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The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era
Thomas E. Woods Jr.
Columbia University Press, 2004
304 pp., $95.00
by Eugene McCarraher
Restore All Things in Thomas?
One of the signature conceits of Catholics who "came of age" during the 1960s is that the Church first directly confronted modernity at the Second Vatican Council. ("Coming of age," like "secular city," was a trendy phrase among Christians, tying Boomers' new adulthood to the vogue for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.) Until the aggiornomento, so the tale goes, the American Church was shrouded in neo-scholastic darkness, with its finest minds malnourished by an intellectual diet of all Thomas, all the time. And then came the springtime of Catholics, when "the spirit of Vatican II"—another phrase that's become a hackneyed generational marker—shone through the vaults of this musty medievalism, bathing the sanctuary in the saving light of modern secular culture.
This mythological account of '60s Catholicism is remarkably resilient—testimony, like much of the lore of that decade, to the power and self-regard of the Boomer cohort—and it bears so much truth about Catholic insularity that it still deserves attention, regardless of the smugness it can sanction. Still, it withers in the face of a growing trove of scholarship in history and theology. Over the last two decades, a number of historians—many but not all of whom "came of age" after Vatican II—have traced the Catholic encounter with modernity back well into the 19th century. Vatican II increasingly looks more like an ending than a beginning, the culmination of a century-long engagement with classical modernity in which Catholic medievalism doesn't come out so badly. Indeed, as the theologian Tracey Rowland has argued in Culture and the Thomist Tradition, the Council's own exemplary documents—especially Gaudium et spes—were all too superficial in their analyses of modern culture.1
Thomas Woods' new study of American Catholic intellectuals in the Progressive period is a worthy if limited contribution to this revisioning. An assistant professor of history at Suffolk Community College-SUNY, Woods has turned his dissertation into a lucid ...