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Christopher DawsonTo 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.

Christopher Dawson

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.

The-Catholic-ChurchFirst, 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.

nave-VaticanIIFinally, 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

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12 replies to this post
  1. Speaking as a rather ordinary layman something was lost in the Church with the elimination of Latin. It was part of the mystery, an atmosphere of heightened sanctity and holiness. And we in the pews had our prayers and missals and were part of all that. Sorry it’s gone,

    • Here’s a thought,Mr.Trainor…perhaps Latin purveyed too much”mystery”; perhaps catholics want to understand themselves what Almighty God expects of them and to have those expectations clearly articulated in a language understood.Mull and reflect.

  2. Dr. Birzer, if I understand your final comments about Vatican II, these were the thoughts of Dawson rather than your own. It is a shame that he did not have a chance to become aware of the call to universal sanctity as championed by St. Josemaria Escriva and others.

  3. I have been a Catholic for nearly 60 years, having read much about the CHURCH during this time, I have never heard of this bloke!!! does this article ‘fill me in’ about this persons??

  4. The most unfortunate part of Vatican II is that the changes were implimented in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    This is the era where old neighborhoods and buildings were bulldozed to make way for Brutalism. It was the era when homeowners covered hardwood floors with wall-to-wall earth-toned shag carpeting. It was an era of bad taste.

    The liturgical and aesthetic changes in the Church have aged about as well as the shag carpeting.

  5. Latin in the church is not lost !! The Tridentine Mass, admittedly a feeble start, is a start at resurrecting Latin in the church. Let us pay heed to our elder brothers-the Jews. They have renewed the “dead” Hebrew in less than 2 generations. Time for us to start seriously to resurrect Latin, the language of the world. It must be taught in every parish church in America and around the world. Save Latin Now !!! Blessings on all Raymond J, Ryan, Essex, Ct USA

  6. It never ceases to amaze me just how different the interpretations, both at the time and over time, of Vatican II, are between East and West.

    Here is a fragment from Anna Kowalska, 29 January 1964, so before Vatican II, but you can see the thing in the making:

    “The Kotts came to dinner last night. My daughter helped me set the table. It was a pleasant and very interesting evening. Following the plenary session of the Polish Literature Union, Putrament had a long conversation with Janek – the first in a decade. Putrament wants a chair for himself. Kraśko was blamed for not speaking at the meeting. Kraśko considered Cat-Mackiewicz and Jasienica’s speeches to be hostile”. He was upset that Jastrun had become so alienated and gone so far astray. The most interesting thing, however, was what they said about Cardinal Wojtyła. Krushchev desires Poland to be the first country to sigh a concordat with Rome. Wyszyński refuses. This is the source of the turbulence of the previous year. Stomma and Zawieyski even brought a copy of the concordat from Znak. Wyszyński recieved the copy, along with a letter from the Vatican, and he was shocked. Zawieyski tried to ease things over. Wyszyński represents the conservative tendency in the Church. The Vatican, however, supports Wojtyła. He is Wyki’s student; very bright – he is a new wave. Many see him as future Primate. However, all of this could lead to a schism in the Church in Poland. Only now have various facts from the life of Pious XII come to light. John XXIII’s predessecor appears to have been the equivalent of Stalin.”

    From the point of view of many Catholics in the East, Vatican II was a catharsis and restoration of the Church’s Christian heritage, not an overthrow of it. Corruption within the Church is never codified; thus reforms are often juxtaposed with previous documents which appear to be more virtuous than the proposed measures – but these measures are not meant to lower the bar, to attack previous virtue, but to address a present reality that was anything but.

    In any event, comparing how Vatican II was recieved in the East vs. the West is interesting.

  7. I am from the East. My people are all in the East. Though rich, Latin is unknown to to them, a million of them.
    Tantum ergo is foreign to them, both in tune and text. While the neigboring Lutherans learnt the local languages and evangelized, the Roman priests went about, despising the culture, music, language etc [except a few], singing High Masses, even as my people recited Rosary prayers. There is so much yet to catch up in the area of evangelization. Gitanjali – Chennai – India

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