Academic journal article MELUS

Ethnic Identity and Cultural Catholicism in Pietro Di Donato's Christ in Concrete

Academic journal article MELUS

Ethnic Identity and Cultural Catholicism in Pietro Di Donato's Christ in Concrete

Article excerpt

Throughout his novel Christ in Concrete (1939), Pietro di Donato invokes and explores the role of Catholicism in his Italian immigrant characters' lives. This novel focuses on Paul, the son of Italian immigrants who is forced into manhood when his father is killed in a construction accident. Di Donato frames Paul's story--and the narrative generally--with two events deeply symbolic of Christian suffering and redemption: secular versions of the Good Friday crucifixion and the Easter resurrection. While the novel's form is steeped in Christian ritual, its characters also act out Catholic sacramentalism in their daily lives. Some remain devotedly reverent in their religious practice, but others demonstrate their faith through less orthodox means, in expressions that flaunt Church and clergy but arise necessarily in response to the harshness of American life and labor. Di Donato's immigrants and newly formed Americans may not attend daily mass (if they attend mass at all) and may curse the local priest who remains blind to their suffering, but the essence of Catholicism, especially its sacramental ritual, continues to shape their new world experience.

Through such ritual, in fact, di Donato's characters act out a cultural identity that combats destabilizing forces that often render them impotent and inarticulate in America. Catholicism emerges not only as cultural articulation, but also as a performance by which they simultaneously retain tradition and create new standards for coping with tragedy and disappointment. As a pragmatic response to material circumstances, Catholicism is not a fixed practice but a process that evolves according to individuals and their experiences. Through the characters' relationship with Catholicism, di Donato demonstrates that Italian identity and ethnicity is, in Linda Hutcheon's terms, "positional": it changes and develops according to individual histories, individual economic and social situations, and--di Donato asserts--individual religious affiliations. (1) This ethnicity is always transforming, always being created and re-created, and for this reason, Christ in Concrete--a novel considered one of the most canonical Italian American texts yet still fairly unknown in multicultural literary America--deserves another look.

This essay examines the prominence di Donato gives Catholicism in Christ in Concrete as a cultural and performative force, a topic that has received little critical attention. Di Donato's notions of religion, Italian culture and ethnicity, and performance coalesce in the complex interworking of the sacred and the secular that has come to characterize Italian American Catholicism. (2) Identifying correspondences between religion and ethnicity, of course, is not new. Di Donato, however, urges his readers to reconsider how we interpret these correspondences. David A. Hollinger notes that both religious and ethnic identification are deeply rooted and argues that while religious affiliations have histories like ethnic and racial affiliations, "the right of exit is more widely accepted in relation to religious than to ethno-racial communities" (120-21). The option to drop religious identification, Hollinger suggests, exists even when religious faith is closely tied to family, especially through the influence of parents. Yet di Donato makes clear in Christ in Concrete that religious tradition is as impossible to deny as ethno-racial affiliation; Catholicism remains fully integrated in ethno-racial identity. This is not to say that di Donato or his characters unquestionably accept Church authority. But despite disappointment with the institutional Church, extricating oneself from Catholicism and fervent devotion to the images and ideals of its doctrine is not always possible or even desirable. Catholicism continues to define cultural practice. (3)

The result is what Thomas J. Ferraro explains as cultural Catholicism, a shift in religious orientation in which Catholic ways of knowing and habits of being are developed and deployed (intentionally or not) outside the official precincts and sanction of the Church. …

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