Catholic Writing & Catholic Reading

As I’ve been preparing for a new semester of teaching at Fordham (a course on Catholic novels), I’ve been rereading Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant essay collection, Mystery and Manners. One of the essays included in that volume (edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald) was originally published in America in 1957 as "The Church And The Fiction Writer."
O’Connor is of course a wonderful writer, uncompromising in her acid judgments of what she perceives to be false piety or sentimentalism and also a staunch defender of the Catholic aesthetic in literature. At times, these twin convictions can make her seem an elitist, a writer without much appreciation for her reader, but much of what she said in 1957 is also true in 2008. Witness her following comment from "The Church And The Fiction Writer":
If the average Catholic reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be something of a Manichean. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment, usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence; and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite.

What I admire most about O’Connor’s essays is her unwillingness to become defensive, to be solely an apologist for the One True Faith in the face of modernist, secularist, and atheistic trends in the culture for which she writes. Rather, she expects from her readers an ability to push beyond reactionary judgments and emotional response, to seek always the truth of reality, and then to be pleasantly surprised at the way that real world corresponds to a proper Christian understanding of the world and the human condition.

Jim Keane, SJ
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