Catholic Writers of a Certain Stripe From Your Grandmother's Era

Decemeber 1991By Edwin Fussell

Edwin Fussell is Professor of American Literature at the University of California, San Diego. His latest book is The French Side of Henry James.

The Catholic Writer: Wethersfield Institute, Proceedings, 1989.  By Ralph McInerny. Ignatius. 150. $11.95.



Ralph McInerny is himself a Catholic novelist, among several other things, e.g., Thomist philosopher, but here he is in the role of master of ceremonies at a meeting which presented an award to James Farl Powers for "outstanding literary achievement," considering that, "almost without exception, his themes and stories have been Catholic, indeed clerical, in nature" (as have been those of others we could name). Now that McInerny is liberated and Powers pinned, the searchlights go elsewhere, illuminating the problems not only of the Catholic novelist but of the Catholic writer.

Catholic writer extends the purview to historians and philosophers (but not to poets and dramatists) and so we arrive at what used to be called the Catholic Renaissance. Gregory Wolfe in his introductory essay calls it the Catholic Intellectual Renaissance. NOR readers over 60 will remember it. (More than half the volume is memoir rather than literary criticism.) It died, or appeared to die, just after the Second Vatican Council. Its products, in their quaint antiquarianism, positively smelled of the Tridentine Church (yet even my atheist students adore the PDF version of Brideshead Revisited). Irony and paradox, subsist in the way the conciliar Church aspired to take over the post-conciliar world while in fact the post-conciliar world seems to have taken over the remains of the Church. In retrospect it seems as if the late Tridentine Church, awful as it was in more ways than we can even recall, was closing in on the modern world, at least in North America and Western Europe.

No one knows what Catholic fiction is. Flannery O'Connor alludes to what was apparently a published interview on the topic: "I liked most of Waugh's answers but he has too narrow a definition of what would be a Catholic novel. He says a novel that deals with the problem of the faith; I'd rather say a Catholic mind looking at anything, making the category generous enough to include myself," she whose Catholic mind so often looked at Protestant crackers with evident distaste, people who refer to themselves as "Chrustian." Then, what are we to do with a non-Catholic mind looking, even and often with very great favor, upon the Catholic faith and Church and rite and people? What about Willa Cather, who gets a chapter in The Catholic Writer despite being an Episcopalian? One might conjecture about her literary Catholicizing, but nothing in this volume ever does.

In this December 1990 issue of Crisis (founded and published by McInerny and Michael Novak), McInerny makes a powerful but unconvincing case for F. Scott Fitzgerald being a Catholic novelist (and yet we remember Daisy gleaming like silver [a chalice] above the struggles of the poor, and Dick Diver making a papal cross over the beach), despite the brilliance of his opening sentence: "If God created whiskey so the Irish wouldn't rule the world, He didn't let drink prevent F. Scott Fitzgerald from attaining the very first rank of American writers." In the May 1991 issue of the same journal, McInerny seems less sure about Graham Greene, but in his preface to The Catholic Writer, he says more reasonably, "Greene will be remembered as a Catholic writer because, given [list of titles from the great period] the designation is inevitable." Designations are always inevitable. A student recently informed me that The Sun Also Rises is a Catholic novel. (Another student told me about "recovering Catholics," a category I had not previously known.) It may well be. Everything else is. I should myself feel more secure about the inclusion of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is plenty Catholic, and not all of it anti-.

But The Catholic Writer does not grant public recognition to James Joyce and comparable renegades. Its use of the term writer is capacious rather in the direction of Christopher Dawson, Etienne Gilson, and Jacques Maritain. Readers who date back to the Second World War will remember an intellectual milieu dominated by these and their like, mostly in paperbacks under the Image imprint of Doubleday (the imprint still exists but is attenuated). The American press and politicians and public fell all over themselves in adulation of the political wisdom of the man (Maritain) who alone, it was widely felt, was in command of reasons (Thomist) why democracy was worth defending against the Axis. Would we like to be back there again? You bet we would! At least Maritain lingers in memory and monument. McInerny directs the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame. But Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry is no longer available in paperback.

So we rearrive (a Joycean term in Finnegans Wake) at the Catholic Renaissance. That territory goes to Gregory Wolfe in the opening essay, "'Ever Ancient, Ever New': The Catholic Writer in the Modern World." The four heads of the essay are self-proclamatory: "The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance," "The Recovery of the Sacred," "The Critique of the World," and "The Assimilation of Modernity." From these rubrics you can almost triangulate what the Catholic Intellectual Renaissance had that has subsequently been mislaid: an assurance running to arrogance and an accurately aimed aggressivity.

The contrast between wonderful then and hopeless now is easily seen in the essay on Hilaire Belloc. "Of religions other than the Catholic he had an Olympian contempt and an impatience only barely disguised." For reasons: "Belloc was a missionary in Protestant England, and his principal weapon was history." He came to the conclusion "that the English-speaking world had been lied to about its past and about its present, that this lie was bound up with the Protestant establishment." Who that is Catholic may doubt it? As a result, "nobody can [now] get away with understanding the Reformation as the work of high-minded souls bent on liberty and democracy, noble souls who brought England out of the darkness of Catholic superstition and medieval obscurantism…. Behind the psalm-singing fanatics, there reposes the weight of what he called The Money Power, the new Capitalism and Banking System, that enslaved Europe to its greed.... The modern world, built on money and heresy, has had and has as its enemy the Catholic Church," only the Catholic Church, after Gaudium et Spes, seems not to know it. I am quoting from Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Professor of Philosophy and Politics, University of Dallas. As it says on the bumper stickers, "Don't mess with Texas."

In the present volume, there are lapses of arrangement, editing, and presentation. The table of contents and the list of speakers don't match. There were no talks on Bernanos, Mauriac, Greene, Waugh, Spark, or O'Connor, to name a few. There is a reference to an Ellen Spivak -- I think Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is meant. Allen Tate's name is once spelt as in Edgar Poe. On the back cover we are told that our book features "outstanding writers of today." Wolfe and Wilhelmsen, yes. And outstandingly Novak on Maritain (scene: Harvard Yard): "The hard thing to accept, it seems, is that there is an existent [God] not doomed to our changeability, on whom our existence depends. (Why should that be so hard, I wondered, since so many billions of human beings have always believed it? Life for Harvard philosophers, however, is more difficult than for others, and nobody ever said it was not.)" Or in a more lyric mood: "I do not think that anyone has written more beautifully of, to cite his title, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry -- perhaps ever, down the ages, in any tradition. (So lovely is that book that often, while reading it as an undergraduate, I had to put the pages down and go for a long walk, my heart burning with more than it could bear.)"

The Catholic Writer has a curious table of contents. If it is difficult to find reasons for the inclusion of certain writers, it is equally difficult to find reasons for the absence of others -- from an earlier day (the day of The Catholic Writer) J.V. Cunningham, James T. Farrell, Caroline Gordon, John O'Hara, Eugene O'Neill, Katherine Anne Porter, Muriel Spark, Tennessee Williams (even Theodore Dreiser, should anyone be so bold); from a later vintage Andrew M. Greeley, Walker Percy, Joyce Carol Oates, William Kennedy, Jack Kerouac, John Berryman, William F. Buckley, Don DeLillo, Maureen Howard, Fanny Howe, Galway Kinnell, Alice McDermott, Thomas Merton, Julian Moynahan, Paul, Theroux. Some of these names are in and out of the Church and some are "against" it, no novelty. But The Catholic Writer orthodox and exclusionary (except for McInerny in his preface who thinks all literature is Catholic -- it may be! say so and it is!). It might have been called Catholic Writers of a Certain Stripe from Your Grandmother's Era. I have in the meanwhile been rejoicing myself with Robert Stone's Children of Light. It is just what I was longing for, a Great California Novel, Alta and Baja both, up-to-date, cunningly Catholic, sacramental, doctrine incarnate and concealed, no ideas but in things, as the poet says. Accipite, et bibite ex eo omnes, hic est enim calix sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni testamemti: mysterium fidei.



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