Dawson’s Christendom and the Catholic Intellectual Life

Although largely ignored in its day, Christopher Dawson’s Christendom trilogy is the masterwork of one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers.

As it turned out, the Christendom trilogy served as the last great work of English-Welsh historian and man of letters Christopher Dawson (1889-1970).  Sort of.  The trilogy derived, originally, from lectures Dawson had delivered while teaching at Harvard University between 1958 and 1962.  As desired, the Christendom trilogy would consist of The Formation of Christendom (1967);The Dividing of Christendom (1965); and The Return to Christian Unity. (1)  In the broad, each volume represented one of three great periods of the Christian world: the ancient-medieval nexus; the Reformation and Counter Reformation; and the Church in the age of democracy, nationalisms, and ideologies. 

Though The Formation of Christendom is technically volume one of Christendom, it came out two years later than volume two, The Dividing of Christendom.  The idea to publish the lectures as a trilogy came to Dawson in 1963.  His publisher, Frank Sheed, readily agreed.  The only question was whether to publish them separately as a three-part work or immediately as a three-volume set. (2)  Sheed wanted to get them out as soon as possible, as he hoped the books would serve as the basis of discussions for the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  Not unreasonably, Sheed had believed that Dawson—along with a number of other Christian Humanists, such as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson—would serve as the intellectual touchstone and fountainhead for the council and its important deliberations and reforms.  After all, important figures such as Romano Guardini had been calling for reformation of the liturgy since the 1920s. (3)   

Nothing, as it happened, could have been further from the truth.  With most Catholic theologians and publishers in the 1960s believing the Holy Spirit to have done away with much of the recent past, few outside of a small number of loyal followers still thought Dawson had much to contribute to the future of Catholicism.  His very success as a Catholic thinker from 1928 to 1962 now worked against him, as many saw him as a relic of the previous generation and a symbol of what had just, supposedly, been overturned.  As neoconservative theologian Michael Novak later explained it, “It is as though all those powerful writings of Dawson, Maritain, Guardini, and so many other has never really taken root.” (4)   

Additionally, Frank Sheed retired in 1963, stepping out of the way of his successors almost completely.  Without Sheed at Sheed and Ward, no one remained at the press who would actively promote the works of Dawson in any meaningful way.  When pushed on why Sheed and Ward had done little to promote The Formation of Christendom, Sheed’s successor apologized.  “There is, however, as you are aware, a lack of interest in his work which I find regrettable in the extreme.  At the same time, I can only point out that there seems to be an overall lack of interest in Church history in general,” chief editor Philip Scharper wrote in a private letter.  Almost no one had paid attention to The Dividing of Christendom, he noted, and probably even fewer would care about The Formation of Christendom. (5)  Sadly, whether Scharper’s prophecy was self-fulfilling or not, very few even noticed The Formation of Christendom when it came out.  Mainstream American media, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, ignored it completely. 

Only two academic journals, Sociological Analysis and the Catholic Historical Review, reviewed the 1967 work. (6)  Their reviews presented opposite views of Dawson’s book.  Werner Stark of the Jesuit Fordham University clearly wanted to love the book, calling its author “distinguished” and his goals for writing history from a Catholic perspective admirable and laudable.  “The question is, of course, how well this program is implemented, and in this respect a certain disappointment cannot, unfortunately, be denied,” Stark claimed.  Dawson’s own dated views of the “great man theory of history” lingered, the reviewer regretted.  The greatest problem Dawson suffered, though, came from his inability to explain Catholicism and its depths to Protestants.  “The discussion of monasticism, for instance, fails to convey what its deeper theological meaning was,” Stark wrote.  “Professor Dawson did not tell his students that the pioneers of monkhood wanted to prove to God and men that men could be godly, indeed, that men, even in their fallen state, could be as Adam was before the fall.” (7)  Catholic University of America’s Martin McGuire, however, found no faults at all with Formation.  It represented the English historian “at his best,” offering “his deep insights and power of synthesis.”  The reader, McGuire enthused, “is struck not only by the profundity of his thought but by the concreteness of his illustrations.”  Equal only to the originality of Dawson’s thought, he concluded, is the author’s “attractive” writing style. (8)

It should be noted that though Sheed retired from Sheed and Ward, he never lost faith in Dawson.  From their first meeting, the two had formed a fast if at times frustrating friendship, and Sheed not only encouraged Dawson professionally, significantly editing his friend’s works, but he also helped create some stability in the manic depressive Dawson.  Whatever “Catholic Literary Revival” existed after World War I in the English-speaking world, Sheed gave credit to six men: Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, C.C. Martindale, Ronald Knox, Christopher Dawson, and their inspiration, the greatest theologian of all time, St. Augustine of Hippo. (9)  But Sheed had lost hope in a full revival for Catholicism as early as 1958.  The Catholic mind had proven its genius time and time again through such authors as Dawson.  But, it had never expanded beyond letters into the realms of art and architecture, he sighed.  Such a limitation would eventually lead the movement to implode. (10)

Equally harmful to Dawson, he appointed his best friend, E.I. Watkin, as his agent and literary editor.  Dawson had suffered a series of devastating strokes throughout the 1960s, eventually losing his ability to write and speak.  He certainly needed to appoint someone to finish his work.  Watkin, though, allowed his passions to get the better of him.  Vatican II infuriated him.  He labeled the council and its conclusions the “Deformation.”  The new Church, he worried, had returned to barbarism, and it would never understand the nuances of a thinker as profound as Dawson. (11)  Discouraged, Watkin edited the last two of Dawson’s works, but with little enthusiasm.  In 1969, a year before Dawson’s death, his best friend wrote of him and his last works: Vatican II could never refute Dawson, even if it attempted to do so.  “He cannot be.  For his interpretations are anchored securely in historical fact.  He is simply discarded.” (12) While Dawson also thought Vatican II full of failures, he accepted it and its teachings upon the question of authority.  Watkin never did. (13)

Not surprisingly, Watkin also never edited volume three, The Return to Christian Unity.  Unpublished, the only manuscript of the conclusion to the trilogy—badly in need of proof-reading, editing, and organization—resides in the Harvard theological library.  Parts of it appeared as articles in various American conservative periodicals in the 1960s.  But only very small parts.  Someday, perhaps, a publisher might purchase the rights and release it properly.  Until then, we must rest content with what Dawson left us. 

And Dawson left us a very rich inheritance, indeed.

Dawson, or, most likely Watkin, organized The Formation of Christianity into four parts: an introduction; “Beginnings of Christian Culture”; “Formation of Medieval Christendom”; and an epilogue.  While Dawson’s history is, of course, excellent and his lectures beautifully crafted, the real importance of Formation comes not from the retelling of the story of western civilization, but from the theory he presented about the nature and philosophy of history, the fundamental role of the Church in reconciling classical thought and Christianity, and, especially, in the primacy of culture.  Indeed, much of what Dawson writes in detailing the history of western civilization can be readily found in his earlier works, dating back to the middle of World War I.  Instead, what makes The Formation of Christendom so essential not only as a part of the Dawson corpus but also as a great 20th-century work overall, is its long introductory section.  Professor McGuire was right.  This is truly Christopher Dawson at his best in terms of logic and rhetoric.  This introductory section reflects the life-long thought of one of the greatest minds of his day, a fully alive Catholic mind at the absolute peak of its power.

Culture, Dawson explained with deceptive simplicity in The Formation of Christendom, “is the human way of life communicated by language, so that the word of man is both the creator and the transmitter of culture” (67-68).  No matter how easy the words might appear, profundity hovers over every part of Dawson’s claim.  At the same time that Dawson was giving his famed Harvard lectures, he was also attempting to promote his understandings through various educational endeavors.  Culture, he argued—along the lines of the great Anglo-Irish statesmen Edmund Burke and French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville—is an artificial product.  It is like a city that has been built up laboriously by the work of successive generations, not a jungle which has grown up spontaneously by the blind pressure of natural forces.  It is the essence of culture that it is communicated and acquired, and although it is inherited by one generation from another, it is a social, not a biological, inheritance, a tradition of learning, an accumulated capital of knowledge and a community of “folkways” into which the individual has to be initiated.  Hence it is clear that culture is inseparable from education. (14)   

As Dawson often argued, culture finds its most significant expressions in the most human things, in language, in gestures, and, especially, in religious liturgy.

Beginning with his first book, The Age of the Gods, published in 1928, Dawson had unceasingly promoted an examination of culture as the most important basis of understanding a society, the family, and the human person.  In this, Dawson ran counter to the twentieth-century obsession with fanatic ideologies and politics.  Indeed, Dawson believed the desire to give primacy to politics and political thought led inevitably to a loss of imagination in the individual human person and an impoverishment of higher reasoning in human societies.  Lacking nuance and always and everywhere partaking of the imperial, politics attempted to expand its own sphere of influence into every aspect of life.  Ultimately, though, politics could succeed only by neutering a man, labeling him as something less than God or nature intended.  “One has to face the fact that there has been a kind of slump in ideas,” he confided to a close friend, Bernard Wall.  “There is not only a positive lack of new ideas but also a subjective loss of interest in ideas as such.” (15)  Certainly Mars and Demos had hastened the growth of Leviathan, Dawson feared.  “We are still living much under the shadow of war and the uncertainty of the future of Europe is unfavourable to creative work,” he worried. (16)  Ideological limitations and propaganda were quickly pervading thought, art, and music in the various Christian churches (Catholic and Protestant), Dawson argued.  “The modern theologians in ceasing to be poets have also ceased to be philosophers.” (17)

Though Dawson spent a considerable amount of time analyzing politics and ideology, especially between 1931 and 1942, he always resented this aspect of his writing, believing it necessary only to combat the errors of the 20th century.  In no way, he feared and lamented, did arguments for or against politics advanced the cause of God, Christendom, or the human person.  Politics served only as a distraction in this world of sorrows, but a deadly one as the Holocaust camps and the gulags had proven.  Still, the analysis of politics must be done, but it must always be done with an eye to explaining its insignificance in comparison with culture.  In his last overtly political work, 1942’s The Judgment of the Nations, Dawson tellingly dedicated the work “to all those who have not despaired of the republic, the commonwealth of Christian peoples, in these dark times.”

Though Dawson’s project never succeeded in reforming the western world, it certainly helped preserve the best of western civilization’s past.  It would be very difficult to exaggerate Dawson’s importance in inspiring a number of the best thinkers of the past century.  Their numbers included poets, novelists, cultural critics, and artists such as T.S. Eliot, David Jones, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Merton, and Russell Kirk, each of whom openly adopted Dawson’s position regarding culture during his life time.

Two examples will suffice.  In T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” arguably the greatest work of poetic art of the 20th century, toward the conclusion of the fourth poem, “Little Gidding,” the poet wrote:

And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home),

Takings its place to support the others

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious

An easy commerce of the old and the new

The common word exact without vulgarity

The formal word precise but not pedantic

The complete consort dancing together.

In less poetic but equally profound words, American cultural critic and historian Russell Kirk wrote in his 1955 book on academic freedom:

The principle support to academic freedom, in the classical world, the medieval world, and the American educational tradition, has been conviction, among scholars and teachers, that they are Bearers of the Word—dedicated men, whose first obligation is to Truth, and that a Truth derived from apprehension of an order more than natural or material. (18)

Eliot and Kirk each directly reflected the very Johannine sentiment and argumentation of Dawson.  As he wrote at the very beginning of chapter 2 of The Formation of Christianity:

The history of Christianity is the history of a divine intervention in history, and we cannot study it apart from the history of culture in the widest sense of the world.  For the word of God was first revealed to the people of Israel and became embodied in a law and a society.  Secondly, the word of God became Incarnate in a particular person at a particular moment of history, and thirdly, this process of human redemption was carried on in the life of the Church which was the new Israel—the universal community which was the bearer of divine revelation and the organ by which man participated in the new life of the Incarnate Word. (Formation, 17)

Each one of us is a little word, Dawson understood, carrying within each one of us an icon, a perfect image of what we are meant to be according to He who created the world as well as redeemed it.  As St. John assures us, the Logos is the “light that lighteth up every man.”  Every aspect of our imagination and our higher reason comes from outside of ourselves.  Ironically, that which is least human about us makes us most human.  Dawson thought this truth the most important we can ever know in our sojourn through this world while preparing for citizenship in the next.  The Formation of Christendom remains as a soul put forth into the world, witnessing to the brilliance of Christopher Dawson as well as a deep encouragement for our lives to be as intellectually and soulfully alive.  That is, to be Catholic.

1The first two volumes have recently been republished in English by Ignatius Press.

2Frank Sheed to Christopher Dawson, December 16, 1963, in Box 1, Folder 13, in the Sheed and Ward Family Papers, the Archives of the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana. 

3Sheed to Dawson, December 10, 1963, in Box 1, Folder 13, Sheed and Ward Family Papers, Notre Dame.

4Michael Novak, “The Political Identity of Catholics,” Commonweal 97 (February 16, 1973), 441.

5Philip Scharper to John Mulloy, November 29, 1967, in Box 113, Folder 44, Sheed and Ward Business Collection, Notre Dame.

6See Werner Stark, Sociological Analysis 28 (Autumn 1967): 172-173; and Martin R.P. McGuire, Catholic Historical Review 56 (April 1970): 219-220.

7Stark, Sociological Analysis, 172-173. 

8McGuire, Catholic Historical Review, 220.

9Frank Sheed, The Church and I (Doubleday: Garden City, New York, 1974), 107-129.

10Frank Sheed, “I am a Catholic Publisher,” Westminster Cathedral Chronicle (September-October 1959): 137.

11E.I. Watkin to Bernard Wall, February 28, 1969, in Box 1, Folder 24, Bernard Wall Papers, Archives of Georgetown University, Georgetown, D.C.

12E.I. Watkin, “Tribute to Christopher Dawson,” The Tablet (1969), 974.

13Watkin is a fascinating figure, in and of himself.  He wrote a number of critical works on art and culture during the same period as Dawson did.  They had been in school together as children, and they maintained their close relationship throughout their lives.  Watkin once described their relationship in classical terms.  He was Greek, and Dawson was Roman.  Watkin, though, was always somewhat heterodox.  He always maintained a strict pacificism, and he lived in a quasi-bigamous fashion during much of his adult life.  Only one biography of him exists, written by his daughter.  See Magdalen Goffin, The Watkin Path: An Approach to Belief (Sussex Academic Press, 2006).

14Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education (Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University Press, 1989), 3.

15Dawson to Bernard Wall, August 26, 1946.

16Dawson to Bernard Wall, September 9, 1946.

17Dawson to Bernard Wall, July 28, 1946.

18Russell Kirk, Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition (Chicago, IL, 1955), 29.

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About Bradley J. Birzer 14 Articles
Bradley J. Birzer is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Professor of History, Hillsdale College and author of several books, including noted biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Christopher Dawson, and Russell Kirk. His latest book is Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West (Angelico Press, 2019).