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Angela Alaimo O'DonnellJanuary 07, 2014

A little over a year ago, the writer and editor Paul Elie dropped a literary bomb.

In an article in The New York Times, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” Elie claimed that the era of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, when Catholic novels exploring deep questions of faith flourished as mainstream literature, is dead. Fiction writers no longer create worlds in which, to paraphrase O’Connor, “belief is believable.” In current American fiction, Elie concludes, readers see “belief as upbringing, belief as social fact, belief as a species of American weirdness: our literary fiction has all of these things. All that is missing is the believer.”

Like most bombs, this one was answered with others. Writers, editors and readers have engaged in a mini-war over the state of contemporary Catholic writing for the past 12 months. Many disagree with Elie and list Catholic writers who provide exactly what he claims is lacking—only their books are not published by big presses like Farrar, Straus & Giroux (O’Connor’s publisher and the press where Elie worked for 20 years). Writing in an era in which faith traditions are many, each as viable as the next, and secularism is the religion of choice, most fiction writers who depict struggles of faith in Catholic terms have been swept to the margins.

These arguments make sense to me. Some years ago, I was in a reading group with some friends, all from various religious backgrounds. When I suggested we read Ron Hansen’s new novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, a book about a young nun at the turn of the 20th century who receives the stigmata, my friends rebelled. They did not share Mariette’s belief and would have found it difficult to enter into the imaginative world of the novel—where belief is palpable, the condition of the lives of the characters and, to my mind, eminently believable. As the only Catholic in the group, my ability to sympathize with Mariette was regarded as a function of my narrowness. It did not help matters that my friends harbored a profound distrust of the church—knowing its long history of persecuting Jews and Protestants—so what might have looked like a form of anti-Catholicism was rooted in the church’s own excesses and abuses. What could I do but respect their wishes and suggest another book?

A recent contribution to this conversation is Dana Gioia’s ambitious article in the December issue of First Things, “The Catholic Writer Today.” Among his many observations, Gioia acknowledges the anti-Catholicism that lies at the root of the problem Elie identifies. Writing in a Protestant nation, American Catholic writers have always existed on the margins and endured prejudice against their work—but this is truer now than ever before. Gioia quotes the British novelist (and former Catholic) Hilary Mantel: “Nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.” As Mantel demonstrates, some of the most strident criticism of the church comes from within its own ranks. For various reasons, many Catholic writers have distanced themselves from their tradition. Those who do claim their faith find themselves in a difficult circumstance. Forced to work in isolation from mainstream literary culture, they enjoy a limited readership and participate in a small Catholic subculture that has little impact on literary life.

There are, however, exceptions to this rule—Alice McDermott comes to mind. Why are her very Catholic novels read widely and praised in the mainstream media? McDermott’s stories are set in the past, the mid-20th century mostly, when faith was still considered a respectable option. Most secular-minded readers regard her characters’ Catholicism as a historical condition that no longer holds, even as Catholic readers recognize that the faith she depicts is very much alive.

This dual perception is instructive. Perhaps the successful Catholic writer is the writer who depicts belief by stealth, flying under the radar to avoid detection. I’m reminded of England during the Reformation, or the English colonies that would one day become the United States, where Catholics practiced their religion covertly while outwardly conforming to the expectations of their culture. Like her comrades of old, the successful Catholic writer has not disappeared—she’s just hiding in plain sight.

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8 years 10 months ago
Sometimes one has to stand up to the prejudices of the secular intellectual. The reading group Prof. O'Donnell describes allowed its bigotry against Catholics to deprive its members of the wonderful experience of reading Mariette in Ecstasy—a book that, since it describes a fabricated miracle, is hardly one that lends itself to simple piety. Perhaps the objecting members should have been asked what other books they would refuse to read because they describe people who believe things they do not or do things they thing wrong. Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which laments the loss of a society where twins are murdered, wives are beaten, and masked gods rule the community? Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, which shows a woman happy, even proud, that her man cares enough to beat her? Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, whose sweet and admirable heroine lives in a house that owes it comfort to the labor of slaves? Are Catholics alone beyond the bounds of human sympathy? Sometimes we have to defend our co-religionists out of simple justice—and also so that people do not cut themselves off from a great part of our common cultural heritage. (Note: I can supply references to support my descriptions of all these novels. A lot of readers miss the passage that makes it clear that Mariette's stigmata are faked.)
Frank Gibbons
8 years 10 months ago
Professor O'Donnell, I appreciate your desire not to attribute ill motives for your friends not wanting to read "Mariette in Ecstasy" but I think you might be in denial about their anti-Catholicism. What "long history" of "persecuting ... Protestants" exists in America? Isn't it the other way around with America Protestants persecuting Catholics? Think of the murder of Father James Coyle by a Klansman or the burning of the Ursuline convent in Boston by a Protestant mob. In both of these incidents the perpetrators escaped justice. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. famously referred to anti-Catholicism as "the deepest bias in the history of the American people." Atrocities were committed in Europe by both Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation (see the Martyrs of Gorkum). The Church's history of anti-Semitism cannot be denied. However, Pope JPII had visited both Auschwitz and the Great Synagogue in Rome well before "Mariette in Ecstasy" was published in 1991 and years earlier "Nostra Aetate" had attempted to correct hurtful attitudes toward the Jewish people and their faith. As an old English major who is of Irish descent, I would have been in deep trouble if I refused to read Dickens, Milton and others who were hostile to Catholicism. I read “Mariette in Ecstasy” and it is a fine novel that speaks beyond the its immediate milieu. As Patricia Hampl wrote in her 1991 NYT review - "The finale is a stunner that takes the novel out of its absorbing period setting, leaping into a world we know to be our own and making it impossible to read the book as something that takes place safely long ago and far away, something that's simply foreign."
Andrea Campana
8 years 10 months ago
In defining the successful Catholic writer as one who depicts belief by stealth, Angela Alaimo O'Donnell draws a smart parallel from history by taking us back to England during the Reformation, when Catholic writing was censored. While she does not mention any specific writings, we may find an example in Shakespeare's sublimely ironic and deceptively written Sonnet 130. Viewed through a historical lens, the sonnet may be seen as a mock-censure of the Virgin Mary written as a parody of Protestant preachers that had compared her to "ordinary" women. Her lips as "coral red" smacks of Rosary beads made of precious coral at the time, while the "black wires" that grow on her head allude to the cult of Mary's hair during the medieval and early modern periods. Shakespeare would likely agree with Professor O'Donnell's conclusion: "She's just hiding in plain sight."

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