One way to describe the present situation of the Church in the United
States is to say American Catholicism is in a state of cultural crisis.
And if that is true, then restoring a healthy Catholic subculture is
necessary not just for the Church's flourishing but for its very
Literature and art have to be part of it. There's a
powerful link, a genuine two-way street, between culture and art.
Writers and artists are products of their culture, which they also do
much to create and shape and sustain. A religious body lacking writers
and artists is impoverished at its roots and at risk of stagnation and
I was reminded of these things while reading an
essay-review of a new collection of letters by the late novelist and
short story writer J.F. Powers. The piece was by the distinguished
essayist and critic Joseph Epstein and appeared a while back in the Wall Street Journal.
calls Powers a "superb artist" who wrote "some of the most striking
fiction of his day''fiction which, he adds, "holds up well in ours." He
has no doubt that something besides Powers' own talent accounts for his
achievement. What that something was, he explains like this:
in those years [the mid-20th century, that is] provided a distinct
culture within America. For Catholics the church, capital and small
letter C, was both the center and periphery of life. It had an authority
and a hold on American Catholics that has long been leaching away.
Powers died in 1999 at the age of 81, he was essentially a chronicler
of American Catholicism in the years before the Second Vatican
Council--the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. His writing output dropped
off markedly after the middle decade of the latter decade.
True, his second novel, and last book, Wheat That Springeth Green,
appeared in 1988. But few readers find it up to the level of his
earlier work. Some parts are admirable, but the narrative as a whole is
diffuse and rather wandering, as if by then Powers didn't know quite
what to make of the Church. The old Catholic subculture he'd known so
well had vanished, and what replaced it resembled bits and pieces from a
But that old subculture was something else.
Epstein, a Chicagoan, recalls his hometown as a place where Catholicism
was "a natural part of the cityscape." Priests in Roman collars and nuns
in habits rode the buses and frequented the libraries. Catholic kids
went to Catholic schools where they learned Latin and theology and
labored under "unremitting discipline."
Numerous writers besides
Powers found this to be culturally rich soil. And not just in Chicago.
Edwin O'Connor mined the soil of Irish-American Catholicism in Boston.
Walker Percy, a convert, found inspiration in Louisiana's Catholic
culture. Another O'Connor, Flannery, played variations on the theme by
contemplating Bible Belt fundamentalists in light of the great tradition
of her Catholic faith. The list could easily be extended.
now? There are still talented American Catholics who write, but there is
no recognizable body of writers drawing upon a Catholic culture to
produce work comparable in cultural density to that of Powers and the
I repeat: literature and art are products of culture, and
culture is a product of literature and art. Separate the two things, and
the art is in trouble--as is the culture itself. And that in a nutshell
is the cultural crisis in American Catholicism as we are experiencing