'These people were trying to make points with their whole lives'

An interview with Paul Elie, author of 'The Life You Save May Be Your Own.'

The middle of the 20th century is often cited as the most recent high-tide of Catholic intellectualism, when writers and thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic converted or rededicated themselves to the Catholic faith. Paul Elie's book "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" attempts to capture the spirit of that time with a group biography of four mid-century Catholic Americans--Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy and Thomas Merton. Paul O'Donnell spoke to him recently about his book, which is Beliefnet's 2003 Book of the Year, and how that era differs from our own.

Part of the story of your book is how three of these four writers converted to Catholicism. What drew them and many others to Catholicism in the middle of the 20th century?

It's one of the hardest questions to answer. I'm suspicious of the usual explanation, that it was a kind of Catholic moment, when immigrant Catholics were coming of age, having assimilated to a certain degree, but not having lost their distinctiveness. Another explanation is that the world had been through a war, and the Catholic faith offered a solidity and promise in dispairing times; yet another is that Catholicism represented something other for Americans--like Percy or Day--who were all too assimilated.


People may look back and see a sort of golden age of Catholicism at this time. But something like 100 million Catholics lived in this country between 1933 when the Catholic Worker was founded and now. There's incredible diversity in that group, the motives for being Catholic, the ways of being Catholic, the significance of it and the expression. So most of the generalizations don't hold up. I said to myself, let's go deep, looking at four lives and try to point toward the whole. That to me is how best to understand religious experience in this country.

These four weren't alone though. They existed within a larger realm of Catholic intellectuals.

They did. There was Jacques Maritain. There were the English Catholics, Waugh and Greene and their associates. There was Claire Booth Luce and her circle. The example of Bellocq and Chesterton was still very strong. There were crypto-Catholics like Czeslaw Milosz and Boris Pasternak, whom Merton entered into dialogue with. There was Caroline Gordon and a lot of other people now forgotten.

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