Building a Culture of Hope and Beauty

People often ask: What can we do, given all the problems that exist in the Church and the world? Most of what we’re thinking of when we pose that question has to do with specific things like liturgy and bad shepherds – or abortion, family breakdown, crime, and the widespread distrust of leaders and institutions. We have to keep at these specific problems, and many others, without letup and without allowing them, heavy as they are taken singly or together, to lead to despair.

But we’re the Catholic Church. Not only can we walk and chew gum at the same time, but we also have a tradition-rich enough to provide answers and concrete help in any and all human circumstances. We can’t save the world, of course. Only God can do that. But we can do what we can in the here and now, which means not solely focusing on problems and what’s negative around us. And not even only continuing longstanding good works, but actively imagining and pursuing new possibilities.

Deo volente – and the airlines co-operating – I’ll be in Houston at one such hopeful initiative today and for the next few days at a Summer Literary Series organized by our columnist James Matthew Wilson and Joshua Hren, who together head a new Master’s in Fine Arts program at the University of St. Thomas. (You can read about the Series and the MFA program by clicking here.) Houston’s Cardinal DiNardo will celebrate Mass this morning at the university on behalf of the program.

Fine Arts, which means encouraging creative writing by younger and not-so-young aspirants, may seem a long distance from many of the concrete concerns we address here at The Catholic Thing. But we have said since this site began that we have to recover the fullness of the Catholic cultural tradition – and extend it – if we are going to avoid the error of trying to deal with our situation merely with the blunt tools that have produced it. There’s much more in the past of our Christian civilization – and ready to be born in the future.

There’s no easy path out of our cultural malaise. But as James Matthew Wilson has explained:

We intend for the Summer Literary Series to be the University of Saint Thomas’s gift to the people of Houston, of the country, and around the world, as we feature great artists and scholars who are building a culture of hope and beauty even now. We live in tumultuous times, but also times of tremendous energy and inventiveness, both in our culture as a whole and in the Catholic Church in particular.

It’s worth adding that it’s not enough to notice that good things are being done by individuals and organizations. To build such a culture requires cultivation – and we can’t expect the secular culture, troubled as it is from Hollywood to newsrooms, university campuses to social media, to find its way to better waters without organized effort.

This is clearly a long-term prospect, and all proper praise to our friends at the University of St. Thomas for being willing to take that long view at a time when it seems that most universities are chasing after the latest thing on Twitter or Instagram. It’s an uncertain investment in a way, because there are no guarantees that we can prevail against various countercurrents. But then again, you don’t produce a cultural renaissance by waiting until all the conditions are right. You plunge ahead with a solid vision– and make it happen.

James Matthew Wilson points to one such vision: “The great [20th-century] philosopher Jacques Maritain once wrote that ‘to civilize is to spiritualize.’ We hope to be a source and servant of such a spirit.”

You can watch the live-streaming of a public dialogue that my friend Dana Gioia and I will have Tuesday evening about an earlier Catholic renaissance that gave us St. John Henry Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Chesterton and Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, Francois Mauriac and George Bernanos, and here in America Thomas Merton, Paul Horgan, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and many more.

Dana Gioia is himself a prominent American poet (by some miracle, from 2015 to 2018 poet laureate of his home state of California ), the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (when the better guys were in the White House), a successful businessman in his earlier life, and a long-time cultural entrepreneur not only in poetry but opera and film. His essay “Can Poetry Matter?” is must reading for anyone interested in contemporary culture. Among many valuable insights, he urges writers to take it to heart that they have great responsibilities and should pursue larger goals than the typical writing for one another in writing programs. We’ll also be discussing the prospects for a new renaissance and what it would take to make that happen.

Dana will give a reading from his work in the same time slot Monday evening, and I’ll be discussing the poetry of St. John Paul II – believe me, worth some attention – on Wednesday (These won’t be livestreamed but here’s hoping that at some point we can connect you to recorded versions.) And Cynthia Haven, author of a stunning book – in both cultural and spiritual terms – on the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1984 and lived for decades in California, will be speaking Thursday evening.

And these are just the public lectures. There are multiple daily workshops for students over the next week and a program during the year that draw on work by the faculty of the program, which includes names such as Sohrab Ahmari, Randy Boyagoda, Rod Dreher, Ron Hansen, Jessica Hooten Wilson, etc.

In short, here’s a novel initiative that is ambitious but not naïve about the present, and which deserves your attention and support. May our tribe increase.


You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s The Catholic Thing (our inaugural column)

James Matthew Wilson’s Our Virgilian Civilization (Or, the Devil Was the First Whig)

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.