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Patrick J. Hayes, A Catholic Brain Trust: The History of the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, 1945–1965 (Catholic University of America Press, 2011)

Reviewed by Kevin Schmiesing

From its founding in 1946 to its dissolution in 2007, the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs was a unique institution in the landscape of American intellectual life. It was an organization of individuals who were both self-consciously Catholic and self-consciously intellectual (though naturally, debate about what those terms meant and how they related constitutes part of the drama of the CCICA’s story).

Patrick Hayes has written a formidable history of the CCICA, conducting exhaustive research in the relevant archives and reporting his findings in detail. The book is thus a typical scholarly endeavor on a relatively narrow topic: a goldmine for those who are interested in the subject; likely somewhat slow-moving and tedious for most readers. Having researched and written about Catholic intellectual for many years (I looked at some of the same material as Hayes did and wrote a bit about the CCICA in my dissertation), I fall into the former category

Hayes captures well the character of Catholic intellectual life in the United States in this period. Especially with respect to the pre-Vatican II period, too many accounts err by, on the one hand, dismissing Catholic thought as monolithic and (dismayingly) sterile or by, on the other hand and less commonly, depicting it as monolithic and (admiringly) adamantine. Hayes’ sedulous archival work pays off by allowing him to present a full picture of Catholic intellectuals. They shared certain common concerns and viewpoints, but their differences were many and interesting.

These differences were on display in the key episodes of the CCICA’s history, most notably the debate over Msgr. John Tracy Ellis’s famous 1955 critique of American Catholic intellectual life. Some CCICA members agreed with Ellis completely, some agreed in part, and some disagreed strongly. Their differences were not functions of the fact that some were “serious” scholars and some were not. All were committed to the cultivation of the mind, but they brought varying assessments of the state of affairs and varying sets of priorities to the discussion.

That the CCICA encompassed most of the prominent thinkers in the American Catholic context during its heyday (which coincides with the period on which Hayes focuses, 1945–1965) is evident from a glance at the list of attendees at its first meeting (a document that is among several helpful appendices at the back of this volume). Among others, the list includes: Goetz Briefs and Louis Mercier (Georgetown); Roy Defferari, John Tracy Ellis, and Paul Furfey (Catholic University); Oscar Halecki (Fordham); M. Madeleva Wolff (St. Mary’s); David McCabe (Princeton); John Courtney Murray (Woodstock); and Yves Simon (Notre Dame).

Anyone seeking to understand fully Catholic intellectual life in the U.S. in the postwar era should not neglect this fine book.

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