A look at American Catholic culture in the past, present.
COLUMN: AS I SEE IT
What ever happened to American Catholic culture - the arts, in particular? Remember its richness 50 years ago: the fiction of Flannery O'Connor and J. F. Powers, the poetry of Allen Tate and Robert Lowell, the graphic art of Sister Corita Kent?
I never expected to look back longingly on the '50s and early '60s, but anyone grateful for Catholic culture during that period may be inclined to do so. It's a time worth remembering and celebrating, in these peculiar, less promising times.
In addition to the work of those already mentioned, there were the thoughtful challenges to the status quo by the Rev. John Tracy Ellis and Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. Reforms associated with Vatican II were in embryo - and under discussion in periodicals such as Jubilee and Worship, by way of St. John's University, Collegeville, Minn., and the Rev. George Garrelts of the National Newman Federation. At that time, writings by learned European theologians appeared in Cross Currents: Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Romano Guardini. During the Second Vatican Council, Flannery O'Connor wrote brief, informed reviews of their work in the Georgia Bulletin, and Dorothy Day made thoughtful references to them in the Catholic Worker, as did John Cogley and John Deedy in Commonweal. Almost revolutionary, in their way, were Gordon Zahn's "German Catholics and Hitler's Wars" (1962), Thomas Merton's "Breakthrough to Peace" (1962) and theological commentaries by the Rev. John Courtney Murray S.J. and Gustave Weigel S.J. For a time, John Henry Newman's "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine" (1845) appeared to take root in America, the palsied hand of anti-modernism having withered away.
Deep affection for the church did not prevent these writers and artists from making satiric remarks about Catholicism's provinciality and peculiarities. "There's nothing bigger, cruder, more vulgar in the world," J. F. Powers said of the institution.
Meanwhile, intellectual ferment - new perceptions and artistic innovations - was evident in religious writings and sacred music (and a lot of bad guitar music). Official translations of the Mass remained almost un-English, even though first-rate writers of the period (Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene) might have provided appropriately eloquent texts. Eventually, in "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus," Denise Levertov offered a splendid alternative to the dead-letter translations.
By the late 1970s, reaction to this period of experimentation and renewal emerged as Catholic culture began to wobble. Wilfred Sheed described the change in apocalyptic terms: "The Church was still standing solid as the post office in, say, 1966. ... And then it was gone." Although "the decline of a state of mind is hard to chart," Mr. Sheed added, it is possible to point to particular events that helped to undermine Catholic intellectual life.
Over the past three decades, a chill or a shift in "tone" has accompanied pronouncements, as the Vatican disciplined major theologians, and Catholic intellectuals in the U.S. seldom challenged the hierarchy. Was I the only Commoweal contributor to be surprised at pictures of popes on its covers and to shudder at the clandestine, sub rosa firing of America's editor?
In the 1980s, John Paul II's support for Solidarity and similar movements gave hope to nonviolent activists for social change. And "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response" (1983), the American bishops' pastoral, sparked a revival of Catholic social teachings. Then, the Vatican began to suppress liberation theology, perhaps the most promising religious movement of the 20th century. Church spokesmen often misrepresented it, as English theologian Nicholas Lash said of Benedict XIV's pronouncements in Brazil earlier this year.
Little by little, as the artistic and intellectual roots withered, Catholicism became a shadow of its former self. Increasingly, Catholic academics remained silent, surrendering leadership to bureaucrats and neo-cons. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made ecclesiastical appointments that resulted in his eventual reign as Benedict XVI (Pio Nono II). Statues of Pius IX (Pio Nono I) guarding the entrance to St. Peter's Basilica are reminders of his reactionary influence 130 years after his death.
Is it a coincidence that American culture can point to few Catholics who are as influential as earlier first-rate artists? Similarly, when I asked a well-known Parisian organist about Catholic intellectuals in France, he replied, "There aren't any."
One longs for sophisticated treatises such as Brian Wicker's "Liturgy and Culture" (1963), recommending an integration of Catholic social teachings and liturgical reform; or Martin D'Arcy's "The Mind and the Heart of Love: Lion and Unicorn - A Study of Eros and Agape" (1946), or "The Meeting of Love and Knowledge: Perennial Wisdom" (1957). Are these just nostalgic memories of an old codger disappointed by the current state of Catholic culture, as memory, in the words of Daniel Berrigan, "turns all grays rosy?"
Recalling those earlier years, I am aware of members of my wife's and my extended families, as well as numerous clergy and laity no longer conversant with Catholic culture. Recalling missed opportunities, gifts that the institutional church ignored earlier, one can only hope for better times.
Michael True is the author of "People Power: Fifty Peacemakers and Their Communities," and emeritus professor at Assumption College.
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|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Sep 26, 2007|
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