Even though we disagree on gay marriage and on gay rights more generally, I admire R. R. Reno’s honesty and integrity in his writing about these issues, and I read what he says with care and appreciation. However, I was surprised by his dismissive remarks regarding the aims of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“Public Square,” January).
While he has “no doubt that in many circumstances gays and lesbians feel put upon,” he also wants to point out that African Americans have it worse, that he’s “virtually certain” that obese people have it worse, and that smokers have it worse. It’s therefore important to put the “feelings” of people who allege mistreatment “in perspective,” since, after all, “everybody has a grievance, some imagined, others justified.”
First, arguing that Sally should not complain of mistreatment because Sue has it worse is not likely to be persuasive to Sally. Nor is Sally likely to be persuaded by Reno’s other main point, which is that there aren’t many people like Sally. Moreover, as questions of moral and legal reasoning, should such arguments persuade her? I don’t think so.
Second, such seemingly blithe comments about the possible mistreatment of others can’t be entirely separated from their larger contexts. Reno does not answer the question directly, but his argument clearly suggests that he views this proposed non-discrimination measure as unnecessary and perhaps harmful. And perhaps he holds this view at least in part because he endorses, and aims publicly to advance, the view that all homosexual conduct is inherently immoral and therefore unworthy of nearly any form of specific legal protection or recognition.
And perhaps this view, which until fairly recently was dominant in American culture and law, and which still exercises influence (in, for example, significant publications such as First Things), helps to explain why many gays and lesbians still, as Reno says, “feel put upon.” Even if obese people have it worse.
Institute for American Values
New York, New York
R. R. Reno replies:
To be put upon. It’s a widespread feeling, a widespread reality. However, political wisdom involves knowing what diseases the law can cureand when the cures are worse than the diseases.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation, executive policy, and judicial expansion mobilized the power of the state to effectively crush racist practices, especially in the South. Some at the time feared that the instruments of remedyintrusive, coercive, punitivewere in excess of the injustice of racism. But police dogs, water hoses, churches bombed, children killed, and all this against the background of ruthless segregation? Reality testified otherwise, and political wisdom dictated dramatic action.
My argument against ENDA is not based in a moral judgment about homosexual acts, but in the fact that our times are not those times. It’s absurd to imagine that whatever discrimination gays and lesbians feel or experience accords with the black American experience. There are no restricted water fountains, no state-sponsored discrimination, no efforts to prevent homosexuals from voting, no “heterosexual only” signs. Moreover, far from suffering from poverty born of generations of discrimination, by many measures gays and lesbians are statistical winners in America.
Given these realities, what’s the rationale for ENDA? Partly it stems from our current lack of political wisdom. We’re horrified by injustice, and we immediately turn to the state for solutions, even when the law isn’t likely to succeed because it’s too bluntor even if it could, but at disproportionate cost. Our unwieldy and only partially effective Americans with Disabilities Act provides a telling example of both.
But David Blankenhorn hints at something more. He suggests that my moral views oppress gays and lesbians. Even though in 2014 I’m powerless to give any legal force to my views.
Even though my writing these wordshomosexual conduct is sinful, and homosexual desires are objectively disorderedmakes it very nearly impossible for me to be employed by a Fortune 500 company, become a professor at a major university, get appointed to government office, or in any way receive preferment in establishment institutions in America. Which suggests that gays and lesbians won’t stop feeling put upon until I’m silenced. Which I fear is the goal of those who formulated, promoted, and lobbied for ENDA.
Creating the powerful legal machinery of civil rights to protect a successful, politically powerful minority from people like me? Is that what it means to be progressive today? Sadly, it is.
Though interesting and persuasive (I had never before thought of celibacy as a means of political resistance), it is unclear how Grant Kaplan’s insight into nineteenth-century Germany is relevant to today’s churchstate conflict (“Celibacy as Political Resistance,” January). Certainly, we cannot require our priests to be more celibate.
Further, even if today’s celibates were instilling in the faithful a subversive, politically resistant spirit, how should we go about remedying the current situation? Should we be filled with such a radical sense of Catholic identity that we simply ignore state mandates? Should we try to beat natural law into our federal legal system? Or perhaps we should tell the state to hold fast to its own principles, including the protections of the First Amendment, as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is currently doing? I would appreciate some explication on this point.
Catholic University of America
Invariably, this world’s powers protest that the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are “unnatural,” “inhumane,” and “stifling.” They warn us that such practices will restrict Christianity to the “intellectually mediocre and spiritually tepid . . . incapable of vigorous piety and joyful religiosity.” Thus celibacy causes pedophilia, magisterial authority entails mindlessness among the faithful, and Pope Francis’ challenge to capitalism invites a sullen and impoverished Stalinism.
Grant Kaplan maintains academic modesty, but his study is an instance of a more general result: The evangelical counsels are each and all “declarations of independence” from the economic, sexual, and political existentials of this world, in favor of God’s reign. Practical expressions of the counselse.g., the religious vow renouncing personal property, the Lenten call to penance and almsgiving, sexual continence among senior clerics, marital fidelity and continence, or pastors styled as the ancient Roman paterfamiliasresonate in the Christian community as a call to resist the world’s order and move instead toward God’s kingdom.
Yet the faithful ought not to rest smugly in their orthodoxy. Precisely because the evangelical counsels in all their lay, clerical, or religious expressions evoke a supernatural transcendence, they are often cited as justification for the unnatural. Pastoral authority is frequently abused, and the abusers rarely fail to claim that the abused should be meekly obedient. The virtues of poverty are thrown at those who protest economic injustice, and both marriage and celibacy serve as entitlements to sexual indulgencemarriage as a catch-all justification for anything between spouses, and celibacy as warrant for a bachelor’s compensations.
Failure among Christians hands two trumps to worldly powers. The world can present itself as the better alternative to the perverted counsels, as Kaplan notes that German culture and government were presented as an alternative to papal tyranny. Or the world can make common cause with perversions of the counsels, against the authentic reign of God, just as widespread Catholic unchastity is cited as justification for enshrining anti-humanism in law via the Affordable Care Act.
Kaplan rightly concludes that Christian loyalty must not be to the state or to any other expression of worldly culture, but to the Eucharistic assembly, transcending the bonds of nation and generation to stand on the threshold of the kingdom of God.
Fr. David Poecking
Grant Kaplan replies:
I am grateful for the responses. Matthew Dugandzic astutely points out that I do not offer a program or suggest a route of action. My concern is more fundamental: to alter the imaginative horizon of American Catholics so that they resist, at times, the categories suggested by modernity and by the nation-state.
I think Fr. David Poecking and I agree on a number of matters. His letter brings to mind the old slogan, “pray, pay, and obey.” Certainly a robust theology of celibacy and of the priesthood entails the risk of making the laity second-class citizens. The documents of the Second Vatican Council, especially Lumen Gentium, must continue to remind Catholics to reject a false clericalism and to embrace a priesthood of all believers.
He also discerns, quite adeptly, an attempt on my part to exalt the particulars of certain Catholic teachings. Too often Catholics forget the resources that they have. I hope the result is not a smugness, but instead a reminder of the biblical teaching, “to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).
It is in the DNA of the nation-state to privatize and marginalize religion. The essay aimed to show that current conflagrations are nothing new. Churches would make enormous progress if they simply stopped carrying water for the nation-state.
Not long after reading Dan Savage’s statement in “While We’re At It” (January) that “‘abortion should be mandatory’ because ‘there’s too many [rude word deleted] people on the planet,’” I learned that he had been named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. How ironic that the year’s top humanist thinks there are too many humans . . . and that we have to deny reproductive choice to address that matter.
San Francisco, California
Catholic Letters II
Dana Gioia sharply expresses the sacramental vision proper to the Catholic (“The Catholic Writer Today,” December), but is this one that ever found worthy expression in the Catholic writers of the last century? The major poets and novelists of the French literary revivalLéon Bloy and Georges Bernanos, for instanceand of the American “revival”such as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percygive us a vision of the world that seems radically dualistic, one that owes more to Blaise Pascal or Søren Kierkegaard than it does to ?St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.
In their world, nature is dumb and unintelligible, at best, and coruscates with the blinding temptations of sin and sorrow at worst. Grace seems to come, when it does come, as a radical disruption and even obliteration of the order of nature. I do not question the greatness of these writers, but rather whether their achievement is an especially Catholic one.
The writers of the French revival, for all the ambient neo-Thomism that surrounded them, seem to have perceived the world of creation as one of bourgeois hypocrisy that could not be redeemed but must be savaged and left behind in the pursuit of sainthood. The American writers of a few decades later seem to have tapped into the “age of anxiety” conventions of popular existentialism, where the absurd surfaces of modern life tell us nothing more about God than that belief in him will consist of a radical leap of faith for which no thought of man, no human experience, can prepare one.
We search almost in vain for a modern Catholic writer who can show us that the grace of God not only redeems nature but loves and completes it, for one who can imagine a world where God is not simply a specter haunting our consciences from the alleyway, but the author of all things. Where is the writer who sees that the drama of sin and redemption takes place in the context of wounded but real plenitude? Where is the modern poet who comprehends that the deepest yearning of the human heart for Christ is more adequately described as the eros of Plato and Augustine than as the angst of Kierkegaard and Sartre?
In an age that spoke of anxiety and nihilism, O’Connor gave us a shrewd image of a world beholden to sin, and of the eruptions of grace that such a world will crucifyagain and againif given the chance. But our age is not one characterized by the threat of nihilism or the heroism of “the courage to be.” It is one of idolatry.
The Catholic vision, as Gioia describes it, is one that sees natural things shining out, intelligible, and animate in some sense. But, it tells us, these things are not gods but rather made by God in love. They do not speak for themselves, as little absolutes, but rather give us news of who made them, the one who reconciles all things to himself.
Writers, even Catholic writers, need not be theologians; they certainly need not serve as advertisements for the Summa of Aquinas. But, I question what the fuss is about that we have no new Flannery O’Connors, when the old O’Connors, the Catholic writers of an earlier day, seem to have gained popular attention largely by giving a slightly Catholic accent to the conventions of existentialism rather than offering a vision of the world that really captured its intelligible and lovable qualityone that prepares us, as Beatrice prepared Dante, to enter into the presence of grace.
James Matthew Wilson
Catholics who spin a narrative of decline make me immediately suspicious, but Dana Gioia offers us hope. Not in the form of some “how to” guide or some “five step” program, but, first and foremost, by way of metaphor: “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 homogeneous, characterless suburbs of the imagination, and move back to the big citywhere we can renovate these remarkable districts which have such grace and personality, such strength and tradition.”
I think that many return to a narrative that ends at decline and sees no new city emerging on the horizon because they can conceive of nowhere else to live but the “characterless suburbs of the imagination.” For the family who, having lived a middle-class life funded by profound debt, is now unable to pay their mortgage, apocalypse seems like a better end than a return to a rich-in-character but crime-ridden section of the city. Many are the theologically orthodox but imaginatively blasé.
A cultural critic without a lively imagination is likely to consider Gioia’s call to arms “utopian,” as though renovation is synonymous with re-education camps. In this way, a narrative of decline that ends on the absolute inevitability of decline is soothing because its fatalism provides the kind of certainty that absolves the subject from working to renovate and rebuild. What makes Gioia’s participation in the narrative of decline distinct is that he insists upon a realistic apprehension of the crisis in Catholic letters. This realistic posture allows him to also have hope.
The only major point of contention I would bring against Gioia’s essay is its suggestion that, during the postwar Catholic boom in American letters, Catholic writers forged a visible community. Peter Huff’s Allen Tate and the Catholic Revival reveals that the American literary scene of the 1950s was in no way prime real estate for a flourishing of Catholic letters. If Tate and O’Connor nevertheless bore fruit in that largely barren ground, what is to prevent today’s best Catholic writers from doing the same?not without a great deal of sweat and insomniac nights.
Among his many insights, Dana Gioia notes that “the great and present danger to American literature is the growing homogeneity of our writers, especially the younger generation.” One source of the homogeneity, beyond the cultural ones Gioia describes, is that American higher education has largely driven the exploration of “faith, hope, and ingenuity” out of the classroom.
Perhaps, most particularly in literature classes, there is often an emphasis on anthropologically and politically infused examinations of discourse communities which, in their promulgation of interpretations centered on power dynamics between creators and texts, have taken away many opportunities to open younger eyes and minds to the aesthetic beauty of an imaginative work, much less to address the role of faith in the creation of said work.
Dana Gioia is right when he says that his essay has something in it “to depress, anger, or offend every reader.” But that is as it should be. Hopewhich is what, in the long run, his essay is abouttends to make itself felt mostly in times of desperation. And much of Gioia’s essay is indeed a chronicle of such a time.
More than half a century ago, in Literature and Western Man, novelist J. B. Priestley wrote, “I have no religion, most of my friends have no religion, very few of the major writers we have been considering have had any religion; and what is certain is that our society has none. No matter what it professes, it is now not merely irreligious but powerfully anti-religious.”
That may have seemed an exaggeration in 1960, at least in this country, because at that time, as Gioia notes, “Catholics played a prominent, prestigious, and irreplaceable part in American literary culture” and “the Roman Church was often regarded as the faith most compatible with the artistic temperament.”
Since then we have seen what Gioia correctly calls “the collapse of Catholic literary life.” He shrewdly observes that “the renewal of the Catholic arts will not come from the Church itself,” and that “ecclesiastical indifference . . . is a great blessing,” precisely because “the hierarchy is unlikely to interfere with any cultural awakening” and “won’t even notice an artistic renascence until long after it is fully launched into the world.”
No, such change can only begin with the laity. It is they who must, as St. Paul said, “think on these things” and do something. Gioia obviously has been thinking on them, and what he has done in his essay, I’ll bet, will prove to be a giant first step toward the renewal of the Catholic aesthetic dimension that both Church and society very much need.
Dana Gioia’s essay was spectacularly thorough and sweeping and sad and stimulating. A few points to add:
I am a Catholic writeressayist, novelist, poet. I can safely say that not once in thirty years of furious typing did I ever sit down and think I would make a “Catholic” piece. “Catholic” is a loose label, and I might argue that there are twice as many riveting “Catholic” writers today compared to fifty or sixty years ago, if you use not Dana Gioia’s three definitions but one focused on the content of the work.
It’s what you write about that makes you a Catholic writer. Barry Lopez, for example, is a stunning Catholic writer, not because of his baptismal faith, or his Catholic education, but because he insistently writes about reverence and grace and resurrection and hope against all evidence and sense. Similarly Annie Dillard (a convert to, by the way), a paragon of Mary Oliver’s line that attentiveness is the beginning of all prayer.
We can rue and remember with nostalgia the time when “Catholic” meant generally one sort of writer, but in my view both the Church and its literature are far better off with far more practitioners making far more sorts of art. It’s a sign of maturity, not dissolution, when we issue such pub-debate statements as “Bruce Springsteen is the finest Catholic poet in America.” The more the Church is a verb and not a noun, the better. Is this not the subtle revolution being fomented by Pope Francis?
Gioia is surely right that the culture speaks less of Catholic writers; but the same is true of Jewish writers, isn’t it? I think that’s because we are less interested in defining (and so very often then marginalizing) writers that way, which strikes me as healthy. (Similarly it strikes me as unhealthy to define writers by their sexual preferences or skin colors; maybe we will grow out of that eventually, too.)
What a wake-up call from Dana Gioia regarding the paucity of Catholic literature today compared to sixty years ago. It hurts to see this today in a Church that has championed the arts for centuries. Our society sorely needs the return of such a leaven.
Too bad Gioia had to end his article by portraying the hierarchy as of no importance in improving the situation. True, the major responsibility rests with Catholic writers themselves. But our bishops are not immune to appreciating and promoting the fine arts. I didn’t expect him to resort to stereotyping or painting them as “unlikely to interfere with any cultural awakening,” especially because he’s someone who acknowledges the importance of community if we are to see a return to Catholic influence in the broader culture. A smudge on a fine essay.
Ridgewood, New York
Perhaps the examples of Thomas Tallis and his pupil and friend William Byrd, both Roman Catholics, will give heart to contemporary Catholic artistsand those who like myself are Anglo-Catholic artistsas well as other writers in the Christian tradition who find themselves in the situation that Dana Gioia describes. Tallis and Byrd wrote church music under both Roman Catholic and Protestant English monarchs during a time of profound theological conflict. They were faced with composing music that was at once artistically excellent and doctrinally sound while navigating through dangerous waters.
In my poem “Thomas Tallis to William Byrd,” published in The Burning Fields, I imagine Tallis writing to Byrd when what scholars now call the Early Modern Age was threatening to bring Christendom to an end. The poem begins by describing the despoliation and destruction of the monasteries by Henry VIII. In the closing section, Tallis ponders the fate of the artist who would keep working and being true to his faith, predicting the time “When Beauty in itself will be destroyed, Its imaged world stark nature to the mind” and the soul “nothing but a light Phantasmal spray.” He asks how their music can live “in such a dark” and answers:
What catholic response here in
this drifted isle,
But to heighten, from within,
Those shining signs inside the
To find rose-windows in the
Or Mary in the bluebells of the
To sense real presence in the
Reddened bracts, in scarlet
Blazing over the frost. . . .
“These common signs of earth, the unappointed feasts,” the poem continues, “Are exiles in a Douai of the heart, Plain names of the hidden matter that we praise”
Until a holy physics of the world
Declares itself inside the starlight
A sacred ordination of the made,
True unities of Seraphim and
From the atoms of Lucretius to
Where the fixed stars stray
westward into night,
Those ancient harmonies of silent
Toward which our anthems flame
like abbey fires.
Dana Gioia likens a renewal of Catholic literature to the renovation of our lost immigrant neighborhoods: “It is time for Catholic writers and intellectuals to leave the homogenous, characterless suburbs of the imagination and move back to the big citywhere we can renovate these remarkable districts.” Extending this metaphor, we might notice that this renovation will require more than one story (pun intended).
Gioia is an articulate and passionate lone voice in the wilderness who would reignite the Catholic imagination with a vigorous Catholic literature placed high on a hill. And part of this, at the ground story, is the need to rescue the next generation before their besieged imaginations are fully cauterized by all that our hand-held virtual realities have to market.
Peter D. Beaulieu
In his necessary clarion call to recover the Catholic heritage of writers, Dana Gioia correctly listed the symptoms of the problem, but his solutions fall short in their ability to sustain efforts to rebuild the community of artists he clearly desires.
He suggests three things that a writer needs to overcome the current malaise. First: A writer needs to have faith. This is true, but not faith in “power” of any sort, whether of art or the spirit. He needs faith in the trinitarian God. The vicissitudes of the soul in pursuit of the Trinity, and the Trinity in pursuit of the soul, are the water that nourishes the Catholic writer.
Second: A writer needs hope. But hope is guaranteed to peter out as the first heavy wind blows if it is attached to “the possibilities of art and one’s own efforts.” True hope looks at the cross, in the face of death, in Christ’s conquering of death, and becomes the food for the journey. Third: A writer needs the muse. “Muse” is related both to “music” and “silence.” Without silence in our liturgies, there is no hope of a “muse-ical” inspiration. The problem with the current liturgy is that active listening and silence have been all but banished. When a Catholic writer meets the triune Godhead in silence, eternal notes resonate in the writer’s soul and sing throughout his poetry and prose. This music can last for a long, hard journey.
Gioia would like us to build a literary ark that can ride the turbulent waters of today. However, in order to build an ark, we cannot be sustained by emotional phrases like “believe in your art,” soft platitudes like “hope in possibilities,” or a noisy muse. We must see the situation as starkly as it really is, look the culture of death in the face, give a supernatural smile, silently contemplate the muse, and build the ark. If you build that kind of ark, they will come.
To be Catholic is to be curious about and affectionate toward other human beings, no matter how disturbing, wayward, or annoying we find them. Because that is how Christ finds us.
We might start, then, by asking why some of our best Catholic writers aren’t Catholic. Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter says more about being for lifeall of lifethan all the anti-abortion screeds (including my own) I’ve ever read. Along with his wife, ?e raised a brain-damaged child (and two others) into adulthood, and the theme of the wounded child, the imperfection that shatters our lives, runs through much of his work. Works about humans, written by humans, that treat the human condition: That is what it is to be Catholic.
I love the Church. Still, I have more in common with my fellow sober drunks and addicts than with many, or even most, Catholics. A recovering drunk off the street will tell stories of his day-to-day life that are gripping, stimulating, thought-provoking, poignant, and grounded in the deepest morality of all: Namely, that the problem is not other people; the problem is us. In his way, he tells Gospel stories about demons being driven out, the blind being made to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk. Still bearing the wounds but nonetheless walking. Holding out a shaky hand to the next person. And he is funny. That is Catholic.
“Where have all the great ones gone?” asked Andrei Tarkovsky, a Catholic-in-spirit filmmaker. “Where are Rossellini, Cocteau, Renoir, Vigo? The greatwho are poor in spirit?”
The great who are poor in spiritthat is Catholic. Or as Thérèse of Lisieux prayed on her deathbed, “May I become little, more and more.”
Los Angeles, California
I have long admired Dana Gioia’s writings, and as a contemporary novelist and critic interested in questions of faith and literature, I think “The Catholic Writer Today” was carefully argued and largely agreeable, but finally useless as any kind of effective exhortation, manifesto, or call to literary arms for contemporary Catholic writers. His backward gaze at the situation of Catholic writing in American culture at mid-century is comprehensive, even exhaustive, but roseate and unhelpful as a meaningful comparison for the current situation of Catholic writers.
Does he actually think Ernest Hemingway and Pietro di Donato, or Claude McKay and Phyllis McKinley, understood what they were each doing as collectively contributing to an active Catholic literary tradition or collectively sustaining a distinctive mid-century religio-literary movement? His demographic capture of Catholic writers in mid-century America and Europe excises these respective writers from their immediate geographic and cultural milieux and self-understandings of their respective literary peers and the array of ambitions and imperatives informing their work, which included the religious.
To be sure, the surrounding public world that these various writers lived and worked in took faith and religion more seriously and sympathetically than our own public world, as I have myself written about in these same pages, and so they were praised or criticized on those terms in ways that fail to happen at a similar frequency today.
Relatedly, I also agree with the main thrust of this article’s contemporary focus, that too much of late literary fiction suffers from a homogeneity and blandness that could be productively disrupted by more writers staging intensified returns to higher-order questions and the revelation of felt continuities between past and present, which would be in no way more possible than through writing seriously about the life of faith.
We can (and do) debate these matters endlessly, just as we issue prescriptives to return to this and invoke that and celebrate the other. But the only thing that each of us can and should do is what we each must do ultimately alone, if we have vocations to be writers: Go off and write out of the very fullness of human experience about the very fullness of human experience and hope to find and affect contemporary readers and the greater world, and in the meantime leave the distracting and finally pointless diagnoses of who were the Catholic writers, and how much, and how well, how little, how importantly, to the critics and scholars.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Dana Gioia makes an informed and impassioned plea for Catholic writers “to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition.” Yet so much of that tradition remains unknown to many Christians; it needs to be recollected so that the past can help to shape the present and press into a future.
This is harder to do in America than, say, in France. Thanks to the labors of Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, and Claude Mondésert, French speakers have available the rich series Sources Chrétiennes, well over five hundred volumes of inexpensive paperbacks that allow ordinary Christians to read the writings not only of the Church Fathers but also of major thinkers outside the fold of orthodoxy (Origen, above all) and of spiritual writers (Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance).
There is nothing remotely similar for English-speaking Christians, and without it people lacking command of classical languages and access to university libraries have no first-hand knowledge of the past. Our tradition is more than theology and spiritual writing, needless to say, but without knowledge of them, one is renovating it in the dark.
One other thing needs to be kept in mind, especially when thinking of the narrative of decline that Gioia sketches. T. S. Eliot put the matter well in 1943 in “The Social Function of Poetry.” “The trouble of the modern age,” he said, “is not merely the inability to believe certain things about God and man which our forefathers believed, but the inability to feel towards God and man as they did.”
For Eliot, a decline of religious sensibility was as worrying as a decline of religious faith, and I dare say that his Four Quartets, published that year, was, in some ways, an attempt to show a range of feelings that an Anglo-Catholic could have for God and man in the middle of the last century. Christianity itself does not turn simply on doctrine and morals; it feeds off a sensibility for religion.
A clunky translation of the liturgy and sentimental hymns do nothing to nourish that sensibility. Our failure as a community to teach the full range of prayer and even how to pray starves it. And, as Gioia contends, there is little Christian art of a high order these days to inform and inspire that sensibility. The renovation he calls for must give attention to the ideas and spirituality of our shared past, to a renewal of prayer in all its modes, and to a liturgy that is fitting to the great events it celebrates.
The University of Virginia
Some time ago an influential dealer came to the studio of an artist I was working closely with. After the tour, the dealer said to the artist, who is an atheist, “Your work doesn’t look as Catholic in person as it does in reproduction.”
I was reminded of this encounter when reading Dana Gioia’s “The Catholic Writer Today.” I will leave it to others to debate the details of his particular observations. My concern is to draw a connection between the broader situation Gioia describes and the dealer’s observation, which cuts to the heart of who I am, as a Christian, and the work I do as an art critic, curator, and art historian.
By “Catholic” the dealer implied that the artist was using art to pursue existential questions that were religious in nature. The artist’s work exuded an aura of urgency and seriousness that he could only describe as “Catholic.”
Like the writers, painters, musicians, and philosophers of Romanticism and Modernism that influence, challenge, and comfort him, my artist friend holds a very high view of art. He believes that art serves him in ways that religion serves others. Mary Karr, one of the writers Gioia mentions, shares this belief as well, confessing, “Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar.”
Pope John Paul II also embraces this close connection, writing in his letter to artists (1999), “True art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.”
When he looks at the literary situation of sixty years ago, I think Gioia is observing the fading light of the modern tradition, which, even in its nihilism and atheism, remained deeply religiouswhere faith is a necessity not only for prayer but also for painting. What replaced this flame in the 1970s was the artificial light of skepticism, whimsy, and irony. If art aspired to religion in the modern tradition, in its waning, it has settled for entertainment.
Gioia’s essay reveals to me that the creative and discerning retrieval of the modern artistic traditionwith its religious resonances and yearningswould not only enrich the art world but also the Church. And then my friend might hear the adjective “Catholic” as a form of respect rather than dismissal.
Daniel A. Siedell
The King’s College
New York, New York
Until sixty years ago, the Church had earned a lasting place in history for inspiring Christian culture through the literary, visual, and musical arts, understood as beautiful. The Church stood as the foremost patron of artists. The sacred arts exerted a formative influence on the lives of the faithful as well as on those not of the Catholic faith. Scholars agreed that beauty was the Church’s greatest treasure and the Church’s greatest power. This is no longer true.
Thomas Merton wrote in Disputed Questions: “Some of us would instinctively be ashamed to let a non-Catholic friend see some of the statues or stained glass windows that are found in our churches. The deplorable quality and lack of restraint of art, and the sentimental, feminine character of the picture of the Sacred Heart, a handsome Jesus with azure blue eyes, statues of Our Lady, dolled up with lipstick and mascara and who looks like a lovely society lady. All these pervert the truth. Bad so-called religious art is like rotten food; there is a healthy reaction to bad food: You throw it out.”
Pope Francis has impressed the Catholic Church and the world with his concern for the plight of the economically poor. This is not a specifically Catholic message; it engages those of other faith traditions as well. What we Catholics need to hear, what all of us need to hear from Pope Francis, is an exhortation calling attention to the artistic impoverishment of Holy Mother Church: to her hunger and thirst for justice and for what is beautiful.
If our churches were temples of beauty, they would be filled again. Then we could proclaim, “See, here is our treasure, our powerhouse; here is our faith!” Finally, Hans Urs von Balthasar has it just right in The Glory of the Lord: “We can be sure that whoever sneers at [beauty] as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois pastwhether he admits it or notcan no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.
Scarsdale, New York
Dana Gioia replies:
James Matthew Wilson raises a number of interesting ideas. At the heart of his letter is a longing for Catholic literature that reflects the full range and splendor of the faith with an almost philosophical purity. This is a lofty goal, a sort of “top-down” vision of Catholic literature. We have at least one such panoptic writer, Dante, and one might include a few others, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Mario Luzi, whose sublime vision allowed their work to escape the vagaries of history.
I tend to be more empirical in my sense of literary tradition. I take greatness where I find it, and I am not surprised that it is deeply colored, even limited, by its historical moment. America has not yet produced a Dante, but I’m grateful that we have fostered an O’Connor, Powers, Porter, Hemingway, and Percy. As Wilson suggests, they have their blind spots, but their vision remains deeply Catholic.
Joshua Hren is right in thinking that the mid-century Catholic literary community I celebrated was “in no way prime real estate.” These writers began their careers mostly on the margins of cultural life. But he is mistaken in contending that these Catholic authors did not constitute “a visible community.” Although American Catholics were less organized than those in France or Italy, their sudden emergence was not lost on readers and critics, both in and outside the Church. The press coverage and critical reception of Catholic writers was huge, and they were specifically covered as Catholic.
Whether this “visible community” was “forged” (to use Hren’s verb, not mine) by the writers themselves or imposed on them by the public and the media, it is hard to tell. There is often a zeitgeist that emerges during periods of significant cultural changea new consciousness that emerges out of the shifting historical circumstances.
For the United States, those changing circumstances involved the children and grandchildren of poor Catholic immigrants. Many of these arriviste writers of that period clearly saw themselves explicitly as Catholics, especially the Irish Americans who defined themselves, for both political and cultural reasons, in ways somewhat outside the British tradition. The same held true for the Italians who felt a deeper connection with Dante and Petrarch than the American and British Protestant tradition.
Randy Boyagoda asks a similar question about whether these writers saw themselves as “collectively contributing to an active Catholic literary tradition.” The answer is both yes and no. Some writers did; others did not. Hemingway stated that he was a Catholic and a writer but not a Catholic writer. By this formula, he implied that he was not part of any collective movement, the sort of things he saw in both Europe and North America.
But other writers, such as Robert Fitzgerald (with whose family Flannery O’Connor lived until she developed lupus), saw themselves as part of reviving a great tradition. Fitzgerald’s detailed account of Jacques Maritain’s Gauss seminar at Princeton (whose intellectual community included Catholic writers such as Allen Tate, John Berryman, Américo Castro, and Frederick Morgan, the co-founder of the Hudson Review, as well as the Dante scholars Charles Singleton and Francis Fergusson) suggests the quality and intensity of these human networks.
Likewise, O’Connor’s celebrated lectures on Catholic fiction and the Catholic writer are obvious attempts to formulate a collective sense of the literary moment. It is no coincidence that so many of the major Catholic writers of the period (as different as O’Connor, Percy, Merton, Tate, and Kerouac) found a publishing home with Robert Giroux.
Of course, Boyagoda is correct in saying that each writer ultimately struggles alone with his or her art. But literature is also a conversation and exists in a social context of publishers, readers, critics, teachers, anthologists. If that social context is alert, open, and engaged, the writer’s solitary quest for perfection is a little less lonely, and the reader’s attempt to find the best new writing much easier.
I sympathize with Beverly Schneller’s lament about the exclusion of the religious tradition from contemporary literary study. It is impossible to understand the Western tradition without studying the role of Christianity as something beyond “power dynamics.” Kevin Hart also explores this issue in his impassioned letter. I fear that he is right in speculating that not only has our age lost its knowledge of our cultural and spiritual traditions, but we have even lost the sensibility by which to understand them. I don’t think I am misinterpreting Hart’s position (and my own) by saying that only a revival of Christian art is likely to recultivate that sensibility.
I’m pleased that Frank Wilson agrees with me that the Catholic hierarchy is unlikely to lead any renewal of the arts, because Bernard Zablocki disagrees. I addressed a similar complaint last month, so let me briefly recapitulate my position.
I look to the bishops for guidance in matters of faith and morals. In regard to the arts and literature, I discern neither interest nor expertise on their part. If a Catholic literary revival is to occur in the U.S. (or anywhere else), it will come from writers and readers, not the hierarchy. Literature does not happen by ecclesiastical decree. It grows from individual talent and dedication.
The bishops have never played a direct or significant role in American Catholic literature. We didn’t need them to create the great literary boom after World War II, and we don’t need them today. The hierarchy, however, does play an important indirect role in Catholic letters by fostering Catholic education at all levels. For this huge and endless work, we must all be grateful.
Brian Doyle raises a fundamental question about Catholic literary identity. There are different ways of answering the question of what is Catholic literature. For my essay, I chose a strict definition, namely the literary works of practicing Catholics (rather than ex-Catholics or cultural Catholics). I tried to build all of my general observations empirically from their writing.
What worries me about Doyle’s generously inclusive definition is that it looks on only a few beliefs in isolation. Catholicism is a complete worldview, not a list of discrete opinions.
If one looks, for example, at the totality of Mary Oliver’s spiritual views, they seem decidedly Unitarian rather than Catholic or even Christian. Likewise, my old friend Annie Dillard seems an unreliable gold standard for Catholic identity, since she has not only left the Church but renounced Christianity. I don’t impugn the spiritual integrity of either Dillard or Oliver. I simply insist that “spirituality” is not a synonym for either Catholicism or Christianity.
David Middleton has responded to my prose with a beautiful and articulate poem. I hope his verses prove prophetic and our age produces Catholic artists as great as Tallis and Byrd. May I commend our readers to savor his final four lines?
Peter Beaulieu’s pun is very wise. We need to rebuild Catholic literary culture from the ground upeven, perhaps, as Beverly Schneller and Kevin Hart suggested earlier, starting with the basement. Bill Haley is quite correct. My solutions to the crisis in Catholic letters were insufficient. I did not attempt to provide an adequate account of how a writer develops literary talent. I added those brief remarks at the end of my long essay to suggest the difficulties of balancing a commitment to both faith and art. I wanted mostly to specify that faith is no substitute for literary mastery.
Heather King’s lyric statement of compassion speaks for itself. I have nothing to add to her testimony except my assent. I have generally belonged to parishes full of the poor. Kneeling with them at Mass has taught me as much about my faith as all of my theology courses.
In different ways, Daniel Siedell and Sr. Joan Roccasalvo articulate the crucial role the Church has played (and might perhaps again play) in inspiring art. I love Siedell’s phrase about the “aura of urgency and seriousness that he [the art dealer] could only describe as ‘Catholic.’” Yes, that is precisely what we need in our art, and what now we have mostly lost.
As Oscar Wilde observed, “Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.” For centuries, the Catholic Church and generations of artists have understood how to satisfy that hunger in ways that nourished both the body and the soul. Having lost that cultural and spiritual capacity, the Church is diminished in ways that everyone recognizes. I don’t think that Roccasalvo exaggerates the problem or the opportunity when she suggests that “if our churches were temples of beauty, they would be filled again.” Why should Catholics settle for anything less?
It is true that there is an affinity between Pope Benedict’s project and Richard Burridge’s achievements, as Ian Markham notes (“Richard Burridge’s Achievement,” January). Benedict tried to overcome the rift in biblical interpretation between faith and history. If an interpreter chose to align himself as a believer, he was suspected of holding a non-critical position. Only a sharp historico-critical approach totally split from the regula fidei was acceptable.
Burridge has shown that the gospels are a fine example of a serious “historical” approach. He has done this not by returning to outdated apologetics but through a convincing analysis of the literary genre that shapes those narratives: the Greco-Roman biographies. It is likely that not all four gospel accounts fit in the same way the requirements needed for a Greco-Roman biography (Luke, for instance, is more Hellenistic than Matthew, and John cannot be understood without the Jewish Second Temple literature).
Burridge’s general insight deserves to be judged as one of the main contributions to biblical research in the last fifty years. The reception of his books in Catholic academic institutions shows how the future must be thought as a growing consensuseven in theological mattersamong those who are the servants of the Word and witnesses of the founding story of Christianity, the story that starts with Jesus of Nazareth.
Armand Puig i Tàrrech
Theological Faculty of Catalonia
Pascal once said, seemingly with the complacent Montaigne in mind, that he could only approve of those who sought in anguish. It seems clear from Robert Royal’s account (“Camus Between God and Nothing,” January) that Camus was in anguish, and even in anguish about God, but I am not convinced that he was actually seeking him. What he plainly sought quite a lot of was pleasure and fame, and in that regard he may have had something in common with Sartre that was more important than what divided them.
And therein lies the great tragedy of his premature death, for with the violence of his passions, Camus may have eventually used them up had he lived longer, and at last found some interior space in which to seek God and to listen to him. Be that as it may, Royal’s portrait is very timely. It is good to be reminded that secular men and women are not always cheerful nihilists who do unspeakably horrid things, but sometimes, and most appropriately, angst-ridden and troubled.
Robert Royal replies:
Christopher Blum is right that Camus was not a seeker in the ordinary sense of that term and that he might have eventually overcome some of his own shortcomingsespecially les femmesif he had not died so young. The evidence might be read either way. But in my view, that’s not the central reason we need to study him.
Whatever his view of God at the time of his early death, Camus understood the attraction of the sacredand in more than mere intellectual recognition. He felt it, as he felt many things, in a deeply personal way. That’s what enabled him to be fair toward believers, to write of odd encounters with something sacred, and actually to enter into real human dialogue, which we rarely see anymore among our much more brittle public non-believers.
In addition to his sense of the sacred, Camus’s sense of the limits of human reason and justice is worthy of serious attention for its incipient natural law approach combined with a sober prudence about how far even the best human intentions can be trusted. Today, we either get rationalists who are overconfident about the line between what is “reasonable” and not, or we have rational skepticism that essentially undermines all truth.
Camus was able to walk that narrow path where we may seek to do justice and to exercise freedom in a measured way. As I said in the fuller article, he believedvery rare in a French intellectualthat the desires for absolute freedom and absolute justice were and are the driving forces behind large-scale modern tyrannies and injustice. And so-called reason has a lot to answer for in producing those atrocities.
The Mediterranean mesure is not everything we might want from someone, but it’s a much better place to start public discourse than almost anything available just now.
David Mills notes how attitudes are changing between Baptists and Catholicssomething I applaud (“While We’re At It,” January). For years I was known as a “liberal” because I dared to believe that Catholics believed the Gospel just as Baptists. I preached in their churches, and they preached in mine. Now I find it odd that it is some of our more Evangelical Baptists who are open and acceptingprimarily, it seems to me, because of their agreement on ethical issues, particularly abortion.
All this is goodyet the divide remains primarily because of Catholic reluctance to admit Protestants to full communion. Can we not admit that, in the twenty-first century, what happens in the Eucharist is a mystery that defies human ability to parse? Can we not see that this looks really silly and stupid to people outside the veil of any church?
Why can we not share communion with those who call Jesus Christ Lord? Could it be that the answers we receive have more to do with power and control than with the love of Jesus and the Gospel? Most priests whom I have had the privilege of knowing and ministering with consider this inane and anachronistic. Remove that final barrier, and Christendom just might unite under admiration for Pope Francis and our love for our common Savior, Jesus the Christ.
High Point, North Carolina
David Mills replies:
It is cheering that Robert Ferguson was an early pioneer or prophet and a little amusing that ecumenical generosity was then disdained as liberalism. Ethical agreement certainly helped create the new friendships I described, but judging from what I’ve seen and experienced, Evangelicals and Catholics have begun to respect and enjoy each other as real believers, not just cultural co-belligerents.
The divide he properly laments does not remain because Catholics wrongly refuse to admit other Christians to communion. Communion is a mystery, but a mystery is not something of which we have no useful knowledge. Any form of intimacy requires some covenant and commitment that will be exclusive and excluding, without necessarily making any judgment about those outside it. The sexual exclusivity of marriage, itself a mystery in several senses, for example.
The Catholic Church holds that the intimacy of communion must be restricted to her members, who have made and maintain certain commitments. Very large books have been written about this, and here I will only say that there are good reasons for this restriction, which do not lessen the Catholic Church’s desire for unity with other Christians.
I appreciated Samuel Goldman’s insights with respect to the Harvard report on the humanities (“Harvard and the Humanities,” January). He affirms what the report gets right in its defense of the humanities while rightly pointing out the paucity of where the report landscreating cultural tour guides. In short, the report seems to forget what the humanities are for, namely fostering “a specific way of being a human being in any institution or setting.”
This specificity is ruled out for so many of our “elite” liberal arts institutions in the name of pluralism, multiculturalism, and tolerance (the last virtue of liberal authenticity). James Davison Hunter pointed this out a decade ago in The Death of Character: Any truly formative education needs to be oriented by a substantive specification of the Good. But it seems to me that this is precisely what is ruled out in most public and private universities.
Perhaps this is why religious colleges and universitiesat least those with the courage to still specify the Goodmight be the stewards of the humanities’ future.
James K. A. Smith
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Samuel Goldman replies:
James K. A. Smith is right to emphasize the role of religious colleges in preserving traditional liberal education for the future. Indeed, this would be no more than a return to the historical norm. As the Harvard report acknowledges, the humanities are based on a synthesis of classical and Christian sources, and were practiced in a religious context into the nineteenth century. In some ways, the history of American higher education since then is a search for a replacement for service to God as an orienting ideal.
Nevertheless, Smith writes off secular colleges and universities too quickly. Both the principle and fact of pluralism rule out commitments to particular conceptions of the Good across whole institutions, but it may be possible to articulate more substantive specifications in centers, special programs, and even individual classes within the heterogeneous “multiversity.”
Creating such small-scale alternatives isn’t easy or altogether satisfactory, but it is worth the effort. The retreat of the humanities into the religious sector, important though it is, would mean abandoning too many students who yearn (whether they know it or not) to be more than cultural tourists.