Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: September 1992

September 1992

Defining the Catholic Novel

I was delighted to see Ed­win Fussell’s article, under the guise of a book review, on the Catholic novel (June). Since this category of literature is a relatively unexamined phenom­enon, Fussell rightly addressed the issue of definition. Howev­er, categorization can be simpler than the various options he presented.

I suggest two classes of Catholic novels. First, a pri­mary one consisting of those written by Catholic authors that draw one to the faith or enhance one’s vision of the faith because they are informed by the author’s Catholicism. The subject matter is not a factor. Sigrid Undset, Francois Mauriac, and Walker Percy are obvious members of this class. I believe that it is quite clear that Flannery O’Connor be­longs here, since the basic truths of her religion (original sin, free will, grace) provide the underpinnings for works that otherwise will be misun­derstood. That she writes about Protestants makes no difference.

It is interesting to note that Mauriac found himself misunderstood because “the world described by this Chris­tian novelist appears stripped of grace and…God is absent” (Afterword to his charming Galigai). Yet in his masterpiece Therese Desqueyroux and its se­quel La fin de la nuit, the pro­tagonist who inhabits this world inspires not just fear and something akin to awe at the power of evil in her life, but wonder as grace blossoms in her shortly before her death. To grasp what happen in the final words of La fin de la nuit, it is helpful to know that it is a Catholic who writes.

Obviously Brian Moore is not a Catholic novelist, in spite of his Catholic origins, since a living faith does not inspire his work. Indeed, his vision of the Church appears at times cyni­cal, that of a person who has known the mysteries of the faith and rejected them. Fussell playfully writes “and don’t ask about Joyce!” Of course not, since Joyce describes a cultural Catholicism only, and satirizes believing Catholics. In general, the Catholic faith presented in Joyce is quite unattractive.

A second category of Catholic, more accurately Catholic-like, novels can be posited for those which seem to be informed by the faith even though they are not written by Catholics. This would be the place for C.S. Lewis, who had a vibrant faith in most of the central truths of Catholicism, a faith which shines forth in his work. Willa Gather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, which presents a compelling description of sanc­tity, belongs here also.

Since there are many other works that are useful in the development of a loathing for sin and a desire for virtue, a class of moral tales could be used for writers such as Bal­zac, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and even Aesop. In­deed, since everything we do — and read — should help us in our pilgrimage to Heaven, perhaps all literature should be examined in view of its ability to reinforce our faith or its tendency to undermine it. But this is another matter.

Inez Fitzgerald Storck

Boston College

Greenbelt, Maryland

Loving the Sinner & the Sin?

Mark Shea’s “rebellious” essay (“Tweaking His Royal Stupidity’s Nose,” Jul.-Aug.) mentions, almost in passing, the two Great Commandments — to love the Lord God and to love the neighbor — and then mentions that separating them and pursuing but one is dis­aster. I immediately thought of the two injunctions of loving the sinner while hating the sin, and the disaster of separating those two and obeying but one. It occurs to me to wonder how many other dualities there are in Christianity that may not be separated without disas­ter.

Sheldon Vanauken

Dept. of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

Lynchburg, Virginia

Confining God-- I

J.L.A. Garcia commits a significant error in his article “Moral Reasoning and the Catholic Church” (June): He equates the Church with the Magisterium (“the Church teaches…” etc.). Who is the Church? Are the only people in the Catholic Church those in the Vatican?

Of course not, Garcia might say, the Church is com­prised of all who believe the Catholic faith, but the teaching authority of the Church rests in the Magisterium. Agreed. But this grant of authority does not determine the locus of the activity of the Holy Spirit. Might the Holy Spirit ever act through the laity? Through people who question a moral teaching? Through theologians outside the Vatican? Not ac­cording to Garcia. The Holy Spirit acts only through the Magisterium.

To say that Catholics must believe that the Holy Spirit has guided the Magisterium, and not others, to the truth con­cerning a particular moral issue is to confine the action of God. I do not say that God is speak­ing through McCormick, Shan­non, and Cahill, but I do not see how anyone can know that He is not. As Bob Franke said: “The Spirit blows where it will — so beware of the man sell­ing tickets.”

Robert Ahearn

Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

Confining God-- II

In his article “Moral Reasoning and the Catholic Church” (June), J.L.A. Garcia masterfully demonstrates, even if indirectly, that generally the issue of dissent boils down to whether one believes that the Holy Spirit guides the Magis­terium. Legitimate questions may be raised about the preci­sion of the Church’s language and reasoning in expressing immutable truths, even about the degree of assent required by various teachings. However, a certain amount of common sense must be exercised. For example, it is a settled princi­ple of the Catholic Church that Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would safeguard the Magisterium’s teachings until the end of time.

One who dissents from this calls into question the Church’s understanding of herself since the time of Christ. If 2,000 years of scriptural ex­egesis and theological reflection are seriously flawed, then there is no reason for the Church to exist, and no teach­ing of the Church is any more likely to be true than the musings of the village idiot. The thing to do then would be to join the Church of McCor­mick. What it would lack in originality would be made up for by its narrowness. Con­stricting infinite divine reason in the procrustean bed of finite human reason is a recipe for a very small-minded religion.

James Fox

Steubenville, Ohio


I read Christopher Lasch’s article “Communitarianism or Populism?” (May) with great interest. While I agree with his broad outline of the problems confronting modern society, I find large portions of his anal­ysis inadequate.

For example, Lasch desires a society based on conservative family-oriented values. Yet his proposed implementation of this system is at least as cold-­hearted and impersonal as the society he criticizes. While stating that liberal social policy has resulted in social engineer­ing that holds the ordinary people in contempt, Lasch himself claims that informal mechanisms of self-help are useless without the support of public policy. Unaddressed is the question of how public policy is supposed to increase the individual’s sense of per­sonal responsibility. Lasch also seems to feel that the “in­formal sociability of the street, the coffee shop, and the tavern” is preferable to the mere company of close friends. This “populist” solution must surely be viewed with a suspicion bordering on horror by persons desiring social and religious intimacy instead of an insin­cere, face-saving jocularity.

I fail to see how Lasch’s notions of populism provide any form of refuge for minor­ities, be they sectarian religious groups, physically or mentally handicapped individuals, or social misfits. Catholics and Mormons suffered from legal and physical oppression during the 1800s. Many groups con­tinue to be oppressed today when viewed as aberrant, whether this deviancy is based upon physical appearance, re­ligious practice, or moral con­viction: How can we place our trust in “civic virtue” when such persecutions continue to emerge within both progressive and conservative segments of American society, with no sign of abating?

John M. Bozeman

Charlottesville, Virginia

Don't Give Up on Teachers

Christopher Lasch’s idea of a traditional urban neighbor­hood as a vehicle of social trust (in his May article “Communi­tarianism or Populism?”) has been historically verified. But he carries the idea too far.

He claims, relying on Jane Jacobs, that educators cannot teach children civic responsibil­ity because those who are really able to teach it are those, such as neighbors and the corner grocer, who do so without being hired to. But that is not in accord with my experience as the child of an Italian immigrant. The Jewish and Irish teachers we had were excellent teachers. And family life was supportive of their efforts.

The teachers brought love to the classroom. At home, that abomination — the televi­sion set — did not exist. Fath­ers were present; they were semi-literate but valued educa­tion and hard work. Both forc­es enabled young people to experience upward social movement.

J.A. Raffaele

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Lasch & Weil

Christopher Larch’s stress on responsibilities vis-à-vis rights, in his article “Commun­itarianism or Populism?” (May), is very important. In the last days of World War II, Simone Weil, writing papers for De Gaulle on the re­establishment of a new French government, noted: “The no­tion of obligations comes be­fore that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.” She located the fallacy with the men of 1789.

On August 26, 1789, The Declaration of the Rights of Man was drafted. Those rights later became part of the French Constitution. The Declaration was greatly influenced by America’s Declaration of Inde­pendence and the philosophes.

The French Declaration listed “inalienable rights”; an earlier draft also listed obliga­tions. The obligations had not been part of the American document. But, because there was Church representation in the French process, they were part of the French drafting and open to consideration. The person who should have car­ried on the debate in France was the Bishop of Autun. But he chose not to — and for very questionable reasons.

The problem is: The prin­ciple of rights supported by obligations went out as a basis of Western law. We may now be living in a time of self-gen­erating rights. Also, in America we have developed the false idea of the wall of separation between church and state (which law professors such as Richard E. Morgan and Rich­ard Cord say was not the intent of the founding fathers). The net result is that studied church opinion is not now part of lawmaking in America. Rather, sound-bite theology and sectarian television preach­ers influence lawmakers. And so we have political campaign­ing in ruins.

Douglas H. Schewe

Madison, Wisconsin

Flirting with Canterbury

I enjoyed Michelle Bobier’s article “A Baptist Among the Episcopalians” (Jul.-Aug.), but I disagree with her declaration that she is not flirting with a conversion. Several years ago I was gently pulled away from Baptist services by the symbol­ism and holiness of the Catho­lic Mass. In retrospect, my only hope to avoid a conver­sion to Catholicism would have been a refusal to study theolo­gy seriously, an unwillingness to read the works of the Church fathers, and a lack of any desire to pray in the midst of such a beautiful liturgy.

Without vigilant resistance, Bobier may find herself trav­eling across the Atlantic to Canterbury. She may even cross Sheldon Vanauken’s English Channel to Rome. I wish her well wherever her journey leads.

Kimberly A. Payne

Richmond, Virginia

Should I Leave the Church?

Before pointing up prob­lems with your editorial attack­ing Margaret Steinfels’s “Un­holy Alliance” speech, I would like to say something nice about the editorial (“The Church as a Warm, Fuzzy?” Jul.-Aug.). Unfortunately, nothing comes to mind (except to note it appeared in a gener­ally challenging journab~ So on to the complaints:

The whole premise of Steinfels’s speech was that the Catholic Church has the best market on truth. That she does not concur with your equation of Magisterium-adhering and authentically-Catholic is no reason to cast her as some kind of thinking person’s Anna Quindlen — i.e., one who smoothly substitutes nostalgia for creed. (Surely when Bill Marra tells EWTN conserva­tives about passing on the treasures of Catholic tradition he does not reduce the Church to a “cultural heirloom.”)

For all your criticism of Steinfels’s alleged fuzziness and all your Chestertonian bluster about “drawing the line,” you skirt the issue of when the dissenting Catholic should take leave. Must my wife and I choose between effective family planning and the Real Presence? If that’s what you believe, don’t hedge. Come out and say so. I would then disagree with you but could “very much” respect your integrity.

If you want to write an editorial to support take-it-whole-or-leave-it Catholicism, go ahead. (I like to hear the opponent of moral relativism explain away past teaching on slavery, usury, religious liberty, etc., by reference to societal context.) But do not make a straw woman out of a compet­ing journal’s editor to do so.

You are dismissive of the call to “build bridges.” I would think, in an institution led by a pontiff, bridge-making would be an honorable endeavor.

Kevin M. Doyle

Birmingham, Alabama


The “Real Presence” is, as such, a warm fuzzy. It is affirmed by different kinds of Christians in different ways. You asked if you and your wife must choose between the Real Presence and what you call effective family planning. You’ve answered your own question, for you can embrace both in good conscience as, say, a Lutheran, or Anglican, as even the pontiff — he who pontificates — would tell you. But if you “draw the line” between transubstantiation and, say, consubstantiation, and affirm the former (as well as the Catholic understanding of apostolic succession), then don’t hedge. Come out and say so. For then you are probably a Magisterium-adhering Catholic too, but with a problem — viz., that while doctrine has developed, it hasn’t developed as you wish on one point. Leave the Church? No, that would be rash. If you wish your Catholi­cism to be that of the pontiff, you should seek out a sensitive confessor who accepts the authentic teaching of the Church, read material which could help you understand why the Church teaches as she does, and pray seriously and persistently for the light to see the matter in question as the Church does. The pontiff said during his visit to the U.S. in 1987, “It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magiste­rium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’…. This is a grave error….” So, if, on the other hand, your dissent is deliberate and obstinate, if it is absolute (i.e., you deny in principle that the Church could be correct), and especially if it is wide-ranging (e.g., includes eucharistic theology and apos­tolic succession), then a depar­ture would not be unreasona­ble, and we would indeed “very much” respect the integ­rity of such a decision.

Bruce R. Anderson

San Leandro, California

A Non-Catholic Looks In

Your July-August editorial (“The Church as a Warm Fuzzy?) stated what many non-Catholics such as myself ad­mire about Catholicism: the Catholic “Left’s” adherence to Catholic social teaching and its willingness to put it into prac­tice and the Catholic “Right’s” adherence to Catholic doctrine and morality (the fight against hedonism).

Wendy Johnston

Manzanita, Oregon

Don't Abort Bellah

I particularly enjoy your articles by Robert Bellah. His ideas are thought-provoking and, in the present political climate, indispensable for mak­ing sense of what’s happening. I wish I could say the same for your articles on abortion. I find them simplistic, devoid of compassion for women, and unforgivably full of distortions and innuendo regarding the character and integrity of any­one who believes in a woman’s right to decide based on the counsel she receives from others and from her own heart and mind.

Stan Miller

Spokane, Washington

Expression in Life & Art

Regarding Paul M.L. Van­derham’s letter entitled “Moral & Political Criticisms of Art” (May): I make my living as an artist and painter, and also teach painting. As a person I try to be good and moral, and as an artist I try to do good art. How difficult this is to explain!

Let me suggest the com­plexity of trying to be a “pru­dent man” who strives to do virtuous art. Here are some examples with numerous ar­guable assumptions: As a per­son, let’s say I kick my dog when I am angry. It is good that I express, rather than suppress, my feelings, but my method, kicking the dog, is not virtuous. Here is assumption #1: Life involves expressing ourselves. Assumption #2: There are two manners of expression, right brain and left brain. Assumption #3: The right brain (heart) is child-like, feeling, and expressive; the left brain (mind) is teachable, memorizing, recognizing, judg­ing, and moralizing (there is a field of scientific thought that more or less supports this division). Assumption #4: The right brain cannot sin. It is child-like and knows only openness and honesty. It has emotion but can’t recognize or judge it. The left brain evalu­ates right-brain emotion and produces an appropriate re­sponse, and also has the power to stop the expression of feeling from the right brain. Assumption #5: To express feeling is virtuous, not to show feeling is not virtuous. To conclude: To express my anger is good; to kick the dog is bad.

Now consider art. Assump­tion #1: It is good and sinless to express ourselves through art. Maximum expression (God creates the world) is maximum goodness. The sin then would be art that fails to express. Assumption #2: This right-brain expression must be judged, at one level, without left-brain moralizing, only by evaluating degrees of expression. The man who kicks his dog is virtuous for expressing himself.

A writer writes: “Me want to kill children with hatchet.” Bad morals, bad writing (in a traditional judgment), but good expression. As horrible as it sounds, even great expression if the statement is acted out in art. Or: “I want to kill my children with a hatchet.” Bad morals, not so bad writing, good expression, etc. Or: “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth” (Gibran). Good morals, good writing, good ex­pression, but we still don’t know about the virtues of the artist when not being an artist. What if this writer really hated children and beautifully ex­pressed how he didn’t feel? His art in that case would still be good, but he would not be good to the degree that he failed to truthfully express his feelings. Every combination and complexity can be imag­ined and does occur in art.

So the next time we look at a painting or movie or read a book, and we find we have mixed feelings, we might re­member the complexity of try­ing to evaluate art.

Last assumption: Christ expressed himself to the max­imum — that’s very good (from Godly). His chosen method of expression, words and actions, were very good. The consistency in extreme goodness between his maxi­mum expression of feeling (right brain/heart) and his chosen course of action (left brain/mind) was very good. The final conclusion: The Son of God is the best, most virtu­ous, prudent, pure, excellent example of the highest level of man, artist, and art.

John Mesevage

Ghent, New York

Peculiar, but...

I’m a new subscriber. Much to my surprise, I find myself reading the NOR cover to cover. Even though some of it is peculiar, and I frankly disagree with much of it, the NOR is very compelling. Of course, any magazine that regularly publishes Lasch and Bellah and Coles, and still lists the late Walker Percy as a Contributing Editor, commands attention. Another reason is that I see the kind of material you publish in few other places, actually none, although I do read Lasch in Salmagundi. Is the way you explore theolo­gy and its intersection with modern life unique? Also, what does one read to be schooled in theology?

Roland Wolfe

Antioch, Tennessee

Ed. Note:

Are we unique? Uh, is the Pope Catholic? As for your huge question about theology, a good way to begin would be to contact the editorial office of Ig­natius Press and ask for its book catalog.

Cussed & Discussed

Catholicism is cussed and discussed around the clock, all over the world. If Catholics ac­cept the challenges of Cardinal Ratzinger and others, we must reach the misinformed with the basic teachings of the Catholic Church.

I ask Catholic readers of the NOR to meet with their pastor, parish leaders, or Knights of Columbus to arrange broadcast time on radio signals in their neighborhoods for “What Catholics Believe.” This radio show, featuring in­formed Catholics treating Catholic topics, has been ac­knowledged as the best Catholicity on the air since Bishop Sheen. Theologically authentic yet ecumenical, professionally performed yet informal and even humorous at times, it will knock your hat in the creek. The cost is not intolerable.

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