Forty-five years ago, Flannery O’Connor went from her home in Georgia to Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., to give a lecture during a festival marking the university’s 175th anniversary. As things turned out, it was the last such lecture she gave, and that grim fact lends her remarks a finality she couldn’t have fully intended.
In my view, though, that lecture was more a beginning than an ending—and a beginning with special pertinence for American Catholics today. O’Connor spoke at the beginning of an era that is now coming to an end, and by drawing a comparison between the American Catholic culture she represented and the one of our experience, we can make ready for the era that is rushing in on us, in a century that is no longer new.
That is, we can consider our predicament. And our predicament is this: While the conditions for Catholic cultural life, in many respects, have never been better, actual Catholic culture in America is peculiarly hard to identify or speak of with confidence.
We’re all familiar with the indicators of American Catholic success. Catholics are better educated than ever. They buy hardcover books, know their way around Europe, and try to send their children to good universities. They are fluent in music, movies, Broadway, feng shui. In many respects, they are the people Flannery O’Connor yearned to have as readers. And yet when...