too nasty :-)The conversation could be set up for a particular time, and the rest of us could tune in, so to speak. There could be more than one conference with various topics.

I'm curious: what percentage of the CCICA brain trust were female?

The demise of the CCICA is unfortunate. I certainly have no inside information; until now, I was unaware of its existence, though imagined that some such structure probably existed. My own "take" on its demise is that the Vatican's latest round of anti-intellectualism (the fourth, by my count, in just over a century) probably put the final nail in the coffin. As noted by others, the current cast of episcopal characters have largely been chosen for their pliancy and capacity for "obedience", and as the case of Bishop Morris of Australia shows, failure to toe the line can have a very high price. Few are willing to risk it. Worth noting: This case was not even about doctrinal dissent, but rather about the mere possibility of discussing various solutions to actual, real problems facing the Australian Church. It was a matter of discussing disciplinary matters which are, by their nature and history, subject to change. Imagine what sort of reaction might have met some doctrinal question? In many ways, we seem to be re-living the tortured post-war world of the French Dominicans (and many others), forbidden to publish or teach -- but thankfully, not forbidden to think, or write down their thoughts. The controls are less formal now, but certainly just as effective. It is also unsurprising that intramural "ecumenism" is so difficult, given that extramural ecumenism has been all but abandoned -- not formally, mind you, but by insensitivity, snubs, and a general ignoring of the thoughts, opinions, or feelings of our "separated brethren". Many of them are now very pleased to be separated. And some Catholics share that view for a different reason -- at least there might be someplace else to go if the Roman Catholic fold becomes much more stifling than it has already become. The Catholic Church's withdrawal from real engagement with the actual world as it exists is truly terrifying. Consider the case of Rep. Bart Stupak, now retired from Congress. He has impeccable pro-life credentials; he assured the bishops that the new healthcare bill would adequately protect life. And the Bishops (not experts in legislation) blew him off, let him "twist in the wind". We have a long and respectable (mostly) intellectual history and we have valuable things to contribute to contemporary culture; but we are now insisting once again that ONLY we have the truth, and that it must be "our way or the highway". We are even retreating from our own time-tested principles of moral theological reasoning; it simply defies belief. Many of us hope (against all foreseeable contingencies) for a new springtime, a new openness to the world (and to our own rich and diverse tradition) like that which followed Vatican II. My regret is that it probably won't happen on my watch. But the online version of something like CCICA deserves encouragement, at the very least.

To Michael Cassidy. I am full agreement with your insightful observations.

Has the world of theology become too complex, specialized, globalized etc. with the attendan tproblem of authority to deal withe issue?Lacey and Oakley have some perspective to offer, bu the current "flux" iMO is likely to perdure.

At the present moment, I am reading the recent publication "Absolute Monarchs" by John Julius Norwich. This is not my first book on the subject of Catholic Church history. Over the past fifty years, I have had the great pleasure of reading a variety of books on English, Irish, American, Italian, German, etc. church histories. During these many years I have read historical novels based on persons involved in church history, such as, "Q." It has been a pleasure to have the time to read such books as, "Radio Priest", "Life of Arch-Bishop John Ireland", "Joseph Patrick McQuaid", Bouyer's book on John henry Cardinal Newman, Life of St. francis of Assisi, "Journal of a Soul", etc.The common thread through all of these books of history, biography, novels, etc., is controversy. It seems to me no matter what we do; no matter what the pope, peasant or prince do, we will have controversy. It seems to me that most of the struggles seem to be between those who want conformity as opposed to those who seek unity in society and the Church.I think that the late great Cardinal Bernadine was attempting unity. According to some of the "hearsay" surrounding his life and endeavors his successful opponents where his peers in the American Church. People who try to bring unity, instead of conformity usually, their lives end in tragedy, e.g., MLK, Ghandi, JXXII, JPII, etc. How can this ending be avoided?


About the Author

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.