Catholic writers face challenges in today's society

Michael Higgins

Michael Higgins

January 11, 2016
MIKE MASTROMATTEO
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

In the Dappled Things online literary magazine and blog, writer Joseph O'Brien of Wisconsin said Walker Percy was one of a small group of writers who have helped define the mid-20th century American literary experience and the Catholic contribution to American letters.

A 1983 New York Times book review described Percy as "the greatest Catholic novelist since Flannery O'Connor."

So if Percy, who converted to Catholicism at age 40, qualified as a "Catholic" writer, how do contemporary writers make the grade? Is it simply a case of Catholic novelists, poets and creative scribes infusing their work with spiritual and faith-related themes?

Or would any baptized Catholic who clings to the rudiments of faith, attends Mass occasionally, and who makes a living with pen and paper qualify as a Catholic writer?

However the "membership rules" for a Catholic writers' club are debated, there is still fertile ground for a contemporary discussion of the impact of the faith on a baptized Catholic writer's fiction, poetry or other creative output.

Discussion of faith's impact on writing remains relevant in view of the research of some Catholic writers and literary commentators that the market for "Catholic" art, literature and fiction isn't overly favourable at this point in the 21st century.

There are also observations that the Catholic Church, long a patron of some of the finest art produced since the Middle Ages, no longer provides the right inspiration for high-quality fiction or poetry from contemporary artists.

For Dana Gioia, it's a complicated time to be a Catholic writer. The former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia has long been concerned about the withdrawal of Catholic artistic expression from the cultural mainstream.

"The intellectual and artistic culture has entered an anti-Christian phase," Gioia told Catholic News Service. "Militant secularism is a fundamental part of the so-called 'culture wars.'

THREE CHOICES

"The Catholic writer has three choices at present: to become apologetic about his or her faith, to be confrontational toward secular culture, or to downplay religion and keep a low profile. None of these attitudes is particularly attractive."

This is a view partially shared by Michael Higgins, vice president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., and former president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.

The Toronto-born Higgins also believes the landscape for Catholic writers is changing, and not necessarily for the better.

"Some of it is the result of the old trepidation that you have in various media and academic circles about dealing with matters of religious faith," Higgins says. "A good deal of it frankly is the significant damage done to faith in U.S. because of televangelism and the Christian right."

As a consequence, Higgins adds, when a writer surfaces with an avowedly religious sensibility, they are seen as suspect.

Undoubtedly, the homage to cultural diversity and inclusiveness plays some part in the tendency of some Catholics writers to be less open about their belief, or to use the core truths of the faith as material for their narratives.

CULTURE WARS

In addition, the much-debated culture wars, in which traditional beliefs about faith and morality are swept aside, or at least downplayed, in favour of an aggressive secularism, could impose a new impediment to writers looking to draw on their Catholic faith experience for the stuff of novels.

Paul Elie is a professor at the Jesuit-run Georgetown University and the director of the American Pilgrimage Project, which examines the ways religious ideas are given expression in literature, the arts, music and culture.

In a 2012 cover essay, Has Faith Lost Its Fiction in The New York Times Book Review, Elie said "Catholic-themed" fiction is present and even abundant, but fiction dealing directly with core matters of belief is relatively rare.

"In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life, but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives," Elie said in the essay.

"When ideological noise drowns out the writer's inner voice, few writers do their best work, no matter what their beliefs," he said.