From silly devotions, and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.
—St. Teresa of Avila
How long, I wondered, could this thing last? But the age of miracles hadn’t passed.
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.
Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, but has almost no presence in the American fine arts—in literature, music, sculpture, or painting. This situation not only represents a demographic paradox, a disfigurement—for Catholicism, which has for two millennia played a hugely formative and inspirational role in the arts.
With more than sixty-eight million members, Roman Catholicism ranks overwhelmingly as the largest religious denomination in the United States. The second largest group, Southern Baptists, has sixteen million members. Representing almost one-quarter of the American population. Supporting its historical claim of being the “universal” church, American Catholicism displays vast ethnic, national, linguistic, and social diversity that include of course illegal immigrants, and urban homeless. Catholicism has grown for the past two hundred years through a combination of immigration, births, and conversions while Protestantism continue to decline. One would expect to see a huge and growing Catholic presence in the American fine arts! But nowadays the arts and Christianity seem only remotely connected, if at all. 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. What is Catholic literature, and what makes an author a Catholic writer?
Surprisingly little Catholic imaginative literature is explicitly religious -fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir. Most 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.
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. 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. 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.
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-twentieth 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 Delerth, 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, John Frederick Nims, Brother Antoninus (William Everson), Thomas Merton, Josephine Jacobsen, and the Berrigan brothers, Philip 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 U.S. enjoyed the presence of a distinguished group of Catholic immigrants, including Jacques Maritain, Czesaw Miosz, 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 U.S. 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 mid-century 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 U.S. 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, twentieth-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 surprisingly, American Catholic writers of this period saw themselves as part of an international movement.
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 eleven 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 with small monastic and ecclesiastical presses. He was reviewed in Time, Life, Atlantic Monthly, and 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 can 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 mid-century 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.
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. 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, Tobias Wolff, Richard Rodriguez, and Kathleen Norris, 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?
Back in the mid-century, there were many famous literary conversions to Catholicism. These haven’t stopped altogether. Not long ago occurred 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 ninety-nine novelists who have never strayed.) Now, however, the most common form of “conversion” is among artists who leave the Church. As the literary agent in Christopher Beha’s novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder remarks, “I mean, who converts anymore? Unless they’re converting away.” Some writers have made leaving the faith a recurring habit. Vampire novelist Anne Rice has publicly rejoined and renounced the Church twice.
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. Anti-papist 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 U.S. 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 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.”
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—on both the general culture and 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.
Many Catholic writers, colleges and universities seem socially embarrassed by their religious identity. Catholic critics seek to write for their own community nor significant exposure for emerging authors.
The Catholic voice is heard less clearly and less often in the public conversations that inform American culture and Catholics have lost the power to bring their own best writers to the attention of a broader audience. 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.
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.
If one needs an image or metaphor to describe our current Catholic literary after 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.
Culture, resembles the present state of the old immigrant urban neighborhoods our grandparents inhabited. 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.
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.
Dante and Hopkins, Mozart and Palestrina, Michelangelo and El Greco, Bramante and Gaudi, have brought more souls to God than all the preachers of Texas. The loss of great music, painting, architecture, poetry, sculpture, fiction, and theater has limited the ways in which the Church speaks to people both within and beyond the faith.
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.
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. This are perpetual complains. As every Catholic knows, we live in a fallen world where, 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. Two great poets are stronger than two thousand 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. His task is also to educates our emotions and imagination, awakening, enlarging, and refining our humanity. Turn nations into more 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 a Portuguese or a 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. Who can blame us for writing with passion about the Church? We rightly refuse to become homogeneous and generic writers in a global secular culture.
We, Catholic writers, must 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. Hope is what motivates and sustains the writer’s enterprise because success will come slowly, and there will be many setbacks.
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. The Catholic novelist has to be a saint!
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. Our Lady, Jesus Christ, The Holy Spirit, all the Catholic entities, saints and saintly intentions…the Catholic writer must have the passion, talent, and ingenuity to master the craft in strictly secular terms! To be a Catholic writer is to stand at the center of the Western tradition in artistic terms. The Holy Spirit is being radiating into our intelligence revealing our eternal dimension!
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, immigrant neighborhood, but we can renovate these remarkable districts into grace and personality, strength and tradition. It is time to renovate and re-occupy 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.