Writing in Catholic World Report, Russell Shaw has a lament for the now largely vanished Catholic subculture that once permeated most American cities. He says that the demise of this culture has brought about the demise of a certain type of Catholic writer, using the novelist and short story writer J.F. Powers as an example:
There are still talented American Catholics who write, but there is no recognizable body of writers drawing upon a Catholic culture to produce work comparable in cultural density to that of Powers and the rest.
I repeat: literature and art are products of culture, and culture is a product of literature and art. Separate the two things, and the art is in trouble—as is the culture itself. And that in a nutshell is the cultural crisis in American Catholicism as we are experiencing it today.
Shaw also links to a review by Joseph Epstein of a volume of J.F. Powers’ letters in the Wall Street Journal. I’ve read a number of books by Powers but never knew much about the man himself, so the article is fascinating to me: a man who mostly wrote about the fairly humdrum experiences of suburban American priests, but who himself was mixing with artists and living a penniless existence as a writer, trying to balance this with being a devoted husband and father of five children.
What I’ve read of J.F. Powers shows an eye that picks up and gently criticizes many aspects of that Catholic subculture. An example quoted in Epstein’s article: “If an American is ever made pope, [Powers] writes to a friend, he should take the name Bingo.” Powers sees how some American values collide with Catholic values, and how some Catholic traditions become can artificial when uprooted and transplanted into an American setting. In the story “Keystone” from the collection Look How the Fish Live, a bishop is assured by the modern architectural team hired by an up-and-coming monsignor to construct a new cathedral for his diocese that the new building will “be good for fifty, seventy-five—maybe a hundred—years.” The bishop is also persuaded to set up ostensibly traditional wayside shrines along the road: “They weren’t as close to the road as he would have liked them, but Minnesota wasn’t Austria, and the highway department had to have its clearance. The figurines in the shrines were perhaps too much alike, as if from the same hand or mold, and the crosses had been cut from plywood. But, garnished with the honest flowers of the field, as they were in May, these shrines—the outward manifestations of the simple faith of a simple people in a wide and wicked world—were a very pretty sight to the Bishop.”
Are some writers continuing along these lines, or have they gone missing as Shaw says? I think he may have overstated things a little. We may have a smaller subculture, if that’s what you want to call it, but there are still writers exploring it—though many of them aren’t American. For example, Piers Paul Read’s take on Catholicism in The Death of a Pope is quite perceptive about trends within Catholicism, offering both satirical and serious depictions of differing views therein. Dorothy Cummings McLean’s Ceremony of Innocence had some depictions of the Catholic world so dead-on they made me wince even as I chuckled. The recently deceased Ralph McInerny included doses of this in his mystery novels, as well as in his satirical novel The Red Hat. American writer Andrew McNabb is also following in this tradition with his collection of stories The Body of This. And more Catholic writers, including Matthew Lickona, Fiorella de Maria, Andrew McNabb, as well as many others, have contributed contemporary fiction to the journal Dappled Things.
A quality that runs through the work all of these writers is a healthy critical look at the cultures surrounding Catholicism itself. Orthodox Catholic writers can’t just critique secular culture or progressive currents in Catholicism if they want to produce effective fiction. Self examination has to be part of the palette—without it, the art turns in on itself and becomes sterile and safe.
One of the other problems is the sort of backward-looking view described by Dorothy Cummings McLean in this previous post here at Novel Thoughts. Many Catholics seem to be suspicious about seeking out or supporting new art unless it’s consciously imitating established forms. Art and culture is a two-way street, as Russell Shaw says. We need good writers challenging themselves to create art informed by their faith, and we need Catholics willing to support them.