A Catholic Moment in the Arts?

Can this be a Catholic moment in the arts? Many readers may be asking a different question: why should we care about the arts? Our culture is in a parlous state, and the Church has many battles to fight – political and moral – that are evidently much more important. The world of the arts and entertainment is for Saturday night and other moments of leisure; it’s not the frontline in our effort to evangelize culture.

I would like to suggest a different way of looking at things. To paraphrase a remark of G.K. Chesterton’s, in building up a culture, one has to build as Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem, with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other. The sword is the weapon of defense. It represents logical argument and public disputation. The trowel is the tool of construction. With the trowel we put up walls and prepare the earth for planting. While the sword keeps invaders out, the trowel creates the new city. And what does the trowel represent? Works of the artistic imagination.

Why are such works so important? Because they enable us to contemplate how life should be lived. To read a novel or watch or movie is to enter into a contemplative space; it is to wonder at imaginary human beings pursuing happiness real or mistaken and to reflect upon what their efforts mean for our own lives. And as in contemplative prayer, the contemplation of art compels our love as well as our mind.

That is what makes art so attractive: it is not just a conceptual exercise. We can gain much abstract, theological knowledge about the virtue of humility by reading St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. But we can “see” humility in action, and in a sense fall in love with it, in reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

It is because we, in a sense, fall in love with works of art that they have such power to transform our lives. By subtle degrees, we tend to become what we love. Thus it is very important to produce works of the imagination that enable us to picture how actually to live out the decisions we have to make and the roles we have to play.

There is a certain priority of art to politics, for without attractive images of the civilization we hope to build, our political engagement will have no compelling, common vision.

Catholic writers and lovers of fiction often hark back, as to a golden age, to the Catholic literary revival of the twentieth century, a revival which gave us Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.F. Powers, and many more.

Flannery O’Connor learned from Henry James

The question then often follows: why don’t we have writers like that today? One good answer to that question is that we have many fine Catholic writers (and other artists) today, artists who deserve much more of our attention. Still, there seems to be something about that panoply of great Catholic writers that needs recapturing by Catholic artists today, at least on a wider scale. What is it?

I contend it is a greater, more effective engagement with the secular world of the arts and entertainment. All of the writers listed above wrote fiction that can justly be described as Catholic, but they all also established large reputations with readers outside the Catholic fold. This was somewhat easier to do fifty or a hundred years ago. There is no question that Western culture has declined precipitously in recent decades, putting the Catholic imagination more and more out of sync with the prevailing secular culture.

Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was a Book of the Month Club selection for January 1946. It is difficult to imagine a novel about a Catholic conversion enjoying such popular approval today. And yet, in order to evangelize our culture Catholic artists must find ways to get their work in front of popular, secular audiences. It’s an enormous challenge, but one Catholic artists must take up without excuses. The culture desperately needs our vision.

What enabled the great Catholic writers of the twentieth century to engage secular audiences was, first and foremost, their consummate craft. And part of what made them so excellent at their craft is that they apprenticed themselves to the very best masters, whether Catholic or not.

Evelyn Waugh learned from Ronald Firbank and Max Beerbohm; Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor from Henry James; Walker Percy from Sartre and Camus, Bellow and Vonnegut. So in order to produce a more effective engagement with the secular world of the arts and entertainment, Catholic artists must have a “catholic,” in the sense of universal, understanding of the tradition in which they work.

While the Church enjoys the grace of possessing the fullness of truth, that does not mean the good, the true, and the beautiful are exclusive properties of Catholics. In particular when it comes to secular arts and crafts, every Catholic practitioner has to submit humbly to the masters of his or her craft – not so as to acquiesce to every thought those masters had, but to learn what in their art transcends mere idiosyncrasy and error.

With this attention to craft and to craft traditions, and with artists relentlessly striving to put their work in front of secular audiences, we would see Catholic artists exerting a wider influence upon our culture. We would see another Catholic moment in the arts, which would benefit everyone – Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.