What Is Catholic Literature?

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 8 2013 @ 6:18pm

In the midst of a searching rumination on the current state of Catholic writing, Dana Gioia offers a description:

Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints. (It is not only that sinners generally make more interesting protagonists. Their failings also more vividly demonstrate humanity’s fallen state.) John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, for example, presents a huge cast of characters, lost souls or reprobates all, who, pursuing their assorted vices and delusions, hilariously stumble toward grace and provisional redemption. The same dark comic vision pervades the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, and Muriel Spark. Ron Hansen’s Atticus begins with the investigation of a murder. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is full of resentment, violence, and anger. “Good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine,” she observed, and violence is “strangely capable” of returning her characters “to reality and preparing them to accept their moments of grace.” When Mary Karr titled her poetry collection Sinners Welcome, she could have been describing the Catholic literary tradition.

Much of Gioia’s essay grapples with the decline of Catholic art and literature from its heyday in the mid-20th century. One reason he cites for the current impoverishment? A growing obsession with politics:

What absorbs the Catholic intellectual media is politics, conducted mostly in secular terms—a dreary battle of right versus left for the soul of the American Church. If the soul of Roman Catholicism is to be found in partisan politics, then it’s probably time to shutter up the chapel. If the universal Church isn’t capacious enough to contain a breadth of political opinion, then the faith has shriveled into something unrecognizably paltry. If Catholic Christianity does not offer a vision of existence that transcends the election cycle, if our redemption is social and our resurrection economic, then it’s time to render everything up to Caesar.

Wallace Stevens remarked that “God and the imagination are one.” It is folly to turn over either to a political party, even your own. If American Catholicism has become mundane enough to be consumed by party politics, perhaps it’s because the Church has lost its imagination and creativity.

Recent Dish on denominational prose here.