Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Notes on Catholic Literature

After an uncomfortable weekend of false labor symptoms, the OB has cleared me to go to the Trying To Say God conference at Notre Dame, assuring me that I'm extremely unlikely to deliver my baby in an Indiana cornfield. So now that I actually believe we'll be going to a conference on the state of Catholic literature -- indeed, are driving up to ND today -- it seems a good time to chew over what exactly the hallmarks of a Catholic literature are. And since I had several hours yesterday sitting in the tire repair shop to meditate on the subject, here are a few starting points, not necessarily in any order.

  • Moral Realism. As Catholics, we believe in an objective reality, an immutable truth, and we believe that Catholicism is the systematic revelation and response to that truth. And we believe that humans can act in accord with that truth and move closer to it, or can act in opposition to it and stand in contradiction and defiance of it. Even authors who are not Catholic can tap into this truth of the human person, and the truths embodied in Catholicism, writing literature that takes a clear-eyed moral stance, holding some actions morally correct because they participate in truth, and some actions wrong because they are evil, or try to worm around the essential truth of the human person. And of course, plenty of authors who call themselves Catholics or claim to be writing Catholic literature can write fuzzy moral literature, trying to justify or gloss over moral truths.
  • Free Will. Our actions are not dictated solely by circumstances or nature or nurture. We have the ability to choose good or evil, and every moment is a fresh moment to participate in truth or reject it. 
  • Grace. We do not choose good entirely of our own volition. There is higher help to be had even at the weakest moments of human existence. Even characters who have consistently made evil choices are given the opportunity to accept this grace. Grace comes in many forms: small, sublime, gritty, painful, persistent, dry, consoling.
  • Sin. Our fallen nature means that even the best human will choose to act badly, and most humans aren't the best humans. Humans struggle to choose the good, often failing spectacularly. Many actively embrace a self-centered worldview, either through ignorance or by deliberate choice. Virtue can become more or less a habit, but it isn't a perfect defense against our inclination to sin. And often sin seems more pleasant or easier or more fulfilling than virtue.
  • The Physical World As Sign. Creation signifies a deeper reality. Humans, the pinnacle of creation, can also participate in God's creativity by becoming co-creators, either through our creative works or by direct physical participation in bringing forth new life. Our bodies have a moral significance, and our physical actions can embody love.
  • Quality. The usual formulation is "good, true, and beautiful". What God creates must be good, and if our human creations are to reflect his goodness, truth, and beauty, they must have these qualities. (Interpretations of beauty vary -- it can be stark, lush, simple, amazingly complex, painful, or gracious.) But in a Catholic literature, quality matters. Technique matters. Skill matters. Honesty matters. Truth without skill is cloying and one-dimensional. Skill without truth is hollow and ultimately unfulfilling. 
  • Truth Is Deeper Than Identity. Only God creates. I am not the sole creator myself, nor can I entirely define myself. My "identity", self-proclaimed or assigned by others, is not the core of who I am. Freedom doesn't consist in assembling the right labels, but in finding how I can participate in the deeper objective reality of truth, and rejecting any label or behavior or identity that draws me away from that truth.
Note that none of these ideas depend on Church sponsorship or affirmation, or having a bigger Catholic publishing presence, or building new platforms for new media, etc., though those are often the focus of discussions about how to revive Catholic literature. And yet any attempt to "revive" Catholic literature through Catholic presence in the media has to grapple with the fact that professed Catholics themselves often distort the truths that Catholicism claims to represent. Is Catholic literary culture defined simply by having members of the Church getting published and reviewed? Do organizations devoted to Catholic writing necessarily produce literature that's worthy of being called literature? Do programs that teach writing technique at Catholic institutions focus more on workshoppy technique to the exclusion of actual small-c catholic qualities?  I'm curious to see how these topics are addressed this weekend.


Emily said...

Delivering in a cornfield...hah. When I had my sixth, we were driving through the Indiana countryside to the hospital. My husband kept making conversation: "nice stand of wheat" or "Did you see that guy's planting?" It was April. I was in the backseat feeling sensations that made me think my water might pop during each contraction, and wheat was the LAST thing I wanted to talk about. That baby popped out not an hour after we arrived at the hospital.

Emily J said...

Love this. You should have signed up to present at ND! But then you probably would have delivered early. Prayers for a safe and painless as possible labor.

MrsDarwin said...

Thanks, Emilys! No baby this weekend, but plenty of cornfields. I did consider submitting a presentation idea, but I just don't have the cred to make it possible. I have no scholarly qualifications, and my publication credits (besides twelve years of blogging, but you know, I publish myself) include one piece in Catholic Digest and a selection in a book about every word of the Hail Mary. Not really enough justification, I think, for requesting to present on The Qualities of Moral Fiction, which is what I would have really liked to have heard about this weekend. On the other hand, if you want a presentation on a topic, you probably have to give it yourself. Maybe one day I'll have a published novel and can use that as my intro to conferencing.