Tuesday, December 3, 2013

J.F. Powers and American Catholic Culture

An interesting blog post explained how all cultures require the presence of literature and art, active writers and artists who draw from the soil of their culture in order to produce its written and visual fruit. The author writes,
One way to describe the present situation of the Church in the United States is to say American Catholicism is in a state of cultural crisis. And if that is true, then restoring a healthy Catholic subculture is necessary not just for the Church's flourishing but for its very survival. 
Literature and art have to be part of it. There's a powerful link, a genuine two-way street, between culture and art. Writers and artists are products of their culture, which they also do much to create and shape and sustain. A religious body lacking writers and artists is impoverished at its roots and at risk of stagnation and atrophy.
Source: Russell Shaw, "Literature and Art: Two Great Pillars of Any Great Catholic Culture," Aleteia Website, December 2, 2013, accessed December 3, 2013, http://www.aleteia.org/en/religion/article/literature-and-art-two-great-pillars-of-any-great-catholic-culture-20824002.

Shaw goes on to highlight the late American Catholic author J.F. Powers as such an example of a Catholic writer during the height of American Catholicism in the early 20th century. Now, there is another piece that highlights Powers's work found at First Things. There the author notes,
When J.F. Powers died in 1999, there wasn't left a single book in print by the man who was declared by the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Frank O'Connor, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell to be the most delicate Catholic writer they knew.
Source: Joseph Bottum, "Bottum: The Greatest Catholic Writer of the 20th Century," First Things Website, September 7, 2006, accessed December 3, 2013, http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2006/09/bottum-the-greatest-catholic-w

Bottum attributes the disappearance of Powers's work in the Catholic and larger reading public to the cultural chaos that ensued after the '60s and especially Vatican II. He concludes,
And the catastrophic collapse of religious vocations through the 1970s—together with the defections from the religious life and the failure of nerve with which the American clergy abandoned the clerical authority that had held together the parish system—stripped Powers of a major part of his specialist's vocation. [...] 
But Powers had narrowed his vision down to a point where it could not survive the passing of its moment.
A comment at the bottom of the blog post challenges Bottum's analysis as analogous to the premature dismissal of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer shortly after his death but who after the passage of time has come to be regarded as a master.

One thing that I wonder about when I reflect on the American Catholic culture is how it could have dismantled so easily if it was as strong as some claim it to have been. Perhaps there was a misjudgment about its vitality. The second thing that I wonder is in what ways is a Catholic culture different from "natural cultures," that is, how does a culture that finds its roots in supernatural faith differ from cultures that do not? If literature and art are pillars of culture in general, where do those elements stand in Catholic culture? 

Are literature and art pillars of culture? If I recall correctly, I remember the late Sir Kenneth Clark in his Civilisation series observing that one difference between the Vikings of the north and the Roman and eventually Celtic and other cultures of European civilization is that the Vikings never developed into a civilization per se. He argued that the difference consisted in that the Vikings never settled down or never even had a sense of permanent settlement but were always pushing forward to the next conquest. There was no, as Fr. Michael Maher, S.J. would put it, core and periphery. With the presence of a core and periphery as in Roman civilization came leisure, from which the "useless" things (this is how Fr. James Schall, S.J. calls it with tongue in cheek) of civilization and higher culture might develop. After all, there is no point to fiction and science if your main priority is to find your next meal for survival. So while the Vikings certainly had art, their art was markedly different than the art of monasticism or the French Gothic cathedrals. In the end, perhaps there needs to be a distinction among the kinds of art or literature produced, distinctions based on their function at large and context. 

The only thing that I've noticed about the great works of art in Catholic culture is that it is consistently born out of the Faith itself and individuals' faith. It is faith that motivated and directed all of the monumental accomplishments. Would that mean, then, that if faith is lacking, Catholic culture is lacking? And if the social forces leading up to and following Vatican II shattered American Catholic culture, I have to wonder—what happened to the faith such that it could so forcefully vanish?

I can only ask questions because I'm not qualified to talk about what culture is or isn't or especially what Catholic culture is or isn't, so I have to end here.

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