Saturday, September 24, 2011

Allen Tate and the Catholic Revival

At one time, the poet, critic, historian, and novelist Allen Tate (1899 - 1979) was a well known name in academic circles. With the advent of “post-modernism” and “deconstruction” as a technique of literary criticism, Tate has faded into oblivion as just another “dead white man.” A member of the so-called “Fugitive Poets” and “Southern Agrarians” at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s, Tate was critical of a modern world which was showing signs of abandoning belief in God and all tradition. Attracted to the Catholic Church as early as the 1920s, Tate finally converted to Catholicism in 1950, having been sponsored by the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa.

Allen Tate and the Catholic Revival: Trace of the Fugitive Gods (Paulist Press: 1996) was the Ph.D dissertation of Professor Peter A. Huff who currently teaches Religious Studies at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana. Huff’s thesis is that Tate and other intellectuals were attracted to the Catholic Church by their rejection of the values of the modern world and modernism.  However, by the time Tate joined the Church in the 1950s, the Church was on its way to making peace with the modern world and rejecting its earlier uncompromising stand.

Allen Tate (1899 - 1979)

As early as the 1929 Tate wrote a letter to a friend that he was feeling drawn to the Catholic Church.

"Feeling an attraction to the Catholic Church in the Roman Jubilee year 1929 meant appreciating a religious tradition unapologetically dogmatic and avowedly illiberal. The Lateran Treaty of that year, for instance, rejected the notion of the exclusively spiritual nature of papal authority and reaffirmed the pope’s claim to temporal power over the Vatican territory. Only recently free from association with Action Francaise, the monarchist movement led by French traditionalist crusader Charles Maurras, the church on the eve of the Great Depression also found itself newly entangled with Opus Dei, the controversial movement of Spanish origin promoting aggressive lay involvement in right-wing political ventures. It was a church which proscribed involvement in the fledgling ecumenical movement, obliged its clergy to forswear modernist thoughts, denounced the liberal “hypothesis” of church-state separation, prohibited the use of artificial birth-control methods among its laity, legislated precise norms of proper dress for female communicants, and censored new motion pictures along with an already long Index of Forbidden Books."

Pope Pius IX
"In the United States, rudely reminded of its tenuous status by presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith’s political defeat, the church remained discredited in intellectual quarters by Pius IX’s earlier Syllabus of Errors and Leo XIII’s 1899 condemnation of “Americanism,” controversial papal pronouncements that seemed to reinforce Rome’s age-old reputation for authoritarianism and obscurantism. The perception of American Catholic opposition to the republican Popular Front battling General Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War a few years later only served to validate that conclusion for non-Catholic American progressives. Drawing from a venerable tradition of anti-Catholic polemic reaching back to the eschatological musings of seventeenth-century Puritan divines, critics now ranked “Romanism” in the same category as the fundamentalist rabble that put Dayton, Tennessee on the cultural map. In the heyday of American progressivism, no better example of hidebound resistance to modern civilization could be found than the Roman Catholic Church.”

Pope Leo XIII

The “Catholic Literary Revival” had begun in England in the nineteenth century with the work of John Henry Newman. It had continued in the twentieth century with the work of authors like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. In France, the Catholic Revival had produced thinkers like the neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain and novelists like Francois Mauriac and George Bernanos. In the mid-twentieth century, the Catholic Revival finally reached America where a number of intellectuals became notable converts:

“Born between 1890 and the close of the First World War, two generations of American writers felt deeply the attraction of the Catholic faith. They found their spiritual home in the church, believing entrance into the Catholic community to be an integral part of their literary careers. Including Katherine Anne Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, Clare Boothe Luce, Robert Lowell, Tennessee Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Walker Percy, the American literary converts were drawn to Catholicism for intellectual and aesthetic reasons, motives mixing undefined spiritual aspirations with romantic countercultural protests.” 

Jacques Maritain and Thomas Merton

Many of these converts had rejected the values of the modern world. They rejected the notion that life was about the mere acquisition of material wealth and prosperity and yearned for spiritual completion. In the ancient liturgy of the Catholic Church they found beauty which appealed to their artistic tastes as well as a weighty theology and world view which rejected the modern world in favor of higher values.
“Many of the converts, enticed by the exotic features of Catholic doctrine or the high drama of Roman liturgy and devotion, shared the imaginative “nostalgia for Catholic order” that Harold Bloom has found in Hemingway’s literary consciousness.”

“For all of the converts of the Catholic Revival, the church represented the realm of mystery sadly absent from modern experience. More than just a religion, Catholicism was for them, as Anne Roche Muggeridge has described it, “a country of the heart and of the mind.” Disgusted by the banal dimensions of what Merton called a “society of salesmen,” they found an oasis of beauty in the divine drama of the church’s worship. Critical of the reductionism of modern thought and the shallowness of liberal Protestantism, they found the integrity of Neo-Thomism and classical Christian orthodoxy intellectually stimulation. Witnessing the contemporary menace of totalitarian politics, they sought the remedy to secular society’s ills in the sacred tradition of the church. Even the pre-conciliar church’s requirement of personal sacrifice appeared as an attractive component of Catholic life. Though the converts were often drawn to the faith precisely because of orthodox Catholicism’s antimodernist stance, they nevertheless expressed impatience with the Catholic ghetto’s naive rejection of modern art and literature. What the American literary converts advocated was aggressive interaction with the modern world, not retreat into separatist folkways. They sought a religious tradition that would directly address the authoritative wisdom of the past to the fragmented world of the present.
Intellectual converts like Tate, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day had “read themselves into the Church.” Huff notes that the conversion of intellectuals also stimulated an intellectual Renaissance among cradle Catholics:
"As a rule, the American literary converts, like their European counterparts, followed an intellectual path into the faith. Ever since Augustine heard the child in the garden singing, “Tolle lege, tolle lege,” people have been reading their way into the Catholic Church. But Thomas Merton’s conversion, triggered by a chance encounter with Gilson’s The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy in a Fifth Avenue bookstore, became nearly paradigmatic of the intellectual American’s conversion before and after his time. Others, born into the church, experienced an analogous rebirth of faith and religious identity after immersing themselves in the literature of the Revival.”

Why did all of these intellectuals, most of whom were self-proclaimed atheists or agnostics but who came from predominately Protestant backgrounds, become Catholic? The Catholic Church was generally considered to be backwards and stagnant. It has been said that intellectual converts of the 1930s who left Communism for Catholicism merely exchanged one authoritarian world view for another. This was an age in which the Church still set forth The Index of Forbidden Books and demanded unconditional assent by the faithful to all areas of teaching and dogma. The Church seemed an unlikely venue for all of these artists and intellectuals. Why did these people become Catholic rather than, say, Episcopalian?

“Rejecting the strategy of liberal Protestantism designed to attract Christianity’s “cultured despisers” by minimizing claims to infallible truth and reliance upon a supernatural world view, the intellectual converts to Catholicism overcame long-standing cultural barriers to accept the Catholic religion precisely because of its claim to possess a body of supernaturally revealed dogma. They were not inspired by a demythologized Christianity, nor were they convinced of the apologetic potential of the modernist project. As Ronald Knox put it, “the latitudinarian appeal, as a matter of experience, does not attract.” Rather, like Chesterton, the Revival converts found the church’s insistence upon doctrinal accuracy curiously “romantic.” Regularly, they described submission of the intellect to the mind of the church as an act of “mental emancipation.” Thomas Merton, for instance, thought it a liberating thing “to breathe the clean atmosphere of orthodox tradition.” Seeing themselves as spiritual heirs to Newman’s opposition to nineteenth-century liberalism, the intellectuals of the twentieth century Catholic Revival were stimulated, not stifled, by the church’s critique of modernity.”

Tate had a romantic admiration for the Middle Ages as a time in which Western Europe was bound together by a common Christian culture:

“Though he repeatedly denied that his admiration for the Middle Ages entailed reversion to an ideal past, he shared the Catholic Revival’s affection for the period and used it as the reference point for discussion of a restored Christian civilization. The organic unity of the culture, the agrarian pattern of its economy, and the common mythic structure shaping its vision were stock features of the Revival’s interpretation of the Middle Ages, but they appealed to the same instincts in Tate that drove him to reject much of what he found mediocre and destabilizing in modern culture. For most of his career, Dante figured as the icon of the fully developed artist in Christian society, and the medieval university served as his model for the understanding of genuine religious humanism.”
Tate predicted cultural disaster if the West abandoned its Christian heritage:
“. . . he predicted the rise of “a complete Gnostic society,” should the West abandon its fundamentally religious insights into the human condition. . . . Along with Maritain and Dawson, Tate maintained that any hope for an authentically democratic future in national or international affairs necessitated the acceptance of a genuinely Christian humanism. Like Chesterton, who identified the dogma of the incarnate Logos as the idea ‘central in our civilization,” he placed the Christological mystery at the heart of his analysis of culture. Without that controlling idea, he said, every quest for the perfect society yields only another “perishable god” for the scrap heap of the world’s worthless idols: “I have come to the view that no society is worth ‘saving’ as such: what we must save is the truth of God and Man, and the right society follows.”

Tate and his first wife, the Catholic convert and author Caroline Gordon, to whom he was married and divorced twice.

Throughout his life Tate struggled with his own personal demons including alcoholism and divorce. Due to his multiple divorces and remarriages, Tate became estranged from the Church he loved. (Tate was married and divorced twice to the novelist Caroline Gordon, also a Catholic convert). However, during his last marriage to former nun Helen Heinz, Tate was able to be restored to full communion before his death.

Huff details how the changes to the Church after the Second Vatican Council distressed Tate who thought that the Church had gone too far in compromising with the modern world. Tate was particularly critical of modern theology, like that of the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and was opposed to the Ecumenical movement.

“ . . . Tate shared Maritain’s misgivings regarding the apparent trajectory of postconciliar Catholicism. The “neo-modernist” theological fads of the age concerned him and irritated him and confirmed his suspicions of an emerging Catholic gnosticism. Especially exasperated by the cult of popularity surrounding Teilhard (described by an exasperated Gilson as “the most Christian of the gnostics”), Tate once blasted a lay enthusiast of the Jesuit mystic, telling him in no uncertain terms to “shut up about Chardin.” At the same time, he chafed under the liturgical experimentation of the period and worried about the destructive effort of ecumenical ferment on Catholic devotion. As one who “got into the Church only through the Virgin,” he was distressed by the tendency of the Vatican Council to “play down” Marian devotion in obvious overtures of friendship toward separated Protestant brethren. “If the Ecumenical movement is merely a levelling process towards 20th century rationalism,” he prophesied during the second session of the Council, “it will fail.”

“Attempting to describe the anxieties of that age of Catholic transition, James Fisher has recently produced a provocative portrait of convert Dorothy Day making her way into the old-fashioned Catholic subculture of personal piety and sacrificial obedience, precisely at the moment when her birthright Catholic followers, seeking to rid themselves of alien citizenship, were fleeing from the immigrant ghetto into the pluralism of America’s secular city. In a sense, Allen Tate was engaged in a similarly ill-timed pilgrimage. Walker Percy, fellow apologist for the forlorn values of the Catholic Revival, saw the plight of the modern Catholic writer as that of “a man who has found a treasure hidden in the attic of an old house, but (who) is writing for people who have moved out to the suburbs and who are bloody sick of the old house and everything in it.” To his dismay, Tate discovered the attic’s treasures just as the house was going on the market. In his career, he witnessed not only the disappearance of the South’s regional tradition in the wake of America’s unrestrained march toward standardization but also the dissolution of what he perceived to be the best of the Catholic tradition as well. To borrow a phrase from historian Mark Noll, Tate - as southerner and Catholic - joined the ranks of the twentieth century’s “alienated losers twice over.”
Allen Tate and the Catholic Revival is out of print but is still worth a look for those, like this Bad Catholic, who are interested in seeing a new Catholic Revival.

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