Tradition and the Individual Talent (American Catholic Edition)

by Nicholas Frankovich

“We just weren’t good enough,” said Ralph McInerny, the late novelist and legendary Thomist at Notre Dame. He meant that the American Catholic literary bloom that began in the mid-20th century withered after the ’60s not because the world turned against it but because the talent dried up.

Joseph Bottum says he expected McInerny to mention Vatican II. After all, it coincided with what Bottum sees as the beginning of the end of America’s Catholic literary moment. Modernizing reforms that began in earnest in the ’60s rapidly made Catholicism over into something that no one in an earlier generation would have recognized as Catholic.

By many measures, the Church is shrinking in the West but burgeoning elsewhere, as I outlined last week. The percentage of the global population that is Catholic has remained remarkably constant over the past century: about 17 percent. What is changing is that population’s distribution. It’s shifting away from the West. Americans and Europeans find it less compelling than their great-grandparents did.

In America, the star Catholic novelists of mid-century were formed in the Catholicism of the Latin Mass and Old World practices and attitudes that were later extinguished overnight in most parishes. The liturgical revolution began just after Flannery O’Connor died in 1964. Walker Percy wrote into the 1980s but laced his fiction with searing commentary on what he regarded as the increasing banalization of Catholic life in America.

Catholic writers born into this impoverished religious milieu have not been as good as their counterparts who grew up when Catholicism on the ground was thicker and stronger: That’s the thesis, although Bottum is more cautious than I am about reading meaning into the simultaneity of literary decline and Vatican II.

He praises Alice McDermott’s new novel The Ninth Hour, as does Nick Ripatrazone in the next issue of NR magazine. But it’s “a tale of a world gone by,” Bottum writes. “A looking backward at what we no longer have, good and bad, rather than an account of the present or a promise of the future.”

The traditional Catholicism that is the setting of that backward-looking novel included a lot of looking backward itself, of course. That’s what made Catholicism traditional. For believers immersed in the faith, the past was alive no less than the present. They could see ghosts.

A heavyweight from the Norman Mailer generation of American letters once commented on the Catholic writers of her generation. They were sure of themselves, she recalled, though not preachy. Spend time with them and it was hard to escape the impression that they knew something you didn’t.

That’s gone. So the flowers in the garden aren’t what they used to be? Blame the flowers if you like, but it remains the case that the soil has been depleted.

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