Catholic Creative Minorities: Way Forward

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Defining “Creative Minorities”

The term “creative minorities” usually refers exclusively to groups of intellectuals or people of extraordinary influence in society: this is not the meaning I give to the term in these chapters. Rather I intend it to be a term that is inclusive of all those Catholics who act to imbue society with Christian principles whether directly (in politics, the mass media and elsewhere) or indirectly by firstly building up Catholic life within the frontiers of the Church.  I also intend it to refer to action at any level or degree of influence starting in the parish or local area. This is because the creative minorities that are at the apex of the pyramid of influence in politics, the arts and in the formation of culture generally owe their existence to hidden rank-and-file formative groups in the pyramid’s base.  Herein lies the vital and determining influence of the catechism group, the apologetics group, the parish prayer group, the university outreach group – these are the wombs in  which the giants of civilizational-change are born!

 

“The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” says the wise old saying but one can also say that the voice and hand that genuinely teaches, sanctifies and shepherds in the parish determines society’s future by providing the rich placenta of grace and ideas, inspiration and imagination that later see come to birth vigorous Catholic men and women who rock society. Take any great genuinely Catholic politician, intellectual or journalist and nine times out of ten you will find written all over his  spiritual life the quiet metabolism he received from a secret chain of quiet influences: this is the natural way in which the supernatural usually brings about the ultimate triumph of a Christian civilization – in the gentle enlightenment and elevation of intelligence, imagination and freedom  respecting the normal psychological unfolding of the human person.  Then each person according to their native and graced talents will bring forth fruit tenfold and a hundredfold for the common good.

Elite of the Self-Sacrificing

Individuals for a creative minority should be men and women willing to commit themselves to a demanding formation and action; rare therefore will they be in most parishes and after much searching and proposing you will have with you a mere handful. So few in numbers after so much toil can lead to one of two attitudes: the first being simply to throw in the towel and mutter curses about the world we live in; the other will be to roll up sleeves and  begin shoveling away to lay foundations with the few and the valiant.  After all, why should we be shocked? Commitment has never been a popular sport anywhere anytime. When and where did big numbers ever turn out to be pioneers? It’s just a fact of fallen human nature: only a tiny minority is willing to stick it’s neck out, walk the extra mile, give the extra dollar, get up one hour earlier in order to do something to change the world. So instead lets draw courage  from the presence of  this tiny elite of the generous, for they are, and always have been, the future of the Church, the co-workers of the shepherds, from whom the priests and religious and lay apostles have emerged to act on the cutting-edge of history: these are the  people who will strive to change the world.

A doubt may gnaw at the conscience before starting such groups: “But won’t I be neglecting the mass of parish members?” An important question because the pastor may never be a pastor for elites neglecting the “masses”: abhorrent is such a conception of the ambassador of Christ who “wills all men to be saved”.  Therefore the formation of any such group must never impede the performance of one’s duties to the rest of the parishioners.

However there is no such danger if the nature of the elite is respected as an elite of co-workers, an elite of the generous for the sake of the common good;  who will be active in building up the Church whether at parochial, diocesan or national level or in secular society.  Therefore creative minorities are a way of  working with a few in order to achieve more, and more effectively,  for the sake of the many. They cease to be creative minorities if they are not constantly seeking to make a practical difference to their surroundings: we are not in the business of creating spiritual snobs.  Their availability and professional seriousness  in leading programs such as catechetics, apologetics, marriage-preparation and  works of Christian mercy  will be the back-bone of the parish.  Their commitment to God will radiate holiness making Christianity attractive to fellow parishioners and  to non-Catholic Christians, Jews, Moslems  and also to the “neo-pagans” of the West  who will say in wonderment (as the ancient pagans did when they met the first Christians):“What is this religion that can give such light, strength and fire to the hearts of men and women?”

Way Forward:  Creative Minorities

The British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, took an opposing view to Hegel’s on the subject of the causes of change in history: rather than viewing history as the irresistible march of the blind forces of fate, he asserted  “civilizations arise not because of genetically superior individuals (there are none) or because of favorable geographical environments, but because of a creative response by a minority of individuals to a situation of special difficulty.”

Intellectual elites exist nowadays as in any era. However, from a large sector of the intelligentsia  who dominate public opinion  we cannot expect the creative response needed by society, since they are strangely blind to the “situation of special [civilizational] difficulty”. An  intelligentsia that continues to shriek  about the dangers of population explosion, even when some economists are already warning about our demographic winter with its aging population and declining work force, is visually impaired and  intellectually sterile.

Locked into the Enlightenment vision and a rejection of metaphysics, they put all their bets for the future on the engineering of “rationally-ordered” societies without reference to God, the natural law and a role for Christianity in the public square. Yet to attempt to construct a new world-order on such foundations is akin to building a city on a fault-line. The absence of an ultimate explanation for the world and man’s existence pushes formal and informal education as well as legislation towards individualism and hedonism: society exists to provide the individual citizen with a “quality life” through striving for the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain. Governments can then justify social engineering through genetic experimentation and  “double-talk” about “reproductive health”, “marriage diversity” and “types of family”. Amazing is the capacity of these intelligentsias to either ignore or tranquillize public opinion about initial earthquake tremors: they see no connection between rising suicide rates, the abandonment of marriage, family breakdown, escalating juvenile violence and increased rates of practical illiteracy with the new social order they have engineered.

From the dominant cultural elite therefore we cannot hope for mold-breaking innovations.

One organization however has a proven track-record over 2,000 years of creativity for the common good blending high ideals with a pragmatic recognition of fallen man’s capacities at any historic moment. Admittedly the Church’s record over the centuries is unevenly spread out: understandable since no matter how sublime and wise her ideas she always depends on the intelligence and courage of her members especially those in her leadership ranks. Yet in spite of frequently putting up with crippled limbs, her feats stand in sharp contrast to all others – despots, Marxist-Leninists, libertarians –  who have been eventually shown up as Don Quixotes pursuing Utopias. Not only has she built the  magnum civilization of the West but also the miniature “civilizations” of the Reducciones among the Guarani Indians of Paraguay and countless oases of Christian civilization on all continents.

This building and rebuilding of civilization occurred thanks to creative minorities that sprung up in the heartlands of the Church where sanctifying grace flowed in mighty rivers, the soils were rich in orthodoxy and the men and women were strong in courage. Reading through history we discover to our relief that at the darkest hours of  the pilgrim Church’s journey she found relief and renewal at out-of-the-way oases offering reinvigoration: a confirmation indeed for pilgrims tempted to despair that

though the last lights off the black West went

            Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –

            Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

            World broods with warm breast, and with ah! bright wings” [1]

 

Some of these groups were tiny in numbers and short-lived and appear only in the footnotes of history but from their ranks came saints and pioneers who blazed new trails of reform within the Church and  shouldered the rebuilding of their societies. Whatever their specific activities may have been, intrinsic to their achievements was the air they breathed in such “bands of brothers”: incisive for thought and invigorating for valor. Indeed they were places where they could live out the divine command “every day keep encouraging one another” ( Hebs 3:12) for although individual friends are strength  to the soul, several friends bound in fraternity of ideals are strength intensified since fellowship of the spirit “is a surgeon’s art; it draws out our richest and deepest resources; it unfolds the wings of our dreams and hidden indeterminate thoughts; it serves as a check on our judgments, tries out our new ideas, keeps up our ardor, and inflames our enthusiasm.”[2] The simplest and most natural of activities were enough for these groups: conversations, study circles and retreats filled with the energizing sap of sanctifying grace and Christian ideals that bonded their minds and hearts.

 

Such were the creative minorities of the Catholic Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries who initially met  not  in order to reform the Church but in order to reform themselves.  They would heartily agree with the words spoken by Giles of Viterbo in 1512: ‘Men must be changed by religion, not religion by men.’  They included  the ‘Fraternities of Divine Love’ which sprung up towards the end of the 15th century largely through the work of St. Catherine of Genoa; also the ‘Oratory of Divine Love’ a group whose members met in a little church of Trastevere in Rome between the years 1510 and 1520 in order to pray, meditate, study sacred scripture and the Fathers of the Church and which included some of the outstanding movers and shakers of renewal like St. Cajetan, Cardinal Carafa, Bishop Luigi Lippomano.

 

Other similar sources of  rejuvenation occurred in Germany in the 1800s where the Church (languid since the time of the French revolution) became such a powerful force in society that even Bismarck “went to Canossa” in his anti-Catholic Kulturkampf  of 1871-1878. This strength owed much in origin to the now forgotten fraternities of priests and laity like those of Münster ( which included Fr. Bernard Overberg)  and Landshut ( Fr. Johann Sailer) and at the University of Munich, the group of Johann Joseph Gorres which from 1827 onwards included Mohler, Arndts and Phillips.

 

On the borders of the Church was the Oxford Group, a similar group of impassioned Christians who dedicated much of their efforts to writing. Besides  Blessed John Henry Newman, it is fascinating to see how many others went on to influence British society: among them William Gladstone (British Prime Minister), Matthew Arnold ( the educationalist) and Henry Wilberforce ( the journalist).

Why can’t the same happen again?

The Church, Mater et Magistra,  remains unchanging yesterday, today and forever. She has the principles, the wisdom and the memory to bring to birth these creative minorities. She has within her all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge given by God to man and with the loyalty of faithful sons who love her and do not dispute her, she can show for each age solutions both new and old.

But does she have those sons and daughters now?  With that winning blend of genuine Catholicity, strong guts and ‘chutzpah’ to confront a dictatorship and “beard the lion in his den”?  That is the matter about which we can harbor doubts.  

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur

[2] A.G.SERTILLANGES, The Intellectual Life, It’s Spirit, Conditions,Methods. Catholic University of America Press, 1987, p. 56.