A Good Catholic Writer Is Hard to Find
Over at the Millions, Robert Fay has an essay with the provocative title, “Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?” Fay tells a story of decline, arguing that there has been a profound falling-off in both the quantity and quality of Catholic writers since the mid-century. (Paul Elie made a similar but more subtle argument in Commonweal a few years ago.)
In the years immediately following World War II, the “Catholic novelist” seemed to be an easily identifiable, well respected type. A list of the most prominent mid-century Catholic writers—Muriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy—reads like a veritable Who’s Who of post-1945 Anglophone fiction. And these writers were not Catholic in name only: Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, for instance, is almost as much about Eucharistic theology as it is about adultery, and Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie offers a startlingly original (and disturbing) exploration of the tension between free will and divine providence.
In Fay’s view, these halcyon days are long gone. Nowadays, Fay writes, there are few writers who offer “searing inquiries into the nature of man and his place vis-à-vis the Divine.” He argues that “there has not been a new generation of Catholic writers to take up” the mantle of O’Connor and others. It’s not just that writers don’t fully believe in Catholic doctrine; it’s that Catholic doctrine doesn’t even really occur to them as an option. The Catholic writer, it seems, has gone the way of the dodo.
Fay paints too bleak a portrait, ignoring several counterexamples: what about Ron Hansen? And why just novelists and not poets like Les Murray, or essayists like Gary Wills? But his broader claim is undeniable: Catholics have a less noticeable presence in contemporary fiction than they did in the mid-century. Fay trots out a few predictable causes for this decline—the Church’s position on birth control, the sex-abuse scandals—before settling upon a more surprising culprit: the vernacular mass. Essentially, Fay argues that celebration in the vernacular robbed the Mass of its mystery, which in turn robbed Catholicism of its aesthetic power: “what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings.”
This is the most provocative part of Fay’s argument, but it is also the most weakly defended. Fay doesn’t offer much analysis beyond the above-quoted sentence; he merely relies upon the fact that the Catholic novelist seemed to fall off at just about the same time that the Latin mass did, as if this were argument enough. But correlation does not prove causation, and I need to see more evidence before I lay everything at the door of the vernacular mass. (Sure, plenty of writers, from Waugh to David Jones to Don DeLillo, lamented the movement away from the Latin mass. But this doesn’t in and of itself mean that later generations of writers won’t find the vernacular mass itself something “eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism.”)
Regardless of the validity of Fay’s claims, they have relevance in the wake of the new translation of the mass. Will saying “consubstantial with the Father” instead of “one in Being with the Father” bring about a dramatic shift in Catholic writing? Of course not. But it is a very different image expressed in a very different cadence, and, when heard week after week, this can’t help but have some effect on the storehouse of images and cadences that writers draw upon. In short, it’s worth remembering that changing the mass changes not just how we pray; it also can change how we write.