The Catholic Thing
Advantages of being the minority Print E-mail
By Virgil Nemoianu   
Saturday, 22 September 2012

In practically all public discussions, both friends and foes of Roman Catholicism seem to overlook the fact that in America only one person in four is a Catholic (genuine or nominal). Speaking strictly for myself, I do not mind finding myself in a church that is not too packed. On the contrary, I somehow have the sensation of being truly among my own, among reliable, trustworthy “neighbors.”

There are of course many other advantages to feeling oneself a minority: coherence, solidarity, an energizing feeling, and much more. There is also a kind of intellectual ferment. Take the example of France. Here is a country where an unceasing (and quite often brutal) persecution lasting over 200 years has changed Catholicism there from being “oldest daughter of the Church” to a mere 29 percent of timid or lukewarm believers, less than one in three.

The cultural structures, including the physical ones, still stand. But that’s about all. Instead, what we can observe in the last century or so, is the healthy growth of intellectual and artistic productions that are rooted in faith and in religious (Catholic) imagery. It’s quite easy to list the many distinguished names: Claudel, Péguy, Mauriac, de Lubac, Yves Simon, Daniélou, Congar, Bouyer, and  many, many others.

Perhaps even more striking is the “Catholic turn” in French philosophy, i.e., the way in which the most original and prominent thinkers of contemporary France seem to function within Catholic horizons: the philosophers René Girard, Pierre Manent, Jean-Luc Marion, Rémy Brague, Chantal Delsol, along with the writers Michel Tournier, Jean Raspail, Jean D’Ormesson, Max Gallo, Denis Tillinac, to say nothing of leading actors such as Juliette Binoche, Gerard Depardieu, and Anouk Aimée – to name only a few.

I’d like to suggest that all this is the consequence of both defensive and offensive actions almost “imposed” upon a minority of believers by an overbearing secular state power and social mentality. It’s also noteworthy that these “peaks” of achievement have broad and solid foundations: much scholarly research, spiritual writings, meticulous studies, theological and cultural investigations.

I would like to mention, as further evidence, just two extremely worthy – and substantial – publications of the last few years.

One appeared some fifteen years ago without notable echoes, at least not in North America: a 1000-page plus volume edited by Jean Duchesne Histoire chrétienne de la literature. L’esprit des lettres de l’Antiquité à nos jours  (A Christian History of Literature. The Spirit of Writing from Antiquity to Our Time) The chapters are written by numerous distinguished contributors and cover a wide range, including significant literary samples and summaries of theological and ecclesiastical perspectives.

  Notre Dame de Paris

It is amazingly comprehensive (it would be rude to point out the few inevitable lapses). “Eastern” i.e. non-European Christian literary production is not dealt with; still the range is truly encyclopedic and of remarkable clarity. This is truly a fundamental, indeed indispensable, handbook.  

And then there is a volume edited by François Huguenin, Les voix de la foi. Vingt siècles de catholicisme par les textes (Voices of Faith. Twenty Centuries of Catholicism in Texts). Huguenin is a university professor known particularly for works of political analysis, as well as for his very recent, massive study of the controversial “Action Française” movement, in my view a very objective and balanced piece of intellectual history.

The book I am now talking about is quite different. It is an anthology of quite short and substantial fragments from authors beginning with the four Evangelists and going all the way to John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Each selection is preceded by a brief, clear, well-focused introduction, followed by a little bibliographical information.

Almost everybody who is somebody in the Catholic intellectual pantheon is included. Reading it, I thought: these pithy units virtually constitute a Catholic “Philokalia.” Obviously, the editor has chosen to follow several main theological currents, yet the unifying argument of the texts seems to remain the continuity of “faith and reason.”  A translation or adaptation in English of this spiritual treasure and reading pleasure would be of much use in the English-speaking world. 

When there are disagreements inside the Roman Catholic Church in America, I sense in the background, certain shadowy presences.  On one side, there are those who would like to imagine that they are part of the cultural mainstream or aligned with it. On the other, there are those who think of the Church as a distinct and well-structured entity, large, but still clearly a minority on the continent and in the nation.

But there is another distinction worth making. American Catholics are willing, ready, and able to intervene in various social and cultural affairs. From a foreign perspective, they are usually more dynamic than elsewhere, even when they are only partly successful or fail outright.

By contrast, most  “continental” Catholics (and the French specifically) are rather more passive socially and, let’s be frank, perhaps intimidated by opponents. Still, they are remarkably inventive and active intellectually. By pure chance I stumbled the other day onto a wistfully ironic headline in an Italian newspaper: “France: faith is being reborn, how about the faithful?”

Americans and Europeans can learn plenty from each other, and each side should look carefully at the strategies of the faith in play on either side of the Atlantic. What would happen, for example, if American Catholics were to understand themselves as a brave and besieged and joyful minority brimming with ideas and vibrant with cultural creativity?

I do not know. But I am convinced that American Catholic publishing houses would be taking more that a first small step if they began with the books mentioned here and then went on to translate or adapt many others for the benefit of Catholic believers living in a largely Protestant cultural environment.

Virgil Nemoianu is William J. Byron Distinguished Professor of Literature and Ordinary Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 22, 2012
One truly wonderful work, too long neglected in the English-speaking world is Abbé Henri Brémond’s monumental « Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, depuis la fin des guerres de religion a nos jours », published in eleven volumes between 1913 and 1936. It is a definitive conspectus of the writings of the French school of spirituality.

His « Prière et Poésie » [Prayer and Poetry] and « Introduction a la Philosophie de la Prière » [Introduction to the Philosophy of Prayer] are based on his unrivalled knowledge of mystical writings and devotional works.

His writings on poetry, symbolism and romanticism earned him election to the Académie française in 1923, in succession to Mgr. Duchesne and a eulogy from the French Symbolist poet, Paul Valéry.
written by Manfred, September 22, 2012
If you are going to describe the situation of Catholicism in France, Mr. Nemoianu, you might want to explain why this condition exists. Christ appeared to Margaret Mary AlaCoque(?) in the 17th century and asked that France be dedicated to His Sacred Heart by the king. This was never done and the punishment that France received for its disobedience was the French Revolution and its secular condition today. This is not fiction. Christ, in a later apparition explained exactly what the result would be. God will not be mocked and most people will never see God,just Satan. Isn't it obvious, if not de fide, that America is suffering a Divine punishment today?
written by sjm, September 22, 2012
There is a wonderful sentence in this article:

"What would happen, for example, if American Catholics were to understand themselves as a brave and besieged and joyful minority brimming with ideas and vibrant with cultural creativity?"

I think this is the case with some of the newer Catholic blogs I see that are geared to different segments of the population. It is really refreshing to see the enthusiasm of those who are trying to explain things to Catholics in new ways that provide a context that may have been missing in the past.

The upcoming "Year of Faith" offers great opportunity for a better understanding of the Catechism and Vatican II as it was intended, along with Pope John Paul's "Love and Responsibility". It is time for the "besieged and joyful minority, brimming with ideas and vibrant with cultural creativity" to bear great fruit.
written by Jack,CT, September 22, 2012
Dr, Nemoianu,
Thanks for an infomative piece,Manfred
if you were trying to creep me out?, IT WORKED!
Have a blessed day friends.
written by Ib, September 22, 2012
Keep this good internationally focused blog going! Very good!
written by Mack Hall, September 22, 2012
Mr. Nemoianu:

I really enjoyed your essay, but I disagree with your assertion that in America we live in a Protestant milieu.

I wish we did; we would at least have an agreed-upon point on which to argue. But the reality is that the Protestant era is past, and we are left with shifting, history-less cults: mega-churches, cowboy churches, and other adjective churches founded upon a Sun Myung Moon-ish figure (Joel Osteen comes to mind) or upon popular culture (in place of a crucifix, a tabernacle, or a communion table one sees a drum set).

The opportunities are rich, but how does one engage a perpetually shifting culture based one day on Elvis and the next on Honey Boo Boo?
written by Dave, September 22, 2012
What a delightful article, and many thanks for it. Now I want to relearn French so that I don't have to wait for the translations.
written by Randall, September 22, 2012
How are leading actors such as Juliette Binoche, Gerard Depardieu, and Anouk Aimée representative of a "Catholic turn" in French philosophy who function within Catholic horizons? Their personal lives and many of the films they've appeared in don't suggest such a thing. Were you simply looking for a place to tack on the names of your favourite French actors?
written by Aeneas, September 23, 2012
Great article!
I wish those books were in english, I'd very much like to get my hands on them.

But I think Randall has a point, at least with the actors, Catholic is a stretch, especially given that the later one converted to Judaism.
It'd be helpful if you explained that part a bit more.
written by Graham Combs, September 23, 2012
"...a brave and beseiged minority." To understand that that is where the Church is will require leadership. I suspect that it will come primarily from the laity. At times the Archbishop of Philadelphia expresses this understanding. It is obvious that the Archbishop of New York is resisting it. I don't know why. New Yorkers do pay far too much attention to a media and intellectual elite which holds them and their beliefs in contempt. I used to work in that business. The continuing exhortation that we "all get along" invariably means "can't we all just go along." And there is a connection between the Catholic social justice activists and their belief that the left of any kind is more an ally than a Catholic of any other kind. Consequently things don't improve because social justice Catholics identify with secularists more than with the faithful. And these secularists support judicially-directed change, abortion, the redefinition of marriage (at a time marriage is in decline), and a generation children set adrift from family and values and basic literacy. At least it seems that way to me most days of the week.

And I'm not proud -- English-speaking Catholics need fortification wherever we can get it and in whatever language it is expressed.

written by senex, September 24, 2012
Two observations:
1. The Church is 'the Catholic Church', not the 'Roman' catholic church.
2. In the 20th century among the outstanding Catholic French writers were Maritain and Gilson, neither of whom were mentioned. The both had a wide influence on Catholic thought in the last century.

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