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Sunday, August 19, 2018

British Roman Catholic Traditionalism in the 1940s and 1950s

As Scott Randall Paine, an American priest teaching at the University of Brasilia, notes, there are not many Roman Catholic Traditionalists. This, Paine thinks, may be because it is hard to transfer the central esoteric/exoteric paradigm from Traditionalism into Catholicism, as for Catholics “the ‘inner secret’ of God as Love is overtly on display in the crucified and risen Lord… [and] the ‘availability’ of this mystery to one and all… is at the very heart of the Gospel message” (Paine 2017, p. 9).

Be that as it may, there have been some Roman Catholic Traditionalists, including Jean Borella. Another, less known, is Bernard Kelly (1907-1958), whose writings Paine has collected in A Catholic Mind Awake: The Writings of Bernard Kelly (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2017).

Kelly, a London bank clerk, was a Dominican tertiary and an occasional contributor to Dominican publications, including Blackfriars. Some of these contributions are reprinted in A Catholic Mind Awake, dealing for example with Gerald Manley Hopkins and “Christians and the Class Struggle” (1937). Then, in 1940, Kelly discovered the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy, with whom he began a long correspondence, and thus also the work of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, who he later visited in Switzerland. He remained, however, a committed Catholic.

A Catholic Mind Awake is divided into four sections. The most interesting is the first section, “Metaphysics East and West,” which makes up almost half the book and reflects Kelly’s Traditionalism. The other three sections contain mostly earlier work, on “Spirituality and Beauty,” “Poetry and the Arts,” and “Reflections on Society.” This is where the essay on “Christians and the Class Struggle” is to be found; it also contains two later essays from Kelly’s Traditionalist period, both reflecting on the work of Eric Gill (1882-1940), the English sculptor, typeface designer, and printmaker who had been a friend and admirer of Coomaraswamy.

The four main articles in the section on “Metaphysics East and West” attempt to reconcile Traditionalism with Catholic doctrine, notably Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), and to introduce the key Traditionalists to a Catholic, Dominican audience. The earliest is “How May we Approach the Spiritual Traditions of the East?” (1946), which objects to the “impudent philistinism” of “humanist philosophers” and instead advocates “metaphysical contemplation” to access “the truths diversely/expressed in the varying traditions of mankind,” and regrets in passing “the spiritual chaos of the modern world” (pp. 51-52). It then cites Coomaraswamy at length.

The second article, “Notes on the Lights of the Eastern Religions” (1954) attacks Western translators of Hindu texts who lack traditional training and “appear to have taken their philosophical language from the newspapers” (p. 31), and then introduces and praises the work of Coomaraswamy and Guénon. “A Thomist Approach to the Vedanta” (1956) likewise introduces and praises Coomaraswamy and Guénon, adding Schuon and Burckhardt. It also attempts a Christianization of Traditionalism, referring to a “primordial revelation to mankind of which we have a record guaranteed to us in the first chapters of Genesis” and noting that finding the truth in other traditions “requires of us an interior rather than an external approach” (p. 21). This is one way of solving the problem of the esoteric and exoteric. The last article, “The Metaphysical background of Analogy” (1958), addresses Aquinas and Thomas Cajetan (1469-1534).

Bernard Kelly’s attempt to promote Traditionalism within a Dominican context is indeed unusual and interesting. It seem to have met with some success. Two articles by Coomaraswamy were published in Blackfriars, perhaps through Kelly’s influence (“Why Exhibit Works of Art” in 1942 and “Gradation, Evolution and Reincarnation” in 1946). An editorial in 1948 praised Coomaraswamy, comparing him in importance to C. G. Jung and Nikolai Berdyaev (Editorial 1948). A Dominican priest, Victor White (1902-60), likewise praised Coomaraswamy (White 1951, 586; White 1953, 331). White, however, also took exception to Guénon’s “smugly superior… didactic and pompous” style (White 1959, 18) and his “strange illusions” regarding the Western tradition (White 1946, 441), though he still welcomed Guénon’s “rare flashes of insight” (White 1951, 586).

Bede Griffiths (1906-93), a Benedictine monk who later became a celebrated Christian yogi, found Schuon’s attempt to reconcile Christianity and Islam “not very convincing,” but even so felt it should be taken seriously, and concluded of Guénon that “though a Christian has to make continual reservations, there is revealed an astonishing insight and a vast erudition in the spiritual doctrine of east and west” (Griffiths 1954, 30).

There was, then, something of a Roman Catholic Traditionalist milieu in and around Kelly and Blackfriars in the 1940s and 1950s.

Works cited
Editorial 1948. “Over the Wall of Partition.” Blackfriars 29, pp. 257-263.
Griffiths, Bede, 1954. Review of The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times by René Guénon and The Transcendent Unity of Religions by Frithjof Schuon. Blackfriars 35, pp. 29-31.
Paine, Scott Randall, 2017. Introduction. In A Catholic Mind Awake: The Writings of Bernard Kelly, ed. Paine (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2017), pp. 1-15.
White, Victor, 1946. Review of Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines by René Guénon and of Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta by René Guénon. Blackfriars 27, pp. 440-441.
White, Victor, 1951. “Buddhism Comes West.” Blackfriars 32, pp. 585-591.
White, Victor, 1953. “The Impact of Eastern Wisdom on The West.” Blackfriars 34, pp. 329-333.
White, Victor, 1959. “Some Recent Studies in Archetypology.” Blackfriars 40, pp. 216-219.

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