In the early to mid-20th century, there was a distinct American Catholic culture, and it produced great literature and art. Writers and artists can help rebuild our culture today.
One way to describe the present situation of the Church in the United States is to say American Catholicism is in a state of cultural crisis. And if that is true, then restoring a healthy Catholic subculture is necessary not just for the Church’s flourishing but for its very survival.
Literature and art have to be part of it. There’s a powerful link, a genuine two-way street, between culture and art. Writers and artists are products of their culture, which they also do much to create and shape and sustain. A religious body lacking writers and artists is impoverished at its roots and at risk of stagnation and atrophy.
I was reminded of these things while reading an essay-review of a new collection of letters by the late novelist and short story writer J.F. Powers. The piece was by the distinguished essayist and critic Joseph Epstein and appeared a while back in the Wall Street Journal.
Epstein calls Powers a "superb artist" who wrote "some of the most striking fiction of his day”–fiction which, he adds, "holds up well in ours." He has no doubt that something besides Powers’ own talent accounts for his achievement. What that something was, he explains like this:
"Catholicism in those years [the mid-20th century, that is] provided a distinct culture within America. For Catholics the church, capital and small letter C, was both the center and periphery of life. It had an authority and a hold on American Catholics that has long been leaching away."
Although Powers died in 1999 at the age of 81, he was essentially a chronicler of American Catholicism in the years before the Second Vatican Council–the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. His writing output dropped off markedly after the middle decade of the latter decade.
True, his second novel, and last book, Wheat That Springeth Green, appeared in 1988. But few readers find it up to the level of his earlier work. Some parts are admirable, but the narrative as a whole is diffuse and rather wandering, as if by then Powers didn’t know quite what to make of the Church. The old Catholic subculture he’d known so well had vanished, and what replaced it resembled bits and pieces from a broken kaleidoscope.
But that old subculture was something else. Epstein, a Chicagoan, recalls his hometown as a place where Catholicism was "a natural part of the cityscape." Priests in Roman collars and nuns in habits rode the buses and frequented the libraries. Catholic kids went to Catholic schools where they learned Latin and theology and labored under "unremitting discipline."
Numerous writers besides Powers found this to be culturally rich soil. And not just in Chicago. Edwin O’Connor mined the soil of Irish-American Catholicism in Boston. Walker Percy, a convert, found inspiration in Louisiana’s Catholic culture. Another O’Connor, Flannery, played variations on the theme by contemplating Bible Belt fundamentalists in light of the great tradition of her Catholic faith. The list could easily be extended.
And now? There are still talented American Catholics who write, but there is no recognizable body of writers drawing upon a Catholic culture to produce work comparable in cultural density to that of Powers and the rest.
I repeat: literature and art are products of culture, and culture is a product of literature and art. Separate the two things, and the art is in trouble–as is the culture itself. And that in a nutshell is the cultural crisis in American Catholicism as we are experiencing it today.