Are Catholic intellectuals losing touch with the mainstream?

Graham Greene, right, and French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac are shown before a conference at the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, in 1948. It was attended by 3,000 people (PA photo)

There is an interesting article in yesterday’s Observer on a subject that gets an occasional outing in the press every now and again, namely, why is it that in Britain intellectuals are not accorded the same respect that they are in France. You can read the article here.

It is illustrated with a hilarious photograph of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir sitting in what I assume is their favourite Left Bank café, in the year 1940; they look impossibly smug, and one can almost hear the rumble of German tanks in the background.

The article is intelligent, interesting and well-reasoned, but most readers will be drawn irresistibly to the accompanying list of the top 300 British intellectuals of our time.

Lists are irresistibly attractive because, of course, they invariably differ from the list we ourselves would have drawn up. There are one or two omissions that struck me – what? No Julie Burchill? – but I confess most of the intellectuals are people I have scarcely heard of. What struck me was the fact that one of the shortest subsections was that entitled “Religious Leaders” – just two names, that of Jonathan Sacks and Rowan Williams. There are, of course, various Catholics scattered about the list – people such as Terry Eagleton and Mark Lawson, but unless you count Eamon Duffy (described here as a historian), not a single Catholic theologian. Whatever happened to the Queen of Sciences?

If this list is a true reflection of the lie of the land, and I realise that that is a big if, then it is seriously bad news for the Church. In France and Italy, thanks to their history of anti-clericalism, there have always been heavyweight Catholics ready to fight the Church’s corner. The Church in this country has a different history, but even so, we too have had people of the calibre of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Malcolm Muggeridge; these were more than just intellectuals, they were cultural leaders. But now, alas, one has the distinct impression that Catholicism lies outside the cultural mainstream in this country. This is bad for Catholicism, and it is bad for the cultural mainstream as well, as it will lead to the impoverishment of both. I can think of one person who would have deplored this situation: the Blessed John Henry Newman, a great Catholic and of course a towering intellectual. But where are the Newmans of today?