Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The vanishing Catholic intellectual

- Welcome to the Tablet

The vanishing Catholic intellectual

Alain Woodrow

The French, ever proud of their great thinkers, complain they have all but disappeared today. In Church circles it is the same. But are those fine minds out there, simply biding their time, waiting for the right moment?

IN ENGLAND, “intellectual” is a dirty word; in France, being described as such is akin to consecration, something devoutly desired. Whereas the pragmatic English wear their learning lightly and wouldn’t be seen dead signing a petition as “a group of intellectuals”, the French parade their erudition proudly and expect their intellectuals – a recognised and revered class – who are naturally engages, to take a public (and published) political stand on every controversial question. The tradition goes back to Emile Zola’s famous article on the front page of L’Aurore in 1898, “J’Accuse!”, in which he took Dreyfus’s defence against the anti-Semites of his day.

The English writer or thinker might join a club, but would probably prefer to discuss life over a pint. His French counterpart would be too busy organising press campaigns, signing petitions, attending a colloquium on “the French cultural exception” or expounding his pet theory at a université d’été. He has immortal longings and dreams of being elected to the Académie française, that exclusive club of 40 “immortal” intellectuals founded by Richelieu in 1634.

Last February, 40,000 self-styled intellectuals signed a petition accusing Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s right-wing Government of “waging war on intelligence” by cutting scientific and research budgets. They had a point. This Government, true to its liberal principals, has been particularly miserly in funding culture, research and all forms of associative action, whether charitable or intellectual, on the grounds that the private sector should contribute more and the State less, in a similar way to the American model.

But parallel to this switch in priorities there has been a general decline in the contribution of les intellectuals to public life, especially since the end of the Cold War. The Figaro’s literary supplement recently published an article entitled “Why don’t intellectuals, on the right and the left, occupy a more prominent place in the public arena?”, ending on a gloomy note: “Is this the end of the intellectual?” Generally speaking, the left has produced more famous and influential thinkers (Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, Althusser) than the right (Malraux, Aron); to be intellectual was almost synonymous with being left-wing. Many were professed Marxists, and the fall of Communism explains in part the disarray of the thinking elite.

But the slump in the intellectual market has swept right across the board, affecting not only Communists and liberals, Catholics and rationalists, but also philosophers and theologians, historians and sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists, literary critics and film directors. Where are today’s Lévi-Strauss, Braudel, Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, Furet, Le Roy Ladurie, Robbe-Grillet, Truffaut, Godard ...? On the Christian scene, such giants as Maritain and Mauriac, Gide and Julien Green, Teilhard de Chardin and Gabriel Marcel, not to speak of the theologians who inspired the Second Vatican Council, Congar, De Lubac, Chenu, Daniélou, have not been replaced.

Today, the leading philosopher, if such he can be called, is Bernard-Henri Lévy (known as BHL), more a television celebrity and journalist than a serious thinker. As Perry Anderson wrote recently in an article on France’s decline, “Dégringolade” (Collapse), published by the London Review of Books last September: “It would be difficult to imagine a more extraordinary reversal of national standards of taste and intelligence than the attention accorded to this crass booby in France’s public sphere, despite innumerable demonstrations of his inability to get a fact or an idea straight.”

A spate of books about him, mostly critical, are appearing at the moment, denouncing the network BHL created. He founded a school of nouveaux philosophes in 1977, but was never taken seriously by such specialists as Aron, Castoriadis, Deleuze, Leys or Vidal-Naquet. He is accused of dilettantism, slipshod reporting and of relying on a network of friends in the media and the political milieu to promote his ideas, books and films.

Having a book published is still the hallmark of any self-respecting intellectual, but they are often hastily written pamphlets or, in the case of politicians, ghosted manifestos. The French may now read less, on average, but the number of published books grows larger every year, especially portraits of political figures. There were 70 essays written about the 2002 election campaign, while over the years 200 books were published about François Mitterrand, and 2,000 on Charles de Gaulle.

The theme of France’s decline is a recurrent one in the press. In 2003, the centre-right economist and historian Nicolas Baverez published a biting criticism of his own class, the UMP Gaullist Party, in his book La France qui tombe. His theory is that, ever since the Revolution, France has suffered from alternating cycles of brutal decline and spectacular recovery. He criticises the present Government’s failure to carry out the necessary economic reforms while it holds all the levers of power.

He says this is due to his country’s “profound conservatism” and inability to adapt to the far-reaching upheavals which are disrupting the global economic and geopolitical system. His attack spares no one, and he castigates the “sinister continuity between the two seven-year terms of François Mitterrand and the 12 years of Jacques Chirac’s presidency, united by their talent for winning elections and ruining France”.

Another book which has hit the headlines recently is Nicolas Sarkozy’s La République, les religions, l’espérance (The Republic, religions and hope). The former minister of the interior, who resigned from his post as finance minister after being elected president of the UMP Party, makes no secret of his ambition to replace Chirac as president of the Republic in 2007.

Sarkozy’s book is an interview with Thibaud Collin, a professor of philosophy, and Philippe Verdin, a Dominican friar. When he was interior minister (which includes being “minister of cults”), he reorganised the “Conseil français du culte musulman” (the French Council for the Muslim Faith) to include the more radical, fundamentalist “Union des organisations islamiques de France” (the Union of French Islamic Organisations). After a brief show of unity, when a joint delegation went to Baghdad to plead for the release of two French journalist hostages, they are once more at loggerheads, threatening to split the CFCM.

Sarkozy’s most controversial remarks in the book concern the law of 1905 defining the separation of Church and State. He suggests that the law be revised to allow state funding for the building of all places of worship. At present, churches and synagogues must be exclusively financed by contributions from the faithful, although “annexes”, such as community centres or sacred art museums, can receive money from the local authorities. Sarkozy proposes that mosques could be built at the taxpayer’s expense.

“Why should the State finance a football ground, a library, a theatre or a nursery”, he asks, “and not pay a centime towards society’s religious needs?” Representatives of the other major religions, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, immediately criticised the idea, and both Chirac and Raffarin stated publicly that they are flatly opposed to any tampering with the law of 1905. Many political observers see this as a clever move on Sarkozy’s part to win the Islamic vote in future presidential elections, and ask why he didn’t try to change the law when he was minister of the interior.

To Sarkozy’s credit, he has broken the taboo against mixing religion and politics. He is in favour of a greater role for religion in society and pleads for a more comprehensive understanding of laïcité (secularism). He is opposed to the wearing of the Islamic headscarf by pupils of state schools (but not in private schools or in public elsewhere), and by state officials (the civil service, the police, etc). “Historically”, he explains, “the doctrine of laïcité was elaborated in the struggle against the influence of the Catholic religion. Those times are past. Today, laïcité is a chance to be seized by all, religious and unbelievers alike.”

He shocked some by his incursion into the religious domain, going so far as to affirm that “the Republic cannot reply to all our questions as it knows nothing of good and evil; it simply tells us what is permitted or forbidden”.

If economists (like Bavarez) and politicians (like Sarkozy) are occupying the moral high ground, where are the Catholic moralists and theologians? As Anderson wrote: “Traditionally, literature has always occupied the summit on the slopes of prestige within French culture. Just below it lay philosophy, surrounded with its own nimbus, the two adjacent from the days of Rousseau and Voltaire to those of Proust and Bergson. On lower levels were scattered the sciences humaines, history the most prominent, geography or ethnology not far away, economics further down ... today, all this has passed. The feeling is widespread that the Fifth Republic, as it approaches its half century, presents a fallen landscape.”

This dearth of Catholic thinkers, whether they are theologians or philosophers, is not limited to France. Catholic intellectuals seem to be a vanishing breed on the wider international scene. The second World Congress of the International Conference of Catholic Faculties of Philosophy, which took place in Mexico last September, took for its theme “Philosophy as mediation”. This meeting of representatives of more than 60 Catholic faculties of philosophy asked the same question: does the Catholic Church still have intellectuals and philosophers of the stature of Blondel or Maritain?

Faced with the challenge of secularisation and technology based on purely rational premises, the philosophers present stressed the need to assert their Catholic identity, while maintaining a critical yet benevolent dialogue with the philosophical community at large. Not only did they reject the temptation to isolate themselves within a specifically Christian, and therefore marginal, exclusivism, but spoke out in favour of joining forces with non-Christian philosophers in analysing such thorny questions as bioethics or globalisation. Refusing to remain on the defensive, they wished to prove that Christian wisdom is capable of meeting the most difficult challenges.

The participants also pointed out that the emergence of new philosophical questions will oblige Catholic universities to reorganise their academic curriculum. A new, more collegial way of practising philosophy will advance the Church’s thinking on such questions. Although Catholic philosophers tend to keep a lower profile today than their predecessors, they are also working more collectively, as a team, and it isn’t because they are incognito that they are less responsible, concluded the congress.

This teamwork, by groups of young Catholic philosophers and theologians who prefer anonymity to renown – in France as elsewhere – is also a result of the climate of suspicion surrounding Catholic intellectuals under the present pontificate. When such luminaries as Congar, Küng, Schillebeeckx, Gutiérrez or Boff did not escape the inquisitorial eye of Cardinal Ratzinger and his watchdog Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it is hardly surprising that lesser mortals should shun the limelight.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that Catholic intellectuals are not an endangered species but that the new generation has simply gone underground. Fins de règne, whether of kings or popes, are always difficult and uncertain times, when courtiers intrigue, jockey for position and try to take over the reins. The seeds that are sown today, patiently, unseen, are not lost. Tomorrow – perhaps – 1,000 flowers will bloom.

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