Novel Thoughts blog

Dana Gioia on “The Catholic Writer Today”

December 6, 2013 6:35 pm | 2 Comments

First Things has a bracing, challenging, and inspiring new article by Catholic poet Dana Gioia on the topic of “The Catholic Writer Today”. Here’s a couple of excerpts:

The collapse of Catholic literary life reflects a larger crisis of confidence in the Church that touches on all aspects of religious, cultural, and intellectual life. What I have said so far also pertains, in general terms, to all American Christians. Whatever their denomination, they have increasingly disengaged themselves from artistic culture. They have, in effect, ceded the arts to secular society. Needless to say, for Catholicism, this cultural retreat—indeed, this virtual surrender—represents a radical departure from the Church’s traditional role as patron and mentor to the arts. In only fifty years, the patron has become the pariah.

Nowhere is Catholicism’s artistic decline more painfully evident than in its newer churches—the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies. Saddest of all, even the liturgy is as often pedestrian as seraphic. Vatican II’s legitimate impulse to make the Church and its liturgy more modern and accessible was implemented mostly by clergy with no training in the arts. These eager, well-intentioned reformers not only lacked artistic judgment; they also lacked a respectful understanding of art itself, sacred or secular. They saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational. The problem is that art is not primarily conceptual or rational. Art is holistic and incarnate—simultaneously addressing the intellect, emotions, imagination, physical senses, and memory without dividing them. Two songs may make identical statements in conceptual terms, but one of them pierces your soul with its beauty while the other bores you into catalepsy. In art, good intentions matter not at all. Both the impact and the meaning of art are embodied in the execution. Beauty is either incarnate, or it remains an intangible abstraction.

The Catholic writer really needs only three things to succeed: faith, hope, and ingenuity. First, the writer must have faith in both the power of art and the power of the spirit. The cynicism that pervades contemporary cultural life must be replaced by a deep confidence in the human purposes and importance of art. Art is not an elitist luxury or a game for intellectual coteries. It is a necessary component of human development, both individually and communally. Art educates our emotions and imagination. It awakens, enlarges, and refines our humanity. Remove it, dilute it, or pervert it, and a community or a nation suffers—becoming less compassionate, curious, and alert, more coarse, narrow, and self-satisfied.

Click here to read the entire article.

For further reading: earlier this year, Dana and his brother Ted were interviewed in Catholic World Report about the role of the arts in the Church and culture. Any thoughts? Add them in the comments!

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children.

Tags: Catholic literature Dana Gioia First Things


  1. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 9, 2013 at 7:12 am

    I think it’s a great article, although perhaps a little too US-centric. (I concede that this is perhaps natural for an American magazine.) If you look beyond England and the USA to other English-speaking countries and to nations with large Catholic populations, you will find other Catholic writers who have found large readerships outside the so-called “Catholic ghetto.” Goia mentions Miłosz but not Zbiegniew Herbert or even a certain poet-playwright named Wojtyła. He mentions Spark, but not the infinitely more important-to-Scotland George Mackay Brown. However, yes–I do think Catholic writers have been much quieter in the past 40 years about being Catholics. I read only after he died that Seamus Heaney was devout. (I’ll talk about this issue in my post tomorrow.)

    Goia is absolutely right about craft. The artistic world respects CRAFT, and good art demands craft. But I will say more about this tomorrow, too.

  2. December 12, 2013 at 11:01 am

    An interesting read, as Dana Gioia’s essays always are. Fiction is tricky, of course. And Catholic fiction even trickier.

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