The Rise & Fall Of Catholic Writing
In a powerful essay in First Things, the poet Dana Gioia despairs of the state of Catholic writing in America today. First, he defines what he means by the Catholic sensibility in writing:
There is no singular and uniform Catholic worldview, but nevertheless it is possible to describe some general characteristics that encompass both the faithful and the renegade among the literati. Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God. Catholics perceive suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ’s passion and death. Catholics also generally take the long view of things—looking back to the time of Christ and the Caesars while also gazing forward toward eternity. (The Latinity of the pre-Vatican II Church sustained a meaningful continuity with the ancient Roman world, reaching even into working-class Los Angeles of the 1960s, where I was raised and educated.) Catholicism is also intrinsically communal, a notion that goes far beyond sitting at Mass with the local congregation, extending to a mystical sense of continuity between the living and the dead. Finally, there is a habit of spiritual self-scrutiny and moral examination of conscience—one source of soi-disant Catholic guilt.
The Catholic worldview does not require a sacred subject to express its sense of divine immanence. The greatest misunderstanding of Catholic literature is to classify it solely by its subject matter. Such literalism is not only reductive; it also ignores precisely those spiritual elements that give the best writing its special value. The religious insights usually emerge naturally out of depictions of worldly existence rather than appear to have been imposed intellectually upon the work.
Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints. (It is not only that sinners generally make more interesting protagonists. Their failings also more vividly demonstrate humanity’s fallen state.) John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, for example, presents a huge cast of characters, lost souls or reprobates all, who, pursuing their assorted vices and delusions, hilariously stumble toward grace and provisional redemption. The same dark comic vision pervades the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, and Muriel Spark. Ron Hansen’s Atticus begins with the investigation of a murder. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is full of resentment, violence, and anger. “Good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine,” she observed, and violence is “strangely capable” of returning her characters “to reality and preparing them to accept their moments of grace.” When Mary Karr titled her poetry collection Sinners Welcome, she could have been describing the Catholic literary tradition.
This is wonderful. It should be noted that not all Catholic readers appreciate this. Flannery O’Connor, for example, privately complained of all the nice Catholic ladies who kept telling her she should just write some nice stories, for once. Oscar Hijuelos’s novel Mr. Ives’ Christmas, which I’ve been praising here of late, is saturated by the Catholic sensibility; therefore, it has some sexual content. I say “therefore” to make the point that its sexuality is not in spite of its Catholic nature, but because of it.
I cannot begin to do justice to the scope of Gioia’s essay without quoting far more of it than would be fair to do here. The piece sets out to examine how American literature went from the era of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Thomas Merton (and for that matter, of Greene, Waugh, Bernanos, Mauriac, et al.) — a time when faithful Catholic writers were a major force on the scene — to today, when virtually the only Catholic writers of any influence are those who define themselves in opposition to the Church. Gioia:
The postwar decade was not a period of Catholic literary dominance, which is not, to my mind, an attractive or desirable goal. It was, instead, an era in which Catholic voices in all their diversity played an active role in shaping the dynamic public conversation that is American literature. Catholicism was not only seen as a worldview consistent with a literary or artistic vocation. Rich in rituals, signs, and symbols, the Roman Church was often regarded as the faith most compatible with the artistic temperament. It was never surprising to hear that some writer had converted, be it the young Robert Lowell or Ernest Hemingway, the middle-aged Allen Tate or Edith Sitwell, the older Tennessee Williams or Claude McKay, or even the dying Wallace Stevens or Jaime de Angulo. After all, as another deathbed convert, Oscar Wilde, remarked, “Catholicism is the only religion to die in.”
Looking back on the mid-century era of O’Connor, Merton, Porter, and Tate, one could summarize the position of American Catholic literary culture with four characteristics. First, many important writers publicly identified themselves as faithful Catholics. Second, the cultural establishment accepted Catholicism as a possible and permissible artistic identity. Third, there was a dynamic and vital Catholic literary and intellectual tradition visibly at work in the culture. Fourth and finally, there was a critical and academic milieu that actively read, discussed, and supported the best Catholic writing. Today not one of those four observations remains true. Paradoxically, despite the social, political, economic, and educational advancement made by Catholics over the past half-century, our place in literary culture has dramatically declined.
What happened? Read the essay to find out. One factor cited by Gioia: the withering of the popular Catholic imagination:
What absorbs the Catholic intellectual media is politics, conducted mostly in secular terms—a dreary battle of right versus left for the soul of the American Church. If the soul of Roman Catholicism is to be found in partisan politics, then it’s probably time to shutter up the chapel. If the universal Church isn’t capacious enough to contain a breadth of political opinion, then the faith has shriveled into something unrecognizably paltry. If Catholic Christianity does not offer a vision of existence that transcends the election cycle, if our redemption is social and our resurrection economic, then it’s time to render everything up to Caesar.
Wallace Stevens remarked that “God and the imagination are one.” It is folly to turn over either to a political party, even your own. If American Catholicism has become mundane enough to be consumed by party politics, perhaps it’s because the Church has lost its imagination and creativity.
There is this withering line:
To visualize the American Catholic arts today, don’t imagine Florence or Rome. Think Newark, New Jersey.
Again, please read the whole thing. It’s very much worth your while, even if you are not Catholic — as Gioia says, his diagnosis of Catholic arts and letters applies more broadly to Christian arts and letters — and worth discussing in the comments thread. What he’s talking about is what it means to live in a post-Christian culture:
Art does not need to be religious. There are great masterpieces that have no hint of religious transcendence. What I am suggesting is something more subtle and complex. Culture is a conversation. A vigorous culture contains different voices, often in active debate. The voice of religious faith enlarges and enlivens the overall dialectic of culture, even among non-believers, just as the voice of secular society keeps religious writers more alert and intelligent. Once you remove the religious as one of the possible modes of art, once you separate culture from the long-established traditions and disciplines of spirituality, you don’t remove the spiritual hungers of either artists or audience. You satisfy them more crudely with the vague, the pretentious, and the sentimental. The collapse of the culture that supported O’Connor and Porter, Powers and Merton, led to the culture that consumes teen paranormal romances, ghost reality shows, and internet Wiccans.
Whenever the Church has abandoned the notion of beauty, it has lost precisely the power that it hoped to cultivate—its ability to reach souls in the modern world. Is it any wonder that so many artists and intellectuals have fled the Church? Current Catholic worship often ignores the essential connection between truth and beauty, body and soul, at the center of the Catholic worldview. The Church requires that we be faithful, but must we also be deaf, dumb, and blind? I deserve to suffer for my sins, but must so much of that punishment take place in church?
OK, enough. It is a gloomy essay overall, but it ends on a hopeful note — indeed, a call to action. Gioia says it is beyond silly to expect the institutional Church to catalyze an artistic revival. The responsibility for that lies with ordinary Catholics (and, I would say, ordinary Christians, period), both creators — artists, writers — and the community. Gioia points out that the culture is always in trouble, and we are all responsible for its renewal. The present moment is no different. What are we going to do about it?
You know what I did when I finished this essay? I bought a subscription to Image Journal, the ecumenical magazine of Christianity and the arts. I’ve been reading and admiring editor Gregory Wolfe’s writing for years, but the Gioia essay made me feel ashamed that I, as a Christian engaged in arts and letters, withheld my petty patronage from this magazine. Maybe you are like me. If so, subscribe to Image Journal, Books & Culture, First Things, Touchstone, and other Christian magazines that take art, culture, and the faith seriously. Read Gioia’s essay to understand why it’s so important.
(You could also make plans to come to our inaugural Walker Percy Weekend next spring. Just saying.)
UPDATE: I was reminded just now why the Catholic clergy and hierarchy are often the last people a Catholic artist can rely on for good judgment. Back in 2000, I wrote a story for The Weekly Standard about a Catholic school teacher in the Diocese of Lafayette, La., who got into trouble for assigning Flannery O’Connor’s work to his literature students. Excerpt:
The Catholic Church teaches that our moral and intellectual failures may sometimes be excused by something it calls “invincible ignorance” — an absolute incapacity to understand that what we’re doing is wrong. The plea of invincible ignorance seems just about the only hope for Catholic parents in a southern Louisiana town who succeeded this summer in banning from a local Catholic high school the work of the woman widely held to be the greatest Catholic fiction writer of twentieth-century America.
But for their bishop, the head of the Diocese of Lafayette, who set aside common sense, basic fairness, and intellectual integrity to crumble to the parents’ bullying — well, in his case it looks more like willful ignorance, and that leaves him with a whole lot of explaining to do. Thanks to Bishop Edward J. O’Donnell’s abject surrender to the forces of political correctness, a southern Catholic school — Opelousas Catholic High — has the dubious distinction of being the first recorded school in America to ban the southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor.
In fact, the bishop’s edict goes further. The parents of black students at Opelousas Catholic had demanded that O’Connor’s collection of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, be removed from reading lists because it contains characters who use the words “nigger” and “pickaninny.” And Bishop O’Donnell, in ordering the elimination of O’Connor’s volume, directed that “no similar books” replace it: All books containing those racial epithets are forbidden, regardless of context.
Mark Twain? Gone. William Faulkner? A dead letter. Black authors Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, even local writer Ernest J. Gaines? Banished without reprieve.
“Basically, anything that has to do with race is off-limits,” said Arsenio Orteza, the teacher whose assigning of O’Connor to his eleventh-graders sparked the furor. “Think of how much American literature that leaves out. Maybe The Scarlet Letter is the way to go, and I’ll have to hope there aren’t any adulterers who object in the community.”