Brian Sudlow, author of a new book examining the rise of the so-called “Catholic literary revival” in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, has given an interview to Emily Stimpson in which he discusses the circumstances that launched an entire generation of authors on both sides of the English Channel, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, G. K. Chesterton, and Robert Hugh Benson to Paul Claudel and Charles Péguy. In Sudlow’s words:
The Catholicism of many writers was inflected by the attempt to counter secular trends. In a period when the divinity of Christ was increasingly questioned in secular circles, the doctrine of the Incarnation was central to the thinking of Charles Péguy and indeed Chesterton. Writers like novelist J. K. Huysmans and Robert Hugh Benson wrote eloquently about the miracles that took place at Lourdes, which were a living sign of the possibility of divine communion in a world turning in on itself.
The doctrine of vicarious suffering by which our own suffering can help earn graces for others deserves special mention. It inspired both French and English Catholic writers (again Huysmans and Benson in particular) and emerges as arguably the definitive rebuttal of secularism, which replaces salvation with attempts simply to build a better world. Ideologies of progress implicitly deny the Christian value of suffering; vicarious suffering affirms not only that good can come from evil but that we are all responsible for each other.
A question which naturally arises when reading something like this is, of course, whether the experiment can be repeated—or, more pointedly, “where are today’s great Catholic authors?” While the interview ends with a scowl at changes in the liturgy (and since cultus is the basis of culture, it is no use denying the element of truth here, particularly given the proliferation of clerics who don’t follow the reformed rubrics so much as their own personal style). But a significant part of the explanation must also lay at the foot of history and the occasional confluence of trends that gifts certain eras with not one or two but entire bunches of geniuses. In the case of Catholic literature, the highly unique “cultural climate in both countries,” which Sudlow goes on to characterize as “one of decadence”—a period that saw the long, painful demise of the old order and eventually exploded in 1914—was also an atmosphere whose urgency was harder to replicate in the decades of bourgeois prosperity that followed the Second World War.
Another, perhaps related explanation should be sought in the fact that many of the authors mentioned (particularly British Catholics) had a minority experience, and so their writing is infused with a simultaneous longing to indict the majority and move into it. Even in France, it is worth noting, the Church was facing serious internal and external threats. By that standard, then, perhaps we are closer to a new birth of Catholic literary talent than many would imagine.