“If Catholic literati can recapture a sense of shared mission, the results would enlarge and transform literary culture.” – Dana Gioia.
As an introduction to the first Catholic Imagination Conference in 2015 at the University of Southern California, Dana Gioia, poet, critic, former Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, and founder of the Conference, wrote, “There are too few places for Catholic writers to meet, publish, be reviewed, and lecture. This is an especially huge problem for beginning writers. We need to rebuild Catholic literary culture.”
Providing one such place for Catholic writers and other creators – well-known or not – to come together from often-hobbling isolation was such a success at USC that the conference was organized again in 2017 at Fordham University, and in 2019 at Chicago Loyola. This year, after a gap caused by COVID, the fourth biannual Catholic Imagination Conference was held at the University of Dallas on September 30 and October 1.
Gioia’s 2013 essay, “The Catholic Writer Today: Catholic Writers Must Renovate and Reoccupy Their Own Tradition,” was originally published at First Things, and reprinted with other essays in 2019 by Wiseblood Books. That essay lays out a path for the many of us who look back with envy to the situation in the middle of the 20th century, when Catholic books were published by mainstream presses, reviewed by mainstream reviewers, and had readers from all backgrounds. Catholic personalities, actors, and singers even had popular prime-time TV shows, and many movies had overtly Catholic plots.
When he wrote that essay, Gioia’s poetry had already been famous in the secular sphere since the early 1980s. These conferences started in the mid-2010s are part of his ongoing work to assist talented Catholic writers and other creators – whose work is often ghettoized in today’s intellectual milieu – towards similar success.
Below is an interview with Dana Gioia and Jessica Hooten Wilson, who teaches at the University of Dallas and was instrumental in organizing the conference:
Q: What can you tell me about attendance at the Catholic Imagination conferences?
Dana Gioia: USC had about 300 (plus another 300-400 seniors bused in one day from inner-city LA Catholic high schools). Fordham had about 450, and Chicago Loyola had 700. These numbers don’t include walk-ins. The Dallas conference was smaller because that is what the venue could hold.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: These conferences have been so much more about the quality than the quantity of attendees. Because of facility availability, we had to cap this year’s event and only allow 300 to register (though over 350 attended!). Within that crowd, however, we had National Book Award winners, Oprah Book Club writers, the former chairman of the NEA, Hunt Prize winners, and so forth. The group was incredibly prestigious from its speakers to the attendees!
Q: How did you get involved at the beginning? What were your goals at the start? Have your goals changed over time?
DG: I created the conference on my own at USC because I felt it was needed. Father Jim Heft of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies helped. I got no aid and I asked for none from USC. I wanted complete freedom to create the best conference possible. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell of Fordham, Michael Murphy of Loyola Chicago, and Jessica Hooten Wilson of the University of Dallas have become my partners in this enterprise along the way.
JH-W: The first time I heard about the event, I knew I had to be there as an attendee. I had just had a baby six weeks prior, but that did not keep me from flying across the country to this initial gathering. By the time Fordham held their second iteration, I was invited to be on the committee to keep this thing going.
Q: Have your goals changed over time?
DG: My aim was to reinvigorate Catholic letters by enlarging and improving the public conversation about it and by building a community of Catholic writers and intellectuals. Those have remained the goals.
JH-W: My goal in directing the fourth event was three things: 1) a focus on readers, bringing in Well-Read Moms and Word on Fire, organizations that spread culture through encouraging the reading life; 2) a focus on the upcoming generation by offering graduate and undergraduate student panels and workshops; 3) a pulling across the spectrum to put conservative and liberal writers in the same panels together. This is an event where we all have something beautiful in common.
Q: Have the kinds of people who attend changed?
DG: The important thing about our attendance is not how it has changed but how it has stayed the same. We have attracted the highest quality attendees – published writers, editors, publishers, and teachers. Our audience is accomplished and influential. We also attract bright and independent students, usually graduate students, interested in Catholic letters.
JH-W: The first conference was phenomenal in the way that it catered to high school students and world-renowned writers. This variety of attendees has only increased. This year, I felt as though we had more Protestants than in previous years, though that might be because I was directing it, and I run in those circles as well.
Q for JH-W: Since you are Protestant, what drew you initially to a conference whose name begins with Catholic?
JH-W: I’m Anglican. My Ph.D. focused on Catholic theology and literature. The Catholic world is my home because these friends uplift the sacramental imagination.
Q: What is your impression of this most-recent conference?
DG: The Dallas conference was a perfect continuation of our vision – a conference of high intellectual and artistic quality conducted in an atmosphere of collegiality and respect.
JH-W: This conference should be called a festival, for it truly was a celebration! Everyone was gracious, filled with joy, and shared with me afterwards their immense gratitude for the event.
Q: What do you mean by the Catholic Imagination?
DG: My essay “The Catholic Writer Today” has a much-quoted definition of the Catholic literary imagination:
What makes writing Catholic is the treatment of profane subjects, such as love, war, family, violence, sex, mortality, money and power”. . . . “[It] is permeated with a particular worldview. There is no singular and uniform Catholic worldview, but nevertheless it is possible to describe some general characteristics that encompass both the faithful and the renegade among the literati. Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God.
JH-W: The Catholic imagination is a sacramental imagination in which signs of God’s grace can be found in the darkest to lightest of places. It emphasizes things; it employs words incarnationally. Those who adhere to a Catholic imagination seek the embodied, the universal, the timeless through beauty.
Catholic writers and creators of all sorts often bring away from the Catholic Imagination Conference something they might not have previously imagined was within their reach: the joy and inspiration of knowing they are not alone.
You may also enjoy:
Daniel McInerny’s Letters to a Young Catholic Writer
Anthony Esolen’s Get with It, My Fellow Catholics