To suggest that Christopher Dawson was one of the greatest Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century is a rather easy thing both to affirm and confirm. His influence on T.S. Eliot, Etienne Gilson, Russell Kirk, David Jones, Eric Gill, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Merton, Sister Madeleva Wolff, Jacques Maritain, Bernard Wall, Tom Burns, Frank and Maisie Sheed, and a host of others is a matter of public record.
Here is but a brief sampling:
- Prominent American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on the thought of Christopher Dawson and other figures of the Catholic literary revival as early as the mid-1930s.
- In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”
- Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”
- In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a prestigious professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote about Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”
- In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”
Some of his closest allies may have overestimated his influence—note the case of Frank Sheed, who predicted that Dawson would prove the towering intellect over every aspect of Vatican II—but his influence could be felt at every level of the English-speaking Catholic church, time and time again throughout his adult lifetime.
That his reputation fell dramatically and almost completely after the closing of Vatican II in 1965 is also a matter of record. Along with other English-speaking Roman Catholics such as G.K. Chesterton, C.C. Martindale, and Hilaire Belloc, Dawson’s work all but disappeared during the bizarre euphoria surrounding the conclusion of the council. The recovery of his reputation has proceeded steadily but almost imperceptibly. If his fall was precipitous, his reemergence is even more dramatic.
And yet, for all of the influence that Dawson had as one of the most prominent Catholic intellectuals of his day, very few of his current-day followers have asked exactly what Dawson thought of the Church. That is, did Dawson love the Church as much as the Church loved him?
It’s worth considering Dawson’s criticisms of the Church. They were, interestingly enough, legion.
Though he loved the Church dearly, beginning in 1913 when he intellectually assented to Rome, he refused throughout his life to condemn Anglicanism in any of its phases. Anglicanism, he believed to be a mass of contradictions, but a thing of beauty in and of itself. He never would have found Roman Catholicism had he not been brought up in the very high Anglo-Catholic movement fully embraced by his Welsh mother’s side.
First, Dawson believed that the Catholic Church had failed in one of its primary missions: the sanctification of the pagan. Certainly, it had done well where it had done well. But, in too many areas of life, Dawson feared, the Church allowed paganisms—whether of, say, Germanic, Celtic, Nordic, African, or Mayan origins. The Church had either: 1) failed to sanctify the pagan; or, more likely, 2) failed to explain to Christians why it should not destroy the pagan but should baptize it instead. Though Dawson held no love for Martin Luther (though, he did have some fondness for John Calvin), he understood that, in many ways, a Luther had to arise to attack the Catholic embrace of the pagan.
In his Gifford Lectures of the late 1940s, Dawson rather ingeniously employed the Arthurian legends to make his point. When confronted with choosing between the otherworldliness of Peredur in his search for the Holy Grail or Lancelot in his very worldly pursuit of Gwenivere, the Church too often chose poorly.
Second, though Dawson did not appreciate much about the Reformation, he accepted it as a historic fact. Two things had resulted from it. First, the Catholic Church had experienced perhaps its own greatest renaissance during its recovery. The architecture, art, and music of post-Reformation Catholicism had reached its highest levels in world history, Catholic ideas had come to grips and explained Natural Law and Natural Rights, and, most importantly, the Catholic Church had rediscovered its own spirit to convert the world as embodied by the new orders such as the Jesuits. As Dawson began his professional career, Protestantism had just celebrated its four-hundredth anniversary. Catholicism had much to learn from Protestantism, he believed, beginning with a real love of scripture.
Third, Dawson absolutely despised the vigorous employment and enforcement of censorship in the twentieth-century Catholic Church. Most who held and wielded powers of censorship were, in Dawson’s view, ignorant and power-hungry. They understood nothing but received dogma and considered imagination a dangerous faculty at best, a tool of the devil at its worst. Dawson and his best friend, E.I. Watkin, often lamented with each other over the failure of the Church to allow the flourishing of new ideas. While the Church had the duty to maintain orthodoxy, it also had the equal duty to figure out a way to allow for dissent and questioning. The failure of the Catholic Church to support real debate and discussion would lead, in one direction, toward fundamentalism and stagnation. The other path taken by the Church–suppression–was equally troubling. If questioning of the Church by its own was stamped out, and criticisms became whispered rather than announced, a moment of explosion was likely; what would follow, Dawson feared, was something chaotic, revolutionary, and uncontrollable.
By the 1940s, Dawson and Watkin simply refused to submit any of their work to the censor. Their publisher, Frank Sheed, backed them, and all three men maintained their independence from this aspect of the Church.
Finally, Dawson disliked the changes that Vatican II wrought. Granted, he was not in the best of health in the 1960s, and, thus, could not devote much attention to the council and its teachings. He did, however, fear the loss of a common language in the Mass as a prelude to an ever-expanding Babel. A babel of cultures and languages had always existed, of course, but the City of God sojourning through the City of Man had always done its best to provide a common identity, a real and meaningful citizenship in another place as well as out of time: in eternity. By switching to the vernaculars of each people, the Church had surrendered one of its most potent weapons against the world. In essence, the loss of Latin meant that peoples would identify with their localities rather than with their global compatriots. Catholicism could no longer proclaim catholicism. It had become merely one more belief system in the world, not something that could by its very nature transcend time and place.
Dawson had, while at Harvard (1958-1962), begun to think deeply about the historical place of the Church in modern history. Somewhat famously, he began but never finished a three-volume history of the Church. The two published volumes were The Formation of Christendom and The Division of Christendom. Each was a fine piece of work, and each included some of Dawson’s finest thinking and best writing. But they remain incomplete. The manuscript for the final volume remains in the Harvard library, incomplete and a mess. Sheed had always provided the unity to each of Dawson’s works, but he was no longer editing, and Dawson was in such poor health that he could do next to nothing to complete the work.
Still, what exists in the manuscript reveals enough to see that Dawson believed—incorrectly, as it turned out—that Christianity in all of its forms was slowly moving toward re-unification. Never would such re-unification appear without problems. But Catholics would connect with high churches of other Christian denominations and would, especially, connect with the Calvinists over Natural Law. In turn, Catholics would re-learn real diversity as well as an intense respect for scripture. The Church—as a whole, that is, of all Christians—would most likely become smaller, in terms of population, but it would also be alive, vigorous, and creative. Dawson took rather seriously the prophecies of the devil’s ravaging the earth—from Newman and from Pope Leo—in the twentieth century.
Vatican II, though, had learned all of the wrong lessons of history. Rather than making Catholicism intellectually strong, it had weakened and softened it. Protestants, rather than look at Roman Catholics with admiration, might now see them as yet just one more sect in the world. No longer Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants… but Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.
Still, in the end, unlike Watkin, Dawson consented to the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council, believing the Church right over time, even if wrong at the moment. Far more important than the Church at the moment was the Church as a whole, here in time and in eternity. Unlike Socrates, Dawson would have to take no hemlock to make his point. Instead, he slipped into worsening health, in and out of comas and, of course, lucidity, until his death in 1970. When he passed into eternity, he did so as a loyal citizen of the Roman Catholic Church.
Part II of this is Why Christopher Dawson Loved the Church.
Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, and other books by Bradley J. Birzer and Christopher Dawson, may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.