In such a culture, in such a Church, in such a time, what is the Catholic writer to do? Isolated, alienated, discredited, ignored, how can he or she survive, let alone prosper? Aren’t things too far gone to change? The answer can only be … of course not. Times are always bad. Culture is always in trouble. The barbarian is always at the gate, and some part of the Church inevitably needs a good sweeping. O tempora! O mores! is a perpetual complaint. As every Catholic knows, we live in a fallen world where—o felix culpa—we rejoice in the possibilities of redemption.
For the artist, every problem represents a sort of opportunity. The necessary insight here is that history doesn’t solve problems, culture doesn’t solve problems; only people do. The history of the Church and the history of art repeatedly demonstrate that a few people of sufficient passion, courage, and creativity can transform an age. If we learn nothing else from the lives of the saints, we should know the power their works and examples had to change an age. St. Francis of Assisi had a greater impact on European society than any ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.
New artistic movements originate in similar ways. They grow out of the efforts of a few catalytic individuals who reject a bankrupt or moribund status quo and articulate a compelling new vision. French Symbolism and English Romanticism, both of which became transformative international movements, each began with a handful of writers. Once the new vision is articulated and embodied in masterful works, it spreads quickly, indeed indomitably—uniting people in a common cause. The successes of cultural and religious movements inevitably reveal that many people already share the new ideals but do not feel empowered until there is a credible public call to action. The real challenge is not in the number of participants but in the arrival of a few powerful innovators who can serve as cultural catalysts. Two great poets are stronger than 2,000 mediocrities.
The Catholic writer really needs only three things to succeed: faith, hope, and ingenuity. First, the writer must have faith in both the power of art and the power of the spirit. The cynicism that pervades contemporary cultural life must be replaced by a deep confidence in the human purposes and importance of art. Art is not an elitist luxury or a game for intellectual coteries. It is a necessary component of human development, both individually and communally. Art educates our emotions and imagination. It awakens, enlarges, and refines our humanity. Remove it, dilute it, or pervert it, and a community or a nation suffers—becoming less compassionate, curious, and alert, more coarse, narrow, and self-satisfied.
The Catholic writer must also recover confidence in his or her own spiritual, cultural, and personal identity. How can I, for example, as an Italian and Mexican American understand myself without acknowledging the essential link with Catholicism? It is in my cultural DNA—from generations of ancestors. Catholicism is my faith, my heritage, my worldview, my mythology, and my community. Banish or deny that spiritual core—for whatever reason—and I lose some of my authenticity as an artist. This loss is surely part of the agony so tangible in the writing of ex-Catholics. It hurts to renounce part of your own identity, even if you consider the abnegation a necessity. Who can blame them for writing with such passion about the Church? Even a phantom limb can cause excruciating pain. They rightly refuse to become homogenous and generic writers in a global secular culture. They no longer have a spiritual home, except in their dissent.
A Catholic writer must also have hope. Hope in the possibilities of art and one’s own efforts. Hope in the Church’s historical ability to change as change is needed. The main barrier to the revival of Catholic writing and the rapprochement of faith and the arts is despair, or perhaps more accurately acedia, a torpid indifference among precisely those people who could change the situation—Catholic artists and intellectuals. Hope is what motivates and sustains the writer’s enterprise because success will come slowly, and there will be many setbacks.
Finally, there is a third element that has nothing to do with religion. The Muse is no Calvinist. She does not believe that faith alone justifies an artist. The writer needs good works—good literary ones. The goal of the serious Catholic writer is the same as that of all real writers—to create powerful, expressive, memorable works of art. As Flannery O’Connor observed, “The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist.” The road to Damascus may offer a pilgrim sudden and miraculous intervention, but faith provides no shortcuts on the road to Parnassus.
All writers must master the craft of literature, the possibilities of language, the examples of tradition, and then match that learning with the personal drive for perfection and innovation. There is a crippling näiveté among many religious writers (and even editors) that saintly intentions compensate for weak writing. Such misplaced charity is folly. The Catholic writer must have the passion, talent, and ingenuity to master the craft in strictly secular terms while never forgetting the spiritual possibilities and responsibilities of art. That is a double challenge, but it does ultimately offer a genuine advantage. If faith provides no shortcuts to Parnassus, once the literary pilgrim attains the summit, it does afford him or her a clearer vision. The Catholic writer has the inestimable advantage of a profound and truthful worldview that has been articulated, explored, and amplified by 2,000 years of art and philosophy, a tradition whose symbols, stories, personalities, concepts, and correspondences add enormous resonance to any artist’s work. To be a Catholic writer is to stand at the center of the Western tradition in artistic terms.
This perspective is invaluable in times, like ours, of intellectual confusion. The Catholic writer understands the necessary relationship between truth and beauty, which is not mere social convention or cultural accident but an essential form of human knowledge—intuitive, holistic, and experiential. Art is a form of knowing—distinct and legitimate—rooted in feeling and delight—that discovers, in the words of Jacques Maritain, “The splendor of the secrets of being radiating into intelligence.” That insight makes possible the great potential of Christian literature to depict the material world, the physical world of the senses, while also revealing behind it another invisible and eternal dimension.