In this article (published as part of a collection begun by a French priest, Father Augustine Maydieu, with the intention that French Catholics needed to know more about American Catholics and completed by an American theology professor, Louis J. Putz, after Maydieu's death), Ong continues his discussion of the precarious situation of the American Catholic intellectual.

In the first section of the article, Ong argues that the "effective" American Catholic intellectual occupies a "frontier" position, somewhere between the Church and the rest of American society.  This frontier position, Ong explains, is the same position occupied by the "most intelligent" New Testament writers, St. Paul and St. John the Evangelist, as well as people such as St. Augustine, St. Albert the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Given this tradition, and the fact that the United States is one of the most pluralistic societies in the world (with plenty of opportunities for dialogue between the Church and the rest of American society), the American Catholic intellectual should be in a prime position to participate in the frontier.  Yet, Ong asserts, American Catholic intellectual thought continues to "lag behind" European Catholic intellectualism.

In the second section of the article, Ong explains why this is the case.  While there has been plenty of intellectual activity in the United States over the last century (Ong cites the work of Josiah Royce, William James, Charles Sanders Pierce, Chief Justice Holmes, John Dewey, and Louis D. Brandeis as especially significant), Catholic reaction to and interaction with these intellectuals has been primarily negative, focusing on how their perspectives do not match up with the perspectives of these intellectuals.  This is due, Ong believes, to the "minority mentality" held by many Catholics (a topic discussed in more depth in "Literature and Cultural Initiative" and "American Catholicism and America"), and in the third section of the article, Ong asserts that Catholics often believe that they need not interact with people outside Catholicism because they are so sure of the rightness of Catholicism.

Ong adds that other factors keeping American Catholics from engaging the intellectual tradition include "intellectual isolationism" (which is fostered by the autonomous position of educational institutions in the United States from state or federal control) and the more accessible avenues to non-Catholics in the business and social world (which encourages Catholics to ignore intellectual activity, particularly intellectual activity outside Catholic circles).  What the American Catholic intellectual must do, Ong argues, is contribute to an intellectual front that is both aware of the past (in order to preserve Catholic heritage) and future-oriented (looking toward the frontier, a concept integral to the American tradition).

In the fourth section of the article, Ong explains that American Catholics have tended in the twentieth century to idolize people who were on the frontier:  people such as Chesterton, Waugh, Greene, Mrs. Clare Booth Luce, and especially M.M. Gilson and Maritain.  These last two, Ong believes, appeal to American Catholics because they both have a strong sense of the past and a forward-looking vision.  Furthermore, Ong explains in the fifth section of the article, both Gilson and Maritain have helped American Catholics begin to adjust to the ideas of romanticism and post-romanticism.  Making this adjustment, for anyone in American culture but especially for American Catholics, is difficult because the United States is a country distinct from European countries precisely because it was established in the "Age of Reason" and holds onto its rationalist heritage.  In terms of religion in America, the emphasis on rationality has resulted in a rather orthodox, scientific approach to spirituality.   While American Catholics, Ong asserts even more specifically, have embraced certain American phenomena that come out of the romantic tradition (e.g., the Boy Scouts), the most significant obstacle cutting Catholics off from wider American society is their tendency to emphasize natural law, something that broader society accepts less readily because of its working-class consciousness.

In the sixth section of the article, Ong suggests that one way American Catholics can embrace romanticism and post-romanticism, engage American society more fully and participate in (and contribute to) American intellectual history is to look at the fields of anthropology, psycholgoy, and paleontology (all of which are discussing metaphysics and spirituality with an awareness of the twentieth century mindset).  Ultimately, American Catholics must develop a "Christian mystique of technology and science," which involves modernizing liturgy.  In addition, Ong urges American Catholics to develop a Christian mystique of other American concepts:  social clubs, sports, personalism, optimism, and so on.  In other words, American Catholics must face the society in which they live and figure out how to use Catholicism to innovate that society.

While much of what Ong writes in this article appears in earlier articles, the idea of a "Christian mystique" appears here for the first time that I am aware of.  In this article, Ong also expands a discussion begun in "American Catholicism and America" concerning the importance of the work of Issac Hecker, whose innovative approach to the relationship between the Church and American culture was cut short by Leo XIII's letter, "Testem benevolentiae," to Cardinal Gibbons.

Return to Listings