Cultivating Catholic Creative Writing
First of its kind Catholic MFA program begins at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
In the world of academia, the pinnacle of credentialed achievement in the sciences, engineering, philosophy and the humanities is the Ph.D. — the Doctor of Philosophy. Holders of a Ph.D. are experts in their fields and go on to teach college courses, conduct cutting-edge research, and publish papers in scientific and scholarly journals.
By contrast, the MFA — Master of Fine Arts — is the highest degree for fine artists of every discipline: the visual arts (painting, sculpture, graphic design, photography), the performing arts (film, theater, dance, music) and creative writing (poetry and literary fiction).
There are more than 200 MFA programs in creative writing at colleges and universities throughout the United States, some at secular institutions and some at institutions with a religious affiliation; but here’s something most aspiring authors don’t know: Even the MFA programs at Catholic universities do not explicitly approach the craft of fine writing from an intentionally Catholic perspective.
This year, the University of St. Thomas in Houston launched the first MFA program in creative writing that explicitly draws upon and trains its students in the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition. It is an ambitious program that “seeks to transform the life and spirit of contemporary literature.”
Program co-founder James Matthew Wilson (MFA, Notre Dame 2005; Ph.D., Notre Dame 2006) explained to the Register:
“I think there is much good [literary] work being published today. But I do think, on average, it is spiritually truncated and more often than not beholden to certain political or social causes as a kind of embarrassed and apologetic excuse for its own existence.”
Joshua Hren (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee 2013), who co-founded the program with Wilson, agrees. “It can be particularly challenging right now to study in an academia that is increasingly committed to either denying that there is such a thing as a stable human nature or that is premised upon blueprints of brave new human natures that are inimical to a Catholic vision.”
Transformative as Normative
People respond positively to art with the capacity to transform. Wilson said, “The reason people read literature is because of that capacity. The reason they so often go away disappointed is that, all too frequently, artists are afraid to provide it to them.”
“It is out of a desire to collectively come up with strategies and techniques and dispositions which would best dramatize the action of grace in our time that we have founded the MFA,” explained Hren. “It is also out of a desire to alleviate that alienation expressed by many writers of faith. Students have already expressed what an immense blessing it is to find a community in which they can assume certain fundamentals.”
Indeed, some of this year’s new students had previously investigated MFA programs at other universities but decided not to enter because they discovered just how incompatible the world of contemporary arts and letters is with Catholic thought, faith, morals or practice.
Janille Stevens, an online businesswoman, said that her “biggest reservation came from the sense that many MFA programs were looking to produce writers who would fight in the culture wars or fan the flames of polarization. One of the ways literature enriches and transforms us is by giving us a broader perspective, and I don’t think MFA programs that are politically fixated can produce that.”
Mary Grace Mangano, an English teacher at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia, agrees: “I am interested in adding my voice to a long intellectual tradition, a conversation that has been happening for centuries. What I saw, mainly, when searching for MFA programs, were voices commenting on issues of the moment.”
Joshua Hren had the same experience when he pursued his advanced degrees in literature. “In my own studies at a deeply secular university I met only one fellow Christian in the creative writing track. He turned to me on the first day of class and said, ‘Welcome to the Inferno.’ It ended up being more purgatorial than that.”
Christian Realism Revived
The MFA program at St. Thomas seeks to transform contemporary arts and letters by training creative writers to produce works of literary excellence grounded deeply in Catholic art, literature, philosophy and history.
The fall 2021 semester at St. Thomas is in full swing, and the new MFA program boasts an inaugural class of 40 students, both full and part time. Since it is conducted almost entirely online, the program is accessible to people all over the world.
Janille Stevens, who lives in Dublin, agrees that modern literature really does need to be transformed: “Contemporary fiction often fails to contend seriously with the fact that many people — among both the religious and the undecided — experience something of God. Many contemporary authors are eager to assure us that their characters have given up on God, that they’ve moved beyond all that blood and cross stuff. It is literary fiction’s great trope: Once we know a character has sufficiently rejected any conception of God, we are allowed to consider her ‘reliable.’ But, of course, this goes against the Realist project. A world where God is inactive, invisible and unknowable is not the real world. To pretend that all people are serenely indifferent to God is to falsify the human experience and to dilute the literary pursuit of truth.”
Like all MFA programs, the course of study at St. Thomas produces what professor Wilson calls “a mastery of making rather than a mastery of a body of knowledge.” Students will learn to write excellent poetry, fiction, essays and works of thoughtful literary criticism.
But the curriculum also equips students with the intellectual foundation they need to do this well. The “integrated curriculum,” said Wilson, “includes study in the philosophy of art and beauty, the Great Books of the West, the great Catholic works of the last century, in English and other languages, [and] will help aspiring writers see with clarity how to create works that challenge the soul, enter deep into the mystery of good and evil and, deeper still, the mystery of creation. And we believe that a background knowledge of the Catholic intellectual and literary tradition will help them not to be a special sect or small segment of writers, but simply to become better writers. Art involves the soul, being, beauty and an entrance into the mystery of the divine.”
Hren added, “… Many ‘lay’ readers approach fiction and poetry with confusion and frustration. We are training our graduates to be ambassadors for literature rather than specialists in silos.”
Bridget Kateri Lawler, a private-school teacher near Washington, D.C., is also starting the program this year. She appreciated the founders’ commitment to building upon the great works of the past. “It’s necessary to always be making something new in art,” said Lawler, “but our art becomes impoverished if we don’t build our new structures on the foundations of what has come before us, and I think this is happening today. The beauty of what this program offers is that it educates students in the tradition and encourages us to produce beautiful work from within it. Because it’s an immersive experience of reading, discussing and creating great works, I think it can help artists attain the happy harmony of tradition and creativity.”
Those who earn an MFA degree in creative writing may go on to professional and academic careers as college and high-school instructors in literature and composition, as editors of books, journals, magazines and websites, or as publishing executives. Most MFAs are also published authors of poetry, fiction, essays and literary criticism.
Since the MFA is the terminal degree in the field of fine arts, recipients also have the necessary credentials to become college or university professors, mentoring working artists who want to specialize in performance and creation of art rather than the academic study of art.
“We want to serve the Church,” said Wilson. “Catholicism is God’s great gift to the world, his way of instructing us in what it means to be human and how to live, to flourish, and also to seek forgiveness, to repent, to die to ourselves, and to die — period. It is no secret that so much of the world turns away from that gift. We hope that our students’ work will enrich the Church by the making of beautiful art that gives worthy expression to the beauty of faith in Christ and that they will enrich the world by bringing into it works of beauty that awaken and transform those searching for the reason for their existence.”
If you’d like to be part of this beautiful vision of artistic and spiritual renewal, applications are now being accepted for the spring semester, which begins in January 2022. The program is designed to be completed by full-time students in two years. Part-time enrollees will take a little longer. Each academic year consists of a fall session and a spring session, conducted entirely online, with two optional “residencies.” The residency is a 10-day intensive seminar that takes place on campus each June.
Due to the personalized attention each student receives and the fact that there are only so many faculty members to go around, class size is limited, so interested readers should begin the application process now. Required credentials: a bachelor’s or master’s degree in any field of study.