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 writersMuriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery OConnor, Walker Percyreads like a veritable Whos Who of post-1945 Anglophone fiction. And these writers were not Catholic in name only: Greenes The Heart of the Matter, for instance, is almost as much about Eucharistic theology as it is about adultery, and Sparks The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie offers a startlingly original (and disturbing) exploration of the tension between free will and divine providence.In Fays 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--vis the Divine. He argues that there has not been a new generation of Catholic writers to take up the mantle of OConnor and others. Its not just that writers dont fully believe in Catholic doctrine; its that Catholic doctrine doesnt 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 declinethe Churchs position on birth control, the sex-abuse scandalsbefore 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 doesnt 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 doesnt in and of itself mean that later generations of writers wont find the vernacular mass itself something eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism.)Regardless of the validity of Fays 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 cant help but have some effect on the storehouse of images and cadences that writers draw upon. In short, its worth remembering that changing the mass changes not just how we pray; it also can change how we write.

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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