The Greatest American Jesuit You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Last week’s Catholic Book Club column focused on an American Jesuit who became widely recognized as a public intellectual in the mid-twentieth century: John Courtney Murray, SJ But what if I told you that there was another American Jesuit, a friend of Murray, whose writings on everything from theater and fiction to politics, civil society and mental health were equally important at the time? No, not Walter Ong. No, not Avery Dulles. No, not Bernard Lonergan (he was Canadian anyway). The scholar in question was a man of great intelligence and insight who even today does not have the reputation he deserves: William F. Lynch, SJ

I will admit that I am biased; in the summer of 2011, I had the opportunity to do a directed study of Lynch under the direction of John F. Kane, a professor at Regis University and an expert on Lynch, who published a long intellectual biography of him, Building the human cityin 2016. I had the chance to read much of Lynch’s work and discuss it with Kane, including classic Lynch books Image industries, Christ and Apollo, images of hope and Images of faith. I suspect the biggest obstacle to Lynch’s rise to the notoriety his work deserved is that he had too interests, all of which he approaches with somewhat digressive moves that eschew the declarative in favor of the descriptive.

One of William Lynch’s biggest fans was Flannery O’Connor. All human beauty, for Lynch as for O’Connor, points to and refers to a divine and transcendental beauty.

Although trained as a philosopher, Lynch emphasized concrete, contextualized experiences throughout his writings. The attempt to escape time, embodied realities, personal and societal movement and development, Lynch wrote, has been an aesthetic and spiritual disaster, both for Western culture and for individuals. Think of the incarnation of Christ, writes Lynch in Images of faith; what the Christian considers to be the most important moment in all of creation occupies a very small instant in 14 billion years of space-time. If Christ can be born into such an ironic situation (an important concept for Lynch), shouldn’t that be a reminder that we cannot and should not try to escape our historical backgrounds or context? in which we exist?

Lynch also advanced the notion of analogical imagination – a way of seeing the world as imbued with and analogous to an infinite divine reality – years before similar concepts were championed by David Tracy and Andrew Greeley. One of her biggest fans was Flannery O’Connor for this almost exact reason: all human beauty, for Lynch as for O’Connor, points to and alludes to a divine and transcendental beauty. In a 2015 article for America, Mark Bosco, SJ, noted that “Father Lynch’s work validated O’Connor’s particular modernist, even postmodern inclinations and his own artistic claim to a Christ-like imagination”. For both, “finite and infinite realities merge; so for Father Lynch, as for O’Connor, there is no need to bring together what has never been separated.

Kane’s book, the first comprehensive biography of Lynch, also addresses Lynch’s lifelong examination of contemporary society through the use of various imagery in his writings and speeches. In a 2016 review for America of Building the human cityBrett McLaughlin, SJ, cited Kane’s acknowledgment that instead of seeking a “systematic or fundamental perspective on Catholic life in the United States,” Lynch was instead “in all he wrote concerned with understanding, and help us understand, a number of basic ideas that he considered crucial or fundamental to being able to respond to the challenges of our time.

McLaughlin also noted the strong influence of the spirituality of St. Ignatius in Lynch’s emphasis on God’s deep engagement with the world: “He emphasized that faith must have a body; spirituality involves concrete action over time. The book includes sections on the role of the arts in society, images of hope and faith (and how they work with personal and societal misfortunes), spirituality for public life, the dynamic between the secular and the sacred and new developments in theology.

Lynch advanced the notion of analog imagination years before similar concepts were championed by David Tracy and Andrew Greeley.

Lynch has also contributed a number of articles to America over the years, including a 1943 essay on a subject America has tackled four billion times since: “the thorny problem of the Catholic writer”. Is there such a thing? Was there once? Does the Catholic writer have something unique to bring to the world? Unlike some of his successors in this endeavor, Lynch did not argue that there was no such thing, or that all writers seek the same truth, but rather criticized “those who would warn us not to begin to use Catholic language, which will keep insisting that the writer’s vision is shared equally by all men, regardless of race, color or creed. Why? Because fighting against Catholic dogma and moral teachings was part of what gave Catholic writers their distinct place in the world of letters:

Now, no one has enough common sense to suggest that we should be obnoxious inseparators of the Catholic word – doing all of this with some meaningless deliberation. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for deliberate supernatural art. Because we have terribly exaggerated the need for our men of letters to write with a single Catholic subconscious (the profession of writer becomes more mysterious every day). But, in reality, it is the well-conceived dogma and the dialectic of the same that makes all the difference in the world.

A comment later in that same essay gives another clue as to why Flannery O’Connor found Lynch such an intriguing thinker. “What a pity if we are led to believe that there can be no writers today until we educate people to the point where they will accept the insertion of a kind of realism between the Puritan and the lustful,” Lynch wrote. “Oh yes, it is a problem, but let’s be serious enough to recognize that it is only a very small part of the problem.”

I remember thinking 10 years ago the same thought that comes to mind when I think of William Lynch today: he would have made an incredible novelist.


Our selection of poetry for this week is “Lord of Hope and Misery”, by Diane Glancy. Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.

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Good reading!

James T. Keane