In a 2015 essay called “Confessions of a Catholic Novelist”—about Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and Graham Greene, and my own convulsive attachments to Catholicism—I concluded with the admission that if being a Catholic is contingent upon fealty to the supernatural and the church, I wouldn’t call myself one. Since I wrote that piece I’ve been visited by not necessarily a recrudescence of faith but more of a recrudescence of regard for tradition and my own upbringing. I’ve been forced to admit that an unbelieving Catholic is a Catholic still, if his rearing in the church was arrant enough, as mine was. How do I reconcile the contradiction of an unbelieving Catholic? I don’t because I can’t. Contradiction is at the spine of human living, and unless one learns to digest this fact, unless one is at home in antinomy and paradox, living becomes a lunacy. William Empson: “Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis.”
A cradle Catholic with a boyhood in the church and parochial school, I rampaged into adolescence with an unignorable itch for sedition. Soon all the Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Swinburne, and Shelley did a real number on me—Shelley’s The Necessity of Atheism had particularly seismic effects on my outlook—supplanting the gospels, the Catechism, Augustine, and Aquinas. For most of my twenties I was naggingly atheistic and antipapal; my library boasted whole yards of heresy, blasphemy by the bookshelf. I sought debates with believers and asked them to square their daily experiences with the dogmas they’d been dished by their faiths. These debates rarely ended well, mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing with my end of them—youth, says Disraeli, is a blunder; I blundered more than most—and also because you can’t argue religion without the emotions of believers polluting the pith of argument. Rather quickly the believer swerves from explaining a theological stance into unconsciously defending his childhood, his parents, his Aunt Eleanor, his dog—his identity in toto.
But in my early thirties, in the process of trying to develop as a prose writer, I unknowingly began pulling from the Catholic myth, pageantry, and rituals of my youth, and before long became aware of a debt I had to those Catholic writers and thinkers who’d helped carpenter my own sensibility as a novelist and essayist. As I outlined in “Confessions of a Catholic Novelist,” this awareness was spurred by the late D. G. Myers, a conservative Jew and fierce literary intellect who wrote about my work in Commentary magazine. Knowing almost nothing of my history, Myers detected the stamp of Catholicism everywhere throughout my two novels. His astute critical perceptions, and our warm correspondence that evolved from them, nudged me into acknowledging what I had denied for a decade. Cancer killed Myers in 2014 (he was only sixty-two) and my grief attained new focus when I understood that I had a duty to him to mine my Catholic past and further enact what he found valuable in my work.