It’s been nearly a decade since poet and USC Professor Dana Gioia wrote an essay urging Catholic writers to “renovate and reoccupy” their own tradition within the literary culture, and it is a discussion that has been ongoing among Catholics since then—part of a broad pondering of what the “Christian imagination” means in the twenty-first century, and what it has to offer a society that is ever-more pop-focused, less literary in consumption and increasingly secular and polarized in tastes, to boot.
Certainly, in literature, we have felt the dearth of the sort of Catholic writing that was so prominent in the last century, when authors like Flannery O’ Connor, Walker Percy, Evelyn Waugh, Rumer Godden, and others produced fiction that could hook into the souls of readers, whether faithful or not, and lead them into deep contemplation of our fallen natures, the complexities of the soul, and the consequences of co-operating with grace or resisting it. Surf into any social media discussion on Catholic writing, and you will quickly wipe out on the waves of lamentations: “Where are the noteworthy Catholic novelists of today?” is the pounding question as they point to a few significant modern writers—Alice McDermott, Ron Hansen, and Gail Godwin come quickly to mind—and long for the next literary heyday.
In truth, the singular voices of writers like Flannery, or Graham Greene, or Percy, or Waugh (or even essayist G.K. Chesterton, who “dabbled” in creating extraordinary fiction) are partly contributing to the scarcity of new writers, and appreciative readers. So immense has been their influence that many Catholic writers—this one included—have applied trembling hands to fictional efforts and quickly given up, because the ability to write with an eye that is at once unblinking yet subtle, just yet merciful, is a gift God seems to have doled out sparingly among us. Measuring ourselves against the classic offerings, we quickly spy our shortcomings and flee to Facebook and freelance commissions, and Catholic fiction languishes for yet another day, or decade.
Sadly, a real if secondary factor contributing to the shortage of new Catholic fiction is the Catholic readership—specifically the contingent of Catholic readers who pronounce themselves scandalized if someone wonders aloud whether Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian and Charles might possibly have been in love. It’s not an unreasonable question, and because we are a reasoning and reasonable Church, we are still free to wonder; but when it was asked recently by a seminary student taking a class on Catholic literature, some were wildly outraged, suggesting the student should fail the class for the crime of “reading incorrectly.”
If that is the mindset of some readers, how far can any Catholic artist explore human mystery and still have a career? As a friend wrote of that episode, “It is only permissible for Catholic writers to go dark if they write fantasy (but it has to be clearly redemptive and have no hint of sex) or are Dead Flannery. Everyone mourns the loss of the Catholic literary imagination while forgetting that literary imagination is itself authentically Catholic.”
Just so, and in the face such narrow parameters, writers become too intimidated to write, while Catholic publishers (especially smaller houses who dare not release material that could tempt a boycott by the people who spend money on books but consider Graham Greene a near occasion of sin) become too wary to publish.
If Catholicism is anything, it is a religion that acknowledges that human complexities include darker encounters, influencing the soul and psyche in myriad ways. The Church must acknowledge it if it is to bring light, and sacramental grace, and holiness to bear against it. Catholic readers used to understand that when they were reading about Flannery O’ Connor’s Child in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” or the imperfect priest of Greene’s The Power and the Glory, they were partly reading, and learning, about themselves.
I can’t help wondering whether the de-emphasis on weekly or regular confession in our culture has contributed a bit to all this. When we were regularly confessing our drunkenness, our fights, our pettiness, our spites, we knew that yes, the soul is always in battle. We’ve learned to excuse a lot of our behavior through psychology (rightly and wrongly) and have thus lost touch with the spiritual and soulful sense of sin that resides within these actions, and lost our torments, too. Greene, or Waugh, or O’Connor could write dark because back then we didn’t dress the dark up with psychobabble or try to pretend it was something other than darkness. We simply understood, as we went about the job of life, that we were broken, incomplete in ourselves, that we needed help, that we needed God. We weren’t afraid to read about others who were broken too, and whose stories might be too complicated to be perfectly resolved with a conversion moment and an altar call.
So the dire state of Catholic fiction rests on a trinity of fear issues: writers are afraid to write; publishers are afraid to publish; readers are afraid to read. But sometimes stories about human beings cannot be written without going to the shadowy places, even when they reside in the hearts of those who, nominally or otherwise, call themselves Christian.
Those stories need to be told, and Catholics should be broadening, not narrowing, the means of telling because the Catholic imagination is small-c catholic in capabilities; it can provocatively live within any medium.
Interestingly, the last great engagement between the public and specifically Catholic artistry was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” a Vatican-assisted exhibition by the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Largely promoted by secular interests who could acknowledge the Church’s influence on everything from textiles and needlework to clothing design and jeweler’s techniques, the showing attracted over 1.6 million visitors and became the Met’s most popular exhibit to date.
That success story, and the deep need for Catholic thought to show itself in new ways to a public focused only on scandal and downward trends, should encourage individuals within the Church to explore how they too can engage others, and even evangelize, within the scope of their own talents, interests, and hobbies—not limiting our output to arts and letters, or song or film or new media, but bringing our Christ-informed imaginations into comics and cartoons, song lyrics and puzzles and games, woodworking, or gardening; the possibilities are endless. And who knows what great talent, what new visionary, what promising new voices, may be uncovered in the process of putting our efforts forward?
It needn’t be world class, you know, to move a soul, somewhere. As Chesterton himself wrote, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Let’s do our badly best.
This essay was originally published in the inaugural issue of Evangelization & Culture, the Journal of the Word on Fire Institute. To read my “badly best” original fiction, “Swallows of Grace,” please join the Word on Fire Institute at wordonfire.institute.