Wiseblood Books in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has impressively inaugurated a series titled Wiseblood Essays in Contemporary Culture with the publication of a slightly revised and expanded version of “The Catholic Writer Today” by Dana Gioia, which originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of First Things.1 That Wiseblood has published the essay in two handsomely designed formats, one hand-bound, exemplifies the important point articulated concisely but fully by Gioia that the Catholic tradition exhibits a “glorious physicality” (29).
Although Gioia deliberately refrains from directly grounding his essay in the broader thinking of theological aesthetics, the essay is infused with the understanding that the truths spoken by Catholicism reach the heart most directly when offered to culture through their beauty. This essay makes evident with respect to the contemporary condition of American literature and cultural life the truth of the broader claim put forward by Hans Urs von Balthasar in the opening pages of The Glory of the Lord that “Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated [End Page 4] and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”2 As he reviews the extent to which Catholicism seems to have retreated from contemporary American cultural life, Gioia offers a warning: “Whenever the Church has abandoned the notion of beauty, it has lost precisely the power that it hoped to cultivate—its ability to reach souls in the modern world” (30). Throughout the essay, Gioia attends judiciously to what he calls the “two vast impoverishments”—the impoverishment suffered by the Church and the impoverishment of American culture—that result from the “virtual surrender” (26) of Catholicism from the artistic life of the culture.
This attentiveness to both Church and artistic culture brings to mind another great work of reflection on these issues on a much broader level, the “Letter to Artists” of Blessed John Paul II. Gioia helpfully brings to bear in his focus on contemporary American literature a local version of the dialogue between the Church and art that John Paul engages in his apostolic letter. In that letter he asserts that “the Church needs art” and then provocatively asks “does art need the Church?”3 Gioia joins John Paul in answering that question affirmatively and in the view that the Church needs art as his essay points to what he calls the “disfigurement” (7) suffered by Catholicism through a contemporary neglect of the arts. Gioia also argues that even those who dislike Christianity should lament the retreat of Catholicism from American literature because this absence diminishes culture. In keeping with his observation that the Catholic writer has the advantage of drawing upon a temporally and spatially capacious tradition (but is therefore also faced with the challenge of achieving the mastery needed to participate in such a tradition), Gioia even while focusing on contemporary American literature remains mindful in the essay of the scope and depth of the Catholic artistic tradition beyond its strands based in the United States.
In what ways can Catholicism be said to suffer a disfigurement, as Gioia remarks, as a result of its detachment from contemporary American cultural life? The image suggests a wounded deformation [End Page 5] that makes it more difficult to recognize and receive Catholicism in its fullness. The saving truth that the Church enacts repeatedly is addressed respectfully and lovingly to all persons in all states of life and so is expressed in its fullness to all of the senses through which we participate in the world in our endlessly variable ways. Literature in particular—which, again, is the focus of the essay—from the very start in biblical narrative and poetry shows human beings rendered defiant or forgetful or blind by sin and who must be repeatedly offered the grace of divine presence through the many different modes in which that presence can be expressed. Literature, then, provides us with an opportunity to recognize human beings in the shadow of sin and sharpens our perception of the ways in which sin...