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Paul Elie


The Last Catholic Writer in America?

This essay was given as a talk at Union Theological Seminary in New York, during a conference on "Catholicism and the Public Square," sponsored by Commonweal magazine and the Faith and Reason Institute and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Thanks to all parties for the chance to listen in on the conversation.

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A couple of years ago, when he was still up in Connecticut and some of the priests there were charged with sexually abusing children, Archbishop Edward Egan testified in court that the archdiocese and the church shouldn't be held accountable for the priests' behavior. As far as the church was concerned, he said, the priests were "independent contractors."

When this testimony came to light I happened to be rereading Death Comes for the Archbishop. You've probably read it yourself: the story of Archbishop Jean-Marie Latour and his sidekick Father Vaillant, French priests and best friends who come to America and go west to hunt out the "lost Catholics" of the desert and call them back to the faith.

Because the novel is about Catholics, it is easy to forget that the author, Willa Cather, was an Episcopalian. And because it takes place in the nineteenth century, it is easy to forget that it was written in 1925. When we think of American Catholicism circa 1925, we usually think of the Catholic masses: packed city parishes, red-brick schools, armies of nuns, saint's-day parades. But there are no crowd scenes in Death Comes for the Archbishop. It is a novel about two men, their faith, and their companionship. The two priests are companions—they live in the same country; they eat the same bread—and their companionship comes to suggest the things that bind them in faith: the body of Christ, the life of the church, the communion of saints.

It would be easy to contrast those two priests with the so-called "independent contractors" of today. But what struck me as I read the novel again was that it is about Catholics who are, in their way, independents. The desert is vast. Other ...

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