A Crisis for Catholic Writers?

A Crisis for Catholic Writers?

"The Last Catholic Writer in America?" by Paul Elie, in Books & Culture (Nov.–Dec. 2001), P.O. Box 37060, Boone, Iowa 50037–0060.

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"The Last Catholic Writer in America?" by Paul Elie, in Books & Culture (Nov.–Dec. 2001), P.O. Box 37060, Boone, Iowa 50037–0060.

This essay is not really about the "last Catholic writer in America"—there isn’t a "last." Today, "if you are a Catholic writer," Elie observes, "it is as though you are the only person left who takes this stuff seriously—the only writer who cares about religion, and the only Catholic who has any literary taste. You are the last Catholic writer in America, and you are afraid the species is dying out."

In some ways, things were not that different for the previous generation of great American Catholic writers: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day. Much of the talk of Catholicism’s "communal character" was "just a theological stereotype. One of the four past greats once wrote, "Today, each writer speaks for himself, even though he may not be sure that his work is important enough to justify his doing so."

Yet many things are different, notes Elie. Today, "the authors of the best Catholic writing may not be known to us as Catholics," Elie writes. "They may not be Catholics at all." He thinks of the novelist Denis Johnson and the short-story writer Richard Bausch, neither of whom is Catholic though both have written about the struggle for faith and the need for redemption in a way that Flannery O’Connor surely would have understood, though she might not have comprehended "the mismatch between the religious impulse and the church’s resources for dealing with it."

O’Connor’s faith was as natural to her as the air she breathed. In a curious twist, she did not write about Catholics but about Protestants because, she once explained, Protestants had "more interesting fanatics." Elie claims "that the Catholic writer today has less in common with O’Connor than with the primitives and grotesques she wrote about."

He cites the young evangelist in Wise Blood (1952): "He doesn’t believe in Christ but still thinks the church has betrayed Christ’s message. If he had written a book, it would be taught [today] in the divinity schools."

O’Connor’s evangelist says simply, "Either Jesus was God or he was a liar." This kind of black-or-white position does not comport easily with our age of grays. "So it happens," says Elie, "that the Catholic writing of our time is not written out of faith, but out of an aspiration. . . . The writer would like for the Catholic religion to be true, indeed yearns for it to be revealed as such. . . . If it can be made believable in writing, maybe it really can be believed in."

Elie himself is an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His book on O’Connor, Percy, Merton, and Day will be published next year.


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