Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dawson on Victiorians and Catholicism

After posting on the History Today book review yesterday, I found this essay by Christopher Dawson on ENGLISH CATHOLICISM AND VICTORIAN LIBERALISM in the EWTN Library:

The hundred years that have elapsed since the restoration of the English Hierarchy [in 1850] have been a time of slow but uninterrupted progress for English Catholicism [Dawson thus was writing in 1950]. There have been no spectacular triumphs and no catastrophic defeats, but step by step the Church has been gradually recovering her lost position in the life of the nation. And this is no small achievement when one considers how completely the face of the world has changed during the last century: how the old European order and the new liberal order that aspired to take its place have both alike been swept away by new forces that were hardly perceptible in 1850, so that Europe itself and the millennial tradition of Western civilization are now in process of dissolution.

In 1850 English Liberalism, having surmounted the crisis of Chartism, was settling down to enjoy the fruits of the new order that it had created. The collapse of the old regime on the Continent in 1848 and the failure of the revolutionary movements to establish a stable democratic order had combined to strengthen the prestige of English institutions and ideals, not only in our own eyes but in those of Europe. Consequently, it is not surprising that the restoration of the Hierarchy and the reappearance of Catholicism as a living power in nineteenth-century England should have been regarded as a challenge to the spirit of the age, an act of "papal aggression." For the liberal rationalist and the conservative Protestant alike, the Papacy seemed the embodiment of those forces of reaction against which the modern world was in revolt.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 marked the final achievement of the Victorian compromise in which all the leading elements of English society found their place. High Tories like the Duke of Wellington, cosmopolitan pacifists like John Bright, Christian idealists and scientific rationalists, artisans and capitalists, all came together under the leadership of the Queen and the Prince Consort to celebrate the triumphs of science and industry and the dawn of a new era of universal peace and enlightenment. But there was no place for the English Catholics in this festival of national and international unity. The unpopularity of the Oxford conversions combined with that of Irish Nationalism and that of the Papal Government caused Catholics to be regarded with hostility and suspicion by Liberals and Conservatives alike. In their attitude to Catholicism there was nothing to choose between Liberals like Lord John Russell and Tory extremists of the type of Newdegate and Sir Robert Inglis.

Yet in spite of all this, the deeper intellectual tendencies of the age were far less hostile to Catholicism than one would suppose from the expression of popular opinion in Press and parliament. The great writers of the Victorian age, such as Carlyle and Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, were as a rule highly critical of the optimism and selfcomplacency of Victorian liberalism.

Dawson goes on to cite cultural influences like the Romantic and Victorian interest in the Middle Ages, and of course the rise of Catholic intellectual converts like Newman and Manning.

But even as he comments on this rise and influence of Catholics in English Society, Dawson notes that it proceeded along the lines of Victorian liberalism and secularization:

Yet throughout this period the secularization of English culture has proceeded almost without a check, so that our position today is no longer that of a Catholic minority in a Protestant society, but that of a religious minority in a secular or neo-pagan civilization. We have become so accustomed to this change that we are apt to forget its tremendous implications. During the last hundred years English Catholicism has developed under the protection ofthe Victorian compromise. We have accepted the Victorian principles of individual freedom, religious toleration and the limited character of the State as elementary conditions of existence which hardly needed to be defended. But, in proportion as civilization becomes secularized, all these principles and rights lose their political expression in totalitarian States.

Dawson's argument reminds me of Russell Shaw's American Church and recalls Owen Chadwick's classic study of the rise of secularism in the nineteenth century. The Catholic Church in both the United States and in Britain accepted the values of the modern democratic state as the means of increasing influence and effectiveness. The great pitfall of this process is that those values wane as secularism waxes:

Today all the basic liberties which were formerly regarded as essential conditions of modern civilization are everywhere questioned and often completely abolished, and the new secularist ideologies are establishing themselves as exclusive dogmatic anti-religions which demand the total surrender of the mind and will. It is true that this country is still relatively immune. A feeble gas-jet of freedom still flickers in the dilapidated Victorian basement. But it is obvious that English Catholicism cannot rely on the continuance of the conditions which prevailed during the first century of its restored existence. Sooner or later it must come up against the same forces that prevail in the rest of the world. No doubt this will involve great changes in our apologetic, which, like so much else, is an inheritance from the Victorian age, and which has been dominated for a century by the long- drawn-out controversy with Anglicanism. Today these familiar controversies are overshadowed by the world debate between Christianity and atheism, and we have to deal not with the validity of Anglican orders but with the existence of the human soul and the ultimate foundations of the moral order.

The ever prophetic Christoper Dawson!!

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