Great Authors and Roman Catholicism

Recently my church (a Baptist church, with a Reformed bent) brought in a professor from Baylor University (a Baptist school) named Dr. Ralph Wood, who spoke on one evening about Tolkien and The Hobbit. The next day, he spoke at a local Catholic high school about Flannery O’Connor.  Dr. Wood is the professor of Literature & Theology at Baylor (doesn’t that sound awesome?).

The first lecture on Tolkien/The Hobbit was open to the public. The second was by invitation only (most…

  1. Mama Toad

    You are not the only non-Catholic intrigued by Catholic writers. Ricochet’s own tabula rasa, who is a lifelong Mormon, just loves G.K. Chesterton, who shares a faith communion with me as a Catholic, as well as my co-religionist Michael O’Brien.

    Catholic means universal, and perhaps there is no aspect of the human condition or humanity that is a foreign to the Catholic mind?

  2. danys

    Perhaps a factor is the sacrament of reconciliation and the examination of conscience. Much great literature focuses on human failing. Personal examination of conscience focuses on personal human failing. A Roman Catholic author who’s serious about his/her faith would have spent much time thinking/praying about human failings/weakness as part of his/her faith life.

    I think Mama Toad is onto something, too. RC traditions cross national boundaries and, thereby, more universal.

    Apologies for a rather inarticulate musing. I have to fix dinner before the whining begins.

  3. Gödel

    Please forgive the broad overgeneralization, but here goes:

    Roman Catholicism is steeped in Romantic tradition. Elsewhere on Ricochet we have transcripts of Emily Smith’s interview with Camille Paglia, who has made quite a successful career of pointing out the cultural dangers of, among other things, neglecting the Romance of a Catholicism, particularly an ethnic Catholicism, that she rejects.

    If Paglia’s Catholicism is Italian, earthy, even Dionysian (or, as Paglia prefers, cthonic), Tolkien’s Romantic Catholicism is British, stiff upper lip, and at least on certain readings, classist. His Romance is that of the royal court, lineage, the Great Man reading of history.

    Protestantism, my own Lutheranism included, arose in part as reaction to Roman sumptuousness, the spending of the people’s wealth on basilicae, stained glass, etc. The perception was that the material splendor distracted from, rather than supporting, worship.

    Finally, Germanic Protestantism is the tradition of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, et al. There’s passion, but it seems to be directed inward. The struggle is between God and self.

    Again, oversimplification: what to make of, e.g. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in this model? But I think there’s something here. The Catholic authors are Romantic.

  4. DrewInWisconsin

    I love Flannery O’Conner. Me, a lifelong Lutheran. (Though raised in a largely Catholic extended family.) I think part of the equation here is that Catholics seem (to me anyway) far more comfortable with mystery than the average Protestant. Perhaps more acquainted with fallenness. Protestants of the evangelical variety (speaking as one) sometimes pretend it doesn’t exist, or speak of it only in whispers. We are to throw it off, reject it, strive toward holiness, which often ignores that we are both spirit and flesh.

    This is just a hunch.

  5. katievs

    Why, isn’t it—basically—the sacramental sense of reality?  And the centrality of the Liturgy in our spiritual lives?   All that poetry!  All that structure and symbolism—all that order, and disciplined arrangement of detail!  Each part related to a whole, which is itself part of cosmic, timeless, transcendent Whole.

    There’s also, among Catholics, a deep consciousness of the redemptive power of suffering.  (Something I don’t typically find in my Protestant friends.)

    And the incarnational principle generally…

  6. katievs

    Then there are all the cultural factors:

    The wide and deep theology, the sacred music, the long literary traditions, the magnificent churches and cathedrals, and then the whole array of the lives of the saints that we are taught from childhood, with all their romance and adventure and drama and stunning variety of characters, from blind cripples to knights, to virgin princesses burned at the stake to humble peasants being feted by kings….

    All these things feed the imagination.

    (I’m just home from a Lessons and Carols service at our beautiful stone church, so it’s fresh.)

  7. Scott Wilmot

    The Catholic Church claims to contain the fullness of truth, and offers to all mankind teachings of truth, justice, and love. When we embrace her we ‘grab aholt’ of 2000 years of Tradition and are able to stand on the shoulders of giants. Our liturgy is incarnational – lots of color, smells, and bells. As the Church Militant on earth, we are not the home of the saved, but a hospital for sinners, on our way to salvation. These are some of the reasons why the Popes have called the Church an “expert in humanity”.

    From what I have read of these gifted Catholic authors that you cite, it seems to me that they truly believe this and are therefore able to incorporate this in their writing and convey the human condition to us in a glorious way.

  8. Tom Lindholtz

    An idea stolen from a friend, a PhD in Philosophy (I think) from Notre Dame:

    Christians who focus on God the Father tend to wind up in High Churches where liturgy and ritual are important emphases of God’s Holiness and Otherness and provoke awe and worship in the believer.

    Christians who focus on God the Son tend to wind up in Evangelical Churches where pietism and personal spiritual growth are intended to aid in the re-creation of the image of Christ in the believer.

    Christians who focus on God the Holy Spirit tend to wind up in Charismatic or Pentecostal Churches where the gifting of the Spirit and the living in the Spirit are the purpose of the life of the believer.

    Perhaps the reason for the prevalence of High Church believers among great authors is that the emphasis on liturgy, ritual and beauty in worship promotes the seeing of beauty in the world around us and in the creating of beauty in the works of our hands as works of worship.  All the traditions are right.  The Evangelicals have been focused on personal holiness, the Pentacostals on holy living; also God honoring, just not in the arts.

  9. Mama Toad

    katievs catches something in her comment on the sacraments: we Catholics have the sacraments, in which there are physical, real elements — wine, water, unleavened bread, oil — human gestures or actions — blessing, anointing, laying of hands, speaking words of sin and repentence — and all these things point to a more real, supernatural reality and are the channels chosen by God to give grace, which is His life in our souls. 

    We also believe that the dead can be affected by our prayers before they attain Heaven, and that once they are there they can pray for and watch over us. The stories of our friends the saints are very powerful in the Catholic Church.

    Lots of Protestants (not all, I know) are very uncomfortable with these ideas, seeing idolatry and whatnot, but they are essential to Catholic faith.

    Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There’s always laughter and good red wine. / At least I’ve always found it so. / Benedicamus Domino!”

  10. Ken Ramsey

    Catholics have to submit to authority. Then they have to do humbling things such as going to a priest and confessing how they’ve messed up all over the place. They have to find their place and make their way in a rigid hierarchy and confess exact dogmas. And, oh, the guilt! Catholic self-examination of conscience is unceasing. Catholicism is a very humbling prospect.

    Protestantism, these days at least, is so very different. An above poster noted that Protestantism often seems like a self-help project. It’s very accomodating, and all about you. Compared to Catholicism, Protestantism is hardly dogmatic at all. What is the difference between a Presbyterian and a Methodist these days, really? Protestantism bends around the individual. You’re a minister and you want get married? Well, why not? Want to use birth control? Go ahead. Put out communion for anybody who happens by? Why not? That’s very inclusive of you!

    Catholicism does not bend in these way. It expects you to bend to it. who are you, anyway? It calls you to be a part of something bigger, grander than yourself. Conform your life towards God and goodness, not the other way around. 

  11. DrewInWisconsin

    Of course, I tend to think that Lutherans have it all over Catholics in terms of the great hymns of the faith. : )

    My wife, who went from Catholic to Baptist seems amazed that I know so much of our Lutheran hymnal by heart.

  12. Shane McGuire
    Paul Snively: Please forgive the broad overgeneralization, but here goes:

    RomanCatholicism is steeped inRomantictradition. Elsewhere on Ricochet we have transcripts of Emily Smith’s interview with Camille Paglia, who has made quite a successful career of pointing out the cultural dangers of, among other things, neglecting the Romance of a Catholicism, particularly anethnicCatholicism, that she rejects.

    If Paglia’s Catholicism is Italian, earthy, even Dionysian (or, as Paglia prefers, cthonic), Tolkien’s Romantic Catholicism is British, stiff upper lip, and at least on certain readings, classist. His Romance is that of the royal court, lineage, the Great Man reading of history.

    Edited 13 hours ago

    There are a lot of interesting thoughts in your comment. Ethnic Catholicism is oxymoronic, really. O’Connor wholeheartedly rejected it. Tolkein embraced the Catholicism of his mother, in large part because Protestants rejected her and her family. I’m not sure that his was an ethnic Catholicism, so much as he was very British and very Catholic.

  13. Cornelius Julius Sebastian
    katievs: Why, isn’t it—basically—the sacramental sense of reality?  And the centrality of the Liturgy in our spiritual lives?   All that poetry!  All that structure and symbolism—all that order, and disciplined arrangement of detail!  Each part related to a whole, which is itself part of cosmic, timeless, transcendent Whole.

    There’s also, among Catholics, a deep consciousness of the redemptive power of suffering.  (Something I don’t typically find in my Protestant friends.)

    And the incarnational principle generally… · 13 hours ago

    Edited 13 hours ago

    GREAT post! I think Katie has identified the real touchstone.  George Weigel writes about the “Catholic optic on the world” in his great book Letters to a Young Catholic.  In fact, you could argue that the entire book is a set of essays reflecting on this principle.  O’Connor and Chesterton have separate essays in that work.  Highly recommended.

  14. Gödel
    Shane McGuire There are a lot of interesting thoughts in your comment. Ethnic Catholicism is oxymoronic, really. O’Connor wholeheartedly rejected it. Tolkein embraced the Catholicism of his mother, in large part because Protestants rejected her and her family. I’m not sure that his was an ethnic Catholicism, so much as he was very British and very Catholic. · 9 minutes ago

    Thanks! Yes, not only is it an overgeneralization, but you can certainly say that it confuses (or at least risks confusing) correlation with causation. Many Catholics are as focused on personal salvation as any Protestant I know, and at this point in time, my Missouri Synod Lutheranism is as high-church liturgical as any Catholic I know could wish for. :-)

    “Ethnic Catholicism” is perhaps an unfortunate, and certainly loaded, term. O’Connor was right, theologically, to reject it, and Tolkien’s reaction to his mother’s rejection (and horror at C.S. Lewis’ embrace of Anglicanism) is entirely understandable. But a measure of Catholicism’s success is its adoption by many ethnicities, who inevitably put their own stamp on the faith. My thesis is only that British honor, Mediterranean passion, etc. allied with Catholic universality are attractive qualities. :-)

  15. Mama Toad
    DrewInWisconsin: Of course, I tend to think that Lutherans have it all over Catholics in terms of the great hymns of the faith. : )

    My wife, who went from Catholic to Baptist seems amazed that I know so much of our Lutheran hymnal by heart. · 33 minutes ago

    Edited 31 minutes ago

    Even an avowed papist such as myself enjoys singing Away in a Manger… (even if Martin Luther didn’t really write it, my old songbook says he did) … and who doesn’t love A Mighty Fortress? (that’s rhetorical, so those of you who don’t love it are not required to answer…)

  16. katievs

    Last year we got invited to an epiphany party of very musical people with deep ties to Anglicanism.  The hymns were ravishing.

  17. Shane McGuire
    DrewInWisconsin: I love Flannery O’Conner. Me, a lifelong Lutheran. (Though raised in a largely Catholic extended family.) I think part of the equation here is that Catholics seem (to me anyway) far more comfortable with mystery than the average Protestant. Perhaps more acquainted with fallenness. Protestants of the evangelical variety (speaking as one) sometimes pretend it doesn’t exist, or speak of it only in whispers. We are to throw it off, reject it, strive toward holiness, which often ignores that we are both spiritand flesh.

    This is just a hunch. · 13 hours ago

    This is an adroit observation. Accepting and embracing mystery is very Catholic, and very un-Protestant (for the most part). However, I do think Kierkegaard would embrace the mystical, but as another person said on this thread Kierkegaard was often more concerned about the individual (beautifully and broodingly so).

  18. Shane McGuire
    katievs: Why, isn’t it—basically—the sacramental sense of reality?  And the centrality of the Liturgy in our spiritual lives?   All that poetry!  All that structure and symbolism—all that order, and disciplined arrangement of detail!  Each part related to a whole, which is itself part of cosmic, timeless, transcendent Whole.

    There’s also, among Catholics, a deep consciousness of the redemptive power of suffering.  (Something I don’t typically find in my Protestant friends.)

    And the incarnational principle generally… · 14 hours ago

    Edited 14 hours ago

    Your note on suffering is well put. We’ve been discussing the incarnation at my church over the past month or so, one day we spent our Sunday School time looking at and discussing art depicting the crucifixion. One thing we saw was that the Roman paintings really emphasized the suffering of Christ, whereas the Greek paintings emphasized His glorification.

  19. katievs

    I heard a great homily on suffering once, by a priest who was a convert from Anglicanism.

    He was speaking about the mystery pointed to by St. Paul, “I make up in my flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”.

    He said sin sets off a trajectory of evil in the world that keeps going, keeps growing, keeps doing more harm.  When we accept to suffer, for love, it’s as if we say to that evil, “This far and no farther.”  We put our bodies between bad and others, absorbing the cost, as Christ did.  We become like him.

  20. Shane McGuire
    katievs: I heard a great homily on suffering once, by a priest who was a convert from Anglicanism.

    He was speaking about the mystery pointed to by St. Paul, “I make up in my flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”.

    He said sin sets off a trajectory of evil in the world that keeps going, keeps growing, keeps doing more harm.  When we accept to suffer, for love, it’s as if we say to that evil, “This far and no farther.”  We put our bodies between bad and others, absorbing the cost, as Christ did.  We become like him. · 17 minutes ago

    It has been granted unto you not only to believe, but also to suffer for His sake.

    Paul definitely had a theology of suffering.

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