In June of 2008, a band of brothers – we were mostly brothers then, with the notable exception of Mary Eberstadt – set out with little money but with a large sense that there were many things – Catholic things – that needed doing. Storied Notre Dame philosopher and multitalented writer of genius Ralph McInerny was dissolving the Orestes Brownson Society and passed on a few dollars. Hadley Arkes won a pro-life prize that included the right of designating a small sum to a worthy organization. Michael Novak spread the word about us to a few supportive friends.
It still amazes me to recall that our stalwart stable of writers were paid nothing – for months – but stayed with us anyway, without complaining. Or not much, anyway. They actually believed me when I said we’d catch up. And we did, eventually, somehow. And this “Thing,” which seemed to have a life of its own, grew until its branches have reached around the world, even appearing regularly (as I too often fail to mention) in five foreign languages, with others in development.
Technology moves so fast these days that it’s hard to believe that – just a dozen years ago – online publications, especially ones professing orthodox Catholicism, were not all that common. Indeed, when Jason Boffetti – then a researcher with us at the Faith & Reason Institute – suggested to me that we start a “blog,” I wasn’t familiar with the term.
RR: “So we put up columns on a ‘website’?”
RR: “And people are going to come there and read them?”
RR: “And how will they know we exist?”
JB: “We tell them.”
RR: “But how do we tell them if they’re not already coming to the site?”
Needless to say, Jason and (soon after) Brad Miner figured out how to make that happen.
I drew the line, though, at calling The Catholic Thing a “blog,” a barbarous term, then and now, to my ear. We were going to be a series of daily columns, real writing, not just casual postings on the digital wall of the Internet. Those of us who cut our teeth with physical books and words published on actual paper in magazines and newspapers could, I thought, retain self-respect by treating words that appeared online with the same seriousness as we had before.
And contrary to what many expected, the darn thing worked. Maybe not miraculously, though who can say, but at least wondrously.
I sometimes hear from readers who love this site but don’t love its name that “Thing” is ugly, too generic. It says nothing. But I remember how it just clicked for the group of us meeting in Washington at AEI with Michael Novak hosting. We knew the “Thing” was us.
A bit of explanation. In the heyday of the Catholic literary revival in England (look here) and elsewhere, an explosion of creativity that stretched from Newman and Hopkins through Robert Hugh Benson, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and many others, it was the hic et nunc concreteness of Catholicism that had impressed these great figures – almost all of them converts.
Two of them in particular – Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton – made references to the Catholic Thing. GKC wrote a wonderful little book The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, in which he said:
The thing of which I speak is purely moral and cannot exist without a certain moral loyalty; it is a thing of atmosphere and even in a sense of affection. There is no space to describe here the manner in which such a general popular attachment grows up; but there is no doubt whatever that it did once grow up round such a religious centre of our civilisation; and that it is not likely to grow up again except for something which aims at a higher standard of humility and charity than the ordinary standard of the world.
That “thing,” of course, was the Faith.
Belloc, with his usual vigor, is even more emphatic:
The Catholic Church is the exponent of Reality. It is true. Its doctrines in matters large and small are statements of what is. . . .I am by all my nature of mind sceptical, by all my nature of body exceedingly sensual. So sensual that the virtues restrictive of sense are but phrases to me. But I accept these phrases as true and act upon them as well as a struggling man can. And as to the doubt of the soul, I discover it to be false: a mood: not a conclusion. My conclusion – and that of all men who have ever once seen it – is the Faith. Corporate, organised, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.
It was something like that sense of what we were about – most of us had long been readers of both writers (George Marlin was the General Editor of Chesterton’s Collected Works) – that made our name feel right. The late great James V. Schall S.J. became the tireless expositor on this page of the importance of respecting “what is.”
Your humble editor stole a bit from all these great ancestors in the Faith in the inaugural column (here) that got us all moving:
The Catholic thing – the concrete historical reality of Catholicism – is the richest cultural tradition in the world. It was born from Judaism and, through that spiritual parentage, even reaches back into the great ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In its early days, it confronted, absorbed, and redirected what was then the most sophisticated society in existence, Greco-Roman culture. When that culture fell, Catholicism preserved what it could and rebuilt the rest over centuries, incorporating new influences from Northern Europe and, during the great age of exploration, from the entire globe. Today, it numbers over a billion souls on every continent. Despite its all-too-human imperfections, there is simply nothing like it.
And so, we continue on. And so, too, I have the confidence to ask you to support our labors. We have grown enormously since these beginnings and continue to attract a larger and larger audience, year by year. There’s Providence at work in such things, but also the generosity of readers like yourselves who concretely make this Thing possible. So if you haven’t already, please: this is our time to make sure that what was so well begun goes on for us living now, and for the many challenges in the years to come.
*Photo: Christmas 2008: Hadley Arkes holds forth as Michael Uhlmann, Judy Arkes, Mary Eberstadt, Tom Bethell, Fr. Bevil Bramwell, Robert Royal, Veronica Royal, Michael Novak, and Fr. James V. Schall look on.