“The Responsibility of the Catholic Writer”: Reflections on The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination conference at Fordham University
The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination Conference at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus last week was packed with three days of panels and conversation devoted to exploring the continued evolution of the Catholic literary culture and the responsibility of not only the Catholic literary artist, but also the editors, magazines and presses that serve as a venue for getting the Catholic writer’s fiction, poetry, films, and essays out into the world. My associate, Louis Maltese, and I were so pleased to have an opportunity to represent Wiseblood Books at the conference, share what the press is doing, and dialogue with the literary arts community about the responsibilities of the Catholic writer and the role of our small press in the current climate.
Key in many of the discussions was the emphasis on community. The Catholic writer must seek out a solid writing community that will provide unflinching critique and encourage unflagging apprenticeship to the craft. This sort of community is not bound by religious principles, but by the shared commitment to seeking out and making art in the great tradition, art that reflects the human search for Truth and Beauty. As such it cannot be far from God who is the inspiration behind all great art.
Catholics as a community need to support great art, and not just great art created by Catholics. This topic raised a further question: Do Catholics have an edge in creating great art just by virtue of their faith? Quite simply the answer is “No.” Great art is great art, period. And one need not be Catholic to make it.
The great Catholic writer is simply a great writer. As one integral aspect of community, Catholic writers today must choose great – though not necessarily Catholic -- mentors in the craft to whom they can apprentice themselves. Devotion to and growth in the practice of one's craft is of absolute necessity. Great works of literary art are great because they deal with the truth of the human condition, because the writers of these works practice their craft to the greatest depth and breadth possible and do not rest until the truth and beauty, suffering and redemption, of human experience is thoroughly articulated. The greatest Catholic writers do not need to rely on pious subject matter or overt references to their Catholic faith. They rely instead on something much deeper -- this devotion to the perfection of the craft, and the assurance that their faith gives them a clear perspective from which to work. It is in this way we can see non-religious writers such as Sophocles, Keats, Chekov, George Eliot, or Ted Hughes stand in community with Shakespeare, Eliot, O' Connor, Percy, Greene, and Tolkien. Faith does not separate them; rather, devotion to the craft and their common search for articulating the Truth of human experience bring them together.
Great writers necessarily write from a world view that looks at the whole of human experience, both the good and the bad, and even though the writer may not espouse the Catholic faith, this world view cannot help but carry Catholic themes of redemption, mercy, love, self-sacrifice, beauty, vice and virtue and the consequences of each. The Catholic writer cannot shy away from difficult topics, characters, or issues. To do so would be to ignore the very great impact these challenges have on real human beings every day. But the Catholic writer who truly tries to live her Catholic faith and who tries to view the entire world, events, human experience, and history through the lens of that faith, will see God moving and working in every event, will see light and beauty amidst the darkness. This vision and world view will imbue the work, regardless of the difficulty of the topic at hand.
To walk through this interplay between light and darkness and to examine it in truth is a huge responsibility. But it is arguably the responsibility of the Catholic writer in all cases, because the Catholic writer is possessed of a faith which is the fullness of truth. Thus, the problem confronting the Catholic writer is certainly one which reaches beyond craft, to deal with issues of faith and world view and how to articulate these without alienating modern sympathies. To be successful in this endeavor, the Catholic author today must be fearless, as Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy or Graham Greene was, in venturing into the darkness to name and expose it.
But the Catholic writer does not do this unarmed. A living breathing devotion to faith first, a commitment to educating herself, and greater efforts at practicing the faith fully must be the consistent daily ritual of the Catholic writer if she is ever to begin to realize what it is to be similarly devoted to the practice of her craft. Practice of faith and practice of craft are not mutually exclusive; instead they feed and nurture one another and it is in this way that the work of the Catholic writer can become a sacramental act. O'Connor and other great writers in the Catholic literary tradition serve, then, as both mentors to the craft and the lived practice of the faith, without which we cannot practice our craft to the fullest extent intended. It is the project of a lifetime and the two -- devotion to the lived practice of the faith and devotion to the right practice of the craft -- must walk hand-in-hand.
We at Wiseblood Books are committed to nurturing the future of the Catholic literary imagination by articulating this necessary truth. To this end, the type of conscientious purposeful dialogue we experienced at the Fordham conference and look forward to again in June at Notre Dame’s Trying to Say God conference, is absolutely essential to any revitalization of the Catholic arts. Quite simply, there is no excuse for dropping the baton handed off to us by the generations of mentors who have gone before. There is a sense in which we have betrayed and abandoned our tradition and our history. It is noteworthy that all of the great writers in the Catholic tradition were published by secular publishing houses. Wiseblood is filling a clear and present need – we are currently the only press publishing contemporary literature and poetry, nonfiction and critical monographs, that directly engages the culture and promotes a Catholic world view. And we will continue to seek out work that challenges the status quo of a relativistic society that increasingly seeks to push not only God, but the life of faith in general, into the abyss. This work may come to us from Catholic writers, or it may not.
Regardless of where the work we seeks emerges, we at Wiseblood know that revitalizing change has to begin with us, as writers and editors ourselves. As individuals and as a publishing house we must make a daily commitment to grow in devotion to our faith and our craft as writers and editors, and to bind ourselves ever more closely to those great artists who have gone before, both Catholic and secular, who will teach us to best use the gifts with which we have been blessed. We have a duty to participate in the conversation and be active members of the community of which we are a part. It is not a coincidence, nor is it insignificant, that conferences like the one at Fordham and the one coming up in June at Notre Dame are drawing people from all across the country to dialogue about these real issues in art today. What are we as humans without great art? We need to ask ourselves what we are going to leave behind us for the generations to come, and what message those works are going to send.