As Hayes writes: “(T)he Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs (CCICA) [was] founded in 1946 at The Catholic University of America. Specifically, the CCICA sought to draw in the best and brightest Catholics in the country, in and out of academia, to aid in rebuilding the church and the world after the catastrophic losses of the world war. The CCICA grew to become much more.”

Hayes recounts the history of the commission during the first two decades of its existence, highlighting the fact that just as its members were drawn from various disciplines so they addressed a variety of concerns, from war relief to U.N. policies, from theology to American Catholic higher education. Of particular interest is the book’s discussion of a famous lecture on American Catholic intellectual life given in 1955 before the membership of the commission by historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis.

“More than any other single moment in the organization’s history,” Hayes declares, “the Ellis speech served to rally CCICA members, the larger academic community, and the church as a whole to the question of Catholic intellectual identity. … As later commentators often suggested, it was Ellis’ address that changed the tone and substance of the whole educational enterprise – a decisive move out of the confines of a Catholic ghetto to a more open and courageous quest for scholarly ideals.”

One of the primary underlying convictions that motivated the CCICA was that Catholic intellectuals should bring their insights and scholarship to bear on topics related to religious faith and the church, yes, but to virtually all aspects of human interest and endeavor. Still, Hayes concludes, the Catholic intellectual’s most basic inspiration for the work he or she does is rooted in faith. “Thus, for the Catholic intellectual, toiling for the public good is a measure of one’s love for God.”

“A Catholic Brain Trust” is a first-rate, informative account of adventures in 20th-century American Catholic intellectual life of which too few are aware. We live in an era when many Catholics tend to be satisfied with merely this or that ideology. Thus, to read this book, and become better informed about Catholics who believed in the pursuit of truth for its own sake, can only have positive consequences.

Finley is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic topics, including “Key Moments in Church History” (Sheed & Ward).