Jody Bottum, books and arts editor for the Weekly Standard, asked me recently what has happened to the Catholic novel in our country. His question came out of the realization that there was a time in the mid-20th century when Catholic novelists seemed about to dominate American fiction, or at least share prominence with Jewish authors. J.F. Powers won the National Book Award for Morte D’Urban, and Flannery O’Connor had emerged as the new voice of the South with a Catholic accent. Walker Percy, equally Southern and unmistakably Catholic, had become a household word. No need to mention Evelyn Waugh and the great Catholic novels of Graham Greene. The Bark of Peter was in the literary mainstream. These authors still command a readership, but something has indeed changed.
Reflecting on this, I find one source of the founding of Crisis 20 years ago this month, when Michael Novak and I launched the magazine as Catholicism in Crisis. This proximate cause was the letters being issued by American bishops on national defense and the economy and their long and happily failed effort to produce one on women. It seemed necessary to make the point that there was no entailment between being Catholic and adopting the most liberal position on such issues. But there was something ominous in the fact that our bishops fiddled with such matters while in their ranks or coddled by them were many who seemed intent on burning all bridges to Rome.
The novel is nourished by an assumed background of social stability and moral outlook, either to sustain it or to provide a foil for its critical ruminations. The Catholic novelists I’ve mentioned were not cheerleaders for the Church, nor were they proselytizers. Powers had fun with Fortune’s remark that the Catholic Church in America was “second only to Standard Oil” in organizational strength. That served him for ironic contrast with his whimsical bishops and petty priests. But it was the faith that provided an implicit basis for such irony. Scobie and Guy Crouchback engaged the reader because their deeds showed the task of individual believers seeking to lead Catholic lives. Catholicism was the air these characters breathed.
The golden age of 20th-century Catholic fiction produced novels that were countercultural. Not all their readers shared the faith of the characters in them, but they were given a sense of a robust and imaginatively satisfying alternative to the secular understanding of human action. Characters were measured on a scale that was never questioned. By contrast, such Jewish authors as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth looked at their characters through a secular lens; their Jewishness was what we have come to call an ethnic as opposed to a religious outlook.
The fading of the Catholic novel in this country went hand in hand with the loss of a robust, self-confident Catholicism. By the end of the century, a “Catholic” novel was like the great Jewish novels of Bellow, Roth, and Malamud: The faith was viewed through a secular lens and as often as not repudiated because it failed by worldly standards. Being Catholic had become an embarrassment rather than an unquestioned fact of life.
What has this to do with the sad failure of our bishops during the post-conciliar period? The episcopal letters that triggered the founding of Crisis were symptomatic, indicative of an indecent respect for the opinions of mankind, a turning away from what the Church should have been saying about the crumbling of moral consensus in the country. As Dinesh D’Souza showed in these pages when he was the editor, bishops signed letters on national defense but did not have the least idea what they were talking about. Their letters were culpable diversions from their essential duty. Catholic politicians and judges became advocates of abortion, and our bishops were silent. Theologians trashed the Magisterium, and our overseers overlooked it. Standard Oil has had its troubles, too, but our bishops presided over the dissolution of a magnificent Church that had been built up by their heroic predecessors.
What has been the result? Scandal. Churchmen in the dock because they have failed even by secular and civil standards. But those are not the criteria by which we all will be judged ultimately. The Catholic novel may seem a minor casualty of what Jacques Maritain called “kneeling to the world.” It is time that we all used our knees to better purpose.