Essays

Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?

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

1.
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.

2.
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. Jonathan Post
    at 7:31 am on November 28, 2011

    Check out Alexander Theroux or Gene Wolfe, two (amazing) living Catholic writers. Theroux has written at least one masterpiece (Darconville’s Cat) and one Rabelasian monster of a book that comes close (Laura Warholic). Gene Wolfe is the best living science fiction writer, his best work being the New Sun books.

  2. JP
    at 7:48 am on November 28, 2011

    But seriously, a widespread reinstating of the Tridentine Mass is just going to bleed Catholic membership in most Western countries. It does seem alienating, even more so than the terrible reversions that just happened with the English translation. Anyways, since 2007, do a lot of churches actually perform the Tridentine Mass? I don’t think so.

  3. Nick Moran
    at 9:44 am on November 28, 2011

    A really nice article, Robert. I’d only submit that the Catholic “literary vacuum” is much more pronounced in certain countries than in others, and for varying reasons. When I read a lot of Irish fiction — that is, fiction from a land whose relations with Catholicism could be categorized on Facebook as “it’s complicated” — I’m reminded of that classic Onion joke: The religious breakdown of Ireland is 75% Catholic, and 25% Super-Catholic.

  4. First Links – 11.28.11 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog
    at 10:01 am on November 28, 2011

    […] First Links – 11.28.11 Monday, November 28, 2011, 10:00 AM Joe Carter Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone? The Millions, Robert […]

  5. KR
    at 10:04 am on November 28, 2011

    There’s a rich Catholic novel coming out in January by John Donatich titled THE VARIATIONS. It’s about the way the population of the Catholic Church is dying off, and the challenges one priest would face if he decided to leave his parish. Might be up your alley. It’s amazing how few explicitly Catholic novels have come around since John Gregory Dunne’s TRUE CONFESSIONS.

  6. Matt
    at 11:05 am on November 28, 2011

    Isn’t Anne Rice one of the few mainstream openly Catholic writers out there? I mean, yeah, most of what she turns out now isn’t worth looking at (with the exception of Knopf’s typically wonderful cover designs) but back in the 70s and 80s, she was hitting on some legitimate questions in her stuff. The first three Vampire books, the first Witching Hour book….

  7. elle
    at 11:30 am on November 28, 2011

    thanks for the great essay and for the equally great comments (I’m noting all the suggestions of the books I have not yet read).
    And for what it is worth, I find the Nov. 27 changes to the translations for Mass quite alienating indeed. I can’t see how it will draw newcomers in or wayfarers back. Christmas returnees will not feel welcome this year.

  8. King Wenclas
    at 12:26 pm on November 28, 2011

    The title story of Don DeLillo’s new collection of short stories, The Angel Esmeralda, is a very Catholic story, in my opinion– not just its characters, a group of nuns in the Bronx, but in its theme that the miraculous is everywhere. (I review the collection elsewhere.) It’s an excellent story.

    There are too few works of literature anymore which address the “big” questions– our place in the universe, say. Instead, many writers have an extremely narrow focus, and don’t seem to believe in anything except their own trivial fleeting sense-impressions of the moment. Attempting to understand society or the cosmos is clearly beyond them. They might as well be housecats, for all the intelligence they offer.

    Just my two cents worth!

  9. Miguel
    at 12:49 pm on November 28, 2011

    They’re not as gone as you think. Carlos Eire won a National Book Award for his memoir “Waiting for Snow in Havana” in 2003, and it’s a very Catholic book. He followed that up more recently with Learning to Die in Miami, in which Catholicism also plays a huge role.

    Also, shorter works by Catholic writers are available on a quarterly basis from quality publications like Dappled Things (www.dappledthings.org) and IMAGE journal (www.imagejournal.org).

  10. Miguel
    at 12:51 pm on November 28, 2011

    Regarding the translations, I found them lovely and fitting, and much closer to what I’m used to in Spanish. I also found them quite minimal. What are you all getting your panties up in a bunch about? Really, people.

  11. Gregory Wolfe
    at 3:16 pm on November 28, 2011

    They never left. We just stopped looking for them.

    I wrote a blog post series about this. The fourth post (of 4) contains a partial list — many more could be added:

    http://imagejournal.org/page/blog/the-state-of-catholic-letters-part-iv-generations-lostand-found

  12. Shana
    at 4:08 pm on November 28, 2011

    I’m Jewish and adored the early novels by Mary Gordon, who grappled with c(C)atholic themes, issues, stuff. Wonder how those books would hold up now for me, so many decades later.

  13. Catholics In Literature – The Rumpus.net | The Literature Blog
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  14. Kris Heywood
    at 7:09 pm on November 28, 2011

    I know a good Catholic writer. He wrote The Franciscan Conspiracy and Angel’s Passing. The first was on the bestseller lists in Europe and the second did great in Brazil.

  15. Jeannine
    at 7:39 pm on November 28, 2011

    A notable contemporary Catholic author is Tim Powers. Powers writes fantasy–or magical realism, if you like–often with a historical context. Declare is his most explicitly Catholic novel.

  16. EMH
    at 9:34 pm on November 28, 2011

    Two words: Brian Doyle. His novel Mink River came out last year and is very Catholic in its way. He also has a new short story collection, Bin Laden’s Bald Spot, that is hilarious. And Catholic. One of the stories is about some dudes in Boston who kidnap Cardinal Law from his haven in the Vatican.

    Those are his only two fiction books, but he’s got a whole mess of non-fiction.

  17. justaphotographer
    at 9:49 pm on November 28, 2011

    I would argue that Catholic (in the broadest sense) writers are present in nearly equal numbers to what they were in the 60’s, and that the vacuum you describe has more to do with the increasing cultural marginalization of Catholicism in recent decades. More often than not books are simply no longer read as “Catholic”, even when they have explicitly Catholic themes.

    Some good examples of working writers would include the essayist Patricia Hampl, Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy), the underrated Valerie Martin (Property, Mary Reilly) and while we’re at it, why not Ann Patchett? (If Bel Canto is not a Catholic book I’d love to know what is.) I’m probably leaving out many more worthy names, but these are the first that come to mind.

  18. Jan Faber
    at 4:23 am on November 29, 2011

    The excellent “Deep Creek” by Dana Hand (a Washington Post Best Novel pick) features a heroine who is both a Catholic and a Native American; her alien faith is even more of a social barrier, she finds, than her mixed parentage.

  19. 73tandy
    at 6:54 am on November 29, 2011

    During a good portion of the later years of this period another remarkable quondam catholic writer is Roland Merullo. His book BREAKFAST WITH BUDDHA is a masterpiece on the spirit and all of his many books have this inherent spiritual theme since a deep appreciation of Thomas Merton has been one of his guides. You’d do well to look into this fine writer’s works.

    You might also enjoy my site which is devoted to Merton and my tales of him in his last 10 years.

  20. Tuesday’s Religion News Roundup: The Last Testament; Episcopal abandonment; Western Wall | religionnewsspokane
    at 11:24 am on November 29, 2011

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  21. Michael
    at 12:13 pm on November 29, 2011

    I’m pretty sure Tobias Wolff is and Andre Dubus was Catholic.

  22. Lloyd
    at 12:41 pm on November 29, 2011

    Newcomer Elizabeth D’Onofrio is a Catholic and her book “The Crystals of Yukitake” beautifully uses magical realism to transport the reader along a spiritual journey with a 17th century French nun and Japanese ronin. Her work was also influenced by Thomas Merton.

  23. John Desjarlais
    at 4:26 pm on November 29, 2011

    Many of these ‘missing’ Catholic writers are members of The Catholic Writers Guild (www.catholicwritersguild.com), producing quality fiction in all genres, ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’. — Interesting to hear of David Foster Wallace’s flirtation with the Catholic Church. I studied fiction with him at Illinois State in the 1990s. Makes me wonder if my Catholic-colored short stories had any influence on him (they were published in both Catholic and secular journals later).
    John Desjarlais, author of ‘BLEEDER: a mystery’ and ‘VIPER: a mystery’ (Sophia Institute Press 2009 and 2011 respectively)

  24. Karina Fabian
    at 5:14 pm on November 29, 2011

    As a founder of the Catholic Writers’ Guild, I have to dispute your premise that we have a derth of great Catholic writers. Part of the problem is that with 250,000 new books coming out each year, it’s harder to get noticed, especially since so many people are going small press or self publishing (in part because many bigger publishers are no longer accepting works that are “too Catholic.”) I see from the comments that several names have been mentioned. Might I also suggest you check the Catholic Writers’ Guild website for a list of Seal of Approval titles? http://catholicwritersguild.com/index.php?name=Content_2&pid=3. These are fiction and nonfiction works that we have found adhere to the Magesterium.

    And as long as we’re naming names, I’d like to add a few:

    Michelle Buckman–Rachel’s Contrition, especially is Catholic
    Ellen Gable Hrkach has several literary titles
    John Desjarlais–great mysteries
    Ann Lewis–Murder in the Vatican: The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes
    Jane Leback–Catholic YA, science fiction and literary
    Regina Doman–Catholic YA
    Christian Frank–the John Paul II High School series
    Michael O’Brien–literary, though I heard he’s getting into science fiction, too

    I also write Catholic science fiction and fantasy, along with mainstream.

    We’re out there! It’s just a crowded market and a little harder to see us!

  25. Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
    at 7:56 pm on November 29, 2011

    Thank you, Robert, for starting this interesting discussion. As a Catholic writer (though only a poet–not a fiction writer), and as a teacher of courses in Catholic Studies (the literary ones), I feel compelled to weigh in.

    Not only is there no current dearth of Catholic fiction writers. There are more than ever before. The list of fiction writers who are living or recently dead, who have experienced a Catholic formation, and whose imaginations (and books) bear the imprint of that experience is significant, and it is getting longer all the time.

    One thinks of Ron Hansen (mentioned in the article), William Kennedy, Alice McDermott, Mary Gordon, Andre Dubus, Larry Woiwode, Tobias Wolfe, Elizabeth Cullinan, Louise Erdrich, Peter Quinn, Charles D’Ambrosio, David Adams Richards (a Canadian Catholic, to boot), Valerie Sayers, Erin McGraw, Cormac McCarthy (admittedly,reluctantly Catholic), David Lodge (one among several good English Catholics writers), and Brian Moore & John McGahern (numbering among numerous Irish).

    This is but a quick list–as there are more–but it serves the purpose. A glance over these names and even a slight knowledge of their work reveals the great range among these writers. They are Catholics who engage with the culture they live in and whose work has been shaped by it, along with their faith formation, their ethnicity, their geography, their gender, and the particularities of their tribal and familial lives.

    There is also a great range of attitudes towards the Church and its teachings evident in these writers–and even from book to book written by the same writer. A gloomy view might assert that this is a sign of the fragmentation of the formerly unified Church–but a hopeful (and more realistic) view would see in this a vital reminder of the adaptabililty of the Church and the remarkable capacity for the Faith to take root and flourish in any culture and time. Catholic Fiction is very much alive–and as long as it lives, the imaginative capacity of the Church will continue to flourish as well! Cheers!

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  27. Dave Griffith
    at 7:44 am on November 30, 2011

    Not to pile on, but I wanted to echo Angela’s earlier comment. There are definitely many Catholic writers working today. I would suggest keeping and eye on the literary journal IMAGE–it’s been around for a long time now. It also has a daily blog that features its stable of writers. I’ve published work with IMAGE and contribute to the blog, so I’m biased, but he community of writers and artists that have gravitated around the journal’s founder Greg Wolfe (who was featured in Poets and Writers last year, I believe) is a diverse and vibrant one.

    But I also want to add that the world of the 1950s and 60s was open to the voices and visions of Catholic writers much more so than today. Some of this has to do with the priest abuse scandal, but it has more to do with the fact that O’Connor and Merton were writing in a prophetic mode that took aim at the often distorted theology of Christians who saw faith as a way of maintaining the status quo, the old balance of power in a world that was rapidly changing.

    They had many fellow travelers during that time because so many (Catholic, many non-Catholic, and non-believers, too) agreed with their basic premise that America was worshipping a God made in its own image, an image that saw us as the moral arbiters in a dark world.

    As to why there are more Catholic writers in the public eye is that they are not being sought out. Publishers and literary journals are not as interested in this world view anymore because many of the people working for publishing houses and lit journals about what to publish and what not to publish strongly identify with Jonathan Lethem’s quote in your post, which echos a famous line from O’Connor’s infamous “Good Country People” when the bible salesman smugly says to Hulga the one-legged Doctor of Philosophy, “…you ain’t so smart. “I’ve been believing in nothing ever since I was born.”

  28. Nell
    at 9:24 am on November 30, 2011

    Interesting piece and interesting comments! I’d like to add a name, too, that I think no discussion of literature of the past 50 years and Catholicism could be complete without: Milosz.

  29. Arthur Powers
    at 10:49 am on November 30, 2011

    In 2006, the Catholic Writers Guild was formed to address this question. Catholic writers are out there, but needed a forum to hone their craft. The same year (separately) the literary magazine Dappled Things was founded. It is an excellent magazine – expressly Catholic and well worth reading.

  30. Tomes and Talismans
    at 12:22 pm on November 30, 2011

    Wantonly I must ask: Because this article began by talking about James Joyce etc. and ended up with discussion of a writers’ group “loyal to the teaching authority of the Church” (v. interested to discover this), what is the organizational, aesthetic (?) response, if any, to classic works by Catholic writers which are perhaps not “loyal to the Church” in their content?

    Like many authors mentioned here – Joyce, O’Connor, Greene, William Golding’s The Spire, Scott Fitzgerald (Irish Catholic, wrote a literal Devil into his first novel), deathbed convert Oscar Wilde, Waugh, etc.? How relevant are these writers, their works, to you as artists, as Catholics?

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  32. paula
    at 3:00 pm on November 30, 2011

    Catholic writers are incredibly important to me, in particular, Flannery O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being. I loved the piece and am excited to discover more Catholic Writers. Also, you can read my discussion/interview with the Catholic poet, Edward Mullany over at Bigother.com –
    http://bigother.com/2011/11/14/edward-mullanys-if-i-falter-at-the-gallows-2/

  33. JTolle
    at 3:28 pm on November 30, 2011

    Hmm, I’m a big reader of Catholic literature, and while I agree with some of the comments about there being a larger-than-perceived group of contemporary RC writers, I must demur somewhat.

    I heartily admit DeLillo, A. Theroux, Lodge, Karr, Patchett, Wolff, Les Murray (poet), Colm Toibin, and the philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and René Girard. But it’s disingenuous to include authors like Anne Rice, Gene Wolfe, and Cormac McCarthy – none of whom are honestly RC writers in the sense being discussed.

    Now, as regards this “large” community of contemporary Catholic authors: let’s be honest. Between the years 1990 and 2005 you see the death of Graham Greene, Denise Levertov, C. Milosz, Walker Percy, Andre Dubus, Anthony Burgess, Muriel Spark, Shusaku Endo, Julien Green, and J.F. Powers. Literally a mass loss of some the most gifted writers of their entire respective generations, Catholic or not. To compare Dubus III with his father Andre, Ron Hansen to, say, Walker Percy, Tobias Wolff to J.F. Powers, Patchett to Spark! No comparison possible, I’m sorry to say. This last generation wrote in a time during which EVERYONE was reading the Catholics, they were massively popular! The fact that we need to see fifteen or more names no one outside the readership of Catholic magazines has heard of says plenty.

    I think, actually, that it’s very healthy for this ‘dearth’ to exist. After most the Catholics of the post- and pre-war period died out (e.g. Bernanos, Waugh, Chesterton, David Jones, Roy Campbell) there was a period of silence! It’s natural we should wait a decade or two before we see a newer generation begin to produce their masterworks. I mean, we’re only just now seeing the serious upheaval of Roth, DeLillo, McCarthy, Pynchon, Morrison. I say give it to the end of the current decade and some of the younger RC writers will be carving out their own territory – David Foster Wallace’s influence as a writer DISTINCTLY pronounced.

  34. paula
    at 5:32 pm on November 30, 2011

    Anne Rice’s books are one thing- but her rediscovery of her faith is another. Any interviews or essays she’s written– it was a while ago- about it are very moving. She had a true conversion in my mind and it gives me hope.

  35. Christian
    at 10:33 pm on November 30, 2011

    The poet Franz Wright cones to mind.

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  37. Chip Burkitt
    at 8:04 pm on December 2, 2011

    I especially like the quote at the end about the aesthetics of belief. Everyone wants to believe because it’s a lovely idea.

  38. Graham Combs
    at 8:34 pm on December 2, 2011

    I’m surprised no one mentioned Walter Miller’s CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ — a book I have re-read several times since middle school. Although a recent convert to the Church, I attended Catholic high schools and my first job in New York publishing was with Image Books/Doubleday. About this time I discovered J.F. Powers at the Strand Books on lower Broadway.

    My own liturgical tradition (and literary as well) is the Book of Common Prayer and the 1611 Holy Bible. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Catholic literary tradition has Anglican roots (Blessed John Henry Newman, Msgr Knox, Msgr. Benson, Chesterton).

    To make a generalization, when I think of Waugh or Greene or O’Connor or Burgess, Catholic literature has an overall toughness that may be missing from other traditions. My favorite quote remains O’Connor’s comment about the Eucharist that it “is true or to hell with it.” Of course I also claim a Southern heritage.

    Fine piece which I linked through Complete Catholic.

  39. Scott P.
    at 10:59 am on December 4, 2011

    Coming out against Vatican II? Seriously? What’s next? Opposing the right of women to vote? Reinstating the nobility with the high justice and the low?

  40. Christopher Buczek
    at 12:10 pm on December 4, 2011

    I’m a 52 year old Catholic, old enough to recall the early (much more faithful to the original Latin) English Masses of the early 70’s, but too young to really remember the Tridentine Mass. Man in the middle, I suppose. What I have witnessed over the last 40 years has been a progressive eating away at the sanctity of the liturgy on the parish level, everywhere. I stopped going to Mass regularly years ago, but still visit the old churches (built pre-VII) when no Mass is being said, to enjoy the silence, light candles and make my devotions before the statues of the saints, and to kneel at the altar rail and recite the Anima Christi before the Blessed Sacrament. Sometimes–rarely–I return for Mass on some feast day of importance to my private devotional practice, and I’m surprised to find myself overcome with emotion, despite the utter banality of the liturgy and homilies. The old emotional pull is evidently still there, ready to be resurrected in my heart, but the Novo Ordo Mass is an insurmountable obstacle. It is a pale, pedestrian, bloodless thing. The recent reversions in translation that have Vatican II types incensed are laughable–too little and much, much too late. Recently, I attended a concelebrated Tridentine Mass in honor of the victims of 9/11. But, without priests who really understand the old rubrics, and parishioners who have been taught what is happening at the altar and how to follow along in a Latin missal (myself included), this once beautiful liturgy was a mess of missteps, mistakes and stumbling hesitations. I’m resigned to the sad fact that the faith that existed before the council has been extinguished and there is no resurrecting it. The Church I was born into is dead, and the many churches I still visit are sepulchers, tombs, ruins.

    Maybe there are so few Catholic writers because that is just too sad a reality to contemplate for very long.

    (And to the commenter who wonders if those who lament the VII liturgical changes are all raving reactionaries and the worst kind of social conservatives–I’m a gay man and as liberal as they come. )

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  42. Michael O'Connor
    at 11:10 am on December 5, 2011

    David Athey’s new novel _Christopher_ has been published. It is eminently Catholic.

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  44. E.A. Bucchianeri
    at 5:38 pm on December 21, 2011

    The problem is Catholic writers have not disappeared: they are hidden and stifled by a world that is growing more hostile to Catholicism every day.

    Practically all the books we see pushed today in the poular media are usually not what a Catholic would like, or should, read; usually amoral tripe that would be an occasion for a confession-session! The world in general is demanding trash, and it is difficult to promote literature written by contemporary Catholics to a wide audience under these circumstances, especially conversion stories, anything that might promote any semblance of morality, or make an attempt to introduce people towards Catholic culture.

    I find it fascinating that the French mystic Marie-Julie Jahenny predicted that during the 20th century, Hell would be unleashed against the arts: it certainly feels like this has happened, and it appears to be getting worse.

  45. Argentine Gal
    at 1:12 am on December 22, 2011

    Hey this is in response to JP, after SP was published in 2007 there has been a growth in the extraordinary form not only in the US but especially true in France where many practicing Catholics do attend the EF of the Roman Rite. And it has grown in Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Chile as well as in Germany. Hey you don’t have to go if you want to. I am a milenial gen who happens to love the EF of the Roman Rite.

    But I am not familiar with Catholic Literary genres something I might explore because I admit I spend my time on facebook or listening to music. Guess I better read up.

  46. Fr. Basil
    at 11:36 am on December 22, 2011

    \\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.\\

    Breezy? Really?

    The Byzantine Liturgies ALL call for receiving Communion standing, and a strict interpretation of the rubrics of Byzantine Liturgy of St. James calls for the Body of Christ to be delivered into the communicant’s hand.

    Would one accuse the Byzantine Churches–Catholic or Orthodox–of liturgical breeziness?

  47. Taylor
    at 12:09 pm on December 22, 2011

    Fr. Basil,

    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. I hope there is more reverence in the Byzantine Rite–perhaps the throne/manger raising the Host to the mouth sort of thing.

    Surely you know of the decline in reverence in the Roman Rite and don’t take offense to comments that don’t pertain to your rite.

  48. Bob
    at 1:29 pm on December 22, 2011

    I stumbled in here by accident, and I’m very glad I did.
    I’m a war baby (1944), used to serve Mass in Latin (occasionally go to a Ukrainian Catholic church too, as well as my usual Roman rite).

    I’ve been writing since about 1976 of the adventures and misadventures of four Catholic kids born 1944 who attended the same grade school, etc. After about 1980, I noticed that secular culture is indifferent or hostile to Catholicism; and stories about people Catholic to the core were simply unpublishable: too religious for the secular market, too earthy for the religious market.
    But I’m still trying. Thanks for listening. Take care, God bless, Merry Christmas!

  49. Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone… | The Crescat
    at 2:21 pm on December 22, 2011

    […] Have All the Catholic Writers Gone… Posted on December 22, 2011 by The Crescat… Here’s an interesting article on The Millions. Writer Robert Fay notes,“There was a time in the middle of the 20th Century when Catholic […]

  50. Mike
    at 8:37 pm on December 22, 2011

    The Spirit of VCII is mainly at fault for the lack of great Catholic writers. The pervasive spirit of Pelagianism among contemporary Catholics, Rahner’s “anonymous Christians”, “everyone” is saved, etc., makes the thematic dramatic moral-doctrinal crisis leading to salvation incompatible with modern Catholic sensibilities. Add the demythologizing of devils, hell, the church militant, and mix in large doses of ecumenism and relativism and you are left with Catholics writing on superficial Catholic themes or even themes reinforcing the same Spirit of VCII relativism.
    Sad… and it is going to be a very long time before it gets better.

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

    Taylor,

    “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.

  52. 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.”

  53. Tuesday’s Religion News Roundup: The Last Testament; Episcopal abandonment; Western Wall | SpokaneFAVS
    at 7:43 pm on March 16, 2012

    […] of writers, the late David Foster Wallace reportedly flirted with joining the Catholic Church near the end of his […]

  54. 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.

  55. 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….

  56. 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).

  57. 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…)

  58. 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.

  59. 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?)

  60. 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’.

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

    Help us revive the rich Catholic literary tradition
    Thepenitentpress{dot}com

  62. Tuesday's Religion News Roundup: The Last Testament; Episcopal abandonment; Western Wall | Spokane Faith & Values
    at 2:33 pm on September 18, 2013

    […] to a Daily Show writer. The NYT calls it “pseudoquaint.” Speaking of writers, the lateDavid Foster Wallacereportedly flirted with joining the Catholic Church near the end of his life. David Brooks has been […]

  63. The Problem with Waiting, Part 1
    at 7:25 am on January 6, 2014

    […] been no discernible build-up toward the kind of renaissance that Gioia, Robert Fay (see his 2011 “Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?”), and Elie pined for. This, despite the fact that there are roughly seventy-eight million […]

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