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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.


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 Catholics are few. Rome is far, far away. The priests must live according to their lights. Together, each is essentially solitary. Apart, they are lonely. When Father Vaillant gets an order from Rome to go to the Colorado gold rush, the archbishop is devastated. He passes his nights in the rectory longing for France while his friend goes over the mountains on a specially equipped wagon, big enough for one man to sleep in, with a portable altar hooked to the back of it.

The missionary efforts of the real-life Latours and Vaillants were successful. Today the Catholic Church is the largest church in the United States, and Catholic leaders miss no chance to say so. Yet companionship is sorely lacking. The individual Catholic feels not only independent but—fill in your adjective of choice—alone, lonely, ignored, alienated, solitary, separate, set apart, estranged.

The reasons for this circumstance are best left to other discussions and other experts. What interests me here is how this independence or aloneness affects the Catholic writer.


The other day I looked over the books on the shelves in my apartment, and I was struck by how many of them could be classified as "Catholic literature" or "Catholic writing."

There are big histories of Christianity in Europe and of Catholicism in the United States. There are scholarly books about Lourdes and Italian Catholic Harlem, which depict those places as worlds of wonder, where the religion was thicker and richer than it is today. There is a history of the Irish saints that reads like a novel, and a novel about an alcoholic Irish Catholic that reads like the life of a saint.

There is a Catholic's book about how one man—Otto von Schindler—saved Jews from the Holocaust, and another Catholic's book about how one man—Pope Pius XII—failed to save Jews from the Holocaust.

A trilogy on the moral life by a "philosopher's philosopher" who started out as a Marxist in Edinburgh and has wound up a Thomist in Nashville, Tennessee.

A book by a convert who became famous as a naturalist but sees herself as a theologian.

Several slim volumes of poetry, each of them dedicated "to the glory of God."

A big book of "all saints," one for each day, including Galileo and Gandhi as well as Baron von Hugel and Jacques Maritain, and a biography of Thomas More organized around the question posed to the nascent saint at his baptism: "Thomas More, what seekest thou?"

Book-length essays by the best liberal political commentator and the best conservative one, each of them a Catholic in his fashion.

A novel in which four Jesuit priests set out in the year 2019 on a mission of exploration to the planet Rakhat.

And half a shelf of books by the most acclaimed poet in the English language, a Catholic of Belfast. When this poet accepted the Nobel Prize, he described himself in Catholic terms, as a man "bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the world." To explain what poetry is, he told the story of St. Kevin, a monk of old, who was kneeling with his arm stretched out when a bird made a nest in the palm of a hand—whereupon he "stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledgeling grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of the natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder."

All this variety suggests that Catholic writing abounds and that Catholic writers are thriving. But in my own experience the Catholic writer feels strongly otherwise.

If you are a Catholic writer, you probably know the feeling yourself. It is as though you are the only person left who takes this stuff seriously—the only writer who cares about religion, and the only Catholic who has any literary taste. You are the last Catholic writer in America, and you are afraid the species is dying out. That is one of the reasons you stick around.

Your independence becomes the linchpin of your faith, which is not held or practiced or prayed for so much as it is fostered imaginatively, through your reading and writing and your running conversation with the dead. You feel uncertain, even ashamed, to define yourself as a Catholic writer, but nobody is fighting you over it, so you persist.

And in fact in many ways you are indistinguishable from any other writer. The laptop computer. The grants. The symposia. But you burn interiorly, like one of the French Jesuits of the seventeenth century, the North American martyrs.

You hear that religion is a "hot" category in the publishing world, yet you identify with those martyrs. In theory, they belonged to the church militant, a worldwide multiform communion headquartered in Rome. In fact, "they" were a priest who was alone in the forest trying to translate the Lord's Prayer into Huron in the hope of making himself understood by one of the natives before the others decided to cut out his heart.


If the Catholic writer's sense of aloneness is genuine, it seems a remarkable development, since it runs counter to all that we are told we should expect. By most reckonings, there should be a broad and lively Catholic literary culture.

You know the reasons. There are the numbers. Sixty million Catholics—one American in five—and many of them among the most literate and best educated, etc. Then there is the communal character of Catholicism: Here Comes Everybody and all that. Big families, big holiday meals, big crowds outside St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. Mass in 37 different languages. Social salvation. The communion of saints.

And there are our predecessors. The era before this one was a remarkable one for Catholic writing. There were authors who were undoubtedly Catholic and unquestionably literary, who were read, understood, and appreciated by Catholics and everybody else.

So what makes the Catholic writer today feel so fixed in isolation? Why do we feel, each of us, that we are working alone in the dark?

I don't think there is any one answer any more than I think there is one kind of Catholic writer. But there are reasons, and they have to do as much with the nature of writing as with the nature of American Catholicism today. For one thing, much of the rhetoric about the communal character of Catholicism was just a theological stereotype, one half of a textbook comparison with Protestantism. If it was ever true, it is less true each day. And in truth, Catholicism and Protestantism seem to have switched places. The evangelical Protestant megachurch is the successor to the urban Catholic parish where there was something going on at any time of day and all needs could be met. There is nothing more atomized than 50 suburban Catholics loping across the parking lot to 50 parked cars after Mass.

For another thing, if you are going to understand culture you can't go by the numbers. I work for a publisher, and when I get a proposal from an author who says there are 60 million Catholics and every one is a prospective reader of his book, I send it back. "It takes a lot of culture to make a little literature," Henry James said, but there is no guarantee that a lot of culture will make a little literature, or that the culture will want to read the literature that does get made.

Twentieth-century American Catholicism gave rise to half a dozen books that will last another century. This brings me to the point I really want to make. It is worth remembering that the great Catholics who wrote those books were independents. They started out alone. They chose solitude. They took trouble to maintain it. They considered their independence fundamental to their writing.


I'd like to dwell on that generation a bit. I am writing a book about them, and about our relationship to them, as readers and writers. I would call their era a renaissance—a Renascence—except it was not a rebirth or revival. It was something new under the sun.

Here in the United States were four great Catholic writers at once: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor. (Yes, there were others, and I have had many a friendly argument about which names to add to the list, but concerning these four there is a high degree of consensus.) They knew one another just a little. But they shared aims and strategies to a remarkable degree. They all spoke the same language.

Their work is a kind of "wisdom literature." They were obsessed with the question of what it means to be a human being and how a human being ought to live. Their sense of the human person was Christian, so the question of how to live was, often, how the Christian ought to live.

A friend of theirs had a notion of "the School of the Holy Ghost," and that is what I call them. They had as much in common as the Bloomsbury Group, the Harlem Renaissance, the Inklings, or the New York intellectuals.

But what they had in common is not nearly as important as what made each of them unique. One of them issued a stern warning: "Today there are no good writers, bound even loosely together, who would be so bold as to say that they speak for a generation, or for each other. Today each writer speaks for himself, even though he may not be sure that his work is important enough to justify his doing so."


Yes, those four were great. Yet for the Catholic writer their greatness is cold comfort, even a reproach. It compounds your isolation. It suggests what you are not. If you try to identify with them, claim them, write the way they did, it just doesn't work.

Why? One reason, of course, is that the times were different. When you read their books you confront this again and again. Merton's autobiography implied that there was no salvation outside the church. O'Connor asked a priest for permission to read Madame Bovary. And here is Dorothy Day, in the confession scene at the beginning of The Long Loneliness:

"Bless me father, for I have sinned," is the way you begin. "I made my last confession a week ago, and since then . ..." Properly, one should say the Confiteor, but the priest has no time for that, what with the long lines of penitents on a Saturday night, so you are supposed to say it outside the confessional as you kneel in a pew, or as you stand in line with others.

That might as well be the week after Trent. Times have changed. So has the church.

We don't like to acknowledge it, but what we admire in them is not their books alone but the whole package—the books and the lives all together. We'd like to have them as companions. We'd like to be like them. We'd like to efface ourselves in them, to bury our unbelief in their belief, and in fact many of their readers have lost themselves in this sort of veneration.

But to want to be like them is to miss their point. If there is a single point all their work tends toward, it is this: God wants each of us individually. God calls us one at a time. We are on the same pilgrimage, perhaps, but each of us has to get to the destination. There are no proxies and no rain checks. No matter what church or culture you come from—Catholic or Protestant, in the monastery or on the Bowery—you finally have to believe or disbelieve for yourself.

Day, Merton, and Percy were all converts: the story of their lives is how they embraced the Catholic tradition and made it their own. O'Connor was a so-called "cradle Catholic." But the drama at the heart of her work had to do with the moment when a person accepts or rejects the invitation to an act of faith—the moment of grace, she called it.


When somebody asked O'Connor why she wrote about Protestants and not Catholics, she replied that Protestants had more interesting fanatics. If you are a Catholic fanatic, she explained, you disappear into a convent and are heard from no more, whereas if you are a Protestant fanatic "there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don't believe anything much at all down on your head."

Well, today Catholics as well as Protestants are staying away from monasteries in droves. We too go about in the world getting into trouble over matters of faith.

The Catholic writer might wish to identify with O'Connor, who claimed that the Catholic faith was so much second nature to her as to be the light she saw by, and who was confident enough of the truth of "Christian orthodoxy" to speak of her characters as people deprived of the sacraments and the fullness of truth—religious primitives, grotesques, freaks.

But the fact is that the Catholic writer today has less in common with O'Connor than with the primitives and grotesques she wrote about. Think of Hazel Motes, the evangelist in Wise Blood. Here is a young man, raised religious, who on the one hand is determined to show that Christ didn't literally redeem him, and who on the other hand would rather establish his own church than tolerate the imperfections, the blasphemies, the profanations of the church that already exists. He doesn't believe in Christ but still thinks the church has betrayed Christ's message. If he had written a book, it would be taught in the divinity schools.

O'Connor explained Wise Blood by saying that as far as she was concerned Hazel's virtue consisted in his integrity—in his refusal to let go of God without a struggle. That integrity is the closest thing to a virtue that the Catholic writer has today. This writer still harbors the suspicion that he or she was made in the image of God and that the Catholic tradition has something to say about it. But what does it have to say?

In his book on God and the American writer, Alfred Kazin said that Melville "retained faith even if he did not always know what and where and in whom to believe." He added, "An agony in the nineteenth century, wistful confession in the twentieth."

That seems to me a good description of the situation of the Catholic writer in America. The Catholic writer still has confidence in the value of the Catholic tradition—as a tradition. Catholicism is interesting. It offers good material. It is a storied history. It is a language we speak. Religiously, however, that confidence doesn't take you very far. And it won't take you very far if you are writing a book, either.

The Catholic writer envies, say, Jewish writers, who seem to have achieved a freedom to write about their tradition as their own without having to agonize over the literal truth of biblical and theological claims.

But our tradition compels us to regard statements about God as true or false. It insists, as Hazel Motes put it, that either Jesus was God or he was a liar. It urges us to look not upon the religious drama of our people but upon the drama of each individual person called to reckon this truth or falsehood—to accept or reject this God in faith.

The religious question of our time is whether religion itself is legitimate. The stumbling block to faith is religion, and even "the faithful" have to ask themselves constantly whether religion is a way to God or stands in the way of God—if God exists. The characteristic believer of our time is a seeker, and what this seeker is seeking is not God so much as a context where God can be sought authentically.

This is especially true of the Catholic writer. The Catholic writer tries to find that place, that context, in the work itself. In my experience there is no better or more excruciating way to find out what you really believe than trying to write about it.

Alice McDermott has said that she doesn't like novels in which Catholicism is a problem. She thinks it should be there in and through and behind everything, informing the way the characters see life and the world around them. I understand what she is getting at, but I think that Alice McDermott is just about the only writer alive who can write that kind of book. In anybody else's hands the Catholic background turns gauzy and sentimental.

I see the situation differently. In my own view, the Catholic writer today is in the same predicament as the person I'll call the characteristic Catholic, and the best Catholic writing will be that which really confronts the problem that, for most of us, Catholicism is.

There are advantages to the Catholic writer's position. The characteristic Catholic feels independent, alone, estranged. Well, the Catholic writer takes independence as a precondition and an opportunity. Most books are written alone, and are still read that way. The Catholic writer, like that Jesuit priest in the forest, hopes to make himself or herself understood to one other only. A single convert will do. The reader must be persuaded personally, one at a time.

The Catholic writer's independence means, too, that this writer can focus on the individual person's struggle with the act of faith. When the life of the church is usually discussed in aggregate and demographically—the bishops, the declining numbers of priests, all the Catholics marrying outside the church; young Catholics, gay Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, disaffected Catholic women—the Catholic writer keeps in mind that every religious person ultimately must accept or reject faith for himself or herself. The best Catholic writing is the writing that honors, and probes, that act of faith.

Sixty million Catholics: sixty million acts of faith. The Archdiocese of Chicago has recently taken out billboard space on the sides of the highways. The billboards say, If your looking for a sign from God, this is it. Well, the Catholic writer is interested in the story of the individual person driving on the Dan Ryan Expressway who sees one of those billboards and really does see it as a sign from God—and, say, winds up becoming a priest. How does that happen? What is that person thinking as he drives by? How does he overcome the bad pun, the shameless manipulation of the pitch, the knowledge that a hundred thousand other motorists have seen the billboard as well, and believe this is what the Lord meant for him?

Traditionally, the doubter is a solitary. We don't read about crowds of doubters. In art, doubting Thomas is set apart from the other apostles. He shows up late for the meal in the upper room where Jesus appears. He gets to the Virgin's bedside just after she dies.

A writer like Flannery O'Connor apparently knew doubt only secondhand and imaginatively. But the Catholic writer today knows doubt firsthand, from the inside. No matter how deep or assured your faith, as a Catholic writer you are perpetually unsettled. You are thrown back to first principles at your desk every morning. Everything must be plumbed, established again on the page. Nothing can be taken for granted.

So it happens that the Catholic writing of our time is often written not out of faith, but out of an aspiration. The act of writing is a kind of act of faith, similar to the act of religious faith but prior to it. The writer is testing the Catholic view of life to see what it looks like and whether it will suffice.

The writer would like for the Catholic religion to be true, indeed yearns for it to be revealed as such. So the writer adopts that point of view, some place between revelation and projection. If it can be made believable in writing, maybe it really can be believed in.

There are consequences to this state of things. It means that there are many sincere books about Catholicism that are bad books—bad writing and bad faith. The writer tries to "correct" Christianity to make it persuasive. The writer unwittingly reduces Christianity to his or her own sense of things. The writer takes the supposedly robust faith of a past age as a subject and supposes that the subject matter makes faith plausible for the reader in the present. Or the writer mistakes a sincere act of inquiry for good writing.

This state of things also means that we can't confidently point to "Catholic writers." A writer will take a run at the act of faith once, then move on to the Civil War or sexual politics. Or a writer, having made a run at the act of faith, will go at it again and again, but the thrill is gone.

It means that there are Catholic books whose Catholic character is not immediately apparent. The successors to the two priests in Death Comes for the Archbishop are the two bums in William Kennedy's novel Ironweed, companions who hear the dead speak as they dig graves for spare change. The descendant of the Jesuit missionary in the forest is the essayist Richard Rodriguez on a tour of the California missions, a man whose aloneness is as vast as the Americas.

It also means that the authors of the best Catholic writing may not be known to us as Catholics. They may not be Catholics at all.

I think of Denis Johnson, who is known for his book of stories called Jesus's Son (the title is taken from the Velvet Underground song "Heroin"). His book Resuscitation of a Hanged Man is the best novel I know about the struggle for faith. The hero literally doesn't know whether he is a saint or crazy. He goes to see a priest. It is Provincetown, Massachusetts, and he is wearing a dress. The priest asks him if he has sought help, and the hero says, That's why I'm here, isn't it—a scene that seems to me to say it all about the mismatch between the religious impulse and the church's "resources" for dealing with it.

I think of Richard Bausch, author of a story called "All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona." Walter is Catholic—a lapsed one—and the father of five young children. He is also an alcoholic, and at a family picnic he nips at a fifth of Jim Beam while the kids make a hash of the catechism. That night, he chases the kids around the yard—first playfully, then demonically—and his wife tells him she is leaving him. Haunted by memories of his own father, an alcoholic and child abuser, Walter sees a psychologist, but "there is no use talking about childhood drama and dreams: Walter is versed in the canon; his hopes are for something else." And so he finds himself in the back of an empty church in Flagstaff, wondering if he should tell the priest "how he walked out to the very edge of the lawn and turned to look upon the lighted windows of the house, thinking of the people inside, whom he had named and called sons, daughters, wife. ... trembling, shaking as if from a terrific chill, while the dark, the night, came."

A Catholic writer who isn't Catholic? This is not as unorthodox as it might sound. Chesterton's ideal Catholic writer was Charles Dickens. Flannery O'Connor said that "the Catholic novelist doesn't have to be a saint; he doesn't even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist."

How else to explain that the best writer about religious life today is a Presbyterian laywoman who has found, in the disdained, uninhabited plains of the Dakotas, a correlative for the experience of monastic life today, and the setting of religious faith?


As an independent, the Catholic writer is especially clear on some things. The writer hopes the church will like the work, but doesn't count on it. The writer knows the old language of service and responsibility is provisional. This writer doesn't write on behalf of the church. But this writer also knows that the church doesn't believe on behalf of the writer.

Such a state of things isn't necessarily desirable. Most Catholic writers would like to be fully vested members of the church. That said, it is the situation. Catholics often make a fetish of the ideal. It seems to me that the most important thing is not to posit a shared system of values or yearn for a Catholic literary community that doesn't exist. These things have to be earned, one believer at a time, not simply asserted.

The Catholic writer has to seek a companion in the reader first and foremost. Further companionship isn't strictly necessary. It might even hinder the work Catholic writers are trying to do.

There has been a run of memoirs of Catholic childhood. I'd give a hundred of them for one great memoir of Catholic adulthood, and I'd bet that such a book would mean more to the life of the church than a hundred polls.

As Catholics, too, we believe that we are bound together in ways that we do not realize, and that this binding is taking place in ways we cannot see. We are bound to one another, bound back to the dead, and bound to the future in hope in ways that are as yet unknown to us.

Perhaps in the future we shall be a community of writers—or we will be seen as such. But for the time being, the Catholic writer has to make his or her way independently. The work, and the life of faith, depend upon it.

Paul Elie is an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the editor of a collection of essays, A Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints. His book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, on Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, and Flannery O'Connor, will be published next year.

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