December 8, 2008
— Martin E. Marty
With Catholics, Catholicism, Roman Catholics, the Church, and the Catholic bloc having played ill-defined and indeterminate roles in the November election, the one-fourth of the American population that they make up is ripe for assessment. A brilliant one is tucked into an article on novelist Flannery O'Connor, "Catholic Writing for a Critical Age", in the November 21 Commonweal. Editor-essayist-lecturer Paul Elie brings this major writer out of the shadows of the Humanities into the public zone where we do our sightings. We take up where O'Connor is left off, as Elie ponders public Catholicism today.
"Catholics are better educated than ever. They buy hardcover books, know their way around Europe, and try to send their children to good universities. They are fluent in music, movies, Broadway, feng shui... And yet when we try to identify the culture this people call its own, we are thrown back into the question of what 'Catholic' culture is." Elie takes a literary run at assessment as he reflects on a lecture O'Connor delivered in 1963, during the time of the Vatican Council abroad and the tumults at home. "Would she have recognized us, and our predicament, in the future that she looked forward to with such relish? Would she have thought that a Catholic literature eventually did emerge in this country--that our writers have made belief believable?" That is hard to say, because church and country were changing drastically even as she spoke. "Her work makes clear that she anticipated us. She saw us coming..." "An identity," she said, "is made not from what passes...but from those qualities that endure because they are related to truth." Elie's twist: "The things she spoke of as strange are now familiar to many of us, and the things she thought familiar are strange." The church she described "which safeguards mystery...is remote, even unrecognizable." So is O'Connor: "We call her by her first name, but she is [a stranger] no more familiar to us than Tobit or Tertullian."
When defining, Elie applies an insight from the classic poem "Dover Beach" by Victorian Matthew Arnold, on "the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith. Elie, seizing on Arnold's distinction between "the creative age and the critical age", contends that "Catholic culture in the United States has been in a critical age for some time, following the creative age of the middle of the last century." Right. The distinction he poses "gets us away from the usual interpretive schemes of reformation and restoration...[or] of this pontificate and that one." He names some Catholic writers of today, who "have a common predicament. They are still surprised that their conscience puts them at odds with the church, because their conscience was formed by the church."
Surprise: Elie thinks that perhaps the "critical age" is coming to an end, and cites Charles Taylor, Garry Wills, Eamon Duffy, Elizabeth Johnson, Andrew Sullivan, and Richard Rodriguez as indicators. Three events evoke a spirit of change: 9/11 cast the question of religion and its place in a new light; "the scandal of clergy sexual abuse, and the comportment of the bishops" symbolized problematic developments in the institution; and "the movement north of people from Mexico and Latin America, many of them Catholic," drastically changes the context for the Catholic culture(s) and together portend "a new age, no less than modernity was." Many are stuck in the old story of the last new age, "when sex was invented, the Latin Mass gave way to mass culture, and the clan came apart after a death in the family." Elie is almost hopeful that imaginative Catholics, free of life in the "critical" age, might help create again.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com