9 Questions with Jack Downey

Pete Cajka

Jack Downey is an Assistant Professor in the Religion Department at LaSalle University. We talked recently about his new book, The Bread of the Strong. This study traces the history of the Lacouture retreat in three acts: the retreat's founding by in Quebec by Jesuit Onesime Lacouture; its introduction into America by Pittsburgh priest John Hugo; and, finally, the retreat's impact on Dorothy Day. This book investigates the intersection of the Roman Catholic contemplative tradition and modern political activism. Fordham University Press published The Bread of the Strong as part of their Catholic Practice in North America series.

PC: Can you tell us about the development of the retreat and how it changed people, theologically speaking, and in terms of lived religion?

JD: The retreat I study in my book was founded by this Jesuit named Onesime Lacouture. Lacouture is born in 1881 but he doesn't start giving the retreat until he is about 50. It was 1930 when he gave his first retreat. He visualized it very much as consolidation of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. He has these enormous retreat notes. He calls them the "three series" of the retreat. He only gave the first of the three series. The exercises have a portion that focus on the grim stuff, meditations on hell which is eventually what draws allegations of Jansenism. But initially he visualizes this retreat as being explicitly for [vowed] religious. His idea was to begin a revival among clergy and other religious so they would eventually have a trickle down type of effect that would inspire the laity. He saw this as being a pushback against Anglo-Protestants in Quebec at this time.

PC: He also drew this from his time in Alaska. His reflections on nature were crucial for this development?

JD: When he did his Jesuit regency around 1910, he was sent to Alaska. Initially he was like a lot of young seminarians and people who are drawn to the Society of Jesus -- he has this very muscular type of missionary ideal ...That is coupled with the Jesuit tradition of intellectual rigor and theological prowess. He alternates between these two models as the kind of man he wants to be. He gets sent to Alaska which, when he arrives, he takes to be unremarkable ... but during this period of time he has these solitary revelations while he is on a kind of personal retreat. For a couple of reasons, he misses the annual retreat that he is supposed to be on and simply nestles himself into a snowbank along the Yukon River.  He doesn't discuss much about the experience itself, but he does talk about its effects on him, which are incredibly transformative. It leads him to believe, ultimately, that the Jesuit order has really fallen away from its original mission, and is no longer actually “Ignatian.” He develops these retreats as attempts to revive – it’s a revivalist movement essentially -- what he considers to be a more authentic Ignatian spirituality, a more authentic Christian spirituality. A lot of this has to do with contemplation, so he's also very influenced by John of the Cross and his ascetic orientation. ... It tried to have the effect of withdrawing people from the material world. In the book, I talk about him being self-consciously anti-modern. Questions of anti-modernism and modernism are complicated in terms of academic discourse – but in the way he saw himself, I think it was clearly as a culture warrior.

PC: It leads him down a path of critiquing his own order, the Jesuits.

JD: Yes, so he becomes almost instantaneously, in a sense, almost anti-Jesuit. He remains a Jesuit his entire adult life; but like a lot of reformers have seen themselves throughout time, he sees himself as the "only one who gets it." In his mind, the Jesuit order has become too accommodated to modernism, too ethically permissive, and theologically impure. He sees evidence of this of in things like smoking – smoking makes him absolutely bonkers. He views smoking as being purely for pleasure, which he sees as being a symptom of what he calls "paganism." He charges the Jesuit order with having fallen into paganism – which is basically something he reserves for Christian ethical mediocrity. It's a pejorative term he uses to dismiss people he sees as being weak.

PC: This retreat and theology makes its way to John Hugo and he puts an American spin on it, but the retreat also transforms Hugo as well.

JD: Hugo meets Lacouture in 1931 ... Hugo talks about his encounter with Lacouture as quasi-sacramental. Hugo was in seminary at the time and he was already planning on becoming a priest, so it’s not like he was just a random guy who decided to go down a wildly different path. But he finds this inspirational – in Hugo, I found a conversion similar to that which Lacouture experienced in a mystical and unmediated way. Hugo remixes the retreat. He already had a keen social conscience, which Lacouture did not. Lacouture was almost asocial: he balked at the Quebecois hierarchy's orientation towards what we might call "Social Catholicism," which he saw as being too engaged in the world, too attentive to human needs as opposed to really emphasizing the supremacy of God in all things. Hugo tweaks that a bit because he does have a social consciousness. He's coming from Pittsburgh and it’s hard to imagine that [a seminarian] couldn't be at least oriented towards labor rights movements, but then also militarism, which was a central focus of Hugo’s. Hugo claimed that he was the first conscientious objector priest, which I don't think is actually true; but it was certainly before it became cool.  He also opens up the retreat to lay people, or non-religious, which in terms of the history of the movement itself I think is very critical.

PC: So how does this theology that rejects the world ultimately come to underwrite activism in the world? Or, even through Dorothy Day, the sense of seeing past the world and rejecting parts of it. You use Judith Butler to set this up; a way to break the monotony that comes with modern life. How does this theology end up working in that tradition of activism in the world? You call this a "maximilism." You see a connection between being maximalist and this theology that rejects the world.

JD: The connection with Judith Butler when she talks about, in terms of war, she talks about non-violence as a type of intervention in the cycles of violence that form us. We're shaped by violence in certain ways, we're disciplined, we're conditioned. We naturally reproduce those in the people around us. Butler talks about non-violence as a kind of intentional stop-gap in that process. The type of non-participation, there is a type of analogue there between Lacouture and Dorothy Day talk about not participating in certain forms of society that they see as being ethically fraught or compromised.

PC: So the connection is that this theology from the retreat drives a rejection of the world, which means rejecting participation in things like the everyday cycles of violence.

JD: Yes, and I think for Day and Lacouture, the results are different. Lacouture doesn't seem like he wants... he does not write about this a whole lot -- but you do get a sense from what he does write that he doesn't seem like he's overly favorable to having anything to do with participation in politics or the sensual world. I can see him as a promoting a kind of insular community of dedicated Christians. But he doesn't actually do that – the retreat is his attempt at reform.  I think the irony with Dorothy Day becoming really taken by this retreat is that, by a lot of measures, she is one of the most socially engaged people in US Catholic history. I think that for her non-participation in things that she finds ethically problematic is important: not paying federal taxes, not complying with federal air raid drills. But she very clearly has a direct engagement impulse that involves the Houses of Hospitality, confronting power directly, her orientation towards civil disobedience, the Works of Mercy as she sees them – including the paper [The Catholic Worker]. That comes out of what I call Christian "maximalism." I'm pretty sure that's a Jim Fisher term. But it's almost Pelagian in its sense that we are called to do more.  For that reason, mainstream Christianity -- and mainstream Catholicism – is viewed as almost inherently tepid, inevitably getting pulled towards the middle, in the direction of what Lacouture calls paganism. Dorothy Day doesn't really use that language. She's less apt to make this kind of objective-sounding descriptions. But when she talks about it personally – she's kind of an autobiographical thinker – she thinks there's always a tension between pushing one's self to conform to Christ, to imitate Christ in a radical way, and the kind of mainstreaming of Christianity as an institution. The Lacouture movement saw itself as being almost the kind of undoing of moderate Christianity – moderation itself being a kind of abnegation of authenticity

PC: My next question flows off of your answer here. You want to say something about twentieth-century mainstream Catholicism by studying this critique of mediocrity that came out of the retreat. Your study says something about how historians might assume in their writing that Catholicism wants to be mainstream, that the goal of Catholics in the twentieth century was to be good Americans or to be middle class or successful. Your study helps historians to see those assumptions as embedded in writing American Catholic history of the twentieth century. I wondered if you might say something about this.

JD: This really only came to me towards the end of the book and maybe it doesn't have legs, but it was something that I was puzzling over at the time. If you teach American Catholic history, or if you're going to reference it in passing to your class, if you're not going to have an entire semester to unpack it, there is an impulse to say "these are the hits," and to give a conventional narrative which is almost always an East Coast narrative, or the East Coast Irish narrative. We had some predecessors at the beginning, our French, English and Spanish brethren, but Catholics then really started showing up during the [Irish] Famine, and there's this kind of progression: we were screwed over by the Protestants, and then, through procreation -- the "revenge of the cradle" as people call it -- we took over the New York City police department, we fought in some wars, eventually JFK became president, and it's been all good ever since. Obviously that's a massive over-simplification, but it is a point in way that absolves Irish Americans from thinking critically about how we have benefitted from things like white supremacy. But I also think that it implies, as you've said, that there is this homogenous US Catholicism, and that becoming Anglo-Protestants was always the implicit goal. Then it takes for granted that actually what everybody wants is to be with the powerful. I was reading bell hooks at the time and she's got a great essay called "Love as the Practice of Freedom" where she talks about one of the things in a lot of human rights movements is, that when you look at them historically, unintentionally reproduced different types of oppression because human rights movements often focused on fighting against one type of oppression. Part of this comes from Paulo Freire: often times when groups fight for their own survival, or their own longevity, their own flourishing, they're not fighting for an end to oppression in total: they're fighting for an end to their own oppression.  Eventually what that does then is just reproduce oppression, while changing the characters. I do think that it is worth questioning whether or not we should want the kind of assimilationist narrative as our history, but whether or not that is really true. The assumption that everyone just wanted to become WASPs as the actual American dream, I think, is worth interrogating ... and does studying, or even calling them, “margins” implicitly assume that actually the real Catholicism was Cardinal Spellman? It has a way of centering not just the hierarchy, but the dominant mainstream.

PC: You use a fascinating and impressive array of theoretical and intellectual tools from Ronald Knox [Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, with Specific Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries, 1950] all the way to Richard Hofstadter ["paranoid style"], a few Walter Benjamin references, Judith Butler .. to William James. How do you as a historian and a reader of these theoretical sources and philosophical sources move back and forth between text and theory? What is your method? You even use thinkers like Augustine as a theoretical device as well. I was wondering if you might talk about your method a bit.

JD: My background is in religious studies and theology. Part of this [approach] comes from the training I've had and what I read while I was doing the research. When I was at Fordham for my Ph.D., it was in a theology program even though we had Jim Fisher, Mark Massa and Tom Shelley who are full-on American Catholic historians. A lot of my course work was in theology, I had a seminar in Augustine, and I liked it so much that I took it twice. The theoretical work comes from the fact that I’ve not had a straight-on historical training, and most of the historical stuff that I've done has been done auto-didactically. In terms of method -- I feel like my method is kind of chaos. There are some things that are clear to me. William James, for instance, the reason I started using him is because Dorothy Day read him. I became obsessed with Dorothy Day during my first year of graduate school and so then I started reading everything she mentioned she read – which was my attempt to get background knowledge and to get into her head a bit more. Maybe this sounds weird, but like a lot of people who write about Dorothy Day, I kind of fell in love with her a little bit. William James was important to me because he was important to her, on a personal level. But when it came to composing the study, it helped me to think through what her experience was like. I think Augustine is similar. If you read The Confessions and you read The Long Loneliness, it's pretty hard not to say "I know where you got this narrative." Also, The Confessions is the blueprint for most Christian memoirs – same thing with Seven Storey Mountain. I think there is a way in which -- maybe this is like an Orsian thing, Orsi talks about how Catholic memories are trans-temporal, not just trans-national but the memories exist across time. He writes about how the Berrigan brothers’ sanguinary bloodiness of anti-war protests were called martyrdoms -- in that sense Dorothy Day recalls Augustine and William James; Augustine's not an ancient person in her own framing of her own spiritual life. I think we all do this. This is how we construct a narrative about our identity. We read into ourselves the narratives of the people we loved from the past.

In terms of the Knox book, Enthusiasm, I found really helpful… First, it is a really fascinating book -- the thing about the book I love because I identify with it, is that he essentially composes a book of “heretics.” It starts off as an apologetic study; he writes it because he wants to close the book on these people [the enthusiasts] and he ends up ... not agreeing with them, but developing a deep empathy with them. I've always been fascinated by wackiness -- it goes back to this maximalist thing -- I am interest in people who are kind of "on fire." There's a reason why those are the people who get condemned for things and there's a reason why these people start movements. The passion is magnetic.  His study helped me think through what Lacouture's appeal was in a different context -- and actually he was writing this book at the same time Lacouture was doing his work. Knox is from England, but I found it incredibly helpful, situating [my study] in debates that are wide-ranging because American Catholic history… is part of a larger stream within Christianity of these revivalist movements. Along with this something I found interesting was the history of the Franciscans who have a history of schisms: right after Francis dies there are debates about what authentic Franciscanism is, then throughout history you have different types of groups trying to revive the primitive observance, and in a sense that is a very Christian tradition. When you study Catholicism, generally American Catholic history, the idea that it is a unified thing, that it doesn't have as much "off-streaming," I found Knox's study helpful in thinking through how that is not the case -- the  Lacouture revival is the revival of really old questions, in a very new setting. There is a way in which Lacouturism is Pelagian but is also Jansenist, which is ironic because those seem to be mutually-opposed heresies. The idea that Pelagians argue against Augustine that "you can do what you're commanded to do by Scripture, you don't need grace." Where Jansenism is like a hyper-Augustinianism where you have a very tense sense of grace that is predicated on a really dim view of human nature. I think there are ways in which  Lacouturism is both. I also think that is so fascinating that a movement like the Catholic Worker, which Dorothy Day called an anarchist movement, could be condemned for being Jansenist – typically anarchists have a fairly optimistic view of human nature which is why they position themselves against coercion in the form of government and Jansenism has a notoriously negative view of human nature. These are some of the things that helped to unpack this narrative from the years in which [Day was active] to these more long-term questions.

PC: The question about Dorothy Day has to be asked. You began this project with an interest in her. In the introduction you talk about how you found particles [of Day's life] that were not explained in her thought. In the book's penultimate chapter, which is on Day .. you talk about how you can't say what the retreat did for her or to her. What do you want this book to say about Dorothy Day?  

JD: The reason I got into this whole project to begin with is because I was reading through all of Dorothy Day's stuff. There was this gap. People would reference this retreat, that was very influential on her, and she has a chapter on in The Long Loneliness ...  this project was an attempt to understand Dorothy Day better by trying to understand people that were important to her. In my mind this is all about Dorothy Day, even though I didn't present it like that in the book ... a lot of people have written about her and they have written well about her ... actually Mark Massa asked me this question during my [dissertation] defense, "how critical do you see this retreat being to Dorothy Day become the Dorothy Day that we know about?" It is really hard for me to say; it's one of those hypothetical questions that are unanswerable. It is purely speculative. She became involved with the [Lacouture] movement relatively early on, and so the Dorothy Day that we already know has been shaped by this retreat. She kind of famously – after her conversion – has a hard time feeling at home in the Catholic world, she doesn't really know any Catholics until Peter Maurin shows up.  She tried out some retreats that she doesn't like, and when she encounters the Lacouture retreat, it really provides a kind of spiritual nourishment for her. Retreats in general do this for her, but for her type of Catholicism, which is very ascetic, this is the ideal ideology being peddled at this retreat. It is deeply ascetic, withdrawn from material concerns – which is something that is great for an anarchist who is living in a flophouse in a quasi-Franciscan way ... she calls [the retreat], and this is where I get the title of the book, she calls it "the bread of the strong,"  ... while Dorothy Day is very loving, she's also very hard, and I think that some of that hardness comes from the ascetic approach she has. I don't think the retreat created this in her but I think it sharpened it. She has this very intense concept of how the Christian life should be lived, what Christians are called to do by their faith. I think that intensity in a large portion comes from the ideology she receives from John Hugo and the other people who gave the retreat.


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