What Is the Catholic Imagination?
COMMENTARY: Professors and poets weigh the profound meaning.
When Catholic writers, artists, scholars, critics and philosophers refer to the Catholic imagination, what do they mean?
Dana Gioia is a poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. His essay “The Catholic Writer Today” appeared in First Things more than 10 years ago, but it built the foundation for the current discussion of Catholic imagination and even led to the development of a biennial conference on the topic.
According to Gioia, “What makes writing Catholic is the treatment of profane subjects, such as love, war, family, violence, sex, mortality, money and power ... permeated with a particular worldview.”
The particular worldview of which Gioia speaks is, of course, a Catholic one.
Jessica Hooten Wilson, Fletcher Jones Chair of Great Books at Pepperdine University’s Seaver College, expands on Gioia’s definition, telling the Register, “The Catholic imagination emphasizes that the things of this world have spiritual meaning, as well as physical. There is no unholy place, no image so broken it cannot be healed, no sin too gritty that it can’t be written about.”
However, even though Gioia and Wilson refer specifically to Catholic literature — namely fiction, drama, poetry, and creative non-fiction — their definitions are fulsome enough to encompass all Catholic imaginative endeavors.
Touchstones of the Catholic Imagination
Concepts that are key to the Catholic imagination include “Sacramentality,” by which even the simplest physical objects and actions are imbued with meaning and become sources of God’s grace; “Communion,” by which we are united both historically and mystically with our predecessors, the saints and the Holy Trinity; and “Mission,” by which hearts and minds are transformed, renewed and converted.
Michael Murphy, in an article for the University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal, writes, “The attributes and qualities that are closest to core Catholic mysteries (the Incarnation, for example) are the ones that are not only most transformative and vibrant, but are also the ones that, more often than not, make for good art.” Murphy is senior lecturer in theology and director of the Hank Center at Loyola University and convened the executive board of the Biennial Catholic Imagination Conference in 2019.
In addition to the Incarnation, Murphy finds other mysteries transformative, “… things like mercy, suffering, justice, and many more. In a somewhat comical way,” he said, telling the Register “even the focus on zombies these days taps into a mystery — the Resurrection in this case. Learning what the Resurrection is not helps us realize the uniqueness of our Lord’s resurrection and ascension. The arts always help us go deeper.”
But are there mysteries yet more profound and fundamental to a fully Catholic worldview? Wilson contends, “The Catholic imagination is strongest when it’s catholic,” that is, not just common to Roman Catholicism, but to the entire Judeo-Christian tradition.
These “catholic” mysteries are true touchstones that almost all people of faith instinctively understand. They not only “make for good art” but also make for good education, good business practices, good marriages and families, good parishes, good medicine, and even good public policy.
These three touchstones of the catholic — and Catholic — imagination are “Longing,” “Paradox” and “Realism.”
“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1).
Consider the German term Sehnsucht, which may be translated variously as “yearning,” “inconsolable longing” or the feeling of “intensely missing” something. It is a strong response to something evocative, charming, beautiful or especially moving.
C.S. Lewis, in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, gave his own name to this interior sensation. He called it “Joy,” a sensation that would come unexpectedly, “like beams of light breaking through clouds.” It’s the experience “of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction …”
Dorothy Day encapsulates this feeling perfectly: “Desire, to me, always meant an intense craving, a longing, a yearning which was a joy in itself to experience” (The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day).
But what is the object of this longing? What it is that we are intensely missing? Nothing less than heaven itself and union with Christ. To know and love as we are known and loved. As St. Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart can find no rest until it rests in you.”
The artist or entertainer who acknowledges this deep yearning and incorporates it into the products of his or her imagination awakens it in anyone who views, reads, hears or otherwise experiences those productions.
Professor Joshua Hren is co-founder of the master of fine arts program in creative writing at the University of St. Thomas, the only graduate-level writing program that explicitly incorporates the Catholic faith. He told the Register, “When we taste representations of joy in fiction, when characters’ yearnings for it provoke our own yearnings for the same, we may be awakened to a higher reality, we may see more clearly what needs to be in place if a person is to taste happiness …”
This effect is not limited to fiction. A math or science teacher can awaken this holy desire in students by pointing out examples of beautiful mathematical perfections or by calling attention to the stunning intricacies of nature. An architect or a gardener or a builder can inspire others by carefully designing and constructing our built environment so that everything from the smallest corner store to the loftiest tower or expansive bridge is proportioned to human needs, is visually appealing, and provides a glimpse of heaven. All desire, rightly ordered and pursued, ultimately leads to God. According the Hren, “Beautiful things cannot fulfill for long. Only God-who-is-Beauty, who is the cause of all inklings of joy, can do that.”
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
The sacred Scriptures, especially the Gospels, are replete with statements illustrating the beauty and truth of apparent opposites. “The first shall be last.” “Whoever would save his life will lose it.”
These statements were uttered by our Lord Jesus Christ, who is himself a paradox: He is one Person, who possesses both a human and a divine nature, who is both True God and True Man, who though he was without sin became sin for our sakes, who has the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again, who is eternally begotten of God the Father and yet took on flesh and was born into time.
Christ embodies something called “the complex of opposites.” According to Murphy, “The complex of opposites is key to any understanding of Catholicism.”
Catholics embrace mystery and paradox. We do not shy away from things we do not fully understand. We celebrate the fact that God is so ineffable that the human mind cannot fully comprehend him. We delight in, as Murphy says, “… the existential mystery of both naming and navigating opposites — a central component in any authentic consideration of Catholic anthropology and our lives in God.”
A celebrated paradox in literature comes from J.R.R Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, in which Gollum, thoroughly corrupted by the One Ring and hell-bent on possessing it, turned out to be essential to its destruction.
Naming and navigating opposites is expressed variously as “the double Yes,” “both/and,” and “already but not yet,” and the concept is useful not just in theology and the arts, but in other human concerns.
For example, “either/or” thinking pits the pregnant woman in crisis against her unborn child, as if the two were adversaries. The world would have us believe that it’s one or the other in a brutal zero-sum game in which for one to be “free,” the other must die. But the “double Yes” says, “We can love them both.” Both/and thinking says, “For whatever reason, you are in trouble. But let us help you.” Already but not yet finds a true solution in which a woman can be free and the baby can also live.
“For the poor you will always have with you in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:7).
The Catholic imagination in the realm of the arts acknowledges the world and nature — especially human nature — to be exactly as it is, not how we wish it were. Works of Catholic literature and drama are not always peopled by devout, Rosary-praying paragons of virtue. Drug addicts, womanizers, abusive parents, alcoholic priests and more all appear in great works of Catholic art. Catholic storytelling shows us sinners and imperfect people on a journey.
According to Hren, “When we can see the struggle of sanctity, or growth in natural virtue, dramatized bit by bit, an author gives us a greater share in reality, which is both gritty and beautiful, filled with failures and hard-won wisdom.”
Hren contends cautionary tales can be useful — and entertaining — just like any other kind. Hren observes, “When I watch plays or read stories about bad fathers, I am a better father — because I get a bitter taste of what I would look like if my heart and habits are not converted.”
Human nature is fallen. Sin is real. The struggle against sin and evil, in ourselves and in the world, is real. Even people who lack faith and don’t acknowledge the concept of sin understand this: Life is messy, and there are no easy answers.
But we are not without hope. We Christians believe many great and wonderful things and hold dear many sublime and luminous truths. Our long-term vision — inspired by a truly Catholic imagination — should reflect those lofty ideals.
The Catholic imagination calls to mind perfections to which we aspire, goods to aim for, with a realistic but not fatalistic attitude that nothing this side of heaven will attain perfection, but to nevertheless aim for it. This is true in the arts and in the real world of politics, relationships and institutions.
Elements of the Catholic faith that enrich works of art actually enrich all human works.
Imagine a world in which no woman would ever desire an abortion nor feel compelled to seek one. That is the overarching vision of the entire pro-life project.
Imagine a world in which every child is born to, cared for and raised by his or her biological mother and father and grows up surrounded by siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. That is the overarching vision of Christian marriage and family life.
Imagine a world in which every man, woman and child enjoys all the rights proper to human beings, without infringement upon them by governments or individuals and is free to pursue both the most basic needs and the most noble aspirations, to provide for his or her family in whatever honest endeavor best suits his or her gifts, and to seek God’s will to the best of his or her ability. That is the overarching vision of a truly humane and truly catholic social compact.
These are grand visions, but no grander than that declared by Our Lord: “… to bring glad tidings to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
We must cultivate a grand vision. This is why we need the arts. This is why we need the Gospel and the sacraments of the Church. This is why we need the lessons of history. This is why we need prayer — so that we and every person we come into contact with can have new life in Christ, “and have it in abundance.”
Imagine a world in which Christians are the kindest, politest patrons any store or restaurant has ever had the pleasure to serve. Imagine a world in which Christians are the most attentive and understanding cashiers, waitresses, tradesmen, doctors, nurses any customer or patient has ever encountered. Imagine a world in which Christians are the most honorable, sportsmanlike and fair-minded athletes ever to step onto the field, track or court. Imagine a world in which Christians are the most ethical and honest business people ever to enter a boardroom or sign an employee’s paycheck.
Imagine a world in which we all made the supreme effort to treat one another with true charity, despite our tendency to sin and selfishness. Imagine a world in which we all did even little things with great love.
We can’t bring about “heaven on earth,” but with a truly Catholic imagination, we can at least point the way to the City of God.
“The Catholic Imagination in 2022” by Jessica Hooten Wilson
“The Catholic Writer Today” by Dana Gioia
“What Is the Catholic Imagination?” by Michael P. Murphy