Friday, December 6, 2013

A subject near and dear to my heart

The rise and fall of Catholic 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.
...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.)
Hell yeah. That's why my protagonists tend to be badass dudes who settle problems with violence. They only differ in the specific methods of violence they prefer: guns, blades, or fists.
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.
So what happened?
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 Avila’s witty complaint, “If this is the way You treat your friends, no wonder You have so few.” 
...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 fifty years, the patron has become the pariah.
My four loyal readers know that I'm hardly the type to ride my personal hobby horses into the ground, but I really do think the coming of the new Mass and the suppression of the old contributed in great part to the crippling of the Catholic imagination. Priests and the hierarchy take great pains to make sure the people know what's going on the whole time. Mystery and silence are out, pedantry and constant activity are in.
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.
 We used to be the very best in art, literature, music, architecture, and any number of other fields of human endeavor. Now Catholicism is almost synonymous with bad taste. Our architecture is ugly, our music embarrassing, our art Modernist, and our literature nonexistent. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi: the law of prayer is the law of belief is the law of living. The collapse of Catholic art is of a piece with the collapse in Catholic confidence and Catholic identity. As Mr. Gioia said, if you wish to imagine American Catholic art today, don't think of Rome or Florence but of Newark, New Jersey.

Probably the most valuable class I took in the seminary was "Catholic Literature." Thank you Father Jeff Hubbard, wherever you are. The artistic revival of the Church is not going to come from priests and the hierarchy. This is something Catholic lay people must do themselves. I know all too well that the local parishes are often lacking when it comes to firing the imagination. Fortunately, we have 2000 years worth of cultural patrimony to draw upon. Books don't all have to be vampire-wereseal paranormal romances or fifty shades of slut. If any of my four loyal readers have an aptitude for word punching, consider it a duty and an honor to contribute to the Catholic literary revival, no matter how small your efforts may be.

5 comments:

  1. Is there somewhere I can read some of your work? I am trying to start writing again. I've enjoyed it my whole life and it's for shame that I am yet to complete even a short story. I've turend to poems quite a bit simply because I can get the satisfaction of completing what I started (though not a single one is in my "Finished" folder and I'm never satisfied), and they don't seem like such a burden to undertake or have lying around unfinished. It's also good to get emotions, ideas, or points out of your system so that you don't weigh down stories with suchlike.

    Maybe we can exchange works and critique?

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  2. Certainly. I'm always happy to read the work of new writers.

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    1. I meant I'm willing to exchange works. I don't have any of my fiction online yet but I'll send it as an attachment.

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  4. Great! You'll probably have time to forget this before I've got something I'm confident enough to send, but one day in the future an e-mail will pop into your inbox from me.

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