by nicholas ripatrazone
wipf & stock, 202 pages, $23
Shortly after Robert Lowell’s conversion to Catholicism in 1941, he announced to his horrified wife, Jean Stafford, a lapsed Catholic, that he was instituting a new household regimen. Lowell’s biographer Ian Hamilton described it as “Mass in the morning, benediction in the evening, two rosaries a day. Reading matter was vetted for its ‘seriousness’‘no newspapers, no novels except Dostoevsky, Proust, James and Tolstoy.’”
Lowell, unlike many Catholic writers nowadays, did not fret over a lack of literary coreligioniststhe giants of the nineteenth and early twentieth century apparently sufficed for him. Today, though, many argue for the value of contemporaneous voices of faith.
In this magazine, the novelist Randy Boyagoda has called on Catholics to “continue to have faith in fiction” and to stop relying on the old standard bearers such as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. The poet Dana Gioia has urged Catholic writers to “renovate and reoccupy” their tradition, which, he argues, has fallen into disrepair. Both worry over a failure to find worthwhile contemporary novels written by what Boyagoda calls “religiously minded literary professionals.”
Nicholas Ripatrazone does not share his peers’ concern. The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature was written before Boyagoda’s and Gioia’s essays appeared, but it reads like a distinctive Non!to their assertions. He surveys Catholic literature from the end of Vatican II to the present and finds dynamic writers with “personal visions of faith fueled by idiosyncratic passion rather than orthodoxy.” These postconciliar works, in his view, are “particularly ripe for pastoral application and personal reflection.”
The Fine Delight takes a closer look at a number of lesser-known contemporary Catholic writers, including Paul Lisicky, Joe Bonomo, and Kaya Oakes. But the bulk of the book is devoted to three names that are more familiar: novelist Ron Hansen, the late short-story writer Andre Dubus, and poet Paul Mariani.
Ripatrazone’s strength lies in a close textual analysis of significant works. In the chapter “A Literary Sacrament,” he illustrates Dubus’s talent for peeling back the fabric of ordinary life to reveal the workings of grace and mercy. His close investigations into Mariani’s poetry reveal a similar ability to “sacramentalize the mundane.”
In his introduction, Ripatrazone mentions “Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?,” an essay I wrote in 2011 for the literary website TheMillions, where I offered as a possible explanation for the shortage of contemporary writers of faith the postconciliar fadeout of the traditional Latin Mass. I wondered if the wider use of the traditional Latin Mass after Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum might one day inspire a new generation of Anglo-American Catholic writers of the caliber of Waugh, Greene, and Percy.
Ripatrazone wrote The Fine Delight in part as a response to my article, he says, but he is less concerned with highlighting the artistry of contemporary Catholic writers than with proving that their intention is to critique the preconciliar Catholic Church as epitomized by the Tridentine Mass and the use of Latin.
Convinced that the traditional Latin Mass was the prime reason for lay passivity, confusion, and clerical authoritarianism, his argument is perhaps more theological than literary. “The paradox of Latin Mass is the paradox of sustained misunderstanding,” he writes. And later: “The language of Latin Mass was only understood by the top-heavy minority of clergy, and those steeped in religious education, rather than the lay majority.”
Ripatrazone devotes considerable attention to Ron Hansen’s 1991 novel Mariette in Ecstasy, which he sees as “a postconciliar method to regain lay participation in the mechanisms of the Church.” This theme returns. In a description of the writer Andre Dubus, we are told, “The relationship between Dubus and his father, then, feels comfortably preconciliar: he is shy with the older man, but their silence goes deeper.” Later Ripatrazone asks, “Would The End [by Salvatore Scibona] ever appear on a parish reading list? It should. Yet the path toward necessary pastoral literary diversity is a long one.”
I can’t remember ever witnessing a personal relationship I’d describe as either “preconciliar” or “postconciliar,” nor can I imagine what a parish reading list marked by “necessary pastoral literary diversity” would look like. (I, for one, would stick with Robert Lowell’s reading regimen.)
Ripatrazone writes of Dubus that his “postconciliar sentiment does not reject the machinations of the Church in sustaining and sharing the Holy Spirit, but it does decenter that institution, finding the love of God as capable in the hands of the laity as in the religious.” Throughout the book, “laity involvement” means a desire for less episcopal authority, a diminution of the sacramental priesthood, and a conviction that the special place accorded to Latin in the liturgy and in the universal Church is a threat to “the Spirit of Vatican II.”
Ripatrazone draws a dichotomy also between dogma and the faithful’s aesthetic experience of Catholicism. Anthony Carelli’s Carnations, a book of poetry, “reads as written by a Catholic formed by the language and ritual of faith more than the office of the Church.” Paul Mariani’s poem “Solar Ice,” which centers on a Mass, has a “preconciliar” feel, as a “clear demarcation of place and hierarchy exists between the priest, who is titled the equivalent of God rather than his profession, and the lay congregation.”
Ripatrazone also insists that Catholic postconciliar literature can and should serve “pastoral” purposes. Kaya Oakes’ memoir Radical Reinvention, for example, “is a pastorally instructive testament to authentic religious reconsideration.”
Oakes teaches, among other things, that “you can be Catholic and believe in better access to birth control” and that the Church is “awful at understanding what it means to be a woman, or to be gay.” What pastoral value do Oakes’ opinions actually have? For one thing, are they true? Can you really be in communion with the Catholic Church and support artificial contraception? And is it fair to say the Church is “awful” at understanding the condition of women or persons with same-sex attraction?
I share Ripatrazone’s admiration for the work of Hansen, Dubus, and Mariani, but it’s difficult to think of enlisting their books for explicating doctrine and liturgy in order to further “the care of souls.” Call me unimaginative, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church could aid the pastoral duties of a lay catechist far more than could tough-guy program fiction from Andre Dubus.
In the ongoing discussion of Catholic literature today, the basic question is whether Catholic writers actually need the Church, and not just any church, but the full-on, countercultural Catholic Church with its magisterial teachings intact. In his “Letter to Artists,” John Paul II admitted that the notion that art needs the Church today “may seem like a provocation” but expressed hope for continuing the “mutual spiritual enrichment” Christian artists and the Church have enjoyed for centuries.
Yet almost five decades after Vatican II, many Catholic writers, as Ripatrazone documents, want a Church far different from the one we currently have. It does not diminish the achievements of these writers to note that embracing orthodoxy is psychically different from living (and writing) as a lapsed or cafeteria Catholic.
One can’t help but wonder if the return of a sacramental, and especially a liturgical, rigor in the Church might ease both the real and the perceived opposition between what the Church teaches and how the faithfuland that includes fiction writersreceive and live out those teachings in marriage, at work, and ultimately in the creation of literature.
Robert Fay is a writer living in California.