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Stratford Caldecott: A Life Recalled

By Russell Sparkes

It seems scarcely possible that we have arrived at the seventh anniversary of Stratford Caldecott’s death. While a deeply personal tragedy for his wife and children, his death was also a great loss for the Catholic Church in the English speaking world. Not infrequently people bemoan the lack of serious Catholic thinkers who can enter into dialogue with modern society on the issues of the day. For example, in 2016 a Tablet headline stated, “Archbishop Martin bemoans shortage of Catholic intellectuals”. Yet in Stratford we had a great Catholic intellectual, even if he received little official recognition or support during his lifetime. Moreover, it seems particularly important to think of his work right now, after the experience of the worldwide pandemic of 2020/2021.

I will list here just a couple of the issues which Strat so presciently raised and discussed. I suspect that education may well be one of his most lasting legacies. In two important books, Beauty for Truth’s Sake (2009), and Beauty in the Word (2012), and for the first time since Newman, a Catholic thinker took a long, hard look at the point and purpose of education. In retrospect, it is obvious that this needed to be done, in a world where many universities seem to have metamorphosed from institutes of study designed to deepen and cultivate young minds, into profit-maximising institutions of mass learning. At the same time, many students these days leave university with their lives blighted by a mountain of debt. There is a great need for others to follow Strat’s lead in assessing this depressing situation from a Catholic perspective.

But it may be as a commentator on the subject of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) that he is most missed. Recently, I was researching CST ahead of giving some lectures on the subject at Saint Mary’s University. This work involved looking at all the introductions to CST that I could find, and realised that Strat’s little booklet of 2001, Catholic Social Teaching—A Way In is the first book on the subject that I would give to an interested student. It is out of date now, of course, being written long before the appearance of Laudato Si in 2015. Many authors on CST either seem to fall into the trap of treating the subject matter in a dry, dusty way that gives the impression that it is of no practical importance, or they adopt the tendentious approach of using aspects of the teaching to support their own political and social views.

In contrast, I think that for Strat, Catholic Social Teaching was always meant to be a guide to follow in our daily lives. For some thirty years he worked through the Centre for Faith and Culture as a means of encouraging all people of goodwill, not only Catholics, to do so. In fact, I would argue that the failure of Catholics to promote this teaching to a wider audience has had negative consequences for society as a whole. Many people are worried by the rise to power of right-wing demagogues across the world. In political terms, this probably reflects the failure of the centre ground to find an alternative to the free-market fundamentalism which has swept the world since the Thatcher-Reagan revolution of the 1980s. There is no doubt that economic inequality has significantly increased during this period, and a feeling that they are being left behind probably explains why many people who would normally vote Democrat or Labour, voted instead for Trump or Boris Johnson. I find it striking that some people on the political left in the UK, such as Matthew Taylor, the former head of Tony Blair’s No 10 think-tank, or the Labour peer Lord Glasman, have argued for CST as currently being an intellectually coherent alternative to free-market ideology. Against this background, Strat’s 2001 remark that “Catholic Social Teaching is an idea whose time has come” (Catholic Social Teaching, CTS 2003) looks prophetic— time will tell.

A Wide-ranging and Prescient Thinker

Strat was, of course, a distinguished theologian, and was recognised as such by intellectual peers such as David Schindler and Adrian Walker. I suspect that if he had been an American, Strat would have ended up as a Professor of Applied Theology at a top university like Notre Dame or the Catholic University of America.  His books cover a surprisingly wide range, as do his academic articles: the liturgy, Catholic Social Teaching, von Balthasar, education, the potential threat from technology, and so on. Strat was also remarkably percipient. For example, he was the first person to argue in a detailed and cogent way (in his book Secret Fire [2003]), that JRR Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings cycle is based upon a deeply Catholic way of thinking. Since this book came out, other academic tomes have appeared on this subject: but Strat was the first. He was also one of the first people to urge the Church to engage with the subject of climate change, and to try and enter into constructive dialogue with environmentalists about it.

Yet Stratford’s writings were only one part of his work. There were all the projects he initiated or supported, and the network of people he encouraged. All this would have been a great achievement for somebody who possessed the financial security and administrative support of a senior university post. However—and I must be critical here—this great workload was managed without any consistent support from the English academic community or from the Catholic Church in England for a large part of his life. Indeed, Strat often had to juggle two or even three jobs at once to provide a basic income for his family. After Strat’s death, American priest Dwight Longenecker made the following comment:

Strat, being a Catholic intellectual, remained an outsider…. He didn’t really fit in in English Catholic circles because he actually did something. He didn’t wait to be asked and didn’t wait to be thanked. He organised international conferences, he started publishing houses, intellectual journals and worked tirelessly, editing, writing, encouraging writers and quietly building up an impressive and powerful body of work.

If you ever climb up into the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, you will see a small memorial plaque to its architect, Christopher Wren: “Reader, if you seek his memorial—look around you”. When I think of Strat’s life and achievements, I am reminded of these words.     

Stratford’s personality was also a major factor in his life and work. Strat would always try, gently and kindly, to see the other person’s point of view. It is a sad fact that the Catholic Church is riven by a gulf between conservatives and liberals, yet Strat, stoutly orthodox in his thinking, was respected by people on both sides as a deep thinker with no axe to grind. His own journey of faith, from New Age beliefs to Catholicism, also made him very receptive to those trying to feel their way to the truth.

Strat was received into the Catholic Church in 1980. As a cradle Catholic, I have often observed that those who have converted make the loudest noises about the Faith. When this occurs, I sometimes wish that they would put down their megaphone and just listen. That was never the case with Strat. He was quiet, gentle, and otherworldly. In fact, he had a kind of spiritual aura that attracted people to him. This gift came at a price: a great deal of time and energy spent on those who approached him.

Personal Memories of Strat

I first met him in 1973, when we both came up to Hertford College, Oxford together, and we remained friends for over 40 years. Although we have very different personality types, we instantly clicked. We both enjoyed fantasy writing, especially Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Both of us had experienced what we felt to be prophetic and meaningful dreams. Each of us was put off by the dry academicism of the subjects we had to immerse ourselves in for our degrees; economics for me, and psychology for Stratford. At that time, we were both searching for meaning. Strat was looking to move beyond the New Age agnosticism of his parents; I was a Catholic who was unsettled by the massive changes that had recently taken place in the UK Church, coupled with the normal uncertainties of adolescence.

Strat could surprise you. Although he always looked like a quiet, introverted scholar, in his youth he would leap down flights of stairs with balletic athleticism. He always thrashed me when we played table tennis. And I remember being astonished when he told me how, before coming up to Oxford, he had hiked on his own in the Appalachian mountains!

His parents, both of whom were South Africans who, being on the radical left, had fled the apartheid regime in the early 1950s to come to England. His father Oliver was a short man with a goatee beard reminiscent of a white jazz artist in the 1950s. He had one of those deep, gravelly South African accents, and very occasionally, when Strat was moved or excited, I could hear a faint South African echo in his own voice, even though he was born in London. I well remember visits to Strat’s family home in Dulwich, South London. There was a combination of great warmth and energy with intellectual speculation. If you have read JD Salinger’s Franny and Zoey books you will know what I mean.

Oliver was a highly talented publisher who was constantly seeking for meaning in his own life, although given his political views this did not include organized religion! Indeed, he was a significant figure in causing the growing interest in the 1960s and 1970s in the New Age (for example, he introduced Carlos Castaneda to the UK). Another very successful book of Oliver’s was Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which was in fact the first book that Strat worked on as an editor.

In the 1980s Strat introduced me to G.K. Chesterton as a serious religious and social thinker, rather than just as the author of the Father Brown detective stories which I knew. From that time onwards, Chesterton was a major influence on Strat’s thinking, perhaps exceeded only by the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Indeed, from the 1990s Strat and I worked together to update Chesterton’s old ‘Distributist’ ideas under the heading of the ‘Sane Economy Project‘, our concern being that the growing disparity between the superabundance of the super-rich and the pauperisation of the lower middle class would lead to the kind of social and political unrest mentioned earlier.

I have often wondered, although I never got round to asking Strat this, whether he ever saw a parallel with GK Chesterton in terms of his relationship to his father on the subject of religion. Chesterton converted to Catholicism in 1922, shortly after the death of his father, a Unitarian who was tolerant of everything except Catholicism, which he saw as a dogmatic anachronism. I suspect that Oliver may have had similar views about Stratford’s own reception into the Church in 1980.

I am not going to say much about Strat’s career, except to say that, like his father he was a talented publisher, working with the leading academic publisher Routledge in the 1980s, where he specialised in philosophy and religion. They sent him for a couple of years to Boston. In 1988 he moved to the venerable publishing house of William Collins. However, within a year Collins was taken over by News International, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and Strat quickly realised that he would have to move on once more.

For some time he and his wife Léonie had been thinking of the urgent need for contemporary Catholics to tackle questions of faith and culture. With great courage in my view, bearing in mind that at that time he had a young family, Strat set up the Centre for Faith and Culture to do this. (Indeed, it is important to note that throughout his adult life Strat’s wife Léonie was his intellectual partner and close collaborator, so when I mention Strat’s work, this also refers to her.) This meant that rather than looking for another senior job in publishing, he took a part-time role as commissioning editor with theology publisher TT Clark to provide some income, and relied upon the Centre for Faith and Culture, for several years based at minor educational establishments in Oxford, to do the rest.

The only other author I am aware of who also possessed Strat’s integrated, deep understanding of the links between faith and culture was the great medieval historian, Christopher Dawson. Dawson, who was also a Catholic convert, had spent his working life showing how the civilization of medieval Europe was able to emerge from the ruins of ancient Rome and the anarchy of the Dark Ages only because it was based upon deep Christian foundations. So it seems fitting that Strat’s first book should have been as Editor of a collection of essays on Dawson, entitled Eternity in Time (1997). There is also a striking similarity with Strat in that Dawson’s last major work was a move from his normal field of history into that of education, entitled the Crisis of Western Education (1961), which urged the creation of a liberal arts movement in schools. A quotation from Strat’s concluding article in Eternity in Time sums up his views and agreement with Dawson, and also leads on nicely to my final section:

As Christopher Dawson saw so well, every human culture flourishes on the basis of a religious faith that requires self-transcendence. Our emerging “culture of death” tries to ape this process by a continual ferment of technological and speculative innovation, but all that results is an expanding flux of activity on the material level, and on the psychological level an addiction to change and novelty. In the culture of death, there is no transcending the material level, for nothing that cannot be measured is regarded as objectively real.

The Centre for Faith and Culture

I am convinced that it was the founding of the Centre for Faith and Culture, and its media arm Second Spring, in the early 1990s which is crucial to understanding Strat’s later life and work. In my view, the Centre, its activities and writings, were Strat’s living answer to a dismal prophecy made by the great German social scientist Max Weber just before his sudden death from Spanish flu in 1920. In a series of writings, Weber made what was then a radical prophecy: that capitalism would take over the world. He argued that this would happen both geographically, and within the fabric of nations. At the time, some critics argued that the recent Communist takeover in Russia proved Weber wrong in terms of his geographical argument; others suggested that the great independent civilizations of India and China had remained unchanged for thousands of years and would therefore prove immune to the attractions of capitalism. In my view, however, the modern triumph of globalization proves him right.

Weber also contended that capitalism would take over many of the functions carried out one hundred years ago by the family, the State, or non-commercial organisations such as churches or charities. There are many examples that illustrate how the world in which we live now is so radically different from what has come before as to validate Weber’s thesis. For example, families no longer look after aged grandparents but put them in commercial care homes, and many charities are no longer independent bodies but get money from the government to carry out carefully prescribed activities.

Such changes have not only influenced the way we live and work, but how we think. As Weber put it: “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world” (Science as a Vocation,  Max Weber 1918). What he meant by this was that the triumph of capitalism would lead to the modern society we know, where essentially everybody is encouraged to look for ways to make money; and also, as Chesterton wrote at the same time as Weber, to “the worship of the rich”. This process, Weber believed, would inevitably lead to the secularization of Western society. At the same time, the combination of individualism and growing scientific complexity would lead to the growth of a massive bureaucracy in all countries. This switch to a secular society where scientific understanding is prized and traditional beliefs ignored if not despised, contrasted with traditional societies, where, in Weber’s words, “the world remains a great enchanted garden”.  However, Weber simply could not see how this could be avoided. What he called the “iron cage of rationality” (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber, 1905) would become the dominant, if not the only way of thinking: religion, beauty, poetry, and so on would all drain from the world, leaving it a grey, dull, if highly efficient place, devoid of mystery. Society would also shift to an intense individualism as the social, family, and religious links that bind social life together wither away.

Various thinkers have tried to find ways to ‘re-enchant the world’, but without conspicuous success. Jung contended that myths recovered from the unconscious mind could re-establish the sense of wholeness to a disenchanted modernity. The political philosopher Ernest Gellner argued that as people could not endure living in such a disenchanted world, they became vulnerable to the attractions of various ‘re-enchantment creeds’ (as he called them) such as psychoanalysis, or Marxism.  In 2007 the Canadian scholar Charles Taylor produced The Secular Age, a substantial tome that examined in great detail how Weber’s secularization thesis has actually developed but did not attempt any programme to combat it.

Whilst I don’t know if Strat ever read Max Weber, I do believe that his work from the early 1990s was an answer to Weber’s point. Strat proposed a positive advocacy of the resacralization of society. As he put it in an article in Communio magazine in 1998:

The world must be given back [its] sacramental quality, its dimension of mystery. such a reorientation…would spell the final demise of mechanism as the paradigm of cosmic order.

In 2015 the CiRCE Institute posthumously awarded Strat the Paideia Prize “for lifetime contribution to classical education and the cultivation of wisdom and virtue”. Previous winners included the great Kentucky farmer-essayist, Wendell Berry (2012), and the distinguished theologian Peter J. Kreeft (2013). As a summing up of Strat’s working life devoted to faith and culture, this award seems no more than justified. But let me end with Stratford’s own words.

The word “culture” is often associated exclusively with the fine arts. We tend to use it in a broader sense—as the Pope himself does—to refer to social issues as well. “Culture” is everything that human beings do creatively through their work to transform or shape the world. That includes the attempt to overcome injustice. John Paul II, who speaks of a “culture of life”, has shown that Catholic Social Teaching is rooted in a kind of prophetic analysis of the underlying assumptions that shape our society and the way we live. We often don’t recognize that there are cultural and philosophical assumptions built into the way we spend our time, the way we work, the way we earn and invest and spend our money. What am I? What am I living for? What are my priorities? What is right and what is wrong? The way I choose to live reflects the answers I might give to such questions. So the connection between the social doctrine of the Church and the culture we inhabit and take for granted is very strong and close. The social doctrine of the Church is to a large extent a critique of the culture. (‘Trying to be Catholic: an interview with Stratford and Leonie Caldecott’, Catholic World Report January 2001)

Russell Sparkes is a Visiting Fellow at St Mary’s University where he lectures on Catholic Social Teaching. He is an authority on Cardinal Manning and the Distributists of the 1920s such as G.K Chesterton.

He is the author of numerous publications including G.K. Chesterton, Prophet of Orthodoxy (1996), Self-Help and the Voluntary Sector—what we can learn from the guilds(2010), and Cardinal Manning and the birth of Catholic Social Teaching (2012). He is currently writing a paper on Catholic Social Teaching and Healthcare, and carrying out research on how the Church’s social doctrine might inform an investment ethic.