In the first few decades of the 20th century, a remarkable number of English writers chose to become Roman Catholics. Joseph Pearce (who has written biographies of G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien) traces this phenomenon in Literary Converts, a book that is not so much a study of theology or literature as a unique piece of religious history.
The index itself arouses familiar Catholic memorieshigh school anthologies with names like G. K. Chesterton, Roy Campbell, Alfred Noyesand perhaps vague fears of an old triumphalism. I am brought back to my youth when the annual Catholic All-American football team assured me that, among other ways, the Spirit soared also on the Notre Dame single wing. I recall how no public figureactor, politician, industrialistcould escape our family’s approving his sister’s a nun or she’s a convert, as though the divine clout were measured in star players. In Literary Converts, however, I find no such parochialism. Though some of his subjects criticize their former allegiances, and though his underlying assumption is that Rome is home, Pearce remains even-handed and objective. While honoring the great influence of convert and cradle Catholics like Chesterton and Belloc, for example, he recognizes that the Anglican C. S. Lewis brought in a more bountiful harvest of converts to Christianity...than any other writer of his generation.
The appeal of this book lies, I think, in the cumulative force and variety of the conversions it records against the common backdrop of a Europe in radical cultural upheaval. It is a period sometimes referred to as the diminishment of the human. The very science and rationalism that promised to put humankind in charge turned upon us like Blake’s Tyger come to maturityDarwin, Marx and Freud proposing our helplessness before massive impersonal forces, and the horrors of the Great War seeming to confirm these terrors, to confirm Arnold’s desolate vision where ignorant armies clash by night.
Pearce’s converts reflect a range of responses to this cultural distress. For agnostics and nonbelievers; for those left empty by pleasure-seeking or disillusioned by the shortcomings of social programs, the leap of faith would stand as the bold alternative to a rationalism run dry. For Christians of other professions, Rome came to represent an authority and tradition more deeply rooted than their own. For many, it was a faith reinforced by the solid realism of neo-Thomistic thought.
For some, the intertwining of Catholicism and European culture was a compelling impetus. Arnold Lunnoriginally an agnostic and bitter critic, and later a prolific apologistrecalls: In the Catholic valleys of the Alps, I felt at home. The Angelus bell, and the little mountain shrines, and the rude statue of some local saint on a mountain church, spoke to me in a language which was not mine, but which in some dim fashion I felt had once been mine.... Others were attracted by Catholic social principles, as enunciated in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and championed by Chesterton and colleagues, who espoused a new Distributism wherein human dignity stood as a fundamental economic principle. The artist/craftsman Eric Gill, following his conversion in 1913, founded the self-sustaining Ditchling Community upon a similar medieval Catholic model. In the same spirit, some six decades later and two years after his conversion, E. F. Schumacher published his popular book, Small Is Beautiful, significantly subtitled Economics as if People Mattered.
To record all this, however, is not to convey one of the primary pleasures of this book: its literary gossip and the lively talk of its authors. Chesterton, for example, master of paradox and prose but entrenched in Edwardian poetic forms, responded with misunderstanding and disdain to the sparse, allusive and untraditional structures of T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland. Their later friendship was based, it seems, less on Chesterton’s understanding of the poetry than on his realization that its intent was religious. Literary Converts abounds with such gossip.
More importantly, it abounds with language that marks both the brilliance of its authors and the ideas and issues current with their spiritual sojourns. There are too many figures to discuss in this review. Many of the writers (mostly converts to Catholicism, a few to Anglicanism) will be familiar to general readersOscar Wilde, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, Muriel Spark, Christopher Dawson, T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, Graham Greene, Alec Guinness. Others will be better known to Catholic readersChesterton, Lunn, Maurice Baring, Ronald Knox, R. H. Benson, C. C. Martindale, Bede Griffiths, Frank Sheed, Maisie Ward.
It is perhaps safe to say that no figure so dominates this phenomenon as Chesterton. His Orthodoxy, published some 13 years before his entry into the church, became a beacon for many others in their journey toward belief, in their perception of spiritual submission as reasonable and, paradoxically, liberating. As his historian friend Christopher Dawson put it: There were but two pathsthe way of faith and the way of unbelief, and as the latter led through the halfway house of Liberalism to Atheism, the former led through the halfway house of Anglicanism to Catholicism.
One wonders what Chesterton, that devout traditionalist, would have thought of the modern churchits liturgical reforms replacing Latin with local vernaculars, its ecumenism challenging European hegemony in Catholic culture. Writers like Lunn, Greene and, especially, Waugh, expressed dismay over the loss of old solemnities. The reaction of the recently deceased Alec Guinness seems representative. Impressed by Chesterton’s observation that the Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading servitude of being a child of his times, Guinness saw changes in Catholic mores as just such an accommodation. The essentials, I know, remain firmly entrenched, and I find the post-Conciliar Mass simpler and generally better than the Tridentine; but the banality and vulgarity of the translations which have ousted the sonorous Latin and Greek are of a supermarket quality which is quite unacceptable. Hand-shaking and embarrassed smiles or smirks have replaced the old courtesies.... A similar note was struck by the prominent mid-century convert Malcolm Muggeridge, for whom, Pearce notes, the spirit of Vatican II’ was merely the surrender by the Church to...secular liberalism....
Conversion is a complex thing entailing the actions of both God and history. It redirects character and energies; it does not change themnor does it root out all flaws and prejudices, which is the long, mysterious work of grace. Granting this, I feel that, while Pearce does not shy away from his authors’ weaknesses, there are topics of a controversial nature he might have addressed more fully. Though evidence of his early denunciation of Nazi atrocities has vindicated him to a degree, Chesterton has been accused of anti-Semitism. Recent conciliatory relations between Jews and Catholics suggest this topic merits more attention. Or again, the unenthusiastic response of a number of converts to Vatican II would seem to urge some reflection upon the psychology of conversion. Does the search, in morally unstable times, for spiritual solid ground dispose the searcher to minimize the church as pilgrim, as ever ancient but also ever new? Pearce engages in no such reflection.
Despite these reservations, LiteraryConverts captures the moral drama and intellectual excitement of a striking period in English religious history. Pearce’s roster of luminaries indicates a ferment not only spiritual, but of the highest artistic and intellectual qualityone whose effects we continue to feel today.