Cathedrals of Bone: The Role of the Body in Contemporary Catholic Literature

Cathedrals of Bone: The Role of the Body in Contemporary Catholic Literature

Cathedrals of Bone: The Role of the Body in Contemporary Catholic Literature

Cathedrals of Bone: The Role of the Body in Contemporary Catholic Literature


The metaphor of the Church as a "body" has shaped Catholic thinking since the Second Vatican Council. Its influence on theological inquiries into Catholic nature and practice is well-known; less obvious is the way it has shaped a generation of Catholic imaginative writers. Cathedrals of Bone is the first full-length study of a cohort of Catholic authors whose art takes seriously the themes of the Council: from novelists such as Mary Gordon, Ron Hansen, Louise Erdrich, and J. F. Powers, to poets such as Annie Dillard, Mary Karr, Lucia Perillo, and Anne Carson, to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley.

Motivated by the inspirational yet thoroughly incarnational rhetoric of Vatican II, each of these writers encourages readers to think about the human body as a site-perhaps the most important site-of interaction between God and human beings. Although they represent the body in different ways, these late-twentieth-century Catholic artists share a sense of its inherent value. Moreover, they use ideas and terminology from the rich tradition of Catholic sacramentality, especially as it was articulated in the documents of Vatican II, to describe that value. In this way they challenge the Church to take its own tradition seriously and to reconsider its relationship to a relatively recent apologetics that has emphasized a narrow view of human reason and a rigid sense of orthodoxy.


Thus ignorance of literature among students of theology can give
Christianity a bad name. Since by nature we learn only by proceeding
from sense experience to higher truths (there is nothing in the intellect
that does not come via the five senses), so only by means of poetic
imagery and sensitivity to language do we grow in understanding and
intelligence. This adds strength and a certain fittingness to the art of
writing. Hence a particular native elegance in speech moves and invites
men to hear and read it. Thus it so comes about that men are more
easily moved to hold with greater conviction truth which is illustrated
by the beauty of Literature. Liturgy and the worship of God has a cer
tain likeness to this.

—Pope Leo xiii, letter to Cardinal Parrochi, 20 May 1885

It is as clear for the writers to be discussed here as it was for Leo xiii that, when one brings the strongest attributes of imaginative literature to bear directly upon Catholic faith and practice, liturgy becomes the primary site of interaction. Moreover, when that literature is dedicated to representing the body, the possibilities for a sustained and compelling correspondence increase significantly. During the drama of the Mass, individual bodies join symbolically and actually with each other and with the body of Christ. As the novelist Ron Hansen says, Catholics

Have three yoked concepts in Corpus Christi: Christ as human being, Christ
as Host or blessed and consecrated bread, and Christ as mystically embodied
in the Church. We were saved in a mysterious way by Christ’s crucifixion
and physical death on the cross; we are helped and preserved and sustained
through the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; a Church inspired by
the Holy Spirit keeps us from harm or loss through wise precepts and ordi
nances; and we share in Christ himself when we join together a Church in
his name.

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