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Posted October 3, 2006

Book: The Movement Towards Christian Unity in the Nineteenth Century
Author: Christopher Dawson
Edited by Rene Kollar, O.S.B.
Saint Vincent Archabbey Publications, Latrobe, PA. 2006. Pp. 66

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Noted historian and author Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) “campaigned for an integrated study of Christian philosophy, history, literature and art in the same way as literae humaniores had studied every aspect of classical culture. Only this, he believed, could overcome the schism between religion and culture in the West.”

Dawson made his name as a scholar outside of traditional academic circles, but in 1958, at the age of sixty-nine, he and his wife, Valerie, traveled to Harvard University where he would occupy the Stillman Chair in the Divinity School until 1962. During his time in America, Dawson was invited by Archabbot Denis Strittmatter, O.S.B., the monastic superior at Saint Vincent Archabbey, and Father Quentin Schaut, O.S.B., the President of Saint Vincent College, to give the Wimmer Lecture. Dawson’s never-before-published 1960 talk, “The Movement Towards Christian Unity in the Nineteenth Century,” explores the rebirth of English Catholicism and how it sought to heal the religious divisions created by misunderstanding and centuries of intolerance.

An Excerpt from the Lecture:

But the ultimate problem is not a purely intellectual one: it is a question of spiritual leadership. The loss of Christian unity in the age of the Renaissance and the Reformation was due to the failure of spiritual leadership on the part of the Church and to the fact that the Reformers, in spite of their dogmatic errors, were the leaders of the age. Every turning point in history is an opportunity for leadership and every age has the leaders it deserves. If Catholics fail to grasp the need of the hour, then the leaders will be schismatics, and if the Christians fail, then the leadership will pass to the non-Christians and especially to the revolutionary leaders who understand how to unloose the forces of destruction. Such leaders may not be “great men” in the old sense of the words, aswe see in the case of the men like Hitler who in our own time have changed the pattern of history. But in every case the leader is one who responds to the demands and opportunities of his age so that the final responsibility rests not with the leader himself but with the people who have nourished false hopes and worshiped false ideals until they have created a leader in their own image.

Now the same principle holds good in the spiritual world and in matters of religion. Christendo has not recovered its unity because the will to unity has been weak and divided. If the will to unity were strong enough and pure enough, it would create the necessary organs of unity. Rainer Maria Rilke, who was not, I think, a practicing Catholic, but a man of Catholic traditions, once wrote that his generation had lost its faith because it had lost its sense of communion so that every man was absorbed in his own particular ideas and fears: “We are always spinning out one faculty of understanding that it may suffice us, instead of crying out to the iconostasis of our common misery, behind which the Inscrutable would have time to gather itself and put forth all its strength.”

If Christians possessed this urgent sense of common spiritual need, if they could concentrate their unrealized resources of prayer and faith on this issue, they would find that the obstacles to Christian unity which now seem so insurmountable would disappear like the ice blocks in a river in spring. The time is ripe for a great change, but we still lack the common consciousness of our common spiritual need.