Click here if you don’t see subscription options
George N. NiederauerDecember 24, 2007
Flannery O’Connor died during the Second Vatican Council, while the bishops were writing anew what she had always known: that the church is the body of Christ, the people of God; that laypeople are its flesh and blood; and that the clergy and religious orders are its servant-leaders. While O’Connor was a supreme artist in fiction, she was also a particularly valuable witness to the Catholic Church and its leaders in this country, especially as she appears in her collected letters, The Habit of Being, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (1979). Hers is the testimony of a watchful, honest, faith-filled and eloquent layperson; and she had much to say about the experience of living the faith within the Catholic Church, especially in a society and a culture that had marginalized genuine Christian faith and practice.

Our present age has been described as one in which people place a high value on spirituality and a low value on religion, especially organized religion. Of particular interest, then, is O’Connor’s thinking about the experience of church, of the assembly of believers. She valued the church highly and observed it acutely, warts and all. If the church made life endurable, it also provided much that had to be endured. “You have to suffer as much from the church as for it,” she once wrote. “The only thing that makes the church endurable is that somehow it is the body of Christ, and on this we are fed.” She went on to explain why we suffer from the church: “The operation of the church is entirely set up for the sake of the sinner, which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.” God is as patient with the entire church as he is with each lost sheep, and many of us Catholics have very little patience with either.

The church is made up of imperfect pilgrims on a long, difficult journey, and O’Connor described them well: “The Catholic Church is composed of those who accept what she teaches, whether they are good or bad, and there is constant struggle through the help of the sacraments to be good.” In “Choruses from the ‘Rock,’” T. S. Eliot says that modern people do not like the church because “she is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.” (Think of issues like abortion, euthanasia, welfare reform, capital punishment and more.) O’Connor might have appreciated Eliot’s remark.

The Human Element

Within the visible church, the Holy Spirit is constantly acting in the lives of its members, individually and collectively. Thus, the church cannot be accurately judged or evaluated by what her critics observe externally. O’Connor pointed this out to one of her friends:

You judge [the church] strictly by its human element, by unimaginative and half-dead Catholics who would be startled to know the nature of what they defend by formula. The miracle is that the Church’s dogma is kept pure both by and from such people. Nature is not prodigal of genius and the church makes do with what nature gives her. At the age of 11, you encounter some old priest who calls you a heretic for inquiring about evolution; at about the same time Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., is in China discovering Peking man.

The “human element” in the church was a frequent target of O’Connor’s wit, as when she proposed this motto for the Catholic press of her day: “We guarantee to corrupt nothing but your taste.” More seriously, she quoted St. Augustine’s advice to the “wheat” in the church not to leave the threshing floor of life before the harvest is complete, just because there is so much of that disgusting chaff around! In this connection, she slyly suggested what the difficulty may be for more sensitive Catholics (referring to one young woman in particular): “She probably sees more stupidity and vulgarity than she does sin and these are harder to put up with than sin, harder on the nerves.”

Meanwhile, the world goes on judging the church in utilitarian fashion, using the same standard it would apply to the Rotary or the Kiwanis. O’Connor challenged this ap-proach, writing that “any Catholic or Protestant is defenseless before those who judge his religion by how well its members live up to it or are able to explain it.” The surface is easy to judge, she was saying, but not the interior operations of the Holy Spirit. She illustrated this principle with a touching reference to the vocation of Catholic priests, whom she often found to be overworked and unimaginative:

It is easy for any child to find out the faults in the sermon on his way home from church every Sunday. It is impossible to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it.

While O’Connor defended her church against superficial and unfair judgments, she was neither a whitewasher nor a fatalist, and she was an implacable foe of complacency. She believed that the church must struggle toward greater virtue as surely as each of its members. She wrote quite forcefully in this regard: “It’s our business to change the external faults of the church—the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty—wherever we find them and however we can.”

Flaws in the Church

Here are three examples of faults in the church that O’Connor criticized and wished to see corrected. I think they are in order of increasing severity.

First, she condemned smugness as the great Catholic sin. Now, 45 years later, perhaps something else would head her list; but smugness would probably still be listed. Referring to the German priest and author Romano Guardini, she wrote about smugness: “I find it in myself and I don’t dislike it any less. One reason Guardini is a relief to read is that he has nothing of it. With a few exceptions the American clergy, when it takes to the pen, brings this particular sin with it in full force.” About 20 years ago a bumper sticker appeared that read: “If you feel God is far away, guess who moved?” If O’Connor had lived to see one of those signs on a Georgia road, I like to think that she would have skewered the sentiment as very smug, even as she chuckled at the rampant vulgarity of bumper-sticker theology.

Related to smugness is glibness, which she described as “the great danger in answering people’s questions about religion.” Again, a sense of mystery will give the Christian apologist a sense of humility: if I am convinced that I have the truth about God, I am much more likely to be obnoxious about it than if I am convinced that God’s truth has me.

O’Connor expressed impatience with the kind of Catholicism—and Catholic fiction—that kept everything nice, shallow, cute and safe. She described what she called “A nice vapid-Catholic distrust of finding God in action of any range and depth. This is not the kind of Catholicism that has saved me so many years in learning to write, but then this is not Catholicism at all.” Genuine Catholicism, she felt, must be as radical and demanding as its founder’s teaching.

Still another Catholic fault O’Connor described is, I believe, an evergreen reality in the church: a Jansenistic disdain for human weakness and struggle and distrust of questions, speculations and discussions of any depth. Of the pseudo-faith of such persons she said:

I know what you mean about being repulsed by the church when you have only the Mechanical-Jansenist Catholic to judge it by. I think that the reason such Catholics are so repulsive is that they don’t really have faith but a kind of false certainty. They operate by the slide rule and the Church for them is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system. It’s never hard for them to believe because actually they never think about it. Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can.

In considering such people’s self-righteous judgments of others, she made an acute observation: “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.” By contrast, Christians who have struggled with their demons are better equipped to show compassion toward others.

Religion Into Therapy

O’Connor had a deep distaste and contempt for modern, sanitized, “empty” religion. Because she embraced an imaginative vision of religion as the mystery of God’s saving action intersecting with all that is earthly, O’Connor remarked to one correspondent: “All around you today you will find people accepting ‘religion’ that has been rid of its religious elements.” Elsewhere she described this development in more detail:

One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention.

The issue of religion bled dry of its content is featured in what is probably the most famous story told about O’Connor. As a very young and unknown writer, she was visiting New York and was taken to a party at the home of Mary McCarthy, ex-Catholic and ex-believer, a sophisticated and accomplished novelist, essayist and critic. What follows is O’Connor’s description of the encounter:

We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing in such company for me to say.... Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward the morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most “portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of.

In The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003), Paul Elie writes of this exchange, “The closing remark is the most famous of all O’Connor’s remarks, an economical swipe at the reductive, liberalizing view of religion.”

O’Connor even locates one important moment in the development of this religious trend in this country. With some amusement she recalls a talk she gave at a college: “I told them that when Emerson decided in 1832 that he could no longer celebrate the Lord’s Supper unless the bread and wine were removed, that an important step in the vaporization of religion in America had taken place.”

‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’

For some readers one of the most surprising, even jarring, features of O’Connor’s fiction is its consistently comic character, even as the stories and novels pursue such serious themes of faith and grace. Elie describes an experience the author had when visiting the Cloisters, a museum of medieval art in Fort Tryon Park in New York City: “She was ‘greatly taken’ with a wooden statue on display in one of the chapels. ‘It was the Virgin holding the Christ child and both were laughing; not smiling, laughing.’” He concludes: “It was a piece to emulate as well as admire; like her own work, it was religious and comic at the same time.”

The betrayal of religion is downright diabolical in O’Connor’s view, and so it is portrayed in her fiction. For her, the crucial choice facing each of us is between the “lost” life with Christ and the worldly “saved” life without him. Thus, the most fiendish of temptations is to offer a saved, worldly life, but to offer it under the guise of being generically “Christian,” though with no Christ content whatsoever.

In this connection Elie describes a type of character that appears over and over again in O’Connor’s stories: “the middle-aged busybody who knows exactly what she thinks, who sees all and understands nothing.” One example is the character of Mrs. May in the story “Greenleaf.” At one point Mrs. May comes upon Mrs. Greenleaf in the woods, murmuring over and over again, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” O’Connor wrote: “Mrs. May winced. She thought the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building, like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

O’Connor had much to say about living together as church in the midst of modern culture, but finally we should turn to one simple statement she made about herself: “I write because I write well.” Nearly 45 years after her death, believers and unbelievers alike agree with her more than ever. She wrote well. But there is so much more than that to be said of her. One point will suffice here: How wonderfully different Flannery O’Connor was from Mrs. May. She thought that the name of Jesus, the reality of Jesus, belonged everywhere, indeed was everywhere. Regarding the Christian faith, Flannery O’Connor was the polar opposite of Mrs. May, because she, of course, believed all of it was true.

The betrayal of religion is downright diabolical in O’Connor’s view. The crucial choice is between the ‘lost’ life with Christ and the worldly ‘saved’ life without him.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
lLetha Chamberlain
16 years 7 months ago
To be a writer, even for the Lord, one must almost be an "excessive" communicator, and as such one is almost always "terminally misunderstood" because we are all unique indiviuals who use a word differently and put a different "spin" on a word; and when these words are all put together, chaos tends to reign. With the help of the Holy Spirit somehow it "all works together for those that love the Lord" (I keep reminding myself). We struggle mightily, and work very hard to make ourselves understood--but then there comes the time when we can do no more and simply have to let the Lord take over. When is that, Lord? (You, Yourself indescribable in entirety) We thank Ms. O'Connor for her consistent witness and brave struggle.
Bill Collier
16 years 7 months ago
Thanks for this excellent article about a great writer. The entirety of Archbishop Niederauer's Lane Center Lecture about Flannery O'Connor is available online at http://www.usfca.edu/lanecenter/pdf/NiederauerOConnorLecture.pdf The entire lecture is also an excellent read.
15 years 4 months ago
Thanks for this review. Flannery O'Connor once wrote that children in the North did not know their crazy aunts because their families hid them. She also wrote that Southern children did know their crazy aunts because their families did not hide them. I laughed when I read this. I had a crazy aunt who was not hidden. I got to know her and to like her very much. My aunt would have made a great character for one of Miss Flannery's stories.
12 years ago
I found the Neiderauer lecture link broken - try this one: 

The latest from america

A Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinJuly 24, 2024
The world's tallest cross dominates the scene above a Spanish Civil War cemetery and memorial in the Valley of the Fallen (renamed the Valley of Cuelgamuros) near Madrid, pictured in October 2019. (CNS photo/Emilio Naranjo, pool via Reuters)
Spanish media reports that the ministry of culture is drafting a law that will expel monks. But that task will not be easy. The 21 monks do not wish to leave their monastery,
Bridget RyderJuly 24, 2024
Those who knew Father Norman Fischer said the priest’s easy ability to model the love of Christ and build bridges—sometimes through a beaming selfie or a fist bump—was legendary.
The realization that a younger person is more fit, more alert, more capable, more relevant, more suited to the job one has long done is not fun. We baby boomers can relate.
Valerie SchultzJuly 24, 2024