Friday, December 13, 2013

Renovation of the Ruins: The Fall and Rise of Catholic Writers

Dana Gioia has a long and passionate article at First Things in which he laments the Great Divorce between culture and the Catholic Church.  Here are some of his best observations (emphasis mine).

Sixty years ago, it was taken for granted that a significant portion of American writers were Catholics who balanced their dual identities as artists and believers. These writers published in the mainstream journals and presses of the time, as well as with specifically Catholic journals and presses. They also won major literary awards. Between 1945 and 1965, Catholic novelists and poets received eleven Pulitzer Prizes and five National Book Awards (six NBAs, if one counts O’Connor’s posthumously published Complete Stories in 1972). ...
It is instructive to see how large and substantial the Catholic literary subculture once was and how much it influenced literary coverage in the general press. Reading through Flannery O’Connor’s published interviews, a scholar today might be surprised to see that half of them appeared in Catholic journals—an inconceivable situation now for a serious young writer. Equally inconceivable, the secular journals asked her informed and respectful questions about the relation of her faith to her art. The mid-century Catholic writer could address both the general reader and the Catholic reader—knowing that both audiences were not only on speaking terms but also overlapped. 

Today, however, Catholics have vanished from the arts.  We are wandering through the wilderness with no manna in sight.

The second consequence of this cultural schism affects the Church. The loss of the aesthetic sensibility in the Church has weakened its ability to make its call heard in the world. Dante and Hopkins, Mozart and Palestrina, Michelangelo and El Greco, Bramante and Gaudi, have brought more souls to God than all the preachers of Texas. The loss of great music, painting, architecture, poetry, sculpture, fiction, and theater has limited the ways in which the Church speaks to people both within and beyond the faith. ...
Nowhere is Catholicism’s artistic decline more painfully evident than in its newer churches—the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies. Saddest of all, even the liturgy is as often pedestrian as seraphic. 

But there's good news at the heart of all of this.  The good news is neglect.

The renewal of the Catholic arts will not come from the Church itself. I am prepared to believe in miracles, but the notion that the Catholic hierarchy will make literature and the arts a priority and then exercise good judgment in supporting them exceeds all credulity. The bishops may occasionally recite some high-minded cant on the subject of culture, but their passions lie elsewhere. They have more pressing problems to address, including some of their own making. Ecclesiastical indifference, however, is a great blessing—perhaps even the miracle I hope for. Focused on other issues, the hierarchy is unlikely to interfere with any cultural awakening. They won’t even notice an artistic renascence until long after it is fully launched into the world.

The renewal of Catholic literature will happen—or fail to happen—through the efforts of writers. Culture is not an intellectual abstraction. It is human energy expressed through creativity, conversation, and community. Culture relies on individual creativity to foster consciousness, which then becomes expanded and refined through critical conversation. Those exchanges, in turn, support a community of shared values. The necessary work of writers matters very little unless it is recognized and supported by a community of critics, educators, journalists, and readers. The communion of saints is not only a theological concept, it is the model for a vibrant Catholic literary culture.  

Gioia ends with a call not so much to raze the Catholic Ghetto, but to raise it - to reclaim and renovate it.

If the state of contemporary Catholic literary culture can best be conveyed by the image of a crumbling, old immigrant neighborhood, then let me suggest that it is time for Catholic writers and intellectuals to leave the homogenous, characterless suburbs of the imagination and move back to the big city—where we can renovate these remarkable districts that have such grace and personality, such strength and tradition. It is time to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition. Starting the renovation may seem like a daunting task. But as soon as one place is rebuilt, someone else will already be at work next door, and gradually the whole city begins to reshape itself around you. Renovation is hard work, but what a small price to pay to have the right home. 

Read the whole article here.


jvc said...

I think this is a problem not just within the Catholic Church, but within Western Civilization generally. Look at our political dialogue. Very few writers are not terrible, even and especially at the national level. How many must-reads do we have anymore? They're dying out, whether it's Richard Neuhaus or Bill Buckley.

I think part of the blame is that it is just much more difficult these days to make a living as a writer, or, an entertainer, such as what Kevin does. I don't have any hard data on this but it seems to be the case. It also seems safer or easier to move into academics, a related subject.

Long gone, probably, are the days when G.K. Chesterton could make a living and have an influence as a weekly columnist or whatnot. It's probably part of the decline in writing generally.

Anonymous said...

I was having these exact thoughts today.

Modern Catholics are too paranoid for their faith to permeate naturally in their art.

I think it comes from the fact that a Catholic culture is no longer the status quo. It seems to me that whenever one expresses him or herself, such paranoia leads them giving the "I'm swear I'm Catholic" disclaimer (be it consciously or unconsciously).

In Dante's time it was taken for granted that one was Catholic, certain truths were universally accepted and understood. Artists like him did not desire to re-peat these truths explicitly and tactlessly in their art, these truths would arise naturally.

- Michael R