September 1998

Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome.  By Patrick Allitt. Cornell University Press. 352 pages. $35.

Patrick Allitt, an associate professor of history at Emory University, begins with a simple statement of historical fact. “Nearly all the major Catholic intellectuals writing in English between 1840 and 1960 were converts to Catholicism.” Most observers of British and American Catholicism, especially converts who followed in the footsteps of these Catholic intellectuals, know this fact already. Allitt’s unique contribution is to give us the historical context of these conversions.

Books concerning these convert intellectuals tend to fall into two categories. In one group are autobiographies and sympathetic treatments that serve to defend the faith. In the other group are less sympathetic biographies of individual converts. Allitt’s book is different. It attempts to provide an objective historical analysis of the converts between 1840 and 1960 — who they were, the political environment in which they lived, and their impact on the Catholic and non-Catholic world.

Conversion to Catholicism by intellectuals has always puzzled, if not scandalized, the Protestant and modern mind. Why would intellectuals, of all people, convert to a “backward” faith? Allitt notes that the anti-Catholic culture and laws of both England and the United States left the Church there with few intellectual leaders. When intellectuals did convert, they, in some sense, were filling a vacuum. It is not surprising, therefore, that converts came to dominate the English-speaking Catholic intellectual world. However, this does not explain the large number of intellectual converts in societies that were still hostile to the Catholic faith. Allitt does not attempt to answer the question why these conversions occurred, except to note the converts’ own stated reasons. He does, however, note the many examples of hostility and discrimination the converts faced.

Allitt is particularly interested in how the converts fared in their new-found church. Many converts of the 19th century, such as John Henry Newman, Isaac Hecker, Orestes Brownson, and George Tyrrell, faced difficulties as they attempted to bring new ideas to Catholic thought at a time when the Vatican was highly suspicious of modern thought. In some cases, Catholic leaders disregarded their work primarily because they were converts whose Protestant past, in the minds of some, made them questionable.

With the turn of the century, a new class of converts emerged, with G.K. Chesterton leading the popular front. These converts, Allitt notes, were often drawn to the Catholic Church precisely because of her antimodernist position — the very same position that had caused difficulties for some of the converts of the previous generation. In subsequent years the Church has continued to attract intellectual converts such as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Avery Dulles, and Walker Percy. Many converts believed they were on the brink of a new wave of mass converts to the Church.

It is on this point that Allitt makes one of his few personal comments. Many of the intellectual converts saw their task as bringing new vitality to the Church so as to make her the dominant alternative to the secular modern world. Allitt gives the impression that they failed in this task. If they failed, they probably failed only according to their own standards. The mass conversions hoped for by the converts never occurred. Their involvement, however, helped sustain the intellectual side of the Church and draw in future converts. I do not know of a recent convert whose library is not loaded with the convert writers discussed in this book.

In the book’s final paragraph, Allitt makes some observations about recent, post-Vatican II converts (many of whom write for the NOR). He notes that while the Catholic Church continued to win converts after Vatican II, she no longer actively sought them as in the foregoing century. If this is true, an argument can be made that this is the result of a distorted view of ecumenism since Vatican II. Most of the converts came — and come — to the Church as a result of their own search for doctrinal clarity and authenticity. Allitt notes that while these converts play an important role in British and American Catholicism, the stories of these converts is so vastly different from those who came before that a study of them would require another book. In one sense, the historical context for today’s converts is different from that of previous converts. But on a more fundamental level, the underlying reasons for conversion today are probably no different from the reasons that moved Day, Chesterton, Newman, or even Augustine of Hippo.

- Christopher T. Dodson

Back to September 1998 Issue