Transformed by the Beauty and the Life of Christ: The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination

COMMENTARY: Contemplating what constitutes ‘a good and beautiful work.’

(L-R) Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and Dorothy Day.
(L-R) Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and Dorothy Day. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

More than 250 people will convene at the University of Dallas, on Sept. 30, to discuss the future of the Catholic literary imagination. This will be the fourth such biannual conference, since the poet and critic Dana Gioia first hosted authors, editors and readers for several days of events at the University of Southern California in 2015.

The initial inspiration for these conferences also came from the hands of Gioia, who published his essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” in First Things magazine in 2013. There, Gioia observes that only a few decades ago, Catholics held a central place in American letters. Writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day were household names, their books widely read and recipients of national awards. In recent years, this national presence has practically vanished. That is a great loss to our nation’s culture, argues Gioia. It is also a great loss for the Church.

The truth that the Catholic Church proclaims is infinitely more than a series of propositions. The Church proclaims the fullness of reality, from God the Father as Creator of all being, and the Son as Logos who orders and governs all things, and the Holy Spirit whose divine love extends from God to his creatures and, by grace, allows those same creatures to encounter him, to journey toward him, and be redeemed by him. Catholicism comprehends all things and sees the world whole, but, “sharper than any two-edged sword,” it pierces to the very heart of even the smallest things as well.

This fullness of vision shows itself first in the Church’s preaching and in her actions, her caritas, in the world, but it has also found both memorable and vital expression in great works of art, music and literature. Indeed, such works often extend their vision even where the Church’s preaching has yet to be received. The windows of Chartres and Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, are among the greatest testimonies of the Church’s truth, its goodness and its beauty. As Benedict XVI once stated, the “only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”

In our shrill and superficial age, works of beauty are strange and rare, but also have the unusual power of slipping past the gates of a closed mind and of changing it unawares. The continued flourishing of the Catholic arts is thus, in part, a concern for all Catholics who desire the Church to bear credible witness to the world. But the arts are not primarily “apologia.” They are ways of knowing, complementary to theology and philosophy. And they are ways of seeing and of forming our lives, complementary to acts of devotion and the liturgy itself.

The encounter with a work of literature is not an escape into the imagination. It is rather a means of the imagination to encounter the world, to explore the vicissitudes of human existence, and even to stretch out toward a glimpse of the life of God. Further, the arts, after the fashion of the saints themselves, are incarnate. They do not merely speak to the intellect, but saturate us in what Gioia once called the “sloppy fullness” of our humanity. Catholicism as our creed, as our means of salvation, but also as our way of life requires just this kind of saturation, so that the whole life of the Church, its every dimension, may be transformed by the beauty and the life of Christ.

The great American Catholic writers of the last century understood all this. They also spoke perceptively in the idiom of their time. The atrocities of World War II, the rise of suburban and consumer culture, the failures of science and unaided human reason to deliver happiness and peace to the individual person much less the world as a whole were causes of great anxiety in the minds of mid-20th-century Americans. O’Connor, Percy and other novelists satirized the small-minded faults of modern man but also showed that there was another way, a better way, that grace could open.

Our age seems as discontented as those decades past, but the problems are not quite the same nor is the idiom. It is certainly far more spiritually impoverished. And so, at the prompting of St. John Paul II, who delivered his “Letter to Artists” just before the turn of the century, Catholic writers and artists have begun to search out new means of expressing everlasting truths. Many of us recognize that modern literature was psychologically perceptive but shy of beauty and embarrassed by devotion. And so, we are trying to restore what is alive in the beauty of the past while making that beauty credible to minds born in an age of cynicism. Those gathering in Dallas this weekend thus hope to shape the solitary reader, American culture, and the life of the Church not by preaching the truth but by embodying it in the making of a good and beautiful work.


James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Professor of Humanities and director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is also a poet in residence at the The Benedict XVI Institute and poetry editor at Modern Age.