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Cathedrals of Bone

The Role of the Body in Contemporary Catholic Literature

John Waldmeir

Publication Year: 2009

The metaphor of the Church as a bodyhas shaped Catholic thinking since the Second Vatican Council. Its influence on theological inquiries into Catholic nature and practice is well-known; less obvious is the way it has shaped a generation of Catholic imaginative writers. Cathedrals of Bone is the first full-length study of a cohort of Catholic authors whose art takes seriously the themes of the Council: from novelists such as Mary Gordon, Ron Hansen, Louise Erdrich, and J. F. Powers, to poets such as Annie Dillard, Mary Karr, Lucia Perillo, and Anne Carson, to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley. Motivated by the inspirational yet thoroughly incarnational rhetoric of Vatican II, each of these writers encourages readers to think about the human body as a site-perhaps the most important site-of interaction between God and human beings. Although they represent the body in different ways, these late-twentieth-century Catholic artists share a sense of its inherent value. Moreover, they use ideas and terminology from the rich tradition of Catholic sacramentality, especially as it was articulated in the documents of Vatican II, to describe that value. In this way they challenge the Church to take its own tradition seriously and to reconsider its relationship to a relatively recent apologetics that has emphasized a narrow view of human reason and a rigid sense of orthodoxy.

Published by: Fordham University Press


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Title, Copyright, Dedication

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p. ix

Early conversations with Giles Gunn led me to reconsider and reorganize my thinking about the relationships between literature, religion, and denominational identity. A final...

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Introduction: The Body, Flesh and Bone

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pp. 1-15

It is as clear for the writers to be discussed here as it was for Leo XIII that, when one brings the strongest attributes of imaginative literature to bear directly upon Catholic faith and practice, liturgy becomes the primary site of interaction. Moreover, when...

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1. Discovering the Body: Catholic Literature after Vatican II

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pp. 16-40

Because the panegyric discourse of Vatican II strives to embrace such a broad vision of the Church, it tends to laud the social dimension of the faith. Of course, Catholicism has a long and rich tradition of social engagement. Nevertheless, this council emphasized...

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2. Writing and the Catholic Body: Mary Gordon’s Art

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pp. 41-63

Mary Gordon has said of that marvelous pre–Vatican II writer Flannery O’Connor that ‘‘For O’Connor, the habit of art . . . began with the habit of looking. It was,’’ Gordon insists, ‘‘the peculiar habit of her genius.’’ Several of Gordon’s own critics have used...

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3. Preserving the Body: Annie Dillard and Tradition

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pp. 64-91

In an essay entitled ‘‘Expedition to the Pole,’’ first published in The Yale Literary Magazine in 1982 and republished as part of the collection Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard describes the experience of ‘‘attending Catholic Mass.’’ She has been going, she...

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4. Clothing Bodies/Making Priests: The Sacramental Vision of J. F. Powers, Alfred Alcorn, and Louise Erdrich

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pp. 92-119

There is a scene in J. F. Powers’ 1988 novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, in which the protagonist, Father Joe Hackett, is watching television in one of his favorite positions: reclined in a Barcalounger with drink in hand. His attention is evenly divided...

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5. The Body in Doubt: Catholic Literature, Theology, and Sexual Abuse

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pp. 120-146

On 20 June 2005, about fifty people gathered at the diocesan headquarters of the Catholic Church in America’s heartland, Davenport, Iowa, to dedicate a monument to victims of clergy sexual abuse. During the ceremony they surrounded the ‘‘Millstone Marker,’’ a...

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6. The Body ‘‘As It Was’’: On the Occasion of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

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pp. 147-165

On 22 January 2004, Peggy Noonan, columnist and contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal, recounted her efforts to report accurately papal reaction to the year’s most popular artistic work about the human body by a Catholic: Mel Gibson’s film...

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Conclusion: The Body Mutinies

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pp. 166-174

In a collection of poems from her book Decreation, the Canadian Catholic poet and essayist Anne Carson reflects on time spent with her elderly mother, who suffers from both an aging body and mind. In the course of fourteen pieces that constitute the...


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pp. 175-202

Works Cited

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pp. 203-208


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pp. 209-211

E-ISBN-13: 9780823247295
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823230600
Print-ISBN-10: 0823230600

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 647876414
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Cathedrals of Bone

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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- Catholic authors -- History and criticism
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Human body in literature.
  • Human body -- Religious aspects.
  • Catholic Church -- In literature.
  • Christianity and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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