While reading F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West (about which I blogged a few weeks ago), I came across a familiar, mid-twentieth-century American intellectual trope: the notion that then present-day Catholicism represented an expression of medieval values.
This idea was common among a very wide range of thinkers, including (relatively high-minded) anti-Catholics, Catholics themselves, and non-Catholics sympathetic to Catholicism. For his part, Northrop (who was not Catholic) devotes a chapter to “Roman Catholic Culture and Greek Science.” Northrup sees “the philosophical foundations of Roman Catholic culture,” which he associates with Aquinas and Aristotle, as being “exceedingly important at the present moment” (i.e. 1946). Northrop sees a growing influence of Roman Catholic culture around the world and cites a variety of contemporary American thinkers as examples of this phenomenon, including Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, and Scott Buchanan (none of whom, Northrop notes, “was initially a Roman Catholic”). These American expressions, Northrop suggests, are but a small part of an international revival of Catholic thought, which reflects “inescapable inadequacies” of “each of the traditional modern attempts to give philosophical expression and meaning to the facts of nature and human experience.” “Disillusioned by the modern world,” writes Northrop, “men have turned to the Middle Ages.”
There’s obviously a lot to unpack here: the positing of a unified medieval worldview, the association of that worldview with Aquinas and Aristotle, the sense that this worldview constituted (for better or worse) a living option (in the Jamesian sense) that was gaining popularity in some surprising quarters, and the association of this all with Catholicism. What interests me about this topos is both how common it once was and how rare it became by the late 20th century. Continue reading