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Relicts of a Catholic Renaissance

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Evelyn Waugh and J.F. Powers, 1949
Did you ever run into the group known as the Detachers…? There was an ascetic movement in the Church in the forties that held ideas such as “Don’t have an automobile,” “Don’t have a radio,” “Sleep on the floor.”
—Senator Eugene McCarthy

A hotbed of the Detachment movement—people detaching themselves from the commercialism of the modern world—was in Minnesota around World War II. Eugene and Abigail McCarthy were part of it. So were their good friends the writer J.F. (“Jim”) Powers and his wife Betty. So were their East Coast friends Robert (“Cal”) Lowell and his wife Jean Stafford. All had been part of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement. They were adherents of what was known, in mid-twentieth-century America, as the Catholic Renaissance.

A window into that distant world is opened by the letters of Jim Powers, published by his daughter, along with excerpts from his occasional journals and from his wife’s diary. The editor briefly adds memories of growing up in what Powers called “the Movement.” That movement had four main strands.

The Catholic Renaissance

1. Neo-Medievalism. A principal source of the Renaissance was a heightened regard for Thomism, not only by seminarians and priests, but by laymen (like Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson), and even by non-Catholics (like Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler), as well as by art critics like Erwin Panofsky in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951). The idea that Saint Thomas Aquinas represented a golden age of faith led to glorification of the Middle Ages. In the friably disorienting twentieth century, the Gothic culture seemed in retrospect to fuse religion, philosophy, art, and social structure in a great synthesis. Followers of the Catholic Renaissance loved Gregorian chant, medieval guilds, Gothic churches and vestments, arts and crafts. The encyclical Rerum Novarum was invoked to show that modern capitalism is an enemy of workers’ guilds.

2. Ruralism. In England, neo-medievalism took the form of Distributism—G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc opposing both socialism (abolishing private property) and capitalism (concentrating private property), to promote the widest distribution of private property. One way to distribute property more widely, and to withdraw from modern industrialism, was to cultivate one’s own small farm. Distributists called people back to the land not only in England but even more effectively in America, where it showed up in the Rural Life Movement, and even in the Southern Agrarians. The repudiation of the machine age made one British Distributist, the Dominican Vincent McNabb, refuse to use any machine, even a typewriter. It was a compromise with modernity for him to write with a fountain pen instead of a quill.

The center of America’s Rural Life Movement was in Iowa, where the Distributist priest Luigi Ligutti revived the old Grange homesteads with the help of New Deal money in the 1930s. Ligutti’s influence was nationwide, but especially concentrated in the Midwest, where Gene and Abigail McCarthy felt its influence. Inspired by the movement, they tried to live simply on their own farm, which they called “St. Anne’s Farm,” after Gene’s mother’s patron saint. Abigail told Senator McCarthy’s biographer:

Gene believed in renewal through the rural life movement and I was ready to assent to whatever he thought right. We would live on a farm—but, of course, a farm like none either of us had ever known, a farm which would become the center of a community of writers and scholars.1

Jim Powers had the same dream, when he was in prison as a CO (conscientious objector) during World War II. With the help of fellow COs who had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, he created the layout for a community of prayerful farmers, a kind of Catholic Oneida. Even as late as 1979, Powers wrote his daughter, the editor of these letters, that his ideal home would be a large house in Ireland, with one room for her and her books, one for another daughter “weaving,” one for another doing etchings, one for his son “philosophizing and botanizing,” and his wife in the garden—a little monastery, the last thing the daughter wanted to hear about.

3. Liturgy. An even greater component of the Catholic Renaissance than the Rural Life Movement was the Liturgical Movement. The prophet of ruralism, Msg. Ligutti, was near the McCarthys’ home base, but the liturgy’s prophet, Dom Virgil Michel, was at its center, at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. There the Benedictine Dom Virgil led a nationwide liturgical movement that deeply affected not only the McCarthys but also the Powerses. Senator McCarthy’s biographer wrote in 2004: “McCarthy’s respect for Father Virgil [Michel] never waned, and the monk was probably the strongest single influence on his political thought.” Jim Powers’s closest circle of friends included local liturgical artists—a sculptor, a creator of sacred chalices, and a designer of stained-glass windows.

Dom Virgil had been deeply affected by the liturgy in the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, France. He made it his mission to educate people on the deeper meaning of the church’s year-long liturgical cycle of prayer, not only in the Mass but at the “hours” of the monastic day (explored in loving length in Dom Prosper Guéranger’s fifteen-volume The Liturgical Year). Priests were at that time required to recite a brief form of these hourly offices, in their daily reading of the Breviary. But Dom Virgil felt that priests had little understanding of what they rattled off to themselves in barely understood Latin. He wanted not only to revive clerical spirituality by close observance of every meaning in the cycle, but to introduce laymen into its mysteries.

For Detachers, this led to a monastic ideal in married life—with family prayers keyed to the seasons and hours of the church’s prayer year. Some men and women read the priests’ breviary, alone or as a family; and all became intimate with the seasonal prayers at Mass. They became known as “big Missal” people, carrying their own Latin texts to Mass, and responding to the priest in Latin (at the missa recitata). Abigail and Eugene began and ended each day at their Saint Anne’s Farm with prayers from the “hours” of the liturgy for that day.

St. John’s Abbey was central to the lives of both Gene McCarthy and Jim Powers. McCarthy attended the preparatory school and university connected with the abbey, then entered its seminary; and he went back as a layman to teach economics at the university from 1940 to 1943. Powers, who had grown up around Chicago, was drawn to Minnesota after he posed as a seminarian in order to attend a priests’ retreat at St. John’s, preached by a devout Detacher, Father John Hugo. He taught part-time at St. John’s University. Abigail McCarthy wrote that the abbey had a strong hold on the community formed by its alumni and friends. She fought that influence when her boyfriend, Gene, broke off their courtship to go into the seminary. She prayed that God would send him back to her. When her friend Jim Powers asked why she was so intent on Gene, she said, “I think I have a better chance of being a saint” with him.

4. Catholic Workers. Jean Stafford, like Abigail McCarthy and Betty Powers, found herself making sacrifices for her religious husband. After Robert Lowell became a Catholic, he had Jean, who was a Catholic convert but had lapsed, get remarried with him in the church; and he sent her off to work with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker House, and with another Catholic activist, Baroness de Hueck, at Friendship House. Lowell himself was busy working as an editor at the publishing house of all the major Catholic Renaissance writers, Sheed and Ward, where the son of that house’s founders says he was treated as a shining religious star. Stafford, too, thought her husband was “a catch” for the publishers. Stafford also worked for them, taking dictation from the house’s cofounder, Frank Sheed, as he translated Augustine’s Confessions.

Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward were Distributists. Ward wrote the first major biography of Chesterton, who was godfather to their son, Wilfrid Sheed. The pair had dutifully tried farming, like good Distributists, and been as unsuccessful as most of their fellow believers. Frank Sheed was a lay theologian, a kind of mini-Maritain. He and his wife were also street evangelists, in the Catholic Evidence Guild, a group Lowell considered joining while he worked for them.

There was a split in the Catholic Worker movement during World War II. Dorothy Day and her principal coworkers, Peter Maurin and Ammon Hennacy, were pacifists. But Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward wanted the troops to fight for their British homelands (Australia, respectively, and England). Both Lowell and Powers went with the pacifist Workers, and ended up in wartime confinement as COs. It is not surprising that when Lowell and Powers met in 1947 at Yaddo, the writers’ retreat, they had much in common—Catholicism, Detachment, pacifism, prison. They had been part of the Catholic Renaissance at its peak of influence.

But that influence soon faded, even from Catholic memories. The Catholic Renaissance had not, after all, led to a new form of lay monasticism. Perhaps by encouraging lay people to think, to plan different lives, to demand more from their priests, it helped bring about the Second Vatican Council. But that event was no triumph for the Detachers. They had wanted Gregorian chant, and they got guitars. Their missa recitata used timeless Latin and exotic liturgical niceties. They got everyday vernaculars. They wanted Saint Thomas’s Middle Ages, and they got the youth culture of the Sixties (which, as his children learned to their cost, Powers despised). Powers hated the new Mass and other changes brought in by Vatican II. That did not matter to the other Detachers mentioned here. They found useful alternatives to their early idealism. McCarthy became a senator, Lowell a poet, Stafford a novelist, Wilfrid Sheed a brilliant critic. They detached themselves from the Detachment and entered a wider world. Powers never did.

J.F. Powers: Letters

The Powers revealed in this collection of his letters is a man dispirited and dispiriting. He lived in a closed enclave of Detachers long after the Detachment was over. His closest friends were two Detacher priests who settled into the mediocre rectories described in Powers’s stories. One of them, Father Harvey Egan, gave Powers money during his many destitute periods. The other, George Garrelts, tried to prevent his marriage and then sabotaged it for years. When Betty tried to ease their life away from Garrelts, Jim said, in effect, she would have to choose between having the priest stay and having him go.

Powers was unhappy with his marriage and his children, and regularly broke away from them at holidays to go elsewhere with his priest friends. Gloomily following the church’s ban on contraceptives, he used the unpredictable “rhythm” form of birth control, with expectable results. Trying to avoid having ten or twelve children, he ended up with five, and dreaded each new pregnancy. Of these serial threats he wrote things like “her pregnancy. That, as you might guess, was the last straw,” and “we’re appalled by the prospect.” He was relieved when he could write at one point “no new children.” His wife felt the same way. She wrote in her diary after one child’s delivery: “No pregnancy had felt so tedious, so completely unjust.” (The McCarthys had the same experience with the rhythm method and had four children, as well as another, stillborn. I had a Catholic friend at the time who said that he and his wife prayed for an early menopause as their only relief.)

  1. 1

    Dominic Sandbrook, Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism (Knopf, 2004), p. 19. 

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