Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?

By posted at 6:00 am on November 28, 2011 63

coverSebastian Flyte, the eccentric drunkard at the heart of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, after describing the degrees of religious devotion in his English Catholic family, finally confesses to Charles Ryder:

“…I wish I liked Catholics more.”

“They seem just like other people.”

“My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not — particularly in this country, where they’re so few… everything they think important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time.”

There was a time in the middle of the 20th Century when Catholic writers, many of them converts to the Church, were icons of the Anglo-American literary scene. In the U.K. writers like Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, and J. R. R. Tolkien were preeminent, while Americans Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.F. Powers (his novel Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963), and Thomas Merton were celebrated on this side of the Atlantic.

coverPercy, whose novel The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award, in a way articulated a Catholic artistic vision when he described his pursuit of “…A theory of man, man as more than organism, more than consumer – man the wayfarer, man the pilgrim, man in transit, on a journey.”

Yet despite such a rich Catholic literary heritage with many contemporary admirers — one can’t help thinking of how passionately the MFA/Creative Writing/Workshop establishment venerates the stories of Flannery O’Connor — there has not been a new generation of Catholic writers to take up Percy’s vision, one where their inherent “otherness” is not edged to the margins, but is at the very heart of their craft.

The obvious reason for this literary vacuum is that the Christian faith, and the Catholic Church in particular, have been in full-cultural retreat since the 1960s. In the wake of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, many Catholics left the Church over its opposition to abortion, artificial contraception, and the ordination of women, to name just a few hot-button topics. And then, beginning in the late 1990s, a wave of priest sex-abuse crimes came to light that have scandalized untold numbers of Catholics.

Yet there was another revolution in the 1960s — an internal Catholic one — that was in many ways as profound as the one taking place in the streets of Paris, New York, and London. It was a liturgical revolution, and it impacted each and every Catholic at that most fundamental unit of faith — Sunday morning Mass.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released the document Summorum Pontificum. Benedict’s Apostolic Letter got little attention outside of Catholic circles, but within the Church it was headline news: with the stroke of a pen, the Pope gave permission for parishes worldwide to again celebrate the so-called “Latin Mass,” or Tridentine Mass as it’s officially known. So after a four-decade absence the ancient Mass that Dante, Mozart, Montaigne, and Michelangelo knew so well, the Mass whose liturgical prayers and hymns were the well-spring of western classical music, was once more in front of Catholics.

In the 1960s, when Evelyn Waugh learned of plans to alter the Latin Mass, he wrote a series of worried letters to then English Archbishop John Cardinal Heenan. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Waugh’s worst fears were realized as English replaced Latin, priests suddenly faced the people (as if to entertain them), and the reverential tradition of kneeling at the altar rail to receive communion on one’s tongue was replaced with the breezy practice of taking the host standing and in the hand. In short, what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings.

coverThe German Catholic novelist Martin Mosebach in his 2003 book of essays, The Heresy of Formlessness, argues that the reform of the Latin Mass in the ‘60s left many believers, like Waugh, with a profound spiritual deficit. “All have lost something priceless,” he writes, “namely, the innocence that accepts (the Mass) as something God-given, something that comes down to man as a gift from heaven.”

Mosebach believes that even James Joyce, who was no fan of the Catholic Church, owed his “rank linguistic extravagance” to the rituals and language of the Latin Mass. In the opening passages of Ulysses there is even a reference to the psalm “Judica,” which is prayed at the start of the old Mass. “Ulysses could never have been written without the old liturgy; here we sense the liturgy’s immense cultural and creative power,” Mosebach writes. “Even its opponents could not avoid being in its shadow; they actually depended for nourishment on its aesthetic substance.”

During the 40-year absence of the Latin Mass it has become clear that novels — both by Catholics and non-Catholics — grappling with what used to be called “the drama of salvation” are no longer just rare, but almost unthinkable nowadays. The novelist Jonathan Lethem, who is not Catholic, brilliantly captured the attitude of contemporary writers toward “eternal questions” during a recent spat with literary critic James Wood (Lethem took issue with elements of Wood’s review of The Fortress Of Solitude):

Can Wood’s own negative capability not reach the possibility that in some life dramas “God” never made it to the audition, let alone failed to get onstage? Pity me if you like, but I can’t remember even considering believing in either God or Santa Claus.

In the years since the suicide of David Foster Wallace, much has been made of his personal struggles: his battle with addiction, his appetite for self-help books, as well as his desire to write in a more emotionally communicative manner, and not rely exclusively on his immense intellectual and verbal acumen, or what he called “witty arty writing” in a letter to his former girlfriend, the memoirist Mary Karr.

coverEvan Hughes, in a New York magazine article on Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jeffrey Eugenides, wrote that Wallace, at the end of his life, “quietly sought out spiritual answers and flirted with joining the Catholic Church.” And if this comes as a surprise, it should be noted that Karr later became Catholic, chronicling her conversion in the book Lit: A Memoir.

And while it’s tempting to think of what a writer of David Foster Wallace’s caliber, like James Joyce before him, would have gleaned from the immense cultural patrimony of the Catholic Church and the Mass, it’s anyone’s guess whether the reemergence of the Latin Mass will spark a Catholic literary renaissance. In the end, searing inquiries into the nature of man and his place vis-à-vis the Divine always comes down to belief of one kind or another, and that’s precisely what puzzled Waugh’s character Charles Ryder about his friend Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited:

“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”

“Can’t I?”

“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”

“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s lovely idea.”

“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”

“But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Image credit: kainr/Flickr

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63 Responses to “Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?”

  1. Charles
    at 9:22 am on January 30, 2012


    “I think (and hope) it is different in the Byzantine Rite than in the Roman Rite. In the Roman Rite, Ordinary Form, people walk up, pick up the Host between two fingers and casually pop Our Lord into the mouth as if the Host were a potato chip.”

    It’s more than breezy. It’s apostasy. Touching the Host is forbidden by all except those whose hands were consecrated for the purpose. In the new, man-made Vatican II church, no hands are so consecrated … but fortunately, even the words of Consecration have been changed, so in the opinion of many great theologians no Hosts are even consecrated in that man-made “Ordinary” rite. Which is fortunate, because if otherwise there would be a whole lot of desecration going on.

    Agree completely with above poster. V2 brought about miseducated “Catholics” who can’t think. Pick up any V2 church bulletin or listen to their Saturday night “homily” and honestly wonder who in their right mind could put up with that.

  2. Mary Reichardt
    at 4:28 pm on March 5, 2012

    I find the content of this article both superficial and gratuitous. The hand-wringing over a dearth of Catholic writers and/or Catholic-inspired literature in the post-Vatican II era is really nonsense: there is, indeed, a bounty of excellent contempory authors and works, many of whom have been mentioned in the Comments. Literature, like all art, responds to its time: the history of the novel shows experimentation with content and form in the same way the visual arts do. Catholic fiction is bound to do the same, responding to an artist’s particular vision of the intersection of faith and life in his or her slice of the contemporary world. And navigating this intersection today, especially in a pluralistic and secular society, is clearly far more difficult than it was in an earlier era. In many ways it was Flannery O’Connor who paved the way for the wide and exciting diversity among today’s Catholic (or Catholic-oriented) writers. She understood the complications and alienation of the post-modern world–especially American society– as it bears on belief, and in her open-endings she refused to be either triumphalist or apologetic in her approach to the mystery of human nature and free will. Were there excellent Catholic literary works of the earlier period that reflected this supposedly “golden age” triumphalism? Yes of course. But that period is gone yet God is not done with us yet. Are there more recent, excellent writers responding to the unfolding of the Spirit in our day? As my adopted Minnesota-speak would put it, “you betcha.”

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  4. Mike Ortiz
    at 4:24 pm on August 24, 2012

    I don’t think the “Latin Mass” is “officially” named the “Tridentine Mass”.

    Actually, it’s simply the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

    Or, for most, the Missal of 1962, the last before the Reform.

  5. A. Pedant
    at 7:25 am on August 25, 2012

    Just to clear this up — and my apologies to non-Catholics, who will find all this even more boring than Catholics will: the Latin mass isn’t necessarily Tridentine, though the Tridentine mass is always in Latin. It’s a rectangle-square problem, as it were (with added complexities of course)…. It so happens that I regularly attend a ‘modern’ (post-Vatican II) mass in Latin, which is easy enough to find in England (at least in Oxford, Cambridge and London and a few other places full of the overeducated faithful). In France modern masses retaining a fair bit of Latin are often referred to as ‘Gregorian masses’ and that’s what you’ll find if you go (for example) to Nôtre Dame in Paris at 10.30 on Sunday morning. I can’t speak for other countries (let’s leave Italy out of the discussion for now) but in these two at least there’s a very important distinction between Tridentine masses (always in Latin of course) and ones in this post-‘Reform’ form that happen to be largely or mainly in Latin. The so-called Tridentine Mass (called that simply because of the Council of Trent) is one that follows any missal from between 1570 and 1962; in 1969 Pope Paul VI promulgated the ‘Novus Ordo Missae’ and the ‘Pauline’ mass we’ve had since then is the one that’s been translated into the various vernacular languages. Latin isn’t forbidden or suppressed by the church in any way, only less frequent than one hopes it were…. I suppose most parishes these days don’t have enough worshippers who’ve had even a rudimentary classical education so you can see the problems inherent in celebrating the Pauline Mass in Latin if you support the reforms of Vatican II. Very few of the faithful are in the position that I am of being able to chose fairly easily between multiple Latin masses (not that these things ought to be subject to whim — but let’s not open up a discussion that non-Catholics might find even duller than this one…). This has to do with one’s existing in a particular social bubble where a fair number of people Catholics and otherwise can be expected to have some minimal level of Latin. This isn’t the case in most of the States as I’m well aware…. Now that I’ve said all this I can look forward to being corrected at great length by liturgy bores, who have a habit of cornering me at the coffee morning after Mass most Sundays…. Don’t worry, I’m used to it….

  6. Graham Combs
    at 4:04 pm on August 28, 2012

    Thanks to Mr. “Pedant.” Pedantry in the pursuit of devotion is no vice as someone once might have said (that’s an American cultural reference). As a former Anglican I am fascinated by the fact that Catholics — at least in this country — have no prayer book. I have my father’s old Book of Common Prayer from 1945 which I always carried to church during the 1960s as a boy. At a parish book sale this summer I came across a St. Andrews Daily Missal published in 1949. So I’ve bookended my faith. Both are small, thick and fit comfortably in the hand. I suspect that was common practice at the time. But the Daily Missal — despite its worn cover — is beautifully illustrated inside with small though detailed art nouveau drawings. As it happens I am an adult convert and attend the National Shrine of the Little Flower here in Royal Oak. ThIe only art nouveau church in the world, or at least North America, or so I’m told. I’m struck by the similarities in English (high English one might call it). Both attempt a completeness in liturgy and faith. The BCP includes a psaltry as well as the sacraments and a large collection of occasional prayers in the 17th and 18th century tradition. The DM includes details on the vestments, the collects for each saint’s feast days (as well as a short history) and much more I haven’t yet discovered. Also the Latin Mass with English translation (a real treasure for me). Perhaps liturgically irrelevant but catechetically significant as far as I’m concerned. I’m told by an elderly Catholic from Nova Scotia that Catholics always brought their missals to mass during the 40s and 50s. With the new ordinariate for Anglo-Catholics I joked with someone that there was no need to have composed a new English-language Mass since if the Church had waited a few years that would have been spared the expense with an English Mass whose costs have been amortized over 350 years (this is the 350th anniversary of the BCP published in 1662).

  7. Kell Brigan
    at 7:56 pm on November 30, 2012

    Holy socks, biased much? Taking Communion in the Hand (you know, like the Apostles did?) is not a “breezy process.” (Well, maybe for you…)

  8. Graham Combs
    at 10:19 pm on November 30, 2012

    Is is really so surprising that attending the Mass in casual slouchwear has produced casual devotion as we slouch toward the unused Communion Rail for Holy Communion to-go? If a writer is a Catholic such intentional devotion may be reflected in intentional and thoughtful writing from a Catholic perspective. Are we Protestants who adhere to solo scriptorum (sp?) and have not benefitted from 2000 years of the works of the creative minority? That is St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the many other Doctors of the Church… Our rich intellectual and artistic heritage should give us the edge in the cultural free-fire zones of post-Christian and post-Constitutional America. Instead we respond to decontented volleys in kind. Not exactly in the tradition of Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor.

  9. Jean Renaldo
    at 10:18 am on February 7, 2013

    What Walker Percy got (and nobody these days seems to) is that the only really important question is whether God entered history as a man, or whether that story is fiction. If yes, the rest falls into place. If not, let’s all move on as most of society has already done. The search for the truth about this one question gets harder and harder because it seems our gurus and our peers aren’t even asking it anymore. It’s an increasingly lonely search. The Church should be leading us in the search, but I haven’t seen much evidence of that. We need a very bright and credible writer like Percy to use fiction as a vehicle to help smart waverers (like me) to keep searching. The only popular artistic clue that the search is still going on is, amazingly, The Life of Pi. (Which story do YOU prefer?)

  10. kicker.77
    at 2:13 pm on February 11, 2013

    In spite of what the right-wing (the Catholic equivalent of Tea-Party loons) thinks the discarding of the Latin mass is one of the great things to come out of Vatican II.

    Catholicism is not ‘the West’ it’s a worldwide religion. While in the west Catholicism is struggling, mass in the vernacular isn’t hurting the expanding reach of the church in the third world. That is a condition one would expect if the jettisoning of the Latin mass were in any way the rationale for today’s lack of faith among those in the first world. It isn’t. The Mass thrives in Tagalog, Tetum, Fang, Kinyarwanda, Korean and dozens of other languages.

    Catholicism is not Islam. Arguing the necessity of Latin in the Mass is akin to the Islamic argument that reading the Koran in Arabic reveals some ‘substance’ in it that native language editions don’t.

    Waugh’s arguments against Vatican II were made when after he’d become an angry, bitter old man broken by bad health. Of course the writer here misses the obvious; Waugh, Greene and company came from the last generation of intellectuals who–Catholic, Protestant, agnostic or atheist–were schooled in Latin at a young age on ‘Gallia Est Omnis Divisa in Partes Tres’.

  11. TM Claude
    at 5:25 pm on March 2, 2013

    Help us revive the rich Catholic literary tradition

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