We Need a Catholic Subculture

shutterstock_88479520One 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.

I was reminded of these things while reading an essay-review of a new collection of letters by the late novelist and short story writer J.F. Powers. The piece was by the distinguished essayist and critic Joseph Epstein and appeared a while back in the Wall Street Journal.

Epstein calls Powers a “superb artist” who wrote “some of the most striking fiction of his day”–fiction which, he adds, “holds up well in ours.” He has no doubt that something besides Powers’ own talent accounts for his achievement. What that something was, he explains like this:

“Catholicism in those years [the mid-20th century, that is] provided a distinct culture within America. For Catholics the church, capital and small letter C, was both the center and periphery of life. It had an authority and a hold on American Catholics that has long been leaching away.”

Although Powers died in 1999 at the age of 81, he was essentially a chronicler of American Catholicism in the years before the Second Vatican Council–the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. His writing output dropped off markedly after the middle decade of the latter decade.

True, his second novel, and last book, Wheat That Springeth Green, appeared in 1988. But few readers find it up to the level of his earlier work. Some parts are admirable, but the narrative as a whole is diffuse and rather wandering, as if by then Powers didn’t know quite what to make of the Church. The old Catholic subculture he’d known so well had vanished, and what replaced it resembled bits and pieces from a broken kaleidoscope.

But that old subculture was something else. Epstein, a Chicagoan, recalls his hometown as a place where Catholicism was “a natural part of the cityscape.” Priests in Roman collars and nuns in habits rode the buses and frequented the libraries. Catholic kids went to Catholic schools where they learned Latin and theology and labored under “unremitting discipline.”

Numerous writers besides Powers found this to be culturally rich soil. And not just in Chicago. Edwin O’Connor mined the soil of Irish-American Catholicism in Boston. Walker Percy, a convert, found inspiration in Louisiana’s Catholic culture. Another O’Connor, Flannery, played variations on the theme by contemplating Bible Belt fundamentalists in light of the great tradition of her Catholic faith. The list could easily be extended.

And now? There are still talented American Catholics who write, but there is no recognizable body of writers drawing upon a Catholic culture to produce work comparable in cultural density to that of Powers and the rest.

I repeat: literature and art are products of culture, and culture is a product of literature and art. Separate the two things, and the art is in trouble–as is the culture itself. And that in a nutshell is the cultural crisis in American Catholicism as we are experiencing it today.

image: Shutterstock

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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  • Lee

    If we can’t express ourselves in ways for others to relate to what we see, hear and feel we are missing out in ways to share with our brothers and sisters. Verbally, we usually come across as preachy, so we stay silent. Great perspective, lets hear it from the story writers, the painters, the poets and sculptors.

  • devo56

    Almost everytime a Catholic artist
    is identified in the culture he is denigrated or he apologizes for being Catholic
    or worse starts telling horror stories about being raised Catholic so as to be
    accepted. Admitting you are Catholic is
    opening yourself up to cultural persecution.
    If you want to become a starving artist, admit you are a practicing Catholic.
    The culture today only wants to promote
    lapse Catholics. What I am saying is be
    prepared to be persecuted in the secular culture. But what about the American Catholic
    Culture? Unfortunately it does not exist
    anymore. Throughout our dioceses we have
    reconstructed the tower of babble. Has
    anyone had to sit through a multi-cultural presentation where the presenter
    tried to talk in two languages almost simultaneously? It is like having teeth pulled. The message is lost in the translations. Maybe we should go back to using Latin as a
    common language. Ever been to a Catholic
    meeting and seen it dissolve before one’s very eyes into bickering and back
    stabbing over social issues, it really takes supernatural strength to open the
    floor to questions these days. In our
    attempt to include everyone we have practically excluded everyone. Catholic used to mean universal, Catholic
    today means, well, whatever.

  • ranger01

    Well, I think Catholic culture now means, “Who am I to judge?”. Those (in)famous words will be twisted and turned until the end of time. The Catholic Culture I was raised in and loved stood for something solid, clear and easily recognizable. It no longer does this, not even close. And anyone with a sense of history knows the source of this weak and confused theology.

  • devo56

    If you imply Vatican II I disagree, if you mean the protestant reformation and its creation of secularism I would concur. But I also acknowledge that the church was hit by a tsunami of issues since 1960’s that I now see as a trial, a severe testing perhaps even a purging that continues on even till today. The bark of Peter is being heaved to and fro and so I believe once the storm is ridden She will emerge stronger, the old answers must be adjusted to handle the new issues secularism presents, Christ is, as always, the answer.

  • Harry K.

    I hope these comments are to the point. I grew up a Catholic during the 1940’s and ’50’s, left the church after the 9th grade, came back 40 years later and just recently was received into Orthodoxy. I have two points. First, I have read that in the first few decades of the 20th century, the emphasis of the Church in America was assimilation. Catholics wanted to be American Catholics and Church hierarchy wanted that too. I think we see this today with respect to the 4th degree of the Knights of Columbus which is said to be the patriotic degree of that organization. Why would a Catholic subculture need a patriotic degree in one of its most influential organizations? During the drive to assimilate, the hierarchy of the Church in America had little tolerance for Catholics who didn’t see it their way. For example, the Greek Catholics (Byzantine), eastern Catholics loyal to the pope of Rome, were not well thought of because their priests could marry. Indeed they faced a low level persecution from the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The result was large numbers of Greek Catholics, outraged by the behavior of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, followed their married priests and returned to Orthodoxy. The loss of all of these Catholics who brought with them from their homelands genuine Catholic subculture did not help maintain the existing Catholic subculture in the USA. Second, some older Catholics, those in my age group, do have a nostalgia for the old days mentioned above. But I wonder if that nostalgia is misplaced, given how quickly after Vatican II large numbers of priests and nuns left their vocations. Was there an underlying discontent that was ignored by the bishops? Was it really the wonderful culture we think we remember, or was it a culture ready to collapse?

  • LRC

    Not being a reader-type, I cannot comment on authors being scarce, but the music industry is rich, and growing rapidly, in the genre of Christian Rock. This is an excellent sign for the future since rock tends to be listened to mostly by the younger generations. Now, of course, since many of these artists are not Catholic, an insular Catholic could easily reject this culture. Anyway you cut the cloth though, it still wears Christian. We have a growing culture. I suggest the Catholics, of which I am one, open their doors and enjoy the sound of music.