Decline into Silence

In the past year and a half, three of our most prominent Catholic literary critics – Dana Gioia, Gregory Wolfe, and Paul Elie – have been engaged in a debate about the state of Catholic literature in the English-speaking world. Though this debate is of special interest to Catholics with a love of literature and the arts, the stakes involved should interest every Catholic: for what is at issue is nothing less than whether and how Catholics are going to have a voice in one of the most important sectors of culture.

Dana Gioia, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, currently a professor at the University of Southern California, and, not least, a poet of international renown, kicked off the debate in December 2013 with an article in First Things, “The Catholic Writer Today.” In this lengthy and penetrating piece, Gioia argues that Catholic literature is in decline. He compares the condition of American Catholic literature in the mid 20th century – “the first full flowering of the American Catholic imagination” – to its condition today and finds the difference “shocking.”

In the two decades following the end of the Second World War, “Catholic voices in all their diversity played an active role in shaping the dynamic public conversation that is American literature. Catholicism was not only seen as a worldview consistent with a literary or artistic vocation. Rich in rituals, signs, and symbols, the Roman church was often regarded as the faith most compatible with the artistic temperament.”

Not so today. As Gioia surveys the present landscape, he sees that fewer important writers publicly identify themselves as Catholic, the influence of the Catholic literary tradition on the culture has waned, and that the cultural establishment, in turn, is all too happy to snub the faith, an attitude typified by Booker Prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel’s snarky declaration that “Nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.”

Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a four-way biography of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, agrees with Gioia: “If any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it’s literature.”

So we Catholics beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past with Chesterton, Belloc, Greene, Waugh, Powers, Percy, and O’Connor. . .

That kind of nostalgia is one kind of response to the narrative of decline, one that is often expressed in discussions about the state of Catholic literature, but it isn’t the response Gioia advocates. Gioia urges Catholic writers to get back into the game, to recapture a sense of shared mission, and to “renovate and reoccupy our own tradition.”

Catholic novelist Ron Hansen
Catholic novelist Ron Hansen

 

There is yet another response to the narrative of decline: that the narrative is a fiction. Gregory Wolfe, founder and editor-in-chief of Image, a journal of faith and the arts, has pushed back against the idea that Catholic influence has waned in English-speaking letters, as witnessed by the acclaimed work of more recent Catholic writers such as Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott, Cormac McCarthy, Oscar Hijuelos, Andre Dubus, and many others. For Wolfe, Catholic writers never left the game; they’ve been on the field playing, and rather well, all along.

So why haven’t we added the names of Hansen, McDermott, et alia to our pantheon of great Catholic writers? Many do add them, of course, but for many others their names do not resonate in the same way as those of Chesterton, Greene, and Waugh. A good part of the reason for this, Wolfe claims, is that the more recent Catholic writers “have been far more inclined to whisper.”

The reference is to Flannery O’Connor’s famous statement of her own aesthetic: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural. . . .to the hard of hearing you shout, and to the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Wolfe sees recent Catholic writers who grapple with faith as less engaged than the previous generation with the struggle against 20th-century secular attacks on religion. These writers are “less sure they can, or should, create these big silhouettes. They’re more interested in the scrimshaw of private life.” They are whisperers rather than shouters. And the problem, according to Wolfe, is that we’re not listening to them.

This dichotomy between shouts and whispers, however, is somewhat misleading. Certainly O’Connor and others did make use of the big silhouette and the grand gesture. Think of the horrifying conclusion of O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or the dramatic deathbed conversion in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. But these writers were also capable of treating struggles with faith as well as other subjects in more muted tones and in more intimate settings, as we find in O’Connor’s short story, “The Enduring Chill,” and Waugh’s domestic tragedy, A Handful of Dust.

The dichotomy of shouts and whispers has not so much to do with tone and setting as with a posture toward post-modernity. “We live in a secular world,” attests Wolfe, “where any grand narrative is suspect, where institutions are seen as oppressive.” So the shaky metaphysical backdrop of Catholicism and its despised institutions have driven many Catholic writers indoors, where they depict faith as it is struggled with in the privacies of the human heart.

And there is the root cause of the lingering sense of decline that many Catholics feel about the state of Catholic literature: it is the fact that recent Catholic writers have abjured the public face, the social and political nature, of Catholicism; they have failed to speak of the problem of how to live the faith in a world that finds that public face disrespectable.

Whether in shouts or whispers, that is the voice we long to hear.

Daniel McInerny

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.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Very different to the position in France, where one has Michel Tournier, Jean Raspail, Jean D’Ormesson, Max Gallo, Denis Tillinac and others.

  • Chris in Maryland

    An institution that throws out prayers of the Holy Mass handed down through the ages, and promotes impoverished “innovations” concocted at coffee tables, is not an institution that behaves as if it values rituals, signs and symbols.
    Hence, its “universities” do not teach the literature of Dante, or Flannery O’Connor, they instead teach impoverished, contemporary and toxic junk. Such as what I saw in my child’s “catholic college” literature material.
    Hence, its “religious education” programs do not teach children preparing for First Holy Communion that they receive the “Body and Blood of the Lord” – they teach the next generation, as they did last week – that the children receive “the love of Jesus.”
    In his 2014 Erasmus lecture, Archbishop Chaput stated that our generation has failed to pass on the faith.
    So it is not merely that our institutions are despised. Rather, we so despise ourselves that we have abandoned the cultural freight once transported by our institutions, and our institutions are staffed with the “reformed” who teach emptied out contemporary junk culture.

    • Christine K

      Well said, Chris. It is disheartening to hear that Catholic education is being “dumbed down” even at the second grade level. I am having a hard time finding books with real prayers(in their entirety) and explanations of what really happens at Mass to read to my toddler grandsons. They need to learn the right words and true faith from the very beginning, straight from my mouth if need be.

  • Manfred

    I grew up in a home where my parents knew Frank Sheed (of Sheed & Ward), where we watched Fulron J. Sheen in has clerical robes on TELEVISION from 1952 to 1957 expounding on Catholic philosophy, where Catholics managed the Legion of Decency, in a Country which appeared to be on the cusp of converting to Catholicism. The Church was constant and monolithic. What you were taught in parish A ,you would be taught in parishes B, C and D. The Church had SOMETHING TO SAY.
    Those days are long gone. The Church today is rife with heresy and heterodoxy. Catholics describe themselves as progressive, liberal, conservative, traditional. How could any writer make a living as a “Catholic” writer when it cannot be agreed as to what Catholicism teaches? The market would be rather limited.
    Thank you, Dan, for this timely and well written piece.

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    Catholic culture is spent. It is now in its quiescent state, replenishing its strength to one day re-enter the cultural scene and assume its historic role in advancing society.

    Just yesterday I viewed the website of the parish church of my youth (St. Saviour) in Brooklyn since I was visiting the NY area and for reasons of nostalgia thought I’d take in Sunday Mass there. I would be able to choose from the usual Vigil Mass, a regular Sunday Mass (no theme here), a choir Mass, or a Jazz Mass (whatever the hell that is). If I wanted to go to confession, that was offered ONE SATURDAY PER MONTH for 45 minutes. The memories of my youth were jarred. I recalled Gregorian Chant at a Solemn High Mass and confessions every Saturday with 6 (yes, that’s right) 6 confessionals open on Saturdays from 4-6 PM. Yes, Catholic culture is spent and that ain’t all.

  • Dan

    There has been a parallel and not unrelated disintegration of the liturgy, and of Catholic life and identity generally. In terms of belief and liturgical practice, most Catholics today are not distinguishable from Protestants. So it is hardly surprising that there is no longer a distinctive Catholic literature. Thanks, Vatican II.

  • Dennis Larkin

    It was the Council itself that was an unforced error. One day the bishop of Salina came back from the Council, and three weeks later nearly everything was up for grabs. The faithful’s hearts were broken for no good reason. It is the bishops who did this to us. And to literature.

  • Fr. Deacon Kevin Bezner

    Thank you for another thoughtful article. Some thoughts: The problem with most writers who call themselves Catholic is that they do not truly know or live the faith or write from a sensibility truly formed by the faith. Because they do not know or live the faith, their writing does not reflect the faith. They put writing, and being a writer, not faith, and being a Christian, in particular a Catholic who thinks with the Church, first. Part of this has to do with education, since few Catholic writers have any exposure to the greatest Catholic writers of the past – for example, poets such as Gregory the Theologian, Ephrem the Syrian, Romanus the Melodist, and Symeon the New Theologian. As Pope Benedict writes of St. Ephrem, “It is the fact that theology and poetry converge in his work which makes it so special.” And further, “Theology, reflection on the faith, poetry, song, and praise of God go together.” In writing, this is the only game that will matter for the truly Catholic writer. My teacher, the poet Donald Justice, used to say that the world doesn’t need another poem. I have come to believe instead that the world cries out for Catholic poems and writing that is as special as that of St. Ephrem. I am grateful that the editors of the Catholic Thing, and many of the writers published here, seem to understand this.

  • Loved As If

    In the SciFi/Fantasy genre, there are a wealth of Catholic authors who are bringing an authentic orthodox faith to creating literature, authors living visible faith. The Catholic imagination is thriving in works by Gene Wolfe, John C. Wright, Michael Flynn, Tim Powers, and many others.

    • Arden Abeille

      Please list some more of these “others.” Any women???

      • Fr. Deacon Kevin Bezner

        I apologize for not answering sooner. I just saw your comment today. Others can be found in these three collections from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Enzira Sebhat, Harp of Glory; Jacob of Serug, On the Mother of God; and Treasure-house of Mysteries: Explorations of the Sacred Text Through Poetry in the Syriac Tradition, which includes a large number of anonymous works. Another is Sedulius, who wrote The Paschal Song and Hymns from the Society of Biblical Literature. See as well these Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library books from Harvard University Press: The Old English Poems of Cynewulf; One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas; Old English Poems of Christ and His Saints; Old English Shorter Poems: Religious and Didactic and Old English Shorter Poems: Wisdom and Lyric – both include Christian (read Catholic) works. See the chapter “Poets and Thinkers” in Mike Aquilina’s The Witness of Early Christian Women, particularly the section on Proba the Poet, as well as the chapter “Independent Women” and the section on Egeria the Tourist. Her comments on liturgy are particularly enlightening. Aquilina makes the point that a number of women, Agnes and Felicity and Perpetua, were the heroic subjects of early Christian works. I would add the story of St. Mary of Egypt, a particular favorite of mine, which was handed down and is included in liturgy in the Eastern churches. It is truly a work for our times. See Pope Benedict XVI’s Holy Men and Women of the Middle Ages and Beyond. He speaks of the exceptional writings of Hildegard of Bingen, St. Gertrude the Great, Blessed Angela of Foligno, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and more. Of the men and women represented in Benedict’s collection of general audiences, thirteen are men and sixteen are women. Some of the women are well known and others lesser known. Unfortunately, only a few of these writers are taught in colleges and universities.

        • Arden Abeille

          Thank you for this treasure trove of classical references! This will keep me busy for quite some time! However, my question remains open for anyone who may know of any more contemporary sci-fi/fantasy writers, especially any females, working in a Catholic worldview.

  • RaymondNicholas

    For the past fifty years the Catholic Church has been in retreat throughout the Western world. It should be no surprise then that writers imbued with the Holy Spirit are also in decline. Where is their inspiration? In all that time can we say we have seen the Church suffer, such as we have seen with the civil rights struggles of blacks? Perhaps one day we will see the truly great writers emerge, when the new martyrs emerge.

  • Sandra Lipari

    Why is Ron Hansen’s photo featured yet no mention of his novels? I have enjoyed several of his books. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVIth, Jesus of Nazareth (NOTHING better!), Dr. Peter Kreeft, Graham Greene, Dr. Edward Sri, Dr. Tim Gray, … not all novelists yet contributing to great faith foundations in written word. For those looking for good children’s works, Seton’s Faith and Freedom Reader is supreme! All of their readers, even their English series are stories of heroic faith and filled with character building virtues for conversations in the family.

  • SJ Man

    Michael O’Brien’s novels, especially “Father Elijah”, are well worth reading. He is very prolific and writes wonderfully.



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