The Catholic Writer Today
Catholic writers must renovate and reoccupy their own tradition.
Words by Dana Gioia / Illustrations by Brian Stauffer
21 June 2014
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.
For years I’ve pondered a cultural and social paradox that diminishes the vitality and diversity of the American arts. This cultural conundrum also reveals the intellectual retreat and creative inertia of American religious life. Stated simply, the paradox is that, although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting. This situation not only represents a demographic paradox. It also marks a major historical change—an impoverishment, indeed even a disfigurement—for Catholicism, which has for two millennia played a hugely formative and inspirational role in the arts.
Roman Catholicism now ranks overwhelmingly as the largest religious denomination in the United States with more than 68 million members. (By contrast, the second largest group, Southern Baptists, has 16 million members.) Representing almost one-quarter of the American population, Catholics also constitute the largest cultural minority in the nation. Supporting its historical claim of being the “universal” church, American Catholicism displays vast ethnic, national, linguistic, and social diversity. (In my first parish in Washington, D.C., it was not unusual at Mass to see congressional staffers, Central American immigrants, and urban homeless share the same pew.) While most Protestant churches continue to decline, Catholicism has grown steadily for the past 200 years through a combination of immigration, births, and conversions. On purely demographic grounds, one would expect to see a huge and growing Catholic presence in the American fine arts.
If one asked an arts journalist to identify a major living painter or sculptor, playwright or choreographer, composer or poet, who was a practicing Catholic, the critic, I suspect, would be unable to offer a single name. He or she could surely identify a few ex-Catholics, such as Andres Serrano, Terrence McNally, or Mark Adamo, who use religious subject matter for satire, censure, or shock value. Catholic exposé is now a mainstream literary genre from the farcical (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You) to the tendentious (The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene). If the question were expanded to include novelists—the most sociological of major art forms—a well-informed literary critic might offer a few names such as Ron Hansen or Alice McDermott, authors whose subject matter is often overtly Catholic. Those few figures would account for most of the Catholic artists visible in our culture. The journalist’s immediate reaction, however, would be to consider the question itself naive or silly. Why would a serious critic even bother to know such cultish trivia? Nowadays, the arts and Christianity seem only remotely connected, if at all. Contemporary culture is secular culture, is it not?
No one wants quotas for Catholic artists, but does it not seem newsworthy that the religion of one-quarter of the U.S. population has retreated to the point of invisibility in the fine arts? (Catholicism’s position in popular entertainment is the subject for another essay.) There is a special irony that this disappearance has occurred during a period when celebrating cultural diversity has become an explicit goal across the American arts. Some kinds of diversity are evidently more equal than others. Has the decline generated cultural controversy? Not especially. Neither the arts world nor the Catholic establishment cares much about the issue. There seems to be a tacit agreement on both sides that, in practice, if not in theory, Catholicism and art no longer mix—a consensus that would have surprised not only Dante but also Jack Kerouac. The consequences of this situation are unfortunate—in different ways—for both the culture and the Church.
The issues at stake are large, complex, and surprisingly slippery. When the problem is discussed, which is seldom, even in Catholic circles, it typically invites abstraction, equivocation, threnody, and rant. To begin a responsible examination, it is necessary to define the topic carefully and then to stay factual and specific. Although the decline of Catholicism has occurred across the arts, this essay will focus on literature, which provides a useful perspective on all of the arts and their relation to the Church. Likewise, examining the situation of Catholic writers helps illuminate the current situation of all Christian writers.
From silly devotions, and sour-faced saints, good Lord,
deliver us. —St. Teresa of Ávila
Some definitions and distinctions—both religious and literary—are in order. To examine the situation of Catholic writers and literature, clarity will depend on defining those capacious categories. What is Catholic literature, and what makes an author a Catholic writer? I prefer to define both terms in strict and specific ways.
This essay concerns Catholic imaginative literature—fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir—not theological, scholarly, or devotional writing. Surprisingly little Catholic imaginative literature is explicitly religious; even less is devotional. Most of it touches on religious themes indirectly while addressing other subjects—not sacred topics but profane ones, such as love, war, family, violence, sex, mortality, money, and power. What makes the writing Catholic is that the treatment of these subjects is permeated with a particular worldview.
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 also 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 soidisant 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 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.
The question of who is or isn’t a Catholic author also requires a few distinctions. The answer changes depending on how strictly or loosely one defines the term Catholic. There are at least three degrees of literary Catholicism, each interesting in different ways. First, there are the writers who are practicing Catholics and remain active in the Church. Second, there are cultural Catholics, writers who were raised in the faith and often educated in Catholic schools. Cultural Catholics usually made no dramatic exit from the Church but instead gradually drifted away. Their worldview remains essentially Catholic, though their religious beliefs, if they still have any, are often unorthodox. Finally, there are anti-Catholic Catholics, writers who have broken with the Church but remain obsessed with its failings and injustices, both genuine and imaginary. All three of these groups have legitimate claims to literary attention. This essay, however, will focus mostly on the first group, with some references to the second. These individuals best qualify as Catholic writers, and yet they are currently the least visible in a literary culture where at present only the third group, the dissidents, has any salience.
Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.
God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield
is the heart of man. —Fyodor Dostoyevsky
One final and uncomfortable matter needs to be acknowledged and explained—the dubious moral character of many Catholic authors. Some great Catholic writers actually were saints, such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila. Thomas Aquinas proved a formidable poet when not writing theological tracts, as did the Blessed John Henry Newman. There are currently nascent efforts to canonize both G. K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor—two authors with a wicked sense of humor but exemplary moral character. (Will the two statutory miracles suffice to get a comic author officially enrolled on the canon of saints?) These were writers whose lives and works demonstrated heroic virtue. But not even every saint was always saintly. Remember the lusty young Augustine’s devious prayer, “O, Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!”
Many Catholic writers have been conspicuously flawed individuals. When William Butler Yeats declared, “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life or of the work,” he did not utter a universal truth, but his formulation describes the careers of some major Catholic writers. Graham Greene’s biography provides a catalog of all seven deadly sins plus a few more of his own devising. Yet Greene remains a great Christian novelist. Muriel Spark proved a horrifyingly cruel and negligent mother. She was nonetheless a comic writer of genius. The vagabond thief François Villon probably composed his magnificent religious ballades while awaiting the gallows. (As Samuel Johnson remarked, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”)
Shouldn’t Catholic writers lead lives in accordance with their faith? Of course, they should. And, alas, they don’t always succeed. Catholics are probably no better or worse behaved than any other denomination. Their main moral advantage is that they still tend to recognize a sin when they commit one. “To be wicked is never excusable,” wrote Charles Baudelaire, “but there is some merit in knowing that you are.” That self-knowledge, however, does not necessarily translate into moral perfection, as Baudelaire’s own doomed and dissipated life illustrated. In a fallen world, free will is hard to manage. At the very least, perhaps their faith made them less bad. When Nancy Mitford expressed her surprise that Evelyn Waugh could be so cruel and yet call himself a Christian, the novelist replied, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” So, but for the grace of God, go us all.
In art, a flawed genius can produce a perfect masterpiece, even a religious one. Parsifal, Lohengrin, and Tannhäuser are three of the greatest Christian operas. Their creator, Richard Wagner, was a moral monster. Wagner wasn’t Catholic, but the point remains that some artists can cultivate a pure and spiritual imagination amid a tainted life. I shall not explore this conundrum in this essay, except to say that what concerns me here is not an author’s moral character but the quality of his or her work and the authenticity of its Catholic vision.
If Catholic literature has a central theme, it is the difficult journey of the sinner toward redemption. Dante, no mean sinner himself, begins his Commedia with a confrontation of his own failings allegorized in three vicious animals—the lion, the she-wolf, and the leopard—symbolizing pride, lust, and violence. He then descends among the damned in hell to learn the true nature of evil. “This is what being a ‘Catholic’ poet really entails,” wrote Elizabeth Jennings, “being willing to go to the edge of Hell itself in search of God and of Truth.” Few make it back from the depths unscathed and immaculate. Perhaps it takes a sinner to convey the real meaning of damnation and redemption.
Even devout and joyful Catholic writers endure dark nights of the soul. Mystical insight exacts a price. More often than not, sanctity requires struggle. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., the master of ecstatic vision, wrestled with doubt and despair:
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Many Christian readers want inspiring books written by exemplary individuals who depict virtuous characters overcoming life’s obstacles to arrive at happy endings. These readers should avoid most Catholic literature.
An identity is not to be found on the surface.
How can the current decline of Catholicism in American letters be accurately characterized? By what standard is it best measured and judged? One useful perspective is to go back to the middle of the previous century to analyze the two decades from the end of World War II in 1945 to the death of Flannery O’Connor in 1964. The comparison between the postwar era and today is illuminating, even shocking.
Sixty years ago Catholics played a prominent, prestigious, and irreplaceable part in American literary culture. Indeed, they played such a significant role that it would be impossible to discuss American letters in the mid-20th-century responsibly without both examining a considerable number of observant Catholic authors and recognizing the impact of their religious conviction on their artistry. These writers were prominent across the literary world. They included established fiction writers—Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Horgan, Jack Kerouac, Julien Green, Pietro di Donato, Hisaye Yamamoto, Edwin O’Connor, Henry Morton Robinson, and Caroline Gordon. (Sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley had yet to try his formidable hand at fiction.) There were also science fiction and detective writers such as Anthony Boucher, Donald Westlake, August Derleth, and Walter Miller Jr. whose A Canticle for Leibowitz remains a classic of both science fiction and Catholic literature.
There was an equally strong Catholic presence in American poetry, which included Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Robert Fitzgerald, Kenneth Rexroth, John Berryman, Isabella Gardner, Phyllis McGinley, Claude McKay, Dunstan Thompson, Ned O’Gorman, John Frederick Nims, Brother Antoninus (William Everson), Thomas Merton, Josephine Jacobsen, and the Berrigan brothers, Ted and Daniel. These writers represented nearly every aesthetic in American poetry. There were even Catholic haiku poets, notably Raymond Roseliep and Nick Virgilio.
Meanwhile the United States enjoyed the presence of a distinguished group of Catholic immigrants, including Jacques Maritain, Czesław Miłosz, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Henri Nouwen, René Girard, John Lukacs, Padraic and Mary Colum, José Garcia Villa, Alfred Döblin, Sigrid Undset, and Marshall McLuhan. Some of the writers came to the United States to flee communism or Nazism. (Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin came here, late in life, to flee the European Catholic hierarchy.) These writers were supported by engaged Catholic critics and editors with major mainstream reputations, such as Walter Kerr, Wallace Fowlie, Hugh Kenner, Clare Boothe Luce, Robert Giroux, William K. Wimsatt, Thurston Davis, and Walter Ong. The intellectual milieu was further deepened by “cultural Catholics” whose intellectual and imaginative framework had been shaped by their religious training—writers such as Eugene O’Neill, John O’Hara, J. V. Cunningham, James T. Farrell, John Fante, Mary McCarthy, and John Ciardi, as well as—at the end of this period—John Kennedy Toole and Belfast-born Brian Moore.
The cultural prominence of midcentury American Catholic letters was amplified by international literary trends. The British “Catholic Revival” led by writers such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, J. R. R. Tolkien, Edith Sitwell, Ronald Knox, Hilaire Belloc, David Jones, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Jennings, and Anthony Burgess provided a contemporary example of how quickly a Protestant and secular literary culture could be enlivened by new voices. (G. K. Chesterton had died in 1936, but he continued to exercise enormous influence on both British and American writers.) At the same time in France another Catholic revival had emerged guided by novelists Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac and poets Paul Claudel and Pierre Reverdy, all of whom were widely read in the United States. Another factor inspiring American Catholic authors, a disproportionate number of whom were Irish-American, was the rise of modern Irish literature. Long the province of Protestants, 20th-century Irish letters suddenly spoke in the Catholic accents of writers such as James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, and Flann O’Brien. Not surprising, American Catholic writers of this period saw themselves as part of an international movement.
The crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood.
—G. K. Chesterton
The explosion of American Catholic writing in the two decades after World War II has sometimes been described as a renaissance or revival, but these attractive terms are misnomers. There was no earlier American Catholic literary tradition to be reborn. Until the war years, American literature had been mostly a Protestant affair seasoned by a scattering of Jewish voices (with both groups becoming increasingly secular). Although Catholics had ranked as the nation’s largest religious denomination since 1890, there were social, linguistic, educational, and cultural barriers that slowed their literary development. Despite the success of a few popular figures, such as Joyce Kilmer, there had been almost no literature of enduring significance.
It took half a century of growth and progress in Catholic schools and universities, journalism, and publishing to make the mid-20thcentury achievement possible. The period from 1945 to 1964 represented the first full flowering of the American Catholic imagination—a powerful expansion of the national literature, which impressed both the pagan and the pious with its energy, depth, and originality. It was not a rebirth but a nativity—the sensibility of an ancient faith heard in a new world for the first time. The poor, immigrant communities that had reshaped the American population now helped reconfigure American letters.
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.”
Sixty years ago it was taken for granted that a significant portion of American writers were Catholics who balanced their dual identities as artists and believers. These writers published in the mainstream journals and presses of the time as well as with specifically Catholic journals and presses. They also won major literary awards. Between 1945 and 1965 Catholic novelists and poets received 11 Pulitzer Prizes and five National Book Awards (six NBAs if one counts O’Connor’s posthumously published Complete Stories in 1972).
Catholic authors were reviewed and discussed in the general press. They were also intelligently covered in the large and varied Catholic press. Thomas Merton, for example, published with Harcourt Brace, New Directions, and Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, as well as small monastic and ecclesiastical presses. He was reviewed in Time, Life, Atlantic Monthly, and The Saturday Review as well as Commonweal, Ave Maria, Catholic World, and Theology Digest. Writers also had the opportunity, if they were so inclined, to reach a Catholic audience directly in person on a large speakers’ circuit of religious schools and associations. Although crippled by lupus, Flannery O’Connor helped pay the family bills on the lecture circuit. She visited colleges, conferences, seminaries, and even a convent of cloistered nuns. She found travel tiring, but she often enjoyed the people she encountered. “When you assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do,” she declared, “you can relax a little.”
It is instructive to see how large and substantial the Catholic literary subculture once was and how much it influenced literary coverage in the general press. Reading through Flannery O’Connor’s published interviews, a scholar today might be surprised to see that half of them appeared in Catholic journals—an inconceivable situation now for a serious young writer. Equally inconceivable, the secular journals asked her informed and respectful questions about the relation of her faith to her art. The midcentury Catholic writer could address both the general reader and the Catholic reader—knowing that both audiences were not only on speaking terms but also overlapped.
The supernatural is an embarrassment today.
Looking back on the midcentury 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. In order to describe the current situation, we would have to restate each of the observations in a radically different form.
Sixty years ago many established writers identified themselves as faithful Catholics. Today there are still a few writers who admit to being practicing Catholics, such as Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott, Mary Karr, Donna Tartt, Tobias Wolff, or Richard Rodriguez, but they seem notable exceptions in an aggressively secular literary culture. Many Catholic authors follow their faith quietly. More significant, most young writers no longer see their religion as a core identity—in spiritual or aesthetic terms. Their faith is something to be hidden or discarded in order to achieve success in an arts world that appears hostile to Christianity. In practical terms, who can blame them?
Sixty years ago there were many famous literary conversions to Catholicism. These haven’t stopped altogether. Not long ago there were the celebrated literary “bad girl” and “bad boy” conversions of Mary Karr and Franz Wright. (There is more rejoicing in heaven over one lost poet found than in 99 novelists who have never strayed.) Now, however, the most common form of “conversion” is among artists who leave the Church. Some writers have made leaving the faith a recurring habit. Vampire novelist Anne Rice has publicly rejoined and renounced the Church twice.
The second observation—that the cultural establishment once accepted Catholicism as a possible and permissible artistic identity—also needs to be substantially revised. Today the cultural establishment views faithful Catholics with suspicion, disdain, or condescension.
From its earliest stages, American society has displayed a streak of anti-Catholicism, which originated in Protestant, especially Puritan, antagonism toward Rome. Antipapist hatred became an enduring element in populist bigotry as exemplified by the Know-Nothings and Ku Klux Klan.
This ingrained bias was perpetuated by class prejudice against the waves of poor immigrants—first the Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Hungarian, and Mexican, and later the Filipino, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, Haitian, and Central American poor who came to the United States in search of a better life. The American Catholic Church has historically been the church of immigrants and the poor. Consequently, the Roman faith has often been viewed as one of the backward beliefs these dispossessed groups brought over from the Old Country.
Anti-Catholicism has also been common among the intelligentsia. As Patrick Moynihan observed, anti-Catholicism remains “the one respectable form of intellectual bigotry.” During the ceremony when O’Connor was posthumously awarded the National Book Award, her editor Robert Giroux recalled one literary celebrity complaining, “Do you really think Flannery O’Connor was a great author? She’s such a Roman Catholic.” Would anyone have made a similar remark at the ceremonies honoring Philip Roth or Ralph Ellison? As poet-historian Peter Viereck commented, “Catholic baiting is the anti-Semitism of liberals.” But the left enjoys no monopoly on anti-Catholicism. Despite some ecumenical progress in recent years, it remains a persistent prejudice among Southern fundamentalists and evangelicals. A New York leftist and an Alabama Pentecostal may not agree on much, but too often they share a dislike of Catholics.
Despite a public culture committed to diversity and tolerance, anti-Catholicism has grown measurably worse among academics and intellectuals over the past decade—driven in equal parts by sexual abuse scandals, gay rights, resurgent atheism, and lingering historical prejudice. At best, Catholicism is seen as a private concern rather than a public identity and certainly not an advisable or reliable basis for a personal aesthetic. As the British novelist Hilary Mantel recently declared, “Nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.”
The third observation that there was a dynamic and vital Catholic literary tradition also needs to be revised. There is currently no vital or influential Catholic tradition evident in mainstream American culture. The few distinguished writers who confess their Catholicism appear to work mostly in isolation. Such isolation may not hamper their creativity. Hansen, McDermott, Rodriguez, and Wolff rank among the nation’s finest authors. But their lack of a collective public identity limits their influence—as Catholics—both on the general culture and on young writers. Meanwhile the less-established writers who have made Catholicism the core of their artistic identity work mostly outside mainstream literary life in a small Catholic subculture that has little impact on general cultural life.
Finally, the fourth observation—that there was a critical and academic milieu that discussed and supported the best Catholic writing—perhaps needs to be revised the least, but the current situation reveals a substantially diminished scene. There has been a vast retrenchment of this intellectual milieu. (This trend has been aggravated by the many Catholic colleges and universities that now seem socially embarrassed by their religious identity.) There is still a small, imperiled, and largely segregated cohort of Catholic magazines such as Commonweal, America, and Crisis, as well as serious ecumenical publications such as First Things and Image, as well as scholarly ones such as Christianity and Literature and Renascence. Their collective reach and readership has declined, and they stand at a greater distance from mainstream culture than their equivalents did 60 years ago. The influence of these journals, even the largest like First Things and America, is limited to a shrinking subculture. Moreover, few Catholic journals still publish a substantial number of book reviews or provide much literary coverage. Consequently, they provide neither much employment for Catholic critics who seek to write for their own community nor significant exposure for emerging authors.
What is the effect of this intellectual segregation? The Catholic voice is heard less clearly and less often in the public conversations that inform American culture. Consequently, Catholics have lost the power to bring their own best writers to the attention of a broader audience. Today, if any living Catholic novelist or poet has a major reputation, that reputation has not been made by Catholic critics but by the secular literary world, often in spite of their religious identity. In literature at least, the Catholic media no longer command sufficient cultural power to nominate or effectively support what is best from its own community. Has this situation disturbed Catholic leaders? Not especially. The Catholic subculture seems conspicuously uninterested in the arts.
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.
Many people judge a religion by its art, and
why indeed shouldn’t they? —Elizabeth Jenkins
In the literary sphere, American Catholics now occupy a situation closer to that of 1900 than 1950. It is a cultural and religious identity that exists mostly in a marginalized subculture or else remains unarticulated and covert in a general culture inclined to mock or dismiss it. Among the “respectable people” Hilary Mantel mentioned, Catholicism is retrograde, déclassé, and disreputable. No wonder Catholic writers keep a low profile. After all, what do writers gain now by identifying themselves as Catholics? There is little support from within the community—not even the spiritual support of an active artistic tradition. The general intellectual and academic culture remains at least tacitly anti-Catholic. The situation brings to mind Teresa of Ávila’s witty complaint, “If this is the way You treat your friends, no wonder You have so few.”
If one needs an image or metaphor to describe our current Catholic literary culture, I would say that it resembles the present state of the old immigrant urban neighborhoods our grandparents inhabited. They may still have a modicum of local color amid their crumbling infrastructure, but they are mostly places from which upwardly mobile people want to escape. Economically depressed, they offer few rewarding jobs. They no longer command much social or cultural power. To visualize the American Catholic arts today, don’t imagine Florence or Rome. Think Newark, New Jersey.
A different person might summarize the situation slightly differently, or argue with the phrasing of particular observations, but I doubt that any honest observer of current literary culture could refute this sad summary of Catholic letters today. Despite its proclamations of diversity and multiculturalism, contemporary American letters has little use for Catholicism, and Catholics have retreated from mainstream cultural life.
By now I have surely said something to depress, anger, or offend every reader of this essay. It depresses me, too, but I won’t apologize. If I have outlined the cultural situation of Catholic writers in mostly negative terms, it is not out of despair or cynicism. It is because to solve a problem, we must first look at it honestly and not minimize or deny the difficulties it presents. If we want to revitalize some aspect of cultural life, we must understand the assumptions and forces that govern it. The collapse of Catholic literary life reflects a larger crisis of confidence in the Church that touches on all aspects of religious, cultural, and intellectual life. What I have said so far also pertains, in general terms, to all American Christians. Whatever their denomination, they have increasingly disengaged themselves from artistic culture. They have, in effect, ceded the arts to secular society. Needless to say, for Catholicism, this cultural retreat—indeed, this virtual surrender—represents a radical departure from the Church’s traditional role as patron and mentor to the arts. In only 50 years the patron has become the pariah.
It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it. —G. K. Chesterton
The schism between Christianity and the arts has had two profound consequences, two vast impoverishments—one for the arts world, the other for the Church. First, for the arts world, the loss of a transcendent religious vision, a refined and rigorous sense of the sacred, the breaking and discarding of 2,000 years of Christian mythos, symbolism, and tradition has left contemporary American art spiritually diminished. The shallow novelty, the low-cost nihilism, and the vague and sentimental spiritual pretensions of so much contemporary art—in every media—is the legacy of this schism, as well as the cynicism that pervades the arts world.
This last point needs to be clarified to avoid any misunderstanding. 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 nonbelievers, 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.
The great and present danger to American literature is the growing homogeneity of our writers, especially the younger generation. Often raised in several places in no specific cultural or religious community, educated with no deep connection to a particular region, history, or tradition, and now employed mostly in academia, the American writer is becoming as standardized as the American car—functional, streamlined, and increasingly interchangeable. The globalization so obvious in most areas of the economy, including popular culture, has had a devastating impact on literature. Its influence is especially powerful since globalized commercial entertainment—movies, television, popular music, and video games—now shapes the imagination of young writers more pervasively and continuously than do literary texts. An adolescence in Los Angeles is not much different from one in Boston or Chicago when so many thousands of hours are spent identically in the same virtual worlds. Is it any wonder that so much new writing lacks any tangible sense of place, identifiable accent, or living connection to the past? Nourished more by global electronic entertainment than active individual reading, even the language lacks resonance and personality. However stylish and efficient, writing with no past probably has no future.
If you dislike Christianity—which some readers of this essay surely do—you may regard the decline of Catholic literature as a sign of progress. It seems proof positive that contemporary Christianity lacks creativity and cultural intelligence. But even in secular terms, this position is myopic and self-defeating (not to mention undemocratic). The retreat of the nation’s largest cultural minority from literary discourse does not make art healthier. Instead, it weakens the dialectic of cultural development. It makes American literature less diverse, less vital, and less representative.
There is a temptation for members of a cultural elite to see their values as the only respectable virtues, a tendency that blinds the group to both cultural innovation and aesthetic dissent, especially from people deemed marginal to established intellectual society. Jazz, blues, film, detective fiction, science fiction, and photography were all arts that emerged without elitist approval, and yet they all made indisputable contributions to American culture. In retrospect, it seems clear that the great accomplishments of mid-20th-century American fiction depended on the emergence of Jewish, Catholic, and African American voices. These distinctively accented voices—Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor and J. F. Powers, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin—opened up new vistas of American fiction by articulating the worldview of groups previously marginal. People on the margins see some things more clearly than do those privileged to live at the center. When the elite and the powerful silence the voices of outsiders, culture hardens into convention. Any secular reader who wishes Catholic voices away unknowingly furthers the narrowing and standardization of American letters.
The second consequence of this cultural schism affects the Church. The loss of the aesthetic sensibility in the Church has weakened its ability to make its call heard in the world. Dante and Hopkins, Mozart and Palestrina, Michelangelo and El Greco, Bramante and Gaudí have brought more souls to God than all the preachers of Texas. The loss of great music, painting, architecture, poetry, sculpture, fiction, and theatre has limited the ways in which the Church speaks to people both within and beyond the faith.
Catholicism rightly revels in its theological and philosophical prowess, which is rooted in two millennia of practice and mastery. Theology is important, but formal analytical thought—the splendeur et misère of Roman Catholicism—is not the primary means by which most people experience, accept, or reject a religious faith. They experience the mysteries of faith (or fail to) in the fullness of their humanity—through their emotions, imagination, and senses as well as their intellect. Until recently, a great strength of Catholicism has been its glorious physicality, its ability to convey its truths as incarnate. The faith was not merely explained in its doctrine but reflected in sacred art, music, architecture, and the poetry of liturgy. Even St. Thomas Aquinas knew there were occasions to put theology aside and write poetry. His resplendent verses are still sung with incense at Eucharistic Benediction. “Bells and incense!” scoffs the Puritan, but God gave people ears and noses. Are those organs of perception too humble to bring into church? For very good reason, participating in Mass involves all five senses. We necessarily bring the whole of our hairy and heavy humanity to worship.
Nowhere is Catholicism’s artistic decline more painfully evident than in its newer churches—the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies. Saddest of all, even the liturgy is as often pedestrian as seraphic. Vatican II’s legitimate impulse to make the Church and its liturgy more modern and accessible was implemented mostly by clergy with no training in the arts. These eager, well-intentioned reformers not only lacked artistic judgment; they also lacked a respectful understanding of art itself, sacred or secular.
They saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational. The problem is that art is not primarily conceptual or rational. Art is holistic and incarnate—simultaneously addressing the intellect, emotions, imagination, physical senses, and memory without dividing them. Two songs may make identical statements in conceptual terms, but one of them pierces your soul with its beauty while the other bores you into catalepsy. In art, good intentions matter not at all. Both the impact and the meaning of art are embodied in the execution. Beauty is either incarnate, or it remains an intangible abstraction.
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?
I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.
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.
How long, I wondered, could this thing last? But the age of miracles hadn’t passed.
The renewal of the Catholic arts will not come from the Church itself. I am prepared to believe in miracles, but the notion that the Catholic hierarchy will make literature and the arts a priority and then exercise good judgment in supporting them exceeds all credulity. The bishops may occasionally recite some high-minded cant on the subject of culture, but their passions lie elsewhere. They have more pressing problems to address, including some of their own making. Ecclesiastical indifference, however, is a great blessing—perhaps even the miracle I hope for. Focused on other issues, the hierarchy is unlikely to interfere with any cultural awakening. They won’t even notice an artistic renascence until long after it is fully launched into the world.
The renewal of Catholic literature will happen—or fail to happen—through the efforts of writers. Culture is not an intellectual abstraction. It is human energy expressed through creativity, conversation, and community. Culture relies on individual creativity to foster consciousness, which then becomes expanded and refined through critical conversation. Those exchanges, in turn, support a community of shared values. The necessary work of writers matters very little unless it is recognized and supported by a community of critics, educators, journalists, and readers. The Communion of Saints is not only a theological concept, it is the model for a vibrant Catholic literary culture. There is so much Catholic literary talent—creative, critical, and scholarly—but most of it seems scattered and isolated. It lacks a vital sense of cultural community—specifically a conviction that together these individuals can achieve meaningful change in the world. If Catholic literati can recapture a sense of shared mission, the results would enlarge and transform literary culture.
If the state of contemporary Catholic literary culture can best be conveyed by the image of a crumbling, old, immigrant neighborhood, then let me suggest that it is time for Catholic writers and intellectuals to leave the homogenous, characterless suburbs of the imagination, and move back to the big city—where we can renovate these remarkable districts which have such grace and personality, such strength and tradition. It is time to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition. Starting the renovation may seem like a daunting task. But as soon as one place is rebuilt, someone else will already be at work next door, and gradually the whole city begins to reshape itself around you. Renovation is hard work, but what a small price to pay—to have the right home.
This essay was developed from a talk hosted by the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University. A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in the journal First Things.