Few Catholics today will deny that the literary output of contemporary Catholics, excellent as some of it is, does not (as a total body of work) approach the level of accomplishment achieved between the beginning and the middle of the last century. But I suspect only a few will readily notice the absence of one form of writing which reflected and contributed to that era’s elevated Catholic cultural life. It was a form of writing whose value was not so much to be found in its substantial content—largely solid yet largely unoriginal observations on religious, philosophical and political matters—but in the fact that it was composed by authors whose professional focus was largely artistic, a fact which allowed it to serve as a link between the milieu of such writers and that of theologians, philosophers and public intellectuals.
Today most of those faithful Catholics who compose works in artistic genres tend to use them as a forum for addressing religious, philosophical, moral and political topics, or else, in some cases, turn to them as an occasional sideline. Michael O’Brien’s literary corpus is perhaps the best contemporary representative of the former tendency while W. H. Crocker III’s excellent satirical novel The Old Limey places him firmly within the latter. Both tendencies are part of a venerable tradition that includes not just Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton (plus C. S. Lewis among Christians more broadly) but even saints Thomas More and John Henry Newman.
Neither, however, is in the tradition of such figures as as John Dryden, T. S. Eliot, Francois Mauriac, Evelyn Waugh and Georges Bernanos—whose major writings were predominantly art for the sake of art yet still commented on the religious, philosophical, moral and political issues of the day often enough to be prominent voices within Catholic (or, in Eliot’s case, Christian) circles. Even Piers Paul Read, devoted to the faith as he is, does not really stand in that tradition as he never joined the necessary degree of participation in Catholic intellectual life to his achievements in the mainstream literary world.
One notable exception today to this trend is the German novelist Martin Mosebach. Author of over a dozen volumes of fiction, a playwright, scriptwriter and poet, winner first of the Kleist Prize and then of the even more prestigious George Buchner Prize, Mosebach first caught then attention of Anglophone Catholics with his defense of the Tridentine Mass, titled The Heresy of Formlessness. Since then he has frequently contributed to Catholic periodicals and websites and published two more books on religious topics in the English language. One told the story of Coptic Christians suffering persecution from Muslims in the Middle East, drawing high praise not only from the mainstream press but even from elements within the Catholic Church generally hostile to champions of the ancient Latin liturgy. The other, and the most recently released, is a series of essays published under the title Subversive Catholicism: Papacy, Liturgy, Church.
Unlike Mosebach’s first two books dealing with religion, Subversive Catholicism is not so much a unified work centered on a particular theme but a compilation of essays on a variety of topics pertinent to the life of Catholics in the contemporary western world. There are pious reflections on Lourdes and on a large annual pilgrimage, of medieval origin, to France’s Chartres Cathedral. One essay looks at the limits of papal authority while another explains how loyalty to the primacy of the Church and of the papacy over the state undermines the “absolutist” ambitions which can exist in democracies as well as monarchies. Consideration of the way in which ecclesial patronage historically benefited the artistic world, not just financially but as an encouragement to aesthetic excellence, is to be found in the book’s pages.
Not surprisingly, Mosebach also returns, in some of the essays, to the Tridentine Mass, the liturgical reform of Pope Paul VI and the nature of prayer. Both in his positive liturgical vision and his critique of the reform, Mosebach’s positions have much in common with those of Benedict XVI. One of his more unusual contributions is to call attention to similarities between the Tridentine Mass and the worship of non-Catholics. Where most critics of the reform point to its removal of some texts incompatible with Protestant belief, Mosebach stresses its elimination of important features of the Tridentine Mass (such as the cycle of readings) which have always been preserved in the liturgies of some of the “higher” forms of Protestantism. Another point he emphasizes is the way in which not only that the general ethos of the acts of external reverence that pervade the Tridentine Mass are universal to human cultures but that the use of many similar and at times even identical gestures are widespread outside of the western and Christian worlds.
A similar, and similarly unusual, approach can be seen in Mosebach’s argument for legal restrictions on blasphemy in art—in which he points out that The Last Temptation of Christ was banned in England only because of widespread opposition to it among the country’s Muslims (who consider Christ a prophet). By no means does he overlook or, worse yet, deny, the serious problems inherent in Islam and in Islamic societies. But his willingness to look at what is positive as well as what is negative in the attitudes of Muslims, and at ways in which they are sometimes superior to those of secularists, demonstrates the type of objectivity needed when confronted, as western societies now are, with the rapid expansion of both belief systems.
As such examples indicate, Mosebach is not just a literary artist who has become a voice in Catholic intellectual life. He is also among the most articulate spokesman for a reasonable traditionalism, one that promotes legitimate “traditionalist” positions on prudential matters without the stridency and extremism found among some to whom that term is applied, one that lays considerable stress on matters on which all faithful Catholics can agree and share common concerns and one quick to find areas in which Catholics and those outside the Church can find common ground in opposition to the errors and evils of our age.
Subversive Catholicism: Papacy, Liturgy, Church
By Martin Mosebach
Angelico Press, 2019
Paperback, 164 pages
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