Those who forecast the death of Catholic culture may have been a little premature
Throughout the past two millennia the Catholic Faith has inspired the greatest works of art. We think of edifying edifices of stone, such as St. Peter’s Basilica or Chartres Cathedral; we think of Michelangelo’s Pietàor Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa; we think of the works of Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael; or those of Dante, Shakespeare, Newman and Hopkins; or of Gregorian chant and the polyphonic Masses of Palestrina, Tallis and Byrd. It’s hard to imagine life without these effusive outpourings of the grace and grandeur of God.
Even in the twentieth century, in the midst of the dark ages of communism and national socialism, and in a world of Gulag, gas chamber, the abortion mill and the atomic bomb, the Catholic Faith has inspired some of the greatest art of the modern age. In architecture, Antoni Gaudi’s controversially majestic Sagrada Familia in Barcelona palpitates with living iconographic symbolism; in art, the equally controversial Salvador Dali has produced some wonderful religious art, most famously and least controversially his Christ of St. John of the Cross; and in music, there’s Vaughan Williams, Poulenc and Messiaen. As for literature, there are almost too many great writers to mention: Chesterton, Belloc, Eliot, Waugh, Greene, Tolkien, Bernanos, Mauriac, and Flannery O’Connor, to name but an illustrious few.
Then, from the 1960s onwards, something went wrong. Church architecture succumbed to the ugliness of brutalism, reflecting the barbaric butchering of the liturgy that accompanied it, and music, the visual arts and literature entered the cultural doldrums. It was as though the West had wandered into a desert of despair characterized by the barren fruit of desiccated inspiration. During this period of deconstructed disintegration, one had to look to the East for the light of a new dawn. Alexander Solzhenitsyn rose phoenix-like from the dust and ashes of Soviet tyranny, a convert to Orthodoxy who exposed the grim and gruesome reality of secular fundamentalism in his novels and works of historical scholarship. Arvo Pärt, another convert to Russian Orthodoxy, pioneered a minimalist style of music inspired by his study of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. Like Solzhenitsyn, he lived as an exile in the West until the fall of the Soviet Union, after which he returned home to his native Estonia.
Now, after forty years in the desert, we are beginning to see a new Catholic revival in the arts. Michael Kurek and Frank La Rocca are blazing a trail in the composition of contemporary music rooted in a respect for tradition, and Igor Babailov is in the vanguard of the restoration of realism in the visual arts. But it is in the field of literature that the revival is most evident. Beginning in the 1990s with the novels of Tim Powers and Michael D. O’Brien, both of whom write in the genre of what might be called supernatural realism, the revival of Catholic literature is now gaining real momentum. In recent years, novels by a new generation of Catholic authors have been brightening the literary firmament. Glen Arbery’s Bearings and Distances dissects the denizens of the culture of death with the grotesque satirical eye of a latter-day Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy. Lucy Beckett’s A Postcard from the Volcano is an historical novel set in pre-War Germany. The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera combines the charm of Jane Austen with the visionary hopefulness of Chesterton. Exiles by Ron Hansen, better known for his earlier Catholic novel Mariette in Ecstasy, is an historical novel based on Hopkins’ poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”. Dena Hunt’s Treason, another historical novel, this time set in the anti-Catholic and tyrannical reign of Bloody Bess (Elizabeth I), is reminiscent of R. H. Benson’s Come Rack! Come Rope! and is its literary peer. Two Statues by Brian Kennelly is set in contemporary east coast America and revolves around reactions to an alleged miracle. Death of a Liturgist by Lorraine V. Murray is a delightful and light-hearted mystery story, set in a fictional Catholic parish in Georgia. The Letters of Magdalen Montague by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson is an epistolary novel in the Decadent mode, reminiscent of the works and the worlds of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Huysmans and Wilde. The Book of Jotham by Arthur Powers is a powerful encapsulation of the life of a mentally handicapped disciple of Christ, as moving as it is challenging in its depiction of the way the world views the proverbial “village idiot”. The Death of a Pope by Piers Paul Read is a contemporary thriller centered on modernist shenanigans at a papal conclave. And last but not least, Jerusalem, Jerusalem! by Chilton Williamson, Jr., surveys life in 1990s small-town Wyoming, evoking the presence of grace in the life of disparate folk. And this is but a sampling, and we haven’t even mentioned the new generation of excellent Catholic poets.
A few years ago, it would have been absurd to even contemplate the teaching of a course on contemporary Catholic literature. Today, such a course would highlight the vigorous Catholic revival in the arts which is now gracing our culture.
One thing is clear, those who forecast the death of Catholic culture were a little premature; or, at least, if it really could be said that contemporary Catholic culture was dead at the end of the twentieth century, it could be said equally truly that it has now risen from the dead.
This article was first published in Faith & Culture: The Journal of the Augustine Institute and is reprinted with permission.