New Catholic Literature Sails in Open Sea

Article excerpt

"Religious institutions and religion generally are vaguely uncool, but spirituality is very cool," writes a chaplain about the students at a major Midwestern university. I would say the same attitude characterizes many Americans of the 1990s. People are very concerned with matters of the soul, but hesitate to get involved in "church," to make a commitment to the dogmas and practices of an organized religion.

This reluctance to be tied down to an institution can be found as well in what was once called "Catholic literature." That clearly defined category faded along with the clear Catholic American identity of the 1950s. In the early '70s, when I began teaching, I found on the English department shelves man silent witnesses to the power and prestige of "Catholic literature": John Henry Newman's The Dream of Gerontius, Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven," an anthology called Man and His Measure, which featured Catholic authors like G.K Chesterton and Joyce Kilmer alongside Shakespeare and Wordsworth.

The emphasis has switched from "Catholic literature" to "Catholicism in literature." The prevailing image of the church is not a fortress on a hilltop, defending its members from the assaults of the world, the flesh and the devil, but rather a leaven mixed through the dough of society, transforming culture and humanity from within.

In a 1984 article in U.S. Catholic Historian, Paul Messbarger argues that while Catholic literature in the 20th century United States could -- and should -- have carried out its 19th century promise of being an insightful and effective voice in American culture, instead there is apparent "a colossal failure of vision and nerve," due to the cultural ghettoization of the Catholic community for most of the past century.

In this fortresslike mentality, "good Catholic literature" had to reflect the belief and practice of the church. To be acceptable, both the fictional characters and the authors who produced them had to live and speak the truth of Catholicism. In the Catholic community, artistic endeavor was always geared toward strengthening the faith of the members while refuting the cultural values of 'the outside." The isolation of 19th century Catholics, which continued through much of the 20th century, left Catholics "spiritually alien not only to the larger culture but sadly to their own as well.'

The result, according to Messbarger, is that the U.S. Catholic community failed to produce any substantial literary art. For Catholic writers in this country, the cost of that failure has been the absence of "that fundamental capacity to enter fully into one's personal and social experience, to understand it and ultimately to transcend it, for which art is a crucial source and instrument."

Because Catholic writers have been playing it so safe, they have not taken the risks that would challenge the boundaries to fulfill the Christian mission of bringing the Good News of salvation to broader American culture. In describing the postconciliar American Catholic, Messbarger writes:

Destiny has assigned him the complex task of reordering his entire scheme of values, yet for the most part his emotional equipment is inadequate to that task. His cry of shock and amazement, his apostasy, his violent insistence on a return to the religiosity of his fathers, his incipient cynicism, his anticlericalism, his headlong assault on a hundred chimerical windmills, a thousand contradictory causes -- these are the installment payments for a half-century of peace.

In the past 30 years, it seems the Catholic writers we've been waiting for have emerged. In their studies of Catholic fiction of the latter part of this century, both Paul Giles and Anita Gandolfo have recognized in a new generation of writers the same anguish and attitudes that Messbarger identified: shock, apostasy, longing for the safety of the past, cynicism, anticlericalism, assaults on and crusades for issues -- these are the very matter of the texts being produced by novelists, filmmakers and playwrights of today's Catholic America. …