A friend of mine recently sent me a link that resonated with a fanciful thought that regularly slips in and out among the more functional thoughts that usually fill my mental attic: where are all the (good) Catholic (fiction) writers? Also, an ancillary question: will the broader celebration of the Tridentine Mass along with the growing (read: reproducing) sub-culture of traditional Catholics furnish, as a tangential consequence, a renascence in the literary realm?
Lest one dismiss the notion of a Catholic writer with same disdain that modern media dismiss the idea of a Catholic thinker, Robert Fay notes the following (By the way: in response to a snicker to the phrase Catholic intellectual, I respond with three words: St. Thomas Aquinas.) :
There was a time in the middle of the 20th Century when Catholic writers, many of them converts to the Church, were icons of the Anglo-American literary scene. In the U.K. writers like Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, and J. R. R. Tolkien were preeminent, while Americans Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.F. Powers (his novel Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963), and Thomas Merton were celebrated on this side of the Atlantic.
No easily ignored coterie of irrelevant writers there. As someone who, to a significant degree, converted to Catholicism because of the writings of Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, and Evelyn Waugh, this worries me. (As a side autobiographical note, my Presbyterian minister at that time could simply not get over the fact I was allowing extra-Biblical texts–especially fiction–to influence me in such way. Where is this in the Bible?)
What happened? Well, the 60s, and, in particular (all together now) : Vatican II. Fay goes on to comment:
The obvious reason for this literary vacuum is that the Christian faith, and the Catholic Church in particular, have been in full-cultural retreat since the 1960s. In the wake of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, many Catholics left the Church over its opposition to abortion, artificial contraception, and the ordination of women, to name just a few hot-button topics. And then, beginning in the late 1990s, a wave of priest sex-abuse crimes came to light that have scandalized untold numbers of Catholics.
Yet there was another revolution in the 1960s — an internal Catholic one — that was in many ways as profound as the one taking place in the streets of Paris, New York, and London. It was a liturgical revolution, and it impacted each and every Catholic at that most fundamental unit of faith — Sunday morning Mass.
From what I gather, the argument goes along these lines: the number of Catholic writers fell as a parallel, quite simply, to the decline in Mass attendance. Usual suspects for the collective and infectious loss of faith that occurred in the hazy shadow of the 60s: liberal response–teaching regarding artificial conception; moderate/conservative response–the abuses that followed in the wake of Vatican II; traditional response–Vatican II itself. Bourbon Apocalypse’s response–a little bit of everything. I have neither the knowledge nor authority to judge a pastoral council (nor the burning desire–a sure sign of theological indifferentism, oh my lukewarm spit-worthy faith!), so I will leave such to the energetic keyboard theologians at this site and this site. One thing (if you do not count all the rest of the things) will be said by your ignoble author: with the general abandonment of the Latin Mass, lost was a rich symbolic mysteriousness that even when rejected (as it was by James Joyce) still continued to haunt and influence, for, using an example Fay introduces by quoting another author, Ulysses would never have been written without the Latin Mass.
Given Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum (his Apostolic Letter that now makes it relatively easier for a parish to request a Latin Mass, though not necessarily guaranteeing one) was released only in 2007 and given that traditional Catholic sub-culture has probably started to see its numbers really swell only since the blossoming of the Internet, it is still too soon to tell whether the Mass that sustained, as Fay reminds us, Dante, Mozart, Montaigne, and Michelangelo (and Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’ Connor, and the early years of Walker Percy’s faith for that matter) will once again produce writers of the highest caliber. Me thinks if such is to happen, we will need to see traditional Catholics move beyond obsessive and discursive discussions about Marian standards of dress, the true nature of the Third Secret of Fatima, the possibility of baptism by desire, the mortal sinfulness of natural family planning, the validity of the Novus Ordo Mass, the advisability of reading anything written after 1965, etc.
While I wish I could assist at a Latin Mass, I wish to do on my own terms (for I, too, am postmodern): namely, assist without having to encounter most of the people at such Masses, the people who self-consciously present themselves as counter-cultural trads, not realizing–or simply not caring–that such deliberate posturing (sincerity is not here the point) is a rather postmodern conceit…(To be fair, though, I really have no desire to hobnob with most of the people at my local Novus Ordo parish for that matter either.) In other words (or with these following words), I am skeptical that the Latin Mass, until it goes more “mainstream,” will attract a sufficiently varied number of parishioners who will then go out and reclaim the literary world for the Church. From what I have read in trad chat rooms, I am not waiting with baited breath, unless one can compose a novel that stirringly captures a young woman’s dramatic struggles to find a dress that does not sink lower than two fingers’ width below the collar bone but matches her assortment of mantillas and would look great on a first date as she listens to her rosary dream-prayer- come-true pontificate on the mortal sinfulness of women wearing pants.
Postscript: Okay, since I came of age before the Internet explosion, I lack that technological savvy that young ‘uns today possess. Apparently, in linking an article to my blog, a link is established in the combox for the article under discussion, one that has led a few readers to my most inauspicious blog. Welcome.
Furthermore, in reading the comments left, I need to revise the overall tone of this most recent entry. As Mr. Gregory Wolfe (and shame on me for not mentioning the truly admirable Image Journal, a journal to which I currently subscribe and one that I have read off-and-on for over a decade) succinctly states: “They never left.” One can follow the link he gives and/or read the other comments for a robust list of quality contemporary Catholic writers. Perhaps the fact that I have not been quick to latch onto contemporary Catholic writers says more about me and my tastes than about the quality of their writing. Perhaps I am still treasuring a sentimental and dated and disadvantageous view of what a writer of fiction who is Catholic should be and should be saying–a charge that I, quite hypocritically, make against those Catholics who I consider to be too pietistic or gnostic or philistine in their tastes.
I suppose, then, that the challenge for Catholics is not only to keep on keeping on with their writing, but for Catholic readers to be more aware of and open to the exigencies of present times and what such exigencies require in artists.
(Double shame on me for not mentioning Shusaku Endo. A writer who, even though I have to read his works in translation, thoroughly and deeply affects me every time I pick up one of his works, namely, Silence.)