Who are the American Catholic Intellectuals?

Back in March, writing for his “In Ages Past” column, Pat McNamara filed an informative piece on Orestes Brownson, a name that left many scratching their heads and wondering, “whozat?”

In 1937, New York City police investigated a vandalism case on West 104th Street and Riverside Drive, where teenagers had toppled and defaced a statue dedicated to Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876). After extensive investigation, police couldn’t find anyone that knew who Brownson was.

It turned out that he had a loose connection with Fordham University in the Bronx, so the statue was sent there. But many years later, one Jesuit recalls, students still “hadn’t the vaguest idea” who he was.

The irony is that Orestes Augustus Brownson was one of the previous century’s foremost intellectuals, involved in every major debate of the time: political, religious, intellectual, with strong opinions on all. (His collected writings number twenty volumes.) A seeker after truth, he joined several churches before finding Catholicism. In time he forged a place for himself as Catholic America’s first great lay intellectual.

If the piece’s teaser referred to Brownson as “a flawed man of his time [who] begins to emerge as a challenging voice for political Catholics” his name may become yet more readily known beyond the classroom thanks to his inclusion in The Gregorian Institute’s survey naming “America’s Greatest Catholic Intellectuals”.

Writes Tom Hoopes:

To celebrate Catholic identity in public life, the Catholic Hall of Fame will present you with Catholic innovators who were the highest achievers in their fields, according to the top Catholic thinkers of our time. The Gregorian Institute at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, hosts the online Hall of Fame.

In early October, we surveyed top Catholic commentators, editors and scholars to ask: “Who were America’s greatest Catholic intellectuals?” The 10 included here represent those who received the most nominations.

Tom was nice enough to include me among his voters but I got distracted while deciding (sadly, I am no intellectual; my brain is always distracted by shiny things) and so my ballot rests, still, amid my email drafts. Nevertheless all of my choices landed in the Top 10 list, which is a nice mix of clergy and layfolk, who are listed in order of birth:

1. Orestes Brownson (1803–1876)
2. John Courtney Murray (1904-1967)
3. John Senior (1923-1999)
4. Avery Dulles (1918-2008)
5. James Schall (1928-)
6. Ralph McInerny (1929-2010)
7. Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)
8. Mary Anne Glendon (1938-)
9. George Weigel (1951-)
10. Robert P. George (1955-)

Read more about the survey view pictures of those named, here

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Katherine

    Apropos of nothing, in our family, whenever we lose focus the universal answer is “something shiny happened” when called to account.

    Thank you for your writing.

  • Ray

    Who could come up with this type of list and not include Bishop Fulton Sheen. Over half the names you have listed are mental pygmies compared to Bishop Sheen. You don’t have to be a theologian to be considered a great Catholic Thinker. Please reTHINK!!

  • friscoeddie

    Ray is correct about Sheen.. and I add Theodore Hesburgh to replace your some of your ideologues

  • Lawrence S. cunningham

    Thomas Merton? Dorothy Day?

  • Frank

    Hesburgh stood silently by when Notre Dame honored the promoter and supporter of the legalized destruction of human life within the womb, Barack Obama. Glendon did the right and honorable thing and spoke out against this disgrace. I would not include Hesburgh on such a list.

    What about William F. Buckley, Jr.? Or Michael Novak?

  • Scott Hebert

    Bishop Sheen does deserve a place here.

    That’s the only person I have an opinion on, as most… I unfortunately do not know.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    I’d add Michael Novak to that list.

  • Greta

    Merton and Day??? Hesburgh??? Next someone will suggest Cardinal Bernardin and his seamless garment theory.

    can agree completely with Bishop Sheen and also Michael Novak. However, it is hard to not include those shown above in the list of 10. It would be good to add a nun as we have seen some Catholic innovators in our history.

  • http://www.hancaquam.blogspot.com PNP, OP

    I’ve added links to all the names on the list over at my place:

    Check them out:

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  • Lawrence S. cunningham

    Walker Percy? Flannery O’Connor? Percy, by the way, got “The Confederecy of Dunces” published.

  • Doc

    Archbishop Chaput

  • Lawrence S. cunningham

    Peter and Peggy Steinfels?

  • http://www.BetweentheBurghandtheCity.com Paul Snatchko

    Regarding Orestes Brownson, perhaps his most lasting legacy was the inspiration he may have provided for Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers.

    Check out Hecker’s biography for the connection:


  • Nemo

    I think it’s true that most of the intellectuals come from the left hand side of the ledger. Both of the Steinfels, probably Cathleen Kaveny. Hesburgh and Dorothy Day are candidates. I’d certainly include Archbishop Sheen.

    Weigel is too derivative, I think.

  • http://www.canonlaw.info Ed Peters

    Did they define what an intellectual is before asking for votes? And I know several people qualified to “cast ballots” on such a topic, and none of them even heard of the query.

  • harold

    Hey Ed,

    what about Father Drinan?

  • Dan

    Conservative Catholic intellectuals

    And Catholic conservative intellectuals.

    Weigel is over-venerated.

  • Lawrence Cunningham

    Alasdair MacIntyre and, if you are ecumenical, Charles Taylor (who is a Canadian).