The good folks at Wise Blood Books sent me a chapbook of Dana Gioia’s long essay, The Catholic Writer Today. Unfortunately, it was sent to my mother’s house, so I’m just now finishing it.
First thoughts. Gioia is an excellent writer and a better poet and I share with him a disappointment in the decline of English language and especially American writers who are willing to explicitly let their Catholic faith be part of their public identity and let it inform their writing that way that O’Connor, Tolkien, Greene, and others did.
But I think that he goes down the wrong track and misses greater obstacles to a Catholic writer renaissance than his lament for the decline of literature friendly, Catholic periodicals.
What absorbs the Catholic intellectual media is politics, conducted mostly in secular terms—a dreary battle of right versus left for the soul of the American Church. If the soul of Roman Catholicism is to be found in partisan politics, then it’s probably time to shutter up the chapel. If the universal Church isn’t capacious enough to contain a breadth of political opinion, then the faith has shriveled into something unrecognizably paltry. If Catholic Christianity does not offer a vision of existence that transcends the election cycle, if our redemption is social and our resurrection economic, then it’s time to render everything up to Caesar.
I fear he understates the pernicious influence of reactionary radicals co-opting public faith. Furthermore, I fear he deliberately understates it so as to avoid drawing ire and by doing so, he fails to stake the ground that a revival needs. The Catholic League, under its stridently partisan leader, William Donohue, would certainly have no stomach for the brilliant grotesqueries of a modern Flannery O’Connor.
Art. Literature. Poetry.
These things are inherently liberal and progressive (even if individual practitioners are not) and when faith wears a conservative face, it becomes inherently unwelcoming to artists, writers, and poets.
Which is why Gioia’s criticism of the liberalizations of Vatican II are so infuriating and wrong headed. The Catholic writer did not fade into the background because the Latin Mass did! Vatican II was an open, spiritual engagement with the material world, much like the great, mid century Catholic writers Gioia so lauds. They emerged out of the same spirit and their influence has declined because of the same backlash against liberalism.
Here is my hopeful prophecy: I will wager that one of the legacies of His Holiness, Francis I, will be artistic. By giving the church a welcoming, loving, and liberal face, he is also welcoming writers and artists and poets and intellectuals back into the church and opening up greater possibilities for writers to let their work by informed by their personal association with the church because they will be able to do so with the knowledge that church is not going to judge or reject them, anymore than Waugh, Greene, Tolkien, or O’Connor were for their guilt, sins, doubts, gothicism, or obsessions with lost, pagan worlds.