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Advantages of being the minority

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.