In his paper “Nature, Culture and the Theology of Reconciliation” delivered for the Creatio Conference in Rio 2013, Alfredo Garcia, a Peruvian Philosopher, stated that “we can affirm that the central problem of mankind in our times rests in the “rupture with reality”. All of reality is broken, and mankind struggles to relate to it in a correct and harmonious way. Therefore a society of reconciliation, and the evangelization of culture which is how we get there, require a correct relationship with reality, in the first place. Many times it seems that Catholics understand the evangelization of culture in very narrow and confining terms – as a political option by casting a vote, an economic decision to support Chick-file, etc.
Dana Gioia, famous for “Why Poetry Matters” back in the day, has written a recent piece in First Things about the sorry state of Catholic art in America, and where it should go. He is one of the few wirtters who seem to “get” evangelization of culture. Below his quick diagnosis of the situation:
although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting. This situation not only represents a demographic paradox. It also marks a major historical change—an impoverishment, indeed even a disfigurement—for Catholicism, which has for two millennia played a hugely formative and inspirational role in the arts.
Then he describes what Catholic literature is and should be. This vision reminds me of Barbara Nicolosi, reminding Catholics of the beauty and art involved in Hollywood, and if they want to make an impact, they need to be less preachy and more artistically competent. To see an example of Nicolosi’s proposal see her interview in Avvenire here. Below Gioia’s proposal:
What makes the writing Catholic is that the treatment of these subjects is permeated with a particular worldview. There is no singular and uniform Catholic worldview, but nevertheless it is possible to describe some general characteristics that encompass both the faithful and the renegade among the literati. Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God. Catholics perceive suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ’s passion and death. Catholics also generally take the long view of things—looking back to the time of Christ and the Caesars while also gazing forward toward eternity. (The Latinity of the pre-Vatican II Church sustained a meaningful continuity with the ancient Roman world, reaching even into working-class Los Angeles of the 1960s, where I was raised and educated.) Catholicism is also intrinsically communal, a notion that goes far beyond sitting at Mass with the local congregation, extending to a mystical sense of continuity between the living and the dead. Finally, there is a habit of spiritual self-scrutiny and moral examination of conscience—one source of soi-disant Catholic guilt.
The Catholic worldview does not require a sacred subject to express its sense of divine immanence. The greatest misunderstanding of Catholic literature is to classify it solely by its subject matter. Such literalism is not only reductive; it also ignores precisely those spiritual elements that give the best writing its special value. The religious insights usually emerge naturally out of depictions of worldly existence rather than appear to have been imposed intellectually upon the work.
Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints. (It is not only that sinners generally make more interesting protagonists. Their failings also more vividly demonstrate humanity’s fallen state.) John Kennedy Toole’s ? A Confederacy of Dunces , for example, presents a huge cast of characters, lost souls or reprobates all, who, pursuing their assorted vices and delusions, hilariously stumble toward grace and provisional redemption. The same dark comic vision pervades the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, and Muriel Spark. Ron Hansen’s Atticus begins with the investigation of a murder. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is full of resentment, violence, and anger. “Good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine,” she observed, and violence is “strangely capable” of returning her characters “to reality and preparing them to accept their moments of grace.” When Mary Karr titled her poetry collection Sinners Welcome , she could have been describing the Catholic literary tradition.
Here is Gioia’s key insight, very much in line with Pope Francis’ departure from the culture war, and about an invitation into love:
“The Catholic voice is heard less clearly and less often in the public conversations that inform American culture. Consequently, Catholics have lost the power to bring their own best writers to the attention of a broader audience. Today, if any living Catholic novelist or poet has a major reputation, that reputation has not been made by Catholic critics but by the secular literary world, often in spite of their religious identity. In literature, at least, the Catholic media no longer command sufficient cultural power to nominate or effectively support what is best from its own community. Has this situation disturbed Catholic leaders? Not especially. The Catholic subculture seems conspicuously uninterested in the arts.
What absorbs the Catholic intellectual media is politics, conducted mostly in secular terms—a dreary battle of right versus left for the soul of the American Church. If the soul of Roman Catholicism is to be found in partisan politics, then it’s probably time to shutter up the chapel. If the universal Church isn’t capacious enough to contain a breadth of political opinion, then the faith has shriveled into something unrecognizably paltry. If Catholic Christianity does not offer a vision of existence that transcends the election cycle, if our redemption is social and our resurrection economic, then it’s time to render everything up to Caesar.
Wallace Stevens remarked that “God and the imagination are one.” It is folly to turn over either to a political party, even your own. If American Catholicism has become mundane enough to be consumed by party politics, perhaps it’s because the Church has lost its imagination and creativity.
The schism between Christianity and the arts has had two profound consequences, two vast impoverishments—one for the arts world, the other for the Church. First, for the arts world, the loss of a transcendent religious vision, a refined and rigorous sense of the sacred, the breaking and discarding of two thousand years of Christian mythos, symbolism, and tradition has left contemporary American art spiritually diminished. The shallow novelty, the low-cost nihilism, and the vague and sentimental spiritual pretensions of so much contemporary art—in every medium—are the legacy of this schism, as well as the cynicism that pervades the arts world.
This last point needs to be clarified to avoid any misunderstanding. Art does not need to be religious. There are great masterpieces that have no hint of religious transcendence. What I am suggesting is something more subtle and complex. Culture is a conversation. A vigorous culture contains different voices, often in active debate. The voice of religious faith enlarges and enlivens the overall dialectic of culture, even among non-believers, just as the voice of secular society keeps religious writers more alert and intelligent. Once you remove the religious as one of the possible modes of art, once you separate culture from the long-established traditions and disciplines of spirituality, you don’t remove the spiritual hungers of either artists or audience. You satisfy them more crudely with the vague, the pretentious, and the sentimental. The collapse of the culture that supported O’Connor and Porter, Powers and Merton, led to the culture that consumes teen paranormal romances, ghost reality shows, and internet Wiccans….”