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

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.

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…

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